The Quality of Political Conversations

[Conceptual prerequisites: signalingcounter signaling, recent speech controversies]

A friend of a friend recently opined, “I am coming to think that most educated Bay Area people are incapable of discussing politics at a level of sophistication above that of angry babies”.

An issue of signaling is the cost of not signaling correctly. If you project the wrong image (which might mean wrong clothing, wrong speech, wrong behavior, or other things), are you ignored? Ostracized? Punished? Killed?

In some places the cost is low. You project the wrong image in the busy part of New York. Who cares? I’m in a hurry. Venice Beach, Los Angeles. Who cares? People live and let live.

In some places the cost is higher. Yesterday I read an article about some gay students in Missouri who had their yearbook quotes scrubbed from their yearbook. My great grandmother was ostracized right out of her husband’s small North Carolina town for having a famous Yankee general as a relative. Personally, I found the signaling costs were unpleasantly high in the American south.

In some places the cost of wrong signaling is extremely, dangerously high. Stalin’s Russia.

I agree with my friend’s friend. I would say that the Bay Area, while not Stalinist, has gradually increased the cost of wrong signaling until it’s even higher than in the American south. Substantially higher, with the result that the quality of political discussion here is now worse than it is in the south.

Politics is the business of collaboration, of building human capital. Political discussion is the business of finding agreement and disagreement in politics. If the cost of looking wrong is a strong dose of ostracization, freely discussing politics risks losing at actual politics. So nobody will freely discuss politics. We live in an era of angry news, so the easiest fallback is to discuss angry news. It’s hard to discuss angry news (and only angry news) as anything other than an angry baby.

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