Saturday, 8 May 2010

Argument is good

The leaders' debates confirmed how much most people dislike argument. The little approval worms that tracked the audiences' responses always headed downwards when hammer and tongs were produced. 'Argument' appears to have taken on some of the unseemly connotations of 'row'. I've seen it reported that this dislike of argument is particularly strong when the politicians are perceived to be arguing 'for the sake of it'.

But arguing for the sake of it is the main way policies are examined and tested in our adversarial political system. Oppositions have a duty to oppose, as the old political saw has it. The idea is that it's only through rigorous questioning that truths will be revealed and propositions tested.

It's a mode of enquiry that's deeply engrained in English life. Our court system, for instance, is based around adversarially competing positions between which a jury (or a judge) is required to choose. But I don't think people complain about that - it's seen as a fair way to get to the bottom of things, even though everyone knows that the barristers are engaging in what is something of a charade.

Avoiding 'pointless' argument seems on the face of it very reasonable, not to say rational. But I favour our adversarial approach. Experience tells me - along with philosophers of the Open Society - that it's always better to debate openly and vigorously an issue before deciding the best path. It makes it more likely that good objections or better alternatives will be brought to light. And sometimes debate needs to be stimulated artificially, by someone playing devil's advocate.

This issue provides another instance of how the British constitution's seeming irrationalities contain deeper wisdoms. 'Ya boo' politics serves a purpose and, if the election result does bring forth constitutional change, we should be wary of shallow rationalisations.

14 comments:

Brit said...

Yes to all that, but people are pretty well attuned to the difference between genuine disagreement (which should be argued vigorously), and emopty point-scoring. Paxman-style one-note aggression has been bad for political discourse. Might post on that.

Gaw said...

One man's scoring of an empty point is another's justifiable nailing.

Regards interviewing, I prefer Jon Snow's civil but insistent approach. Actually, Paxo hasn't been the same since Cameron showed his workings a few year's ago.

The worst thing for political discourse in recent years has been the increase in organised and blatant lying on the part of politicians. I often think interviewers are too reticent in calling them out on this.

malty said...

It is interesting to observe how other nationalities interact. Some years ago whilst negotiating with Poles, on their patch, I was involved in what I thought was a real old fashioned ding dong, everyone talking at once, apparently oblivious to the other point of view, raised voices, gesticulating, spluttering and endless. When I suggested to the gorgeous Iwona that I would perhaps step outside until the argument was over her response was "argument, what argument?"
As the marvellous Da Mosto demonstrated in his TV series just add in some Georgio Armani and you have the Ities.
It was ever the lot of the English to consider heated argument as strictly non u, the prerogative of the lower orders.
I speak of Da Mosto in glowing terms purely in self defence, any criticism of said pizza scoffer would have Frau Malty chasing me round the kitchen with two bricks in her hands.

Brit, Paxo was comprehensively put in his place by D Owen last night.

Francis Sedgemore said...

With all due respect, Gareth, one could argue that talk of the British constitution's irrationalities containing "deeper wisdoms" is itself a shallow rationalisation.

Robust debate is certainly preferable to cuddly consensus in which the real issues are avoided, but rigorous adversarial argument is not the same as the ‘ya boo’ politics we see so often in the House of Commons. Theatrical farce is best kept in the West End, to be consumed by gullible and deep-pocketed tourists.

Brit said...

Yes I saw that Malty.

Gaw - got a link for more on Cameron exposing Paxman?

malty said...

Hilarious comment on a blog this morning "Gordon hasn't got a Clegg to stand on"

Gaw said...

Malty: I missed that Da Mosto programme (in fact I wasn't really aware of it). I must try to find it on the wotsit. My family have often argued in heated fashion but with no hard feelings (or not many - in fact, scratch that).

Francis: The mysteries of the British Constitution must have something to do with a lack of fascism and communism in the British body politic. They must also take substantial credit for a great deal of civil peace and progress. People have thought the whole racket irrational since Rousseau and before. They may be right - but it's not unreasonable. And history is its justification.

To improve debate in the Commons we need to make members more independent of party. That's where the problem lies, not in a need for a more consensual politics, which is code for a conspiracy of politicians perpetrated on their electors.

BTW theatre is inseparable from politics regardless of what the Frankfurt School might think. Best to channel the theatrics into a forum where people, policies and ideas are challenged.

Brit: Will get back to you.

Gaw said...

Brit: It was during the 2005 Tory leadership election:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/player/nol/newsid_4440000/newsid_4447400/4447480.stm?bw=nb&mp=wm#

Gaw said...

Cameron tries to get a Clegg over?

Francis Sedgemore said...

On Radio 4's Any Questions yesterday the panel members were asked, with only the merest trace of irony from Mr Dimblebore, "Who should Nick Clegg get into bed with?". Not one of the fules had the wit to reply: "Miriam Gonzalez Durantez!".

Gaw said...

At least it was Dimblebore minor. I forget, is the British constitutional convention that he will inherit his older brother's ceremonial position during General Elections? I believe the official title is Grand Poo-Bah of the Closet, an hereditary office of the Crown held by the Dimbleby family since Sir Roderick D'Imbillby first came over all superior in the 14th century.

Peter said...

one could argue that talk of the British constitution's irrationalities containing "deeper wisdoms" is itself a shallow rationalisation.

Or perhaps a very deep example of Gaw's brilliant irrationalism?

As with sports, argument is good provided it is supervised by a strong referee who loves the game.

zmkc said...

Malty's mention of David Owen reminds me that there are promotional posters in the windows of the university opposite the Australian High Commission in London. They show ex-students and what they have achieved after leaving - so there is 'Michael Ondaatje - novelist' and 'George Jones - microbiologist', 'Fred Smith - discoverer of the Tetse fly' and 'Jack Spaniel - International Expert on the Law of the Sea' (yes, these last three are made up because I can't remember the real ones, but you get the picture). Anyway then there is David Owen and what he's achieved: David Owen - Lord Owen, it reads. Apparently it is enough that he is just himself; we stand in awe.

Gaw said...

Peter: Crumbs - thank you. Having had a very poor Speaker for a number of years is a problem. I wish we could get rid of the current blighter.

z: Yes, I've seen those - in the window of King's College on the Strand. I think the Lord Doctor was a medical student at whichever hospital now has an academic relationship with Kings. It may therefore be a bit of a swiz to have him there in the first place.