Thursday, June 10, 2010

On burning out and substantive debate.

I'm starting to get frustrated with political stuff -- again. It happens periodically, mostly when my tolerance for the random nonsense that passes for substantive debate is exceeded. I really don't think most people know what a substantive debate looks like. (That "most" is a hint I'm about to speak in broad generalities rather than universals. Be thou warned.) It's not a "substantive debate" if your concerns are primarily tribal -- that is, in drawing lines around you and people like you, in order to ward off or hinder those who aren't like you. You see this in the never-ending coalition debate, for example. When the Liberals/NDP are for it, then Liberal/NDP supporters think coalitions are great, and Conservative supporters think coalitions are evil. When the Conservatives/NDP are for it, then Conservative/NDP supporters think coalitions are great, and Liberal supporters think coalitions are evil. And around we go, swapping partners but never actually getting to the heart of the issue, namely: are coalitions actually a good idea and, if so, what do we need to do to get more of them in our government? Regardless of battle lines and partisan affiliations. You can also see this in debates about Parliamentary supremacy, Senate reform, and even the HST. Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak's position here is the most obvious example, as he criticizes the McGuinty Liberals for giving out an HST refund a year before an election, yet defends the Mike Harris Tories similarly handing out cheques to the populace before an election. Either giving tax money back is a good idea or it isn't. Or (and here we might delve into real substance), it's a good idea sometimes, but not others, based on some real and important difference between the cases. But if all you've got is "well, that was when we did it", then, really, you've got nothing.

It's also not a "substantive debate" if your concerns are primarily emotional -- that is, if you're venting or otherwise expressing what you feel. The gun registry debate is the worst recent offender on this score. For example, it's not uncommon to see supporters of the registry trying to hide behind the bodies of those poor women Marc Lepine murdered in '89. There's really no logic involved in this particular appeal; no one has presented any reason to believe that registration of his weapon would've stopped Lepine from killing (after all, his guns were bought legally). The appeal is solely to emotion -- we're supposed to feel bad about not "supporting" fourteen women who died 21 years ago. (Aside: and there's something faintly revolting about people who didn't know any of these women personally claiming that they have any genuine feelings for their deaths. It's not a real emotion, in any sense that I understand; it's a socially-manufactured attitude, a response deemed appropriate by moralists.) But, as with tribalism, these appeals to emotion are unfortunately ubiquitous: we're also supposed to "feel bad" about oil-covered birds and dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico, about public workers taking home good salaries while private workers are barely hanging on, about people who live within hearing distance of wind farms. Facts, evidence and reasons are apparently irrelevant; once somebody feels bad, we're all supposed to, and that sweeps away the actual substance.

The problem isn't something that exists solely in the minds of fairly rationalistic folks like me, though. The problem is that facts, evidence and reasons are all we've got in common. We're all members of different "tribes", and we all have different feelings in different circumstances. If that's what substantive debate boils down to -- who you side with and what you happen to feel -- then we may as well just pick up weapons and fight. Because that's pretty much where we'll end up anyway. (That, or we'll prove Hegel's (according to Marx) maxim that history repeats first as tragedy, and second as farce.)

So, how do you do the substance? It's certainly not easy, as the tendencies towards tribalism and emotionalism are deeply-rooted and, frankly, easy and often fun. I would suggest, though, that the first step is to cultivate the willingness to think a problem through, as far as it takes. There's a sense in our culture that it's possible to "over-think" a situation. This is simply wrong; it's possibly to think badly or think inappropriately or think fruitlessly, but not to think too much. So, really think your way through a problem. When it comes to political issues, this often boils down to a question of what you value. But values aren't some sort of bedrock stopping-point: values are based on something. If you value liberty, why? What's so good about liberty? If you value safety, again, why? What's so good about it? There are obvious cases where liberty seems bad, and safety as well. For the former, consider cases where my exercise of my freedom encroaches on your ability to do the same, as when I consume a resource which, since consumed, is no longer available for you. For the latter, consider cases where keeping me safe requires preventing from doing something where the risk is high but mild: that is, where there's a good chance I'll come to harm, but the harm is very small. In either case, there has to be something to be said for the whatever it is that you value, some basis it has in character or principle or consequence or something Which gives it this status.

The idea is to keep working back, questioning assumptions and systematizing positions, until you reach a point where your opponents agree with you. (I presume rational opponents; but that's usually a good working presumption, until it's proven false. Anything less is arrogance.) Once you've got that point, then you can proceed forward, back towards your desired conclusion. You may find that your desired conclusion actually doesn't follow -- in which case, you need to change something, and possibly concede the point to your opponent. You may also find that your desired conclusion does follow, and your opponent has to concede in turn. That's what a substantive debate looks like, and it's generally lacking, in Parliament, in the media, and in the blogs. Parliament and the media we can't really fix -- short of taking them over, which will take a little time -- but we can blog better.

And, if we shouldn't: why?


Ian said...

Honestly? Sometimes I'm lazy and just want to vent via blog format.

Hence: Lib/NDP coalition good! Dutch coalition with Freedom party bad (but legitimate).

Catelli said...

Heh, I blog because its the only place I can find substantive debate. Water cooler discussions and call-in radio shows depress me.

The desire for substantive debate, IMHO, is actually rare. It appears to me that the majority of people are searching for validation of pre-existing beliefs/prejudices/etc. By this logic, if it is indeed rare, that is why parliament, the media and blogs reflect the majority view of screaming and shouting about nothing.

To Ian's point, yes sometimes we just vent (I know I do) but that probably doesn't help as the irrational will seize on it as evidence.

If I am correct, why are we like that? Is it that we fear being wrong? We need to feel comfortable in our own superiority of opinion?

This might be a related point. One avenue of training the rational, is debate teams, correct? (I've never been part of a debate team.)

How are those members trained? Is it about the art of debating, or the art of discovering truth? If the former, it would reveal a process dedicated to winning as a team, and sacrificing the truth on the altar of combat. If the latter, it would be a process where both teams win, as the "truth" is discovered. (A team would have to concede the irrationality of their position, or both teams would have to work out the compromise.)

ADHR said...


To be fair, you acknowledge that's what you're doing and don't expect others to take it as substantive debate. So that I'm okay with. It's the folks who don't know what a substantive debate looks like -- and they're everywhere -- that frustrate me.


I've never been on a debate team, either. I think your first take on it is correct, in that formalized debates seem more about winning than anything else. (So, there are parallels to litigation here, as that's also about winning rather than determining substance.)

I'd also agree that there is an inherent desire to have what one believes validated by others. We're social creatures, we like to get along with others, we like to feel part of the in-crowd, and so on. That said, I do think there's also a desire to get things right -- to find the truth or the fact of the matter or what have you. So, not only to have others agree with you, but to have others agree because you're right.

I'm not sure why the latter desire's getting suppressed so badly in our culture today. I suppose it may never have been all that prominent and I'm just wrong on my history, but that's really depressing. But certainly the Victorians thought their debates were getting them closer to some shared truth.

I wonder if the blame lies with something more nebulous, like the loss of common purpose. If you genuinely believe that you're surrounded by people who you can't debate substance with, because you're somehow basically opposed to each other, then there's no need to even try. This would explain the insularity of the hard right and the hard left, as well as so-called "radical centrists". I'm not naive enough to think that there was never factionalization, particularly in politics. But it does seem that, even though, say, Douglas and Pearson disagreed with each other very significantly, they at least understood that the other was trying to achieve a similar goal, and could use that basis to talk to and negotiate with each other.

I'm not sure we have this basis any more in politics in the narrow sense (so, governmental issues), and I'm not even sure we have this basis in more broadly political issues (so, issues which involve all of us as a collective group, not necessarily government), such as climate change or the effects of wind power or the efficacy of the long gun registry. It really seems like everyone's in a different world, working towards a different goal, and there's no way of reaching someone who disagrees with you.

(Caveat, again: I speak in generalities, and there are obvious and clear exceptions.)

Catelli said...

I think you're on to something there.

I don't think we know what our common goal is anymore. Some are looking back, others are looking forward. The complexity of our society, and the world we are tied to overwhelm our abilities to rationalize it all.

This affects seemingly rational debates that fail to take in the whole picture (immigration, health care, policing, the environment). This complexity exhausts the senses, some more than others, to the tune that we are not capable of responding coherently. On a personal level, I find it hard to define some small specific instance of truth. A none-complex ideal to hold to. I try to have rational debates because it is my hobby, the one thing I truly enjoy. But if my hobby were cars, then we wouldn't ever have these conversations. Knowing myself, if that was my hobby, I'd probably consider you a left-wing kook with no grip on reality. But I'm not and I don't. ;)