Sunday, January 10, 2010

Politics and Parties

A curious and fascinating thing occurs whenever I attend parties. Throughout the majority of an evening, the topics of conversation concern the details of people's lives - their careers, romantic relationships, movies they like, bands they absolutely MUST see when they return to Sydney, etc. And then that brief period hits that some of the partygoers see the need to broach the big topic of politics. Leaving aside the futility of such conversations in mixed company, I often wonder what motivates people to discuss them anyway.

To be clear, I do not view people as imbeciles incapable of deeper conversations on a variety of topics. On the contrary, I am constantly heartened to hear people wax eloquently about the industries they work in and how they have an impact on the wider culture. People are often passionate about their own values and can convey them with aplomb.

When I am asked about my career, I give a brief summary of the business problem my company solves with our software and my role in the sales process. I am neither too technical nor too 'sales-y'. I present examples of better customer service achieved through better communication, which is the key benefit of what my company sells.

Being American but living permanently in Australia is a built-in conversation starter, too. Partygoers are curious about my decision to move here and fascinated to hear about all the odd places I've lived in the world over the past 25 years. Australians I know often view Americans as uneducated homebodies, as opposed to worldly adventurers, which I clearly am.

These are all excellent party conversations. They address values at a personal level, which are to me the most important values. And yet inevitably, someone brings up politics at a party. It raises hackles because people don't want to seem uninterested and yet few people take a deep interest in the underlying principles of political philosophy. Because politics as practised in Western nations today is rarely principled, the predictable conclusion over party conversation amounts to: ah, who cares about ideas when we have such chumps in office. Rarely is there a next logical question, which is: why do we elect such chumps, only to complain later that they are liars and thieves after the fact?

During the American Presidential elections of 2008, a great many Australians asked me if I were proud that serious ideas were finally being discussed. My polite but direct answer was: I didn't find the ideas serious and that there was nothing new about quibbling over how the next administration was going to go after this or that industry for its alleged abuses.

This brings me back to the uneasy broaching of the topic in polite company. If people are moved by ideas in their personal lives, why do they so casually discard them when it comes to more abstract areas of intellectual endeavour? The answer lies within the question. People know a great deal about their own lives and careers, but when it comes to areas that do not directly concern them, their views become the boilerplate content of the airwaves and editorial pages.

As a mental exercise, think about your closest friends and what you know about them. Could you ask them 25 good questions about what they value in life and expect that the answers would be well reasoned and interesting? Now consider if the same is true if you were to ask them 25 questions about politics.

Abstract ideas are abstract for a reason: they are necessarily far removed from the immediately perceptual data that we all witness every day. It is far easier to reach rational conclusions about our jobs because we do them every day. We can even think ahead and form conclusions about how our work life can and ought to be, to borrow a formulation from the Greeks. When it comes to politics, however, few have the wherewithal to question the validity of minimum wage laws or the corruption of science when taken over by politics, to cite a few examples I have frequently overheard at parties.

As a matter of habit, I never bring up politics in mixed company and I never try to persuade anyone of the contrary views I hold. I respect people's intellects too much to bombard them with data they are unlikely to process fully. I have reached the conclusion, upon observation of a number of parties over the years, that people want to appear more intellectually 'with it' and so they jump headlong into a topic destined for a train wreck at the next switching station. Whilst I appreciate the sentiment, I still wish people would refrain from such desperation and stick to discussion better suited to party conversation: their own fascinating lives.

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