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September 17, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Our Confederacy of Dunces

Politics is a circus & we’re all responsible

By I. C. Reilly

From National MP Katrina Shank speaking in favour of the Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Bill while not understanding it, to former Green Party MP Sue Kedgley supporting calls to ban ‘dihydrogen monoxide’, politics is full of examples of people and groups who have held opinions without much basis in fact or evidence. We all have opinions, but not all opinions are created equal, and while the hardest statement to make in politics is “I don’t know”; it is often the only honest one. 

One of the greatest concerns about majority rule is the fear that the majority are capable of being misled due to their reliance on second-hand information. The misinformation around weapons of mass destruction that was used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq is often held up as a prime example of the failure of the media to critique the US public’s overwhelming support for the invasion, in spite of evidence that the ‘intelligence’ being promoted was not accurate.

This is a reasonable critique, but one which lets the public off far too easily—something we in this country may be guilty of. Indeed, it is easier to blame Fox News for biased reporting rather than blaming the viewers for giving the network such high ratings. Similarly in our own fair land, ought we blame the newspaper columnists that incite incendiary talk-back discussion of ‘ferals’ or ‘race traitors’, or instead blame the readers who justify their column-inches? These are extremes, but part of the reason this style of reporting is so popular is that it has a very populist heart. It tells an easy to understand narrative which, while not necessarily consistent with anything else, is consistent with the overarching storyline the media is telling. Moreover these narratives are often accepted because they confirm the pre-existing biases of their audience. Biases the audience hold because of the prior reporting by the very same sources. It is a feedback loop which erodes the desire for a contradictory second opinion.

Deepening this problem is the fact that people often don’t like to accept their own ignorance. Ask someone the following questions: Do you have an opinion on asset sales? Do you have a detailed enough understanding of the economics behind asset sales to be able to judge whether they will have a positive or negative effect? If you think you do, did you get this from a reliable (non-partisan, thoroughly researched) source?

Their response will likely be yes to every question, even if its not true, and if you push them on their answers they will likely become defensive and aggressive. It’s natural to rely on our own opinions and thoughts, and to back ourselves even when there are biases underlying our thinking.

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel prize-winning psychologist Dr Daniel Kahneman theorised that there are two “both fictitious and important” types of thought processes that drive the way we think. System One is fast, intuitive, emotional, and is more likely to make systematic errors; System Two is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Lumping topics such as politics where an opinion is socially expected, but the strength of the opinion is less important than consensus into System One is instinctive. However, while System One maps answers across many questions by finding answers which are consistent with each other, it doesn’t answer the question as stated with any real complexity.

It is not easy or fun to hold a nuanced opinion not held by those around you, whether it is in the face of green-haired hipsters, or besuited right wing trolls, and the time required to gain a nuanced understanding is generally more time than it is worth. In his book The Myth of the Rational Voter Professor Bryan Caplan noted that “[h]uman beings have mixed cognitive motives… On many topics, one position is more comforting, flattering, or exciting, raising the danger that our judgement will be corrupted not by money or social approval, but by our own passions.”

While it is understandable that opinions around Labour MP Louisa Wall’s Definition of Marriage Amendment Bill are impassioned on both sides. It is less understandable for opinions to be strong on fellow Labour MP Jacinda Ardern’s Care of Children Law Reform Bill, which would force the Minister of Justice to introduce a bill drafted by the Law Commission without amendment within seven days, something which would raise numerous constitutional issues and would end up stalling the process for many years.

The bill is broken, but vocal support has already developed, presumably because much of the reporting on the bill fails to unpack the practical consequences of the bill. Instead the focus has been on the bill leading to greater debate of the subject (something a populist media is more than capable of facilitating), rather than the substance of the bill itself.

An opinion can be made out of this type of reporting, but unless it took into account the potential unintended consequence of slowing down adoption reform it would be a position not founded in understanding of what the bill actually does.

So what can you do? Biases and intellectual blind spots can only be removed by self-reflection and serious engagement with counter intuitive ideas which challenge your preconceptions about the world you live in. Stop seeing politics as a lazy exercise in point-scoring, and start seeing it as an opportunity to become more intellectually well rounded. Don’t just read Stuff; read Marx, Bastiat, John Locke, Isaiah Berlin, Plato, Bertrand Russell.

Put down your Adam Curtis and his visual interpretations of a late night drunken Wikipedia binge with pretensions of coherence. Hear out the Marxists, Libertarians, Greens, Young Nats, Young Labour, Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party.

Develop and hone your critical and analytical thinking skills by considering as many sides of as many debates as humanly possible before deciding you will agree with whatever your friends or parents believe. You’re an adult now, time to start acting like it. ▲

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About the Author ()

Salient is a magazine. Salient is a website. Salient is an institution founded in 1938 to cater to the whim and fancy of students of Victoria University. We are partly funded by VUWSA and partly by gold bullion that was discovered under a pile of old Salients from the 40's. Salient welcomes your participation in debate on all the issues that we present to you, and if you're a student of Victoria University then you're more than welcome to drop in and have tea and scones with the contributors of this little rag in our little hideaway that overlooks Wellington.

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