Sunday, 6 January 2019

The hills to die on

Thanks to social media, we now know everyone's opinion about virtually everything. And because of social media, the ease at which the right of reply can be exercised means we can nonchalantly stand a stand when needed. Or even just take a stand on whatever issue we feel like.

Politics, in this sense, means we're always on. There's nothing left on earth these days that can't be made political. Even when there's not an explicit link, omission or the identity of the user can turn something political.

The obvious problem with this is that we're often stretched in terms of our knowledge and abilities to make meaningful contributions to the dialogue. So we tend to be dismissive of ideas entirely, either relying on moral judgements, or going after some hidden political allegiance instead. Bad ideas don't get destroyed, but the people espousing bad ideas get shouted down - just like what happens to people espousing good ideas, or seemingly uncontroversial ideas too.

The more I think about it, what stands out for me is just how willing people are to take each of these topics, which they scarcely know anything about, as being worth standing up for. Part of this is the moral content, where it's good to stand up for moral ideals. But I'm sceptical of how far one can stretch their moral beliefs to be able to give resolute defences. I think the way social media plays out is evidence that it can't. We're far too sure of our positions given how little we can explore them in any detail.

To an extent, we all need to choose our battles. Morality makes for the illusion of expertise, which leaves us ill-equipped when encountering rival beliefs. To be able to defend a position adequately requires a deep knowledge of a topic, and we as individuals can only dedicate ourselves to learning a few things in our lifetimes - and even then most of us only will have enough knowledge to speak basically.

Take a non-controversial moral case: racism. Racism is bad, and ought to be opposed - a sentiment all but racists will get behind. Sometimes people accidentally say racist things without realising, and sometimes racist tropes get perpetuated. And many acts of racism are invisible to us, so it makes the problem of eliminating racism all the more difficult.

What most of us are able to do is call out explicit racism, which is fairly easily recognised. But most of us would be at a total loss on how to deal with issues like immigration, where racism may play a role in some people's opinions, but isn't really solved simply by shouting down an opinion as "racist". Indeed, this can backfire as can be seen around the world with populist anti-immigration politicians who are gaining sizeable voting numbers by capitalising on the gap between the anti-immigration sentiment and a coherent debate on the various issues.

(Of course some people are anti-immigration for racist reasons. And some people have implicit racial biases in theirs, even if they aren't explicit. The point isn't to deny that there's a link between racism and anti-immigration sentiment, but that the immigration debate isn't well served by simply pointing at race.)

Most of us aren't immigration experts, nor really know how to manage all the aspects of a society that immigration touches. We aren't experts on running an economy, planning a city, managing resources, etc. We resort to vapid slogans and moral condemnations of our ideological opposition because that's all we know how to do. To dismiss the whole debate as racist (or to see the debate in terms of race) means that the debate is largely irrelevant to the political reality.

Similarly for other issues that race touches on. How many of us could talk efficacy of workplace laws, or of the legality of hate speech, or of methods to deal with differing incarceration rates, de facto segregation in housing and schools, education gaps, inequality of opportunity, healthcare outcomes, etc.? Even if we know the extent of the problems, few of us can say anything meaningful in schools.

If a racist started attacking affirmative action, for example, how many of proponents of affirmative action could defend it in anything other than talking points? Not many, I'm betting, but I've seen the very idea of saying there's that affirmative action may be up for debate dismissed as proving racism on the part of the questioner.

Perhaps part of it is the rise of punditry in the 24 hour news cycle, where expertise has been replaced with opinion, and feeling strongly on a topic counts more than a deep expertise on the topic. When there are so many things in society worth feeling strongly about, how do we adequately defend all of them? The reality is that we can't. What we can do, however:

  1. We need to pick our battles. We can't defend everything, so we shouldn't try. More often than not, we look the fools and we don't serve the issues well.
  2. We need to give the benefit of the doubt. Not everything is an instance of the thing we care about, and certainly not worth defending to the death.
  3. We need to live life beyond politics. Most of what we do with most we do it with most of the time is not political. Making battles worth sacrificing friendships or relationships seems self-destructive to no clear degree. No-one thinks wholly like we do, so conflict is inevitable the more issues we take stands over.
  4. We need to learn more. We should know a topic in depth, which should be done in a rigorous nonpartisan way. Learn the science, where the science exists, and read diverging opinions in the field.
  5. We need to listen to our opponents. We should be able to state an opponent's case better than they can, including what positives their view has, and be open to their views changing our minds. Only that way can we begin to have a dialogue.

Tuesday, 25 December 2018

"Culture wars" are lazy politics

As far as the moral norms of both major parties in Australian politics goes, they're both middle of the road. Sure, there's the occasional far right winger in the Liberal Party that rallies against the prevailing norm, but politicians tend to know which way the moral winds are blowing and pander to it. Labor isn't a very progressive party in that respect, much to the chagrin of progressive voters, as they need to keep a broad appeal.

So when our Prime Minister says a vote for Labor is a vote for "extreme gender policies", he's lying. And such a comment works for the very reason you won't see Labor supporting anything resembling an "extreme gender policy" - because Labor needs to keep a broad appeal. It's the same reason why Labor opposed gay marriage when there wasn't much public support, then advocated for it when there was.

Which brings me to my point: this sort of rhetoric really brings down democratic discourse. That instead of debating the issues that tend to divide the left and right, we're instead fixating on a virtually non-existent issue that has little relevance to the direction of the country for the next 3 years.

It's lazy politics because of how easy it is up get people riled up over it despite how little relevance it has. The 8 people who take any mention of gender to mean it's denying their right to exist (it doesn't - no party has an "execution of intersex and transgender people" platform), and the True Believers who think that gender was defined the moment God fashioned a penis from dirt and a vagina from a rib, are going to make noise that exacerbates a non-issue into the public consciousness.

There's plenty of issues separating the major parties; issues that are relevant to the functioning of government and ought to decide the election. There are meaningful differences in funding public education and healthcare, differences in workplace laws and taxation, differences in environmental policy, etc. And even in issues where the major parties don't differ much (immigration, national security, food security, trade, indigenous issues, etc.) there's plenty of issues that ought to be debated publicly. But "culture wars" issues are playing into conspiracy theories on the fringes of politics and pretending they are relevant or a defining point of difference. It's cheap point scoring over nothing.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

We are all partisan hacks now

When I was younger, I thought the internet would improve political discourse, as it would take away the stranglehold of the mainstream media. Information wouldn't be filtered through a few agenda-laden voices, but there would be more of a focus on facts.

It's fair to say that I was extremely naive, and spectacularly wrong. Instead, as we all have come to learn, the internet has exacerbated the polemic nature in us and pushed us into even more tribal positions to the point we don't even feel the need to engage in substantive rhetoric.

But the problem is worse than that. We can now see others as mere mouthpieces of certain political rhetoric. In other words, they are biased, and all we need to do is point out how they are biased in order to dismiss them.

I've seen right wingers use the accusation of being left wing against fellow right wingers, and left wingers do the same against left wingers. The accusation is often confusing because those criticisms are often valid, but their use is disappointing because it shows how lazy we've become in our political rhetoric. We don't feel the need to address the substance, but immediately and indiscriminately try to cast the criticisms as extensions of a political identity we don't share.

It doesn't matter why we hold the positions we do. It doesn't matter about the underlying substance. It doesn't even matter where we actually sit on the political spectrum. When we are online, we are avatars of whatever politician / pundit / celebrity and need to be attacked as such.

Let's face it, we don't know nor need to know anything anymore. We don't need to have informed opinions, or be able to think through an issue. What matters is which side of politics closest resembles the view being put forward, and we need to remind ourselves that we are mere puppets of those views with no values or beliefs of our own.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Try putting politics you disagree with in terms of positive values

If you can't articulate a positive account of a given political belief in terms of positive values, you haven't understood that belief.

With the erosion of political discourse online, it's often hard to get away from the partisan rhetoric and inevitable strawmanning. We have our own political narratives for our own beliefs, bolstered by a community of like-minded individuals, yet we are isolating ourselves from other groups who respond to different values and narratives.

The more I saw this rhetoric online, the less I could figure out who it's for. It seems more about fostering in-group solidarity than an attempt to win in a democracy. And in a democracy, persuasion is the path to adoption.

Gross caricatures are not at all persuasive to those who are caricatured, and may only be effective on the neutral if it can capture an actionable value. More specifically, if you don't capture the correct values that are in play, you are showing yourself as an unreliable critic. You are a partisan hack repeating your tribe's talking points instead of offering a penetrating criticism.

Beliefs are rooted in values, and one reason why anyone claiming to be the moral majority or the 99% is greatly overestimating how widespread their particular values are. Yet both the moral majority movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement had values they believed in and believed were worth fighting for. To address either is to address those underlying values, however divergent they are from your own.

If you cannot see the focus on family, on love, on valuing social order, on the important of doing right morally, then the moral majority seems like a bible-thumping persecution-happy hate group. Similarly, if you can't see the commitment to justice, to rooting out corruption and greed, to caring for the basic welfare of people, then OWS seems like a bunch of self-righteous anti-capitalists who know nothing of how the world works demanding a socialist revolution.

People tend to centre their politics around beliefs that matter to them, so trying to demand a political discourse that ignores that is a disaster in a democracy. It's hard to break out of our own narratives and tribal allegiances, but doing so is how political discourse can (at least partly) transcend partisan talking points because it gets to the heart of what matters to a voter. Talking about their moral failings that you perceive in their beliefs is going to be ineffective at best, and often even counterproductive.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Welfare as a stick for conservatives

Money is a necessity in society. It's our agreed upon standard for facilitating most transactions. This fact alone justifies the need for welfare, because without it people cannot function in our society.

Its necessity doesn't mean it's well catered for, however, with crackdowns frequent and even modest increases being politically untenable on either side of politics. I used to think that it was because they're an easy target - a group that can be demonised who have little recourse to fight back - but I think that explanation excludes the basic moral impulses in play. Rather the unfairness of getting something for nothing makes them an easy target.

In short, there is a tension between the necessity of welfare and the perceived unfairness of a welfare state.

People can, if they choose to, live their whole life without needing to work, which requires that others in the society do the so-called heavy lifting. The welfare rhetoric often focuses on abuse of the system for this reason, even if those abuses are rare and end up affecting those who aren't abusing the system.

This is why programs to restrict welfare to the deserving are part of populist politics, irrespective of whether it provides good societal outcomes. Drug testing welfare recipients is one policy that's expensive, counter-productive, yet gets popular support. After all, drugs are illegal, and welfare is meant to look after individuals. Cards that restrict purchases or even food stamps are another. They are the tacit recognition that welfare is necessary but that out shouldn't go beyond that.

The current contention over welfare in Australia currently is that the rate is so low that it's not even performing its necessary function. Again, for conservatives, this is a good thing because it means welfare shouldn't be relied upon, so it should only be used as a last resort. Combine this with the complaint that welfare recipients find ways to get on higher payments (such as disability pensions, which again get repeated crackdowns) or that they are supplementing their income without declaring (see: robodebt) and we've got a punitive system that makes it harder for those on welfare to survive.

Yet all these measures don't address some of the problems associated with unemployment. People in vulnerable jobs can be exploited. Long-term unemployed have weakened job prospects. There can never be full employment, and many who work now are underemployed. No amount of sticks within the welfare system are going to change that.

Instead, what is needed are practical steps to overcoming barriers for entry. There needs to be better support to get people into work, from better training, to employer incentives. These should be driven by practical results.

At the same time, we really need to change how we view welfare from a handout to the ability to participate in society. This would be more in line with the role welfare plays in a society, allowing for economic activity. Money given to welfare tends to go back into the economy, so the money isn't being lost, but encouraging economic engagement.

So when the the rate jobseekers get remains stagnant while the cost of living goes up, the outcome will be pushing more people into deeper poverty. The stick methods may be a deterrent effect for people in crappy jobs not to quit and live off welfare, but it's not going to get many people off welfare without other changes that make it easier to work. The necessary function of welfare needs to be depoliticised because of how easy it is to perceive it as a straightforward unfairness problem.