Are we there yet?

101_0049So yes, back in Qatar, teaching more kids to debate. Teaching here is brilliant. The kids are usually really excited to learn and because of that it’s easy to have fun with them. This week we were working out how much the students understand about how debate works and although there is quite a variety of levels, they all have a basic grounding. More than that though, I can see them really pushing themselves to speak better, or know more, or challenge their received wisdom. I was also struck when teaching how rarely we all seem to do that about certain ideas.

I was trying to explain how each ideology, be it religious or political or patriotic, within its own community, has a set of beliefs that go largely unquestioned or unchallenged. When speaking to an audience it is helpful to know what those beliefs are because it will help you to know what they might or might not find convincing. It is also helpful to know that what is ‘unquestioned/ ‘right’ varies within and between audiences.
To be honest, its part of my difficulty with academia. The paradox that to try to say anything one has to recognize that anywhere you start from is both arbitrary and challengeable. To defend whatever my belief might be I have to start from a premise, which, often, can itself be challenged. I know I’m a debater, and that makes almost everyone groan, the idea that everything is debatable. But the thing is, I keep coming back to this wall. I decided to call it faith, and I’m not sure if I mean in a religious way, or if its even possible to sort in that manner. What I mean when I say ‘faith’ is that starting point, the one where you don’t question beyond it. You are comfortable saying ‘I’m going to start here’ and maybe you can justify why that spot and not this, and maybe you can’t, but it seems most logical to you, or you just feel that is the spot. For some people it might be the right to property, for some it might be the right to free speech, to some it might a right to social equality, for some it might be divine right. My point is that if we really examine ourselves, we all have core fundamental beliefs and they all come from somewhere. In academia you have to choose and then justify why that spot (which makes sense I just find very difficult because there is never an end).

In debate you kind of have to agree either to a premise upon which to debate, or a debate about which premise to take (its pretty hard to do both at once). Debate communities kind of develop their own accepted premises (a process I think is so subtle it’s really interesting). The thing I am most impressed with about these kids, and a lot of the other debaters I’ve seen is their ability to balance their personal beliefs, and faith and the premises required by the activity we do. I’m terrible at it, and seem to regularly forget what exactly it is that I believe and only know what I’m currently arguing. These kids however are able to speak my language, and yet be true to their own. Its really challenging trying to honor that and teach then what I know, but its also inspiring because I wish I was half as smart at their age.

Second big epiphany of teaching: Today I was talking to a student about the ice cream cart. Some of you will know that this is my favorite analogy ever in regard to voter preferences and voter preference shaping. (I can point you to the book if you are interested) The basic idea is that if you think of a political spectrum as a long beach then it makes sense that the most people would be congregated at the middle (all parking being equal of course). An ice cream vendor, in order to be nearest the most numbers of customers will place their cart closer to the middle. The idea is that those at the far end of the beach, without other carts nearby will make the trek closer to the middle of the beach as there is no other option for a tasty cold treat. Parties and candidates therefore make a determination about how close to the middle of the beach, relative to their political beliefs they can afford to be before apathy sets in and the people at the end of the beach choose to just eat the half melted smoothie they have in the cooler (i.e. not vote at all). Those who are politically engaged, having no other option will move towards the centre rather than be shut out of the political process completely. If, however, a party can drag a whole spectrum closer to their ideology the middle of beach moves closer to their own outliers. (See Thatcher in 1983/1984)

The 2008 election was interesting in the Democratic Primary because to a certain extent it was exactly this dilemma. Obama placed his ice cream stand closer to the Left end of the beach than the current DNC membership, betting (rightly) that the numbers of disaffected voters he could get to come back and buy ice cream would be more than Clinton could get from the middle. In doing so, he opened up the beach again and effectively made the potential selling area longer. The difficulty is that there was a group of Republicans who no way, no how, were going to get closer to the middle and refused the spectrum as a whole moving. The Republican party we see now is the ice cream stand torn between those in the middle who have a better chance of getting extra votes lost in the Democrat’s move left, and the very vocal group who keep promising that if they move their ice cream stand farther Right there will be more people lining up to buy. The real issue is that what’s happening is the two parties are getting pulled farther apart to appeal to their bases which then makes any hope for governance moot. Its actually a fairly clear representation of the current political sociology of the US.

Democratic compromise comes from coming to the middle, but in order to get enough votes it is necessary to move farther and farther to the edge. FPP (first past the post) makes it almost impossible for a third, middle party to emerge (as with the Lib Dems) and even if they do our governance structure is such that they end up pretty much having to choose which way they will throw their lot so even the middle voters get pulled to one end or the other.

As long as we treat politics as a football match, with whoever gets the most points wins and decides on dinner, and as long as our social complexities continue to increase we will have these problems and the juxtaposition between the two guarantees things will get worse. The other alternative is to change the system somehow completely, either socially or politically, but how is that even possible from within this dynamic, especially given how dysfunctional it is? (see last post, and I’m coming back to it again)

Perhaps this is all obvious to everyone already, and I’m just repeating what we all already know, but I did do a handy-dandy little chart below (a little proud) that might make what I’m trying to say more clear and you could show your friends at dinner parties.

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