Here are a few comments on a fascinating self-examination by NPR, presented as part of the excellent program “On The Media.”
(Before we begin: Note that the ideas in this blog post are intended to be politically neutral. I am commenting on how ardor at either end of the political spectrum can compromise our ability to recognize the legitimacy of politically neutral questions. As you read this post, if your blood begins to boil and you start to feel that I am your ideological enemy… hold on to that thought. You may be experiencing the very ardor-induced polarization that I am commenting on.)
Here is an audio of a story from NPR’s On The Media from 25 March 2011. The entire story is 18 minutes and 40 seconds, but the excerpt in question starts at the 3:45 mark and ends at the 6:30 mark. This post will make the most sense if you listen to that three-minute excerpt now.
The conservative critic perceived liberal bias in Michelle Norris's question--"Can the country afford that right now?"
The case be made the listener perceives bias not because Michelle Norris has a liberal slant, but because the listener has a conservative one.
Conservatives tend to believe that low business taxes are good for the country. Especially dogmatic conservatives believe that the corporate tax issue is beyond dispute, and that anyone who doubts the merits of such policies must be merely spewing liberal dogma.
Likewise, especially dogmatic liberals believe that low corporate taxes are an affront to the individual citizen and ultimately bad for the country, and that anyone who promotes low corporate taxes must be deluded or corrupt.
Fortunately, non-dogmatic liberals and non-dogmatic conservatives exist, and they can agree that the question about merits of low corporate taxes continues to deserve scrutiny. A non-dogmatic listener (of either stripe) would recognize Michelle Norris's question as legitimate.
Furthermore, the conservative listener seems to invoke a form of no-middle-ground reasoning that might be paraphrased as "if you aren't agreeing with me, then you must be disagreeing with me." The listener says (at around the 4:55 mark): "To me, it [Norris's question] sounds like the presumption that forgoing any tax revenue right now is a bad policy idea."
Why does that question sound like a presumption to the listener? I, for one, hear no such presumption in the question. Norris did not phrase the question using any manipulative double-negative constructions (e.g., "Isn't it true that the country cannot afford that right now?") Rather, Norris asked the question in a direct, straightforward way, a way that is consistent with someone who is not convinced--one way or the other--about the merits of the proposed policy.
So we have: a) a straightforward question, asked about b) a complex policy that non-dogmatic citizens recognize as worthy of debate, c) as an off-the-cuff follow-up during an interview.
It sounds to me like the listener (identified as a "life-long conservative") was biased in his assessment of the interviewer and the legitimacy of the question. And it seems that the source of that bias could be a failure to recognize that challenging questions might come from a legitimate desire to understand, rather than from the opposite end of the political spectrum, where your enemies lurk, hatching schemes to destroy the country you love.
By the way, if you asked me if the country can afford the tax policy proposed during the interview, my answer would be: "I don't know." That doesn’t mean that I haven’t decided whether I’m liberal or conservative. It just means that I’m not dogmatic. Being a knee-jerk anything is a failure of information responsibility.