Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Debates and Deliberations

“I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”
(Oliver Cromwell, 1650)

There is a large and very lively group among bloggers who practice what is often called “political blogging.” Those who live in the USA, where the phenomenon is particularly popular, divide themselves generally into two camps which define themselves as “Liberal” (some prefer the sobriquet “Progressive”) and “Conservative.” Many of them seem to spend a considerable amount of time reading each other’s posts, caustically commenting on them and then returning to their own blogs to write further posts which, they seem confident, will destroy the arguments made by their opponents.

John Myste, a blogger whom I have recently discovered, wrote an excellent post in which he describes the whole process very well and poses some very good questions about the point of the whole thing. As if to illustrate the argument he makes, the subsequent comments on his post seem to rapidly descend to a level of sniping over the conservative credentials of recent Republican presidents and presidential candidates in the USA. Business as usual in the trenches of ideological warfare.

The question John is asking is about what this sort of debate is supposed to achieve and his conclusion is not very much – at least if looked at from the point of view of winning over your opponent, persuading him/her to change his/her position and, ideally, accept yours. Which is, on the surface, what it would seem to be about. But, of course, this isn’t really what’s going on here at all.

John uses the analogy of the chess game, a test of analytical and intellectual strength between two opponents which results in a winner and loser. One could also use the analogy of a school or college debate where judges, following some kind of criteria, decide on a victor or victors. Even at this level, the acceptance of the verdict may become problematical since, with regard to many of the subjects debated, those judging may be open to the accusation of ideological bias. But there are no real judges in the virtual world-wide blogging web, no agreed way to determine winners and losers and so the discussions – if such they are to be called – can go on forever.

Such harmless on-line jousting is a reflection of the way we humans organise our civil society. Over the centuries, most civil units have accepted, in one form or another, a parliamentary model for deciding (or at least consulting) on the organisation of human affairs and this generally on a representative model. Despite the fact that many constitutions (particularly the older ones) make no mention of parties and factions, these seem to have emerged almost everywhere in some form or another.

Why our debates generally don’t come to agreed conclusions and why our representative assemblies seem to inevitably throw up party systems are, I believe, just two facets of the same very deep phenomenon which is, in fact, probably genetically hard-wired into us as humans; we are social animals and invariably organise ourselves into groups. On a level much deeper than the rational, we then identify with our group, give it our loyalty and automatically accord our group a default position of “rightness,” particularly when we come into contact with other groups. This frequently has little to do with a logically argued, superior rational basis for our position and is much more a reflection of our need to assume that our group is superior, better, righter than the other.

How deep our hard-wired need to regard our group as better than any other is can be seen if you look at the behaviour of two groups of monkeys meeting in a forest. From the first contact onwards there is great excitement and disquiet, shouting and screeching at each other, There is ongoing conflict between the two groups, raiding each other, mobbing of individuals or smaller groups caught outside the protective area of the larger group, attempts to kidnap females, or at least impregnate them. Only in the event of a greater common threat, like an approaching predator, do the two groups suspend their hostilities.

Among our primate cousins there are all sorts of good evolutionary reasons for this kind of behaviour. Even among our immediate pre-rational ancestors it made sense. But at the moment that development of thinking self-reflection occurred, a new factor was entered into the equation, throwing much of the evolutionary rationale into chaos. The device of the extra-terrestrial monolith, used in the first sequence (“The Dawn of Man”) of Stanley Kubrick’s and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, may be speculative science fiction, but the insight that it was the superimposition of rational thinking on primate group behaviour which led to killing and war remains, in my view, basically valid.

Our capacity for rational thinking may have led us to develop our group identification and our instincts to aggressively preserve and enlarge the areas of interests (or supposed interests) of our particular group into ever more efficient ways to defeat, dominate and destroy other groups, but, thankfully, it hasn’t stopped there. We have discovered all sorts of ways to sublimate and control our group identification and aggression. Being a supporter or fan of a sports team is one, and attendance at a major sport event, like a football game can offer cathartic satisfaction for this deep instinct we have to simply identify with our group, right or wrong. Even in this area, it sometimes escapes the ritualised control of the rules and conventions accepted to briefly explode into mob violence, and this was the case as far back as Imperial Rome where the rival supporters of different teams of charioteers (signified by colours) frequently took to the streets to beat the shit out of each other.

But even on the more “serious” political level, we have also managed to formalise and ritualise these basic aspects of fundamental group identification and aggression. Churchill once said, “It is better to jaw-jaw, than to war-war,” and this observation is a good description about what all sorts of parliaments, assemblies and councils are about.

So, rather than fight, we meet to discuss our affairs. And in these meetings, people of similar interests group together and form factions and parties. Inevitably, it seems, such parties take on a life of their own, becoming firm groups themselves, with which people identify and which command their loyalty. Once again our instincts assert themselves. Loyalty to the party frequently becomes more important than the concrete issues which led to its formation in the first place. The policies proposed by other parties must, by definition, be wrong, for they are not the policies of our party and the issues become subordinated to a competition between parties for power. This tendency is then reinforced by another very deep instinct we have; an apparent need to follow particular individuals possessed of that charismatic characteristic known as leadership, who use these structures to achieve and exercise power.

Of course, reality is much more complex and there are, luckily, countervailing tendencies to negotiate, to make compromises, to form coalitions, etc. But still, we should not underestimate the power of our visceral, instinctive tendencies to identify with our group, beyond any considerations of reason and logic and what a powerful motivational force this is. Should anyone doubt this, I would suggest they simply look at what goes on at one of the two great party conferences in the USA following the nomination of a presidential candidate, or the faces and gestures of the party faithful in various party headquarters after the announcement of election results. What we basically see are expressions of pre-rational feelings like: We are the greatest! Our guy can destroy your guy! Yaaay, we won and you lost!

Harmless enough, most of the time. Yet I wonder whether the forms of government that have evolved over the past few hundred years or so, our representative parliamentary democracies, based on competitive adversarial party systems and the personal power struggles of individual leaders are adequate for the challenges facing our world, now and in the future. The growth and development of our group instincts led, ultimately to the formation of nation states, the units of power and administration we use to organise our communal living. Yet we live in a world of seven billion people whose lives are interconnected globally in all sorts of ways. We are all members of many groups and these groups are, increasingly, less limited locally than they ever were before. For most of us, the fundamental unit remains that, loosely seen, as the family – though this has far more expressions than the so-called classical nuclear family (mother/father/children), which (seen from a wider historical and cultural perspective) was never much more than a bourgeois 19th and 20th Century western myth anyway. But beyond the family there are all sorts of other groups; friends, religious groups, work connections, interest networks, etc. with which we identify, more or less closely and, in an increasingly mobile world and with the growth of all sorts of cyberspace connections, many of these are no longer limited by local and national boundaries.

Moreover, many of the organisations and power-wielding networks – particularly the big corporations which have more and more influence on all sorts of aspects of our lives – have long since left national boundaries (and, increasingly, effective controls) behind; all we need do is to look at the whole world of the “markets.”

In recent decades, more and more theorists have been looking at other ways in which we might potentially organise our societies. One of the interesting ideas to have been developed is that of Deliberative Democracy. Rather than being based on rule by elected representative assemblies (with all the aspects I have described here), it is described as “a form of democracy in which public deliberation is central to legitimate lawmaking. It adopts elements of both representative democracy and direct democracy and differs from traditional democratic theory in that deliberation, not voting, is the primary source of a law's legitimacy” (Wikipedia). It is an attempt to get beyond the idea of making decisions by simple majorities (usually by groups and parties which have vied to achieve a majority mandate) and instead have as many people as possible involved at all sorts of levels in consultation and decision-making processes. Its implementation and concrete workings are complex, but such is only a reflection of the very complex global societies in which we live.

It also offers us a possibility to move beyond a level of decision making based, fundamentally, on dividing society into groups and then deciding on the basis of which group, or coalition of groups is strongest (for a democratic majority is also, in the end, a measure of strength), in favour of involving the wisdom and expertise of as many people as possible in making decisions about issues which will affect them. Those interested in reading more can click the Wikipedia link and surf on from there.

It is, at the very least, a line of thinking worth … deliberating about.

Pictures retrieved from:


  1. "On a level much deeper than the rational, we then identify with our group, give it our loyalty and automatically accord our group a default position of “rightness,” particularly when we come into contact with other groups. This frequently has little to do with a logically argued, superior rational basis for our position and is much more a reflection of our need to assume that our group is superior, better, righter than the other."

    Always a sociologist, you take the psychological concept and apply it to the group entity (and you do so very well).

    At an individual level you say: "Loyalty to the party frequently becomes more important than the concrete issues which led to its formation in the first place."

    That is exactly it! This fact escapes the loyalists. They act as Emerson's "retained attorney" and represent whatever the group stands for. They use their logic only to defend; never to deliberate.

    As for a more direct democracy, it may solve some of the problem, but in general the majority would probably need to have some place to go to their opinions and I fear that those places would be populated with conservative extremists and liberal extremists. The republican party has what I consider libertarians, tea partiers, and traditional conservatives, to name a few, but they are all conservatives, and though some of the opinions differ, following them mostly takes one to similar places.

    I think your sociological observation does accurately describe how our opinions become what they are and I know solution that would earn my confidence prior to a proof of concept.

    As for The Gentleman’s Victory, that was an awesome essay! Thanks for directing me there.

  2. it turns on the point you made about "rational thinking." Huge #'s of people haven't yet achieved this, so for the vast majority it's our side is the best because we want to believe it is, so we'll embrace anyone who says so and ape their "reasoning" and anyone who says otherwise, we will vilify and dehumanise.

  3. The U.S. political system works best when profit and greed and religious extremism, are at the heart of policy making. Things have gotten so far out of hand here that the ideas of theorists, as good as they may be, don't stand what we euphemistically refer to as "a snowball's chance in hell".

    Excellently written as always!


  4. I think you've covered all the bases I've wondered about over the course of many years. Humanity does seem to have a serious problem in organizing for the common good rather than what ultimately benefits fewer with each passing year. I will check out the link and read more about Deliberative Democracy. It sounds wonderful but the worry remains about the primitive nature inherent in our species and our inability to collaborate at a larger scale. Time grows short.

  5. Hi Frances, as one of those liberals I do find myself sometimes wanting to argue against a conservative position simply because I resent how some conservatives portray liberals. I have to make myself stop and reconsider if I really disagree because I often agree with many conservative market capitalist ideas.

    I do think there is a lack of trust between conservatives and liberals. I know I do not trust conservatives to look out for the common person. The lack of trust does often prevent any common agreement even when it would otherwise be possible.

  6. Jimmy Clay,

    If you want to know exactly how liberals think, go here:

    What Liberals Believe

    I was amazed to learn how I think. You may be also. However, given your fiscal ideas, you may not.

  7. I dislike labels. But how can we avoid them? Our ID betrays us. My first name is Claude. Until you see me, you'll probably think I'm a man. The Ottawa bureaucrats still do! I usually explain: a French woman can be called Claude. And I clarify that I'm not from France but from Montréal, Québec, Canada. Then, if we have a friendly conversation, I'll probably say when leaving you: God bless you. I always do. It will tell you that I'm a theist. I'm not trying to convert you. It's simply the best wish I can offer to anyone. If we talk for any length of time, you'll find out that I'm very busy with pro-life activities, and private charity organisations. Then you might deduce that, politically, I'm a conservative. Now you know who I am.

    If put on the defensive for what I do and believe, I will speak up. I can explain how, and why, and when with eloquence. But mostly I'm silent. I don't have an evangelical soul. Faith is a gift. It's taken me a lifetime, and many tears, to arrive where I am. I pray that nobody will experience the same turmoil. And I'll get along fine with you, no matter who you are, if you let me be who I am.

    It was interesting to follow all the links connected with your post. I very much agree with the last paragraph of your comment on the Heathen Republican:(Seven Progressive Principles).

    I wish I would know how to link. You were very astute to use the French Revolution flamboyant passwords in comparing conservatism and liberalism. Correct me if I'm wrong but I understood that you said: One emphasises Liberty, the other Equality. What is missing is Fraternity.

    It's very hard to love a label when it's used with ostentation. If only we could restrict ourselves to what Terence (160 BC) wrote:Homo sum. Humani nihil a me alienum puto. "I'm a man. Nobody is a stranger to me."


  8. An excellent essay. However, extracting but one aspect - politics - just wanted to mention that we have an interesting political situation in Australia. What we call a "hung" parliament (and no perjorative connotations implied) - simply means that neither of the "teams"; "red", "blue", "conservative", "liberal" .. what you will; actually "won" the popular vote. Our Prime Minister (who is, curiously, an unmarried, atheist female) has to govern via some very nifty "negotiation" with, and by, the support of three "independent" members of parliament, and leaders of the "minor" parties.

    Won't go into the detail of the Australian Parliamentary system, but the point that am trying to make is that it IS possible to dilute "team warfare" in the highest level of politics.


Your comments are, of course, welcome. I've had to reinstall captchas recently as - like most other bloggers - I was being plagued by spambots.


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