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Willingness to Scale

What do you do in a discussion when the level of thought at which people are talking allows them to pose interesting questions that cannot be answered at that level but could at some higher level? This came up several times today when I went to protest against the Tea Party at their park gathering downtown.

There were a number of fairly intuitive, common-reasoning type questions that were highly framed so that, only being a few levels above political slogans, one really would have to examine the framing of the question in order to address it. One example being "would you trust me to rule your life? no? Well then why are you comfortable with the government ruling it?" - One might start out by saying that they don't (to the degree that a person would), one might note that the system is by-and-large democratic, one might start out by saying that they rule for the public good rather than individual concerns, but to have a really satisfactory answer one needs to talk about alternatives, about political theory, and a number of other things that require a careful (and perhaps lengthy) discussion. Answering slogans is not an easy thing to do.

Anyhow, on to narrative. Last night I wrote down a few things I might make into a poster, but on the way to work this morning I decided to go highbrow (damnit why do I always do that) and went with a much more nuanced, complex message (I allowed myself maybe a bit too much snark) on my poster:

  • Joke: An Australian "news" billionaire and
  • a crazy drunken drug addict walk into a bar.
  • Quips one: How can we fool people into opposing
  • tax cuts for all but the very wealthy and opposing affordable
  • healthcare, instead serving us, the rich and selfish?
  • Punchlike: TEA PARTY!!!
  • HAHAHAHA That'd never work....
  • Oops!

Given what I knew of their rhetoric, their fears, and their identity, I think it jabs neatly at the heart of the Tea Party identity... but a fair number of people didn't understand it. The lettering might've also been a bit small for a protest poster (although people seemed willing to stop to read it, mostly).

So, I swung by the drugstore this morning, got the posterboard (and an extra marker), and after doing some work stuff I made the poster, rolled it up, and hopped the bus downtown. At the far end of Oakland, some TeaParty folk started to board the bus - little flag pins up to hideous flag ties and shirts were the marker. We eventually arrived, and I hopped up the stairs to the park. Apart from the right-libertarians and objectivists, it was mostly middle-aged and older folk. I unrolled my sign and began to wander around, stopping long enough for everyone who was going to read it to read it and moving on. A fair subset of people were confused by my sign, but a fair number of people understood it and either scowled or seemed vaguely amused. There was some vaguely irritating music in the background, and then a bit of "The times they are a changin'" (odd for Tea Party folk to try to claim that, but..) Eventually the events started, meaning someone talked briefly, then they did the pledge of allegiance, then sang some patriotic songs, then a few more people spoke. They did warn that they knew there were a few non-tea-party people there and that if anyone felt we were disrupting the event they should contact a "Tea Staff" person who might call 911 if needed (little worry for me, as I pretty much never yell and am usually polite at these things). I guess if POG had shown up a more direct confrontation would've been likely. It felt like they got their talking points from Fox News - formulaic, wrong on several factual claims, oversimplified and almost black and white. They were pretty good at whipping enthusiasm into the crowd though - astroturfing done well.

I had a few decent (albeit too short) conversations while there, then the event seemed to be winding down (the shaggy boy scout dude with an open-carry gun was all over the place and a bit creepy). I moved over to where most of the crowd was letting out to get more visibility for my sign, and eventually was approached by someone from Point Park University doing some journalism project - I told her that while I oppose the Tea Party, some subset of their criticism of washington corruption were real, although their lack of insight means that they stand no chance of fixing those problems without destroying much of society in the process. We continued to talk (I pity anyone trying to get a short answer from me on anything philosophical) until some angry dude came up and, Bill O'Reilly style, asked a few questions for context and then started to yell. I tried to get him back to discussion mode, with little success. Another guy (a vaguely anarchist guy who wasn't really for or against the protest) jumped in, and so I just walked off to talk to the PPU person - later I learned that the shouty dude was a columnist for some local paper or radio show.

I've always hoped that, when confronted with shouty people, I would be able to either shove them back into thinking/conversing mode or nicely walk away to make the point that they're being too rude to talk with, but I guess I failed here - I just kind of sat there and listened impassively as he tried to tell me what I think, that I'm going to lose, and that he (somehow) knows what all liberals think and that we're all alike. I can often turn people around online by ignoring their insults but gently chiding them on incivility in each message until things calm, but in person I guess that doesn't work. I think it's a more viceral experience for the shouter - they get catharsis, so even if the other person sits there for a long time without saying a word they still might go on. When I came back, the vaguely-anarchist dude and the loud dude were shouting at each other "this conversation is over!" and very slowly backing away. Ahh, human nature.

A bus ride back to campus, and I'm here.

I have some pictures from the event, but it was both much smaller and a lot less visually interesting than the left protests we've seen - even the "tea staff" people noted that it was smaller than last year and a bit disappointing. I didn't get a racist vibe from this Tea Party branch, just a confused middle-class "populism", anti-intellectual, fairly religious, with odd notions of capitalism, history, and current events. I guess it's frustrating that I'm always prepared to answer the devious and tricky questions that a really intelligent, probing person might ask me, and that never happens. I guess I always have those other factions in my head to argue with on these points, but it's more interesting to do it with flesh'n'blood. Maybe it's less satisfying because I tend to hold back in real-life arguments if I'm threatening somebody else's foundations - I might jab them in a way they're not prepared to answer, and if I see them flounder for a bit I'll pull back and soften the blow unless their foundations are sufficiently ugly - I'm happy to inject doubt, but I want to let it lead people to their own process of discovering more interesting ways to see the world, not to drive a nail into their heart. A bit before the event started, an old dude was talking about the bible with me and how it changes people's lives - an easy parry with both approval that people have left their old bad habits and a mention that many other philosophies offer those escapes (mention of how Black Muslims have managed to turn people's lives around, as have many other faiths), then a blow back directly attacking some points of biblical morality (yes I have read the bible and yes I am willing to judge the deity character in that story) which had him flounder for a bit and then kind of get a look of panic in his eye that had me feeling kind of guilty, on which I softened my statement a bit. Sigh.

The younger me was made of sterner stuff and would've kept going, bringing more lines of attack on them as more scored... I used to occasionally be told that I "have the devil's tongue". I guess this increased sensitivity to the pain of others has either made me cowardly or kind - I still want to convince or influence them, but I'd rather break the tracks they're on and let them discover new ground while walking... or maybe it's just that I'm afraid of the responsibility of putting their world back together in a new form when I'm so terrible at maintaining personal relationships, or maybe I'm afraid that taking on responsibility would limit my freedom to be potentially outrageous or reinvent myself, or maybe it's a lot less intricate and that "see panic" yields "feel panic" far too easily. I know that if I wern't so afraid that I'm a deeply unpleasant person I might be more comfortable elbowing my way into the social circles of people I life. Oh well.

One of the things I think is important, in conversations at these events, is to point out the similar problems we see (politicians are not working for the people) and inject the deeper/more appropriate solutions into the conversation (campaign finance reform is critical if we want a nonrevolutionary fix) - if there is a way to channel that idea and ditch the rest, and link it into anger among other parts of the population, very productive reforms (or a revolution) might be possible. Of course, I imagine some of their discontent is born of comprimise and would occur under any system - democracy is a blame reflector in this sense.

Anyhow... this whole thing reminds me of a wonderful Winston Churchill quote - "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."

P.S. Rachel Maddow was on the Daily Show two nights ago, and commented that while she likes "bombastic rhetoric" and "going over the top", she expects it to stay truthful and nonviolent. I was disappointed when Jon Stewart agreed - I'd rather see discussion always happen in a sincere but not overstated fashion - blunt claims and pushy aspirations might be acceptable, but engaging viscerality should I think be shunworthy - it breaks the habit of careful, straightforward discussion that we should build in ourselves.