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Dumbing down the political discourse: How do you feel about it?

by George Landrith  Thinking

The question Left of center is, “How do you feel about it?” How do you feel about ObamaCare? How do you feel about gun violence? Do you feel that the rich pay their fair share? Feelings are legitimate, but apply to relationships and people, not public policy issues. I love my family. But I think about public policy.

Sadly, too many Americans “feel” about public policy issues which unfortunately “liberates” them from thinking. As a result, more and more people are becoming unaccustomed to rational analysis and thought.

I don’t visit the doctor to hear how he feels about my health, nor a plumber to learn his feelings about my leaky pipes. We want expertise, not feelings.

Cloaking one’s views in the shroud of “feelings,” dumbs down the conversation. In today’s political environment, too often feelings pass for analysis, emotion replaces logic, and facts become irrelevant. Intellectual laziness cannot be the hallmark of a free people.

Here is a real life example of how feelings dilute and even pollute the political discourse. Earlier this week, news broke about a knife attack in Texas in which 14 people were injured by a madman with a knife. A friend, whom I will call Paul, said, “Congress should immediately pass an Assault Knife Ban!”

In the context of the last four months of intense debate over new gun control laws, Paul was making an analogy to illustrate his view that it is absurd to pass more bans. While a very brief statement, Paul actually made a complex policy argument. Implicitly, he said that labeling a gun an “assault” weapon is not a useful exercise. Otherwise, we could end up with “assault” hammers, “assault” baseball bats, and “assault” automobiles – to name only a few things that could be “assault” items. Additionally, he was arguing that the problem isn’t knives or guns, but the madmen who wield them.

Whether you agree or disagree with Paul is not the point. Reasonable people can disagree. But it is clear that Paul was engaging in a current policy debate. But interestingly, another friend, whom I will call Harold, said, “So you’re saying we should do absolutely nothing to curb gun violence.”

Harold mischaracterized what had been said. No one had said or even implied that nothing should be done. Only in a world where it is acceptable to feel about issues, rather than think about them, would it be acceptable to assert that opposing a particular proposal, means that nothing should be done.

If in response to a sprained ankle, a doctor suggested amputation, any rational person would say, “No.” But that doesn’t mean the person is refusing any and all treatment.

If we don’t care about actually improving things, but will be satisfied by merely doing “something,” than anything will do – even stupid things. But if we actually care about solving problems, we must tailor the solution to fix the problem.

If your went to a doctor with a serious illness and he was content to simply do something or anything, you’d want another doctor – one who would tailor the treatment to cure the ailment. We should be just as serious about public policy.

Nancy Pelosi thinks it makes sense to pass legislation so that we can find out what’s in the legislation. But no rational person could agree. Imagine having your doctor tell you that you’ll have to take the medicine to find out what’s in it — whether it’s the cure or poison. That is insanity in medicine and public policy.

Back to my friends. Harold said, “This isn’t political correctness. This ‘assault knife ban’ talk is making a joke of a tragic mass stabbing.” First, despite the preemptive protestations, Harold’s response was 100% political correctness. Second, Harold’s claim that Paul was “making a joke of a mass stabbing” was simply false. To turn Paul’s comment – which poked fun at Congress for its silly policy prescriptions – into a mean-spirited joke about injured crime victims, is a fantastic leap of logic.

Paul was using an analogy to debate the very issues that are being discussed in the halls of Congress, in newspapers, and on the airwaves. Only if you ignore what was said and its context and ascribe false motives, can you justify such a breathtaking leap of logic.

It is not important whether you agree with Paul. Reasonable people can disagree. But reasonable people disagree by stating why they disagree and explaining why the opposing position is mistaken. But it is not reasonable or even fair to respond to policy arguments by mischaracterizing what was said, ascribing bad motives, and then attacking the mischaracterization.

Harold was so blinded by his feelings that he was unwilling or unable to have a serious, well-reasoned and fact-based discussion on the issue. Instead, his feelings on the matter muddled his thinking.

Harold said that Paul’s points were insufficiently sensitive. I asked why he was trying to limit an otherwise serious policy discussion. Harold’s responded, “Stop trying to justify this. There are better ways to express your opinions.”  The truth finally came out. Harold wanted to determine what arguments Paul could make. As long as Paul made arguments that Harold approved of, then Paul could speak. Otherwise, Harold wanted Paul to apologize and shut his mouth. This is what happens when feelings become the currency of policy discussions.

Only when “feelings” crowd out facts and rational thinking, could President Obama get away with saying the Republican’s plan is “let’s have dirtier air, dirtier water, less people with health insurance” or could Harold say that Paul and I wanted to do nothing about gun violence, or that Paul was joking about crime victims when he clearly was not.

Whether it is the arguments proposed by Pelosi, Obama or my friend Harold, they are not well-informed, well-reasoned arguments. Such arguments are both intellectually lazy and dishonest.

Some of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had have been with folks who disagree with me, but present rational, thoughtful and fact-based arguments in favor of their positions. They explain why they disagree without falsely accusing me of wanting dirty water and air or callously joking about victims of crime.

We don’t have to agree on policy or political matters. But heaven help our nation, if we cannot agree that our public policy debates should be robust and open and based on facts, sound analysis and logic, not mere feelings.

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George Landrith is the president of Frontiers of Freedom, a public policy think tank devoted to promoting a strong national defense, free markets, individual liberty, and constitutionally limited government. Mr. Landrith is a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, where he was Business Editor of the Virginia Journal of Law and Politics. Mr. Landrith was a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from Virginia. You can follow George on Twitter @GLandrith.