Thursday, 15 August 2019

The Art of Political Criticism: an educator’s guide

One of the most difficult and yet indispensable life-skills to instil in citizens is the art of political criticism. It is dangerous for people to accept everything they are told without question by those in power. But it is just as risky to reject whatever is put forward without giving it due consideration. Knowing how to scrutinise political claims in a coherent and effective manner is a vital part of being a responsible citizen.

Educators may find it useful to approach the task through five learning routes:

[1] Grasping Key Concepts
At the roots of most flawed arguments and attempts at misdirection are inappropriate uses of key concepts. Notions such as ‘freedom’, ‘rights’, ‘responsibility’, ‘democracy, are often taken to imply certain general principles which are in fact quite unfounded. Freedom, for example, is something we value, but not if it becomes a licence for people to act in callous and harmful ways towards others. Democracy is a much-needed form of governance, but it is not obtained merely by a majority vote if misinformation and corruption influence voting intentions. Educators should ensure key political concepts are widely understood.

[2] Reviewing Historical Perspectives
What happened in the past can often be highly relevant to what society should do now and in the future. But that relevance is only discerned through proper interpretation of the causes and consequences of different events. Dwelling on some events while ignoring others, or distorting the reasons behind notable successes or failings, would only lead to misunderstanding or mistakes being repeated. Educators should be equipped to cite balanced historical accounts, and facilitate learning of the critical lessons that are still applicable today.

[3] Identifying Practical Options
One of the biggest challenges for political educators is how citizens can take part in the decision-making of government institutions when there are so many seemingly insuperable obstacles. Whatever democracy may suggest in theory, it is often felt that in practice members of the public will seldom be able to have any meaningful say at all. It is up to educators to draw attention to the many successful approaches and examples of deliberative engagement and state-citizen cooperation, and promote their adoption in all spheres of civic life.

[4] Cultivating Critical Challenges
Demagogues seeking power and many of those who have already gained high office, are adept at rhetoric that makes the most dubious claims sound rousing and convincing. It takes the development of a critical mindset to see through such claims without falling into some form of ‘we-can’t-believe-anything’ scepticism. It is incumbent on educators to inculcate the disposition and ability to question the powerful in a logical and objective manner, appreciating what expertise and evidence can be relied on, and what unwarranted claims to discard.

[5] Exploring Alternative Futures
Imagination can be an important tool in bringing out what people may otherwise overlook. Misplaced complacency on the one hand, and mind-numbing saturation with negative news on the other, could leave many oblivious to the threats posed by plutocracy and fundamentalism. Dystopian literature helps to highlight what may otherwise be overlooked. Educators should facilitate the exploration and discussion of stories that dramatically present the kind of political outlook and social structures that everyone should seek to avert.

For a short guide to Henry Tam’s learning resources relating to the Art of Political Criticism, click on:

Thursday, 1 August 2019

The Stoic-Epicurean Resolution

How are we to navigate the vicissitudes of life? On the one hand, Stoic philosophy is often presented as directing us to fulfil our public duties and lead a solemn, simplistic existence. On the other hand, Epicurean ideas are supposed to guide us towards the quest for private pleasures, away from the wider turmoil of society.

But this apparent dichotomous choice is a false one. On closer examination, what Stoic and Epicurean thinkers put forward actually fit into a single coherent ethos. The starting point is what will bring us fulfilment – that state of being which we would be content and happy to attain. Stoics come at this by setting out what everyone must do for the conditions to be in place for each to find fulfilment. For example, we should not harm others, but defend one another from aggressors; we should respect other people, and treat all on honest, reciprocal terms. It follows that there are public duties that should be upheld by all if each is to find fulfilment. Epicureans come at this by reminding us that nobody who neglects one’s own wellbeing can ever truly experience a fulfilled life. For example, we should not damage our own health, but nurture it; we should evaluate our desires, and pursue only those that are realistic and would not undermine our longer-term happiness.

Together, the Stoic-Epicurean approach leads us to take a holistic view about what we should do in relation to both ourselves and others, and consider the long term as well as short term implications. Strategic thinking and impulse control are vital. There is no room for insatiable chasing after pleasures, power, fame, wealth, or anything that may directly or indirectly ruin the chances of attaining a fulfilled existence. Moderation, consideration, cooperation are key ingredients in cultivating the collective and personal conditions for living a genuinely satisfying life.

If one can make a difference in strengthening the social and political structure needed for such cultivation, one must act on one’s public duty. If circumstances are such that one would have no real opportunity to influence wider trends and outcomes, then one should sensibly focus on the more limited sphere within which one can shape the course of events.

The assessment of desires, personal aptitudes, social arrangements, scope for development, and options for action and abstention, should be guided – and here Stoics and Epicureans are at one – not by superstitions, dogmas, rash assumptions, or flawed reasoning, but by the systematic application of logic, evidential findings, and experimental learning. Wisdom, grounded on critical thinking and practical examination, will thus help us decide how we should live.

But what about the Stoic respect for ‘God’ and the Epicurean dismissal of divine causes? There is actually no contradiction between the Stoic ‘God’ as the totality of nature and the Epicurean notion of nature as the ultimate foundation of all existence and meaning. By whatever name we call it, nature interacts with us as we seek to make the most of the life we have. We need to study and understand nature, and recognise that it has no volition of its own to grant us wishes or thwart our pursuits. There is nothing beyond nature, and we must develop plans and solutions in line with nature if we are to attain a life worth living.