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adversarial approaches – do we need them or do we need to get over them?

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My head is buzzing constantly due to my current reading of Matt Ridley’s Nature via nurture. If this book doesn’t stimulate you, you must be a walking corpse. It’s hard to know where to begin, but I might start with adversarial systems and ideas in general. In this book, Ridley sets himself the task of showing that the old nature v nurture battle has been misguided, though it has, historically, been productive of important breakthroughs. He shows, in rich detail but with great story-telling verve, how genes themselves are triggered and stimulated by environmental factors – that the truth lies in complex, multi-factorial interactions between nature and nurture.

I’ll hopefully detail some of his examples in a later post. It’ll be difficult because it’s a library book and already overdue for return, but that’s poverty for you. For now I’m going to look at the pitfalls of adversarial approaches, using three examples:

1. Politics.

Some thirty years or so ago I read a book which had as profound a political influence on me as anything I’ve ever read. It was written by the Roman historian Livy and it bore the the title The history of the Roman Republic or something like that [in fact Livy’s monumental history, Ab Urbe Condita Libri, ‘Chapters from the Foundation of the City’ covered the whole ground from the myths of Rome’s founders to the early empire under Augustus, in Livy’s own time, and the book I read was presumably a translation of the first half or so]. What astonished me about the book, much of which was made up of speeches from political leaders [a trick he clearly learned from Thucydides] was, to me, its modern relevance. It told the story of two political factions or sides, or perhaps parties, the Patricians and the Plebeians, and of how political power swung from one side to another on a regular basis. However, as is the case in modern politics, this regularity wasn’t particularly regular. Depending on the persuasiveness and charisma of particular leaders, and on external pressures [and corruption of course also had a role], one side might hold sway for an extended period. Many of the issues discussed – taxation, wealth and land ownership and/or redistribution, security and military expenditure, had a familiar ring, and some approaches struck me as profoundly socialist, some two thousand years avant la lettre. Naturally all this made me consider the modern left and the modern right from a more interesting ‘longitudinal’ perspective. But another thing that struck me was the quite viciously adversarial world Livy described. When the political pendulum inevitably swung against them, those who were ousted from power were, equally inevitably, accused of treason, corruption, and/or both, and driven into exile or, probably more often, summarily executed or forced into suicide. Yet quite often their policies were followed by their successors, in spite of much rhetoric about ‘winding things back’. It all left me wondering why anybody in their right mind would pursue a public, political career under such circumstances. It may well have been that civic virtue, or the kudos gained from serving the public in the role of consul or quaestor, was regarded so highly that the inherent dangers were swept aside, or even seen as a worthy feature of the job [think of a career in the armed forces – heroism always has its appeal].

Domestic politics isn’t quite as threatening as it once was, but it still seems sometimes pointlessly adversarial. Notably, in many of the areas where a sensible person might expect a bipartisan approach, such as immigration and climate change, the parties are most determined to be at loggerheads. Maybe it’s because they’re so close together on these issues that they can see the whites of their enemies’ eyes, and this drives them into a frenzy of acrimony. It’s true that Tony Abbott appears to be a climate change ignoramus, but he’s also a pragmatist, and he knows that, if he finally gets in, he’ll have to come up with some sort of scheme to tackle climate change, and it won’t be heaps different from Labor’s. The rest is just spoiling, and an insult to the voters’ intelligence. As for the asylum seeker issue, it should be a minor one considering the numbers involved, but the opposition has whipped and frothed it up for all it’s worth, not caring about the fact that one day they’re complaining about the government’s softness, and the next day they’re decrying government inhumanity. As long as they get to hurl abuse. I know I’m not the only one who finds all this childish and patently dishonest, but most people seem to just consider it a political game that has to be played. I wonder why? Is it so that we can feel superior to all those dishonest pollies? Or is it that this really is the best way to forge policy and to make reforms, in the teeth of vehement opposition. Maybe being collaborative makes for worse policy, I don’t know. There just seems so much expense of spirit in a waste of shame.

2. Law

Again, I’m never sure if I’m missing something, but the adversarial legal system has always struck me as weird. I felt the same way about debating clubs as a kid – I had no interest in finding clever arguments for a position I didn’t believe in, I wanted to argue for what I believed, and to listen to others and gladly concede to them if their argument went deeper and uncovered things I hadn’t thought of. Getting to the truth, or to the most convincing and evidence-backed account, that was the thing. But of course there are other serious considerations with this approach to law. Some lawyers are more skillful, experienced and convincing than others, and lawyers can be bought. From a personal perspective, I can’t understand how a lawyer can do all in his power to defend or prosecute someone whose guilt or innocence he isn’t sure of, out of a ‘professionalism’ from which all moral qualms are removed, if that’s possible. This is probably naive of me, and I know that in these matters almost everyone is compromised by vested interest – the police want to see their arrests vindicated, the victims and their families want revenge, the lawyers want to improve their win/loss ratios, the accused want to get off, etc. Only the judge [and/or jury] is expected to uphold some sort of claim to objectivity, thus becoming the target of all the persuasive powers of the defence and prosecution teams, who seek to take advantage of every quirk and tendency they might perceive in the judge or the jurors. All of which makes me feel not quite right.

I know that in some countries a non-adversarial judicial system has been adopted, but I’m completely vague on the details. I do know that it’s a system heavily criticised by the proponents of the adversarial system, on what grounds and with what legitimacy I’m not sure. I’ve also heard that it hasn’t necessarily produced better or fairer outcomes. I’m also at a loss as to how such a non-adversarial system is financed, without accused persons being able to pay top dollar for the best lawyers. However, I can’t help but intuitively feel that a non-adversarial, collaborative system, in which everybody has the same aim, to uncover the truth surrounding a particular crime or alleged crime, would in principle be a better approach.

3. Work

I presume that ever since we began to divide labour – that is, from the beginning of civilisation – work and power have been intimately related. In fact, it’s only in recent times, with the growth of the idea of universal human rights and the notion of inherent, individual human dignity, that we’ve come to see that people shouldn’t necessarily be devalued according to the type of work they do. The otherwise brilliant Aristotle notoriously wondered whether slaves were capable of consciousness, and this, I would guess, was not due to their inherent status [he knew well enough, surely, that today’s battalion commander could become tomorrow’s slave to forces victorious over him], but to the menial work he or she was forced to do. Similarly when the novelist V S Naipaul [whose work and character I’ve always loathed] recently declared himself to be a superior writer to every female who has ever taken up a pen, he based this ‘knowledge’ on female work, as he saw it. Women, or women writers, had never been estate managers or big bosses or whatever, and so could never see things from a superior male perspective.This idea that employers were inherently superior to ‘underlings’ has only gradually faded with the advent of the union movement and its ability to articulate the rights and grievances of such underlings. Mostly this has involved clashes, demonstrations and strikes, with the formation of employer groups to combat the rise of workers’ associations.

I think it’s fair to say, though, that in the world of work we’ve seen more positive moves towards a collaborative approach than in other areas. Work, in the west, has become more multifaceted and less rigidly specified, with a blurring of distinctions between types of work and the prestige attached to work, from parental roles and household tasks to management and other high-flying positions, and this has broken down the old us-and-them tradition to some extent. Not that there isn’t a place for good old-fashioned confrontation. Sometimes, as with the demonstration I participated in recently, the problem is that there is no clear ‘enemy’. Workers in the community welfare sector [where the percentage of women is high] are very poorly paid. Generally they’re paid by the government, which means their work is very insecure as governments and their pet projects come and go. Funding is ever a problem and it’s hardly surprising that turnover is very high. Targeting government becomes a problem when governments get turfed out and the next government hasn’t made the same commitment. The problem may well be in public relations – but I’m moving too far from my focus. The point is that, again in this area, a collaborative approach, recognising the mutual dependency of coalface workers and management [and often their inter-changeability] strikes me as inherently more productive. But maybe we’ve had to go through a certain period of mutual hostility, misunderstanding and misrepresentation to get to that stage.

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Written by stewart henderson

June 25, 2011 at 1:00 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] waste of breath and energy. I’ve always found adversarial systems tedious and irritating [e.g. here], and I should also say that this system is one of the great failings of democracy. The current […]

  2. […] written elsewhere against adversarial systems. I prefer co-operation to combativeness. I don’t want to win, I want to arrive at the truth […]


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