The (lost?) art of conversation

I have recently finished reading The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen – inspired by reading The Undivided Past by David Cannadine which was in turn inspired by hearing him on A Point of View.  Isn’t life path-dependent?  (Especially if that appeals to you and so you somewhat encourage it).

I would not claim to fully understand the book, despite considerable background reading in philosophy and economics over the years (and help from several episodes of In Our Time), but nevertheless I shall try and summarise a couple of his key thoughts.

Firstly, he is not a big fan of transcendental solutions while recognising the debt that he and others owe to earlier philosophers who used such ideas.  He would say that justice is not well served when someone tries to find a perfect solution to all of the issues and then tries to implement it.  I’d certainly be inclined to go along with this: for a start, humans seem to struggle to implement something as simple as a largish IT project without making a complete (and very expensive) mess so solving the wider problems in society and the world does not seem likely.  I would also strongly suspect that people will not agree on a single “final solution” (a phrase with a very unpleasant history) – though many may be able to agree on smaller steps to take towards a better solution than the one we have today.

This brings us to his second big idea which is that to find these smaller steps we need to have reasoned public discussion.  This discussion needs to include voices from outside the local polity (whatever that may be) to avoid becoming trapped by parochial thinking.  In this way, Mr Sen hopes that we can identify and move towards a more just world – even when we don’t all agree about everything.  We can even do this with out unduly harming those who remain in reasonable disagreement.

Last night I had the pleasure of listening to the philosopher Angie Hobbs on Desert Island Discs.  Rather a fine choice of discs (which means her musical taste is not too dissimilar from mine), but more importantly some interesting thoughts on the importance of teaching philosophy to the young.  I have come to be fascinated by philosophy rather late in life, but Angie made the excellent point that it can help to foster critical thinking from a young age.  She (and I) wonder if young people equipped with such an ability would be in a stronger position to make better choices about their lives.  The young are not stupid, merely lack experience, but this does mean they can be relatively easily manipulated.  If our society appears to offer little to the young, I doubt knowledge of the 6 times table or the dates of the reign of Henry II offer much of a bulwark against those proposing an alternative to society – even if that alternative later leads to performing despicable acts in a local gang or a foreign war.

The media in all of its myriad modern forms could be front-and-centre in providing forums (or fora for any Ancient Romans reading) to host the reasoned discussion that seems so important to me.  However, what we find instead is the media playing host to incredibly narrow views which are defended against all comers with unreasoned venom.  Indeed, the need for “balance” seems to be used to actively promote this sort of this thought-free verbal conflict.  The current obsession of all political parties that every statement or thought must be on-message makes this even worse – narrowing the range of views that are visible still further and heaping abuse and opprobrium any who dare to move away from the rigidly enforced orthodoxy.  This means no-one in politics (and increasingly public life more broadly) intentionally says anything of any value.  Is it any wonder that people are disaffected with politics and are drawn towards the comforting fantasies offered by UKIP or the Greens?

The recent news – which despite my best attempts to avoid it seems to creep in through the interstices of life – has been particularly depressing in this regard.  The number of party leaders who stand around and “debate” seems far more important that what they debate or whether we will learn anything other than which of them are better at public speaking or remembering the details of their brief.  I have a pretty good memory and, as we have established, am more than willing to harangue a crowd: does this mean I should be running the country?  (Whilst there is usually no right answer in these situations, here I am willing to say that the correct answer is a resounding: NO).  I’m quite happy to have an absent-minded, bearded mumbler in charge if he (or she) were actually competent.  Sadly, our political system does seem to be stacked against a leader having any of these qualities: especially the last.

This week the news has been obsessed by a very expensive, but rather ineffective watch – really a watch that only lasts 18 hours under optimal conditions does seem rather a backward step for mankind even if it does save you from the intolerable burden of taking your phone out of your pocket.  Did the Calvinist Swiss strive in vain?

Today the obsession is with a man who may (or may not) have hit another man.  I hate to break it to the media, but men have been hitting other men since before we were men.  If we reported every such occurrence the entire available media bandwidth would be needed 24 hours a day.  I would agree men really shouldn’t hit each other – and if that if they do, then some sort of response to such naughtiness is probably required.  However, if an accounts clerk hit a colleague it really wouldn’t be the lead story on the national news nor would all the accounts he had recently “clerked” by thrown away: he would be subject to some standard disciplinary action and the world would continue on its axis.  I also doubt that lines would be drawn in the sand with tens of thousands insisting on his right to deck his colleagues or insisting that he should be hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.  Really, if every time a buffoon who enjoys being a bit controversial (and don’t we all, especially if it generates a laugh without harming anyone else) loses his temper briefly and does something foolish the whole world and her spouse then project all of their frustrations into vitriolic attacks on each other it may be time to give another species the keys to the planet.  Even if the red squirrels or sea otters make a terrible mess of it, at least they will look cute while doing it!

OK, I’m painting things as rather more black than they actually are: a very dark shade of charcoal.  There are little pockets of reasoned debate where the determined member of the public can catch little glimpses of new ways of thinking about and understanding the important issues of the day.  I try and seek them out, but it is hard and time-consuming work: if only there were some way one could support these pockets and see them grow.  There are a few writers and philosophers who regularly add to the rather thin gruel of public debate – I don’t always agree with them (at least on first hearing), but am very grateful to have their input.  Having stumbled upon them, I try and listen to their work, buy their books etc but rather fear this is not enough in these austere times.  Would that one could sponsor an intellectual or have a Spotify for thought: perhaps having seen the lack, it is down to me to fix it: arghh!

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