Monday, 3 November 2014

Facts, Values, and Logic - why compromise is getting more impossible

In a recent article (Sept 2014) , Kishore Mahbubani highlighted the fracturing of Singapore Society - the loss of "political unanimity", the rise of "contestation" over consensus in our society, - and suggested that the solution was compromise and consensus.

Unfortunately, I believe he is wrong.

In the current zeitgeist, "compromise" is a dirty word. "Consensus" is an euphemism for "conforming" or "capitulating".

In his next article (Oct 2014) in his series of Big Ideas, he proposes to "future-proof" Singapore and Singapore society. How?
"To help a well-educated citizenry make well-informed decisions, I would like to propose that we "future-proof" Singapore by creating a treasure trove of well-researched and well-reasoned policy papers on all the major challenges that Singapore will be facing in the next 50 years."
His idea is that with a well-stocked "treasure trove" of well-reasoned papers on major challenges that Singapore would face, Singaporeans would be able to learn from these "thought leaders" and understand what must be done.

Unfortunately, Mahbubani is an intellectual...

Let me rephrase that.

Mahbubani is an intellectual A rational, intelligent, logical, reasonable and reasoning person. What will persuade him are facts, logical analysis, reasoned arguments, and rational discourse.

Unfortunately, logic is insufficient for the hoi polloi.
"People will believe what they want to believe.
Truth does not interest them.
Facts bore them.
Logic will not convince them."
And "intelligence" and "intellectual" are equated with "elitism" and "elites".  

Let me give you some examples.

The Case of the "Severed" Cat

On Tues, 28 Oct, the carcass of a "free" (euphemism for "stray") cat was found by the woman who regularly feeds the "free" cats of Marine Crescent. The carcass appeared to have been severed.

SPCA examined the carcass and stated:
We are strongly ruling out wilful human involvement, as there is no clear sign of the use of instruments such as a machete knife, or a chainsaw. It would be virtually impossible for a human being, or humans, to have caused that state of the cat, using other humanly means possible.
The SPCA statement was posted on their facebook page and it was inundated with comments rejecting the SPCA's findings.

Their grounds for rejecting SPCA's findings?

The commenters didn't want to believe it. They couldn't/wouldn't believe it? Why?

I have no idea why they need to believe that the cat was killed by psychopathic humans instead of dogs (as speculated by SPCA) acting on instinct.

I have no idea why they have doubts about SPCA's impartiality, or for that matter, their objective to protect animals (it is after all in the name of their organisation).

But I am sure, that unless AVA (to whom the "case" has been referred) concludes that the cat was killed and tortured by psychopathic human(s), it would merely confirm their conviction that there is a conspiracy to protect psychopathic, animal-hating, cat-killing humans.

These conspiracy theorists believe/want to believe that there is a human cat-killer out there so much, that no "authority", even one that is sympathetic to animals (SPCA), will convince them otherwise.

Under their conspiracy lens, all facts are questionable, all authority lack credibility, and logic is the refuge of the heartless.

So where can one find "truthiness"? Check your heart. Check your gut. But never check with an authority, or books, or facts, or even logic.

That way lies the PAP. Or Consensus. Or Compromise. Or Rationality.

The fracturing of Singapore society is as much a fracturing of values and common ground. While we had differences in the past, we were at least willing to subsume personal values to impartial facts and logic.

This was easier when most people were not very educated and (perhaps) more willing to accept that there were facts not known to them, or greater truths not revealed to them.

However, in today's highly educated (or over-educated) society, everyone thinks they are smart (or at least educated). Or smarter than average. And should be able to figure things out for themselves. And know the "truth". Or at least "feel" the "truthiness" of issues.

In the Post-X-Files generation, the mantra of "Trust No One" applies especially to governments and "authority".

So Mahbubani's proposal for a treasure trove of well-reasoned, well-argued papers - how well do you think these educated Singaporeans will take to these "truths" dispensed by intellectuals?

I think the Case of the Severed Cat, and the response of (some?) Singaporeans to an ersatz authority like SPCA speaks volumes about the receptiveness of (some?) Singaporeans to explicit or even implicit "authority's" credibility to expound on truth, particularly truths that are contrary to their beliefs.

In the current zeitgeist, all (external) authority is epistemologically suspect. Facts may be objective, but subject to interpretation. And facts interpreted by authority is by default suspect, and biased.

In such a climate, how will facts or reason stop the conspiracy theories? Or the conspiracy theorists?

"Nothing's gonna stop me now" - The Road Traffic Act and the Value of Farm Animals.

Also recently, MHA announced that they will not make it a law that drivers MUST stop after hitting an animal other than those specified in the Road Traffic Act (RTA), as it may not always be safe to stop.

The reaction from the Animal Welfare Groups (AWG) was disingenuous.

The AWG had put up a strawman - that the specific section of the  RTA was intended solely to protect "farm animals which is not at all relevant in today's context, since with the exception of the dog, the animals mentioned are not owned by the general populace."

You can check Section 84 (6) of the  Road Traffic Act for the definition of animal under the RTA:
"In this section, “animal” means any horse, cattle, ass, mule, sheep, pig, goat or dog."
The AWG is not wrong in the definition of "animal" under the RTA, but nowhere in the act does the RTA explicitly mentions that the definition is because of the commercial value of the animals as "farm animals". 

Let's play "One of these things is not like the others" (from Sesame Street):
- horse, cattle, ass, mule, sheep, pig, goat or dog

Which if the above is not like the others?
If you say "dog", why? Because it's not a "farm animal"?

So what does it say that the animal welfare groups claim that the RTA classification of animals "refers mainly to farm animals"?

Note that this is THEIR explanation/nomenclature. It is NOT in the RTA. And the reason why the AWG used such a nomenclature is so that it supports their contention that the law was made to protect only animals with commercial value.

Which is a strawman argument, a false accusation, and intended simply to allow them to take a moral high ground: "We value all animal lives, whereas the law is crass and heartless and only concerned with animal lives with MONETARY value."

If that were true, they would have a simple and simplistic moral argument for extending the RTA rule to cover all animals.

But this is the Road Traffic Act. The purpose of which is to regulate conduct of road users, to ensure safety on the roads.

The simple reason those animals are listed (in 84(6)) is that they are generally LARGE animals and would in most cases present a ROAD HAZARD if their carcass were left on the road. It is also very unlikely that a driver could hit one of these and be unaware that he has done so (ok, except maybe a Chihuahua or one of the smaller lap dogs, but we can be sure very few of these prized pedigrees would be running on the road unsupervised).

"The Government is only concerned about farm animals with monetary value" argument is a red herring. 

The RTA is simply about safe use of roads, and the safe conduct and behaviour of road users. The concern (of the law makers) is about road safety.

The AWG argument is about values: whether the value of an animal life is equal to the value of human life. The decision by MHA and the Police that the RTA 84 (6) stands as it is because depending on the traffic condition, it may not always be possible to stop safely after hitting a small animal. Making it an offence NOT to stop after hitting ANY animal, large or small, would create a road hazard disproportionate to the inherent road hazard caused by a small animal carcass. 

The worst case scenario is for a driver to be forced to stop (by law) after hitting a cat, and another vehicle behind runs into the stationary vehicle causing death of injury to either driver or passengers in either vehicle.

The furor over this issue illustrates the clash of values and the irresolvable differences of values. It is also the tip of a whole iceberg of irresolvable issues entrenched in values. Now, it is the value of animal lives and human lives. But in any clash of values, you can expect a lot of strawman arguments.

So in this case, the AWG casts the RTA and the government as having crass mercantile values.

In the abortion debate (in the US mainly), the Pro-Choice group is caricatured as licentious (or libidinous?), irresponsible, callous people who does not respect life (and possibly God's will), while the Pro-Lifers are portrayed or viewed as (religious) zealots who wish to impose their values on others and trampling on the right of a woman to have control over her own body.

With their respective values arrayed against each other, how will it be possible to compromise? For the Pro-Lifers to compromise it would be a betrayal of their values, their beliefs, their faith. Similarly for the Pro-Choice camp - compromise is betrayal, abdication of their values and beliefs.

And so it is for the AWG - to compromise is to betray their belief that all life is equally precious, to be equally valued.

So Mahbubani is overly optimistic, and has misjudged the situation. Compromise is possible if the opposing parties are simply taking "positions" informed by facts, logic or rationale. But the simple truth is that the many intractable positions taken by opposing factions are often informed by values, beliefs, and conviction. And in such conflicts or contestation or crusades, compromise is next to impossible.

I would say impossible, but I feel the need to at least hold out a glimmer of hope.


The above two examples feature issues affecting the animal welfare lobby. The examples were most recently in the papers at the time of this blog piece, and so were most germane. Not that clash of values are only likely or possible with Animal Welfare Groups.

However, there are other examples of challenges to authority, and inability to compromise and arrive at consensus.

Lawrence Khong and the FCBC's challenge to the law is a contestation of values. Khong dismissed a staff on moral grounds when the woman was pregnant. This was against the employment act. His position was (supposedly) informed by "morality" as the woman had an adulterous affair with another church staff who was also married. Khong felt that he had the moral authority to dismiss the woman on moral grounds. He was affronted to learn that the laws of the land had precedence and primacy over his "morality", especially when it came to protecting the rights of employees. He has initiated a court action to pursue/establish his position/right (that the church has independence to act on moral grounds).

His question is not a new one, but has been covered by the Bible. Apparently he was absent during Sunday School the day they covered Jesus's teaching - "Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God."

Another question comes from some time back when a group of Muslims pushed for the Govt to recognise the Tudong/Hijab (hereafter referred to as tudong) as a mandatory accoutrement or attire for Muslim women and to allow Muslim women in uniformed services to wear the tudong, or a uniform version of it.

One argument for such a recognition was that there is precedence for such a provision as Sikhs in the police and the military are allowed to wear their turban.

The problem with that argument is that the Sikh requirement for a turban is a central requirement of their religion. The tudong however is not. 

And therein lies the clash of values or beliefs. There are individuals or groups in the Muslim community who believe that the tudong is a religious requirement. There are also groups and individuals who do not believe so. Islam is a very participatory, even democratic religion, and for such a belief to be held to be applicable to all, the community must agree, must have consensus on the issue. The simple fact is that there is NO consensus in the Muslim community that the tudong is a religious requirement, or mandatory. This is an issue for the Muslim community to sort out. 

However, some Muslims (those who believe the tudong is mandatory) have decided to push for Government recognition of the tudong as mandatory. This is a fifth column subversion. Instead of working toward consensus within the Muslim community, these activists seek external validation of their views, and if they achieve it, can present it to the others in their community as a fait accompli. 

In this, they disrespect the others in the community (perhaps they view them as lesser Muslims? Or not "true" Muslims?), and they think they are smarter than the Government and that they can manipulate the government. 

The Tudong issue is probably a good example of how we are fragmenting as a society. Even within the same religion, with supposedly the same values and perspective, the community cannot come to a consensus. What hope for a multi-racial, multi-religious society like Singapore with different faiths, worldview, perspective, and history? And what more with widening income and income inequality?

The future of Singapore lies not in how to come to consensus or how to compromise. It may well lie in how we handle conflicting values. 

Or is that the very definition of "compromise"?]

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