Know Your Politics, or Why Going Back to the Theory is Crucial

Frontispiece of Leviathan by Abraham Bosse (source: Wikipedia)

When people talk about politics they usually refer to it as the art of deciding what to do. Some more precise definitions might include the phrase: “among people with different perspectives”. Others who may have read some more would say it’s the way in which we conduct the issues of social life.

All of these definitions are correct, as they point to one aspect of political practice. However, most the time people do not base their political opinions on a thorough understanding neither of the problem nor of the underlying concepts and principles. And I’m not talking about studying a bunch of political science textbooks, but a much simpler idea: social science high school education all over the world relies on facts (what happened in the French Revolution, or what was the Great Depression), but seldom go to the philosophical discussions between liberals and radicals in XVIII century France or how the Smoot-Hawley Tariff aggravated the recession in the 1930s. In other words, people are seldom faced with the concepts and principles that found what they believe is just and good. They’re just left with the idea, the fact that “this is just” and “this is good”.

Yet at times there is a need to go back to the principles. We are confronted with issues that require us to do a little more thinking. Are animals sentient beings such as to criminalize cruelty against them? What is more important, the choice of the woman or the life of the baby? Are people owners of their life so as to choose when to die? And many other quite difficult questions, despite the fact that one may be keen to answer a very loud, yet reactive, “Yes” or “No”, “This” or “That”.

It is at these times that we must go back to the theory. Even professional social scientists sometimes neglect the value of theory in their practice. They believe it‘s’ just a bunch of philosophical nonsense that gets nowhere, while they use the very useful methods of math and statistics to inform public policy. This is because theory IS a bunch a philosophical nonsense that gets nowhere, and that‘s its value. It does not give us the answers to the questions of life, but a set of concepts and categories to analyse the phenomena from which those questions arise. And this is what we should be looking for when approaching a theory book. Thucydides does not only tell us a very interesting story of the Peloponnesian War, he also analysed the war using categories of the balance of economic and military power, and how the smart use of those power resources could result in a shift in the output of the war.

So I actually have an invitation to make. Whenever we read someone’s opinion in a newspaper or a blog, let’s check if they’re using concepts and categories and not just a bunch of clickbait phrases. How do we do this? Let´s see.

First, we need to know if someone’s opinion is influenced by a conflict of interest. Are they defending one of the sides in a fight? If yes, it’s not a bad thing. It is a part of politics that we defend an idea, and there’s nothing wrong with being opinionated. Yet we must be wary and check if their defense is based on facts and not just a bunch of made-up tales, or even worse, fake news.

Second, we must recognise the problem they’re refering to and how they define it. Are they refering to a political process? If yes, then we should be given a set of events clearly linked to one another, with enough evidence to sustain those claims. Do they sound a little bit hard to sustain? Go and check the evidence yourself. On the other hand, if someone’s writing to defend a side, they will eventually refer to their counterparts and this is when it gets tricky and there’s a crucial question: Are they being intellectually honest? In other words, are they refering to their counterpart truthfully and not just interpreting their words to sustain a case against them? This is a common resource of populist thinkers: I will explain to you what they don’t understand about their own ideas, all the better if you won’t go and check if what I’m saying is correct. A very typical example is when radicalists talk about liberalism: they use the concept “individualism” to refer to “egoism”, so everyone believes today that individualism is wrong.

And third, we get to the crucial part. We must be able to recognise the concepts and categories they’re using to understand the political process, idea or event they’re analysing. What’s the definition of X they’re using so as to understand this event as such? For instance, why do some say X is a criminal act and others say it’s a terrorist act? Does it really fall within the definition of terrorism or are they trying to politicise justice? Yet again, we must be wary. Political analysis walks down the thin line between intuition and paranoia. Yes, you may be right to question everything you read or hear. No, the government’s not lying to you in every word they say. Informed opinion, better yet well read opinion, is a magnificent tool against conspiranoid thinking.

So this is it. Let me know how this goes for you. If you feel you need to study a little bit more, do a little more reading then! The web is full of sites that will teach you the basics of political thinking so you can inform your ideas and opinions better.

-S.

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