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Standard hang-ups foil urban debate

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By The Staff

People are masters at drawing opposite “facts” from the same state of affairs. An analysis of big cities illustrates how poorly the public forum performs. We see the reasons that public dialogue is so strong a barrier to creating a new idea from parts of differing ideas.

How do cities work? We see they do. Some work better than others.

Does a city work if it has good workers and poor leaders? Or do cities work better if they have top-notch leaders and leaden workers? How do things look from where you sit?

People with either view cite a time and place their view proved itself.

In such ‘n such case, poor leadership caused havoc. In so and so instance, poor work caused havoc. So what? So both reports are true and neither answers the question.

We see here a standard hang-up met in discussions. Call it Hang-Up Type 1: dialogue muddled with handpicked shreds of fact.

Or we can apply the tool of analogy. Use the line about the chicken or egg. Are good workers or good leaders needed first, to get the other one going? Does one matter more than the other for keeping things going? Or does the analogy picked do the deciding?

An analogy clarifies one idea, while confusing other ones. Meet Hang-Up Type 2: dialogue muddled with a shortcutting analogy.

To keep our favored slant on things, we angle our questions and replies. Responses depend on which different meaning of plain words we assume.

Does the working of a city or a country, for example depend on its leaders or on infrastructure? “Infrastructure” means parts such as roads and bridges; shipping ports for land, sea, and air; safe drinking water; energy resources; safe medical resources; the rule of law; and workers with all needed skills and motivation.

The parts listed are fitting and fair. Webster’s Dictionary says “infrastructure” is “the underlying foundation or basic framework (as of an organization or a system).”

Like any idea, the listed ideas threaten some view. So erupts the battle cry against the ideas, “That’s apples and oranges!” This means, “I prefer to draw with my words, not yours.”

Words shuffle meanings. Hang-ups hide in hang-ups.

Try another analogy (Hang-Up Type 2). Does an airplane fly better with wings or an engine? Any fool ... any damn fool knows a plane needs both to fly at all. No doubt about it.

Analogy explains parts, but never the whole. So in no time, the debate wanders to who are the wings and who are engines of cities.

The “who” subject opens new doors to pull opposite “facts” from the same affairs. Think of all the conflicting factoids this brings up.

Words are like pictographs drawn in the sky with puffy clouds. The meanings constantly shift and bend in passing, making shapes we pick from. An example drifted past a moment ago.

What did you make of the word “factoid?” One image you could choose is “a small fact.”

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary gives two meanings:

 1: an invented fact believed to be true because of its appearance in print,

 2: a briefly stated and usually trivial fact.

See how the casual exchange of “fact” and “factoid” admits every shade of grayness between “truth” and “lie.” Who noticed?

That is Hang-Up Type 3: dialogue muddled with erratic shifts in word meanings.

But back to the question. How does a city work?

Try a new angle. We all know nobody knows how a city works. Nobody on earth knows how to design a city, build a city, operate a city, maintain a city, or repair a city. Yet cities exist and they operate.

Like all debate, this thought is entirely words inside our heads. The chief word is “nobody.” If it means “no one person alone,” the fact claimed is crystal clear truth.

But, what if “nobody” shifts its meaning to “no contingent of people?” A hard fact flits to nonsense. Barricades are built of ideas as plain as “nobody knows.”     

There you have it. Dialogue says a little about cities. The real value is learning the exotic ways of public dialogue.

We see how crippled is the forum for getting clear thoughts across. It is a system of eager failings, some conscious, many unconscious.

Any remedy begins with attention to how raggedly we cut out ideas.

John Bartlit is with New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air & Water