Mentioning the War

The video above is really worth watching. As with most of Malcolm Gladwell’s best material, when he begins you’ll know nothing about what he’s talking about and by the time he finishes you’ll wonder how you lived all of this time without knowing about it. That’s how I felt anyway, though admittedly I have a huge intellectual crush on Gladwell. I strongly suggest you watch the whole video, but if not here’s the section I want to dwell on.

But do you know what the crucial thing is? In that exact same period that we’ve been using these drones with devastating accuracy, the number of attacks, of suicide attacks and terrorist attacks,against American forces in Afghanistan has increased tenfold. As we have gotten more and more efficient in killing them, they have become angrier and angrier and more and more motivated to kill us. I have not described to you a success story. I’ve described to you the opposite of a success story.

And this is the problem with our infatuation with the things we make. We think the things we make can solve our problems, but our problems are much more complex than that. The issue isn’t the accuracy of the bombs you have, it’s how you use the bombs you have, and more importantly,whether you ought to use bombs at all.

He’s right and, when it’s put that way, it seems obvious that we should be questioning the fabric of our geo-politics, our historical reliance on the sword, the siege engine, the bow, the gun, the cannon, the tank, the bomb, the drone to “solve our problems.” Most of the time though, that isn’t obvious. Most of the time most of the people accept that wars will inevitably happen, and so the conversation moves from legitimacy to efficiency.

That’s a problem. Because whatever the answer, the question of violence is among the most important, perhaps the most important one we as a people have to address. And yet, with surprising frequency there’s no space left in the political sphere for serious discussion of another way.

Very often, to question the necessity of warfare and cite peace as a real aspiration is seen as naive. They’re ideas that Ms. World has, not ideas that serious people concerned with serious matters have. When I voice pacifistic opinions people regularly intimate to be that I don’t know or understand enough about the “real world” to see that wars are necessary.

Happily, I’m in good company. In 1938 Virginia Woolf published Three Guineas, connecting feminism and anti-militarism in a manifesto for war-prevention. She had already written some of the finest novels of the century and yet, continuing into the modern day, the most common response to ‘Three Guineas’ has been, though I’m paraphrasing slightly, “I’m not saying that I don’t take women or pacifism seriously…but didn’t she kill herself a few years later? Just saying.”

The first time I spoke at a chamber debate in The Hist the motion was “That This House Supports Irish Neutrality”. I spoke in favour and I made the same arguments I would make now, that I believe that war should be avoided wherever possible and that if the international community is to change its views, then individual countries have to meaningfully commit to non-violence.  And I was patronised and gently mocked. Apparently the “real” issues on the proposition were about Ireland’s military capacity, about the danger of a small nation making enemies, about the financial cost of war. Efficiency, not legitimacy.

That experience really affected me. I kept debating, but I stopped being so honest. I stopped making the arguments I felt, and started trying to do what other people were doing. Hardly anyone else was saying that the primary goal of the international community should be violence prevention. So I didn’t say it either.

Mild humiliation is a particularly insidious and effective form of censorship.

Eventually though, sometime around the beginning of my third year of University, something shifted. I started listening to myself again, I started talking about big issues I cared about, and I started shouting about them and getting emotional about them.

Thankfully, that authenticity came with a greater level of success. Thanks to that success, no matter arguments I made people gave them time of day.  I had intellectual currency. I had a new freedom argue my most deeply felt opinions. And I think that everyone could have that freedom.

So, how does this connect back to Malcolm Gladwell? Even if you don’t imagine a charming domestic life with him like I do, there’s no denying that he has almost limitless amounts of intellectual currency, that his is one of the great minds of the moment. So, if Malcolm Gladwell is saying that we need to seriously reconsider our militarism, that gives the rest of us a new freedom to suggest the same thing and be listened to. He shares his intellectual currency.

Then, each time someone makes an argument that seems implausible, that argument becomes a little bit more plausible, the culture shifts a little, the assumptions shift a little. What’s more people get a bit more space to talk, and that’s a victory in itself.

P.S.  I’ve use the question of anti-militarism as an illustration of this problem, but I think the same theory can be applied to a very wide range of issues.

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5 thoughts on “Mentioning the War

  1. There are few people I would give up 15 minutes for to watch a video they’d posted (which I think is kind of your point) but it was great as was your article, and you’re right its sad when people feel they need to alter their views in order to be heard and respected, though I think I went a little the other way until about a year ago, and often ended up being more controversial then I really was in order to get attention or get people to listen to me.

  2. I have to say I think you’re being unfair. To be mocked by Chris Kissane is not unusual in any debate. If he had resisted mocking you even if he felt you were very wrong because you were a first year that would be far more condescending. He treated you like any other person in the chamber at any other debate.

    Though among my friends I would count you one of the most brave people I know, I do not think – ignoring the merits of the argument – arguing in favour of Irish Neutrality, the position of the great mass of the Irish public, in Ireland is particularly brave. You have taken courageous positions. I would not count this as one of them.

    Rather than humiliation being a form of censorship, I fear an ever present over-politeness stifles debate. Upstairs at that same debate I remember advocating a pro-iraq war position. You and Barra laid into me. I panicked, made some stupid arguments and brought down Godwin’s law upon myself. Quite rightly you both viciously attacked me and definitely left me feeling humiliated. And rightly so: my position was moronic. Had you followed the rules of politeness and simply changed the subject I might still hold the same faulty opinions. The same censorship is a real problem in politics. If someone – let us say, for example a politician from Texas – says something truly stupid in a debate a politician cannot flat out call it stupid for fear of being thought arrogant and aggressive. (President Bartlett would never have won that debate against Richie.) Worse still the female candidate. She fears being called too aggressive or unwomanly. If the tolerance is low for aggression from male candidates the tolerance is tiny for women. Trying to get along nicely does not allow us to flesh

    Part of mutual respect in public debate is sparring with each other without kid gloves, accepting the blows and dealing the punches. Virginia Woolf would never have been humiliated in the Hist Chamber. She wouldn’t have been allowed to speak. Not just because the Hist ways a boy’s club but because attacking a lady verbally was not something gentlemen did. What I have always loved about debating with my Hist friends is the permission to disagree violently with someone and still be friends with them. I have friends just as smart and smarter outside the Hist but the discussions are never as fruitful because politeness always stops us from saying what we really think is stupid about the other person’s position. Fear of rudeness is often a greater censor than fear of humiliation.

  3. Stephen – I wasn’t actually referring to what Chris said in the debate. He responded to my argument, slapped me down, and as with every time I spoke against him I learned a lot. I don’t want to name them, but several other people (not in the debate, in conversation) just treated me like I was confused and rather than actually talking about my arguments just told me that they weren’t relevant. I didn’t intend to give the impression that I was making a courageous stance that evening. I didn’t think I was at the time, I was making what I thought (and still do) was a straightforwardly sensible argument. And it was brushed off. See, that’s my problem. Not that people will disagree and disagree violently, but that people will be patronised out of voicing an opinion.

    I think that the Hist is at its worst when instead of actually listening to one another and responding to the argument being made, we look at the fact that a person is young, or unknown, or voicing an extreme opinion or (this happens very frequently) not an especially good speaker and we don’t listen to what they have to say as a result. I don’t remember the conversation between you, me, and Barra, but I hope that when we “viciously attacked” (I’m feeling a lot of guilt here) that it was an actual response to an issue we cared passionately about, rather than us undermining your entitlement to argue.

    I felt my entitlement to argue was undermined in first year and regarding your (really kind) comments about the courageous stances I have taken – I very much doubt that they were from either my first or second year, because I was afraid to take those stances largely based on the way I was treated in first year (when, bear in mind, the Hist was a much less pleasant and inclusive space, particularly towards women. The OCR report that year said of an officer “sure it’s a lucky man that gets her”)

    I always think that when the West Wing comes into it, it’s best to respond in the same terms. So, Sam has just attacked Ainsley Hayes on her position on gun control with this:

    “But you know what’s more insidious than that? Your gun control position doesn’t have anything to do with public safety, and it’s certainly not about personal freedom. It’s about you don’t like people who do like guns. You don’t like the people. Think about that, the next time you make a joke about the South.”

    My argument isn’t that debate should be nice. My argument is that often people are arrogant or aggressive (and the Bartlett administration was!), because they don’t like the people making the arguments. They think they’re stupid, they think they’re provincial, they think they’re badly-dressed, or gay, or old, or feminist, or racist or homophobic. And they attack the person. They silence the person through humiliation. And then the discussion doesn’t happen at all.

  4. I cannot say that I am shocked that in conversation people within the Hist would make you feel that way or give you that impression. It seems entirely plausible (especially with regard to a female speaker in 238) and not defensible.

    As for the rest of the post. It’s too substantial to reply to quickly. I’ll post more substantially later. But the jist of it is that the Bartlett administration was arrogant and aggressive because their enemies were stupid and harmful.

    One of the classic quotes in this vein from season four:

    “JOSH
    Needle exchange in a speech to the AMA: “We ought to begin and end with abstinence. We ought to
    begin and end with personal responsibility.”

    TOBY
    [grumpily] I’d like someone to ask Ritchie if he’s aware that needle exchange cost $9,000 for
    every infection stopped. Treating someone with HIV cost $200,000. I’d like someone to ask him
    that. I’d like someone to ask him where the repsonsibility was in paraphernalia that made it a
    crime to buy or carry a syringe, which is why addicts share infected needles in the first place.
    I’d like someone to ask him that, too.”

    • While entirely reasonable for someone to pull another person apart in a debate (it has happened to me many times) you should always listen to what they say and be polite and take their views on board. My favourite part of the Hist is that people will normally listen before disagreeing, give you a chance to have your say and don’t disregard your views even when you disagree. However as Niamh points out this is sadly sometimes not the case and it is upsetting when people feel they can’t express their views not because they wont stand up to criticism but because people wont listen.

      The Bartlett administration often dismissed ideas out of hand, and politicians do themselves no favours when this happens, it plays into ideas of elitism and arrogance that the democrats continue to suffer from. Toby or the campaign should asked those hard hitting questions and your right when you say its sad that they some times are unable to, but that doesn’t excuse the Bartlett administration for arrogance. Its also not good for discourse, and the fact that the Richie campaign was even worse for discourse doesn’t really excuse it. Also in America you can get away with having that kind of debate far more then you can over here, even in the UK things like PMQs are incredibly confrontational, but sadly this is one of the few cases where the nice and polite Irish are often too nice and polite for our own good.

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