Monday, 5 November 2012

What I hate about politics...

Early during my college days (at PPP/ITM, Shah Alam), since I had probably impressed some of my English instructors with my above-average fluency in English, I was asked to attend trials for the college English debate team. I wasn't really keen to attend but did so nonetheless out of respect for one of my instructors who really wanted me to try.

So I went, and was randomly assigned as the first debater for the opposition side. My task was, well, to oppose whatever it was the arguments presented by the proposition. Alas, sitting on my chair listening to the first debater from the affirmative side passionately explaining her points for the motion, I began to feel how strongly in agreement I was with most of her points. But I was conscious of the fact that my task was to disagree and I should be focused on doing just that.

When I spoke however, my words betrayed me as I went on to commit one of the most fundamental mistakes in a debate - expressing my agreement with my opponent's point-of-view. The topic was on media censorship and my opponent had just argued why children should not be exposed to violence and sexual content in movies. To me, that made perfect sense, so I told myself "how and why should I disagree". Agreeing with and conceding to your opponent are sure ways to lose a debate, and I did end-up losing that debate. And quite obviously, I was not selected to join the college debating team.

To defend your arguments at all cost and to never concede that your opponent might be right are the essentials of partisan politics too. The goal and dream of every politician is to successfully portray himself as someone who knows the answers to all the problems in the history of mankind and to portray his opponent as a complete idiot. The problem with that is; as anyone with even a tiny-bit of objectivity would agree, no one has the answers to everything.

In ancient Greece, there was a group of people renowned for their oratory and persuasive skills. They are commonly referred to as the Sophists. The Sophists were intellectuals skilled in the use of rhetoric. Their goal was to persuade and impress their audience. Whether their words represent their beliefs and conviction was not of their concern. The truth is not important. Winning is all that matters.

Socrates detested the Sophists. He himself was a skilled orator but to him, the goal of every argument and dialogue is to establish the truth. And if one's argument is proven to be wrong, he should concede and gracefully acknowledge the veracity of others' opinion. The Sophists however were known to resort to cynicism and relativism when cornered.

Politicians today (most of them at least) are not dissimilar to the Sophists. To them, winning the argument is all that matters. Whether they represent the truth or whether you even believe in what you say is not really important. Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate in this year's US presidential election is a prime example. During the Republican primaries, in order to secure the support from fellow Republicans, Romney painted a picture of himself as a true conservative on every single issue; healthcare, abortion, taxes, government etc. Now that he is the Republican candidate, his focus has shifted to middle-ground voters so, quite conveniently, he is now portraying himself more as a centrist and less conservative.

You can convince some, even many perhaps that your shifting of views is a non-issue but for the more analytical and perceptive among us, it is something deeply disturbing. Why? Because ideally, we want a leader with principles and conviction, one who is honest and truthful in all his words and actions. We don't want a leader who is more like a prototype salesman who is willing to say anything to clinch a deal. Sooner-or-later, your flip-flop tendency will be exposed and your own words will come back to haunt you.

Like the Sophists, politicians too often resort to cynicism when their principles and views are seriously questioned. The key is to deflect attention away from yourself by using negative politics. Essentially, this is all about painting the picture that your opponent is utterly useless and incompetent. And by doing so, you hope to persuade people to support you not necessarily because they like you and your ideas, but because they hate your opponent and his policies so much they are willing to vote for anyone except him.

What is ironic about this is, a politician is supposedly concerned about all that is good for the country, but if for example you are in the opposition and you do not want people to continue to support the government, you would actually be happy whenever there is a negative report about the country. Consciously, or subconsciously at least, you would want every single policy undertaken by the current government to fail; the more devastating the failure the better. Because the more the government is seen to have failed, the more the people will hate the government, and the more willing they will be to vote them out and vote for you instead in the next election.

We see this everywhere, in the US, in Malaysia and other countries all over the world. Mitt Romney for example seems happy to make the argument that President Barack Obama's economic policies in the last four years have all failed. And each time a report on the US economy comes out, he and his supporters have painstakingly extrapolate every single negative aspect in it, and while doing so ignoring whatever positives it may contain.

This is the thing about politics that I really, really hate. Having said that, I accept that this is part-and-parcel, perhaps even the bread-and-butter of politics. It is not the arena for idealists, and I do consider myself an idealist. Hence, I have no business to ever be directly involved in politics. The cognitive dissonance that comes with it would be unbearable. But then, Allahu'alam, like many other things in life, you can never say "never"!