You can find David Moscrop on Twitter @David_Moscrop
Politics and religion: two topics that are never to be broached in polite company. We all know how realistic THAT particular saw is. Political conversations are everywhere, and while there has never been a period in history where politics made for “nice” conversation, current trends towards populism, clickbait media, and punditry have made talking about politics especially difficult.
But we shouldn’t avoid these conversations, either. In this edition of Talk Shop, political theorist and expert in the intersection of politics and media discusses how we can understand and discuss politics and political decisions. We’ll also tackle how to better navigate the political media landscape, how to evaluate information sources, and much more (I even threw in an incredibly awkward Star Trek & Gene Roddenberry reference for good measure).
Prefer to read than watch? Scroll down for the full transcript.
(Embedded video being cranky? Click here to watch it directly on YouTube).
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter! Have you found ways of talking politics with friends, family, and co-workers that doesn’t end with snippy retorts and broken furniture? Are there certain political topics you just stay away from altogether? Click here and leave a comment in the YouTube comments section.
And of course, please like the video and subscribe to my YouTube channel to stay up to date on more great interviews and videos.
Lauren Sergy: It is said that in polite company there are two things you never discuss, religion and politics, and today we’re talking about politics. Hello to you out there, welcome to Talk Shop, the place where we get to discuss and dig into communication issues that affect our day-to-day lives with special guests, experts, specialists, people who are in the know. As I alluded to earlier, today’s topic is one that so many of us struggle with, and that is how do we have a civil conversation around the issue of politics today.
I am delighted, absolutely delighted to bring to you a person who is very much in the know on how we discuss politics and how to have better political discussions ourselves, David Moscrop. David Moscrop is a political theorist, an SSHRC post-doctoral fellow in the department of communication at the University of Ottawa and a columnist for the Washington Post. He also writes from time to time for Maclean’s Magazine, the Globe and Mail, and other publications. David is a frequent commentator for radio, television and print his first book, Too Dumb for Democracy: Why We Make Bad Political Decision and How We Can Make Better Ones, is on bookshelves now.
Lauren Sergy: David Moscrop, thank you. Thank you so much for coming onto this show. I’m very excited to have you on. I know that some of our watchers will have seen the book review that I did for my very flagged up copy, Too Dumb for Democracy. And everyone out there watching, if you have not bought this book, get it, buy it, read it cover to cover. And once I read it I thought, oh at some point I will work up the nerve to ask you to come on the show and chat with us a little bit about politics because damn, yeah, yeah. This of course, political decision making, political conversation, this is your life’s work, your area of research, your area of study and not something that I want to dig into right off the bat. Can you tell us what a political decision is? Because it sounds obvious, right? It’s a person I take off on the ballot box. Is that not a decision but, but for us average plebs, it’s got to be a lot more complex than that. So how do you define political decision making?
David Moscrop: I try not to define it too narrowly. It’s going to be a little bit different for everyone. But you mentioned the obvious one, vote choice. I mean that is many people, the alternate political decision. But what that really should be is the terminus after you’ve made a number of other political decisions. We think of it as a political act that’s discrete or that’s independent of other things, but it’s not, that should be the result of all kinds of political decisions. And that will include deciding what you think about individual candidates, deciding what you think about individual parties, deciding what you think about individual issues, deciding what you think about economic systems and political systems.
So we could think about it as decisions, but also as judgments or even sometimes impressions. So it can be do I like or dislike this leader or that leader, or this local candidate or that local candidate, or what do I think the the federal government should be doing in my life or not doing my life? Do I think we need more of X, more of why do we need more intervention in the economy from the government, less intervention in the economy?
And ideally if you’re making these political decisions or reaching these judgments, you should be able to add them all up and come to some broad understanding of what you think about political life and which party or candidate you ought to support when you sit down to make the final decision in an election year for instance, you know, casting a ballot.
Lauren: Yeah, well and again that’s the ideal scenario, but so much of our thinking and our decision making and our reasoning doesn’t happen with that ideal thoughtfulness. We are emotional creatures and especially, you know, the way that the conversation works and and influences of our own biases and rhetoric and whatnot, all of that is going to influence us to make decision based off of gut necessarily than more, more so than necessarily sitting down and saying, yeah, okay, this is how I think about-
David: Yeah, we do a lot of like dislike vague impressions. And then when you say to someone, okay, well make your choice, make a decision, they can do it. I mean, we can make political decisions. We do it all the time. What we’re less good at is explaining or justifying those systems with reference to anything even approximating reality. So it’s one thing to say, well, I like Justin Trudeau or I dislike Justin Trudeau. And then you say, okay, well why? And then you get a little bit of hand-waving well, I heard somewhere that he broke the law.
David: Well, which law? Something to do with CNS, you know? And then, well, what’s wrong with that? Well, I just, you know, I don’t like the taxes are too high. And so, part of that’s because we don’t train people to make good political decisions. We don’t incentivize them or support them in being citizens. We think of that as something people can and should do on their own time with their own resources. And we privilege private life, we privilege economic life rather than than public life. And that needs to, a lot of the problems we see when it comes to bad political decision making, and you’re right, a lot of it is gut-based. It’s affective.
Now that means that people can’t tell when they’ve had enough of the government. They’re actually quite good at that. But it does mean that governments are able to perhaps last a little longer than they should or get away with a little more than they ought to be able to get away with in the meantime.
Lauren: So then how can we deal with the whole fact that we make our decisions because reasons like I, and I know I am guilty of this myself when I get into especially really embroiled political discussions with anyone and everyone. After a while the tensions get really high and we say, okay, well I think this way because reasons, and you mentioned it beautifully. There’s some vague hand-waving that happens there. What are a few steps that we can take to help ourselves turn because reasons into actual reasons, and sort of develop that sort of self-awareness? Because you mentioned that it’s something that we don’t educate people to do. So it strikes me as being unrealistic to expect people to do this naturally or instinctively.
David: Oh yes. The line that I use is we’re no more naturally capable of making rational, autonomous political decision, what I define as a good political decision, any more than we are naturally capable of hitting a fast ball. You can train to do it. But if you step up to the plate and expect that you’re going to hit a fast ball out of the park, you’re more likely to get hit by it than you are to hit it. And so you can’t really expect somebody to just walk onto the street one day and someone says, okay, well what do you think about royalties for oil and gas? I don’t, I don’t know. I mean they’ll give you an answer because they want to give you an answer, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to be a good one.
So the question is, okay, well how do we in fact train to be able to do it? Because I like to think of it as a bit of a training program. And the good news is there’s a lot we can do, we can get better. We do have the capacity to do this when we work on it, but we’ve got to work on it. Part of that is taking time, setting aside time in the way that you would set aside time for anything else in what some psychologists would call deliberate practice and how do you get better at things? You practice at it, but you deliberately practice at it. You practice that with very specific goals to improve.
So part of that is, okay, I want to understand that I have cognitive biases and tendencies. I want to know what those are, and I want to think about catching those when I practice them or when I’m exhibiting those signs of bias. And so just knowing that there are problems, and knowing what those are, naming them is step one in addressing them.
Then, data collection. And by that I simply mean you’ve got to come up with some fodder that is accurate and reliable, trustworthy, and that often comes, I know, oftentimes-
Lauren: Justify our reasons?
David: Well you don’t have to, that’s the good news. In a democracy you don’t have to, but you should. And part that is good information. And that’s often the tricky part because we are comforted by things that we already agree with.
David: And we are comforted by sources that we’re familiar with because of course we are. But the process of getting better at political decision making is the process of becoming increasingly uncomfortable and reckoning with that. It doesn’t mean that you don’t come back to those sources, but it means that you’ve gone and looked at others and come up with reasons for against why you might like Source A or B. That could be a journalist, a newspaper, it might even be a what we a heuristic, a mental shortcut, like a professional association that you trust or a friend or a family member.
So part of it is just collecting a variety of sources that disagree with one another that you can go back to, and then finally coming up with reasons. And we run into a fundamental problem, which is if you are rationalizing instead of reasoning so deeply that you can’t access the fact that you’re rationalizing, how do you get out of that cycle? It’s very, very hard. It requires interlocutors. It requires that you talk to someone else who can talk to you about these things and point out and say, well maybe that isn’t actually a reason. Maybe that’s you just trying to cover for some real motivation that’s hidden from you. It almost becomes like a therapy session.
I’m not talking about sitting down to do this for hours a day. You could do it 20 minutes.
Lauren: Oh God, that’d be exhausting.
David: Well, I will tell you right now, it certainly is. I can confirm that it is, but a little bit of time makes a big difference. And so once you’ve done that, you start to build capacity, you build a repertoire, you build an awareness of where the pitfalls are, and then you start to come up with reasons that you can justify, and the world starts to make a little more sense.
Lauren: So can you explain then the difference between rationalizing and reasoning? Because those seem to be easily conflated.
David: Yes. I mean we, that’s what we do. We typically conflate them. And when I say we, I mean all of us.
David: You mentioned that you were as guilty as anyone. I’m as guilty as anyone too. And in the book I talk about that, how I’ve come to this honest, I’m aware of my own biases all the time. And so reasoning is the process of gathering information and coming up with reasons for or against some proposition or some preference that explain why you support or don’t support it. Whereas rationalizing it is reaching a conclusion and then finding excuses as to support that no matter what.
David: So you can rationalize all kinds of things away by saying, okay, well, say let’s talk about taxes. You might say taxes are too high. And someone might say, okay, yes, but when we have high taxes, we provide universal service. And in fact when you have a universal service, you end up with more money in your pocket than you would if there weren’t taxes because we could do more together than we can do on our own. And you say, okay, fine. Yeah, that might be true, but I just don’t trust this government to spend it. Why is that? And then you might say, well, here’s a record that assumes that in fact, they have spent it wisely. And then you might say, yeah, but I don’t believe it.
Lauren: So within that rationalization approach, all that you are doing is looking to reinforce the preconceived conclusion. It just, this is the conclusion. Everything I do say or think is going to make that stronger.
David: Yes, absolutely. And so we have, we as human beings, we are biased in all kinds of ways but you know we tend to like confirmation bias. We want to confirm what we already believe to be true, and we search out information that supports what we already believe and discount information that challenges it. And we’re also what’s known as motivated reasoners. And there’s two kinds of motivated reasoners, at least two.
David: One is a motivated reasoners who are motivated to get the answer right or to reach a good conclusion. So there is a healthy version or constructive version of motivated reasoning, and then there’s the opposite, which is motivated reasoners who are trying to fulfill some other need or desire. That might be to fit in with the group, to justify one’s own, X, Y or Zed whether it’s great or self-interest or to feel good about yourself. We come up with, we reach conclusions for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with the public interest or good political decision making.
David: So the challenge is rooting that stuff out. And you might decide that, you know what, I’m fine with that. I’m fine with confirmation bias, I’m fine with motivated reasoning, I’m fine with rationalization. I don’t think that’s particularly noble or helpful. But you might decide that, but at the very least, you get to know it.
Lauren: Well, and acknowledging that we all fall prey to this seems to be a major, major aspect of it. Because I mean, everyone loves saying, oh, I can see through my reasons are good. I can see through all of this information that’s being thrown my way and I’m viewing it from an unbiased perspective. And that’s impossible. I think that’s, it strikes me that that is to say that you are also not human perhaps.
David: Oh yeah. So there’s a couple of good lines about that. You know, the philosopher Thomas Nagel said that there’s no such thing as a view from nowhere.
David: And the neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio wrote that if you were to remove emotion from reasoning, you wouldn’t get better reasoning, you’d get psychopath. So the stuff that makes us quirky, that stuff that leads to gremlins sneaking into the machine is also the stuff that makes us human. So you can’t remove it and we shouldn’t want to remove it. And that’s why I say it’s something that applies to all of us all the time. And even those who know better because you get tired or you forget, or you get a little rusty or whatever it might be, or you believe in something so deeply that you can’t see around yourself.
So you’re right. I mean, it is a fundamentally human thing. And so we should start from there. And then from that we decide, okay, well if it is fundamentally human, we’re all going through this together. The goal shouldn’t be perfection. The goal should be creating a public sphere in which individuals can make the best political decisions possible.
Lauren: For sure. So in terms of the major influencers within that public sphere, within all of the information that’s coming our way, what do you see as being the major determinants, the major influencers in this election cycle that we’re approaching?
David: So friends and family are always going to be a central influence in anyone’s political decision making, in part because you trust them, in part because you like them, in part because they’re just there. It’s impossible to get away from that. And we are socialized in very particular ways and we tend to rely on on those who are closest to us when we start thinking about things. And that’s fantastic. I mean that is part of being in a community.
And one of the nice things about democracy is allows you to build these communities that influence one you and other people and you can influence back. And that is valuable. Now, what you don’t want to do is simply take wholesale whatever your uncle says at Thanksgiving, or your mother says over the phone, or your best friend says because she happens to “know more” about this than you do. You want to do a little bit of thinking for yourself.
So the question becomes, well, where do you do that? So you’re going to have friends and family. Professional associations can be valuable too. Of course they’re going to have their own interests. Maybe those will clash with you. So you’re going to want to look at journalists. There remain very, very good journalists who do excellent work trying to explain the world and contextualize it. So finding a few sources that that are a little bit in disagreement with one another, a little bit in contention with one another as you can consult. And then experts. There are always going to be experts in any number of fields who can speak to these things. You see them quoted in newspapers and magazines, not quite as diversely as we ought to, so sometimes you need to do a little extra work to find people who don’t look like I too. Unfortunately, we still have work to do and making sure that we mix that up and the commentary is more equitable, but these people exist. They’re all over the place and you can find them and in many cases you can even ring them up or send them an email and they’ll talk to you. It happens to me all the time. It happens to my colleagues too.
So the information is there. You just need to spend a little bit of time looking for it. And then once you’ve got all of that jumbled out, then you get to go through it all, and that’s the fun part.
Lauren: I love how you say that’s the fun part.
David: It is.
Lauren: Yes it is. How can we go through it more objectively?
David: Well, I don’t think-
Lauren: You know, like without cherry picking the info so much?
David: You’ll never go through anything objectively. Yeah, well, this is the problem and part of that is surrounding yourself with people who disagree with you. It sounds like such a simple and obvious thing, but in an era in which it’s easier than ever to never hear something you don’t want to hear, or to hear something that contradicts something you believe, we more than ever need to push back against that, right? This is the so-called filter bubbles and echo chambers of the internet.
Now they’re a little bit overstated, but they’re still a problem. So saying to yourself, okay, look, I’m going to read a couple of magazines or newspapers that feature people who think very differently from me, and I’m going to have a couple of people who I disagree with, and I’m going to disagree with them in an agreeable way or a constructive way rather than sitting down and saying, well, if you think that way, then you must be an idiot, right? That might be your impulse. I feel that all the time. But you’ve got to restrain that.
Part of it is saying, look, I want to understand why someone disagrees and see where they’re coming from.
David: And that starts both face-to-face, but also in the information that you gather, because the decision you ultimately reach is going to be the product of your reasoning process, but also of the fodder that you put in, right? It’s going to be the raw stuff that you put in the first place matters too. So you’ve got to find information that’s good but that doesn’t simply confirm what you already believed, which is tough.
Lauren: Which is, yes.
David: We don’t like being jarred. We want to be comfortable.
David: By people who agree with us. Yeah. But you never learn that way.
Lauren: That is very, very, very, very true.
David: And there’s an old, this is such an old, cliched argument that’s been sort of in many cases, hijacked by some unsavory types, but John Stuart Mill simply said that, by surrounding yourself with people who disagree with you, you at the very least better understand why you believe what you believe.
Lauren: Yeah. And that’s a fair, it’s a very pithy way of putting it and I think that’s part of the reason why insights like that are so valuable. It gives you some way of still getting good out of a conversation, even if you don’t reach a mutually agreeable conclusion.
Lauren: There is still something to be learned there.
David: Yeah, but of course you have to also learn that there are boundaries. I mean that isn’t to say that you should listen to anyone and everyone no matter what. I mean, there are some people who are never going to change their mind. They’re never going to engage in good faith. They don’t want to. They want to disrupt the public space. They don’t want to engage and they’re going to do nothing but spew nonsense and waste your time.
David: The thing is most of those people are pretty transparent. You can see them coming a mile. There’s a few who are really slick, and it takes you a little while to figure it out.
Lauren: I’m not going to ask you to name names-
David: I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t.
Lauren: I know you can’t, but I want to do so bad.
David: I mean, I will, I’m happy to do that elsewhere but I certainly won’t cause any trouble here.
Lauren: Now, there’s a lot of hand wringing at the moment about how bad political discourse just among us average Joes, how bad it’s gotten. And to me that seems a bit disingenuous. It sort of hearkens back to a golden age when we talked about these things civilly. That never existed. There’s ample evidence that these conversations have always been incredibly fraught. But it’s important that we don’t shy away from the conversations. So, as someone who studies these things professionally, what can you suggest that can help us talk to one another, have these disagreements, get into our various politics without ending up with just mudslinging and broken furniture.
David: I mean, it’s also worth noting as you mentioned, not only did that era never exist, in past eras discretion was highly exclusionary. These spaces have in the, in the past several decades especially become more inclusive. And a lot of the tension we’re seeing is that some people are looking around and saying, well where did you come from? And people are saying, well, we were excluded for years and years and years, and we’re going to take up some space.
Lauren: Yeah, I’ve always been here.
Lauren: Thanks for finally seeing it.
David: Exactly. And part of a healthy public space is going to be the principle of equality and the principle inclusion, is that we need a space inhabited by people who disagree with each other, but people who come from different religious traditions, different socioeconomic demographics, different genders, different sexual orientations, etc., etc., etc.
David: And, and so part one is of having better conversations is dropping the defensiveness and dropping the entitlement, and dropping the sort of knee jerk reaction that some people have to anyone who disagrees with them. And part of it is understanding that you can disagree with someone and not take it personally, or not take it as an affront to who you are as a person.
David: Now some people are awful and they’re going to attack you for who you are.
David: The best thing is to ignore those folks, because you’re not going to get anything from them. So part of having a good conversation is curating who was in it to some extent and ignoring the nonsense.
Lauren: Smash the mute button?
David: Well, I certainly do. I mean anyone can show up in the public space, but you don’t have to engage with everyone, right? There’s going to people who just will never engage in good faith. Ignoring them makes a huge difference. And not amplifying them is the other issues that I’m learning as I go, that I’m going to get outraged every day by nonsense, by bigotry, by stupidity, by people who are acting in bad faith. I don’t need to engage with it and I don’t need to signal boost it. I can create a space that is diverse, that is full of disagreement that, but that isn’t toxic. So part of it is just ignoring the toxic bit.
David: And I think if we can use what we’re learning about human psychology, social and political psychology, and what the technologies that we have at our disposal, the digital communications technologies, will give us a chance to actually create a space in which we can have a healthy public sphere and healthy public discourse, and then the trolls can sit off to the side. We can do that if we want to do that, but part of it is making sure that we as individuals simply don’t engage with that nonsense.
Lauren: Right. Become a better personal gatekeeper in terms of what’s going on, because we certainly don’t want to also have just milk toast conversations as well and water everything down. And you certainly don’t. I do follow you on Twitter and you engage in robust conversations, but when the nonsense starts, like you said, that’s it.
Lauren: And it’s not a willingness to engage in debate. It’s recognizing, as you said, the people debating in bad faith versus the people who actually want a conversation.
David: Yeah. So we keep looking around and saying well, who will be the gatekeepers? I mean it used to be that the media would gate-keep through editorial standards. You couldn’t just publish anything, or if you did, you had to stand on the street corner and hand out your ‘zine, right? Or go onto the subway and hand out your flyers. That was sort of low impact, high labor. Well now in the social media era, it can be high impact with low labor. So part of the challenge is figuring out ways to minimize these people who are just there to disrupt, who are acting in bad faith. And the best way to do that is to mute, block, delete as people would say.
Because the alternative is that states do it or that companies do it, and there’s always going to be some extent to which states are going to need to police speech for instance, hate speech, or threats, and platforms are going to have to police this as well to some extent, libel, slander perhaps alongside hate speech as well, and other egregious examples.
But day-to-day, who’s going to to manage the public space? Well, we are by choosing who to engage with and who not to engage with, who to follow, follow back and who to mute, block, delete and we get to do that every day. And then of course, because otherwise like I said we have to rely on this in sort of censorious instincts of states or corporations. And if we do that, the chance for abuse is high and the cost of abuse is high.
Lauren: Well, thank you for putting up with some of the abuse on our part by-
David: Well, for some of us, it becomes almost energizing, which is a different pathology. I don’t even want to try to understand it.
Lauren: It’s the sort of pathology which leads you to do PhDs in this sort of thing.
David: And it’s been [inaudible 00:26:19].
Lauren: Books like this again. David’s book “Too Dumb for Democracy.” It is on shelves at your favorite book retailer right now as well as online. And very briefly, David, as we wrap up, you also just launched another initiative, a new podcast project, I mean. Can you tell us a little bit about your podcast Open for Debate?
David: So, in the spirit of what we’ve been talking about today, the podcast launched today as a matter of fact, well today in recording time, and episode one is called appropriately enough Can Democracy Survive the Internet. And the idea behind the podcast is you can create an agreeable space for disagreement. And that’s what we do. Every two weeks, I sit down with one or two people to talk about some pressing issue that isn’t necessarily bound up in 280 characters or the 24-hour news cycle. And for 45 minutes we have a conversation about one single issue that is important.
So issue one was the internet and democracy. In the coming weeks, we’re going to talk about all kinds of things, climate, justice reform, the election, masculinity, and all kinds of interesting issues. And the idea is we’re going to have a civil, constructive, smart conversation if we’re going to disagree in a productive way. And, and we’re going to try to keep dialed in for 45 straight minutes.
Lauren: I am very excited to listen to it. I will admit that as I saw in sitting in a Starbucks the other day, one of your first guests teased out that you bring up how yellow journalism affected the Spanish War.
David: Yes. So Alex mentioned this, you won’t forget this, but going back to your point earlier that there was no golden era.
Lauren: It’s always been terrible!
David: A hundred years ago, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, who now hold up as media heroes, helped start the Spanish-American War so that they could sell newspapers.
Lauren: Humans are awesome. Actually, we are pretty awesome, but then there’s that stuff that happens.
David: Then there’s that stuff… So we’re better than we were in that era. Maybe not quite as good as we are.
Lauren: I think that we are.
Lauren: Regardless what Twitter looks like, I have faith that we actually are getting better at this. I have hopes that our Star Trek Gene Roddenberry vision will one day happen.
David: Yes. And new models will come up, and we talked about this too in the podcast. Already there are new models of collaborative journalism. For instance, the Toronto Star and Buzzfeed are collaborating now, and they’re co-producing things that are coming in to help figure out how to manage the current information space. So we are better than we were decades ago. And I suspect there’s a perhaps better than even chance that decades from now we’ll be even better than we are today.
Lauren: Well, I thank you for that because like I said, that’s something that I firmly believe in as well and it’s good to hear that echoed by people in the know. So David, where can people find and get more of you? Where’s your online home?
David: Well, it’s mostly Twitter at @David_Moscrop, and you can also listen to the podcast wherever podcasts are found for the most part. It’s hosted by the 2020 Network. So if you Google Canada 2020 or 2020 Network and Open to Debate will pop up. I’m on Twitter. And if you must, for whatever reason that I can’t possibly fathom, type in David Moscrop into Google, you’ll get more than you could ever possibly want.
Lauren: Well, we will put in, we, I will put in links to that in the description down below. So once again, everyone out there make sure that you check out more of David’s work. It is fantastic. It will help you wrap your head around what’s going on, not just in your own home country’s elections, but in the political landscape I’d say across the world. Whatever it is you’re hearing about, this will help you dissect some of what’s going on in there as well as some of the conversation.
Thank you so much for being with us here today, David. Thanks everyone out there for tuning in and sitting here with us for this wonderful interview. Again, I am Lauren Sergy. If you would like to get more interviews just like this communication issues that affect our daily life from experts like David, head on over to laurensergy.com, sign up for the newsletter and that way you won’t miss another update. Again, thank you so much for coming, David, and everyone out there have a great day.