Archive for April, 2011

The Talented Voter

April 27, 2011

Politics is kind of stupid and kind of dirty – J.P.

The game is so unfathomable, the players so practiced, the information so unreliable, the opinions so varied, and the goals so vaguely defined, that I cannot bear to participate.

Should the voter accept a measure of responsibility for the actions of the elected? If the idealized conception of the democratic state is one where a well informed citizen scrutinizes the choices on offer, and then casts a vote for the politician that reconciles best with their conscience, then the citizen must cry “mea culpa” should their horse disappoint. By the same logic, should the elected prove satisfactory then the citizen may take pride and live vicariously through the good governorship of their chosen one.

But the ideal democratic plane is a fiction, and the fidelity of transmission from political pulpit to interested voter is muddied by all manner of spin and selfish aforethought. All politicians are liars is too sweeping a statement to be taken seriously (and fails to admit of an intuitive definition) but all politicians do choose their words with care; and not to promote clarity but to avoid loading an opponent’s gun. Meanwhile, the voter watching the proceedings, whether debate or speech, must play the game – navigate carefully, pick out the truth from the barrell of tactics, and either forgive or condemn the variant stratagems of the heroes as foul billiards or level partie.

It’s enough to make me fantasize of a good retch if only to distract myself from the exhausting display. Thoughts of self harm began to creep when I attempted to watch a leadership debate the other night. The first 15 minutes were all I could withstand, the last straw being some rather pitiful display between Jack Layton and Michael Ignatieff, where Layton attempted to win points  by casting Ignatieff’s stance on Afghanistan as identical to Harper’s – as if Ignatieff was guilty by sheer association. As worthy an observation as calling out Harper for being like Hitler. Ugh…

Hands up. I am out. It’s not the politicians I hate, it’s the politics. Find someone  else.

Robin Lindsay



Arguing on the Internet

April 14, 2011

Having a decent discussion on the internet is next to impossible.

Yesterday, I found myself embroiled in a debate with someone I didn’t know. I normally find the prospect of an argument rare treat, and was hoping for yet another vicious and mercilessness attack on my assumptions. Instead, while it was promising at first, it soon became wet bread.

Difficult talking points are difficult for being nuanced. Many facets must be weighed, discarded, accepted, and are ultimately built upon other facets and ad infinitum. It is no wonder that many a talk is derailed or bogged down for challenging not only the central points of one’s discussion partner, but the foundations of the foundations of the foundations of their assumptions. Not only must one follow the thread, but scrutinize each step, and each of those steps is a potential tangent. Soon enough, your friendly debate about whether Main Street needs a stop sign becomes one about the role of the super ego in 19th century power politics.

My discussion yesterday was about a video a friend posted. I took issue with the central message, and a friend of the poster supported it. It soon became clear that continuing the discussion was impossible for the foundations of his assumptions. Right or wrong, his worldview was so completely foreign to me that to continue debating the topic at hand would have been pointless. To trust I was being understood would only have been possible with a personal glossary, index, and footnotes. For me to understand him would have required drilling holes in my brain…

But some people are impossible to talk to, and they do it to themselves.

Arguing from personal experience, while not entirely inappropriate 100% of the time, is a conversation stopper. At worst, personal experience informs all kinds of crazy ideas – gambling assumptions being a classic example of how people come to conclusions about the world based on insufficient data “… I always seem to win on red.” However, even the seemingly more reasonable observations from personal experience “I got robbed while on vacation in Utah. Utah is a dangerous place” or “The policeman let me go with a warning. The police are nice” are incredibly difficult to cope with intelligently. The problem? Any argument from personal experience runs into a counter example from somebody else’s personal experience, and the discussion is rendered neuter.

If I could pick just one tactic to render verboten in any discussion about anything, it would be playing the unfalsifiable card. If someone makes a statement that cannot be argued with “I just know the Yankees will win tomorrow” they are off the island. However, examples of this sort of tactic abound. Yesterday, my antagonist said

“obama is a corporate shill, too, I figure…they all are at that level…this isn’t news to cynical ol’ me”

What he has done is express a very common sentiment that may be accurate, and then again, may also be totally unfair. I can’t prove him wrong, and he can’t prove he is right. Our lack of access to relevant  information to determine just how much The President is hobbled by corporate interests renders his claim unfalsifiable. Additionally, the way he has framed his sentiment “they all are at that level” is so monolithic and lacking in nuance that it might be dismissed for that reason alone. However, the real problem with what he is saying, is his lack of supporting evidence for his contention – evidence we know he cannot have short of him being a political or corporate insider. Again, I cannot prove he is wrong, but if we accept that the onus is always on the claim maker to demonstrate why he is right, and *not* on those who demand supporting evidence, then we are well on our way to having a reasonable discussion.


Robin Lindsay


Thag & Ursula

April 12, 2011

Words mean things based on usage, not logic.

According to Herodotus, the Egyptian Pharaoh Psammetichus I sought to determine the origin of language by conducting a curious experiment. He gave a shepherd two newborn children to care for and with the instruction the children not be spoken to. The shepherd would listen for their first utterances, and those sounds would be the root language of all people. One day, one of the children cried “becos” (a sound reminiscent of a bleating sheep) which happened to be the Phrygian word for bread. Thus, it was concluded, that the Phrygians were an older people than the Egyptians.

The story above is certainly apocryphal, and if there is any humour to be found, it is rooted in the flawed assumption that there is such a thing as a root tongue – a language from which all other language flows. However, based on what I encounter regularly in arguments, discussions, and sentiments about the nature of language, people very often make the simple mistake of assuming that there is a marriage of the logical foundation of a word and its meaning. If such a thing were true, that what a word should mean is somehow demonstrable based on first principles, then it would be necessary to appeal to a root language.

We can trace English words back to Anglo-Saxon, and in some cases to Latin and Greek, and other languages. We can take a word, reduce it to its component parts, and point to the root words  that demonstrate why a word means what it does. However, it must be true in principle, that if you trace words origins back to antiquity, that the meanings of words are arbitrary – based on utterances random. To think otherwise is to believe in a root language cosmically bestowed on us or woven into our marrow.

There are some surprising commonalities between even the most disparate languages that point to some non random word construction in speech. ‘Ma’ and ‘Da’ for mother and father crosses geographical and linguistic barriers. Clearly, some instinctual mechanism is at play determining parent-specific words, and possibly others. Additionally, a study once demonstrated that an overwhelming majority of people when presented with the two nonsense words “kiki” and “bumph,” thought that they corresponded with pictures of a pointy star like object and a soft and cloudy object respectively, and regardless of the language the participants spoke. Finally, Stephen Pinker reminds us of the language transcending tendency of humans to use spatially rooted words like “grasp” (as in to hold) to analogously describe more abstract concepts (as in to understand). That occurs as often in Aramaic as it does in English, and as often in Chinese as it does in Flemish. However, I hope you are with me in concluding those fascinating titbits point to human language habits, not root languages.

Language pedants become enraged or snarky or simply annoyed at words not meaning what they think they should mean. The standard argument against faux language champions is language is always changing, and you are only annoyed that it doesn’t mean what it meant when you learned it first. I’d like to add “… and it’s all based on a bunch of random grunts by people to whom a rock was an emergent technology.”

Robin Lindsay


Kicked in the Ballot Box

April 6, 2011

The mere act of voting is not a virute

When presented with a voting cubicle the citizen has three choices. To vote, to walk away, or to spoil the ballot. Spoil your ballot! is the cry of he who is politically engaged and frustrated with those who are not. Desperate to get the non voter into the cubicle, the neophyte grasps at lame an ineffective symbolism to shame the apathetic into participation. But, as my friend Patrick says (who is as politically interested as they come)  “What you are saying by spoiling your ballot is that politicians needn’t be concerned with you.” The logical garden path I hope you are following me on leads to a very obvious conclusion: not voting and spoiling your ballot is the same.

Politicians need only be concerned with citizens who vote tactically. If you vote Liberal because you have always voted Liberal, then you are as politically disengaged as the non voter. Politician A can put your vote in the win column before the election begins. Politician B knows that he can’t change your mind. Both politicians can forget about you.

But the citizen capable of changing their mind, who is engaged enough to, perhaps, vote for a third party candidate they know can’t win (but wants to grow that party) and in the meantime is satisfied that their ‘lesser of two evils’ pick is going to win without their vote, is the citizen that candidates must cater too. That level of commitment by the citizen – where they are capable of carefully weighing subtle balances of causes and effect – is what furthers democracy, not the mere act of naive participation.

So, if I may be so blunt, I think simple appeals to the non voting public to “get out and vote” are not only ineffective, but do not further building the country we want to live in. What might, is demonstrating why politics is not only important, but interesting. Interesting enough to desire sufficient information to participate intelligently.

Robin Lindsay


Aw Man, We Totally Vedged on the Pot

April 4, 2011

We live in a conflicted state, where we support the rule of law but ignore it when we think it unjust.

False: Prohibition doesn’t work.

In Singapore, the state imposes severe penalties for violating the drug laws (mandatory death penalty for trafficking). As a result, recreational drug use is close to non existent in the industrialized and wealthy Southeast Asian city state. Singapore is also a place where trial by jury is abolished and corporal punishment for minor offences is commonplace. However, what can be said, is that if a state is willing to go to certain lengths, prohibition is very much possible.

True: Prohibition doesn’t work in a liberal democracy.

Given the balance of our laws and values, it is very difficult to reconcile the criminalization of drugs with other laws that protect our rights to do whatever we wish with our bodies. Yes, the government can put your body in a uniform and send you off to war, grant or not grant you the right to have an abortion, quarantine you in case of disease, and lock your body up if you are  dangerously crazy. Yes, whenever the rights of others can be effected, the government may step in and curtail or inform what you can do with your person. However, short of the very logical standard of  ‘effecting others,’ our government has no business sticking its beak.

How to respond to a law you don’t agree with?

Potheads respond to laws against marijuana use by smoking pot. Their strategy can’t be called elaborate or revolutionary, but it has proved somewhat effective. Socially speaking, there is little pressure to be seen as ‘anti-pot’, and even those who rarely or never partake are often perfectly accepting of others who do. Yes, at the social-cultural level, there is a great deal of freedom to be found for pot smoking.

However, in Canada, our laws have not caught up to the will of the people. Or, is that an assumption? Is political will not directly informed by the will of the people? Yes, big business and greed and self aggrandizing personal goals may inform the decision making of many a politician, but those same ego-maniacal go getters are still subject to the will of the electorate. Perhaps the voting public isn’t ready to see their neighbour skin up a fatty.

One last thought. How do we decide what laws to break and obey? Obviously, those that voluntarily speed or rip off proverbial mattress tags are knowingly and intentionally violating the law of the land, and are prepared to accept the consequences. However, a little speeding isn’t going to cost you any friends or label you a pariah. Be that as it may, if you beat to death the man who rapes your daughter it might not cost you any friends either, but you are still going to jail.

Not such an easy question.

Robin Lindsay


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