Wednesday, September 14, 2011

That guy

Matt Yglesias may be the patron saint of 4:17 AM, but it sounds like he's also kind of obnoxious to hang out with:
[If you want to advance progressive causes] be personally annoying about your political views when they’re relevant to your interactions in everyday life. I, being a jerk, will absolutely not allow someone to make a remark about the high prices, crowding, and mediocrity of DC bars without subjecting them to a discourse about the DC liquor licensing regime.
I think Matt's trying to be funny and self-aware when he references his own jerkiness, but no, that actually sounds seriously annoying. We've all been there: you're at the bar, it's Friday night, you want to hang out and have a beer and make funny jokes, but no, "that guy" is there, and "that guy" wants to talk about licensing laws/strict constructionism/trademark law/monetary policy. Everyone just wants him to go away or shut up or chill out or something, but he won't. He's got an opinion, by god, and you're going to hear it.

The dilemma posed by "that guy" might seem minor and personal, but it does raise a broader question for politicized individuals of all stripes: how does someone import his politics into his social life without actually destroying his social life? Nobody likes having other people's opinions rubbed in their face. So how do you make your ideas known and understood without also making friends and acquaintances feel like they're under attack?

Now, obviously, this isn't a problem for me, because all my friends read this blog (a statement necessarily true because its contrapositive is true: if you don't read this blog, you're not my friend). But most people don't write a blog. They don't have access to public forums. They don't go to class. And they'd prefer to spend their free time having pleasant social interactions and not giving lectures on licensing regimes. So how do these people balance the competing interests of "spreading their political values" and "not acting like a tool"?

Facebook gets us halfway there, because Facebook lets us have political debates in full view of our acquaintances without actually engaging our acquaintances in said debate. Everyone knows that debates in Facebook aren't actually about convincing the other side; they're about convincing the onlookers. But even on Facebook, aggressive political proselytization will eventually backfire. Carry it too far, and suddenly you're "that guy on Facebook," the one who will step in to unrelated threads to correct the slightest ideological heresy with 48 carefully written replies. You can, of course, be courteous in your disagreement, but it doesn't really help: the only thing worse than being endlessly opinionated is being endlessly opinionated and dull.

Small wonder, then, that most people prefer to remain outwardly agnostic about politics. On the individual level, the cost-benefit analysis unmistakably favors the taciturn: it isn't worth burning social bridges to promote some sort of nebulous national political agenda. But that's a problem for national political agendas, particularly the ones that have the advantage of being demonstrably correct. The faithful don't want to go out and convert the unconvinced, so everyone just bounces around discovering ideas on their own. Or more often, not.

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