How We Communicate With Abominable Ideas

The Dutch elections are to be held on the 15th March and Wilders may just get the majority of seats. He won’t be leader, but the tension of rising numbers willing to side with him means I’ve been thinking about the way that we as a society debate reprehensible ideas. We tend to feel the theatre of open debate will help, when all that happens is people like Wilders exploit these gaps. Later when opponents concede or ape particular points in a vote chasing effort he can present it as his whole position being secretly correct. It’s an effective manipulation.

There is a weird tendency I’ve seen where someone will argue against a position not understanding why the other person holds it. For instance an individual might argue for “shutting all borders to Muslims because they are terrorists”, and their opponent will argue “we can’t turn away refugees fleeing from wars caused by terrorists”. This is not going to sway anyone who thinks that every Muslim is a problem because it does not get to the root of their argument which is the intertwining of Islam and terrorism. We frame the fault in their statement as a lack of compassion, when really it is a faulty risk analysis and/or pure racist and xenophobic bigotry.

Coupled with this is the inclination to point out that a position is discriminatory, which doesn’t make much difference if discrimination was the point of the speech in the first place. If people are not starting with the same base ideals as us chatting to them as if they are doesn’t magically change their opinion. Nowadays we see how these linguistic tick boxes are used against us, to re-frame arguments so that a racist can slip in ‘human biodiversity’ in lieu of ‘segregation’ and ‘racial hierarchy’.

Wilders himself frequently uses LGBTQ rights to batter the idea of Dutch Muslims, a trick he borrowed from his populist predecessor Pim Fortyn. Lamenting that discrimination against Muslims is wrong when they are arguing that Muslims are the cause of discrimination, or pretending that a nod to our conventions means they are on the right track, demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding. They are dragging the discussion over to their frame so that we are left picking holes out of politeness rather than opposing the concept as a whole.

Defending principles on the grounds that they are important enough to be re-articulated without concession is essential, as is not discarding values just because your opponent discards them in an attempt to win them over (I’m looking at you people suddenly now against freedom of movement). Yet having these pointless back-and-forth “debates” in public is just giving these groups the chances they require if they are to expand.

Perhaps the key flaw in a lot of liberal thinking is the idea that concepts we find repulsive will remain fringe if we allow the ideologies to talk themselves out of existence. It assumes others will find what we perceive to be self-evident truths and so these concepts will never gain wider traction. Yet even if that may be the case sometimes, in situations where you risk severe losses to bigoted ideas why even take the risk of exposing more people to them?

Why allow debates about the rights of individuals to be reopened under the guise of public speech when we have already settled the answer? Ultimately it ends up undermining your point by sending a signal that certain principles are negotiable. Giving Fatima an advocate, or letting her speak for herself, in a public debate about whether she should have rights is an abhorrent position to wilfully put anyone in.

Sometimes I suspect that this problematic style of argument develops because our first introduction to political discussions are often with family, where certain conventions of respect are expected to be followed. It’s much politer in conversation to say “I see your point, but here’s the issue” than “That is a ghastly opinion to hold and I think that if you genuinely hold it you are an awful person.” Breaking out from the instinctive response to keep everyone on friendly terms takes work.

In other words proper resistance is the idea that we can’t just get along with everyone, and that there are a fair amount of people who are irredeemably awful. No public institution or talk show is required to host those whose views effectively portray a number of the population as subhuman. Debates are for whether pineapple on pizza is an abomination, or the best way to approach economic policy, and politeness in political talk is for great-aunts. When it comes to people with ideas like Wilders we should not give them the same consideration.

 

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Snap View: #BattleForNumber10

I spent this morning sitting down and watching #BattleForNumber10 (because hashtags are so in this season). The joy of not having a TV is being unable to watch things live so instead of joining in the conversation yesterday evening I woke up today, cooked up some pasta, got some work out of the way, then sat down and watched it with a cup of tea.

It’s the first of these leadership debates, and it was certainly interesting watching. I cheered at the aggressive return of Paxman who clearly has been relishing the opportunity to verbally maul people for a while. I noted the more aggressive approach Burley seemed to have taken with Miliband, and definitely concluded that – at least now – I would not make a good impartial moderator.

And I agree with a lot of the analysis – Cameron would probably have fairer slightly better in a head-to-head, but I think that honestly Cameron would have fairer even better without any debates. He has to argue he’ll make things better despite having had an opportunity to do so for the past five years, whilst Miliband’s giant problem is not looking like a leader. The more chances you give him to be on T.V then more chances he gets to break that perspective. I’m not against this – I am no Tory – but as someone interested in tactics it must suck to go into televised debates knowing that in the last election they drove you into a coalition government. In my view the broadcast kept Cameron at a fairly neutral position; if you thought he was terrible you still did, if you thought he was a statesman you still did. He came across as a politician, including the politician’s tendency to try and weasel out of answers, but Miliband came across as engaging, quite frankly spoken, and passionate.

And yet after looking around online I was surprised to see there were a fair amount of people for whom the conclusion was the inverse. I suppose that in the end we strive to find points that shore up our own bias so I must have been picking up things that supported my preferred end result. Perhaps I was being a tad unfair in my assessment – maybe I was just more resistant to Burley going after the left-wing choice (although I don’t think so – I may need to rewatch) and giving Miliband too much of a pass on his lack of stats.

When it comes to elections though, I’m not really the vote that matters. Sure I do vote, but at the end of the day I am one of those people that will tend to vote for defined side of the political spectrum. I’m not going to vote right-wing and likely never will. I’m not part of that swath of uncommitted middle ground voters who could tip either way. So long as I am mobilised to go to the polls the main parties likely won’t waste their time courting me. That’s why I enjoy watching these debates – I get a good sense of what politician’s think the middle ground cares about, and then I get to pretend that I could be better (I totally could).

As it stands we’re looking at another coalition being formed in the days after May 7th. Hopefully the upcoming debates will tilt it to the side that I would prefer, and will shore up a more rational approach to hot button topics such as immigration which are increasingly becoming hysterical. Still, we’ve got a few more weeks to go before then.