Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Why progressives and Christian Nationalist supporters of Trump do not communicate

Back in October of 2016 I explained why reasoning with Trump supporters is impossible in Seven things we know about Trump’s supporters. Here’s the short of it.

It’s not a pretty picture. They really do live in a different universe. Here’s the scoop from SemDem at Daily Kos, If You Tell Me You Are Supporting Trump, I Already Know Seven Things About You. I’ll list the seven things but you need to read SemDem’s post to get the reasons for them (beyond the short takes I provide in parens below).

  • You want to be ruled, not governed. (authoritarian like Putin = anti-American)
  • You have no class. (Mocking disabled people and vets)
  • You are definitely not someone to do business with. (OK with Trump’s lies)
  • You are either a racist, or at best, have no problem with racism. (people who don’t look like you are criminals)
  • You have an issue with women. (you also believe women are “pigs” and “dogs”)
  • You aren’t really Christian. (a bully with several wives and several affairs)
  • You don’t believe in the Constitution. (Trump promises to trash the bill of rights)

If you don’t think these seven points define an alternative universe, here is an excerpt from Jimmy Kimmel’s Lie Witness News on YouTube. Having made up their minds, anything, anything at all that Trump says or does can be rationalized by Trump supporters. And that is why civil discourse with most of them is not possible.

My mind on this matter remains unchanged. Nothing in the intervening year and a half provides any evidence that Trump supporters are receptive to reasoning - beyond, perhaps, a few anecdotes gathered without followup.

Below is a longer essay I’ve been writing over the last couple of days on Trump supporters and why communication with them fails.


Here’s the NY Times Quote of the Day (May 28, 2018).

“Progressive? That’s just another word for godless.”
THE EVANGELIST FRANKLIN GRAHAM, who is leading a three-bus caravan through California, one of the biggest political battlegrounds this year, to urge evangelicals to vote and win the state for Jesus.

You can read the full story at the NY Times’ report, The Evangelical Fight to Win Back California. It’s worth reading that article in a larger context presented in the Times’ exposĂ© of A Christian Nationalist Blitz (h/t Sherry Moreau). For the record, I disclose that I am 100% opposed to everything the Christian Nationalists propose and opposed to every belief that leads them to their anti-secular actions. We’ll get back to that.

Rules for talking to the other side

But first I would like to here feature a different article from wired.com. Jason Pontin, an Ideas contributor for WIRED, proposes Four Rules for Learning How to Talk to Each Other Again. (Also for the record, I disclose that I am not a fan of the civil discourse movement, but we’ll get back to that too.) Here is the list of Pontin’s rules.

Here’s how to speak in a polity where we loathe each other. Let this be the Law of Parsimonious Claims:

  1. Say nothing you know to be untrue, whether to deceive, confuse, or, worst of all, encourage a wearied cynicism.

  2. Make mostly falsifiable assertions or offer prescriptions whose outcomes could be measured, always explaining how your assertion or prescription could be tested.

  3. Whereof you have no evidence but possess only moral intuitions, say so candidly, and accept you must coexist with people who have different intuitions. (In fact, most of this column falls under this rule.)

  4. When evidence proves you wrong, admit it cheerfully, pleased that your mistake has contributed to the general progress.

Finally, as you listen, assume the good faith of your opponents, unless you have proof otherwise. Judge their assertions and prescriptions based on the plain meaning of their words, rather on than what you guess to be their motives. Often, people will tell you about experiences they found significant. If they are earnest, hear them sympathetically.

I suspect that many of my readers will recognize Pontin’s four points as a rendition of Occam’s razor (according to the Wiki entry, Occam’s razor).

Occam’s razor (also Ockham’s razor or Ocham’s razor; Latin: lex parsimoniae “law of parsimony”) is the problem-solving principle that, when presented with competing hypothetical answers to a problem, one should select the answer that makes the fewest assumptions. The idea is attributed to William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347), who was an English Franciscan friar, scholastic philosopher, and theologian.

In science, Occam’s razor is used as a heuristic guide in the development of theoretical models, rather than as a rigorous arbiter between candidate models. In the scientific method, Occam’s razor is not considered an irrefutable principle of logic or a scientific result; the preference for simplicity in the scientific method is based on the falsifiability criterion. For each accepted explanation of a phenomenon, there may be an extremely large, perhaps even incomprehensible, number of possible and more complex alternatives. Since one can always burden failing explanations with ad hoc hypotheses to prevent them from being falsified, simpler theories are preferable to more complex ones because they are more testable.

This last bit is critical. That’s what conspiracy theorists do. Wikipedia defines ‘conspiracy theory’ :

According to the political scientist Michael Barkun, conspiracy theories rely on the view that the universe is governed by design, and embody three principles: nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected. Another common feature is that conspiracy theories evolve to incorporate whatever evidence exists against them, so that they become, as Barkun writes, a closed system that is unfalsifiable, and therefore “a matter of faith rather than proof”.

Pontin’s rules, and Occam’s razor, work only if both parties agree on those as a framework for discussion. If one party offers “a closed system that is unfalsifiable, and therefore ”a matter of faith rather than proof", and the other party subscribes to parsimony, testability, and falsification, then civil discourse fails - at least fails most of the time.

A Christian Nationalist Conspiracy

In that context, let’s look at the Christian Nationalist “blitz”. Here are snippets.

America’s Christian nationalists have a new plan for advancing their legislative goals in state capitols across the country. Its stated aim is to promote “religious freedom.” Not shy, they call it “Project Blitz.”

“Blitz” accurately describes the spirit of the enterprise, but the mission has little to do with what most Americans would call religious freedom. This is just the latest attempt by religious extremists to use the coercive powers of government to secure a privileged position in society for their version of Christianity.

“ ‘Project Blitz’ Seeks to Do for Christian Nationalism What ALEC Does for Big Business,” reads the headline of a recent piece Frederick Clarkson wrote for Religion Dispatches that highlighted the danger. ALEC, of course, is the corporate lobbying group that crafts and promotes model legislation advancing business interests.

In their guidebook for state legislators and other allies, the authors of the Project Blitz program have grouped their model legislation into three categories, according to anticipated difficulty of passage. The first category consists of symbolic gestures, like resolutions to emblazon the motto “In God We Trust” on as many moving objects as possible (like, say, police cars).

The second, more difficult category for Project Blitz consists of bills intended to promote the teaching and celebration of Christianity in public schools and elsewhere. These bills are a means of spreading the message that Christian conservatives are the real Americans, and everybody else is here by invitation only.

The sponsors of Project Blitz have pinned their deepest hopes on the third and most contentious category of model legislation. The dream here is something that participants in the conference call referred to in awed tones as “the Mississippi missile.” The “missile” in question is Mississippi’s HB 1523, a 2016 law that allows private businesses and government employees to discriminate, against L.G.B.T. people for example, provided that they do so in accordance with “sincerely held religious beliefs.” The bill offers extraordinary protections, not to all religious beliefs per se, but to a very narrow set of beliefs associated mostly with conservative religion. If you hold a different set of religious beliefs, like, say, a commitment to gender and L.G.B.T. equality, there is no liberty in this bill for you.

What Christian nationalists know — and many of us have yet to learn — is that you don’t need a majority to hijack a modern democracy. You just need a sizable minority, marinating in its grievances, willing to act as a bloc, and impervious to correction by fact or argument. Make this group feel good about itself by making other people feel bad about themselves, and dominion may well be in reach.

All this strikes me as being directly contrary to Pontin’s rules. The “blitz” is not designed to foster any kind of mutual understanding and respect. Instead it is a political bludgeon wielded by a minority, a weapon meant to beat the American majority into submission. This is what happens when we let national policy succumb to moral assertions disguised as facts.

There is a story going around, on both the left and the right, that America’s “true believers” are a declining force and are now conducting desperate, defensive maneuvers in a secularizing society. But that is not how the leaders of the Christian Nationalist movement see it — because it is not true. They played a key role in putting President Trump in power. They are protecting him now, as they giddily collect their winnings in legislatures and in the courts. …

And that brings us to why communicating with Trump supporters is futile.

If Trump supporters could speak, we could not understand them

America Magazine (among many other sources) explores the difficulty of communicating between species in If a Lion Could Speak.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the twentieth century’s great philosopher of language, famously wrote, “If a lion could speak, we would not be able to understand him.” That’s how he debunked the very possibility of science fiction’s “universal translator,” the instrument we would presumably, someday, use to converse with aliens. Anything can be translated, more or less, from one language into another. Wittgenstein said that this was possible because all human languages are based upon our common humanity. All humans hunger, feel pain, know joy and boredom, which is why our experiences can be translated from one language to another. But what do we know about the world of the lion, which is to say, as the lion herself experiences it? What can we make of her power to smell? Do we even inhabit the same world as those who walk upon it with four feet?

When considering different species’ perception-action systems, the answer is “no.” I grant you that Trump supporters, and Christian Nationalists, are not species different from progressives but for purposes of mutual understanding and communication they might as well be.

National columnists like Leonard Pitts Jr., writing at the Miami Herald, routinely receive pretty nasty emails. Pitts explains in No, it’s not the economy, stupid. Trump supporters fear a black and brown America (reprinted in the Daily Star as “Trump supporters speak”).

We’re going to try something different today. Rather than pontificate yet again upon the motives of Donald Trump’s supporters, I’ll let a few of them explain themselves in their own words.

Here, then, is “Robert” with a comparative analysis of the 44th and 45th presidents:

“President Trump has accomplished more positive things for this nation in less than two years than the last three have accomplished in twenty plus years. After the past eight years of a Muslim Marxist in the White House this nation could not survive another demwit in the White House. … Could you please list one thing the demwit party has done for the black people in America other than hand out government freeies for their continued votes?”

And here’s “Gary’s” take on demographic change:

"[America] has a constitution which guarantees equal rights for all and yet people like you hungar for change that puts people like me in the back of the bus. You seem egar to know what it would be like to be in the driver’s seat. You need look no further than Zimbabwe and South Africa. When people like you started driving the bus, the wheels came off. That’s what terrifies people like me.”

This column is presented as a service for those progressive readers who are struggling with something I said in this space. Namely, that I see no point in trying to reason with Trump voters. I first wrote that over a month ago, and I am still hearing how “disappointed” they are at my refusal to reach out. So I thought it might be valuable to hear from the people I’ve failed to reach out to.

I’m sure some of you think those emails were cherry-picked to highlight the intolerance of Trump voters. They weren’t. They are, in fact, a representative sampling from a single day in May, culled by my assistant, Judi.

It’s still an article of faith for many that the Trump phenomenon was born out of fiscal insecurity, the primal scream of working people left behind by a changing economy. But I don’t think I’ve ever, not once, seen an email from a Trump supporter who explained himself in terms of the factory or the coal mine shutting down.

… let us be clear-eyed and tough-minded in assessing what’s happened to our country — and why. How else can we salvage it from the likes of “A Trumper” who says Trump was needed to “get things back in order” after the “terrible job” done by President Obama?

He wrote: “We’re sick of paying welfare to so many of your brothers who don’t know what work and integrity mean. I hope you keep writing these articles and reminding my White Christian brothers that we did the right thing and we need to re elect Trump.”

I have two words for those progressives who think it’s possible to “reason” with that:

You first.

Now you know, I hope, why I think communicating with Trump supporters is futile and that Christian Nationalism is a threat to our democracy. They speak but do so in a different language, one that violates every one of Pontin’s four rules of communication.

In closing, let me ask of you two things. First, go back to my two main themes, Trump supporters and Christian Nationalists and evaluate them in the context of Pontin’s rules.

Second, from here onward, do the same evaluation of Scriber’s posts. Pontin’s rules can be usefully applied to most journalistic endeavors and that includes my own.

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