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October 8, 2013

Pacifying Politics, Part 1

Understanding definitions and backgrounds can quell anger surrounding politics.

Editor’s note: This column is the first of a two-part essay.

For many Americans, nothing seems to raise the voice, tighten the fists, and boil the blood more than a heated political debate. Views clash daily on the street, in living rooms, and within Congress, as every side spars for the coveted pleasure of “being right.” The salience of political participation in American culture often leads me to wonder what exactly constitutes a “political belief,” and what rationally justifies holding one. (Cue sarcastic thoughts of your personal political opposition.)

In an attempt to bring mutual understanding between political opponents, I foolishly decided one evening to investigate this ontology of political belief—and quickly ran into murky definitions.

By “political belief,” we Americans actually mean a broad range of concepts, which can be separated into five major definitions: 1) an idea regarding how a group, or groups, of people should or should not be governed, 2) a prediction of the consequences following some decision of an existing or hypothetical government, 3) a moral judgment of a society’s laws and customs, 4) a view describing how international governments should interact with each other, and 5) an academic concept detailing the theoretical structures of different political systems.

Phew. The first four categories seem to be of greatest import for most Americans, and thus deserve the greatest treatment.

Ideas surrounding the first point are heavily shaped by personal views as to what humans—or at least a specific group of them—should accomplish for the greatest good. The obvious source of conflict lies in what constitutes a “good” outcome. For example, does a “good” result involve cultural homogeneity or diversity? Before engaging in tense debate, arguers ought to concur on what “good” results are. When discrepancies in definition occur, the arguers should proceed cautiously, taking account of this difference. Socrates claps from his grave.

Anyway, the concepts of the second point are based upon one’s own probabilities of possible consequences. Predictions by socialists and libertarians on the effects of a proposed minimum wage bill, for example, would fall under this category. Determining the truth of these beliefs is hindered, in my opinion, by the traditional problems facing the social sciences, the biggest of which is precisely predicting the responses of fickle, impassioned humans. These personal probabilities seem to be equal parts objective and subjective, and they are formed by personal experiences with, and assumptions of, behavioral patterns. We Americans should understand how various backgrounds can mold our probabilities.

In regard to the third point, the values of those who subscribe to a morally centered political belief are similarly developed by religious, ethnic, racial, economic, gender, and other such influences. For instance, the debate over contraception and abortion is shaped largely by religious influences. Political debaters ought to realize the psychological impact that these forces have upon both others and themselves.

But watching people yell at each other can be entertaining as well.

Those who define a political belief based on the fourth point are concerned with foreign policy. Ideas include such questions as whether America should intervene in the Syrian civil war. Most people would probably agree that the aim of foreign policy ought to at least be to protect America; however, disagreements arise as to how such a goal should be achieved and what further diplomatic goals should be pursued. Some thinkers might stress American security over that of other nations, while others might stress the role of international peacekeeping forces over global policing.

Now, for the sake of example, imagine two close friends who attend the University of Chicago, both of whom relish politics. Their names are Connor Servative and Libby Rawl. Connor holds firm to his beliefs in small government, the free market, and traditional cultural values. On the other hand, Libby espouses beliefs in a more active government, a regulated economy, and cultural diversity. Can each student be rationally justified in holding their own political beliefs? I believe it is possible.

Oh, boy. How are you going to pull that one off? 

Stay tuned (or not) for the second part of this project; maybe by its end, politics will be a slightly kinder pursuit.

Matthew Morgado is a first-year in the College.

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