Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Words, Ideas and Politics

Written by johnleemk on 11:43:02 pm Jan 11, 2007.

It struck me recently how carefully I choose and measure my words in my writings. My ideas and opinions tend to be highly complex and nuanced, so they often run the risk of being misunderstood or misinterpreted. However, it has just occurred to me that despite this, I have had remarkable success at precisely conveying my thoughts.

Typically, I notice that people with complex or multifaceted ideas get themselves backed into a corner when debating. This is normally because they have failed to sufficiently limit the scope of their statements - they lack the microscopic precision that keeps people from misusing or misunderstanding their words. Then, they end up backed into a corner because their original statement was not qualified correctly.

Such incidents are more common than you might think - I have seen them happen in many a debate. In fact, such occurrences are usually inevitable in any complicated debate because any complex concept tends to be highly nuanced. It cannot easily be pigeonholed, and to some, it may seem to be an attempt to have it both ways.

People occasionally wonder why politicians appear to be so simplistic in their thinking and their statements. The reason for this, I believe, is that they cannot afford to dare to be complicated. It is much too easy for a political opponent to pounce on a complicated statement, and misleadingly cast the statement as a falsehood or inaccuracy. Usually, complicated situations can also make politicians say things that, though true, sound absolutely ludicrous to the uninformed observer.

I usually think of John Kerry whenever I think of these problems in politics and debating. In the 2004 US Presidential election, Kerry was cast as a flip-flopper by his opponents, and took much derisory commentary for statements like "I voted for the war before I voted against it". The problem was that Kerry was thinking as a leader, not as a politician. In the Senate, with its complex parliamentary procedure, such statements would make sense (indeed, it would probably not be viewed as contradiction because of the complicated way in which votes are cast - pick up a book on parliamentary procedure and you'll see what I mean). In politics, it would be absolutely ludicrous to vote "for the war before I voted against it". (Note that I am not a Kerry supporter, and that I was quite disappointed he was selected by the Democrats - the only reason I favoured him in the 2004 election was the same reason a British newspaper's headline the day after the election ran along the lines of "How could 60 million people be so stupid?")

The reason I can sympathise with Kerry is that I have run into the same problem as him far too many times for me to remember. I find my thinking and ideas are often highly unorthodox - and thus more likely to be misconstrued because of their complexity and novelty. Another common aspect of my ideas is that they are highly nuanced - they tend to be some odd shade of grey rather than a convenient black or white. The result often is that I am attacked from all sides because I am neither black nor white. (Again, notice the parallels in politics: Bill Clinton was constantly attacked for his centrist policy of "triangulation" - combining the best policies of both the right and left wings - because it fit neither of the conventional political definitions. Republicans viewed Clinton as too liberal, and Democrats viewed him as too conservative. Hillary Clinton suffers from a similar problem at present, as did John Kerry.)

For some very peculiar reason, however, I have the constant fortuitous luck of carefully qualifying my statements. Practically every time when I am accused of either having an inconsistency in my views, or of holding some ridiculous opinion, I find myself vindicated by my original statement because I had been careful to precisely define the context of my opinion. (Unfortunately, this tends to hold true only when it comes to the written word - I find that in a verbal argument, I tend to be much more careless with my words.)

It is of course true that I will not always be this fortunate - and certainly, the lesson here is quite inapplicable to politics. In politics, it is of the essence that you never make a single gaffe in conveying your ideas. You must boil down your thoughts to the most simple possible words and rawest human emotions, to make them easier for the public to swallow. Sophisticated policy must remain confined to after the election - during the campaign, it is key to simplify your opinions and proposals, and make their ultimate meaning clear. This is the reason Bill Clinton succeeded where other centrist Democrats like Kerry failed: Clinton knew how to separate the wheat from the chaff, and present only the bare basics of his policies to the public.

In a debate, we have the luxury of carefully constructing our statements and smithing our words to set out our thoughts to our heart's content; in politics, we must be straight as an arrow, never swerving to digress down a complex detour to explain a nuance of our proposal. To sum up, my advice is: 1) Be careful with your words; 2) Know your arena. There is a world of difference between the intellectual environment of a debate, and the less sophisticated demeanour of politics.

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