Sunday, 8 November 2009

The Uses and Abuses of Wet Paint

Paint can and brush, via FreeClipartNow - public domainAfter yet another post turning the scorn hose on politicians in general, some of my readers may think it's high time I came out and admitted to some positive position of my own, other than 'the best seat I can find in the peanut gallery'.

I might with some justice suggest that "So what would you do, then?" is not, in fact, all that good a response to most political criticism.  True, if one is presented with a choice of opening the box or taking the money, and is going to be roundly abused by the same people for either option, this sounds and usually is pretty unfair of them.

President Obama, for instance, can expect to be savagely denounced for plotting against liberty even for an act of liberalization (kudos to Brad Taylor for catching and skewering this one).  In this case, he is the victim of ludicrous sophistry.  But a savvier debater than the average talking TV-head has access to a much better generalized attack, along the lines of, "Okay, this time you might as well take the money and scram.  But playing Take Your Pick is a really dumb way to make your fortune - why don't you try working for a living, huh?"

Or whatever.  The point is, that when you run with a crowd who have painted themselves into a corner, complaining that your critics cannot suggest a clean way out is rather missing their point!

There are several ways for a critic to respond to what I will call the Wet Paint Defence.

I've already hinted at the form I think is valid.  First, place the blame squarely where it lies - on the procedure of painting the room arse-backwards.  Secondly, explain the concept of painting from the far end of the room and working towards the door.  The defender will typically object that maybe that would theoretically work in ivory-tower land, but it is moot in any case because he is stuck right now, and is a practical person in need of constructive practical suggestions.

At this point there is the option of recommending either waiting for it to dry, or crossing it and sucking up the resulting damage to shoes and surface.  But this is dangerous: it is the response the defender wants.  The person who knows how to paint floors is not criticizing the damage done by the worse of the two choices - they are criticizing the damage done by the better choice, because that is the extent of damage which the painter has already incurred by their original mistake!  Any additional bad judgement they show by choosing the worse, is quite likely to prove a side-show by comparison.

This is a relatively sophisticated argument, and may not work in dumbing-down conditions like a TV soundbite-fest, the drunker stages of a pub conversation, or the presence of hot buttons on either side.  It also doesn't work if the critic isn't quite sure how to paint that room either.  These limitations give rise to at least three classic modes of failure:

1) Buying In. Getting diverted into the question of whether it is better to get painty feet and footprinty paint, or else to stand in the corner like a lemon for several hours.  On this subject, the competent floor-painter is not even guaranteed to be right, and is in any case reduced to quibbling about how to save farthings whilst forgetting about the sovereigns they saw rolling down the drain.  Example: passionate debates about whether to kiss bailed-out banks or slap their faces - blithely ignoring such questions as whether it was a good idea to conjure them back from the grave in the first place, not to mention whether we shouldn't be totally calling in Buffy to stake them before they drag us kicking and screaming into the Hellmouth!

2) Mounting the High Horse.  Through arrogance or ignorance, not being willing to suggest how the room could correctly have been painted, and harping on and on about how it is the painter's sole responsibility and fault.  This gives rise to the impression that the critic would not actually be any better of a painter, and is trying to hide it.  Example: just about any parliamentary opposition party, anywhere, all the time.

3) Walking the Dogma.  Through enthusiasm or dishonesty, being all too willing to suggest how the room could correctly have been painted, and treating the painter's failure as evidence that Correct Path Painting would have in fact done the job - whilst handwaving Correct Path's way to success, secure in the knowledge that it is too late to test it.  This gives rise to the impression that the critic is a painting legend  in their own brain-pan.  Example: just about any radical reform movement, anywhere, ad nauseam.

Buy-in is averted by sticking to the point, and emphasizing strategic thinking over a policy of pure reaction.

Mounting the high horse is avoided by saying what one has to say, and freely admitting lack of clue where it exists.  "Painting oneself into a corner sucks, and doesn't look like a logical necessity," is worth saying even if one has no certain strategy for avoiding it.  It has identified a problem, which the defender may well have reason to deny.

Walking the dogma is avoided by keeping mum about what one does not know, and freely admitting lack of evidence where it exists.  "Painting forwards from this door fails, and we ought to try painting backwards from that wall," is worth saying even if one has no clear proof that the latter will work.  It has identified a potential solution, which the defender again may have an investment in denying.

All three of these things can be fantastically difficult.  Each can be stymied by inclement debating conditions, an unreceptive audience, a failure of wit and preparation, or the mere demands of one's own ego.  They are, nonetheless, surely things to strive for.

And they do, I think, offer some clues as to how far one is really obliged to go in offering 'constructive criticism' in lieu of the mere hurling of peanuts.  If all I have is peanuts, and a target for them, then they may justly be hurled.  If Karl Marx had confined himself to the just hurling of peanuts or even brickbats at the vicious iniquities of the bosses of his day, he would not have become the great historical figure that he became through piling on the dogmatic alt-Hegelian claptrap.  But he also might then have deserved bouquets, rather than depleted-uranium brickbats.  And the world might be a much better place thereby!

Whenever I am, in my small way, faced with something like Charlie-boy's choice, I trust I shall always have the humility to remain an obscure hurler of peanuts from the gallery.

Conversely, I will have something more to be proud of if I really can suggest some alternatives to tracking paint all over the carpets.

After many years of thought - much of it profoundly dunderheaded - I do, in fact, have a few positive political suggestions to offer.  These will be exhibited to the peanut-zinging public in a subsequent post.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.