Monday, September 22, 2008

Why Bill Maher Is As Bad As the People He Despises; Or, How to Talk to Independent Voters

I’m honestly getting very tired of the Bill Maher rant. I used to like his show a lot more than I like it now that he uses it as a platform for opinions that are as entrenched and angry as those he opposes. I watched him spar with Andrew Sullivan last week on the subject of religion, and I thought he came off intolerant, snappish, opinionated and quite unwilling to entertain thoughts on the matter other than his own. Maher seems to be one of those who subscribe to the notion that you attack over-the-top rhetoric with over-the-top rhetoric, and routinely castigates Democrats for their failure to share his take-no-prisoners approach.

My own belief is that if you oppose opinionated argument with arguments that are no less opinionated—no matter that I happen to agree with many of them—you succeed only in hardening the position of your opponent. To scorn, to despise, to mock, to dismiss… these tactics are no less arrogant and no less distasteful on one side than they are on the other. To chide Barack Obama and his campaign for not attacking, for not returning brickbat for brickbat is simply to feed the divisiveness, and will disserve both the candidate and, eventually, the country. Obama is right to insist on maintaining, insofar as possible, an even tone. (I thought he did brilliantly on “60 Minutes” last night: a tight, thoughtful, compassionate approach to the problems that face us, a masterful control of his subject matter as he spoke, and an unflappable response to challenging questions. Bravo!)

I don’t personally know many “independents” or “undecideds” who are leaning toward McCain or planning to sit out the election out of Hillary pique, or bias, or genuine or professed uncertainty as to which candidate is better. If I did, I would try to avoid the easy, angry, loaded questions: “Why don’t you want to protect a woman’s right to choose?” Or “How could you think of voting for a man who’s clearly a disciple of Bush and a woman who has no more qualifications than Vanna White?” And so on. There are a million of them and—from my point of view—every one of them is pretty much justified.

But to ask these questions in a way that reveals my own bias, my intolerance, and my indignation at the ignorance of others—the notion that anyone could disagree with my unquestionable wisdom!—is to assure not an open and receptive mind but more defensiveness and indignation in return. If Democrats continue to follow this path of righteousness and blame, they will win no converts among those who still remain to be convinced.

Instead, we should be asking the non-aggressive, open-ended questions: “I understand that you are considering a vote for John McCain and Sarah Palin. I know that you pride yourself on the independence of your thinking and your fairness, so I’m really interested to know what it is about their policies that you respond to favorably.” Or, “I hear that you have hesitations about Barack Obama. I’ll admit that I myself am quite convinced, but I’m really open to hearing about the things that cause you to hesitate.”

Then, when the answers come back, to ask the next open-ended question, and the next. If you get, “I just think she’s better qualified,” you try, “Okay, I get that. But are you willing to share what you think qualifies her better than, say, Joe Biden?”

I do understand that you’re not going to get through to the great mass of malleable, unthinking minds this way. But there’s just a chance that listening rather than lecturing will help a few people to hear themselves more clearly, and to recognize the weakness in their position—if they are genuinely open to it. The other way, you’ll make no friends and influence nobody. You’ll just make them more angry, more defensive, more righteous in their views. Bill Maher is simply playing to the balcony.


John Torcello said...

Maher is anger tuned to a paycheck...

Analysis and position for what once was a niche market now turned broad-based...It doesn't work for him anymore...He hasn't found a footing in this 'new landscape' of Change and Hope that Obama and his supporters inhabit.

I, too, once enjoyed the 'over the top' ridicule of Maher...that was when I was angrier, riled up and didn't know what to do, nor did I have an understanding of what was happening to the country I lived in.

What's missing from Maher's rhetoric is a sense of compassion; even when he's 'right' on an issue now; his motivations, his credibility for making his commentary feels, to me, a little more suspect, non-authentic, a little lost and less engaged...

Ironically, I think, it may just be his admitted lack of 'faith' that makes it so difficult for him to find his new footing and move on from what worked for him in the past...

Heather said...

Bill has always been like that! Taking the high road doesn't always win, and I too do not understand Andrew Sullivan's position. Either you believe in reason or you don't.