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Having an Argument

Sunday 20th June 2010

This is something which really annoys me, which I’ve noticed relatively frequently recently, and I’m wondering whether it’s just me who feels like this.

Right. So I generally enjoy arguing about things. I like having an opinion on something – be it politics, religion, motorsport, whatever – and listening to the opinions of others and generally discussing them, whether we hold the same viewpoint or not. It’s a satisfying experience, because it makes me look at my own thoughts more closely, and it obviously opens my eyes to other perspectives. This sort of analysis either leads to me reinforcing my initial opinion, or changing my mind partially or even completely. Either way I enjoy this because it broadens the way I view that subject.

I like to think that I am fairly logical in forming opinions. Whether or not that is fair to say is for other people to judge, but I like to think that it is. I find that I don’t come to a conclusion about something until I really feel as if I know a decent amount about it. I’m probably extremely pedantic about finding facts or evidence to form (or indeed judge) an opinion.

When that comes to forming opinions about things like politics, then yes I suppose to an extent that there is a certain amount of philosophy which enters into the equation. Questions about what we want to do – how we want society to be – are fundamentally philosophical. There’s not really any evidence to support the idea of freedom being good, for instance, it’s simply a philosophy which we generally find pleasing. I reckon that if you look across the political spectrum there is probably a great deal of commonality about this underlying philosophy; the real differences come from the development of political theories for building a society which delivers this, and this arena of thought is much more open to evidence. These theories are inherently testable – we can implement them and see which best deliver what we want. And in the course of human history (and especially in the last 100 years), many of these different theories have been tested to destruction and studied. So we can probably state with some confidence at this point, which political theories are most effective for delivering certain types of society.

The world is a complex place. It seems a bit simple to point that out, but I think people gloss over it sometimes. There is very rarely an unambiguous completely correct solution to something. Maybe this is something that’s been drilled into me through my engineering education; any scheme or solution has pros and cons, and the role of the engineer is to study the specific needs and to work out the solution which best balances the pros and cons to meet those needs in the most successful way. Which in most cases is really the “least worst” solution, in that almost every solution to every engineering problem is a compromise and will have downsides. It’s raw problem-solving (which is why I enjoy it) and its a way of thinking which I think is applicable to more than just purely technical problems.

So to come back to politics, I obviously have a certain opinion about which political theory is best. And by best I obviously mean that by the standards of what I think society should be like – someone who has a fundamentally different idea of this is likely to form a different opinion to me. In Britain though, I think there is probably general agreement that we want a fundamentally free and fair society. I don’t think many people have massively differing ideas of what this means, even if they disagree about what the solution should be to deliver it.

By way of example, a significant part of what I would consider to be a good solution is the idea of economic liberalism. That is, free trade in free markets. Or for want of a better word: capitalism. Now is not the time to explain the reasoning behind this, but I would say that it’s better for society if things are done in this way; if goods and services are generally provided through the market (I’m very much an Orange Book-er). And of course, the reason why I have come to this conclusion is because the evidence seems to support this (and also because I think it’s a wonderfully elegant concept). But, note the use of the word “generally”. I recognise that there are certain things that the market cannot deliver, or at least cannot (on its own) deliver fairly. And for these things, yes, we need a state.

(I intend to go into the thinking behind this in another post, so for now please don’t comment just to argue about the last paragraph!)

This is an example of what I mean about things requiring relatively complex solutions. I don’t think that my opinions tend to be straightforward “this is best”; generally I think that I recognise that many solutions are imperfect. But I find that when I try to explain what I think, occasionally people just ignore much of this and instead take what I say to an over-simplistic extreme. For some people, if I try to explain the belief in free markets, they seem to automatically assume that I’m some anarcho-capitalist nutjob who thinks that the state should be dismantled. They don’t seem to understand the nuance of the argument. Indeed in some cases, people don’t even seem willing to understand it…

The question is: has anyone else had this experience? I’m wondering whether it’s my fault for not communicating clearly enough; but then I’ve expressed the same opinion to different people, and some seem to understand what I’m saying (even if they disagree), whereas others seem to almost caricature what I say and leap to a simplistic conclusion about what I mean without really understanding my argument. And actually, from looking at comments on the various politics-y blogs that I follow, it does seem to be a fairly common occurrence on some of them. But I just don’t get it.

Whatever, it frustrates me massively when people choose to disagree with something before they’ve bothered to properly understand the argument they’re disagreeing with. It’s supremely arrogant.

Posted at 3:07 am | Posted In: PoliticsRantStuff Tagged:

11 Comments:

Lucy

Sunday 20th June 2010, 3:24 pm

Agreed. Not necessarily on the paragraph-that-you-don’t-want-people-to-comment on, but on the general principle of the post.

“Liberalism in its most general form appeals to reason and that conservatism appeals to emotion.” Discuss?

Andy

Sunday 20th June 2010, 4:21 pm

I’ve had to decide to stop having political arguments with my friends because they’ve just stopped being productive, and mostly end up with me being yelled at whenever I express a fairly left-wing opinion. So yeh, that’s irritating.

I wouldn’t say i’m a capitalist. A free-marketeer, probably, because central economic planning demonstrably doesn’t work, but the accumulation of wealth seems to me to be a fairly negative thing in our society.

I think a fairly good barometer is one’s response to visiting Monaco; I was repulsed by the ostentatious wealth on display. Other people I know wanted to emulate it!

Andy

Sunday 20th June 2010, 4:24 pm

P.S. This isn’t a comment on you because you don’t do it, but I often hear people using the phrase “loony left” and it really, really gets on my nerves. Describing people as loony because they dare to suggest that the world can be run a different way to the way it is now is unhelpful.

So yes, people using straw men really gets on my nerves.

Dickie

Tuesday 22nd June 2010, 8:31 pm

In case it’s not obvious, this post wasn’t aimed at anyone who comments here frequently, or whose blogs I comment on frequently. It stems from other conversations…

@Lucy:
Hmm, interesting idea. It’s probably true to an extent; people are generally resistant to change unless there’s a clear reason for it.

@Andy:
I find it hard to resist arguing though :-P And I dunno how I’d react to Monaco. TBH I’m enough of an F1 junkie that I’d probably be distracted by that (“ooh, that’s where such-and-such happened”). Although I don’t particularly have a problem with massive wealth accumulation, as long as that isn’t to the detriment of other people (e.g. an oil company which neglects basic common-sense safety precautions in favour of cutting costs/drilling quicker, and ends up pissing oil out into the ocean for months… I can see the argument for some sort of oversight to stop that happening)

Yeah, “loony left”-style comments are infuriating. It seems to be a common problem though; as I mentioned in the post, mention free markets to some people on the left (and FWIW I hate the left-right categorisation. It’s so horribly flawed it’s a joke) and they seem to jump to the conclusion that you’re all for screwing the poor or some such nonsense. People seem so ready to use straw men that it’s ridiculous; it’s staggering how often I’ve had to say to someone “oh but that’s not what I was arguing at all”. I can understand it happening occasionally, but with some people it’s almost guaranteed.

Some people don’t really seem to know how to deal with me in arguments, and I don’t know why. I’m think I’m confident about putting forward my opinion, and I feel that is a perfectly acceptable thing to do. That said I’m also pretty impatient, so if people start annoying me I probably do get sarcastic/facetious after a while (and I will admit that there are some people who I don’t mind winding up slightly. I’m sure you can work out which of our mutual friends I have in mind :P). I can’t remember ever criticising or getting annoyed at someone simply for disagreeing with me though, because as you say, it’s rather unhelpful. My rather blunt manner probably doesn’t help sometimes though…

Jenny

Thursday 24th June 2010, 6:20 pm

I think people oversimplify an argument they hear either because they can’t understand its nuances or because they literally do just want a good barney and therefore nuance doesn’t really matter to them at that point. It’s very annoying, I agree.

I’m currently wavering hugely on politics. I have no idea where I stand. The conservative dream – all schoolboys in shorts and Just William hats, churches, women who ‘do’ the flowers, and everything run by lovely maternal volunteers with navy blue shoes, as well as a healthy smattering of yurts, bicycles, green living and family holidays in cultural hotspots – is obviously very appealing. Emotionally I am seriously leftie – EVERYBODY SHOULD HAVE EVERYTHING THEY NEED. Ideologically I am probably mentally feminist too. Logically I think proper full-on socialism is pretty much impossible and furthermore I hate the structures and strictures of old-fashioned communism. So I suppose I come down somewhere in the middle, I don’t know. I don’t place myself with any of hte political parties currently on offer, but probably sit somewhere in the centre on most things. As for reactions to extreme wealth – usually I find it’s accompanied by extreme poor taste, at least in places like Monaco, but then I seem to equate poor taste with very expensive and very expensive with flashing yer cash, so I don’t know, perhaps my disgust at extreme wealth is just a form of new-money snobbery. I can’t promise that if I were to acquire lots of money I would definitely give lots of it to charity or whatever – and I think I’d only have the eright to be disgusted at extreme wealth if I really would redistribute my own wealth if I had it. I think, really, human beings are thus too selfish to be truly socialist.

From what I understand I beleive largely in the free market economy but would also favour a fairly heavy state which could provide for the worse off, educate our children, care for our sick and our elderly and protect us when things go wrong in a way which really wasn’t inferior to what one could get privately.

I’ve gone swinging off on goodness knows what kinds of tangents here.

Oh, yeah, I’ve found that – as a girl – certain guys, having established that I’m a bit lefty and a bit feminist, then simplify what they hear of my opinions and play devils advocate to rile me, argue with me, in a completely non-sensical and entirely unmeant way, basically as a form of flirtation. Which is all well and good but I always hope they don’t think I *am* that feminist, socialist etc because, well, I’m not, I’m pretty middle of the road, and I can’t help thinking that being any more left leaning than I am is perhaps a little naive, sadly – and I don’t want to seem naive.

Anyway, yeah, that’s another reason why people are not willing to understand the nuance of ones argument. But not a reason you’re necessarily likely to have come across – I don’t think it happens the other way round, or at elast I don’t do it, but I’m also not a guy so how would I know?

Dickie

Thursday 24th June 2010, 7:19 pm

I think sometimes it’s not just that someone can’t understand nuances, but that they just won’t. Like the guys you mention who choose to oversimplify what you say because they reckon you’re a lefty feminist. Very annoying.

“Emotionally I am seriously leftie – EVERYBODY SHOULD HAVE EVERYTHING THEY NEED. Ideologically I am probably mentally feminist too. Logically I think proper full-on socialism is pretty much impossible and furthermore I hate the structures and strictures of old-fashioned communism.”

I pretty much agree :-)

“From what I understand I beleive largely in the free market economy but would also favour a fairly heavy state which could provide for the worse off, educate our children, care for our sick and our elderly and protect us when things go wrong in a way which really wasn’t inferior to what one could get privately.”

I’ve already said that I want to write on this sort of subject in another post, but for now I’ll say that I don’t think we need a “heavy” state to do all these things. By no means do I think that we can purely rely on markets for all of these, but I think we can have a relatively small state which does/helps all these things, and does them well. Indeed, the previous government tended towards heaviness, but it didn’t seem to make much progress in doing many of these things…

Oh, and:
“As for reactions to extreme wealth – usually I find it’s accompanied by extreme poor taste, at least in places like Monaco”

As far as I understand it, Monaco is tasteful and elegant in comparison to the Middle East. Some of the things they spend money on there are horribly tasteless (gold-plated Bugattis and the like) :P

Flix

Friday 25th June 2010, 7:50 am

Don’t discuss Politics, Religion or Money.

Sometimes, I find, that some people hold very strong beliefs with no doubt very solid evidence and reasoning behind holding those opinions, yet because they believe beyond questionable doubt that they are correct, cannot possibly entertain the idea that someone else could equally be entitled to the completely opposite viewpoint, because, like you say, the world is a complex place and THERE ARE NO RIGHT ANSWERS.

I do enjoy a good arguement, though. I’m masochistic like that.

Flix

Friday 25th June 2010, 7:51 am

Even if I can’t spell argument.

Andy

Monday 5th July 2010, 1:55 am

@Flix For some things there definitely are right answers. Anybody that wants to disagree with me about e to the power of i times pi being equal to -1 is just wrong, for instance. And will get bricked in the face if they persist in arguing the point.

It is true that there are some questions to which the answer is fundamentally unobservable (e.g. The existence of God) and some positions which cannot be practically experimented upon (e.g. Politics) and so to some extent those points must be adhered to axiomatically, which makes arguing about them a fundamentally pointless endeavour.

Dickie

Monday 5th July 2010, 2:59 am

“some positions which cannot be practically experimented upon (e.g. Politics)”

Fair point, but even with politics we can use experience and history in order to inform opinion. Of course this doesn’t constitute 100% reliable evidence as we would seek to find in any scientific field, but it’s still worth something. I think with politics there are some unambiguously wrong answers, precious few (if any!) unambiguously correct answers, and a whole host of other answers of which some are more correct than others.

I really don’t think arguing about politics is a pointless endeavour, as long as both sides are reasonable. Lots of people seem to get too emotionally invested in an ideology/party/whatever to do that, and it’s pretty bizarre and ultimately unhelpful.

Phill

Monday 5th July 2010, 10:30 am

Too many people see things in black and white, and arguments are the perfect means to bring that to the fore. I, for instance, am not a big fan of capitalism. Ultimately, any voicing of this means that I am an anarchist or a hippie or a number of other stereotypes, despite the fact that I’ve tried to point out the fact that I can’t see a feasible way to exist today without it, knowing I can’t survive without it, and the fact that I… well, I like stuff. People just like to pigeon-hole (As a music reviewer I do it myself all the bloody time) and will happily take someone who says “I feel sorry for the local independent stores now the supermegamall is open” and bundle them alongside those who throw bricks through McDonalds windows and spraypaint kids Happymeals.

This happens more with the ‘bigger’ subjects; politics, religion, warfare etc. The latter, for instance, seems to be a subject for which there is absolutely NO gray area whatsoever. Either it was WRONG or it was RIGHT. You either think the former, that it was illegal and an injustice, every soldier loves torturing people with bags over their heads and you’re probably a sickeningly liberal hippie do-gooder, or you think its great because you have an eagle tattoo, love fighting people who aren’t Caucasian and can’t wait until ‘our boys’ get stuck into Iran. Agreeing with some points and disagreeing with others, having feelings somewhere inbetween, it just isn’t possible. Apparently.
Oh, yes – My all time favourite problem with arguments – one I saw far too much of at uni – is the seeming over-willingness to compare people to Hitler. Really now, stop it.

But yeah, nuances are too rarely noticed when it comes to arguments, especially if the subject is on a ‘bigger’ topic, as people are generally too unwilling to accept a viewpoint other than their own. I’m willing to accept other people’s points of view and question/change my mind if their argument brings up something I hadn’t thought of (and there are often things I have not thought of). Even if that viewpoint goes against what I believe, if it’s delivered well (ie, stop shouting i’m standing right next to you) I might not change my mind but I won’t spout my viewpoint in that way that has to be right simply because I’m saying it louder than you put your case. rah rah rah. Ugh.

A great problem I have – especially with politics-related subjects – is that I acknowledge that I do not know everything. This is something many people with all manner of differing views have in common, they just refuse to admit it because they need to prove that they’re the bestestest Tory/Labour/Lib/Catholic/Capitalist/Feminist/Pro-war/pro-life/pro-James Corden/whatever supporter ever. Many arguments will dissolve into raised voices and blinkered attitudes in fear of the opposing viewpoint encroaching an area in which the other party doesn’t fully understand. But it is also supremely arrogant. Arguing against brick walls just seems so pointless to me, but then even I have some things I won’t waver on, but then anyone who thinks James Corden should be on telly is probably worse than Hitler anyway.

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