Page Two: Rules of Disorder

The best democracy is a messy one

Page Two
People will often ask me how well an issue or story has been received by our readers. We actually have very little idea. Sometimes one might have a gut feeling, but there really aren't many tools by which we can capture readers' reactions to specifics. There is general information, which, as long as it keeps tracking well (demographics, number of readers, age, education, etc.), is at least reassuring.

Even if we get a large number of responses from readers to an article, that fact can't be extrapolated to draw conclusions about general readership. More often than not, a profusion of readers responding indicates the reactions of a number of people extremely engaged by that topic rather than a more broad-based, across-the-board response.

Obviously, readers' reactions to the Chronicle, as well as how they view their relationships with the paper, are of deep interest to us. The tools usually used for gauging that, however – from focus groups to reader surveys – are inherently unreliable. The response to them is intellectual and removed, not engaged and immediate. If someone agrees with a piece, he or she might rate it highly; if one hates the ideas contained in another piece, it might be completely dismissed. On the other hand, readers are often more entertained by what they hate than by what they agree with. A piece that triggers a positive response might also be one the reader never finishes reading or ever bothers thinking about again. Conversely, as much as a person may hate, he or she might read every word and then spend days mentally disputing its points. We humans are too complicated for these surface readings to be worth very much.

Strategies Used to Discredit

The main idea here is that many of the ongoing or even casual relationships between those who write in to the Chronicle and the paper itself are somewhere between mildly to extremely adversarial. In general, some of our harshest critics treat the paper as corrupt and irrelevant, denying that there is any kind of sympathetic readership, much less a large and diverse one. This is a terrific strategy by which to marginalize the paper and its ideas. These people will appeal to the highest court in their heads to find that not only do they disagree with a review but also to make it clear that it is not really a "review." An article with which they disagree can't be taken seriously; clearly, to them, this is a result of its journalistic ineptitude.

Responses to articles are frequently crafted to make it clear to all that they are presenting morally and/or intellectually superior opinions in order to refute/disagree with/demolish those expressed in the Chronicle. Often just refuting an article is to grant it too much legitimacy: It must be denigrated, demeaned, and refuted.

The Chronicle is a free paper produced by a significant number of staff members (editors, writers, photographers, artists, proofreaders, production people, office staff, sales people) who on many points are often in disagreement among themselves. A publication such as this is a smorgasbord of intriguing, provocative, and/or entertaining tastes spread out for the readers' pleasure. If readers come across something they don't like, they can stop reading or skip it all together.

Online, we post almost every letter to the editor and keep almost every forum post that is received. Despite allegations to the contrary, those correspondences with dissenting, critical, and even condemnatory views are among the most likely to be printed in the paper. The only items we remove are those that are clearly defamatory or use vulgarities, slurs, and epithets. It is the rare negative letter that does not get printed in the paper. There are few items in the paper that are more popular than snide letters taking us to task.

The main and almost singular area of agreement among most of those who write us, despite enormous ideological differences, is that these are the worst of times, that things are already terribly wrong and are just getting worse. According to those who hold this view, the problems facing this country/the world/modern times/us include:

Too many laws, too many taxes, bad politicians, terrible politicians, corrupt politicians, leftist anti-American fellow travelers, right-wing fascists, the two-party system, the New World Order, "dipshit" voters, an overcomplacent public, rich people, corporations, too much money polluting politics, "pre-chosen" candidates, big-business government, illegal immigrants, those opposed to illegal immigrants, lack of enforcement of laws against illegal immigrants, Fox News, MSNBC, all the media, government itself, constitutional government, laws, due process, the war on drugs, police enforcement of the law, lack of police enforcement of the law, police enforcement of the wrong laws, society, crimes against society, capitalism, the destruction of capitalism by socialism, lack of patriotism, too much patriotism, those who are mindlessly patriotic, those who are mindlessly anti-American, overincarceration, not enough incarceration, too much freedom, not enough freedom, crime, crime enforcement, not enough citizens participating in government, too many citizens participating in government, zoning, the lack of zoning, pollution, the laws trying to limit pollution, Democrats, Republicans, people who disagree with "me," anyone but "me," all people, citizens, any one who believes that we have any freedom, anyone who doesn't realize we are living in a prefascist state, anyone who votes, anyone who doesn't vote, the Constitution, violations of the Constitution, and so on, into infinity.

Conversely, so many of those who detail problems such as those in the list above also have strong views on the factors that don't create problems:

"Me," "my ideas," "my selflessness, integrity, moral purity, and lack of bias."

In fact, since these people are self-anointed as being much smarter than and standing head-and-shoulders above the rest, they understand not only the problems but how to solve them. Their superiority in every way is so evident to them that the tone of what they write often ends up sounding condescending and contemptuous toward most everyone else.

Regularly, this column is accused of suffering self-aggrandizing contradictions, practicing exactly what it preaches against. A recent response asked: "Are you just one of those simpletons who 'love the smear'? ... You seem pretty comfortable reducing complex issues to black and white, good and evil, and so on. You decry those who mindlessly condemn others, then go right on to condemn people of faith, pro-life advocates, conspiracy theorists, Dick Cheney, and Karl Rove. Gee, couldn't see that coming. ... You engage in the same behavior you decry: simplifying the complex in order to validate your own preconceived notions."

Sorry about that, but it just isn't true. It is neither hypocritical nor contradictory to disagree with and criticize others, nor to decry government policies, party positions, and fast-spreading, easily changed public opinions. Supporting free speech means that everyone gets his or her say. It does not preclude disagreement, argument, spit-takes, or even outright skepticism. Insisting that those whose opinions differ from yours are purposefully evil and deliberately demonic – and therefore should be disenfranchised or silenced – is not the same as challenging and/or dismissing ideas.

Desirable States

All arguments are not equal, all positions are not morally justifiable, all opinions are not well-thought-out, and all ideological, political, and issue advocacy is not inherently valid. One of the most basic assumptions of the Constitution is that the population is neither homogeneous nor shares a basically consistent ideology; thus, in a representative democratic republic, good government does not come from uniformity or harmony. Instead, it comes out of the conflicts between ideologies, political parties, economic theories, and standards of acceptable social behavior. Rather than there being one dominant party or ideology, there is the ongoing, intense, impassioned, and even militant debate over issues, policies, politics, and ideas. When a universally enfranchised citizenry is engaged, the only way forward through these cacophonous conflicts is by negotiation and compromise. Ideally, this should result in a situation with which few citizens are either completely happy or totally miserable, with few who fully approve of or totally condemn the government. The above may seem like the worst recipe for good government; instead, it is actually perhaps the very best.

Harmony, unity of thought, consistency of policy, and lockstep and/or top-down thinking are not just undesirable but toxic. Dissatisfaction, chaos, confrontation, intense disagreement, an always shifting balance of power, and unending conflict is not just okay, but the most desirable condition.

It is not necessary for all of us to love one another or even to get along, but what is mandatory is the understanding that better government comes out of the consensus process, not from ideological or partisan domination. Most citizens and elected officials are passionate about this country and believe that the policies and ideas they advocate are those that will best serve it. Usually they also feel that the agenda of those they stand in sharpest opposition to will destroy the country. Still, the intentions of almost all are positive and constructive, with very few purposely trying to do harm or intentional evil.

It is important to learn that consistent extremism is not a virtue but a pollutant. It is equally if not more important to come to an understanding that compromise is not inherently corrupt, but rather is often necessary. In order for this country and government to work, respect for all, even those whose ideas we find the most repugnant, is essential. Disagreeing with someone over facts or policies, even if it leads to mocking his or her reasoning, is far different from questioning his or her motivations or insisting that he or she is traitorous and evil.

None of us has all or even most of the answers. The truly dangerous among us are those who think or are certain that what they believe and what they think the country should do is unquestionably right. Conversely, they know just as certainly that what others believe and what they think the country should do is not only wrong and will prove harmful, but is deliberately that way and intentionally evil. When all is said and done, even any extreme intellectual combat over ideas is healthy; denigrating and demonizing people is just the opposite.  

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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