Axis 1: What is important?
This is the first post is a series, Some Thoughts on Politics.
Often in political arguments, we rely on binaries. But life is rarely so simple that things can fit comfortably into binary categories without a tremendous loss of clarity. In particular, I want to talk about a series of dimensions along which we have to take positions on when we talk about politics. We have to take positions, but it that doesn’t mean we have to be explicit about it. But we ought to be. Being explicit about it will improve the likelihood that those we are talking with will understand us. Asking others to be explicit about it will increase the chances we’ll understand where they are coming from. If we are to argue, better we argue about our actual disagreements. Better still to argue about our most fundamental disagreements. Besides that, it’s good to be explicit so that our own thinking is clearer, and we are less likely to make mistakes because we haven’t fully thought things through.
The first dimension we should think about when talking about political action is what is important. “Important: yes or no” is a terrible way to do that. The question is always a relative one.
The answer to this question depends on our values. Too often we talk as though every one shares the same values. This is wrong when it is applied to everyone on one side of the political spectrum (ugh!) and is even implicitly applied by liberals to conservatives. The idea, rarely stated, is that we all agree on the ends but just disagree on the means. This is the notion that arguing solely via stats and charts appear to make sense, even though generally speaking this convinces very few people. But politics is very much about value disagreements. Just because people say they are offering a policy to “end poverty” doesn’t mean they are. They might be offering one that mitigates it, or one that won’t affect it or even makes it worse.
I think we’re better off talking with other people about what they think matters and why. If you don’t know the answer to that, how could you convince someone to change their mind? Typically, we assume we know why, but my sense is those assumptions tend to be off base. It’s best to neither assuming that people are fools or that they are so stuck in their views that they won’t change. (Some people are fools, and some won’t change. Perhaps many. I’m against assuming this, not suggesting it’s never or rarely true.) For that matter, unless you think you have all the answers, you might find after listening to someone else that you need to reorder your priorities. That is healthy, and probably the right stance to take if you want someone else to reconsider their priorities.
Finally it is important to note that importance is independent of whether a thing is changeable and whether I can change it (which are the next two dimensions). We should not let answers to those questions drive our answer to this question, and vice versa. And as a result of this, the answer to how important something is cannot tell us what to do about it or whether we ought to do something about it. Again, those answers require us to know more than just where we place an issue on the spectrum of how important it is.