Appreciating degree in a polarized world

If politics is to become scientific, and if the event is not to be constantly surprising, it is imperative that our political thinking should penetrate more deeply into the springs of human action. What is the influence of hunger upon slogans? How does their effectiveness fluctuate with the number of calories in your diet? If one man offers you democracy and another offers you a bag of grain, at what stage of starvation will you prefer the grain to the vote? – Bertrand Russell, Nobel Lecture 1950.

I return to this quote often when faced with choosing one of two alternatives, both of which, for the moment, appear unconvincing. Russell said this while talking about “What Desires are Politically Important”, but even if the quote is taken out of context, it is clear that he attributed great importance to the notion of degree.

Different from the mental process of making a choice, the notion of degree forces the chooser to weigh the choices in a hypothetical balance – to guess the composition of the most beneficial tradeoff between the two alternatives. I was reminded of this again today, while reading this funny paragraph from G. H. Hardy:

Poetry is more valuable than cricket, but Bradman would be a fool if he sacrificed cricket in order to write second-rate minor poetry (and I suppose that it is unlikely that he could do better). If the cricket were a little less supreme, and the poetry better, then the choice might be more difficult: I do not know whether I would rather have been Victor Trumper or Rupert Brooke. – G. H. Hardy, A Mathematician’s Apology

Again, the use of degree was not Hardy’s central focus – that being the reasons why a person may choose mathematics as a career – but it was part and parcel of his reasoning mechanism. In our popular political, religious and cultural debate, the notion of degree is all but extinct. In a world of Ann Coulter and Al Franken, there is little incentive for adopting a more nuanced approach to opposing viewpoints. Even those who pay lip-service to degree by saying that the truth is somewhere in the middle, do little in the way of estimating where that ‘middle’ is, and what arguments should be posed to arrive at the middle. Why is it that that we are averse to appreciating degree? Is it because we no longer have the time (or the inclination) to think seriously about the polarizing issues of our time, fattened as we are on manageable sound-bites and attractive graphics which change rapidly to accommodate our diminishing attention span? Is it because, even after many centuries of war and social inequality, we do not fully recognize the dangers of extremism? Or is it just that we are not smart enough, and have to depend on intellectuals to jolt us into thinking? And finally, is it merely a coincidence that the two passages I quote are both derived from mathematicians?


2 thoughts on “Appreciating degree in a polarized world”

  1. Ooh I like this.

    The USA are clearly not the right place to find nuance in politics. Having two parties is a little like black/white, yin/yang, or coke/pepsi dichotomy and gradually, everyone is likely to forget that there are middle choices everywhere.
    I wonder whether the policital arena is more peaceful and nuanced in countries using the single transferable vote system (e.g. Ireland): you get to rank candidates in decreasing preference order. Choosing candidate A as #1 does not necessarily mean you are against B, as you can choose B as #2, etc.

  2. Thanks for the link mandarine. I wonder how this would work in my country, where we have dozens of parties contesting an election. If we have to rank candidates, I agree that it will foster a more nuanced approach from the voters and possibly also from the propaganda machine. The problem that I see with this, especially in my country, is that we are far from 100% literacy. It will be very difficult to organize thoughts and communicate them reliably on a ballot paper if you haven’t had a primary education.

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