Sunday, 15 November 2015

The ‘All-or-Nothing Fallacy’ of Polarised Politics

Political discussions are too often misdirected, intentionally or otherwise, to fall down the hole of the All-or-Nothing Fallacy.

Here are just a few examples:
• You either punish every accused (innocent or not) so not a single guilty one will get away, or you may as well let every guilty person go free.
• You either pay everyone the same, or you leave pay differences alone.
• You either distrust everything connected with law enforcement agencies, or deem those agencies as totally beyond reproach.
• You either condone all verbal attacks on practices carried out in the name of religion, or you forbid them all without exception.
• You either impose rules on people without them having any say, or you have to allow them to do as they please.
• You either back every proposed armed intervention against foreign targets, or you are unreservedly against the military establishment.

There are countless more such examples to be found in heated arguments or coldly calculated propaganda. Isolated in their bare form, they are easy to spot, but fired off in the midst of claims and counter-claims, they can imperceptibly trap the unsuspecting into one corner or another.

The underlying problem is that nuanced analysis has been marginalised as ‘fence sitting’, ‘lack of assertiveness’, or even ‘muddled thinking’. Having ADS (attention deficit syndrome) at a societal level means that in public debates and private conversations there is now considerable peer pressure to respond to simplistic depictions of political issues, not by challenging them and setting out the variety of possible solutions, but by seizing one of the extreme options with dogmatic gusto.

Those of us involved in political education can play a part in tackling this problem in at least four ways. First, we can make explicit the false dichotomies every time some form of All-or-Nothing Fallacy is slipped into a political discussion. Secondly, we can promote the approach of cooperative problem-solving that has evolved from the deliberations of many leading thinkers and practitioners as a highly reliable way to explore contested issues and resolve disagreement (see: ‘Cooperative Problem-Solving: the key to a reciprocal society’). Thirdly, we can raise wider awareness that while debating may help to develop certain skills and serve to formulate a few relevant arguments, it is a mistake to focus on it as ‘the’ format for exchanging and examining political ideas. In many cases, it merely reinforces the misleading impression that a complex issue can be reduced to a crude ‘either/or’, and that one must back one or the other without assessing other options.

Last but not least, we should sustain a critique of the routine polarisation of policy options deployed by many in the media. Instead of assuming every problem is to be dealt with by some All-or-Nothing proposal with proponents divided into opposite camps, news editors and presenters should learn to facilitate cooperative enquiries where the solution comes from more sophisticated exploration of what on balance may achieve the desired outcomes more effectively than other variants. Commentators may achieve more by being tasked with working out shared positions rather than just goaded into attacking each other [1].

[1] This is not to say that some issues should not be tackled by cross-examination by opposing sides, or by a narrowly focused investigation. But only another invocation of an All-or-Nothing Fallacy would suggest that such techniques are never to be used if they are not always used.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Synetopia: progress through cooperation

Advocates for progressive improvement, from the Enlightenment philosophers [1] to later cooperative and communitarian reformists [2], have been perennially challenged on two flanks. Militant radicals mock them for wasting time over a supposedly utopian dream. Cynical reactionaries misrepresent them as the progenitors of dystopian nightmares

In reality, what progressive thinkers have been helping to develop can be expressed in the notion of ‘synetopia’ – a place where people cooperate together on the basis of objective reasoning and mutual respect to work out how to improve their wellbeing as individuals and as a community.

Synetopia is not an idealised place that is founded on the hoped-for kindness of all who dwell within, nor is it an ideological system that is to be imposed unkindly on everyone without exception. It is a model for human interactions that over time has helped to open our eyes to specific societal problems to be overcome, and potential collaboration that can bring about better outcomes for all concerned.

Based on the critical iteration of progressive thinkers from the Enlightenment on, the model can be outlined with reference to nine key proposals that enable any group of people to come together to achieve more than they can on their own. The extent to which these are taken forward in practice serves to indicate how far synetopia is being realised for any given group of people at the local, national or global level. Set out below are the nine proposals, which for mnemonic reason, are listed under headings, each of which begins with a letter that will together with the others spell out ‘SYNETOPIA’:

Shared Mission
All members of the group should have a shared understanding of their common mission or purpose. The group should be effectively and visibly organised to enable its members to join forces for their respective wellbeing.

You-and-I Mutuality
Instead of ‘Me’-centred individualism or ‘We-subsume-all’ collectivism, there should be genuine mutuality in distributing the benefits and burden connected with the group, and none should amass what comes from the group’s joint endeavours to enrich themselves at the expense of others.

Nimble Membership
There should be a transparent and responsive membership system that underpins who is brought into the group or excluded from it, and sets out the rights and responsibilities of both the group and its members.

Educative Collaboration
All member of the group should be enabled to share ideas, learn through collaborative exchanges, and have lifelong opportunities to study, formulate and discuss interpretations of the world as well as ideas for change.

Testing of Claims and Assumptions
The group should make sure no claim or assumption is privileged as unquestionable. It should subject all doctrines and findings to continuous testing, and revise them in the light of the latest evidence.

Open Access to Information
There should be open access so nothing untoward is hidden and useful information is widely shared. Processes to detect and expose deception should be in place, and demands for secrecy must be independently scrutinised for their legitimacy.

Participatory Decision-Making
The group should enable and encourage all members to participate as equals in the making of decisions that affect them, and ensure everyone can contribute to those decisions on an informed and deliberative basis.

Impartial Distribution of Power
The distribution of power should be monitored and where necessary revised to minimise the likelihood that an individual or an alliance of them can come to possess so much power that they can intimidate or dictate terms to others.

Accountability for Action
All members, especially those entrusted with the authority to act on behalf of the group, must be held accountable for any action against individual members or the wider interest of the group. Disputes over charges should be resolved through independent mechanisms and judgements carried out in accordance with the rules.

Details of these nine SYNETOPIA proposals can be found amongst the leading progressive writers, and they constitute the core elements of the effective governance of any neighbourhood, business, or national community [3]. There is no need to remain shackled by the false dichotomy of either sceptically abstaining from backing any form of social development or dogmatically throwing one’s lot behind some arbitrary doctrine. History has taught us that there is a practical approach to question the way we live, explore alternatives, and test out improvements through sustained cooperation [4]. It is the path that leads to synetopia.

[1] The following books are recommended to attain a better understanding of the Enlightenment and its key proponents:
Blom, Philipp: ‘A Wicked Company: the forgotten radicalism of the European Enlightenment’.
Bronner, Stephen Eric: ‘Reclaiming the Enlightenment’
Commager, Henry Steele: ‘The Empire of Reason: how Europe imagined and America realized the Enlightenment’;
Gay, Peter: ‘The Enlightenment: an interpretation’;
Hampson, Norman: ‘The Enlightenment’;
Israel, Jonathan: ‘Democratic Enlightenment’;
McMahon, Darrin M.: ‘Enemies of the Enlightenment’;
Porter, Roy: ‘Enlightenment: Britain and the creation of the modern world’.

[2] For a background piece on communitarian thinkers, see: ‘Communitarians: an introduction’.

[3] For a more extensive look at the elements of good governance, see: ‘Communitarian Governance: a 9-point guide’. (For specific advice in relation to peer production and commons economy, see: Michel Bauwens’ ‘The Ten Commandments of Peer Production and Commons Economics’).

[4] For a short history on the struggle to challenge power inequalities and develop more inclusive communities, see ‘Against Power Inequalities: a history of the progressive struggle’.