In Defense of Politics

Politics is often considered a dirty word. When something bad happens, we often blame ‘politics’.

I don’t think “politics” should be a bad word; rather, I think politics is an important part of human activity, and is very poorly understood.

I believe many of our problems stem from bad politics — not from politics itself.

Skagit Bridge Collapse, from wikipedia.

Suppose you read a story abut a bridge collapsing. Luckily, nobody was killed. Still, people were injured and this will cost a lot of money to fix. What would your reaction be? Would you think something like:

“Well, that’s engineering for you!”

Of course not. When a bridge collapses, it isn’t engineering that’s to blame. We blame bad engineering. A bridge collapse is a failure of engineering. It’s what happens when you don’t engineer things the right way. It stems from insufficient engineering — not just “engineering.”

Politics is like engineering. Politics is building bridges out of ideas and words, instead of steel and concrete. If our ideas and agreements bear the weight of the life experience that crosses them, they will hold, and we can have commerce with our neighbors.

If our bridges fail, that tends to lead to violence.

Our society needs politicians. We need people who are looking at the big picture and trying to stem off problems. Instead of denigrating politics and politicians — something i’m terribly guilty of — we should be thinking about how politics could be better.

OK, What Would Good Politics Look Like?

One thing I’m certain of — a good, functional politics must be honest.

Imagine doing engineering without a solid grasp on the truth. Of course the bridge might collapse — the bridge follows rules that don’t take into account whether that collapse is good for the governor.

Engineering is a discipline that is heavily based on the truth. Our politics could be that way, too — but for that to work, we must take people on our side to task when they are dishonest.

Society partitioning itself into two sides is probably an inevitable thing that will happen whenever there are different value judgments and conceptual models. That’s fine. When each of the sides is super willing to see problems with the other, and refuses to acknowledge its own faults, that’s where the real trouble starts.

If you love an institution, criticize it fairly and honestly. If you don’t do that, you deprive it of the fuel it needs to improve.

If you believe in a cause, criticize any arguments that spuriously advance your cause. Challenge any arguments made by your side that aren’t accurate, that aren’t honest, that don’t fairly account for objections. If you don’t do that, you’ll be feeding everyone who believes your cause is promoted by mean and selfish people who are ignorant of reality.

We Desperately Need the Truth

I love the truth.

After believing many falsehoods for a long time, and suffering dearly for it, I have come to love the fact that the truth exists, and doesn’t change even if I want it to.

When I wake up from a nightmare, I give thanks that I live in reality, which operates according to its own patterns, regardless of what I think.

It sometimes feels like our reality lumbers along in a hazy nightmare, because of the amount of things people say publicly that aren’t true and don’t really make sense.

If you build a bridge on a foundation of lies, such as “this material is believed to have the best strength to weight ratio”, rather than “my cousin owns the factory which makes this material”, we can’t be surprised when the bridge collapses.

When we accept dishonesty, perfidy, and shady behavior from our leaders, “because that’s the way it works”, we have nobody to blame but ourselves when our leaders fail.

If Agreement Won’t happen, Strive for Understanding.

What if we’re talking with people who won’t acknowledge basic facts of reality? How can we not point out that they are simply wrong?

News flash: everyone believes things which are wrong. You believe something that is factually incorrect. You do! Right now! Do you honestly think that isn’t the case? If so, then you’re just as guilty as the most ignorant person you might talk to. You are lying to yourself if you think everything you believe is true.

Once you accept that some of your beliefs aren’t accurate, you should realize it’s a lot easier to fix your broken understanding than it is to fix someone else’s.

One way in which many of us are wrong: We don’t understand why the other people believe things which we know are wrong. Every belief a person has comes from their experience.

Now sure, maybe their experience is constantly being told that they are the best, that they are wonderful, and now they’re struggling because they are no longer being told that. Their belief is false, but the ensuing struggle is still real. The pain they’re feeling will still manifest in their limbic system — and if you deny it, you’ll probably just make them feel more certain that you’re an uncaring person, rather than actual the truth.

Is it… unsavory to deal with someone like that? Of course it is. It’s also unsavory to deal with people who are dirty or sick or have bad manners or are uneducated and have bad breath.

If you only want to deal with people who are pleasant to interact with, then you dont’ really have a right to call yourself an adult.

You Probably Believe Falsehoods About Other People’s False Beliefs

This guy proclaimed himself emperor of the United States. People in San Francisco loved him, of course.

Let’s suppose you’re talking to John Q Fake, who has an elaborate understanding of why he should be king of the world.

Anyone can say “well, John Q Fake, you must certainly not be King” — but this accomplishes nothing other than to remind John Q Fake that yes, his subjects need to be punished.

What happens if you listen to him explain, and get to a point where you can tell his story back to him? What happens when you can make John Q Fake’s argument for him?

Well, in the case of John Q Fake, you probably can’t convince him. Fortunately, he’s probably got nobody following him. He poses no danger.

What happens if John Q fake has convinced thousands of people that he should be king?

Are your odds of convincing people not to follow John Q Fake better if you can understand the complex narrative they’re telling each other?

If you understand exactly what it is they believe, and you can make their arguments for them, they are much more likely to follow your reasoning when you show its flaws.

It is much easier to strawman a foolish person than it is to understand precisely what mistake they are making.

If I say three things you agree with, and one you don’t agree with, you might listen to me.

If I say four things you disagree with, you can easily dismiss me as an idiot.

Now, maybe you think everyone that disagrees with you seems to follow John Q Fake’s line of reasoning. Maybe you think no amount of facts or logic can convince someone who’s so stuck in their beliefs, they will refuse to change.

I promise you, most of those people feel the same about you. I think you’re both right.

We will Have the Politics we Deserve

I am guilty of all of the sins I’ve laid out here.

I committed them so many times, and damn if it didn’t feel good every time. It feels great to get angry at people who believe harmful things that hurt the ones I love!

It also accomplishes nothing.

I’m sorry if I’ve offended you with this essay. That is not my goal — it’s to encourage everyone who can read this — take time to understand someone who disagrees with you, even if you think they are ignoring facts and reason and all evidence.

Our society is badly fraying right now, and history shows that this is a bad thing. Last time we had “global financial crises, followed by devaluation of currencies, increased tariffs, xenophobia and racism”, we got the second world war.

We can build much stronger bridges these days — but we can also build far more horrifying weapons.

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