Friday, July 27, 2007

Flopping about on Flip-Flopping

I started to write a reply to a post by Reach Upwards about flip flopping candidates. The reply really didn't fit his post. So, I decided to make it a post on my own blog.

Personally, I dislike the current obsession with flip-flopping. Flip-flopping is a necessary part of the process of deliberation. A world with a healthy system of discourse would see people flip-flop on a regular basis.

The ability to weigh different sides of a debate is the very heart of deliberation. People who never "flip-flop" simply are not engaged.

There is a whole slew of issues that pretty much demand flip-flopping.

Take the charged issue of abortion debate for example. This debate involves two distinct issues: The first is whether or not abortion is wrong. The second is the question of whether or not it should be legal. A person who holds that abortion is a great moral wrong must address the question of whether or not it is better to handle the question as a personal moral issue, or if it demands laws being in place. A person who is resolute on the underlying issue may flip flop on the secondary issue.

In most cases, it is bad for a politician to have too many solid positions on legislation. A politician who has too many solid positions will be intransigent in their actions.

IMHO, the best thinkers can see more than one side of an issue. If you give them compelling reasons to support your side; they will agree with you. When your opponent gives compelling reasons for their side, the thinker might agree with the opposition.

In some cases a person will agree with an argument simply as an acknowledgement that they understand or are processing the argument. A person who agrees with your argument but disagrees with your conclusion appears to flip-flop.

Agreeing with an argument is not the same thing as agreeing with the conclusion. For that matter, I don't think it is possible to properly understand any argument if you don't make an effort to understand and agree with the perspective of the argument.

When a person is engaged in the process of research, they should be flip-flipping all over the map. The necessary flip-flipping that occurs during research should not be confused with flip-flopping on fundamental issues.

The best thinkers will appreciate all of the sides of an argument.

Unfortunately, the converse is also true. The worst thinkers will tend to flip flop. Both the far left and far right use a really nasty form of manipulation called "the material dialectics." This method was perfected by Marx. With material dialectics, you wrap discourse in paradox. To a dialectician, words are weapons. When you engage in the method you spout whatever words give you an advantage.

The dialectician appears to be engaged in deliberation because both forks of their tongue wag at the same time. Such a dialectician is not engaged in an authentic search for the best path, they are simply engaged in dropping words as they attack enemies and reward friends.

A politician who is weighing every word against polls is not engaged in a pursuit of truth, but a pursuit of power.

The question of what leads to the flip flopping is much more interesting than the flip-flopping itself. For that matter, understanding why a candidate changed their opinion on an issue provides a deeper insight into the candidates mind than the stated positions themself.

The question we must answer when we see flip flopping is if it is an act of discourse or an act of manipulation. Unfortunately, this is difficult to determine.

In the 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry's enemies were trying to make the case that his flip-flopping was part of an over all pattern of manipulation. Unfortunately, Republicans seem to have fallen into a trap. They seem to have made the overt act of flip-flopping the issue and not the underlying duplicity.

The mainstream media, which is primarily Democrat, seems to have encouraged this misstep since it puts Republicans at a disadvantage.

By allowing flip-flopping to become the primary issue of the presidential race, Republicans have thrown up a block to their best thinkers.

In my opinion, this current thread of debate which makes the overt act of flip-flopping the issue ends up undermining our ability to engage in deliberation. Deliberation by definition requires weighing the different arguments. The best thinkers regularly engage in acts that can be labeled flip-flopping when they examine issues.

The trap is even more insidious. Since Republicans are caught in the trap of weighing the relative degrees of flip-flopping of their candidates, the enemies of the Republicans will be able to kick sand in the face of the Republican Party with accusations of absolutism.

I think more people are worried about more worried about the absolutism of a one dimensional thinker who is incapable of finding the best path for the nation than they are about this idiotic question of flip flopping.

I wish the leaders of the Republican Party had the wisdom to avoid such obvious traps. Unfortunately, just as the Democrats routinely drive their honest politicians away, the Republicans systemically drive their best thinkers away.

Both parties seem to be structured at the moment so that their worst elements float to the surface.


Tyler Farrer said...

The liberals have accused Mitt Romney of flip-flopping on abortion when, in fact, he only flipped.

Flip-flopping is holding two contradictory positions virtually simultaneously. It could be argued that John Kerry did this when he said that he 'voted for funding before he voted against it'.

Flip-flopping is also a feature of insanity, so I don't think there is anything wrong with the term. It is used too loosely to mean that someone changed their mind.

There is nothing inherently wrong with changing ones mind.

y-intercept said...

"Flip-flopping is holding two contradictory positions virtually simultaneously."

When you engage in deliberation, you have two or more conflicting ideas on the table. A person who is authentically engaged in the deliberation will jump between the different ideas virtually simultaneously.

This process is called dialectics.

This overt style of dialectics is actually a good thing.

I admire and respect people who are capable of seeing an issue from multiple perspectives. We need politicians who see the merits of their opposition's point of view. There are far too many party line votes in Congress.

Unfortunately, there is also a different style of dialectics that uses frequent changing of position as a weapon against one's enemies.

This second style of dialectics is not being used as a tool of deliberation, but as a tool for manipulation.

BTW, this is a common pattern. There is one form of dialectics that I would consider a virtue. There is bastardized version of dialectics where words are used as weapons. This second form is a vice. All virtues seem to have a corresponding vice.

Anyway, I don't think you can simply count the number of times a politicians changes their position on an issue and say if they are engaged in dialectics as a virtue (authentic deliberation) or as a vice (deliberate manipulation).

In every case, you have to look at the context of the flip-flopping. Even here you will often find that the slick manipulator has all sorts of clever tools to make their manipulations look like authentic deliberation.

There is not a formula for separating authentic and manipulative thinking. If there were, the skillful manipulator would simply manipulate the presentation of information to make it look like they are the authentic ones. Conversely, authentic thinkers have a nasty habit of bumbling into traps.

Charles D said...

I certainly agree that one should carefully consider each significant political position, examine the evidence, and decide what one believes should be the policy. During that process, I would agree that change may occur and should occur.

There are a number of problems with this in our current political environment:

1. Serious candidates for President should have already done their homework and arrived at coherent policy positions. Obviously most have concentrated on political strategy sessions and public relations methods rather than public policy.

2. Serious candidates for President should have a coherent and deeply held world view informed by a clear moral framework and a vision of the role of government and the role of the United States in the world. While new issues may arise or circumstances may change the perception of other issues, their public policy position should be consistent with their framework and vision. Clearly most of the candidates at this point don't have such a framework or vision.

3. The central issue is not changing positions, but taking positions simply because they are politically helpful at the time. This leads to carefully parsed statements intended to lead divergent groups to believe different things about the candidate's position. That's simply dishonest and lots of politicians are guilty of it.

y-intercept said...

DL, some people consider the process where politicians mold positions to polls is the very heart of Democracy. Some call such a malleable system of political strategy "pragmatism."

These people would consider the process of taking polls and developing positions according to the polls to be the highest form of democracy between people and government.

Some people call a system where politicians have a moral and intellectual framework from which they make decisions an "ideology."

They denounce people who make decisions within a moral framework as "ideologues."

I think that type of thinking is misplaced. I think humanity's problem is with people who are willing to do mean, nasty or underhanded things to gain power.

What I want is a world where people state their ideas clearly, and feel free to change their minds when the evidence warrants.

What I don't like is a system where people try to gain power through manipulations at a subliminal level.