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The Sounds of Silence

03 Feb 2003 by Matthew Linderman

A comment in this post mentioned my silence on political debates here:

What I find most interesting is that ML, the 37signals’ resident political science major, rarely chimes in on political discussions.

Why the silence? A lifetime of dinner table arguments (Dad was archconservative prosecutor, Mom was new-age hippie) and too many classes on political science have taken their toll. I can’t get it up for political debates anymore. I think 99% of the time they’re a waste of effort. As that noted political philosopher Steve Krug wrote:

I usually call these endless discussions “religious debates,” because they have a lot in common with most discussions of religion and politics: They consist largely of people expressing strongly held personal beliefs about things that can’t be proven - supposedly in the interest of agreeing on the best way to do something important…And, like most religious debates, they rarely result in anyone involved changing his or her point of view.

That’s how I feel. What difference do these debates make? How often does anyone actually change their mind? It’s amazing how people (and countries) will twist whatever facts are presented to justify the views that they already believe in.

Look at Rush Limbaugh. Look at Jesse Jackson. Look at the Arabs. Look at the French. Look at the U.S. Look at the posts at SvN. We all believe what we want to believe. And somehow the facts always seem to support whatever positions we already hold.

Anyone here have a conversion tale to prove me wrong? When was the last time you changed your mind on a major political issue? Have you ever realized “I was wrong” and switched to the other side? Why?

45 comments so far (Post a Comment)

03 Feb 2003 | Don Schenck said...



Affirmative Action.

03 Feb 2003 | 8500 said...

I used to be a firm believer in gun control and making military grade weapons illegal for American citizens to own. Then I moved to Texas. The pro-gun nuts here have appealed to my love of history . They point out that these types of guns are needed to protect us from our government. Not necessarily from our current government but from a potentially abusive future version. How many times in the last 250 years has the average American citizen taken up arms and fought against his government? Just examining the big ones, The Revolutionary War and the Civil War, I can see a benefit for pro-gun laws. Why does the average citizen need a military grade weapon? To fight a military sponsored by their abusive government. Will this ever happen in the future? It certainly is possible. I still dont own or plan to own a single gun but I have recently seen the value in preserving that right for future generations. I still think Heston is bit nuts though.

03 Feb 2003 | fajalar said...

I can't think of anything from a political perspective. (From a personal one, plenty!)

Mostly because debate is often used to come to a compromise. I've never been in a position to debate something in order to negotiate an agreement. I suppose if I did, I would have many tales to share. But I am not a politician (though to understand the 'issues' perhaps I should be).

The thing about this forum (and similar ones) is that we all put in out 2kb to share our ideas on a topic. Even though some topics spark an interaction that is similar to debate, it really is (to me) just a forum of ideas. I am not here to try and convince anyone of my point [insert subliminal message for world domination here] of view.

I am glad this forum is open to all, intelligent to a point, and always a good opportunity to avoid writing specs. ;)

03 Feb 2003 | Bob O said...

I agree that 99% of the time those political discussions are a waste. But that remaining 1% can make a difference.

Many political discussions I have participated have degenerated to name calling and stereotype. I don't discuss politics with those people again.

But there have been times when my stance has softened due to a convincing argument posed by someone else. And there have also been a few (rare but rewarding) instances when I have changed someone's mind, or at least prompted them to reconsider their position.

One I distinctly remember was with one of my pre-law roommated in college. We argued about on-the-job drug testing. I was, and am, against it in any form. He was for it in certain professions. After many beers and hours of sometimes angry discussion, he eventually conceded that the dangers outweighed the benefits, and admitted to me that I had changed his mind.

He went on to become a judge and now teaches in law school.

You have to keep trying, no matter how frustrating it seems.

03 Feb 2003 | libbe said...

It seems worse now a days talking about this kind of stuff. People are way too cynical now to even have a relaxed, rational conversation about anything.

03 Feb 2003 | Darrel said...

I hear this perspective a lot. I personally love political (and theological, and social/economic) debates because I do learn things...mainly other's POVs.

I do agree that most debates are religious in nature and nothing really comes of it, but I can't believe that the answer is to never debate.

If we just all assume that 'political' debates are taboo, how will we ever deal with our differences? How will we ever evolve as a system?

I've personally had my mind changed through debates. My stance on abortion is now strongly 'in the middle'. I'm not a big proponent of gun control (as I used to be). And I've really opened my eyes to poverty issues in this country.

If a policial science major doesn't feel compelled to debate, what does that say about our current political environment?

I'm scared. Somebody hold me.

03 Feb 2003 | libbe said...

Ah, abortion. I used to be extremely opposed - now I am opposed (in most cases), but socially accepting - meaning keep it legal/accessible. Gun control - personally opposed (in most cases), but socially accepting. Drug laws - personally opposed (in most cases), but socially accepting - meaning keep it legal. I have become the "social smoker" of political hot button issues.

03 Feb 2003 | Chris said...

Wow. I used to like debating politics, but Matt's post made a lot of sense and I've changed my mind. Arguing over the internet = Special Olympics, and all that...

Can we talk about pie instead? I love pecan pie, with butterscotch ice cream. Mmmm, pie...

03 Feb 2003 | alisha said...

I learn a lot here. By debating things, I start to understand both sides, and it helps me form a much rounder picture about the world. There are a lot of competent people here - and I appreciate thier viewpoints. I dont consider a political debate like "Free People Will Set The Course Of History" an arguement. Why would I have to convert to get worth out of these conversations?

(but I do admit to svn becoming a bit of a crack pipe for me. its actually very sick and twisted and instead of doing my work, I come here. I hide it from my husband and my friends. Only a really fun design project keeps me from coming here. I hope I hit bottom soon...)

03 Feb 2003 | Steve said...

I've changed my mind plenty as a result of political debates. I was brought up in a conservative family, became rather liberal afterwards and have tempered some of the liberalism into my current odd blend of free-market socialism, for lack of a better term. Specific issues, I've changed my views on many times over the years. I'm not as staunch on gun control as I used to be (the one persuasive argument there has been the hypocrisy of vigorously defending the 1st Amendment while blithely ignoring attacks against the 2nd). I've gone from an abortion opponent to believing that it should be kept legal. I've adopted a lot more free-market capitalism into my views of how things should work. Etc.

Even if my views didn't changed, being exposed to differing views is a good thing. If one's own views aren't strong enough to stand up to someone else's, then there's a serious problem. Debating and considering opposing viewpoints helps hone and tighten our own views. Assuming, of course, that it doesn't turn into a name-calling contest.

03 Feb 2003 | Darrel said...

free-market socialism, for lack of a better term

I kind of like that term. Have you developed a platform/definition around it?

03 Feb 2003 | Steve said...

I kind of like that term. Have you developed a platform/definition around it?

Nothing concrete. I'd describe it as this: In most cases, free markets are more effective at creating opportunity and results for most people than controlled markets. However, the free market is not a panacea and, left on its own, develops significant flaws. It's at those points where government intervention is necessary to either correct its excesses or shortcomings, and to intervene to ensure that markets are truly free.

In many ways, this is classic liberalism, a philosophy that really doesn't exist much anymore.

Some concrete examples of how this is in action:

Actors in a free market naturally try to eliminate competition and create monopolies or trusts for their own benefit. This distorts the market and must be stopped by active intervention.

Many actors within a market would rather withhold information or paint a rosy picture, rather than present an honest picture. This places investors and customers at a disadvantage and needs to be prevented. It's what the current round of accounting scandals is all about. (And I do find it ironic that the alleged party of free-market capitalism, the Republicans, seems to resist this free dispersal of information so vigorously. May be more accurate to call them the party of crony capitalism.)

Another example: people should be given equal opportunity to access and participate in the market, yet human behavior frequently conspires to deny certain classes that opportunity. Therefore, programs (such as affirmative action) need to be used to ensure equal opportunity. (Where the American left often fails on this point is the insistence on equal results. It's up to individuals to make the most of their opportunities. It's up to society to ensure that they have the opportunity in the first place.)

03 Feb 2003 | Jim Jones said...

"Facts all come with points of view." -- Talking Heads

ML: I can hear where you're coming from. I majored in poli sci and can relate to the dinner table discussions. I think the level of political discourse in this country sucks and has sucked for a long time, but I try not to be nihilistic about it. As to SVN conversions, a little while ago I was getting into it with someone about Augusta National and the South, and it turned out that the other person was from the South and was sensitive to the fact that the South may not have progressed as far regarding racism and backward politics in general as that person would have liked to believe. That person admitted that here, which I had to admire.

03 Feb 2003 | britt said...


Pecan pie with Butterscotch ice cream? Are you friggin' crazy? Those two flavors do not even go well together. You obviously know nothing about pies, ice cream, or even eating for that matter.

03 Feb 2003 | Lenny said...

I'm just starting to really get into the complexities of the political system in my AP government class, and I have to say I can empathize with ML. The deeper you get into it, the more overwhelming and frustrating everything is. Politics is just a way of balancing interest groups, and everyone is different and, therefore, has different interests, so it's hard to see how anyone is right or wrong - if there even is answer to come to. And I agree on the statement that you can twist almost anything to prove your own point. I read the discussions here usually because I am ill-informed on the subject, but I know I can't take any of it at face value. But it's better than talking to my friends at school, because most of them are heavily biased towards their parents' views or they're just ignorant.

03 Feb 2003 | fajalar said...

Is the Steve Krug mentioned at top the "Don't Make Me Think" Steve Krug?

03 Feb 2003 | Chris said...


My God! You've convinced me! Now I'll never eat again. :-(

03 Feb 2003 | Mart said...

I think it's less about a sudden revelation and change of mind than the force of arguments made many times over and over again in different ways. Of course the change of mind seems like a "rude awakening" when it happens, but the arguments and conviction over time are, in my opinion, what really matters. Historically, master politicians have been ones that have built their cases and their followings fairly slowly, rather than suddenly changing the minds of many with a brilliant flash of rhetoric. I'm sure this happens at the same speed on a personal level too - and in forums like this where people get the chance to measure the courage of their political convictions, repeatedly, over time.

04 Feb 2003 | pb said...

I'm not sure this is much of a political venue.

04 Feb 2003 | paul said...

it's all verbal masturbation to me. blogs, comments, online debates, metafilter, etc.

04 Feb 2003 | jupiter said...

For me it's important to know, what other people think. That can help prevent terrible things from happening. Imagine - if we could talk and debate so freely with all the folks in Iraq.

Even if debating doesn't always change my opinion, it helps to delvelop. It broadens my horizon and it helps me to keep questioning things. It keeps me mentally awake and gives a lot of hope, that there still is intelligent life on earth.

And it's fun...

04 Feb 2003 | Paperhead said...

So what? It's better to believe something and just keep your mouth shut? Or is it better to just have no beliefs worth arguing over? Given the current global political climate, y'know where anyone taking an opposing view is a traitor, now more than ever it's important that everyone gets their view out. I mean if we all just sit around and talk about web design aren't we still going to be in the throws of some quasi-religious debate. People become zealous about almost anything that they have some measure of passion about. S'called being alive.

So Martin Luther King should've kept all of that hot air to himself? Is that the gist here? I don't see how you can call it both ways. The extremists and fanatics will always be out there spouting, you want to leave them as the only ones on the field swaying hearts and minds??

"rarely result in anyone involved changing his or her point of view" - fine. So be it. The importance is in letting people know that not everyone agrees with them - not in "winning" the argument.

Argument is healthy.

04 Feb 2003 | Paperhead said...

. . . silence is complicity.

04 Feb 2003 | Don Schenck said...

Nobody ever built a statue to a critic.

04 Feb 2003 | Scott M. said...

a critic

04 Feb 2003 | fajalar said...

Nobody ever built a statue to a critic.

Here's one.

04 Feb 2003 | Darrel said...

I believe Thomas Jefferson was a huge critic. I'm sure there's a statue of him somewhere.

Lincoln? Critic. MLK? Critic. Ya know...most influential politicians that enacted change WERE critics.

I'm with Paperhead. To say that 'political debate' is pointless is to just give up on the entire system. You can't be FOR freedom and then not partake in it.

(And Steve...I'm on board with your new party...let me know when the first rally is!)

04 Feb 2003 | Bill Brown said...

In my youth (about 10 years ago), I would argue with anyone over anything. Gradually, I came to realize that life is just too short to spend debating with people who don't take you seriously or want to listen.

Whenever I argue with someone, I'm constantly sizing up their value to me and the attention they're paying. If either are low, I'll cease the argument. I'll argue with my wife forever (if it's an argument worth having) because she's worth any time I give. The loony in the other cube, on the other hand, might get little more than an "I disagree." Also, if someone's on a completely different wavelength from me, it's very difficult to change the context of the discussion to a place you can both communicate.

As for SvN, I think this is a fine place to argue because there's lots of value here, people usually marshal up links to support their contentions (making it easy to confirm and/or establish credibility), and you may convince lurking fence-sitters. That can be a value in itself. ML, you'll probably not convince Darrel of some stuff, but there may be someone else watching that will be persuaded by your opinion. The problem is that that person may never tell you that you convinced him or her.

04 Feb 2003 | Darrel said...

you'll probably not convince Darrel of some stuff

You never know... ;o)

Bill does bring up a good point in that often online debates are more beneficial/influential for the quiet 3rd party.

04 Feb 2003 | Don Schenck said...

What Bill Brown said.

But I'd rather be lifting.

04 Feb 2003 | Don Schenck said...

Anyone else struggle with Depression?

It sucks, and you have like no control over it. All of a sudden, you're feeling despondent for no reason.

Hate it.

Thanks for letting me speak.

04 Feb 2003 | BL said...

"Is the Steve Krug mentioned at top the "Don't Make Me Think" Steve Krug?"

Yes, as a matter of fact, that quote is from "Don't Make me Think" It was written in the context of web development meetings, though I suppose it's applicable to political discussions too.

04 Feb 2003 | Quiet 3rd Party said...

Excellent point by Bill and Darrell - I always find the "debates"/discussions somwhat beneficial and influential, but never get involved. The "observation" is where I learn and then piece things together to develop my own opinions and theories.

05 Feb 2003 | skimble said...

I agree with Quiet 3rd Party.

How else do you know what you really believe except by throwing it against the wall of others' beliefs to see how it holds up? How else do you modify and grow and inform and deepen your beliefs except by participation in dialog with lots of different people?

Ranting, flaming, sure it's mostly "religious" crap. But why can't more political discussions online focus on meaningful context rather than idle bitching?

05 Feb 2003 | Kevin said...

3 years ago I had a major epiphany. I was for many years a gun-hating, Jimmy Carter-loving New Age Lib. I despised the years of the "Reagan-Bush Regime" and was wildly ecstatic when Clinton was elected. I voted for him twice. I was, and in fact still am, a Buddhist and a vegetarian. But one day in April of 2000 I was driving home from work, listening to N.P.R. like I always did, when the scales fell from my eyes. Thats the only way I can describe it. I'm not a Christian, but Paul's experience on the road to Damascus is the only example I can point to. I realized at that moment that almost everything I had believed was caca. Like all converts I have become a virulent conservative and am far more suspicious of liberals than are my conservative friends because I know!

06 Feb 2003 | ek said...

So what is it that you know? As someone who describes himself as neither a liberal or a conservative I'm always interested in learning more about each.

06 Feb 2003 | Randall said...

I've changed my views on the death penalty over the years. I used to be a proponent of hanging murderer-rapists in the town square, assuming that if you're gonna off people as a deterrant to offing people, you shouldn't do it behind closed doors. Let people see how people die, how people pay for their crimes. I realize now that in the context of our violence-saturated culture, it would only be a blood-scent, luring people in like reality TV. Maybe 20 years ago it might've worked. But today, I find so many other reasons to advocate against the death penalty... gee, where to begin... Though he wasn't the one who changed my mind, I must give kudos to Steve Earle and his Everyman, down-to-earth, plainspoken approach to this issue. It just makes sense, I must admit.

06 Feb 2003 | ek said...

BTW, just wanted to make it clear that I wasn't trying to be a smark aleck in my response to Kevin. I really do think that it's very interesting to hear the perspective of "switchers." I'd love to hear more of your story Kevin!

07 Feb 2003 | Original Jim said...

"What difference do these debates make? How often does anyone actually change their mind? Its amazing how people (and countries) will twist whatever facts are presented to justify the views that they already believe in."

ML don't be so defeatist. People may not be swayed a single argument from a single voice, but when that argument is echoed by a hundred others their opinion may change.

If no-one knows what you think then how can they agree with you?

14 Feb 2003 | Will said...

I agree with ML ("We all believe what we want to believe") and Bill Brown ("Life is just too short...) My experience has been that my conversions are informed by the views of others, but ultimately, they occur after hours of self-examination.

Debating with strangers online riles me and raises my blood pressure. That's why I quit blogging. I often consider starting a new blog but I know my temperament. Thoughts?

01 Apr 2003 | JohnF said...

I was searching for "free market socialism" and found this site. I think free market systems can be made to be free and efficient. What usually passes as a "free market" system has been rigged over time to suit the rich and powerful. However a real free market system suffers from the problem that the rich get richer whilst the poor get, relatively, poorer. In the end this can get so bad that the market ceases to exist.
If we take measures to maintain the market we can end up with a system that has many of the desirable features of socialism without the crackpot economics of it.

01 Apr 2003 | JohnF said...

I was searching for "free market socialism" and found this site. I think free market systems can be made to be free and efficient. What usually passes as a "free market" system has been rigged over time to suit the rich and powerful. However a real free market system suffers from the problem that the rich get richer whilst the poor get, relatively, poorer. In the end this can get so bad that the market ceases to exist.
If we take measures to maintain the market we can end up with a system that has many of the desirable features of socialism without the crackpot economics of it.

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