On a daily basis, my alma mater, the University of Virginia sends me an e-mail containing articles. Scanning them is a filial obligation, but I usually hit "delete" fairly quickly. One article stood out, however. It discussed the need for, but difficulty of, having dialogues with people you disagree with, leading me to think about the perils of debating immigration in the age of Covid-19, and of "winner-take-all" divisive politics.
The article is captioned "Is Constructive Political Dialogue Possible in 2021?" and contains an interview with Associate Professor Rachel Wahl at UVA's School of Education and Human Development. Wahl "studies dialogue between people with opposing beliefs, seeking to shed light on both its benefits and its limitations."
My parents advised me to never talk about money, religion, or politics, but to assess the effectiveness of dialogue, Wahl broke two of those rules. Participants were Republicans and Democrats and those with opposing religious beliefs, as well as police and members of "communities of color".
Interestingly, Wahl noted there are two common concerns that people have about engaging in dialogue: that simply having a dialogue with someone of different beliefs "will legitimize the other person's views and actions"; and that it could "blur important moral lines" (Wahl admitted that she herself has had the latter concern).
Consider those two points. America was built on spirited debate, and on frank discussions. The idea that you cannot even discuss an opposing viewpoint without "blurring moral lines", or that the person you are discussing it with is some sort of pariah that will somehow sully you should be anathema.
But we see it all the time when it comes to immigration, which is a key issue for our nation, and one that impacts the economy, crime, race relations, public health, schools, and the very future of the United States itself. Read that last sentence again, and you will realize that even mentioning the fact that immigration will impact any of those issues can, itself, be controversial.
But it's really not. There are wide disagreements on how immigration impacts each of those factors, and depending on the viewer, those impacts could be positive, negative, or both. That is why dialogue on this issue is so important.
And as Wahl puts it:
These conversations tend to reveal the nature of what divides us. Otherwise, we tend to assume that the other side is motivated in bad faith — either by malice, or ignorance, or irrationality. And sometimes, that might be true. Dialogue does not presume that someone is motivated by concerns that you will find legitimate. Dialogue is a way to find out if that is the case.
That passage is likely truer when the subject is immigration, and the person you are talking to has views on the subject that diverge wildly from yours.
There is a lot of maligning — to be fair, by both sides — of others in the immigration debate. A lot of "'Shut up,' he explained" (in the words of Ring Lardner, in his The Young Immigrunts, no less). I have seen this first hand myself, notably during a debate before a group of older, "society" individuals in a toney New York suburb.
Points that I had made had drawn low-level groans of derision from the audience, and at one point, I stated, "If I am wrong, tell me that I am wrong." Bad choice of words, because a septuagenarian shouted back: "You're wrong!" The ensuing nervous laughter at least broke the tension, but as we ended, a group of (older) women stood up in the back and shouted "Shame!" repeatedly and at some length, like a collective Septa Unella to my metaphorical Cersei Lannister.
Worse, I have seen it in certain of my appearances before congressional committees.
You can read my various testimonies — which are notable for their density, length, and high footnote count — but I am rarely confronted about any of the facts therein by members with opposing views. Instead, they ask about the books I have read or the people I have met (and occasionally don't ask me any questions at all, but simply go on soliloquies about my "malice, ignorance, and irrationality").
There is a reason for that, which goes beyond Wahl's points, but to the heart of them, as well. If you paint an expert with an opposing point of view and facts to back it up as a bigot, or cabalist, or any other form of social outcast, you don't need to counter their points or offer your own facts. More saliently, you can effectively prevent any other person from entering into a dialogue with that person, as well.
Twitter amplifies this effect, as on that platform you can denigrate the motives of someone with whom you disagree, and encourage others to prove their own moral self-worth by slinging mud — or derision — at your opponent, too.
That is why "deplatforming" is such a hot topic, because it is the ultimate form of "prior restraint", defined as "action that prohibits speech or other expression before the speech happens". In the Covid-19 age, when the electronic forum is the only avenue of expression (other public meetings and social gatherings having been limited or banned), when you are barred from it, you can't ever start the dialogue.
Incredibly, NPR (which relies on free speech itself) actually ran an article captioned "Is Deplatforming Enough To Fight Disinformation And Extremism?" The answer (mine, not theirs) is "No." Only dialogue can do that, as Wahl explains, but deplatforming is the antithesis of dialogue.
Asking questions like NPR's, though, paints one's fellow citizens in a very bad light, as if they are rubes devoid of reason who have to be protected against their own animal instincts.
But such questions actually say more about the people who ask them than the people they are purportedly protecting. Columbo and Matlock (smart people who played dumb to expose their snootier opponents) are compelling television characters because we see them in our neighbors, and if lucky, ourselves.
Speaking of UVA, its founder, Thomas Jefferson wrote what we would call a "mission statement" for the school, stating: "For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it." See that? "Reason is left free to combat" error. Not shaming, not deplatforming, or name calling or aspersions. Definitely not shielding your fellows from different points of view, or shutting down dialogue.
Wahl explains the differences between dialogue and debate: "True deliberative dialogue ... is a reasoned discussion about a political issue where both participants are genuinely seeking to better understand each other's perspective." "Reasoned" is the operative word there, and such "deliberative dialogue" is the crucible of reason, best exemplified by the quote from Isaiah, "Come now, and let us reason together".
Regrettably, politics simply makes such rancor worse, and vice versa, especially when it comes to immigration.
In his proclamation rescinding former President Trump's travel restrictions for example, as I noted in a recent post, President Biden stated that those restrictions "contraven[e] our values" and "are just plain wrong." Can you imagine President Obama making such a statement about one of President Bush's actions, or Bush one of President Clinton's? I don't even remember Trump putting such language in the Federal Register in talking about his predecessor's actions.
Again, immigration is a crucial topic, and one that deserves to be discussed reasonably and soberly. Is that possible? I think I have tried, but I will try harder. I will discuss the subject with anyone, anywhere. You bring your facts and analysis, and I will bring mine. In the 2,800-year-old words of the prophet: "Come now, and let us reason together."