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Post details: Audiatur et altera pars

Audiatur et altera pars

The debt ceiling debate that had been festering on our airwaves for the past few weeks revealed a bleak reality of DC. The corridors of power brimming with a fully attitudinized Twitter-ready brinkmanship. The state-of-the-art ideological weaponry downgraded to state of the K-mart. The complete lack of constructive dialogue. The congressional warpaths crowded with chest-thumping egos blinded with preexisting bitterness. The media punditry relentlessly egging their respective sides on regardless of consequences. In one sentence: the tone of the contemporary partisan rhetoric became disconcertingly reminiscent of a noxious milieu in a household whose pre-divorce residents had depleted their strategic reserves of tolerance about 6 months ago. Live from the capital - our country is being torn apart right in front of the TV cameras, whether we gauge it through relatively measured statements of top politicians or through visceral reactions of hoi polloi in the comment sections of political blogs.

On occasion I vent my own frustrations in the Huffington Post, mostly because it provides its users with useful community functions of "friending" other commenters and "faving" their posts. In the past few months, while engaging in some of the most heated discussions, I noticed an alarming trend. If you write a one sided rabidly partisan blurt, then no matter how biased and factually wrong it might be, you get tons of solidarity "favs" from the spiritual brethren dangling on the same side of the barricade and eagerly lapping their daily quart of prechewed soundbites. But if you try to write a balanced and well reasoned opinion with concern for the long-term welfare of the country, you barely elicit a raised eyebrow. In a polarized world, people don't relate to thinkers and bridge builders, people relate to soldiers who wear the same color uniforms. Like modern day Viking warriors, who are perfectly capable of killing for a missing hyphen if it comes from the other side of the aisle, we patrol the open seas with long knives held firm and high. We have exited the bay of cooperation and ran smack into a storm of fierce political competition.

I think this belligerence has something to do with the prevalent notion that economic times will get tough again. Adversity has always had polarizing effect. In good times, when the flow of wealth seems to have no limits, people are reasonably sure that they will get "theirs" and are more forgiving towards the machinations of others, even if there is a whiff of corruption or unearned benefits. We simply enjoy our own cornucopia and don't look too intensely into the wheeling and dealing in the neighbor's yard. However, these days it is becoming clearer and clearer that the current course is financially unsustainable and not all promises on future welfare will be honored. With limited coffers, watching the division of global spoils very carefully is a survival skill. As the economy deteriorates, the "us versus them" mentality develops and the notion of "parasites" slowly emerges in the sectarian mindset - whether it is personified by crony capitalists, by welfare queens or by a boogeyman of your choice. The problem is that either group can be thought of as a parasite if you look at it through the right prism. In economy, the truth is somewhat malleable and in most disputes likes to straddle. For instance, the socialists are correct that the income inequality impedes growth, but the capitalists can claim the same about excessive levels of taxation. But no one is willing to step out of the protective cocoon of their own echo chamber to hear the other side of the argument.

In an environment where outreach and conciliatory voices are construed as a sign of weakness and effectively lead to a losing political position no one wants to even think about acknowledging multiple viewpoints. Dissenting opinions are readily suppressed and taking intellectual hostages becomes a norm. Imagine that you publicly admit there is some government waste at the federal level. Guess what - some ultraconservative hawk will immediately swoop down and say - see we told you that government is bad. Full stop. Never mind that such simplification is not the whole truth. Government has many aspects, some beneficial and others less so. Some well run, others less so. Discerning the good from the bad is a step necessary for understanding the problem. Making such fine judgments, however, is much harder than barking out conveniently simplified slogans. Unfortunately, neither side wants to get infected with the prevailing philosophy at the other end of the spectrum and desperately clings to their ideological crutches. When such frantic black and white tribalism conquers the political landscape, how do you find the real truth?

In physics you would make an experiment. If you postulate that stones thrown out from a tower will fall down and your opponent claims that - on the contrary - the stones will soar upward, all you have to do is grab a bunch of pebbles and climb to the top of the nearest tower. But in social sciences (especially in politics and economy), a controlled environment in which to perform an experiment is hard to set up. There are smart people in both camps, so if it was possible to design a scientific procedure in support of the conservative or liberal point of view, it would already have been done and accepted by the other side. But social systems are too complex and riddled with intricate nets of consequences for such simple resolutions. We cannot ascertain or deduce what would have happened if FDR had not offered the New Deal, or how would the Middle East politics evolve had GWB not invaded Iraq. There are way too many variables to control. So in the absence of empirical scrutiny, screaming your side of the story at the top of your lungs is the winning strategy.

Yet an antidote to this destructive policy is as simple as it is ancient. The judges presiding over the squabbles of the Roman Empire had a simple phrase for it: "Audiatur et altera pars" (loosely translated as "let the other party be heard"). And that's all that is needed to steer our ship in the right direction.


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