Politicians: Let's try fairness, nuance and precision in debate
Whether debating health care, national security, or creationism, many politicians, commentators, and media personalities exhibit what psychologists call "cognitive errors." These errors include over-generalization, dichotomous (all-or-none) thinking, selective abstraction (i.e., taking a detail and only dwelling on it while ignoring the larger context), maximization (e.g., of an opponent's weaknesses) and minimization (e.g., of an adversary's strengths). Such errors are not unique to liberals or conservatives -- they are prevalent across the political spectrum.
When members of Congress proclaim, "Americans do not want ..." or "The people demand ..." are they truly referring to all Americans -- for example, rich and poor, old and young, atheists and fundamentalists, Libertarians and Communists, Quakers and Neo-Nazis? Of course not. They are simply referring to those with whom they agree and/or whose support they are seeking. Americans do not speak with a single voice. It is, therefore, absurd for anyone to claim to speak for all of them.
When radio or TV pundits vilify "conservatives," to whom are they actually referring? Religious conservatives? Fiscal conservatives? What about an agnostic who supports the death penalty, the right to carry a handgun, balanced budgets, abortion rights and gay marriage? No label can possibly capture the uniqueness and complexity of any human being. Rather than affix a label to a person or group and then proceed to denounce or ridicule the label, why not focus on what the person actually said or did and judge its worthiness, with sensitivity and respect?
Cognitive errors like over-generalization can produce not only intrapersonal and interpersonal discord but also societal harm. The diatribes of Rush Limbaugh, Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck, Janeane Garofalo and many others from the right and the left often display irrational, simplistic, prejudicial or polarized thinking and the demonizing of entire groups based on the behavior of a very select few.
Currently, fairness, nuance and precision in our thinking and discourse are not in vogue; they tend not to be associated with favorable book sales or high Nielsen ratings. However, they are essential in a just society and must be demonstrated and rewarded by our teachers, writers and leaders.
Robert H. Deluty, Catonsville
The writer is associate dean of the graduate school at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
We second this voice from the Baltimore Sun calling for reason and civility in our political discourse. Hat tip to Mimi.