Political rhetoric: why we can never be nice, but we can talk “good”

January 10, 2011 4 min read

Every tragedy in every society leaves calls for changes in it’s wake: 9/11 changed air travel forever; Kennedy’s assassination changed the way that US presidents interact with the public; the Columbia space shuttle disaster changed the protocol for every subsequent space launch.

Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s shooting has everyone asking if there needs to be a change in our national discourse. But no one can say anything but “let’s be nicer to each other.” There are good reasons why that will never happen.

Politics has never been nice.

In almost any democracy on earth, the decision-making system is adversarial. There is always a majority and a minority who will always disagree with one another. They call each other names. They play dirty tricks on each other. In some countries, opposition candidates have been threatened and killed. It is a mean business. And this isn’t new. James Callendar, a writer for the Richmond Examiner (funded by Thomas Jefferson), wrote in 1800 that President John Adams was “mentally deranged” and that he was a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” That was back when anyone who read a paper was pretty literate. These days, the attack would need to be more coarse — just to get attention — and much less syllabic — for understanding.

Our culture keeps us from being nice.

Our American culture of individual and free speech means that I always have the right to debate anything that I think doesn’t serve my best interests; something that I am going to campaign against even if it hurts someone else. In places like Japan or many countries in Europe, the emphasis on social cohesion is greater and there are social sanctions for saying anything too mean — or, for that matter, anything too honest.

We as humans aren’t nice.

Actually, I don’t believe that. I believe that almost everyone is trying to be good. When we disagree, we do it from the goodness of our hearts. But if you and I disagree about what is good, I’m likely to believe that you’re actually evil. If I bring God into the debate, God will always support me — brain scans show that when test subjects recall God’s beliefs and their own personal beliefs, they are recalling from the same part of the brain. In that case an opposition view is, by definition, “of the Devil.” And if I hail from a religion where hurting an infidel is okay, then I have the potential to be abusive.

Even if God doesn’t come into the picture, we all like to win. Our brains pleasure us whenever we win even the smallest contest or challenge. And many humans have lost their lives over issues much smaller than a Congressional seat.

Ground rules

I don’t think we’re going to change humans or the American way of life anytime soon. The only thing we can change is the political system. And any real change there would probably require a Constitutional revision — which also isn’t going to happen … anytime soon. But maybe we could create some rules to ground our debates in the basic issues behind why we feel so strongly about particular subjects. In any discussion, we should be required to explain not only why a particular issue is Good, but also why it is more Good than the opposing point of view. New campaign rules and social pressures could insist that debates be grounded and discussed from a position of Good — and never from a place of Bad.

The Eight Great Goods

My research has shown that there are Eight Great Goods on which we base our decisions: Life, Stability, Society, Individuality, Fairness, Growth, Belief, and Joy.

In a recent exercise, I asked about 100 people — from different cultures and walks of life —to prioritize their Goods and then observe how that prioritization would logically lead to a particular stand on five current political issues. These Eight Great Goods predicted at least 80% of their political issue stands. And in a number of cases, after thinking through the reasons for a contradiction between their avowed priorities and a particular issue, respondents actually changed their minds on the issue in question.

If gun control laws are debated in terms of the Goods of Life (personal safety), Individuality (rights), Stability (protection and the tradition of being able to own guns), and Joy (hunting), we may be able to talk about the issues in terms of what is most important to us as a society. If we could get the debate to be about underlying Goods — values that we can all agree are truly good — rather than about complicated and confounding issues that are easily misshapen into good and bad, then we might be able to have discussions where no one is evil; no one has to be degraded or put down. If every part of a debate is merely about some form of Good, twisted minds would be less likely to twist that rhetoric into a rationale for violent behavior — behavior that we should all agree, is never good.