Public Policy

I heard a conversation on the radio this morning which was a classic example of how to lose (win) a political debate. The topic was transportation policy. The occasion was an ongoing strike of the bus drivers (which sucks all around). The participants were the president of the “taxpayers league” (or some such activist/advocacy group) and a member of the Minneapolis transportation board.

It was very one sided, because the taxpayers league guy would never give any plan or statement beyond vague platitudes. He was therefore the winner. The transportation board woman had specific ideas: “Increasing the number of lane-miles will decrease congestion.” His response: “Sure, for the rich white folks who drive on the highway. Instead of catering to your rich cronies, couldn’t we give the working class, the people who make your sandwiches and clean your home, couldn’t we give them a chance to get to work too?”

At that point, the correct (and only possible) response is: “I think we agree on that goal. I really do. We agree that fair, balanced transportation policy for all people, regardless of income level is a goal. I’ve given one possible approach, and you’ve raised an objection to it. Now I’d like to hear your proposed approach, so that we can discuss them and come to some sort of middle ground.”

As it was, she rose to the bait and was destroyed on air by someone who would never give anything more specific than “I like babies. I disagree with you. Therefore you hate babies. Baby hater, how can you hate babies!” “Wait, what are you talking about? I just said…” “BABY HATER!” It was excellent rhetorical technique, and I’m sure that a lot of listeners were left with the impression that the taxpayer guy is very smart, and the transportation board lady was very stupid.

This happens *all the time* in political discourse, and it makes me sad. I would much rather deal with people with real, testable opinions than with good debaters.

Jamie Zawinski has a page somewhere (which I can’t find at the moment) dedicated to the fact that if he was going to carry a sign with a slogan on it, you’d be able to deduce his stance on some issue from the words physically present on the sign. “A living wage for everyone!” or “Peace, not war!” don’t qualify. Instead “Raise the minimum wage” or “Never sell weapons to another country again!” See how this works?

A simple rule of thumb: Imagine the opposite of the position you’re arguing. The dead, absolute opposite. Now ask whether there is even one person in the room who supports that opposite. If not, maybe your argument needs a little refinement so we can tell what you’re talking about.

Then again, if you just want to win arguments…this is a great technique.