The Drama Review (July 7, 2017)

Dear post-Independence Day readers,

I hope this letter finds you well, still possessing all your fingers after an explosive Fourth.  It never ceases to amaze me that I grew up in one piece, having never lost a body part due to my reckless handling of cherry bombs and M-80’s.

Years ago, we lived in Gainesville, Florida which is home to the University of Florida.  Every Fall, there was “Gator Growl”, a huge event in their stadium which is now affectionately known as “The Swamp.”  They would bring in the hottest current performer followed by a gigantic fireworks display—the biggest and most impressive you’d ever seen.  Whenever we saw fireworks in the years that followed, my wife and I would always turn to each other and say, “Well, that was nice but it wasn’t Gator Growl.”

That’s no longer the case.  We now live in Nashville which boasts the largest Independence Day fireworks display in the country.  Bigger and better than Gator Growl. Those are odd bragging rights, are they not? “Our city is better than your city because we blow more stuff up than yours. So, there.”

We’ve been talking about what makes drama people drama people. Why are they that way? One way to answer the question is that they lack “reason muscles”—the abilities needed to be reason-able.  Normally-wired people have use of the reason muscles which are atrophied in drama people.  Unable to reason, they resort to a relational alternative-drama. You “get along” with drama people by playing your designated role.  That’s how they make relationships “work.”

The last couple of weeks, we’ve looked at the fifth of five reason muscles—reliability.  The normally-wired person’s stance is: when I’m wrong, I’ll change.  The drama person’s stance is: I’ll not change because I’m not wrong.

The drama person isn’t willing to consider the possibility of personal wrongness. He’s got flaws but doesn’t see them, even if they’re abundantly obvious to others. He’s empathy-deficient so he doesn’t care about the impact of those flaws on you. And why would he change if he can’t see his flaws?  That’s why we call drama people unreasonable.  They are un-reason-able.

So, how do you have reasonable discussions with people like that? You don’t. You can’t reason with unreasonable people, as the saying goes.  I go back to Thomas Paine’s astute observation: “Attempting to reason with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.”

Perhaps that statement’s modern-day version would be: “Attempting to reason with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like thinking he’ll be persuaded by Twitter posts.”

If you’re just pulling in from your Neptune vacation, my Twitter post reference may seem a bit obscure to you. But you know what I’m talking about if you’ve been tuned into our world lately.

For the last two weeks—and longer than that, actually—we’ve watched social media opponents duke it out while fist-pumping followers egg them on. One side delivers a zinger which triggers the other side’s retaliatory zinger. Like teenage girls at a Beatles concert, the followers on both sides squeal with glee every time a punch is landed.

This all leaves me feeling a little queasy—the sense one gets after a Jerry Springer episode, a dog fight, or a professional wrestling match in which brawlers hit each other over the heads with folding chairs.  But these days, that’s what passes for “debates.” Reasoned arguments have been replaced with snarky invectives. Opponents seem less interested in persuasion and more interested in point-scoring.

But is that effective? Have you ever changed your view after being personally attacked?  Do insults sent your way soften your heart or stiffen your resolve?  Have you ever reconsidered your position after an opponent calls you name?  If your opponent trashes you, are you then prone to say, “Maybe I should re-think my ideas?”

When demonizing an opponent becomes more important than persuading an opponent, people naturally retreat into groupthink echo chambers where their views are safely affirmed. Choirs are being preached to but outsiders aren’t coming to join.  Positions are evaluated, not for their logical consistency, but for their crowd-arousing potential.  “The quality of an idea,” wrote Bret Stephens just this week, “could be tested not by its ability to withstand scrutiny from experts, but by the willingness of people to swallow it.”

We’ve discussed this phenomenon before in previous Drama Reviews—tribalism.  Tribalism means that allegiance to my “tribe” takes precedence over allegiance to truth.  If my tribe believes it, it must be true.  Tribal individuals are less prone to critically evaluate ideas and are more prone to uphold the ideas of the tribe. Want to know what to believe? Here’s the tribal guide—it’s all right there.

Moreover, the ideas of the “other” tribe are not worthy of consideration. Those ideas are dangerous so don’t waste your time engaging with them. And their members are dangerous. They are not to be persuaded; they are to be defeated.

For our purposes here, I’m going to refer to normally-wired people as “thinking people.” That is, they can think for themselves.  They’re not inordinately dependent on others to do their thinking for them.  They’re not particularly threatened by opposing ideas because they’re secure in their beliefs.  They know what they believe and why they believe it.

But then there are “tribal people” who forfeit independent thought for the groupthink of the tribe. They don’t think for themselves; they let others do that for them.  They’re threatened by opposing ideas because the ideas they hold are second-hand to themselves.  They know what they believe but can’t quite defend why they believe it.

So, here are some differences between thinking people and tribal people.

Thinking people are able to:
*Argue persuasively
*Contend without being contentious
*Make judgments without being judgmental
*Oppose without being obnoxious

Tribal people, on the other hand:
*Preach to their choirs
*Conflate contentiousness and righteousness
*Regard judgmentalism as virtuous
*Take pride in being obnoxious

Let’s make an application to our current political climate. A thinking liberal can get along with a thinking conservative because neither is personally threatened by opposing ideas. But a tribal liberal and a tribal conservative can never get along because each sees the other as an existential threat.

I wish I had more examples of thinking liberals getting along with thinking conservatives but I’ll tell you the best one I know.

In 1992, Bill Clinton ran for president against George H.W. Bush. One of Clinton’s key campaign operatives was James Carville, a single guy who was very liberal in his political persuasions.  One of Bush’s key campaign operatives was Mary Matalin, a single woman who was very conservative in her political persuasions.  As we know, Clinton won the election.  In early 1993, Carville and Matalin, leaders in the opposing campaigns . . . got married.  To everyone’s shock and awe.  Just one of the oddest political couplings ever.  They spent years trying to convince people it wasn’t a stunt. You know, sort of a carnival act that might jack up their speaking fees.

I used to watch them on Meet the Press when Tim Russert was the moderator.  Russert would regularly have them on to debate opposite sides of a political issue.  It was interesting to watch. They weren’t rude. They were nice to each other. They didn’t talk over each other or interrupt.  They didn’t throw zingers. They didn’t try to score cheap political points. There were no put-downs. Each engaged in a reasoned articulation of their opposing political positions.

But here’s the thing.  As I listened to their back and forth, I could not detect a single molecule of common political ground.  During the commercial, they’d go back stage and get their kids.  And as Meet the Press went off, here’s this happy family sitting on the set with Tim Russert. Go figure.

In 2014, Carville and Matalin wrote a book together entitled Love and War. In it, they describe their years of being on opposite sides of the political fence but having a good marriage nonetheless.  They’re honest about the struggles they’ve experienced. It hasn’t been easy but they’ve done it. They’ve learned how to get along despite deeply-held differences.

And—here’s an important point—they’ve not migrated away from their positions toward some ideologically fuzzy middle ground.  If anything, they’re now rooted more firmly than ever in their plots on either end of the political field. But they’ve got a good relationship despite that.  It’s a wonderful story of a thinking liberal getting along with a thinking conservative.

Someone once said, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” But so many people today seem to think that minds will change through vicious attacks and clever put-downs.

Then again, maybe changing minds is not what they have in mind.  Maybe landing blows, scoring points, and tribal fist-pumps is all they’re really after.