Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Clarifying negativism

Apologies if you're here for posts about football, soul music, tenor banjos or decentralisation. You'll have to bear with me for a bit.

I've been reviewing the discussion of 'negativism' in recent posts here and elsewhere. In order to sidestep an increasingly intemperate debate, I thought it would be useful if I spelled out what I understand Daniel Davies means by the term 'negativism' (one that he endorses). I hope this will make the discussion more manageable.

I hope what follows is a fair summary of this position. I've tried to strip out as much argumentation as I can in order to get to the fundamentals. I've also added in words like 'generally', 'usually', 'normal' etc in order to remove any excessive dogmatism or inflexibility from the statement. I'm happy to adjust this statement if anyone can show me that I've misrepresented Daniel's position as set down in the relevant threads:
Negativism finds it's justification in the observation that few problems are so bad that they are not made worse by well-meaning attempts to solve them. Aside from the failure of such activism, these so-called solutions are always likely to have unintended side effects or consequences.

One should not generally propose solutions to problems (or endorse the solutions of others) beyond calling for those who claim to have solutions to desist and avoid making things worse.

One should usually either point out flaws in a proposal or say nothing. The only normal exception to this is when the person making the proposal has a particular expertise in the subject in hand - and their proposal should be concrete and specific.

General purpose experts almost never exist. This is another reason to distrust most non-expert commentators who are proposing a positive solution to a problem. In order to make negative comments about a particular proposal, one does not need to demonstrate a superior understanding of the subject in hand. If one has an expertise in a different field, this expertise can be used in criticism.

So, for instance, a specialist in economics or econometrics could attack the statistical elements of an argument in favor of, say, electoral reform. When making negative comments in this way, the commentator is under no obligation to establish what their own position on the matter in hand is. One's own position, in this case, is irrelevant.
Is this a fair summary? For now, could commenters please confine themselves to corrections in my interpretation of Daniel's position, referring only to differences between what I've set out (above) and the positions that he has described in the posts and comment-threads that I've linked to. We can argue about the merits or otherwise once we've agreed what we are arguing about.

In this thread, I'm doing a one-off rule change. I will delete comments that are not designed to clarify Daniel's position.


dd said...

I think the general flavour is pretty much there. A few caveats that I perhaps regard as more important ...

1. It's not a universalist position and these principles are only recommended for use in a first world country with a mixed economy and an existing adequate social security system. I explicitly recommend Subcommandante Marcos in the negativism post, who is more or less the diametric opposite of every point I make. This is a big caveat to your first paragraph.

2. In a followup post about the Guido Fawkes blog, I make the point that there is a requirement of good faith in criticism.


I don't recognise the "endorse the plans of others" clause in your paragraph 2; if I've implied this it was unintentional.

3. Although I usually try to base criticism on things that are familiar to me (basically anything that you learn in a two year MBA course), I wouldn't necessarily state this as a requirement. The great thing about the internet, and the reason that (IMO, and this is presumably where we disagree) opinion journalism works, is that it's actually not too difficult to inform oneself well enough to have intelligent comments to make on all sorts of matters of interest. But making concrete proposals is a lot more difficult.

4. (and let's get this out in the open) I don't believe that there is any requirement to play nice and be polite about people like Alastair Campbell, John Prescott or John Reid. They're happy to throw around insults themselves and they don't show any evidence of being susceptible to having their minds changed, so if they're doing something stupid or damaging, all that can be done is to try and get them out of politics, and brutal knockabout press coverage has its role to play in that task.

5. I suspect that people might be tempted to put more weight on the first sentence of your third paragraph than it can reasonably bear (and indeed I think you do this in your fifth para). If you're pointing out flaws in a proposal without suggesting an alternative, then the implicit suggestion is the status quo, or else some specific alternative plan that has been proposed by somebody else. Not having a specific plan of one's own isn't the same thing as refusing to discuss alternatives.

(http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/daniel_davies/2006/09/dont_just_do_something_stand_t.html expanded on this)

Finally, I'd reiterate the original point I made on Justin's blog - that "negativism" is really just defined by who spoke first. If I say we need to have an interventionist foreign policy and you say no, then you're the negativist. If you say we need to adopt an isolationist foreign policy and I say no, I'm the negativist. That's why I don't think it's a particularly meaningful label, although I'm more or less happy to wear it as it signals what I regard as a rather attractive Hayekian postconservatism that I do in fact believe in, and it gives the Decents a chance to have a fair shake with the political nickname thing.

Paulie said...

Thanks for that Daniel.

I understood your first point. I think you are broadly saying that, in developed economies, we are ‘almost there’ already, and any tinkering is as likely to disturb a machine that is broadly working, and this is not the case where there is no machine in place (so to speak).

On point two, you said “So, from me, you will get negative comment, or nothing[2]. "Nothing", can be interpreted as an integral over the range "sullen acquiescence : enthusiasm"” - here.

Surely endorsement of a policy can’t fit into your general scheme of negativism? If you allow yourself that loophole, surely the term becomes meaningless? Your ‘negativism’ as I’ve tried to understand it here has the virtue of being a ‘method’ and one – you could argue – that absolves you of any need to say what you are in *favour* of. But by allowing yourself to endorse things, it ceases to be a method, and simply a free-form way of slagging-off stuff you don’t like. I don’t know how you could reconcile a willingness to endorse policies or approaches with your definition.

I’ve given you a ‘generally’ to acknowledge your [2] footnote (“what kind of a madman do you think I am?”) but if you are choosing to only criticise elements of policies on the one hand, and then offering overall endorsements on the other, it starts to look a bit like a revision (not that there’s anything wrong with reflecting and modifying a position). But I think that such a modification would make your position a good deal more bland – and certainly not something that would justify the fanfare that you produced it with. This is why (and I don’t want to re-ignite the previous flame-swap unless it becomes unavoidable) I’m suggesting that you actually aren’t a negativist yourself after all.

On your third point, you’ve said elsewhere that … “the entire point of my having commented on a wide variety of subjects is that I've made only negative comments on all of them - as an economist and econometrician, I've pointed out when people said things that are known to be false.” You appear to be broadening your space here. I understand the argument that you don’t need to be an expert on a particular subject to crit an overall proposal. I even understand that you can use a pertinent and tangential expertise to criticise an element in someone else’s argumentation. If it’s a ‘fatal flaw’, you can even denounce the whole position as a result. But what you’re suggesting here – stuff that generally falls within the scope of a Masters Degree – looks like a significant stretching of your ‘economist and econometrician’ limit. On this argument, someone with a Masters Degree in Politics would be allowed the scope to comment on lots of stuff that they would not really be qualified to offer authoritative criticism of (even tangential criticism). Personally, I would argue that anyone can offer general comments on anything they like – as long as they offer some indication of what their alternative approach is.

But this isn’t your position, and perhaps you are wanting to have your cake and eat it in this respect?

I’ve no real objection to your fourth point. Be as rude as you like I suppose. But my argument is that it is ‘negativist’ for a critic to refuse to acknowledge the totality of a situation – the circumstances surrounding a particular action. I didn’t object to Justin (Chicken Yoghurt) attacking Alistair Campbell. I objected to the line (as Mick Fealty of Slugger O’Toole puts it) “Don’t listen to him, he’s a bollix” especially when I thought that (an alternative take on) a ‘blogging code-of-conduct’ was an idea worth discussing. (summary: a blogger would improve their output if they were to draft their own)

If you think that ‘brutal knockabout press coverage’ helps expose mendacity then that’s fine. I don’t as it happens. I think it often has the opposite effect, but we can argue all day about this one.

On your point five, I would suggest that this statement contradicts you here.

“I also think that it’s completely untrue to say that [Chicken Yoghurt] in particular and blogs in general are not “offering solutions”. “Don’t invade Iraq” is a solution for a way of improving things…”

I would suggest that “don’t invade Iraq” implies an endorsement of an alternative response to what had become an international crisis. If it doesn’t, then it is the ‘negativism’ that we’ve been talking about here.

I understand your final point and there’s not really been any misunderstanding there. My objection is not that you say “I’m against this [active / inactive] proposition.” It is that you don’t think that you should indicate what you should do in its place. There is no question that we disagree here.

Also, I understand that I’m alone in this, but I like the label ‘decentist’

Larry Teabag said...

Gawd, are you still going with this?

Well as a negativist I'd emphasise this bit: these so-called solutions are always likely to have unintended side effects or consequences

Very often the problems of the "unintended side effects or consequences" outweigh the original problem, and whilst they might be unintended they are also transparently predictable (War on Terror).

Furthermore, this isn't discussion in a vacuum. Often the so-called solutions are being put into practice RIGHT NOW, and coming up with alternatives is a lower priority than stopping the damage they're already doing.

Another point: often it's not a question of solving some particular problem, but of striking a balance. Which do you value more highly, security or freedom? When someone in the government gets the answer very wrong (security entirely, and freedom not at all), what do you think the correct response should be, other than fierce criticism and protest?

dd said...

well, Marx wasn't a Marxist, and more or less any political position is either inconsistent or monstrous, so I think it would be a mistake for me to set out on a big exercise to clear up the remaining issues. Just one or two comments.

1. I agree on the have cake and eat it thing - in retrospect, the "economist and econometrician" thing looks like blatant credentialism on my point and I think my current response would be to pretend I never said it.

2. I am probably going to continue to disagree on whether I can endorse policies. As Larry is implicitly saying, negativism is more of a strategy for coping with the sheer volume of news and policy today, than a thoroughgoing political program. I'd analogise it to the old Spanish proverb "man proposes but god disposes".

sorry, in a hurry, perhaps more, but not much more, to come.

Anonymous said...

Or rather "Man proposes, dsquared sneers." Unless of course it is a totalitarian proposal which is coming under attack from the decent left, in which case it is "dictator proposes, dsquared obfuscates and excuses".

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