Quickpost: Why (good) opinion writing is essential to (good) politics

On the drive home, I was thinking about chess.  Specifically, the different lines of the Tennison Gambit.

What’s fascinating when thinking through chess openings is to consider that there’s a point at which both players have tacitly agreed with the game will be.  White did this; black did that; together, they caused a variation of the Tennison Gambit.

Later in the evening, a conversation popped up on Twitter about Visa prohibiting the use of their services to use prostitution websites.  One side of the discussion felt that Visa was morally obliged — perhaps even should be legally obliged — to let people use their services with prostitution sites.  The other side felt that there was no obligation and that, perhaps, Visa was morally obliged to prevent their services being used with prostitution sites.

Needless to say, the conversation didn’t end well.

But it got me thinking about chess again, and how good opinion writing sort of works like a chess game.

To no small extent, we operate on scripts in order to function as human beings.  I hold this or that opinion, and I can use an abbreviated form of a full idea in order to communicate myself in a way that people around me understand what I’m saying.  In the extreme, they boil down to slogans: ‘Abortion is murder!’ ‘Her body her choice!’ ‘Death penalty is murder!’ ‘Eye for an eye!’ ‘Rule of law!’ ‘Separation of Church and State!’

Even when they’re not reduced to slogans, there’s still an element of incompleteness about them.  A libertarian might have a fleshed out understanding of the freedom of speech that they can recite that will ultimately rely upon some unspoken understanding of ‘harm’ or ‘liberty’.  On a sheer practical level, we can’t function if we have to completely and thoroughly define every aspect of our conversation.  Nor do other people expect us to.

Identifying where the disagreements about these fundamental phrases lead us down different paths is where it’s something like the chess game.  Together, we have played this sequence of moves and it would have continued along like this, except I played a variation at line five, or you did something weird at line three and now we’re in a different game altogether.

Good opinion writing allows us to see how the game plays out when some element is different.  Yes, offshore processing is bad… but if we change one of the assumptions, we might think that a version of offshore processing might be morally superior to onshore processing.  Yes, the death penalty is bad… but if we change one of the assumption, we might think that a version of the death penalty might be morally acceptable.  And so on and so on.

The recent bleating from the News Corp conservatives about Q&A, for example, has not been good opinion writing.  They don’t change any of the assumptions that we’ve shared in our journey to identify why we hold different opinions.  They don’t allow us to go out into the world and practice this new variation on others in order to explain ourselves better.

But what if we’re not playing the same game?

Whenever it comes up that I’m pro-death penalty, I tend to hear exactly the same responses.  It’s kind of weird: it’s almost as if people don’t think that I’d have heard that argument recited at me before.  As I’ve shown before, the rehearsed arguments against the death penalty are fine and dandy when you’re dealing with the usual blood-braying, but not when you’re dealing with anything more sophisticated.  Similarly, I’m pro-choice, but most pro-choice arguments only work against the placard waving protesters rather than anything more serious.

Recently, a lot of Australian material has been written about libertarianism along similar lines to the above.  Although the positions might be ‘friendly’ — such as support for marriage equality, and for legalising marijuana — the underlying game is entirely hostile to progressive causes.  The discussion with libertarians has to begin with an understanding that they’re just not playing the same game as the rest of us.  But this shouldn’t surprise us — the same is true when we are discussing issues with communists and socialists.  Even feminists, as I’ve argued before, are using language in a way that men can’t engage.

Good opinion writing — the sort that analytically demonstrates what happens when we vary the standard game — allows us to understand our political positions better, and also the political positions of people with whom we disagree.  If I go Nimzowitsch where you go Greek, we can both see the logic in the other’s choice.  It not like somebody is utterly imbecilic for preferring one over the other.  I wonder why the same doesn’t tend to be true for political writing: you either agree with me and all of my good opinions, or you are an imbecile.


Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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