A weed is a plant that is growing where you don’t want it to grow. Many weeds are invasive and propagate quickly, crowding out or killing the plants that you do want. The seeds from which weeds spring can be buried in the soil, mixed with the seed that was intentionally sown, or carried in by wind, flooding, birds, or animals. Often weeds like to root in damaged and exposed places, and they thrive in poor soil where the plants that bear fruit struggle to survive.
Keeping weeds out of your field is hard work. It takes research (some weeds look attractive although many don’t), effort (many weeds have long and tenacious roots), vigilance (weeds can sprout quickly), and persistence. However, the more good plants there are, the longer they grow, and the more regular you are about maintaining your field, the easier it is to defend against weeds.
Our national civic life is full of weeds, many of which were intentionally planted and then cultivated by our political parties. These weeds reflect the erosion of our civic soil. They incorporate rhetorical habits that are designed to divide, confuse, and alarm. They crowd out opportunities for productive dialogue and limit our ability to identify or implement pragmatic solutions that meet our collective needs. You can identify weeds by looking for the following characteristics:
- Inconsistency and incoherence: Inconsistency is shown by the gaps between talk and action. This occurs both when unrealistic commitments are publicly made and then quietly abandoned, when parties fail to take responsibility for the consequences of policies whose enactment they urged, or when one party castigates the other for violating “rules” or “principles” that the critics and their colleagues are themselves unwilling to live up to (and at times are actively violating even as they accuse others). When both parties lack a consistent set of values or principles to guide policy development, and when leaders are willing to “change the rules of the game” depending on who is in power, inconsistency often descends into incoherence. Inconsistency and incoherence are also evidenced by conflicting rationales between policy issues. For example, we argue on one hand that education is “failing” because children are not achieving more in math and science both of which are critical to our future, yet then reject scientific consensus on some of our most pressing issues. As another example, “local government” is lauded as the best level for making decisions, except when the local government doesn’t agree with the direction of a party and then the argument is that the state or even the federal government should step in. The misnaming of bills and policy efforts to reflect a direction different than what is being sought has become common practice and reflects another kind of inconsistency known as hypocrisy.
- Deflection: Deflection is another way of avoiding accountability, especially on the hard issues. It is used to shut down inquiry or challenge by diverting the focus to other subjects, and follows the pattern of “look over there, not over here!” It might sound like, “I know you asked about this issue, but what about that other issue?” Deflection is particularly problematic when combined with denigration of a particular individual or group. For example you might hear “I don’t have to answer that, because the people raising it are____”, or “We would never be in this state if it weren’t for the prior actions of ____” Often deflection incorporates the cognitive errors of “either/or” framing or “shoulds”, or follows the confusion of victim and actor that is common in narrative patterns of hate. Use of scapegoats – – blaming one person or group for the misdeeds of another — is a another common form of deflection.
- Distortion: Distortion includes both outright misrepresentations (e.g. “Pizzagate“) , and the confusion of fact and fiction that characterizes bullshit. It also includes the cognitive errors of overgeneralization, and catastrophic thinking. Conspiracy theories and the conjuring of bogeymen (e.g.” ‘they’ are different, full of malice, and out to get you”) are also common forms of distortion.
- Denial: Outright denial takes the form of a declaration that a statement is untrue (this includes its dismissal as “fake news”). It also includes a denial that the statement you just heard simply didn’t mean what it sounded like or wasn’t in fact said (often followed by selective editing and restatement). It may also take the form of a refusal to acknowledge or discuss a well-established doctrine, finding, or proposal, or the validity of someone else’s experience. Denial is currently a fast-growing weed. It aligns with the aphorism that ” the best defense is a good offense.” Forcible rejection and even mockery of what is otherwise clearly before us creates doubt, confusion, and cognitive dissonance, even in those who don’t believe the denial itself.
Note that the blurring of the label “fake news” (meaning “deliberately and strategically constructed lies that are presented as news articles and are intended to mislead the public”), with the reality that news reports are often biased (meaning actual facts are selectively presented or slanted toward a particular perspective,) is a hybrid of distortion, denial and deflection.
Deflection, denial, and distortion all flourish in the damaged soil of division, particularly when they root directly in the negative emotions of anger, hate, and fear.
All of these cause us to lose our focus, particularly on hard issues. With so many weeds, it can be hard to know who or what to believe. In our next post we will look at what you can do as a citizen or as a facilitator when you encounter these weeds in our democratic garden.