hermeneutic of suspicion

I’ve wanted to use this title for a blog post for quite some time, and it might be wasted here since this is hardly a complete thought nor even a very original one. It comes from my wondering why liberals and conservatives rarely, if ever, seem to listen to each other–even to deny or discredit what the other side is saying. They make statements without ever rebutting the statements of the other side; in good old policy debate terms, there’s no clash. It’s all constructive and no rebuttal.
Why is this? The following is my take on the leading rhetorical tactics taken by liberals and conservatives (which, following my little conceit, I call “hermeneutics”); followed by reasons why I think political rhetoric is generally as low in quality as it is high in quantity.

The hermeneutic of omnipotence[Edit: this should say omniscience, not omnipotence. I really do know the difference between the two.]: Liberals seem to bypass conservative rhetoric completely, instead making pronouncements as from on high regarding what conservatives are Up To–invariably No Good. Liberals will make statements like “Conservatives want to impose a Christian theocracy,” “Conservatives are trying to take away women’s rights,” “Conservatives hate children,” “Conservatives impoverish the middle class and give tax breaks to Big Business,” and so forth. Is there any proof for such claims? If there is, liberal commentators rarely see fit to let us in on it. I read this as indicating that the intent of such commentators is not to convince their opponents, but to galvanize those who already agree with them.
One example of what I mean is the book What’s the Matter with Kansas? I tried to read this once, expecting it to be, like the book The Right Nation which I had recently read, a political history of America but from a liberal rather than conservative viewpoint. But the book was an extended rant, not at all a history, and couched in the tones of personal religious revelation rather than political analysis. I started to understand what I was in for when on page one voting Republican was described as “derangement,” and soon after encountered some remark about how all adults he knew simply took it as a basic fact of life that Republicans grind the poor to powder while worshiping Big Business as their god.
Liberals who talk this way and are still wondering “what’s the matter with conservatives” need to either start listening to themselves or start listening to conservatives. Because conservative rhetoric isn’t all lip service to “family values.” Conservatives speak the language of freedom, individual rights, helping the working poor, accessible medical care, etc. too, and most conservatives are conservative not because they don’t care about these things, but because to them, conservatives have better solutions to these problems.
When liberals make pronouncements rather than reasoned arguments, there is no basis for any except those who are already True Believers to accept such pronouncements. The implicit (or frequently explicit) assumption that liberalism is so morally superior to conservatism that the reason why doesn’t even need to be explained makes conservatives (not suprisingly) less likely to listen to liberal points of view.
This tactic does, however, serve to galvanize those who are True Believers. It separates people into two categories: intelligent, enlightened liberals and deluded, benighted conservatives; and well, which set of adjectives would you prefer to have applied to you? By simply holding this line without opening the basic assumptions to discussion, such rhetorical devices give liberals a sense of righteousness, and may convince the undecided and influencable that the choice is indeed between Good and Evil rather than between two different political persuasions.
The hermeneutic of machismo/the hermeneutic of hypocrisy: Liberals might feel that conservatives are as or more likely to force a good versus evil choice, as in the “Real American” versus “Communist Traitor” gambit. And I do in fact hear this argument, but I don’t believe it’s the prevalent one among conservatives. I hear this kind of thing most from true extremists of the Ann Coulter variety, not from mainstream conservatives or even superconservatives like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity.
From the Limbaugh/Hannity types the worst accusations I generally hear against liberals is that they are indecisive, waffling, ready to go along with the latest opinion poll or whatever the UN or European Union dictates. Liberals are not real leaders, and, I’m hearing more and more these days, they aren’t real men. I wish I could say I’ve heard almost this exact quote only once, but in fact I’ve heard it more times than I care to enumerate: “There may be a time for introspection, for second-guessing oneself, etc., but that time is not now. These times demand real leaders, strong decison-makers, Real Men.” They might not mean “men” biologically, but they do mean what they’ve decided are traditionally masculine qualities, and they say so in so many words. (No, I’m not making this up!)
Essentially this is a straw-man argument, and I know where it’s coming from but I can’t say I know exactly who it’s supposed to appeal to. It’s coming out of continual efforts by the media to get the President to “admit he made a mistake” (which itself is a rhetorical tactic along the lines of the old joke where the comedian asks a man “have you stopped beating your wife?” The president has to either admit a concrete instance of a mistake, thus earning the ire of everyone who’s supported him; or insist that he’s never made a mistake, which is absurd). I suspect it also has something to do with the political prominence of Hillary Clinton (not a Real Man according to biology or to her political persuasion, two counts against her); as well as the old critiques of President Clinton as being a perpetual waffler; and finally, of course to Kerry’s perceived obsequiousness to the UN in the form of his Litmus Test, etc.
To whom is this supposed to appeal? Not to me, like the Da Vinci Code, it’s a little too ridiculous to be offensive. But I think that as much as it’s making a Democratic straw man, it’s making a Republican one too: saving on words, if our Scarecrow Democrat is Howard Dean, our Scarecrow Republican is Jack Bauer. And seriously, if you had to pick one of those two guys to be in charge of protecting our children from terrorists, which would you choose?
Finally, a second conservative hermeneutic: the Hermeneutic of Hypocrisy. I heard this coming over the airwaves just yesterday, and I think it constitutes not a major offensive against liberals like the Hermeneutic of Machismo, but rather is more a constant refrain: “Sure, they say they’re for choice, but they’re not for choice of whether to carry a handgun. Not for choice whether or not to fund their government programs.” “They say they’re for freedom, but not freedom for a business owner to run his or her own business. Not for people’s freedom to use their own money and property they way they want to.” “They say they’re for free speech, but only speech that agrees with them–that’s why [insert instance of conservative speaker getting disinvited from/heckled at a college campus].”
This at least is debate–it’s engaging liberal rhetoric on its own terms, and demanding that liberals explain and defend their positions on various things. This too is probably an example of false alternatives, but the liberals usually don’t bite, for the same reason conservatives don’t: because any time you allow yourself to be drawn into a debate, there’s a chance you will lose. You can’t win if you don’t play; but on the other hand if you don’t play you can’t lose. The real winning position is to continually try to rewrite the rules of the game on one’s own terms; because he or she who writes the rules has already won.
I think that those who participate in and commentate on politics would do well to listen better–to themselves and to the other side. There are two reasons for this:
(1) On the positive side, it would help make the political process less adversarial. Defining oneself as the opposite of the other may get one elected, but it eliminates the possibility of maintaining a consistent message (such as when the President came out for alternative fuels in the State of the Union and liberals everywhere suddenly discovered that we didn’t have the technology, alternative fulers weren’t a viable option after all! and yes I should come up with a conservative example too but am not going to); and it does a disservice to those who voted for one (what an awkward and British way of compensating for the lack of an appropriate English pronoun). Straw man arguments, forced false choices, and so forth, prevent the two sides from recognizing they have shared concerns and shared goals and finding solutions that are acceptable to them both. And as long as that state of affairs continues, there will be no solution to society’s problems, because it’s in the best interest of both sides to keep social problems going in order to blame the other side and make political capital off of other people’s misery.
(2) On a more cynical note, because trying to understand why they’re saying what they’re saying is vital to a true understanding of politics in general, necessary to make an informed decision in a democracy. They are saying what they’re saying for one reason: power. Sure, (at least some) politicians and pundits have genuine convictions, they have morals and guiding principles, compassion and insight. But they don’t communicate these in a candid and genuine way–they can’t. They all must choose what they say, how they say it, when and to whom they say it, with a view to power: their own careers, getting or keeping those of their political persuasion in power, and so forth. In one sense, the way they tailor their speech toward this goal is an outcome of their convictions, morals, etc.: in order to enact what they believe is right, they must have power, and in order to get power they must get people on their side, which means salesmanship which means not exactly lying but at least in grooming the truth to look they way they want it to look.
And, on an even more cynical note, power is one of the two or three things that drives humans–perhaps not in all times and places, but definitely in our time and place. As long as this is true, those who seek power are always susceptible to putting their own desire for power ahead of the greater good. And on both counts, this will to power is something we must be aware of and take into account when we try to distinguish the grooming from the mutt–to suddenly coin a rather clunky metaphor.

5 Responses to “hermeneutic of suspicion”

  1. kim says:

    I think some of your observations aren’t so much tied to political persuasion as they are who has the upper hand in politics at the moment. I think liberals see conservatives as omnipotent because conservatives hold power in all three branches of government and have shut liberals out of most substantive decision-making. Likewise, I’ve heard many conservatives accused of hypocrisy as well, depending on what issues are currently at the forefront. There is a lot of twisting and turning of political rhetoric nowadays since both sides are political opportunists.
    I completely agree on your point about What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which I finished reading recently. I thought Frank’s main thesis (that the issue of economics has been removed from political discourse so that the main difference between political parties is now divisive cultural issues) was very interesting and worthy of a larger public discussion, but his tone of preaching to the choir would certainly alienate conservatives like yourself who might otherwise be interested in what he had to say.

  2. Jeff says:

    I think there is a lot of validity to the point that much of this less than articulate debate comes from the uneven positions of the two parties. However, I think it goes beyond that, because we see just as much immature behavior from the right as the left. I think, as Americans, our debating skills have really regressed in recent years. People, not just talk show hosts and politicians, aren’t doing their homework. They get their information in bits and pieces, fill in the gaps with what they believe to be right, then spin that information into something they can use against the other side. This is no longer a chess match of wits; it’s a snowball fight with only one rule: he who fires fastest, wins.
    I can respect an opinion, even when it differes from mine, if it is accoompanied by reason, and reasons. But too often these days, if one takes the time to formulate a real argument, spell it out in black and white, no one will hear about it. The collective attention span is about five seconds. So, we communicate in sound bites, and sound bites have no footnotes.
    One other thing that bothers me in this debate is representation. There are some people I really don’t want speaking on my behalf. I’m a personally conservative, politically liberal person. It’s not easy to find someone who represents my beliefs. Leadership is a real problem in this country. There is a general lack of it in every phase of life. From managers straight out of business school to internet pastors, it’s very hard to blindly follow anyone. So, maybe we shouldn’t.
    Perhaps if the blog replaces talk radio and the almighty sound bite, there might still be hope for us.

  3. michele says:

    Tried to post a response, but it was too long. I handed in my grades yesterday and now have a *lot* of extra time to spend rambling on about my various opinions. So I posted my response as a separate post, above.

  4. Jon says:

    “Conservatives speak the language of freedom, individual rights, helping the working poor, accessible medical care, etc. too, and most conservatives are conservative not because they don’t care about these things, but because to them, conservatives have better solutions to these problems.”
    I respectfully disagree. Most conservatives are conservative due to circumstances of birth and (to a lesser degree) geography. Liberals, too. Which is precisely why the idea of true nationwide debate and an atmosphere of respectful disagreement is a pipe dream. Being a liberal or conservative is the same as being a fan of one particular sports franchise: you’re going to root for your team even when they stink up the joint. We’re raised from birth innately (and often irrationally) to see our guys as being in the right and suspect the other guys of being up to no good.
    To use an example: on the issues of budget restraint, size of government and economic prosperity, President Clinton should logically appeal to conservatives more than President Bush. But you still hear constant rabid anti-Clinton sentiment from callers on right-wing radio shows, even when the interests of the callers are in many cases less well-represented by the current administration. Why? Because they’re wearing their Bush jerseys and waving their Republican pennants.
    That’s fine, they have every reason to cheer: Their team won the last championship. If they’d have grown up in Massachusetts or Manhattan, they’d be booing just as hard right now.
    Does this have much to do with what you were saying? Probably not. 🙂 What I’m trying to get at is that I doubt many people really ever change their minds about things. I believe societal changes are in the end as much results of changes in technology/economics/demographics and the like as much as argumentation. Though the competing groups will change, innate distrust of the other side will probably never go away.

  5. michele says:

    Jon: Thanks for the comment! I see your point and agree that it’s likely a lot of people do see politics as cheering for the home team without caring so much what the two teams stand for (I don’t know anything about sports so my sports metaphors aren’t any good).
    But on one subpoint, I don’t think that people are liberal or conservative etc. just because of birth or geography. It’s the same question as religion–it’s a lot more likely that I will become Christian if I’m an American than if I’m an Iraqi, but I’m not a Christian *because* I’m an American. I recognize the influence of my circumstances and surroundings on my beliefs, and still rationally evaluate and choose what to believe. So even if people are cheering the home team, that’s not the whole story–they also believe that a home team win is going to be the best thing for the country at large.
    Of course, they may not always recognize when or if the team’s supporters are the ones who are really getting played, but part of what I’m trying to say is that I think everyone can and should do more armchair quarterbacking–be more critical of their own team–and also make sure that the two teams are actually playing the same game, rather than calling different games on seperate fields and then claiming a win because the other team never showed up. I am *really* not comfortable with making sports metaphors–I think I’d better stop right now 🙂 I don

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