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The problem isn’t always identifying the problem

The problem isn’t always identifying the problem September 29, 2013

Rick Perlstein says liberals are making a big mistake with the way we respond to mass shootings because we don’t appreciate how conservatives think:

More mass shootings make right-wingers more attached to arming themselves yet further, yet more impassioned about defeating gun control, yet more paranoid about those who would ‘disarm’ them and render them more vulnerable to the scary scary scary everywhere around them. If you don’t understand that, you can’t contribute to winning the gun control debate.

Perlstein highlights the post-Sandy Hook response by the gun safety group NoFathersDay.org as a typical, counterproductive approach. The group’s “heart-rending” campaign “had volunteers send ‘Father’s Day’ cards to members of Congress depicting families whose dads have been claimed by gun violence.”

The goal of campaigns like that are to call more attention to the severity of the problem, based on the assumption that this is what was needed. Convince members of Congress of the severity of the problem, the thinking goes, and they will be more likely to embrace your solution.

But Perlstein argues that emphasizing the severity of the problem only serves to deepen conservatives’ commitment to what they see as the solution to that problem: less regulation and more guns.

With every mass shooting that forces us all, yet again, to think of the gravity and severity of this problem, both sides become increasingly frustrated with the other’s stubborn refusal to swing around to embrace their preferred solution. “See what just happened?” we liberals say, “Can’t you see we need to get these guns off the streets?”

See what just happened?” conservatives say. “Can’t you see we need to do more to arm ourselves?”

These opposite responses make compromise impossible. Or, in a sense, they make the status quo a perpetual, inevitable form of compromise. We say fewer guns, they say more guns. So here we are.

I think where Perlstein is going with this is to suggest that liberals learn to “think like conservatives” so we can speak to them in a way that we’re more likely to be heard and less likely to reinforce their frustration. With regard to mass shootings, that would mean not responding in a way that emphasizes the severity of the problem, but rather responding in a way that gets at the fear and the “scary scary scary everywhere” that makes the more guns and more guns and more guns solution seem attractive.

That’s a laudable project and Rick Perlstein is a very smart guy, so I’m interested in following this discussion (this post is the first in a series of his). But here I want to talk about another, bigger problem that his post illuminates. The larger problem, I think, isn’t that liberals don’t know how to “think like conservatives” — or that conservatives don’t know how to “think like liberals.” I think the larger problem is that when we find ourselves with opposite proposed solutions to a problem, we lack any mutually recognized way of evaluating them. We don’t share any framework that would allow us to test our competing approaches or our opposite solutions and decide, together, which passed the test — which was more true, or which works better.

This is a problem not just with how the two sides respond to problems, but with how we respond to solutions. Social Security and Medicare are, by any measure, effective and efficient programs. Yet by any measure, there is no means of measuring that conservative opponents of those programs will accept as valid. In other words, the disagreement isn’t just a matter of ideology, but of epistemology.

And it goes deeper than just the ancient “through a glass, darkly” problem. This isn’t a blind-men-and-the-elephant type problem arising from the limited information available to all of us humans. It’s a more fundamental disagreement. In the terms of that old parable, it’s as though the liberals felt the elephant’s leg and said, “An elephant is round and tall, like a tree trunk” and then the conservatives felt the elephant’s leg and said “An elephant is tangy and articulate, like a curtain made of Roth IRAs.”


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