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Town hall disruptions

Dr. Jeffrey Parks writes that it’s wrong to label the wild health-care protesters at recent town halls “un-American.” But they are unworthy of taking part in the debate. “A participant in the public debate of an issue of this magnitude has an obligation to arrive at the debate well-informed,” he writes.

Dr. Jeffery Parks is a board certified general surgeon working in Cleveland who writes regularly at Buckeye Surgeon.

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These town hall meetings are really quite cringe inducing. It has to be hard for some of these senators to keep a straight face during the Q&A sessions. (Socialism like in Russia????) I know I’m going to come off sounding like an intellectual elitist after this post, but, my god, I’m appalled by the crudeness, belligerence, and overall ignorance coming from the health reform protestors. I mean why are they all shouting? Why are they buying into this b.s. about “death panels” and “pulling the plug on granny”? And the incoherence of some of the rants (I don’t want the federal government getting involved in my Medicare!) is just stupefying.

Health care reform, we can all agree, is an issue of paramount importance currently. We all have a stake in it. Our current market-based system is costly, inefficient, and excludes large swaths of the population from its benefits. It is hard for me to comprehend how one could take the stance that no changes are necessary. There is undeniable room for improvement. What ought to be debated is the extent to which change should be implemented. But what we’re seeing at these town hall meetings (which are just overflowing with average American citizens, genuinely interested in and concerned with the perceived proposals) is not a legitimate form of rational discourse. Nancy Pelosi phrased it poorly (i.e. the protestors being Un-American) but she has a point; public debate requires more from participants than the shouting of slogans and propaganda. A participant in the public debate of an issue of this magnitude has an obligation to arrive at the debate well-informed. Raising your voice, hurling invectives, and spouting nonsense really don’t cut it as legitimate forms of opposition. This isn’t the Jerry Springer Show.

I’ve been reading a little bit of the American pragmatist Sidney Hook lately. He has an essay called “The Ethics of Controversy” in which he articulates a set of rules for rational democratic discourse:

1) Nothing and no one is immune from criticism.
2) Everyone involved in a controversy has an intellectual responsibility to inform himself of the available facts.
3) Criticism should be directed first to policies, and against persons only when they are responsible for policies, and against their motives or purposes only when there is some independent evidence of their character.
4) Because certain words are legally permissible, they are not therefore morally permissible.
5) Before impugning an opponent’s motives, even when they legitimately may be impugned, answer his arguments.
6) Do not treat an opponent of a policy as if he were therefore a personal enemy of the country or a concealed enemy of democracy.
7) Since a good cause may be defended by bad arguments, after answering the bad arguments for another’s position present positive evidence for your own.
8) Do not hesitate to admit lack of knowledge or to suspend judgment if evidence is not decisive either way.
9) Only in pure logic and mathematics, not in human affairs, can one demonstrate that something is strictly impossible. Because something is logically possible, it is not therefore probable. “It is not impossible” is a preface to an irrelevant statement about human affairs. The question is always one of the balance of probabilities. And the evidence for probabilities must include more than abstract possibilities.
10) The cardinal sin, when we are looking for truth of fact or wisdom of policy, is refusal to discuss, or action which blocks discussion.

The boldface font is mine. Nancy Pelosi is wrong about these people being Un-American. Unfortunately, they represent something that is an all too frequent quintessentially American archetype; the uninformed, strident, unwavering voice of righteous protest. Learning about the complexities of major societal problems is never easy. And the Obama Administration certainly needs to do a better job of articulating what exactly it is they mean by “reform”. But showing up at these meetings just to yell and disrupt rational discourse is bush league. It may not be Un-American, but it’s certainly anti-democratic…

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