Monday, 14 January 2019

It's always your political opponents engaging in a culture war

The art of modern political discourse is to treat whatever you issue you care about as either the status quo, or what would be considered the status quo if everyone thought about the issue for more than two seconds. Then any and all criticism can be framed as the opponents of the idea as "playing politics". This is true no matter if your ideas are on the left or right, authoritarian or libertarian, populist or contrarian, etc.

In reality, a culture war always has 2 (or more) sides, and each person engaging in it is playing politics. We have a "my side" bias that makes our own proposition seem inherently reasonable and thus beyond reproach. Those who oppose it are then unreasonable by definition, so they are the ones playing politics to us.

This issue came up in Australian politics with our current Prime Minister Scott Morrison using Twitter to announce that those moving citizenship ceremonies away from Australia Day are playing politics, so the Federal government is mandating that they must be held on Australia Day.

How he could think that he's not playing politics is beyond me, except in the context of the rhetorical device used above. It's playing politics in exactly the same way as those councils that moved the date - it's just that he's on the opposite side of the issue.

There are ways to depoliticise the issue. The most obvious would be to stay out of it and leave it as a matter for local politics. They are elected officials, after all, and the ballot box is as an effective tool on the local level as it is on the federal. So if the voters are genuinely concerned about a change in date, they can do something about it.

Another strategy would be to pick an arbitrary date that takes the issue away from its context. This move is more political than staying out of it, but it takes it away from the cultural narratives that the issue is being fought over and this avoids taking a stand on the issue.

But I'd wager Morrison doesn't want to avoid taking a stand. He knows full well what's at stake, and thus is taking a side that will serve him politically. And that should be expected of any politician savvy enough to be elected as leader of his party.

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.