Should We Make Public Discouse Like A Basketball Game?

The NCAA tournament is in full swing, so here are some thoughts that merge basketball and politics.

Reading up on the daily grinding, yelling, screaming, name-calling, and deception of our political system is a very laborious affair. It’s so tiring, and I have often have to take a nap after reading all the ridiculous things going on. And then I have to write about them on this blog, to implore people to ignore the ridiculous and to focus on the true. In trying to ignore some of the things not worth commenting about, I end up having to comment about them. This is the unavoidable cycle that drives a lot of our supposed public “debate.” Is there a way out?

To get clear on a solution requires getting clear on the problem. I want to characterize public discourse as infected by the following two tendencies.

1. cynicism and the imputation of bad faith — For a while I kept a tally of this phenomenon, but I got so upset that I stopped. But basically, if you read an article that is critical of one party or politician, you will come to a point where the description of the issue stops, and the argumentation is supposed to begin, but all you find is something like “The explanation is simply that X does not want America to succeed,” or some such thing. And then, all of a sudden, you find yourself PAST the argument. That was it, just a bald assertion of bad faith.

I have interviewed now many people in government, and seen many more interviews, and not once has this been anyone’s motivation. Not once. Nonetheless, rampant cynicism abounds — the collective belief is that everyone who does not see it one’s own way must necessarily be devious and conniving. Never is there the thought that someone might sincerely think that something YOU THINK is incomprehensible, is actually a good way to do things. Trying to understand the seemingly incomprehensible is where all argument (and all philosophy in fact) begins, and as a political culture, we seem just too plain exhausted to try for that anymore.

2. The focus on others rather than oneself. Even when arguments in our media culture do hone in tightly on an IDEA or a POLICY, they inevitably seek out the most easily dispelled mistake or the most the irrelevant factual error. At the very best, this debate usually targets some idea that someone or some party has as DUMB. Fine. All good discourse is going to require that you criticize flawed ideas, and sometimes you will have to criticize them quite harshly. However, there is a continued emphasis on trying to find out what one should not believe and what one should not endorse rather than helping people try to find a proposal that is complex, but nonetheless DOES MAKE SENSE. And, in fact, makes sense despite the wide variety of alternative views and arguments that are available to attack any position worth debating together as a society.

The media as I see it relentlessly (probably unintentionally) batters the brains of people into giving up ideas and turning against proposals. I’m not an Obama devotee, but the notion of hope is probably relevant here. At every turn the media drowns out, destroys, and smashes ideas into pulp, often with very bad arguments and often without any comparison to the alternatives. The average person is not only skeptical of politicians and media outlets, but even intellectually, skeptical that anything could ever work.

In short, there is very little emphasis on developing a positive view and growing it and defending it. This is also a metaphor for most of American culture today. There is never an interest in the sacrifice, or risk, or difficulty, required to BUILD SOMETHING. Whether it be something as quotidian as a marriage or a personality, or something as grand as a scientific theory or philosophical program (don’t misread me here. I don’t think philosophy and science is actually any more GRAND than everyday struggles like raising a family. I use the word because others would be tempted to. Sometimes I meet people who are like what is your, like, PHILOSOPHY, man. That’s not the right attitude a philosophy is just like any other activity such as becoming a great discus thrower or a good club promoter. You are growing something that will shed light on everything else; that will ripple throughout your daily consciousness).

So now the solution: make public debate more like sports. I don’t mean the “gamification” of politics (excuse this terrible word that some tech commentators insist on violently injecting into the vernacular). The reason is that there is a difference between the chicken-shitification or the farmvillification of important things. I.e., turning serious tasks into petty little simulations with make-believe rat pellets guiding us toward a social equilibrium of behavior. No, I mean an understanding of the attitude that comes from competition. I’ll outline it below and explain how it dispels the problems I raised above.

First, highly established competition is self-absorbed, and I mean that in a special way. What I mean is that a coach, before a game, NEVER talks about the other team. Whether they’re hurt, or whether they’re offense is bad, or whether they’re fans are cowardly, or whatever. The emphasis is always on the team and what it has accomplished. Listen to coaches interviewed right at halftime. They always talk about their team and what it can do and what confidence they have in the group of people they have GROWN over the course of the season. Sports is ruthlessly self-examining.

This is no accident. You can’t win unless you take a simple confidence toward your own abilities. In practice, you don’t sit idly, thinking about how all the other teams are ruining themselves with incorrect workout routines, injuries, or off-practice revelry. No, one SCREENS the opponent out. Mentally, a team is always with itself in a complete, but benign solipsism, just trying to make itself as good as possible, and then turning that power outward at the moment of competition.

Second, there is no cynicism. One knows that the other team is trying to win, just as much as one’s own team. And for the most part (there are some exceptions when a call is just awful) coaches never let their PLAYERS think about the refs or make excuses for themselves. Of course, the coach will curse and heckle, but never is this allowed to infect the players. For them, the game is as close as possible to a fair and pure test of each side’s heart and determination.

Also, and this is really key, opponents in sports often come to respect each other. How does this happen? I’m not really sure, but I think it is the result of a controlling attitude of anti-cynicism, that merges with the confidence that sports breeds.

So how to remake the political sphere according to the values of competition?

Well, for one thing — and this should come as no surprise — the parties must become more like sports teams. Heck, citizens must become like sports players. The temptation is to look elsewhere. To take great joy in seeing someone else falter or to see an idea that plainly doesn’t work, or a demagogue create controversy out of nothing. The temptation is to look OUT and AWAY and to get angry and self-righteous. This is the fuel of the worst sorts of engagements our society is capable of.

Rather, the attitude should be like sports. One should read, think, and learn, all the while growing a theory of an idea or a position. When confronted, one can defend it, but the search, just like a practice, screens out distractions.

In this quasi-utopian world I’m imagining, I would not have to sit here and blog about all the ad hominem attacks and poor arguments, because no one would focus on them. They would dissipate like a calorie of heat in the endless cold of space. No one would turn their head and no one would glue their eyes to the TV. Chicanery and nonsense would not be combated or called out or suppressed. Rather it would cease to exist for the public at all (notice that I’ve made this argument before when I’ve argued that we should be zen-like in our approach to politics, by which I mean we should act against mudslinging THROUGH INACTION).

Further though, cynicism would disappear. Of course, the media would have to, as I’ve argued it shoud, reshape itself as an ump or a ref, faithfully recording point and counterpoint in a great national debate on serious issues. This would combat cynicism, but so would the focus on competition in its true form, which as we’ve seen, can generate respect. Larry Byrd was one of the first people to call Magic Johnson when the latter found out about his infection with the HIV virus. In a way, I think the competitive urge of two great competitors to destroy one another is the flip side of love. It is love in its other guise.

There are flaws with my proposal, and I’ll present them in the spirit of combating cynicism.

First, there are time when personal attacks and imputations of bad faith are needed. This happens in sports too. Every once in a while one coach will say that another coach has poor player control or that the coach encourages “dangerous” play. This is a last ditch effort and it is sometimes necessary. It is necessary in our culture too. It’s important to call out bigots or obstructionists, etc. I just think the threshold for doing so should be high. Better to keep our noses to the ground and work on building something rather than indulging tit for tat exchanges about words, comments, and bad faith.

Also, there is a real elitism to my proposal. In a way, I’m suggesting that we make our public sphere like a debating society where everyone observes decorum etc. But what about times when there are people undergoing oppression in the streets? Should such people await the conclusion of an austere round of discussion before rioting, or trying to retake a modicum of decency and power?

I have no answer to this objection, because again, there are times when debate and discussion break down. When the bounds of rationality and public-spirited discourse are twisted and only action can break them free.

One response I have though is that notice how ANTI-ELITIST sports are in general. If anything is these days, SPORTS are for the people. So perhaps there is a way to elevate everyone in the political sphere by treating our discourse with as much reverence as we give Sunday football (and actually, I think that would be a bad model, because sunday football gets infected with all sorts of other issues that are unrelated to “pure” competition). On this model, we are all participants in a roughly fair media system and to make it more fair, we must attend to our ideas and then be prepared to engage with others with the respect given to opponents on those same ideas.



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