Democracy – Have We Lost the Art of Debate?

I enjoy watching many of the talks given by people at TED (Technology, Entertaining, Design), a small non-profit organisation devoted to spreading ideas that are worth listening to. This one by Michael Sandel, a pioneer of open education, who teaches political philosophy at Harvard is called ‘The lost art of democratic debate’, which highlights how important debates are often avoided by politics.

He has a book out currently that looks at a number of the most important moral and political arguments that have recently been contested. The book is called ‘Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do’.

Michael points out that many sensitive political, moral and religious are generally avoided by politicians. That it is easier for them to ignore these issues because of the possibility of backlash. However, this hiding away of issues does nothing to come to terms or understand the issues. We basically need to rediscover the lost art of democratic debate.

In the subject of who deserves what he asks the question of the audience, “Who should get the best flutes?” Interestingly the Aristotle preferred answer was given, ‘the ones that were the best flute player’, but was quickly answered by another, ‘the worst flute players’. The answer rested on the decision that gave the best benefit to everyone, so the best flute players would give society the greatest benefit by being able to play them.

Even though it wasn’t delved into further the last answer had a reasonable principle too. The worst players need more practise to make them good flute players, so isn’t that restricting the possible number of people that can play the flute? Which decision actually allows the most people to benefit? Obviously the best flute players will give society nice flute music, but these are the ones who have actually benefitted already by their personal experience. If the flutes were given to the worst flute players then globally more individuals would have benefitted from the experience of flute playing. OK, that was just one interesting point that shows the difficulty of thinking about even simple points.

Michael then goes on to compare the jus tice debate surrounding the golfer Casey Martin recently who had a disability that made it difficult to walk the golf course. Casey asked the PGA, the Professional Golfers Association to be allowed to use a golf cart in the tournaments. He was refused and an interesting legal debate ensued.

Finally, he made the connections to today’s political debates that display how hard it is to decide the answers, without really getting deep into the subject and thinking about the ‘essential’ natures of the debates. From there to draw out the qualities or highest ideals connected to the subject that would be recognised to be worthy of using within the debate.

Political Discourse and the Role of Government

We have a problem in this country with the way we talk about government. In fact, we don’t even talk about government anymore, we talk about politics. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point we just began accepting that the government was going to try and control us and do things for us that we should be doing for our selves and we began talking about politics and pettiness. Until recently, people would try and make you out as an antiquated thinker if you believe that the proper role of government is something worth talking about instead of quibbling about the specifics of legislation. It was probably in the thirties that the nature of government or rather the expectations of government changed. Now, instead of having rational and honest debates about whether we want a truly representative government run by the people or a quasi “soft” socialist government that is found in Europe, we debate about specific bills and call each other Fascists and Communists or just plain crazy. Rarely do we step back and have real discussions about what direction we want the country to go. The battles we have over policy are won and lost in inches and once we begin to step back and see that we have traveled miles, I would guess that most of us don’t like where we have ended up.

Not only have we gotten away from discussing the proper role of government but the debates we do have, have devolved into tactless noise. Both sides of every issue have adopted demonization of the opposition as a tactic of debate. I’m sorry to have to be the one to break it to them, but deligitamizing someone else’s argument doesn’t make their argument any stronger. Political debate is not a zero sum game. A bad argument is a bad argument. Unfortunately, I do understand why they use this tactic, to a degree. It is easier to argue against nothing than something. But I think that is my problem with watching political debates, whether they are between politicians or pundits. Everyone is arguing against the other side instead of for their side. We have become accustomed to bomb throwing instead of deductive reasoning. Everyone thinks that the other side is crazy or stupid or racist or anti-American, and no one is actually listening to each other. The tone of the debate is not the problem. The problem is that there is often no debate at all. We have seen most debates in this 24/7 media culture devolve into two people shouting over each other trying to convince the viewers at home that they are not as bad as the other guy.

In the last two years I have seen Republicans and Democrats try to convince us that whatever terrible bill that they are putting forth is miles better than the horrible one the other guy thought of. What I don’t often, or really ever, hear is a debate about whether or not a new law is necessary. They rarely seem to care if it is appropriate use or function of a limited government. Both sides are continually grasping for control. The Republicans are trying to limit our choices for moral reasons. They say they are for limited government but are against marijuana legalization, gay marriage and other social issues but is it really the government’s place to tell you what you can put in your body or how you express your love for another person? The Democrats also like to control our choices. They don’t want us to be able to eat fatty and salty foods or smoke in public but is that really the job of the government? Politicians of all persuasions think that they know better than the rest of us and are dying to create a nanny state where no one has to think for themselves. Both sides think that they sit on the moral high ground while the other is reprehensible. They are two sides of the same coin. Each thinking that if they could just loosen one kind of control and tighten another that all will be well.

And we take it. Most of us are just trying to get to the end of the day where we can relax for an hour or so and then go to bed, just to do it all over again. I do have to say that I was holding out hope for the Tea Party. Now for the Tea Party haters; don’t turn away just yet. I know that probably around half of the country thinks that they are dumb racists who think that Sarah Palin is the savior of America, but they’re not. This was a genuine grass roots effort in reaction to decades of Government encroachment but I have lost interest because they have shifted their message. Joe and Jane Mainstreet have had to refocus on their day to day lives and the zealot-ish moral crusaders have infiltrated the ranks. I feel genuine disappointment because I thought that this could be a real positive force against government encroachment but they are turning out to be like every other political group. They tend to start with good ideas and get corrupted or co-opted and reach for more political influence so they can control things the way they want.

What is a Political Debate?

What is a political debate? It is a way for different opponents to argue their point of view with the intention of converting the listener or reader to their opinion. There are various types of debates depending on the occasion. You will have televised events when it involves a major electoral decision such as the presidential election. You can have local debates when it involves a seat in Congress. The winner of the debate will be dictated by a voting poll or in some cases a judge. Debates are very common in all democracies, not just the USA, as a part of the process used to elect the government.

You will also have the informal discussions between people who hold differing political opinions. The quality of this type of political debate will depend on the skill and knowledge levels of the participants. Some people believe so strongly that their view is the only one; they lack the ability to listen to the arguments placed by the other side. This often leads to a heated argument rather than an educated discussion. This is especially true of online political forums that fail to monitor the activity on the site properly. Being online means that you can be anonymous and this can give rise to people venting extreme views. They may not get the chance to discuss these views in real life so take to the forums. Even if the individual’s views are not extreme, the discussion can quickly result in an argument as text is so often misinterpreted. How often have you received an email and responded as you believed it meant something other than the intended message?

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. That is one of the huge benefits of living in a democracy. The freedom of speech should never be taken away from anyone but when involved in a political debate, it is always best to mind your manners as well.

Wikileaks Documents Have Opened a New Look to Political Debates

The whole world came to a standstill at November 28, 2010 when an independent website, Wikileaks started to distribute detailed confidential documents (diplomatic cables) regarding US State department and its diplomatic missions all over the world. These confidential diplomatic cables were retrieved by Wikileaks from unknown source, but these were highly classified documents and were stolen from the secret database of US Government.

These confidential cables were sent to Wikileaks by an unknown source and Wikileaks reported that they received around 260,000 confidential cables, and at November 28, 2010, Wikileaks started publishing these cables and also distributed some to major news agencies. Wikileaks is publishing these documents in series with 80 documents per day, if going at this pace it will take almost ten years to release all documents.

The cables Wikileaks published created a buzz among journalists and politicians of different countries, many note-able personalities of eastern world commented on these cables and some rejected them as fake but interestingly there was no or minimum response from USA. These documents changed the political scenario of whole world and affected the international relations between different countries.

The cables regarding the eastern countries like Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan etc, revealed the things the presidents of these countries think about each other and what USA’s perspective on these countries is, these cables created ferocity among the people, and affected international relations, but gave journalists lots of stuff to talk about.

These leaks have shifted the paradigm of political debates, it revealed how USA is exploiting other countries to gain its own advantage, and the Afghan files leaked earlier this year showed the real picture to the world. USA is most affected by these leaks as all the leaks are directly or indirectly refer to it. The proud politician of the eastern world also faced criticism by their own people.

The biggest debate regarding these leaks is that how such classified cables were leaked, right under the nose of US security departments? And whether this is legal to publish such documents?

Wikileaks is an international nonprofit organization and it publishes the submission of private secret and classified source from anonymous sources, it was established in 2006 under The Sunshine Press organization. Wikileaks operate as a news agency that can publish any leaked document regarding governments of any country; it is an international organization so it has no boundaries limits. But after publishing these cables, the governments of many countries mark this as an illegal and put pressure on Wikileaks to discontinue its operations. But Wikileaks defended its position by declaring that Freedom of Press allows them to tell the world truth and that Wikileaks operates under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”

Whereas the Freedom of Information Legislations grant access to the data held by state.

Wikileaks is justified by its releasing of government data, because the legislation do not clarify that which data should be accessible and which should not. It is important to note that no cable release by Wikileaks is marked top-secret.

The journalists and political science analysts are analyzing different aspects of these leaks and their impact on the world. Most of the things revealed by the leaks were known, but were just speculations and these leaks confirmed them, like relationship between USA and Pakistan, and the facts regarding Afghan and Iraq war.

Has The Bahrain Grand Prix Reignited The Sports Vs Politics Debate?

The 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix was originally scheduled to open the season on March 13th, but was called off. In early June it was reinstated and then called off again. Has this incident reignited the debate about the relationship between sport and politics? This article digs into that question…

In the world of Formula 1 racing, the very arena of this subject, I think the answer is no, probably not.

Bahrain has never been a shining example of human rights, let’s face it, and no-one had any qualms about racing there before. The original decision to cancel this year’s race was based on the safety of the teams, rather than any stand against the regime which has used armed force against protesters.

Then, when it was reinstated, words like ‘reconciliation’ and ‘harmony’ were used. Little mention again of the protesters, with F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone going out of his way to say it had nothing to do with the millions the sport would lose by not staging the race.

The race was then taken back off the schedule after the teams did not agree. Their main reason for complaint though, was the resulting loss of their December holiday rather than continuing concern over the unrest in the country.

Red Bull driver Mark Webber has been fairly loud in voicing his ‘discomfort’ about the race, but that’s about it from inside the sport.

The most famous example of sport entering the world of politics and human rights was South Africa. Various non sporting boycotts and sanctions placed on the South African apartheid regime put pressure on the world of sport.

Various sporting bodies introduced their own boycotts, and South Africa was expelled from both FIFA and the IOC. It was only after the ending of the apartheid system that these boycotts were lifted.

It could well be suspected that money talks in the modern world, maybe more than it ever did, and you only have to go back a few years to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The Chinese government made it abundantly clear that it did not expect to be grilled over its human rights record during the games, and in fact journalists were told in no uncertain terms that if they asked any such questions, they would be barred from further press events.

With the Chinese economy overtaking Japan in 2011 to become the 2nd largest in the world, it’s an easy question to ask whether the threat of economic reprisals hung over the event.

Yes, I think it’s clear that they would.. The communist government has never been afraid to flex its muscle on the economic stage, and that was more important to the IOC and other governments than the human rights of a country staging the Olympics.

I can see the arguments both ways in this age old debate…

On the one side, there is a case that sports people should be allowed to compete in that arena, sport, with no importance attached to their government’s policies. After all, if someone is the best in the world at their sport, and they have no control over their government’s decisions, then why should they be punished?

On the other side, it’s precisely that isolation and punishment which has the aim of influencing a government, and the will of its’ people, to change policy.

Whichever side of the fence you are on, I suspect in this day and age, taking the high moral ground will appeal when there is little threat of financial repercussions. If there are potentially huge financial implications involved, then the blind eye will continue to be turned.

It looks like the Bahrain Grand Prix 2011 debate is over – the race is not on. The more general sports versus politics debate? That will rumble on I’m sure.