Reframing the Discussion

To have an open debate, we need to stop linking opinions to identity.

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Controversial topics are impossible to discuss. You talk about them to show position on the right side. Climate change, abortion, gay rights, inequality. There aren’t open discussions about these anymore.

Your group holds its position. The other side is full of idiots and unenlightened sheeple.

This is especially true in the US. After a decade living outside of America, I find myself struggling to understand the place. Healthcare, education, the preventability of mass-shootings and face masks shouldn’t be up for partisan debate.

It’s odd because these are mostly solved questions in other developed countries, regardless of whether a country is right or left leaning. It’s even more odd because of the package deal, you take all of the positions of single side.

It’s rare to meet someone who is concerned about wealth inequality in the US and deeply religious. These issues aren’t inherently linked though. The most left-wing countries in Europe have state churches with a notable public presence.

I don’t have a grand plan for world peace and political reconciliation in America, but I have a modest start.

Delinking views and identity

In Buddhist philosophy one’s views opinions are one of the artificial constructs we mistake as a self.

What was true 2,500 years ago in India is even more relevant in 21st-century American political discourse.

We live in a society where people define themselves by their views.

— Ajahn Thanissaro, The Flood of Views

This isn’t an invitation to apathy. Instead, the point is not define yourself based on what you believe. Hold malleable opinions, update them as needed and above all be wary to taking yourself too seriously.

It’s the exact opposite of sola fide. Driving to a climate change rally in your SUV, as is often the case, isn’t going to do anything about carbon emissions. It does serve to cement your identity as part of in-group.

Reframing the debate

Frank Luntz is toxic. His opinions are neither here nor there. His reframing of reasoned policy debates into emotional tirades for partisan gain is what makes him evil.

A writer ought to add clarity to world, simplify the complex and bring understanding. Luntzians do precisely the opposite.

It’s possible to reframe a contentious issue in neutral language that’s both simple and elucidating.

Take Seth Godin’s Living in Surplus. Instead of talking about wealth inequality as a moral harangue or lurching into a partisan plea (we need more / less of the free market, depending on your view), the discussion has been reframed.

Civilization is built out of surpluses. How we choose to use the vast wealth of modernity will define our society for generations. Do we create institutions and infrastructure that will allow even more wealth for centuries? Or do we fritter it away?

This is neither a socialist call to the barricades nor a paean to the free market. But it should make you wonder if we’re doing the right thing with our wealth as a whole.

When you take a step back, it’s easy to reframe many of our contentious issues without the partisan talking points.

Aretaic ethics

Social media virtue signaling is the next logical step in the post-Christian world. If you can’t set yourself apart by your faith, letting everyone know your position on transgender rights is the next best thing.

It’s not as absurd as it sounds at first. The legacy of European Christendom is modern identity politics.

A faith-based ethical system measures virtue first and foremost by what you believe. This is true of Christianity and social justice warriors alike, the resurrection of Christ being replaced with transgender bathrooms.

There’s another way: aretaic or virtue ethics.

The idea comes to us from the Ancient Greeks, with similar concepts in Ancient India and China. Instead of a fixed moral code based on a rigid list of rules and beliefs, you base ethics on character development.

You’re less likely to construct a tribal identity around not getting angry, being generous and approaching problems rationally. Advanced practitioners of the virtues might have different opinions on any particular topic, but their actions are probably going to be similar.

This sure beats our current approach of having a list of the right or wrong opinion on every issue according to your group.