Bandaids and Bulletholes: on privileging theory over practicality

I just got into a leeeeeeetle disagreement over on the Facebooks over this:

My views on this are that Clare Cullen is a massive ledgeface* who you should all go subscribe to immediately because she is saying words that basically mirror rants I have inside my head every single time anyone runs for election, ever. We don’t elect people to be Official Fixers Of The World and Havers Of Opinions. We elect people to particular jobs with specific responsibilities and powers. It’s insulting to the electorate (you know, the people who you’re asking to employ you) if the material you’re using to persuade people to vote for you is either vague to the point of meaninglessness or refers to things that are drastically outside the remit of the job you’re actually applying for.

Anyway, one of the people she targets is the Socialist Party** candidate, Paul Murphy, who’s looking to get reelected to the European Parliament. Grand so. She’s got criticisms that I see as legit- overly negative campaigning with a lack of actual alternatives put forward. Anyway, since I’m a leftie myself and since Ireland is a tiny country where everyone knows everyone, it was inevitable that a bit of a palaver would ensue. Which is fine. It’s  just that.. there’s something that happened there that I disagree with hard enough to write a blog post about it, and that was this comment by CH- someone who, by the way, I respect a shedload and who gave me the okay to :

Paul is running on a platform of party ideals/alternatives (anti-capitalist) to domestic policy and EU. It is merely to have a voice to raise issues that are railroaded in the EU and their wider agenda of Austerity… maybe you missed the part about wanting a socialist alternative not band aids for bullets wounds of capitalism. It not about legislative change which is a narrow outlook of oppositions role anyway.

Okay. You see, this? This is something I have a huge issue with. Not necessarily when it comes to policy or perspective- I agree with a bunch of Murphy’s views. But with CH’s defence of his actions. Let me explain why.

The Role of a Legislator Is To Legislate

The first thing that I want to take issue with is this:

It not about legislative change which is a narrow outlook of oppositions role anyway.

There are many ways to do opposition. Shedloads of ’em. Despite what you hear, working through parliaments (as well as stuff like voting etc) is just one way of many to create change. In fact, I’d go further than that. The vast majority of the time here in Ireland, any legislative change that is enacted on social issues happens after shifts in public opinion. If you want to create change without engaging directly with the legislate process? Do that! Do grassroots work. Educate and communicate your views. Work at the local level to create models of how you’d like things to be done, and put in the everyday work of keeping those things going. Protest and demonstrate. Campaign, or provide support to campaigns. Write a book or a blog, submit articles for people to read, start a vlog if you like.

There’s many, many ways- most of which I’m sure I haven’t mentioned- that you can help to bring about the change you’d like to see which don’t involve legislation. Legislation is one tiny piece of a huge jigsaw.

But if you’re going to apply for a job as a legislator? I expect you to be interested in legislating. Period. End of sentence.

I expect you to take that job with the intent of working your butt off for your entire term at legislating.  And I expect you to show me that you can get legislation passed. I expect you to be willing to grit your teeth, hold your nose and work on the compromise legislation that isn’t exactly what any of us want because the alternative is so much worse. If you’re not wiling to do that, then you have no business looking for that job. There are many other spaces where your voice would be better used.

Hell to the Yes, I Want That Bandaid.

Let’s go to the next part.

maybe you missed the part about wanting a socialist alternative not band aids for bullet wounds of capitalism

To describe short-term legislative change as “band aids for bullet wounds of capitalism” is to use some pretty strong words and make some extremely strong assumptions. I’m going to take three premises out of this, and address them in order:

  1. That the harm caused by capitalism can be likened to a bullet wound- that is, is not just extremely serious but requires urgent action.
  2. That the small changes possible through immediate legislative change can be likened to a band-aid: something that will cover the wound, staunch the bleeding, but won’t do anything about the bullet lodged within you.
  3. That tackling immediate needs and creating long-term substantial change are mutually exclusive.

My answer to the first? Yep, there sure are some extremely harmful things going on which need to be addressed urgently. I wouldn’t personally use the single term ‘capitalism’ to describe the forces causing these- I think it’s a whole lot more complicated than that and there’s a lot of forces involved, and I also prefer to think of capitalisms as opposed to one unitary thing. But I have a feeling that that kind of pedantry isn’t terribly useful right here. Let’s agree that there’s some seriously harmful stuff happening and we need to do something about it, sharpish.

It’s when we get to the second part that we’re going to start to disagree. You describe the kind of legislative change possible from the EP as bandaids. I’d use a different metaphor: they’re more like first aid. Sure, they’re not the well-equipped intensive care unit of culture-wide change creating a society where each of us is able to live without fear of destitution and has real opportunity to thrive. But first aid will keep you alive. First aid is the thing that’ll keep you breathing until the ambulance gets here.

Theory can never, ever trump practicality

That third premise is one I have even more difficulty accepting than the other two. If that’s the case, then you need to take a long, hard look at where your theory is coming from, because I have no interest in theory that puts itself before people’s real and immediate needs.

A real alternative to the way we’re doing things now is all well and good, but some of us- a lot of us- don’t have the luxury of theory. Because of piss-poor, inadequate legislation here in Ireland, people now have a higher chance of surviving pregnancies that threaten their lives than they did a couple of years ago. Piss-poor, inadequate legislation means that as long as I don’t work in a school or a hospital I probably won’t get fired for not following Catholic dogma, the way I could back in the ’90s. It’s ludicrous that pregnant people have to travel overseas for abortion services if their lives aren’t in danger, and it’s a disgrace that the RCC can hide behind ‘ethos’ to force people into closets. But it’s better than nothing, and I’m glad we don’t have to live without it. 

In short? If you’re not going to actually attain that socialist alternative next week then fuck yes I would like some bandaids please. And if you can’t hold your nose and enact piss-poor legislation that is all you can get but better than nothing? Then there are far better places to take your activism than Parliament.


*Translation for non-Irish people: most excellent person who does things I approve of greatly.

** Surprise for you USian people- ‘Socialist’ isn’t actually a dirty word ’round this neck of the woods. Woop!

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Bandaids and Bulletholes: on privileging theory over practicality

Conversation, Not Debate

Over the past few weeks, this wee bloglet of mine seems to have gotten a decent bit of attention. While that is, of course, nice, if a bit disconcerting, I may be about to destroy it in one fell swoop. I’ve been wanting to talk about this for a while, and was reminded of it the other week when the (amazing) Captain Awkward linked to The Gloss’s article When Men are too Emotional to Have a Rational Argument. Also, a few recent comment threads have threatened to go in a direction I’m not particularly comfortable with. I want to talk about why.

I’ve written about this before, by the way. I’m bringing it up again for a couple of reasons- the first being that this is my little sandbox, and I’d like to at least give guidelines for the way that we play here. The second reason is that I feel I have a far better handle now on why I think the way I do and what I want to gain from this.

What are we doing here?

What is the purpose of conversation? What is the purpose of this conversation? Are we here to spread our existing views as loudly as we can, or are we here to communicate with others and learn from them?

I think that there is a place for both. Some days I kick back, open up Pharyngula and watch PZ kickin’ ass and takin’ names. And some days I hop over to Youth Defence or the Iona Institute’s pages and get my snark on. It can be a beautifully cathartic thing, and there is definitely a value in making sure that those people know that they are doing something up with which we will not put.

But I don’t want this blog to be that space. I’m not here to fight. I’m here to communicate. I don’t come to this blog certain that I have all the answers. I write my views here. Those views are generally well-researched and I’m happy to stand behind them. But as a social science-trained skeptic I know that my views are both provisional and biased. I want them to develop over time. I want to be exposed to new information, evidence and perspectives that can change my mind if my mind needs changing. That’s why I’m here.

Where do we want to be after this conversation?

Are you willing to change your mind? After a conversation, do you want to be in the same position as you were before it? Or do you want to have new information to consider and use to develop your view? Is your view entrenched or provisional?

There is nothing more frustrating than a conversation with someone who has already made up their mind, before you’ve said a word, what their position is. Obviously there are cases, by the way, where the evidence in favour of one perspective or another (Homeopathy! Global warming! The kyriarchy! Evolution!) is overwhelming. But in many other topics there are a lot of grey areas. A lot of the things I talk about are still up in the air, and (even) perspectives that I disagree with have value. Do we want our perspectives to change and develop, and to go away from conversations with food for thought? Do we want our conversation partners to do the same? Or do we want both parties to leave every bit as entrenched in their views as before, and just a little bit more resentful of the other?

I want my conversations to be productive. I want them to produce development and changes in our opinions. I want our views to become richer and more nuanced, to take into account complexities and not be afraid to let go of easy answers.

Who gets to speak?

More importantly, who is silenced? There are people who favour a robust, confrontational style of debate. They have great big swathes of the internet and wider media to play in. As last year’s version of me said:

I like watching debate. Watching debates can be great, especially watching great debaters. But watching debate to me isn’t like watching a conversation. It’s like watching a game. Watching two masters* of their craft debate each other is like watching masters of any sport. It’s exciting. There’s an immense amount of skill involved. And someone’s gotta win, and someone’s gotta lose.

Debate is a sport, and it is about winning. It’s highly oppositional. In a debate, the only way that you really try to listen to the other speaker is to seek the flaws in their argument. You’re playing to the crowd, dancing around the other debater to win the audience around.

And that can be an immense amount of fun to watch, and I’m sure an immense amount of fun to take part in. But however entertaining debate can be in this context, I no more wish for it every day than I want to invite someone around for tea and be dragged out to run a marathon, chocolate biscuit in hand.

It’s an unfortunate fact that louder, more confrontational people tend to get heard more than those who are more subdued. I’m guilty of this myself- there are times when I go off on one myself. I ain’t perfect. But I don’t think that loudness or debating skill has any deeper meaning than being loud or good at debating. It doesn’t mean that your point is any better. And an oppositional style of conversation almost necessarily neglects the legitimate points their opponent has made.

I want to hear from people who don’t do debate. I want to provide a space where their voices can be heard. I think that non-debaters can have interesting and novel things to say, and I want them to be able to air their views without being sucked into an argument.

What kind of conversation is most productive?

I’m sick and tired of the glorification of confrontation. Confrontation is sometimes necessary and, yes, it can be exhilarating. It has a place. It can also be exhausting, upsetting, and can entrench people in imperfect sides when there is value and nuance in between and outside each of them while putting off others from even entering the conversation.

People have perspectives for a reason. Sometimes that reason is ridiculous, irrational and blatantly false or biased. Sometimes it’s not, and different sides can both have valuable and important points. The only way that we can convince each other of that value, however, is to be willing to listen to what the other person has to say. Not to shut up until it’s time to make your point. To actually listen to what they are saying and not what you think they are saying. To understand why they are saying it. To engage with their points as deeply as you do your own. To be willing to change your mind, to learn, and to develop. I don’t want to debate. I want to collaborate.

That’s the kind of conversation I want to have.

Conversation, Not Debate

Michael D Who?

Those of you who aren’t Irish, but know people who are, are probably wondering what the hell the big fuss is about. Michael D Higgins? Who’s that? A few pictures of some short old guy with faintly ridiculous hair* later, you’re none the wiser.

So I’m gonna do you a public service. I’m going to let the man who we’ve just elected President of Ireland speak for himself. Let you get to know the man who’ll be shaking hands with your heads of state for the next seven years.

And maybe then you’ll understand why we freakin’ love this guy. Here’s the long version– it’s so, so worth it though. Scroll down for the shorter bit!

Let’s start with something you’ll all understand. Here’s Michael D on the Tea Party. This one is NSFW, and not just for mentions of the T*a P***y.

Refreshing, eh? But it’s not hard to be against the T*a P***y ’round these parts. Let’s see him take on something a little more meaty, shall we? How about civil unions, marriage equality, and real threats to the family for a starter. Here he is back in 2006:

That was some good straight talkin’ there. Want some more? How about we pop forward a year to 2007. Let’s see what he had to say about corporate responsibility and access to resources, a year before the bubble burst.

Here’s Michael D on education:

And here he is on healthcare and his local hospital:

I could go on. Oh, how I could go on. But I don’t want to spam you with videos. And I think you may have a little taste of the awesome that is Michael D by now.

I absolutely cannot let you go without a bit of the Saw Doctors. Go on, give it a click. You know you want to.

Was that a bit Tl;dr? Give this a go instead.

Congratulations, President Higgins. I am proud beyond belief to have you representing me and my country for the next seven years. I hope we are all inspired by your optimism and radical inclusivity to create a society we can all feel a part of.

(Also, thank you for showing us that there are is, in fact, jobs out there for sociologists.)

*he used to be a ginger, you know.

Michael D Who?