Friday, April 28, 2006

 

Posting about Politics

Somewhat inexorably, I find myself drawn to blogging about political subjects, which is always a little bit dangerous if it isn't handled with restraint and respect. It's so easy to be drawn into posturing and grandstanding, which is why I thought it would probably be useful at the outset to lay down some ground rules for myself when writing about such things, both for my own benefit and so that everyone else can see where I'm coming from.

If there is one thing that I have learned in all of my time at Oxford, it is that, no matter how sure I am of my arguments, my facts, my analysis, and my sources, I am never, ever, ever right. This thought would be somewhat disheartening, were it not attached to a broader realisation that no-one else is ever right, either. Even leaving aside the rather terrifying thought that even the fundamental building blocks of political argument - "facts" or events - are often open to debate in and of themselves, we cannot escape the conclusion that every single person will approach any given political situation through the prism of their own knowledge melded to their own experience. No-one knows everything, which means that, invariably, there are facts that are relevant to an analysis which are not brought into consideration; furthermore, in order to decide relevance, people will filter the facts that they do know so as to arrive at a coherent analysis. This can be done by accident, it can be done unconsciously (or subconsciously), or it can be done deliberately in order to help the construction of an argument. More perniciously still, even arguments which utilise all the available facts and do not omit facts which are inconvenient can never aspire to the status of truth, because in order to fully explain an event, sequence of events, or policy, it is necessary to have an understanding of the rationales of the chief actors involved in making the decisions surrounding that event or policy - which means a knowledge of the facts that they had when making their decisions, and the personality and experience that led them to interpret those facts in the way that they did. Such knowledge, necessarily, is impossible to obtain, meaning that no analysis could possibly ever capture the truth - the best that can be hoped for is the closest approximation. Complicating the situation further is the fact that truly dispassionate analysis on the part of the analyser is also impossible: as individuals, we are presented with facts, and we mould those facts into coherent theories only through the prism of our own experience. It is possible for two different people to construct entirely different explanations out of identical sets of facts.

Of course, this is all something of an exaggeration - if it were impossible to explain events in the past to an adequate level, no-one would ever try to - but the basic point that I am making is this: there is no such thing as a fact in political analysis; there is only an opinion. There is no such thing as a right argument. It does not quite follow from this that there is no such thing as a wrong argument, either; but we should just bear in mind that any and all arguments, however compelling and plausible, will necessarily never really capture the truth of the situation that they intend to explain. Intelligent people can reasonably come to different conclusions without one of them being wrong.

It follows from all of this that all of the arguments that I may make here are probably wrong, in the end, and I would therefore really encourage anyone who disagrees with me to post a comment to say why; lively debate, after all, is one of the most precious things in any society. I would encourage anyone else (and, it goes without saying, myself) to also bear this in mind when making arguments: getting angry about an argument, being rude, and resorting to making outrageous statements in order to infuriate your opponent and provoke him/her into abandoning a superior position (or abandoning the argument altogether) are never conducive to a decent debate. Sophistry and virtuosity in oratory or writing style are, similarly, distinguishable from correct arguments, and should be regarded as such: clarity is the ultimate virtue in argument, in my opinion. Never be afraid to ask precisely what it is that your opponent means if they have been unclear, or to point out that an assertion is unsupported by evidence or logic.

Lastly, never be afraid to concede if you realise that you have lost. After all, at the end of the day, none of us are ever right! I very much hope that any lapses on my part in adhering to these self-imposed guidelines will be swiftly pointed out, so that I might correct them.

And so, having laboriously drawn up the ground rules, let the arguments begin! Tomorrow, that is. Right now I have to get Julia a birthday present and carry on with my revision notes on Locarno and revisionism in Weimar Germany. So, tomorrow: the impossible geopolitical situation of contemporary America. Stay tuned.

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