October 31, 2004  ·  Lessig

It is astonishing to me how hard it is to talk to friends and family about this election. It must have been easier before we entered the age of the broadcast. People must have expected it. But today, politics is religion � and neither are to be discussed among people who disagree. We feel free to stuff envelopes at an election headquarters. Or even to blather on in a blog. But the act of directly confronting someone else — at least if you know them — and asking them to explain their vote is as rude as asking them to explain their heart.

Most of the time, that doesn’t bother me. But in elections like this, it depresses the hell out of me. My family has had a vicious, extended debate through our mailing list about this election. I never understood how families were torn apart by the Civil War. I understand it now. Yet despite the bloodiness, it feels to me a duty. I swayed just one vote in that exchange with my family; I never expected to sway any. But the expectation of failure is not a reason to concede — see, e.g., the free culture movement.

I think this a duty we all share. We should learn to do it civilly. We need better tools. But if we’re ever to become a democracy that is immune from the spins of the likes of bin Laden and Rove, we need to rediscover, or just discover, the ethic of reasoned persuasion.

We built p2p-politics to ease people into this practice. Despite its brilliant technical implementation, the idea was a bust. Billions came to the site to watch the clips; scores of great clips were submitted; but precious few used the tool to send to someone else an argument, or a reason, or even a clip.

Whatever your tool, make this a duty of citizenship. Not always, maybe not in every election. But at least in this election. I spend a huge part of my time (insanely, my friends say) engaging with people I don’t know who email all sorts of questions and abuse (and even some words of praise). So this might seem more natural to me. But citizenship must mean explaining why. At least this time, it must. We are divided, and furious. We should use that anger for some good.

  • http://www.alanmccann.com Alan McCann

    Awesome post!

    We must learn as a society to constructively engage with opposing viewpoints and our previous tools for doing that have proven unable to do that.

    The true sea change in this election is that the role of the mainstream media as provider of unvarnished facts has been proven false.

    The necessary condition for “explaining why” is “choosing why” as a citizen. What tools/social structures will emerge to help us “know” so we can “choose” is a great question. Lots of great attempts, like p2p-politics, will likely be made before a clear trend emerges.

    Interestingly, it all comes back to how our society creates and communicates ideas – in both the economic and non-economic spheres.

  • andrew lucking

    Does this duty also extend to non-Americans? I may be a citizen of a country that is not the United States, however I can’t help but feel we too have some stake in this election. The last few months I have had innumeral discussions on the matter with my compatriots but have drawn the line at engaging my American friends and peers for fear of being considered arrogant or condescending. Does “explaining why” extend beyond your national citizenship?

    Thanks for making me think.

  • Joseph Pietro Riolo

    The problem with your approach is that you attempt to change
    someone’s mind instead of listening to him or her. This is
    like trying to convert one from his religion to your religion.
    You don’t try to talk to people. You try to persuade them
    to change their position to your position. For many people,
    this is insulting.

    You have to stop thinking like a lawyer and start thinking
    like a neighbor. Unless your neighbor consents to your
    attempt to persuade, sometimes it is best to shut your mouth.

    I remember that Linus in Peanuts once said that there are
    three subjects that should not be discussed with people and
    they are religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin. :-)

    Joseph Pietro Riolo
    <riolo@voicenet.com>

    Public domain notice: I put all of my expressions
    in this comment in the public domain.

  • Lee Terry

    Very good idea. Might I suggest that these tools you speak of help each individual to make up their own mind based on what they believe to be best for themselves and those who matter most to them? When will the agenda pushing stop?

    It’s not your duty nor is it anyone’s to force personal ideals onto others. It’s disheartening that more constructive discussion does not take place in a time such as this. There are too many uninformed, apathetic individuals who are easily swayed by people they trust to “share” their beliefs. When it comes down to it, nobody is the same. We’ve lost the importance of individuality in this country.

    Might I also add that if these “tools” you speak of are to succeed, that you realize that your nor anyone elses agenda can or should have influence on them. A democracy immune to the spin of “bin Laden and Rove” makes your position clear. Where there is media, there is spin, spin not limited to those whom you oppose.

  • http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/ethicalesq David Giacalone

    Far too many Americans believe that only a fool or a knave would disagree with their Presidential choice. This attitude makes a discussion turn into an argument or a fight very quickly. We need to be willing to give our friends and family the benefit of the doubt and spare them our bumper-sticker or t-shirt insults.

    I think the most important conversations about political differences and reasoning are done one-on-one, where neither person feels a need to defend his or her integrity or values in front of others. Also, it should be clearly understodd that “I’m not trying to change your mind, but want to explain why I feel the way I do and understand your reasoning.” Hoping to change some one’s mind and actively pressuring the other person, with emotional or intellectual or moral bullying, are two very different things.

    Finally, lawyers seem able to disagree strongly with each other and then have an enjoyable meal together. Most folk are not like that. We lawyers need to remember this when making our points and trying to win our arguments.

  • http://www.ibiblio.org/studioforrecording/ Tom Poe

    I don’t think I’m alone on this, but for what it’s worth:
    I have a dialup. I don’t accept large emails, or attachments. I project this feeling on others, and don’t encourage others to click on links to audio/video related site info.

    I suspect such sites are a bust now, but as more of us poor folk become members of the broadband society, such sites will become much more attractive.

  • Bulent Murtezaoglu

    Here’s a view from a non-citizen who no longer lives in the US: you are expending your money and energy on the wrong thing! Instead of bickering among each other, a more fruitful use of your energy would be to figure out how to keep your government under check. Dividing families over arguments concerning which of the heavily-hyped candidates runs this huge uncontrollable concentration of power is a shame. The world is scared of your government’s power to the point where people are mumbling things about missing the Soviets as a counterbalance. Instead of bickering over who runs it, scream at your elected representatives for not truly deliberating on hugely expensive (in all connotations) undertakings. It is not your family members, or your neighbors who vote the opposite way you do that failed you — it is your elected representatives who did. And they failed in their duties to all, Democrat and Republican alike.

    So your duty of citizenship, if you are still listening to your Turkish pal, is to recognize that you _do_ have power through the people you send to DC. You also have (or used to if history is to be believed) a tradition of dissent-to-authority as a reflex. Please exercise those parts of your national psyche, instead of causing offence to each other. You are pretty much all good-hearted, hard-working people over there. Too good and too productive, in fact, to end up becoming just a passive part of a downward spiral where things happen both to you and — with your blessing and funding — to the world.