Monday, March 26, 2007

Partisans And Bias

When I did my undergrad in university, one of the more interesting courses concerned the philosophy of history. I mention this fact, because I think it relevant to the discussion of partisanship and the delusion that some people have, that they are objective.

There was a school of thought that developed, within the historical community, called the Idealist School. The logic behind this approach to history argued that the historian was a blank canvas, hard facts were the only consideration in formulating a thesis. Any conclusions were simply the result of a careful reading of the evidence, there was the notion that a person could interpret objectively through the sheer power of facts. A reading of history was almost akin to a scientific formula, the observer was a conduit to truth.

Of course, this theory was rejected, hence the Idealist tag, because it failed to recognize the permanence of human bias. Objectivity, in the scientific sense, is illusion for any endeavor that involves human interpretation. While the facts are powerful, an individual historian must determine the weight and the relationship of the facts, which leads to different conclusions. In other words, a person can strive for objectivity, but this search always has limitation because you can't escape the lens of your own experience. Complete objectivity, absolute truth, is impossible once you accept bias as resident.

I joined the Liberal Party a few months ago. I did so, largely because I saw an opportunity to participate in a chance to reform a bloated national institution. However, in some ways I wish I had remained independent, primarily because I am occasionally disregarded as a "Liberal", "partisan", "kool-aid drinking" hack who's bias supercedes every opinion. Nevermind the fact I voted for the NDP last election, nevermind the fact I have voted Green in a prior election, nevermind the fact that I have criticized the Liberal Party on MANY occasions (in fact my first blog post argued in favor of turfing the Liberals), nevermind the fact that I written favorably about Layton and May, I am now the Liberal partisan.

I admit my biases, and they haven't really changed since I joined the Liberal Party. However, what I find annoying is the posture some people take, as a function of their apolitical orientation. Newsflash, everyone has a bias, everyone is a partisan in one fashion or another. Staying on the sidelines and pontificating from the ambigious pedestal doesn't give one more "objectivity", maybe it just makes the bias less obvious, but entirely real, nonetheless.

There are varying degrees of bias and partisanship. Some people, and we all know the examples, are so fiercely partisan that their opinion is almost irrelevant. No matter what the issue, everything is spun and that warping destroys credibility. I would hope that my opinions don't fall into that category, because I do strive for some fairness, from time to time, for balance. Everyone is a prisoner to their own bias, that fact limits our ability to "see" clearly. Those that actually believe they do "see" objectively are the worst, because that arrogance suggests a lack of self-knowledge. Deal with it, everyone is a partisan, nobody has the objective eyes, it's all just opinion in the end and I'm okay with the relativity.


politiquevert said...

As always, you write thoughtful, intelligent commentary while others merely engage in verbal mud wrestling. Great post!

Psychols said...

Great post. It is thoughtful and challenging.

Lept said...

I would agree with 'politiquevert' with the exception of some of your writing about Dion, Qu├ębec and your most strange support for Charest.
If the Liberal party ever goes anywhere it'll be because of people like you.

Ed said...


I've been mulling over this same notion since the budget, but have been too busy to blog about it.

I found that the reaction to the budget really showcased partisanship. Many of the BTs commented on how the budget was a wonderful success despite its glaring lack of any conservatism at all. It indicated to me that their allegiance to the CPC and Harper was more tribal than ideological. They just want their team to win. It has little to do with good goverment, the game is they are playing just happens to involve people in government.

It is, of course, not just BTs that are like this, but their reaction last week really showcased such behaviour well.

Accordingy, the Liberal Party has its staunch and unwavering supporters too, that odious little weed Cherniak comes to mind.

Anyway, good post. I agree whole heartedly. We all need to try and be as objective as possible, although, at times, it can be difficult.

Scotian said...

I certainly would not classify you as a party partisan, not from what I have read from you over these many moons now. I agree that complete objectivity is a chimera when it comes to human behaviour/interactions whatever and whenever they are occurring and have occurred. To be most effective as a Harper opponent online I found it was more important to stay politically unaffiliated until the election cycle, when I will likely work for a candidate by doing one of two things. Either I will be a poll watcher/scrutinizer/agent for them or I will spend my day with a borrowed vehicle aiding voters to get out to the polls. That is the sort of thing I do whenever I work for a candidate regardless of their political affiliations, because for me it feels more like working to make sure the system is working/fair/honest and in making sure that as many people that want to vote are actually able to get out to vote no matter how infirm/disabled than in having to espouse anything I may not be able to fully support, I leave that to the true partisans of the party/candidate in question.

I do think you make some very good points in this post about the inherent inability of human beings to be fully/truly objective when evaluating the actions/words/motives of other human beings, be it in the past or present day. It is something I always remind myself to take into account whenever I make such evaluations, as I am well aware of the fact I have my own blind spots and biases warping my views, it is one of the reasons I like putting them out there to see how others respond. It is like using mirrors to see around something since you cannot see through it, at least that is how it works for me.

It is ironically enough because of the strong party partisans I was raised around and taught my political education by that made it impossible for me to ever be a party partisan. I am incapable of that level of total/blind trust/faith in any group of humans whatever it is to always do the right thing. You see, I am a great believer in human nature and have great faith in its consistency in appearing, the thing of it is though that applies equally to humanity's negative traits as it does the positive ones.

The main reason I oppose Harper and the CPC so much is because I see them as such a distinct threat to our greater political traditions and institutions and even someone that through his own best intentions can end up being the destroyer of this country. My problem with Harper is not that I think he is evil or bad, no I am more than willing to believe he has the best of intentions and believes he is in the right, but then I also am willing to believe that of GWB who has shown exactly why the road to Hell is paved with "good intentions" IMHO. One of the most important things to remember about human beings is that few villains if any ever see themselves as villains, no they see themselves as heroes doing what is necessary even when the majority is unaware of that fact and condemns them for acting so. The ability of the human mind to subjectively revise reality around them is one of the most fascinating things about our species and something I have studied throughout my life, it is at the same time one of our greatest strength (by letting us have hope and faith in incredibly bad circumstances and to survive them) and greatest weakness (for the obvious reasons I don't think need expanding upon) IMHO as a survival trait.

This is also one of the reasons I am so big on context, since context is what helps determine/define meaning, especially where human interactions are concerned. Good post Steve V, I really enjoyed reading it.

Woman at Mile 0 said...

Great post. I only recently joined the Liberal party as well but I actually have voted Liberal in each federal election since I was old enough to vote (and that was some time ago). My parents were progressive conservatives (red tories). I did debate for quite awhile actually joining the Liberal party because it made me feel like I would be obligated to vote Liberal if they did something that I did not like. I guess I was willing to take a chance after this much time (my opinion has not changed) to actually take a bigger step and commit to the party. But really membership only lasts a year and when voting day comes you can always make another choice if you are unhappy. I certainly would hope no one would class me as a party hack. I would be highly suspicious that anyone who would do this is an "on the sly party hack" who is not upfront about their own biases.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

This is a wonderful post, Steve!

My admittedly vague perception of you is as follows: Generally speaking, you are one of the few fairminded partisans of the political blogosphere. You went through a phase during and immediately after the leadership race that was too partisan-rhetoricy for my comfort, but have since emerged on the other side of that.

In general, I'd say that I don't think you have to stay non-partisan in order to be fairminded about political parties, but this does seem to be rare among political bloggers. Unfortunately.

ottlib said...

Good post.

I had a qualitative research professor many years ago who stated that all researchers see the world through their own individual lenses. As a result their take on any evidence they use in their research will be influenced by those lenses.

The best researchers are the ones that engage in a thorough self-assessment to determine to the best of their ability what are their biases. As well, once that is done they admit to their biases and any preconceived notions that they might have had when they began reserch on a specific topic.

For me that is the true definition of objectivity, but of course that is just an opinion on my part based on my own reading of what a former professor said one day during class.

However, I think that it is a reasonable opinion even if I do say so myself.

knb said...

in some ways I wish I had remained independent, primarily because I am occasionally disregarded as a "Liberal", "partisan", "kool-aid drinking" hack who's bias supercedes every opinion.

Rational, thinking people would not characterise you that way Steve. Only those who fit the descriptors on the other side.

I only joined the Party about a year ago too. I've voted Liberal in many elections, but have also voted NDP and Green. I realise my biases, but would say that we all have values and a way of looking at how best to see them reflected back to us.

I do many things in my life that have nothing to do with politics per se, but there is a common theme that runs through them and if that is bias, well so be it.

Great, thoughtful post as always.

UWHabs said...

Definitely better to not be a kool-aid drinker. There's a reason why many of us like reading your commentary. I think it serves everyone better to try to reason everything rationally, and to be willing to criticize stuff when we don't like it.