Are debates between Liberal Democrat bloggers generating more heat than light?
One of the great things about being a Lib Dem is that we are prepared to debate ideas. Yet lately I have been frequently questioning just how useful many of those debates are. So many sentences written, so many opinions offered, so few conclusions reached. One of the most frustrating things about many of these debates is that because of a loose or odd use of language you end up losing track of what people are going on about.
So this post is an attempt to offer some advice to my fellow bloggers.
Words and meaning
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,’ it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’From Through The Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
A debate happens when two or more individuals discuss the same thing and reach some form of conclusion.
A row happens when two or more individuals discuss different things, but are under the impression that they are talking about the same thing, and as a result reach no conclusion.
If you don’t think this is true, then you probably haven’t been in many relationships!
In politics confusion is often caused by questions of terminology. In order to aid political debate we use labels all the time. We use labels to simplify our discussions about ideas and groups of ideas. Yet those labels can be problematic. A classic example that Liberal Democrats would be familiar with is the complaint that the labels “left” and “right” are meaningless and limiting. Yet we have all heard the same politicians who make that complaint use the terms quite happily in other contexts.
So how do we deal with the problematic nature of political labels? Well first we need to understand why those problems occur.
The problem of self definition
“I am a liberal” I say. “OK,” you say, “but what do you mean by that?”. A reasonable question. When we give ourselves labels, in this case political ones, we are engaging in an exercise of personal self definition. The problem with that is it is personal in nature. What I mean by being a liberal may differ, possibly significantly, from what you understand it to mean. Anyone who has an awareness of the tricky issues around the use of labels when applied to sexuality will be familiar with this problem of identity. But it applies in a political context as well.
The personal, the popular, and the academic
So we’ve established that what I mean by being a liberal may differ, possibly significantly, from what you understand it to mean. However it is also possible that what you and I may mean by being a liberal may differ, again possibly significantly, from what the rest of the world may mean. And this is further complicated by the difference between the academic understanding of a political label and the way that term is understood by the general population.
Political scientists attempt to develop specific technical definitions of the terminology they use and write long scholarly articles about the nature of conservatism etc. Yet I doubt the leader writers of the Daily Mail, when they accuse someone of “socialism”, do so after consulting academic journals or those that rant about “namby pamby liberals” do so with an in-depth knowledge of Mill.
This is an issue of context. When you use a word like “liberal” in a university seminar it will be understood in a different way to when you use it down the pub. Although, that obviously depends upon who you are in the habit of drinking with.
Language is political
Politicians have to be particularly careful to talk in the language that voters understand. Choosing the right words is a key political skill and sometimes it is necessary to sacrifice technical accuracy for popular clarity. Some words can also carry a lot of political baggage. They can have a popular meaning very different from their dictionary definition. Many an American politician will have avoided like the plague using the word ‘liberal’ on the campaign trail, even if in private they are happy to admit that in the strict sense they are one. To use words without acknowledging the wider political impact they can have is, in a politician, very naive. Arising from this is the related issue about the need sometimes to actively work to reclaim words.
The problem of geography
Labels mean different things in different places. In particular there are crucial differences between the meanings of political labels between Europe and America. This can lead to confusion when debating in English, let alone when translating between different languages.
Also, greater confusion arises because of the habit in British politics of looking to the USA for inspiration and underestimating the influence of other European countries, so that we end up occupying a political space somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. Again, the “liberal” label is a very good example of this. Do we talk about liberal using an American, a European or an exclusively British sense?
The problem of history
Another seemingly obvious truth is that the meaning of words change over time. So you need to be aware of the historical context of a political label. A socialist in 2009, a socialist in 1959 and a socialist in 1909 are three very different people.
The confusion of ideas with party
In Britain for much of the 20th Century it was common for people to call themselves socialist, not because they had any great understanding of or had thought in great depth about socialist principles, but just because they were members of the Labour Party. For all I know some deluded fools may still do so. Herbert Morrison famously said “socialism is what Labour governments do”. This is of course bollocks.
Debates can still be had about how “socialist” the Labour Party was at different points of its history, but the point is that ideas are independent of institutions. Just because a political party has the label for a set of ideas in its name or claims them as its heritage doesn’t mean that the platform and policies of that party are a coherent expression of the latest definition of that label.
This is a very important point to understand. For instance, the label ‘liberal’ is not owned by the Liberal Democrats. Not everything the Liberal Democrats do should be labelled as ‘liberal’. And there isn’t anything intrinsically “wrong” in that.
Mastering our words
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’From Through The Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
If we want to have useful debates about political ideas on our blogs and forums we need to take great care with the labels we give those ideas.
If we are to use a particular label within a debate, and want that debate to reach some sort of conclusion, then all those engaged in the debate need to agree amongst themselves the meaning that is to be given to that label.
The best way to achieve such an agreement is to establish a clear definition of the label.
A clear and precise agreed definition will ensure that we are discussing the same thing. We are then the masters of the words that we use.
So, if you want to have a debate and not an argument – first define your terms!
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.