A Great Debate

By GARY GUTTING, New York Times blogs, February 19, 2013

Excerpt

…our political “debates” seldom deserve the name…Is there any way to make genuine debates – sustained back-and-forth exchanges, meeting high intellectual standards but still widely accessible – part of our political culture?..Such debates will not end our political disagreements, but they will set much higher standards of discussion, requiring fuller explanations of positions and even modifications to make them more defensible. It’s unlikely that either side would ever simply give up its view, but, politically, they would have to react to a strong public consensus if they had not made a respectable case

The only major obstacle to implementing this proposal would be getting the parties to participate. Here, I suggest, shame would be a prime motivator

Of course, many people will not have the time, interest, or the ability to follow debates of this sort. But those who do – including the leading commentators and opinion-makers – will be among the most concerned and articulate, and their views will have a significant effect on the terms and tone of the general discussion.

Facts and reasoning will never settle political issues. All of us have fundamental commitments that are impervious to argument. If an argument seems to refute them, we take this as a refutation of the argument. And, of course, many of us are too ignorant, self-interested or prejudiced on certain issues to be moved by rational considerations. But rationality almost always has some role in our decisions, and more rationality in our political discussion will at a minimum help many to better understand what is at stake in our disputes and why their opponents think as they do.

So why not give reason a chance?…

 

 

Full text

This is the year of what should be a decisive debate on our country’s spending and debt. But our political “debates” seldom deserve the name. For the most part representatives of the rival parties exchange one-liners: “The rich can afford to pay more” is met by “Tax increases kill jobs.” Slightly more sophisticated discussions may cite historical precedents: “There were higher tax rates during the post-war boom” versus “Reagan’s tax cuts increased revenues.”

Such volleys still don’t even amount to arguments: they don’t put forward generally accepted premises that support a conclusion. Full-scale speeches by politicians are seldom much more than collections of such slogans and factoids, hung on a string of platitudes. Despite the name, candidates’ pre-election debates are exercises in looking authoritative, imposing their talking points on the questions, avoiding gaffes, and embarrassing their opponents with “zingers” (the historic paradigm: “There you go again.”).

There is a high level of political discussion in the editorials and op-eds of national newspapers and magazines as well as on a number of blogs, with positions often carefully formulated and supported with argument and evidence. But even here we seldom see a direct and sustained confrontation of rival positions through the dialectic of assertion, critique, response and counter-critique.

Such exchanges occur frequently in our law courts (for example, oral arguments before the Supreme Court) and in discussions of scientific papers. But they are not a significant part of our deliberations about public policy. As a result, partisans typically remain safe in their ideological worlds, convincing themselves that they hold to obvious truths, while their opponents must be either knaves or fools – with no need to think through the strengths of their rivals’ positions or the weaknesses of their own.

Is there any way to make genuine debates – sustained back-and-forth exchanges, meeting high intellectual standards but still widely accessible – part of our political culture? (I leave to historians the question of whether there are historical precedents- like the Webster-Hayne or Lincoln-Douglas debates.) Can we put our politicians in a situation where they cannot ignore challenges, where they must genuinely engage with one another in responsible discussion and not just repeat talking points?

A first condition is that the debates be focused on specific points of major disagreement. Not, “How can we improve our economy?” but “Will tax cuts for the wealthy or stimulus spending on infrastructure do more to improve our economy?” This will prevent vague statements of principle that don’t address the real issues at stake.

Another issue is the medium of the debate. Written discussions, in print or online could be easily arranged, but personal encounters are more vivid and will better engage public attention. They should not, however, be merely extemporaneous events, where too much will depend on quick-thinking and an engaging manner. We want remarks to be carefully prepared and open to considered responses.

Here’s one suggestion for an effective exchange. The debate would consist of a series of four half-hour televised sessions, carried out on successive days. In the first session, the Republican, say, presents a pre-written case for a particular position (say that tax-cuts are better for the economy than stimulus spending). The Democrat, who will have read the Republican’s presentation beforehand, presents a 15-minute point-by-point response. In the second session, the Republican asks the Democrat a series of questions (no more than one minute per question and three minutes per response) on the debate topic. In the third session, the Democrat questions the Republican. In the fourth session, each side has 15 minutes to present a final argument. This, of course, is just one idea. I welcome readers’ suggestions for refinements or alternatives.

Such debates will not end our political disagreements, but they will set much higher standards of discussion, requiring fuller explanations of positions and even modifications to make them more defensible. It’s unlikely that either side would ever simply give up its view, but, politically, they would have to react to a strong public consensus if they had not made a respectable case. Further, the quasi-official status of the participants, as representatives chosen by their parties, would make the parties’ politicians answerable to points the representatives have made. If Congressman X says at a press conference, “Lower rates have always produced higher tax revenues,” reporters might point out the party’s representative had to retreat to a more nuanced position. Such nuance might open the path to fruitful compromise.

The only major obstacle to implementing this proposal would be getting the parties to participate. Here, I suggest, shame would be a prime motivator. Given strong popular support for such debates, it’s hard to see how the parties could answer the charge that they are shying away because they don’t have confidence in their ability to make a convincing case.

Of course, many people will not have the time, interest, or the ability to follow debates of this sort. But those who do – including the leading commentators and opinion-makers – will be among the most concerned and articulate, and their views will have a significant effect on the terms and tone of the general discussion.

Facts and reasoning will never settle political issues. All of us have fundamental commitments that are impervious to argument. If an argument seems to refute them, we take this as a refutation of the argument. And, of course, many of us are too ignorant, self-interested or prejudiced on certain issues to be moved by rational considerations. But rationality almost always has some role in our decisions, and more rationality in our political discussion will at a minimum help many to better understand what is at stake in our disputes and why their opponents think as they do.

So why not give reason a chance? How about a televised debate in the next few weeks on some key differences in the Democratic and Republican budget proposals? Here’s a concrete suggestion: Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Charles Schumer debating the question: Will tax cuts for the wealthy or stimulus spending on infrastructure do more to improve our economy?

It may not draw the number of viewers that “American Idol” does, but it would surely be an improvement on the status quo of our political debate.

Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, “Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy since 1960,” and writes regularly for The Stone. He was recently interviewed in 3am magazine.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/19/a-great-debate/?nl=opinion&emc=edit_ty_20130220

Abandoned O.J. Project Shows Shame Still Packs a Punishing Punch

By Shankar Vedantam, WashingtonPost, November 27, 2006 

The whole project was pure shamelessness. A controversial former football star, who many believe got off scot-free after killing two people, writes a book about how he might have committed the murders. It was an end zone dance in the worst possible taste. Everyone was outraged but had to concede that O.J. Simpson, once acquitted, was beyond the reach of the law. 

But Simpson and his publisher, Judith Regan, were within reach of another powerful tool that is not much used in American society: shame. Facing growing outrage and scorn, News Corp. chief executive Rupert Murdoch canceled the book project last week. 

For Stephanos Bibas, a law professor and former prosecutor, the saga was grounds for celebration, because it showed that shame remains a powerful tool in America.

For nearly two centuries, using shame as a weapon against wrongdoing has steadily fallen into disfavor in the United States, even as it continues to be an essential part of social discourse in more traditional societies. After the rise of penitentiaries around 1800, the idea of shaming wrongdoers was replaced by more impersonal forms of punishment such as incarceration. 

But in the past decade or two, a number of scholars have become interested in the uses of shame, especially in the criminal justice system. Bibas and others think the steady erosion of shame in U.S.courts and society has proved financially costly to the country, deprived victims of a sense of vindication and kept wrongdoers from feeling remorseful.

“I was very pleasantly surprised to see shame, and the shaming of Rupert Murdoch, triumph over O.J.’s shamelessness,” Bibas said. “There are, apparently, some things that still go too far.” 

Murdoch’s withdrawal of Simpson’s book and a Fox television special about it scheduled to run during the November sweeps was evidence that shame could be effective where the law was impotent, said Bibas, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. There was nothing illegal about the book, but the widespread media coverage of the project and the collective revulsion of the country shamed Murdoch into retreat. 

Where shame was once integral to how wrongdoers were dealt with — offenders publicly whipped, put in stockades and pilloried in Colonial America — it faded out of the justice system based on the idea that offenders should not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. And psychotherapists, including Sigmund Freud on down, showed how shame can damage people. 

Bibas doesn’t want a return to public floggings and other forms of cruelty, but he does want a way to reattach society’s voice of moral outrage to offensive behavior. When someone commits a crime nowadays, society allows offenders never to have to speak directly to victims and their families. Bibas thinks this is why prison sentences are growing longer, but packing offenders off to jail does not give victims the public acknowledgment they seek that they were harmed. Societies that use shame to censure criminals often require such acknowledgment of the offense, along with reparative ceremonies involving the families of both offender and victim. 

When those techniques work, as Cornell University law professor Stephen P. Garvey explored in an analysis of shaming punishments, society saves money because offenders do not have to be locked away for eons, victims have a sense of being made whole again and punishment becomes more than retribution — social pressure from family and peers can shame wrongdoers into remorse in a way that locking them up and throwing away the key cannot. 

The idea has many critics, who warn that shaming will lead to violations of dignity and to abuse and vigilante-style justice. Broadcasting the names of married men found guilty of visiting prostitutes through the mass media, as some police departments have done, can harm the men’s families as much as the offenders. And sometimes, critics say, it is less important that offenders be remorseful than it is that they be locked away and kept from hurting their victims again. 

Garvey and Bibas acknowledge these concerns and say shaming punishments have limitations when it comes to violent crime. But done right, they say, creative punishments have an element not just of justice but poetic justice. One program sent men found guilty of soliciting prostitutes to a “School for Johns,” where they received lectures from former prostitutes. Neo-Nazis were made to watch the film “Schindler’s List,” listen to stories of Holocaust survivors and meet with a preacher they planned to kill. What about having auto thieves wash their victims’ cars every weekend? Or have vandals beautify their city? 

No one expects that shaming punishments will always lead to a change of heart.University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner pointed out that Murdoch owns tabloids that publish “grotesque” stories such as what meals people on death row are eating, meaning that his retraction of the Simpson book may be less about remorse than damage control. 

But even superficial changes driven by shaming can lead to deeper effects. When a 3-year-old hits his brother and his parents make him apologize, the apology may be utterly insincere, but repeated apologies teach the child to internalize the idea that hitting other people is wrong. 

“People may do things insincerely, but social psychology teaches us that we conform our beliefs to our actions,” Bibas said. “If we have to act in a way that professes repentance and sorrow, we will eventually learn those as values.” 

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/11/26/AR2006112600720_pf.html