Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.

Of wedding bells and Parliamentary debate

I wrote a brief note yesterday thanking the politicians who voted to support equal rights yesterday. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill still has a long way to go, but it still gives me a strange and exciting feeling that now equal rights for gay people is slowly becoming political orthodoxy in this country, even if there are a scary number of old-fashioned bigots (sorry, “principled defenders of traditional marriage” is what we’re supposed to call them, because they aren’t bigots or homophobes, because if they were bigots or homophobes, they wouldn’t tell us that they aren’t).

Anyway, what I wanted to discuss wasn’t the niceness of Parliament voting for equal rights for gay people but about the process itself.

This is prompted by reading two tweets from the “Red Tory” Philip Blond:

“A riveting debate in the Commons - congratulations to all for a civil and compelling discussion” (source)

“If only we had more free votes we would improve markedly the level of debate in Parliament” (source)

There’s a simple answer to this: bollocks.

The discussion in the Commons may have been “riveting” and “compelling” and “civil” (although I find the idea that my wanting to potentially get married is in any way equivalent to incest to be rather on the borderlands of civility), but good television and good debate are two different things.

A good debate, to my mind, is structured. They are focussed around trying to find consensus around the points made, and exploring the points of difference maturely. After a good debate, you should be able to clearly see why two people disagree, to understand their commitments and values, and the logic that gets them from those values to their proposed courses of action.

Debates are about arguments, not about speeches. Don’t get me wrong. There were some good speeches. On a purely emotional/rhetorical level, I was impressed by the speeches given by David Lammy, Yvette Cooper and from a number of the gay MPs across party lines who spoke of the importance of equality and their struggles with homophobia.

But that isn’t a debate, that isn’t an argument. It’s powerful advocacy, but a debate is about intellectual discussion. A debate is deliberative. University seminars often have the intellectual merits of a good debate. Technical discussions are often pretty good debates. Sometimes the open source world has a good and proper debate. Courtrooms sometimes are a great place for debate, because you’ve got a judge who will smack people down if they play fast and loose with the rules.

If you are one of the not-at-all-homophobic people who object to the redefinition of words, then you should be outraged at the idea that the House of Commons represents a “debate”. Yes, they’ve got dressed up and refer to each other as “The Honourable Member for wherever”. Occasionally they flirt with the substantive content of the proposed law, but a huge amount of Parliamentary debate is posturing, speechifying, personal emotional outpourings and special pleading on behalf of constituents.

I started a blog a few years ago called Parliamentary Fallacy Files. I haven’t updated it since 2010, sadly, but the idea was to illustrate logical and rhetorical fallacies through real-world Parliamentary usage. I covered the Sorites fallacy, the sunk costs fallacy, the use of anecdote as a substitute for data, fallacious reasoning about what counts as an electoral mandate (basically, politicians and commentators rely too much on this concept of a mandate even when it makes no damn sense), the use of irrelevant distractions in the debate, reversing the arrow of causation, the slippery slope, and much else besides.

If I were to reactivate the blog, I would have no shortage of material. Parliamentary discussions are atrociously bad. They aren’t quite as bad as they are in the United States Congress, but they still really kind of suck. And they suck even when the vote goes the way you want, as it obviously did yesterday. Parliamentary debate is not nearly as deliberative as I would like: select committees tend to be far more so, actually delving into the nitty-gritty and talking to witnesses and examining evidence.

But, yesterday, when I saw DUP members standing up and pontificating about the Bible, well, how on earth is that a good debate? We had people comparing gay marriage to incest and loudly claiming that it was “Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve”.

If a debate on a relatively simple issue—should gay couples have the same rights to civil marriage as straight couples?—can be this bullshit-based, it makes me despair when I think that Parliament has to deal with complex, technical legislation on crime, tax, education, science policy, healthcare, and many other matters.

Friends and family members frequently don’t want to “get into arguments”. As someone who tries to live his life with a dose of humour and avoid drama, I can see why they wish to avoid the negative side of argument. But a good debate is good-spirited and beneficial for all. No wonder people hate argument and debate: every time they see it on TV or hear it on the radio from our elected leaders, it sounds like idiots shouting at one another.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad they decided to vote to let me and other gay people get married. But if you have a functioning brain, the sausage machine is as disgusting and horrifying to watch close up as you always feared.