Oct 27, 2011

Occupier Outreach

Reason.tv has up today a video of Peter Schiff at the Occupy Wall Street rally with a camera and a microphone engaging people there in debate. It's almost 20 minutes long, but I watched the whole thing. There's a lot I could say, with a bullet point list of time codes and comments, but the number one feeling that ran throughout the whole thing for me was this: debate is difficult.

What do I mean by that? Let's analyze my statement closer, in the context of this video and the OWS movement as a whole.

Mr. Schiff was, as he says, "trying to just have a conversation" with the folks attending. Several times he mentions the "bad rap" (I’m paraphrasing) they've gotten in the media for being a wild bunch of socialists waving their copies of Das Kapital and wearing their Che Guevara shirts, and how he wanted to see what they were really like. His intentions seem pretty good to me. He spends a lot of time doing quick back and forth with various people, and he's a fairly passionate supporter of capitalism, but his passion pales to some of the folks' energy.

Debate is what he sought, in addition to his own curiosity of seeing what all the fuss was about. He wanted to get a feel for the sentiments there, maybe engage some of them and help them see that he was mostly on their side, that the discussion isn't (or shouldn't) so much be about the failure of capitalism but the failure of crony capitalism (or crapitalism). But the principles of Austrian-style economics, the evidence to support it, and other aspects of the theory are difficult to dilute into snappy responses. Debate is difficult.

I want to stress that it is no fault or stupidity of the folks there, not at all. It just simply is difficult material to conceptualize, understand, and discuss, particularly in such a brief time span. People can spend their entire lives studying and talking about it. Economics as a whole is an incredibly complex and difficult subject area.

A noble effort, Mr. Schiff, but I almost wonder if it's really worth it. There are two strong factors working against you: the subject matter is difficult and begs for lots more time to develop arguments and ideas to be expressed; and the innate convictions of those that are more interested in talking at you than listening to what you have to say. So he's trying to debate bookcase-spanning ideas in mere seconds with people who for the most part don't care. And so it mostly fails to resonate with any of them, I think.

There is a fine distinction here, though. I've advocated in the past for strong opinions weakly held, so I do not fault at all their passion for their arguments. On the contrary, I encourage it. But I think that some of them are holding on too tightly. They get worked up in front of the camera, and that's mostly understandable, but few of them seem willing to hear his side or even entertain the possibility that they are mistaken.

Too often I heard people resorting to petty attacks (one accuses him of being a fool, another says he's making the other 1% look bad, his facts are wrong, etc.). It's far too tempting given the constraints of just a few seconds to use it to make a quick statement that you know they cannot adequately defend. Not because you are right, but because it would take them ten or a hundred times longer to refute your statement than it does for you to make it. It's cheap and it's dishonest.

I don't want to paint the lot of them as such, though. I will only accuse those I actually saw and heard of this, though I maintain that I get a sense that it probably applies to a lot of them. But I could be wrong. My knuckles are not white.

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