Posts Tagged ‘debate’

I’ve written before that I genuinely think that in the UK, we have the least competent politicians we’ve been unfortunate enough to have for generations. That’s leaving aside their incompetence as ministers or shadow ministers. I mean as politicians, as people whose job it is to change people’s opinions via persuading you that their policies are the right ones. Persuading you that the other lot’s policies are wrong is obviously part of it, but they don’t do that either. Instead they insult and bluster and scare and hyperbolise… and lie. They use phrases like “endangering national security” without explaining why, relying upon the phrase itself to work. The Conservatives attack Labour because they think that’s what works, and recent evidence says it does. Labour attack the Conservatives for the same reasons and again, no-one within the party leadership – especially now – seems to think there’s another option.   Scare stories are the tactic of choice for all, while accuracy, truth and genuine argument are starving away in the attic.  

Persuasion through argument hasn’t been a necessary skill for a UK politician for some time. The theatre of Prime Minister’s Questions is supposed to be the outlier, the theatrical part of politics. But it’s become the example to which politicians aspire in general. Insulting your political opponent is as least if not more important than making your own point. And this has taken over British politics to the extent that I’m pretty convinced that the forthcoming debate on the UK’s EU membership will simply beabout who can scare the public more. After all, that’s what the few general elections have been about, and it’s damaged political discourse in this country to an astonishing and lamentable degree.

It’s impossible for some on the left to utter the word “Tory…” without appending the word “…scum”, and for others, that ranks as a positive tribute compared to their words of choice. And heaven forbid anyone changes their mind on a subject: they’re immediately regarded as sell-outs or even traitors to the cause. 

There  are lots of causes for this, I think; some are ages old, some are relatively new. Politices, as my friend Mitch Benn has said, has become a competitive sport, just as singing became one when Mariah Carey made it her business to get twelve syllables out of the word ‘love’ and X-Factor-Got-Talent commercialised karaoke.   

Jeremy Paxman, in one of the best points he made in his wonderful book The Political Animal said that only in politics and religion is it seen as a positive virtue not to have changed your mind in twenty years. (He doesn’t think that’s a coincidence, by the way, and I’m coming around to his point of view.)

And, sadly, I’m no better than most. A long time ago I helped run a UK Politics message board on CompuServe. What has struck me forcefully in recent times is that it’s incredibly rare that I’ve actually changed my mind on a subject due solely to the quality of debate and the arguments expressed.

The only two that spring to mind are the Monarchy in the UK and the Death Penalty, both of which I used to be in favour of, and both of which I am, at the very least, now ambivalent about.

As far as the Monarchy goes, I’ve come to the conclusion that it should be abolished simply because it doesn’t make sense. Sure you need a Head of State, but I have become entirely unconvinced as to the merits and advantages of someone having that role purely as an accident of birth. As I’m getting older, I’m finding that I’m less convinced by things that fail the “it just doesn’t make sense” question. I’m not sure whether that indicates I’m getting more sensible, more skeptical or just older.

As for the death penalty, I used to be a fervent believer in it. I’m less so now. I’m still kind of, maybe, sort of in favour of it in theory… but absolutely, fervently, overwhelmingly against it in practice. There have simply been far too many miscarriages of justice for me to ever believe that a sentence of death should be carried out. The argument that ‘well, we know this one did the murders”, doesn’t work for me, since sooner or later, inevitably, exactly the same thing will be said about someone who later turned out to be not guilty.

But neither of those are simple things; both are important and complex enough to require thought; they’re not the only issues; in fact, one could and should argue that in the UK, an hereditary monarchy and an abolished death penalty  are the least of the things that should concern anyone. But they serve to illustrate that nothing is simple, and simple solutions are just that: simple solutions for simple people. 

Political discourse should be complicated; it should be nuanced. It shouldn’t be reduced to who can scare the public the most. But that’s what it’s become. You don’t like the idea of renewing Trident, then you’re a danger to national security! You do like it? You’re a warmonger! You don’t want welfare reform? You’ll bankrupt the country! You do want welfare reform? You want poor people to die!

I’ve got my political opinions; of course I have. I just wish when politicians – and politically interested people – tell me I’m wrong, they tried to persuade me with argument rather than insult, and with debate instead of disdain.

In just over an hour, the only leaders’ debate including the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister of this general election campaign will take place. It’ll be a two hour fiasco, with only four actual questions asked. To have a debate with only four questions, in a world growing ever more complex, reduces the spectacle from merely useless to utterly absurd. Expectation management is already taking place, with Cameron’s obvious nervousness last week – when facing Jeremy Paxman – being held up by the Tories as no more than to be expected; I’m guessing that way, when he does a perfectly serviceable job tonight, it’ll be held up as him winning the thing no matter what actually happens.

 

 Indeed, the Daily Telegraph‘s cartoonist Matt pretty much predicted the result five years ago with the attached cartoon. Labour supporters will be saying Miliband won, Tories Cameron, the SNP Sturgeon and so on through the ranks. And, as the old saw has it about war, truth will be the first casualty. Unless one of them throws up on stage from nerves or swears at the Prime Minister (and come on, the temptation’s got to be there), everyone will claim victory, no one will admit failure and no-one will learn anything. To be fair, that’s going to be the overwhelming feeling most people will get from tonight: no-one’s going to learn anything. It’s highly unlikely, to put it mildly, that any of the party’s leaders are going to unveil a new policy, because they’ll all be worried that someone else is going to and the other leader’s policy will reduce the effect of their own. So all we’re going to see if squabbling about previously announced policies that may or may not end up in the manifesto. A reminder that we haven’t even seen the manifestos yet, despite politcians of all stripes promising that this or that policy will be in there.

Common wisdom appears to suggest that Cameron will have the easiest ride tonight, as the left will be splintered between Plaid Cymru, The Greens, the SNP and, of course, Labour, whereas Cameron can only be attacked from the right by Nigel Farage. And, though it’s always risky to predict anything, I think Farage is going to lose tonight, and lose big. 

I don’t know about anything else though; how much attention will anyone really be paying to either Plaid Cymru when the overwhelming majority of people can’t vote for a PC candidate, and no matter how well they do, they’re not going to hold the balance of power after the election. Now are the greens, but anyone interested in politics will be watching to see how Natalie Bennett holds up in the cut-and-thrust, sorry… chaos of tonight.

I’ll be very interested to see how Nicola Sturgeon does. A cartoon did the rounds earlier today. This one:

  

I was fascinated to get a reply after I retweeded the cartoon, suggesting that the taking a pop at Nicola Sturgeon for merely being a proxy for Alex Salmond was sexist. Fascinated and astonished. I don’t think such a view is sexist in the slightest; I genuinely think that whoever took over as leader of the SNP after Salmond would face the same charge, especially since Salmond himself has hardly gone out of his way to rebut it. (I also think that if there was sexism involved, then the leaders of the the Greens and Plaid Cymru would have been similarly attacked. And they haven’t been. No-one knows enough about Leanne Wood, although there was a very good profile of her on Radio 4 last weekend, and Natalie Bennett’s disaster of an interview was a disaster no matter her sex; male politicians have had equally bad interviews and they get as much grief.

But as far as the SNP goes, and Nicola Sturgeon. I think it’s more a deep seated mistrust of Salmond, a man who’s never been known for willingly playing second fiddle in anyone’s orchestra, let alone the party to which he’s devoted his political career. He was the leader of the party for over twenty years, in two stints. And, of course there’s his malleable view on political pledges. When he left office in 2000, and was succeeded by John Swinney, he said that he would not seek to return as leader. Of course, four years later, he did precisely that, so he’s got form. I think that Salmond’s ‘power behind the throne’ attitude and behaviour in the past and especially since he stepped down this time is what’s led to the suspicion and/or fervent belief that he’ll change his mind and run for the leadership again.

Ah well, we shall see what we shall see. 

Enjoy the fiasco tonight. Just don’t think it’ll change anything; it’ll only confirm pre-existing loyalties and already expressed views. The spin doctors have already written tomorrow’s headlines and it’s just a matter of who’s lazy enough to just print them without correcting the typos.

It’s tempting to generalise about things. It’s comforting, even. Also, dangerous as hell.

All MPs are on the take. All benefits claimants are scroungers. Furthermore, all MPs who wrongly claimed expenses were doing so fraudulently, and all mistakes on benefits claims are made by those favourite scapegoats of the right wing press: the benefit cheat.

Or: MPs followed the law, in most cases, and those that weren’t charged with criminal offences made honest mistakes, paid back any money mistakenly claimed and are paragons of virtue. Similarly, it’s perfectly understandable that with the confusing and inefficient benefits system, claimants sometimes make errors, so there’s never ever anyone cheating on their benefits.

All of the above is pure, unfettered, unmitigated crap.

And yet, depending upon the political view held by an observer (hardly an unbiased observer in most cases) one of more of the above generalisations, at least one of the above extreme positions, is actually believed.

Let’s have some more. All Tories are scum, not a caring one among the bastards. And all Lib Dems are spineless immoral toerags who wouldn’t know a principle if it jumped up and bit them. And all socialists want control of your lives, 99% tax rates and can’t be trusted to manage a shop, let alone an economy. Oh, and all UKIP supporters are racists, while all Green party supporters are naiveté personified .

Again, all pure unfettered, unmitigated crap.

Oh, but let’s not limit it to domestic politics. By no means; all American right wingers are misogynistic racist thugs, and all Democrats can’t be trusted with the nation’s security. Oh, and every Christian is either a nonce or is covering up for them, you can’t trust Jews because of course they support Israel unquestionably and all Moslems want you dead.

Once again, pure unfettered, unmitigated crap.

It’s truly astonishing to me how many otherwise sensible people take an example, often take more than one example to be fair, and extrapolate those to the entire population under discussion.

I’d love to be able to say that it’s only the extreme cases that rely upon generalisations, but it’s not; it’s prevalent in discussion to the point that it’s rare to engage in conversation where at least one of the arguments doesn’t rest upon a generalisation. I can’t think how many debates I’ve had with people over the past couple of years where the extreme position has been the fundamental basis of their position. And it’s been even worse the past couple of weeks, what with Israel’s military attack on Gaza, after and during which anyone who doesn’t call for the destruction of Israel apparently supports baby killing, and those who don’t agree with the military action are apparently ok with all the Jews being killed. (c.f. unmitigated crap, above.)

(Yes, I know, I know – I’ve said there may well be a full post on that, and there still may be. I’ve drafted, redrafted, written and rewritten the post a half dozen times and I’m still unsure whether or not I’ll post it.)

The extreme positions taken by some, by many online it sometimes seems, bothers me. And it worries me. Because… and this is where I tread carefully, you end up with the “not ALL men” responses.

“Not ALL men” is a comment that gets thrown back at anyone who tries to explain why women feel afraid of men; I’ve felt the impulse to respond that way myself and it’s only really because I have intelligent – and understanding – women friends who’ve explained to me in detail why such a comment is not only inappropriate but wildly so.

But yeah, I sometimes want to respond “not ALL Tories” are unfeeling, uncaring loathesome specimens, “not ALL Lib Dems” are craven cowards, “not ALL American right wingers” decry equal marriage. It’s hard not to, especially when you’re one of the people (none of the above in this paragraph, to be fair) who’s being unfairly traduced.

Whatever happened to nuance? Have we taken the twenty-four hour news cycle to which we demand politicians answer and appropriated it to ourselves? OK, I accept that in the most part, people want simple yes/no solutions to complicated problems. In short, people want to know who’s the goodie and who’s the baddie.

Well, people are neither the one nor the other.

In that wonderful TV programme, The West Wing, at one point, the President says:

Every once in a while, every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts.

Thing is, even then, even when body counts are involved, it’s usually too simple to say there’s an absolute right or an absolute wrong.

And for the rest of the time, why the hell not accept that you just might not know enough to talk knowledgeably about a subject? In fact, if you’re sure there is an absolute right, or an equally absolute wrong, and that your generalising merely emphasises that fact, you’ve just proved to me that you don’t know enough.

So either learn some more about it or sit in the corner and let the grown ups talk for a while.

Everyone has their stock of favourite phrases; like Pavlov’s canines, all it takes is the right circumstances, in most cases an appropriate feed line, and you’ll once again trot out the expected response.

I once worked with a man who, whenever he heard the word ‘assumption’, would respond with “assumption is the mother of all fuckups.” It might be true, but the 874th repetition tended to take the gloss off its importance.

I’m as guilty as anyone, and I know I’m guilty of it, which reduces my culpability not one iota.

All anyone has to say about comics is that a company doesn’t care about the quality of their comics, or that they’ve treated a creator badly, and I’ll respond once again with the reminder that comic book companies aren’t in business to make comic books, they’re in business to make money.

Yes, I know – trite. But true.

Anyone who’s worked for me over the years will have heard the following often enough:

The one thing I hate above all other things is people thinking we’re stupid. Either as a company, a department, or as individuals. The only thing worse than that… is us justifying that belief.



That one applies in life as well.

Doesn’t matter whether it’s what i call a stupid comic or stupid movie (one where the makers of either have assumed the reader/watcher is stupid) or a stupid argument, comprised of lazy thinking.

I was once called a “corporate whore”.

Seriously.

I was at a party, and someone was banging on about how any executive of a company was, by virtue of helping to run the company, inevitably selling themselves purely for the rewards offered, and was prepared to do anything to retain those rewards, inevitably unfairly exploiting those who worked (the implication being the staff were the only people who did honest work) for the company along the way.

And, driving over to friends last night, I found myself getting angry at this kind of lazy thinking again while listening to a talk radio station.

Now I know that there are numbered rules of the Internet, but I’ve come to think there are only two that really matter: (1) Wil Wheaton’s “Don’t be a dick.” and (2) “Never read the comments.”

I should apply the same to talk radio, but I find it fascinating and when it comes to serious issues, as a general rule LBC is better than most radio stations for screening out the idiots and letting intelligent debate occur.

Last night, the presenter was discussing the Occupy movement. I’m genuinely unsure where I stand on the issue. Many of the central arguments I sympathise with, but some of the solutions proposed are irritating, non-practical and, frankly, ignorant. On both sides, I hasten to add.

It’s as ignorant, in my opinion, to suggest that everyone attending and camping out at the various Occupy protests worldwide is a professional protester (thank you, Alan Sugar) or just there because it’s fun as it is to suggest that everyone working for a bank or financial institution is equally (or at all) responsible for the financial crisis.

However, what really upset me was the statement made by two callers, suggesting that if you didn’t agree with their viewpoint, it was because you’d been “brainwashed”.

To think this, or even worse, actually believe it, is lazy thinking at its worst.

It’s insulting to others and to yourself, as the inevitable consequence is that you can cheerfully abdicate the responsibility for arguing your case, and while it may – you think – provide a conclusive point, all their correspondent ends up believing is that you’ve run out of arguments.

Patriotism may be the last refuge of the scoundrel, as Samuel Johnson is reputed to have said. But an accusation of “you don’t agree with me because you’ve been brainwashed” isn’t the last resort of the brainless, just the lazy.

And it assumes that I’m too stupid to argue against it.

As I said earlier, I hate it when people believe I’m stupid.

I just hope I don’t justify the belief too often.