The 'See No Evil, Hear No Evil' in Our Political World

In my previous and first blog in these series on ‘Politics on Ideas’ I addressed the disengagement of citizens with the political process. I pointed out the obvious: politics should be about ideas for the greater good of the people and their society, and not so much on the personalities of politicians. I explained that democracy gives us the rules of the game and politics is the way how the game is played. I stated that my goal is to help create a culture of candor in politics in which our collective creativity and intelligence can flourish. At the end of the piece I asked what the role of citizens, politicians, journalists, scientists, artists and other professionals is in politics. To be able to answer that question as fully as possible we first have to further examine what meaning we give to the word ‘politics’.

How you define something is very important, because it determines the way you look to something. The meaning you give to words have practical consequences for the possibilities you see to take constructive action. If you see politics as something only of the politicians and the activists, then you won’t get involved, unless you see yourself as a politician or an activist. I believe every citizen is also a political citizen, but they don’t have to be political all the time. Citizens however need certain skills to be able to get active on political issues if they so desire at any given moment. I, as a political activist, have to be aware that there may be many blocks on the road for citizens to give voice to and fight for their political ideas, and try to find ways to remove as many of those blocks as possible.

In my previous blog I introduced my concept of politics. To make it easier to reference to and to remember it better you can divide politics in six concrete steps:

  1. Create political ideas;
  2. Get your created ideas on the political agenda for public discussion;
  3. Get the support needed for the execution of your ideas on the political agenda;
  4. Execute the ideas for which you have gotten enough support;
  5. Evaluate how your implemented ideas work out in practice;
  6. Maintain your implemented ideas, or adjust your implemented ideas, or cancel your implemented ideas. (If you want to adjust or cancel your implemented ideas you will have to put that on the political agenda again and gain enough support to execute the adjustments or cancellation you proposed.)

Getting the votes you need in a general election as a politician, and after that in Congress or Parliament, to pass your ideas is part of point three “the support needed for execution of your ideas”. The support you need depends on who or what you wish to move in a certain direction. For example, with regard to the disinvestment campaign of fossils fuels on American universities you need a critical mass of support in the university community to get your ideas through. When you start a political campaign ask yourself via which routes you could reach your desired goals. Sometimes the only way may be via the city, state or national legislature, but not always and not on every issue you care about.

You can think of educator and author Sir Ken Robinson’s life mission to make schools practices and curricula more creative. He addresses politicians, companies, teachers, students, school boards and others to reach his goals. He urges teachers to use the freedom they already have to make changes in their classrooms, and he urges principals to do the same in their schools, instead of waiting an eternity for politicians to do the right thing. At the same time however he’s trying to move politicians and policymakers to a more creative framework for education. Sir Ken Robinson may not be a politician, but he’s acting very political in the good sense of the word: pushing for the realization of the ideas that matter to him in any way he can think of.

Before you get to ‘step 3’ of my list above you first have to succeed in ‘step 2’: to get issues you care about on the political agenda for public discussion. One of the ways in which topics get noticed by the public is because they are discussed in our society. One of the ways in which topics don’t get noticed by the public is because they are not discussed in our society. This can be because politicians don’t speak out on certain issues, or journalists don’t fully report on them, or academics not sharing their important work with the general public, or artists not holding up a mirror for us, or citizens like you and me not finding a way to express what matters to us to the outside world. We all have a role to play.

In an interview with Bill Moyers, Jon Stewart said the following: "We're not a fragile country. Trust us to have this conversation. So we can do this in the right way. In a more effective way." Moyers agreed with this point and asked why politicians don’t have that conversation with their citizens. Stewart answered: "I don't think politics is any longer about a conversation with the country. It is about figuring out how to get to do what you want. The best way to sell the product that you want to put out there.” In response Moyers asked Stewart why citizens find it so difficult to get politicians to listen to them. He answered: “One of the things that I do think government counts on is that people are busy. And it is very difficult to mobilize a busy and relatively affluent country. Unless it is over really crucial, you know foundational issues that come to sort of a tipping point.” This was not a recent interview, but an interview from 2007. The lack of serious conversation and debate in politics is a persistent problem we have yet to solve.

One of the main reasons I admire Jon Stewart, besides his wonderful humorous character, is that he’s such a great thinker and is always looking for patterns in our human behavior. In a hilarious debate with Bill O’Reilly in 2012 Jon Stewart stated the following: "We face a deficiency in our problem solving mechanism." and "On Bullshit Mountain our problems are amplified and our solutions simplified. And that’s why they won’t work.”

Economist Thomas Piketty in a conversation with Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman stated that citizens have a hunger for in-depth knowledge: “I think the democratization of knowledge and the diffusion of economic knowledge can play an important role. But then we need more and more citizens to be involved, to be informed. I think the success of books on inequality, such as written by Joe, Paul or mine own book, shows that there is certainly a strong demand for you know economic knowledge. And many people, not only in the US, but in many other parts of the world are tired to hear that this is too complicated for them. That they cannot understand economic issues. That there is only one solution, only one policy. And many people are asking for more than that. And I think in the long run this really can make a difference.” In the same conversation Stiglitz said: “I think in the end it is going to have to be political action that is going to address these issues. And civil society can bring the issue to the fore, but the real challenge will be to try to get those ideas in the political process.

Michael Ignatieff a scientist and a former Canadian politician claims that “A political system is not there to apportion blame. A political system is there to find solutions.” However, the American-British writer Christopher Hitchens claimed in an interview with journalist Jeremy Paxman that political progress could only happen through polarization: “Politics is division by definition. If there was no disagreement, there is no fight, there would be no politics.” And Dutch philosopher and journalist Rob Wijnberg described politics in this way: “Politics is a struggle of people and ideas for power and influence, based on fundamental different views between them on good and evil, on which basis citizens can make a choice on the direction in which a society should develop itself.”

It is important to distinguish between a ‘conversation’ and a ‘debate’. The main aim of a conversation is to explore different views on the same topic. The main aim of a debate is to convince somebody else of your point of view. Often when we’re talking on political issues we use both techniques and switch from one to the other. The things you learn in a conversation you can use in different ways. You can come to new insights and change your view on a particular topic. You can better understand where somebody else is coming from, and therefore come up with better arguments to persuade them to your point of view. Vice versa a heated debate can open up a conversation, because you’ve provoked someone else to think and respond to your positions.

Competition and cooperation are both a part of politics. When creating ideas, step 1 of my list, you need more conversation than debate to achieve tangible results. When putting issues on the political agenda (step 2) you often will need both a conversation-style and a debate-style to be successful. To gain the support for your ideas (step 3) you need to be more persuasive and therefore use a debate-style of speaking, writing or visualizing. When you’re evaluating implemented ideas it is better to use a conversation-style. You adjust your style to what the circumstances demand of you.

Politics is competition and cooperation in another way too. Compare it to a football match. The better you cooperate within your own team the more likely you will able to defeat your opponent. If you think of politics as being on ideas, then it could happen that on some issues you and I are on the same team and on other issues we might be on different teams. That’s how it is supposed to be.

I think there are not many people who will disagree with the fact that we aren’t having enough serious conversations and debates on the issues that matter in our political world. I also think not many people will disagree with the fact that we can and should do a lot better to get politics more on the issues. If that is the case, then we have to ask ourselves why aren’t we doing that and what do we need to do to change that dynamic from the different roles we occupy in society.

One way you can play with that problem is to imagine a politics without political parties, and only existing out of people with different opinions trying to find common ground to move forward on. In such an environment, what are the things which make it more easy or difficult to progress as a society, and for the persons in it?

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