Wednesday, November 26, 2008

How Would Dogen Vote?

Nate Silver recently posted a very interesting essay on his excellent web site,, regarding the effect of talk radio on right-wing voters.

His basic premise goes something like this: hosting a talk radio show is not easy. Not only does it require the host to talk on various topics for hours on end, every day, every week, but it also requires him (or her) to be compelling while doing it - to be entertaining, or as Nate so adroitly puts it, to be stimulating. What it does not require is for the host to be persuasive - the vast majority of the target audience already subscribes to right-wing values and enjoys hearing their beliefs affirmed and reinforced. Those not so convinced don't find the radio hosts persuasive and may even find their banter offensive, but the role of the show is not to convert the uninitiated but to keep the true believers listening, so that the station's advertising rates can go up along with the associated Arbitron ratings.

The net effect is that many of the listeners no longer participate in an exchange of ideas or considerations of various viewpoints, but instead just come to enjoy the stimulation provided by radio. "Drill, baby, drill" doesn't convince anyone concerned about environmental protection of off-shore resources, but it very successfully stimulates those who believe it's the best solution to the current energy crisis. Deriding "community organizers" and demonizing ACORN does not persuade liberals to abandon their beliefs, but it apparently has a stimulating effect on conservatives.

All of which is fine and good, up until conversations between liberals and radio-listening conservatives occur. At those times, the perception gap becomes obvious. My ultra-conservative co-workers march into my office all worked up, claiming, say, that Obama's goal of spreading the wealth is nothing but Marxism, probably learned at the feet of Bill Ayers. Why don't I see that?, they ask. When my response involves definitions of what is meant by "spreading the wealth" and "Marxism," I'm responding intellectually, not emotionally - in other words, I'm not being stimulating. And since they're conditioned to the emotional response of stimulating rhetoric, my replies sound flat and unconvincing to them, just as their arguments do not sound persuasive to me.

There's no winning. "If another person says something unreasonable even though you are speaking rationally, it is wrong to defeat him by arguing logic. On the other hand, it is not good to give up hastily saying that you are wrong, even though you think that your opinion is reasonable."

Zen Master Dogen said that, back in early 13th Century Japan. "Neither defeat him, nor withdraw saying you are wrong," he advised. "It is best to just leave the matter alone and stop arguing. If you act as if you have not heard and forget about the matter, he will forget too and will not get angry. This is a very important thing to bear in mind."

My encounters and arguments with my co-workers have convinced me of the first half of Dogen's advise, that there is no use in using logic in these situations, but that it is not good to just concede. I will have to put the second half of his advise into practice to see if turning a deaf ear to their rhetoric assuages the situation.

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