To demonstrate this point, I'll take the least consequential issue I can think of: the recent NYC soda ban, in which mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to ban the sale of soda over 16 ounces in restaurants, food carts, and movie theaters. I imagined trying to explain the sheer passion behind this issue to an alien just encountering human civilization for the first time, and here's how the conversation went:
Alien: "Tell me of the troubles that plague your people."
Me: "One of our major cities is trying to ban sodas larger than a certain size."
Alien: "What is soda? A crucial nutrient? A form of currency?"
Me: "No, it's flavored sugar water."
Alien: "I see."
Me: "With bubbles, though!"
Alien: "Why did your people ban it? Was it inspiring people to do violence? Does it alter the way humans interact with each other?"
Me: "They actually didn't ban it, they're just trying to ban selling large containers of it because it's bad for you. Not, like, that bad, but it can make you fat if you drink too much of it. You can still get small- and medium-size containers of it."
Alien: "So now you must buy your sugared beverage in smaller quantities."
Me: "Well, no, there's been such a strong public outcry against it that it was struck down less than a day after it went into effect, and it might cost the mayor who proposed it his political career."
Alien: "So I gather you've solved hunger, and poverty, and senseless violence, if this is a major concern to your society."
Me: "No, we just ... really love our flavored sugar water."
Alien: "With bubbles."
Me: "See? You get it."
I'm trying to establish two things with this fictional exchange:
1. Compared to most political discussions you'll have, the soda ban is an awfully low-stakes one.
2. I can't even have a successful conversation in my own imagination.
To someone who knows nothing about the issue, it can seem extremely straightforward. Do you like soda cups so big that drinking out of them requires lifeguard supervision at all times? Opposed to the ban. Do you think Americans are basically sweaty, waddling butter vessels who deserve to have their corn syrup taken away? In favor of the ban. I'm guessing that some of you formed an opinion on this issue (and on other, more important issues) based on your gut response to the briefest of summaries published on a website whose writers are contractually obligated to make a poop joke at least once every 1,000 words.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images News/Getty Images
"I'm sick of you all being turds in my Hawaiian Punch bowl."
Fortunately, there are intelligent, thoughtful, diligent people out there who have researched the issue thoroughly and have come down both against the soda ban (it won't work, it infringes on our civil liberties) and in favor of it (visual cues regarding portion size have a huge influence on our behavior, and the threat of obesity is serious enough that we ought to be coaxed into better consumption habits).