Sunday, September 20, 2009

A New Political Lexicon

The “loony left,” right “wing nuts,” fanatics, extremists, terrorists — how we define these people normally grows from our own political beliefs and positions. Is it possible to define these categories objectively? Let’s start with the big, general categories:

Categories of Principled People

  • Principled people. While some principles vary depending on political belief or position, other principles are generally accepted across the spectrum. These generally accepted principles include character, integrity, commitment, and hard work. Other principles come from our beliefs and positions, and we call others “principled” when they share and practice those same values.
  • Indifferently principled people. This category, alas, is one most of us fall into at least some of the time. When we don’t live up to the principles we ourselves believe in and advocate, we usually know it.
  • Differently principled people. When people share those generally accepted values of character and integrity, but hold opposing views on political issues, they’re “differently principled.” They may (or may not) be wrong on the issues, but they are consistent and thoughtful on the topic.
  • Unprincipled people. Unprincipled people are centered around self rather than principle. They evaluate their choices and situations in terms of what maximizes personal (and usually short-term) benefit. They are not necessarily evil (but may commit evil acts), but they are almost by definition immoral.
  • Passionate people. What passionate people have in common is a belief their cause is so important it justifies breaking at least some social rules. Passionate people cover a wide spectrum that starts with argument and ends in violence, but that’s not to say that all passionate people are cut from the same cloth. There’s a big difference between someone who insists on trying to win you to their cause verbally and someone who thinks killing a lot of random civilians is a great way to make a point.
  • Kooks. “[T]he fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses,” wrote Carl Sagan. “They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” Believing something outside the mainstream doesn’t by itself make you a kook. To be a kook, you have to believe that the mainstream has to prove itself to you, rather than the other way around.

Passionate people. As noted, passionate people cover a wide spectrum. The best way to segment them is by the type and severity of the rules they feel entitled to break.

  • Argumentative/persuasive people simply bring up their topic even when other people disagree or don’t want to hear it.
  • Deliberately rude people believe showing bad manners to the opposition is a good strategy. Public shouting, interruptions, ad hominem attacks, and name-calling fall into this category.
  • Civil disobedient people are willing tobreak laws they consider immoral or unjust, typically in a non-violent way.
  • Extremists use violence or the threat of violence in support of their goals.

At different times or on different issues, we may occupy any of these categories ourselves, so it’s important to point out that even being an extremist isn’t always or necessarily wrong.

It is, however, wrong to confuse passionate people with unprincipled people. Unprincipled people are only out for themselves. Passionate people believe in what they’re doing. That dramatically influences their behavior, and if you confuse the two types, you’re likely to make huge tactical and strategic mistakes in dealing with your opposition.

Kooks. Extreme beliefs aren’t the same thing as extreme behavior. The extremes are determined by the norms – the opinions held by the majority of educated people on a given topic. If there is no strong and overwhelming consensus for a specific opinion, then the contrary opinions are also mainstream. When there is an almost universal consensus among educated people, contrary opinions are not mainstream. (The key is determining in each case who are the “educated” people. Shakespeare's dominance of English letters doesn't rest on whether ordinary joes like his writing, but on whether the consensus of English scholars do.)

But disagreeing with the majority doesn't automatically make you a kook. Believing it's the job of the educated majority to justify itself to you, rather than the other way around, does. “Burden of proof” is a very useful legal concept. Which side owns the burden of proof? In a criminal trial, the prosecution has the burden. Ties go to the defender. What is the burden of proof? Do you have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, or only by the preponderance of the evidence?

When it comes to extreme beliefs, the burden of proof lies with those who challenge conventional opinion, not those who support it. If you want to patent a perpetual motion machine, you can’t make the Patent Office prove your invention can’t work. It’s your job to prove that it can. Intelligent people who want their unconventional and extreme positions to change the world know they have to do it the hard way, by winning over educated opinion.

Kooks are people who believe the burden of proof falls on the mainstream, not on themselves. The world is full of people who walk around with detailed manuscripts “proving” that the Freemasons are secretly behind the Trilateral Commision and crop circles, and insist that opposing opinion is proof of a conspiracy.

It’s the insistence, not the claim itself, that is the gold standard of kookdom. Intelligent out-of-the-mainstream opinion understands and accepts the burden of proof, and works to establish it. Although social inertia makes change a slow process, in time the truth tends to win out.

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This is a work in progress. I’d love to hear your comments. Do these categories seem objective? Is it clear how to categorize today’s controversies? Is it fair and reasonable? Is it useful? What have I missed?

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