The political conventions for both parties have now been completed, but not without their share of controversy, distasteful commentary, and plain fabrication. There is always a certain air of bloodlust at party conventions, but the tide seemed to be a particularly strong hue of crimson this year. While there is a lot of content that can be discussed, and improved upon here, I will be focusing on a more narrow aspect of these events: the use of grief, death, and tribalism to garner political support.
There are a few ways I’m going to look at this, starting with the simplest. The question to answer here, is “What are the costs and benefits of political discourse of this manner, and are there any obviously better improvements to be made?”. I will give three different views from which to analyze the idea. The first, is relatively straightforward. Are the speakers at these events made better or worse off as a result? The second and third are more complex, and deeply intertwined. Respectively they are, “How does political discourse of this manner change the way information is valued and weighed in decision making in society?”, and “What is the impact of discourse of this manner on the identity groups they are relating to?”. In the interest of keeping these relatively short, this will be a three part series, going into each topic in a separate post.
I’ll begin with the speakers themselves. This is an interesting question, and has a few different levels of reasoning. The process of grieving is a complex one, and people experience it in different ways. For some people, quiet contemplation is no doubt a better remedy than angry speech, though the opposite would hold true for others. The simplest solution for this question revolves around the option that they could have chosen not to speak. If we assume rationality, we can only conclude that these speakers would have chosen not to speak if it would have made them worse off, so they must have been made better off because of it. I would argue that this is probably the case, but, we have to be careful here about the cases in which behavior is rational.
I need to go into a brief aside here on what exactly it means to be rational. The most basic definition for rationality, is that are preferences are transitive, and complete. Transitivity means, that if someone prefers pizza to carrots, and they also prefer carrots to pineapple, then they must prefer pizza to pineapple. Completeness means that given two preferences, A, and B, a person prefers A to B, prefers B to A, or is indifferent between them. I should note here that these are slightly more complicated when formalized, but adding that formality would really yield no benefit here and just make things more confusing to look at.
For most of the speakers at the events, it is relatively easy to make the case that they have rational preferences. They were already in the public eye, and I see no reason to believe that making a convention speech would have been a different situation. The story of Khizr Khan, however, was not large in the public eye before this convention. I don’t have all of the facts on how exactly the family was approached, or even the exact timeframe of the approach, but this seems like it may have an impact on the assumptions necessary for rational decision making. The first issue is of completeness. If the family had never thought about speaking at the DNC, then their preferences would not be complete. This is easily resolved by the fact that the DNC must have at some point asked them, adding it in to their thought processes, and making them weigh the decisions, but it poses a question. Were they better off without forming a complete preference about the matter, or worse? This is much more difficult to answer. The second question, is are preferences transitive? People have a limited ability to process information, and emotional trauma takes up a lot of our ability to process. When a new preference is added to the set, a person must take time to weigh those preferences against others, and come to a logical conclusion of what they want. Well thought out preferences take some time and introspection to discover, and in this case, the assumption of rational preferences may not hold.
Overall, I’m a relatively strong believe in the ability of people to know what they want, and be rational about their decisions. It is for this reason, that I believe the logic under rational preferences is more likely to hold. That being said, I would be careful about making any absolute declarations in this matter, as the assumptions needed to justify this may not apply to short time frames, and decisions people have previously not even considered. I should also point out that I don’t even know if these preferences were considered or not beforehand. It’s very possible that all of these people had at some point prior thought about speaking at a party convention. The answer to whether or not the speakers are better off as a result in my view would be: maybe, but probably yes.
This is the end of part one. It was a relatively small, but non-trivial component to a broader discussion about issues of political rhetoric. When examining any potential way of doing things, one must be careful to examine the net effects on all parties involved. From the pure perspective of the speakers, if behavior is rational, then their choices reveal that speaking was at least as good for them as not speaking, and thus can conclude a net positive effect. These assumptions must be taken with scrutiny however, particularly for emotional topics and short windows of time for which to make a decision.