Sunday, December 03, 2006

perspective, rational discourse, or lack thereof

I was reading the comments of this post by KTM on Singapore Angle. Lots of angry bloggers and negative emotions flying about, and I can't help but feel sad. I feel even sadder because I wonder if I was somewhat morally responsible, by starting the ball rolling on the issue of communication on the plogosphere. And I feel even even sadder, because by the end of this post, I suspect I will end up disagreeing with my two favorite bloggers in the plogosphere, KTM and BL.

But first, I will want to discuss something which I have been drafting for a few weeks already, and it would probably have just remained a draft for some weeks more, if did it not appear pertinent to discuss it now. I want to talk about perspective. I believe there are two problems with perspective [actually, the more I think about it, the two problems seem to merge into one. Even so I will present them as two separate problems for now].

The first problem has to do with what we call "objectivity". In the layman usage of the term "objectivity", we just mean "free from bias". When talking about journalism, we talk of objectivity when we talk about whether or not the journalist reports the news "as it is", or plays with words, places special emphasis on certain things, or by omission, perpetuates some agenda, or presents a version of the news in a way which is supportive of the journalist's own personal opinions and views (i.e. "slanted").

"Objectivity" in the blogosphere, or in an argument on the blogosphere, has to mean around the same thing. An objective view, or an objective argument, has to be one which presents facts and arguments "as it is", without distortion of wording, or placing undue emphasis on certain things, or without omissions of important counter facts. An objective conclusion, would then be the conclusion drawn from an argument such presented. In other words, there is reality, and there is perception. An objective view is one who's perception is identical to reality.

To be honest, I have not seen any bloggers say "you are not being objective enough", "your view is too myopic, you are not looking at the big picture", but such insinuations are implicated throughout many of the arguments which are present. Here is what I think the problem is. All humans (including bloggers) fail to be truly objective. Sure, we may learn thinking strategies to help us to be more objective, but we can never truly be 100% objective. Not by a long shot. This is why I think so: we all fail, horribly, to see 100% of "reality". All we can "see" is what we see with our own eyes and heard from our own ears. Then we draw our own conclusions from there.

Let me phrase it another way. Let's say you are someone who grew up in a poor family, and surrounded by people who have a lot of angst towards the establishment. It is more likely that your own views be anti-establishment because of what has influenced you as you grew up in the environment, even if you have a genius IQ and later make it on to become rich and successful. Now how about if you are someone who is a high ranking public official, and who was heavily involved in the decision making of policy. Because you had greater and clearer access to the arguments and reasons behind the implementation of the policy, you views might be more likely to be supportive of that policy, even if it was a controversial one.

What you see and what you hear as a result of your specific individual circumstances do place an influence on your views. I do not believe such "bias" is bad (and hence we might want to refrain from calling it "bias"). But it is certainly not objective (as we currently understand it to be). You tend to identity more with what you see and hear with your own eyes and ears, and identity less with what you do not. I believe this is true for even the most well-trained thinkers among us. Let me remind everybody again that professional philosophers, who are probably the most well trained people in the world at being objective, fail to agree on almost everything. If objectivity is an indicator on how well our perspectives map reality, then we must agree that our perceptions are not all that close to reality. (Caveat: I am assuming that we live in an objective reality, ie, there really exist a reality independent of our perceptions of it)

The second problem of perspective, is what I call the problem of "embodiment". That is, we are all not "floating minds". We all have a human body (and human psychology), and experience life (and thinking), as part of that human body. This means, our default perspective is that of one individual, not a collection of individuals, and not a collective whole of all the citizens of Singapore. Imagine, instead, your mind is not connected to your body. You are a "pure intellect" without a human psychology; you have no concerns about living or dying, you have no needs or desires to fulfill, you just think (maybe like an artificially intelligent computer). My guess is, you will have an incredible amount of difficulty imagining that. Being part of a human individual (and with that, a human body and a human psychology), comes with desires, emotions, and also, that combined with some rationalization, values and morals, all of which affect our decision making, and our formulation about our views on issues.

For example, when we discuss political or social issues, we rarely are interested in how the issue relates to an individual. We could, if we want to, discuss, how the GST hike is good/not good for me (the individual). But we are more interested in how the GST hike is good/not good for the poor, the middle income, the whole of Singapore. A collection of many individuals. Which is not our natural perspective. Now, how accurate is our perspective on something which is not our natural perspective? Of course, we have experts (economists) who are trained to do just that, and compared to non-experts such as myself, I'm sure that they are more reliable sources of information. Yet, like philosophers, I believe economists disagree over lots of issues as well.

One last point about emotion. We have a tendency to get defensive when our views are criticized. Why is this so? Perhaps because we are embodied beings, when our views are criticized, on some level, (because we feel so confident about our own views), many of us feel that we are being personally attacked (you cannot personally attack a "floating mind", there is nothing to attack). When we get attacked, this usually provokes an emotional response. Maybe we hide in a corner of our rooms and cry. Or maybe we get angry. But whatever the case, it takes someone with much training or conditioning, to not have any emotional response when attacked.

Most of the time, when we get defensive, we become more concerned with defending ourselves than thinking about the issue. It becomes personal. It becomes an emotional affair. Allow me to be more radical in my views. I think we have an emotional stake in all our views, whether or not we are attacked. I think such is a matter of being a human (with a human psychology) that in holding views, we care about the views we hold. Of course, we emotionally invest more in views whom we believe more strongly in, but I find it very unlikely that we hold to some view which we don't care a single bit about. Again, although this (close relationship between emotions and beliefs) may prove to be counter-productive in many ways, I don't see this as a bad thing. Martin Luther King was able to influence and change beliefs (for the better, I believe) partly because he was able to emotionally inspire. Nevertheless, there is a worry that if we allow ourselves to be too easily influenced by our emotions, so much so that we do not exercise some critical thinking, we may make some very serious mistakes indeed.

What was my purpose in talking about the problems of perspective? To explain why we hold different views, and why it is unlikely that we will change our views by arguing with each other. Why then should we even bother with rational discourse then? That, to me, has to be answered on a personal (individual), not on a blogosphere (collection of individuals) level. Our individual reasons may vary from "trying to figure out my own view by discussing with others", "sharpening my debating and persuasion skills", "I'm bored", "I just enjoy doing so", or dunno what other reasons lah. If you engage in debate on the blogosphere because you think that will lead you closer to "the truth", then I must say that is not very likely to happen. Firstly due to the fact that the blogosphere will unlikely unanimously agree on anything, and secondly it is my opinion that the blogosphere need not necessarily be a reliable source of what "reality" is. (Of course, many would just say, still better than Straits Times lah.)

Now, about KTM. I think we have a problem when we try to call something "rhetoric" and "non-rhetoric". It is not that I disagree with your classification, I agree actually, but the problem is those who espouse the "rhetoric" views don't (and won't be able to) see themselves as doing so, and instead, they find your label of "rhetoric" to be a personal attack, and we are setting ourselves up for a flaming war. I suspect that the KTM gets rather ticked off (I probably would be too) at some of the mean stuff which is said to him, and his main grouse is that people are not thinking (as clearly as he is). I would like to implore KTM to be kind and charitable (and he has proven himself to be so on many occasions) to his detractors no matter how "unthinking", "rhetorical" or irritating they may be. To show them that you are ticked off, no matter how justified you are for feeling so, would probably just add more fuel to the fire. Hence the importance of anger management. I also think we should be more careful about saying "the way I see things is reality, yours is not", because technically, we can't really see reality. We can only talk about how close we are to actual reality. But maybe to you this is just semantics? =P

And about BL, I have just reread your article and realized I do not really disagree with you after all. I am a big believer in compassion. In fact, those who know me personally would know that I have a major grouse against the "blame culture" that we have. But I do not share your optimism in that we will successfully learn to manage differences in our views. Or not in the blogosphere at least. Why I say so is that it is probably easier to convince Singaporeans to stick to one side of the escalator or to give way to alighting passengers first, than to convince Singaporeans to be gracious to their detractors on the blogosphere. The culture that we exist in, including the blogosphere, is one where individuals rarely give a hoot about anybody else other than themselves (and their views). That said, I don't think you have blogged in vain. Perhaps you would have convinced an individual blogger or two (or ten, or twenty) the importance of compassion, and made them reconsider they way they blog or argue. That, in my opinion, is a fruitful consequence enough, even if you cannot move the entire plogosphere. Incidentally, I disagree with Xenoboy (who I also am a big fan of), that the next natural stage of development for Singapore is to enter an age of action. I think, unless the government does something so unbelievably stupid that everyone unanimously agrees was a screw-up (perhaps something like a corruption scandal), I highly doubt the status quo to change.

[For those who doubt that KTM and BL are really my favourite bloggers in the plogosphere, read this and this old post. Both of them have been extremely influential and inspirational to me and the way I blog. Any disagreements I have with either of them will not remove my utmost admiration for both these gentlemen]

[Incidentally, I have been blogging and thinking hard for the past 4 hours (wanted to publish this post as soon as possible mah), resulting in a headache =(. I gladly welcome comments and criticisms (especially since I'm not so sure about everthing I blogged about in the last 1 hour, when my headache started), but please be nice can? =)]


BL said...

Hi Fearfully Opinionated,

Honestly, it's good that you brought up disagreement with KTM and myself. The reason for me (and this may not apply to KTM) is that I often look at the reasons on why people disagree with me and understand the issue better from the other side. It's just a way to check and refine what I am proposing.

Yes, you may be right that it is hard to convince the plogosphere with my article, but as you agree, I will prefer to convince a few and to me, that's enough. Perhaps, it distills from teaching students entrepreneurship. I never intend that everyone should be entrepreneurs, but I hope to seed the ideas in their mind so that they will become successful in their own right.

Even the smallest effort can change the course of history. Ultimately, whatever we say is one thing, doing them is another.

Oh yeah, can exchange links with me?

Aaron said...

Erm, you don't have exam meh? How come can spend 4 hours blogging? :p

Anyway, don't worry lar. Disagreement is very normal. In fact, I always like to say that agreement makes progress faster, but hor, it also makes destruction faster too! I am a great fan of America beecause despite all their disagreements, they are the last superpower standing.

Anyway, as a journalism/comms student, I find your take on objectivity of the press interesting. Actually, journalists do realise that they can never be truly objective. Bo bian lar, human beings are simple, human beings. To err is human. This is why our professional training and editorial policies are designed such as to condition the journalist to provide diversity of views.

You might be interested to read the BBC's guidelines in impartiality/objectivity. The BBC is an outstanind news outlet in my opinion.

P.S. Usually hor, I don't write Singlish one but the KTM say that writing Queen's English is abit too "uppity" leh. :p

Aaron said...

Aiyoh, the link tio makan. Paiseh. I think it is too long. I post it again here as a hyperlink instead.

BBC Editorial Policy

Fearfully Opinionated said...


Exchange links? Sure. What do you mean? I link your blog to mine?


I was wondering when we will have out first conversation. =P

Actually, sorry to disappoint, I am actually not a university student. (Ben actually thought I was an A level student =P)

I am also quite aware that journalists realize that they can never be truly objective. I was hoping to appeal to some "layman" intuition of "objectivity", and then argue (successfully or not), that NOBODY no matter how intelligent, can be truly objective in that intuitive sense. Incidentally, scientists realize the shortcomings of "scientific objectivity" explained as such, and have redefined it to mean something else.

My point was hopefully to create some understanding that people disagree partly because we are ALL not "truly objective". The next question, which I have not really attempted to answer, is "so what do we do about all our disagreements?"

Aaron said...

Haha, there's always a first for everything! I wanted to reply on the earlier post but when I saw this one, I decided to reply here instead.

Pardon my ignorance. I really thought you are an undergraduate like me. I suppose you must be a graduate then.

Indeed, the notion of objectivity is something that should be thrown out of the window. There's no such thing as being truly objective. The closest we can get to true objectivity is to have a marketplace of ideas where everyone listens to what everyone else has to say. This is precisely why in journalistic training we are made to talk to as many people as possible so that we are aware of all the competing ideas.

Even in the realm of science, I doubt there is true objectivity. Perhaps numerical measures are pretty objective but when the data gets interpreted, the "objectivity" goes out of the window.

With regards to what to do with disagreements, I say, do nothing! There's nothing wrong with disagreements, so why should something be done about something that's not wrong nor broken? Just accept the fact that different people, by virtue of the fact that they have different values, education and experience, have different opinions. You are entitled to your belief, and I am entitled to mine. Until it can be conclusively proven that one is right and the other is wrong, let's just respect each other's views and accept that there's probably an ounce of truth in both. :)

Fearfully Opinionated said...

Hi Aaron,

I share your general sentiments. I'm sure you have read the comments section of KTM's latest post on Singapore Angle. Lots of very ugly arguments there. Credit to KTM for keeping calm in the face of it all, but it is my personal opinion that he can afford to be nicer. (KTM would probably say he very nice already).

I've been basically trying to argue that no matter how well thought out our views are, they are not infallible. That is because we ALL fail to be truly objective. And because our views are fallible, we should probably be more charitable to our detractors.

I think one of the reason why we get so angry when our views are criticized is that we believe are views to be TRUE (ie, an accurate representation of reality), and our critics, therefore, are WRONG. I just want to suggest the idea that our perception of reality (and hence what is "true" or not)is not so simple.

If everybody in the blogosphere can have the attitude of mutual respect which you subscribe to, then it would really be a much better place. Question is, do you see this happening?

Layman said...

With blogging, people try to put across views that they find reasonable to themselves. But, of course, are we writing for ourselves to argue against/for the policies or helping others (eg the poor) to air their feelings. In blogging, the only thing that come out of it is the exchange of words. We hope to change mindsets of those who come to your blogs. What about those whose did not come to the blogs and cannot afford to? Are we writing for them to see?

kwayteowman said...

Hi Fearfully Opinionated,

Perhaps you will be so kind as to remind the KTM, exactly what you are disagreeing with him about? :-)

The so-called ugliness you are referring to is actually quite controlled (things could be worse), and you are right to say that the KTM was showing restraint.

Perhaps you are also right to say that the KTM could have been more charitable, but it's not always easy to be nice when you have a bull charging at you. Will heed your advice and attempt to show more compassion in the future. :-)

Truthfully, by the time the KTM takes a certain position on a given issue, he would probably have thought through the arguments for both sides -- and for most socio-political issues, there are no right answers.

Therefore, the KTM is generally more interested in HOW people thing and WHY they think what they think rather that WHAT they think. What you saw was an example of what the KTM has highlighted as a problem of articulation.

The KTM had no clue for the longest time what the fella was trying to say. Imagine, some fella comes and tells you he disagrees with you and that you should go and refute a Wikipedia entry?

Perhaps the KTM should just have ignored him? Turns out that the KTM felt it was worth highlighting the other side of the story for discussion.

So if we are back to your previous post on why things get ugly, it is because the nature of the blogosphere is such (and yes, were are only human).

Not sure if you noticed the spat between wbg and Tristan which the KTM tried to stop. It is also not impossible to have civil debate/exchange (c.f. KTM & RSE).

Conclusion: the situation really ain't as bad as you seem to make it out to be, so please don't lose sleep over this.

Me left the following comment:

And I do agree that I was being too aggressive and sarcastic. Not making any apologies for it though because I like it this way. My online postings are frequently of this tone; I guess one has to compensate for being overly meek in real-life.

What this shows is that some people just LIKE to be aggressive. So what is the KTM supposed to do? :-P

The following is the KTM's stand (in response to a comment by wbg):

It turns out that there is some semblance of democracy on the blogosphere and even if people have NO CLUE what they are talking about, it is THEIR RIGHT to say what they want in WHATEVER MANNER they wish to say it (and the KTM will gladly defend their right to do so).

And the KTM is pretty serious about this and no simply paying lip service. What would be unacceptable is double standards.

No Name Coward said...

Hi Fearfully Opinionated

Please excuse my poor english\grammar\whatever.
I am the village idiot responsible for spoiling the article with a sarcastic rant. I whine. Eh... thats what humans do. for thousands of years. See Exodus in Bible. Unless you are the type that can produce water from a rock. Or walk on water. Otherwise, you whine. It like breathing, eating, bleeding when u get cut ...

My point is ... I had a bad day. My other point is that I wouldn't be so pissed if KTM (or wbg to a lesser extent) was wrong. Income inequality is not a problem. Of course not. My mother used to tell me cod liver oil is good for me. Of course it is. But I hated it anyway. Cos the taste sucks. Income inequality and the size of our ministers' pay is not evil\wrong but it sure is morally repulsive.

KTM talks about rhetorics. Imagine you are trying to teach disadvantaged little Xiao Ming (whose father is in jail) how to read but knowing full well he is doomed in the meritocratic singapore education system. Of course it is only rhetorics. Looking at the larger picture, KTM is right again. There will always be cracks in the system no matter what. dun you just hate him? :-p

Then again, you can be quoting Friedman or Prof Another Nobel Prize winner and, you know what, when PAP has decided on a policy, you might as well been farting into the wind.

KTM: Reading those accursed books makes me feel that, with regards to the next stage of Singapore, the light at the end of the tunnel belongs to an oncoming MRT train w/o brakes ... someone give me the blue pill.

Rant over. Yes. Another bad day. Can someone show me some compassion?!! Of course not. I am just another office rat in a jungle where the only rule is the survival of the fittest. no mercy.

PS: Is the the image in BL's profile that of ... No Name? Who is really happy after losing his memories?

Fearfully Opinionated said...

Hi Layman,

Thanks for your comment. I've read it several times, but I must apologize for not understanding it. Perhaps it is my headache, or perhaps I am not as intelligent as many of you might think I am. Are you asking me a question? If so, are you asking me a question about the influence of blogs outside the blogosphere, or about the intended audience of blogs?

It will be very helpful to me (if you were indeed asking me a question) if you can clarify what you meant. =)


I did not disagree with you on any argument you were making. Perhaps I should have explicitly said so. I plead guilty of being sloppy in my articulation again.

What I do disagree with, is your labelling others to be "rhetorical", since I believe that to be counter-productive in the long run. But, that said, you have every right to do so. I was just hoping to appeal to some sense of you not wanting to make arguments ugly.

Aiyah, you know what, on second thought, I take back all criticisms on the KTM lah. It has occurred to me that if I were in the same situation as he was, I may not be able to show the same amount of restraint has shown. Hence, I have absolutely no moral authority to ask him to show more compassion.

I also have, apparently, been wrong about the KTM's motivations. If indeed you are interested in exploring HOW and WHY people think the way the do, you naturally will want to push them in a certain way, which I previously thought was excessive and unnecessary.

Perhaps you are right. This is not as bad as it can get. (And I won't lose sleep over it lah, just headache only). It does however, make me feel somewhat sad about the situation. And perhaps I need to think longer and harder about why I ought to linger around in the blogosphere.

kwayteowman said...

No Name Coward,

Sorry to hear that you're having a bad day.

Honestly, the KTM didn't take any offence from your comment and doesn't think of you as "a village idiot". You're farny actually. :-)

The KTM is quite curious to understand why you want to take the blue pill and feel so upset. Help the KTM understand and learn some compassion can? :-)

This is completely random. Perhaps consider changing job? :-P

Fearfully Opinionated,

What I do disagree with, is your labelling others to be "rhetorical", since I believe that to be counter-productive in the long run.

Generally, the KTM does not use the term "rhetoric" when responding to comments. It just so happens that the article itself was about the danger of rhetorics and so the KTM is only using the opportunity to clarify and highlight to reader(s) what he means. :-P

Agree with you that telling the other fella that what he is saying is rhetoric and has no logically basis is in general useless when advancing an argument. Will only get the other fella upset and cloud his thinking/judgment.

Anyhow, there are two million and one ways for discussions to turn ugly. Take for example, this wbg fellow. The KTM was actually trying to be kind to him and yet the fella turns around and bites the KTM. Being nice and charitable doesn't always pay. :-P

Truthfully, the KTM is going to take a break from blogging also. The silly entry sucked up the KTM's entire weekend and got Mrs KTM upset with the KTM (all BL's fault for asking the KTM to finish writing and publishing it! KTM's turn to blame/whine). :-P

You have to figure out why are blogging. If you should decide that blogging is not for you, then it's okay to quit. Follow your heart. :-)


Fearfully Opinionated said...

no name coward,

You know what? Screw rational discourse lah. You're having a bad day? I'll buy you a beer lah. Maybe we can ask KTM to join us (perhaps without Mrs KTM). =P

Layman said...

Sorry for the confusion. Thank you for your reply.

Writing with objectivity requires much knowledge. We need to understand who is the target audience. We need to understand the aim of the writer when he/she blogs. It can be just ranting or critical comments of certain issues. Some just want to write and do not contribute to anything, so we do not look for any objectivity in them. Political issues can be discussed in many ways, we need to accept that they will be different, we just have to differentiate.

Yes, do we include those outside the blogsphere when we are deciding on the objectivity of the blog pieces. People need to form some opinions after reading the blogs and pass the messages on the common people. The way we write the messages in the blogs become a little important.

I apologise for not writing well enough. I discovered blogs and forums during the last GE. It has changed the way I see things now. Blogs and forums offer different opinions but I do not accept everything people write. I like to bring those comments that make good common sense to the common people. Most of the bloggers are more knowledgeable than me, I would like to see them helping the lesser known to understand the complexity of issues. The common people need to know the real impact of the government policies and take real actions with their lives. We do not want to lose our individual freedoms to you know who. Bloggers need to know if they want to help the common people with the proper objectivity in their commentaries.

We will be different...

Aaron said...

Actually, when the KTM is sacarstic, it adds a whole lot of flavour to his post. It's like dumping a tablespoon of MSG into his kway teow. The flavour increase a few folds and in fact, I think it spices up the discussion a little.

In anycase, I think it's fair to respond like for like. Like the wbg guy, since he is out to look for trouble, I'll be glad to return him the favour. Give him a few lines to demonstrate that his "smartness" is nothing more than a delusion on his part and then leave him there.

Not everyone is interested in a rational discourse, be it online or offline. It's a fact of life really, just that online, because you don't risk a broken nose, some people tend to take things much more extreme than they would otherwise dare to.

kwokheng said...

Hi Fearfully Opinionated,

Maybe you'll like the following article:

'Objectivity is not all it's cracked up to be'


Fearfully Opinionated said...

Hi Layman,

I read and I think I generally agree with your sentiments about having a moderate temperment when blogging (is that your point?)

However, I'm not sure but, perhaps you misunderstood the general thrust of my post? I was not urging bloggers to be "more objective". Instead, I was trying to persuade them (perhaps not very successfully), that there is NO SUCH THING as 100% objectivity. We're all more or less in the same boat here, and hence on that light, we should not be over eager to force our version of truth down each other's throats.

Thank you for commenting =).


Perhaps it is fair to respond like for like. But is it advisible? Just because we have the right or the freedom to do something, does it mean that it is always wise to do so? What would you gain if you responded harshly to someone whom you believed has also been harsh? What are the consequences of such an action? Are the consequences of such an action worth what you gain out of doing this action?

I thought wbg raised up an interesting conundrum (if it indeed is one) about rights and freedom of speech. In all honesty, I haven't figured it all out yet. But I would like to think that things would perhaps be better if we all exercise a bit more compassion and mutual respect.


It is definitely an interesting article. Unfortunately, I have no knowledge whatsoever about branding and brand consultation, so I cannot in any way judge if it was indeed a good article or not. =\

Cheers to all,

No Name Coward said...

No Name Coward has 20 mins to his next kaw tow session (aka conference call) and would like to thank Fearfully opinionated and KTM for their kindness. In fact am curious about KTM. If KTM really fries Kway Teow then I am actually David Beckham.

To Layman

If u desire to educate or make a different, may i humbly suggest that you target the lower 70%? See insanepoly or Mr Brown. Of course there is a reason why who-know-who goes after the Talkcocks\Browns and not the BLs\KTMs even though it is obvious who has the higher intellect... bigger audience ...

Anonymous said...

all of us differs in two spheres and two foundations - above or below.

anyother thing is just confusion and smoke.

Aaron said...

I don't think it's a bad idea to throw in a couple of barbs and sacarsm to spice things up once in a while. In fact, I chuckled to myself when I saw some of the subtle barbs hurled by the KTM in response to some of the more unreasonable people. I think the key issue is whether people can actually write it in a subtle fashion and not result in an all out flame war. It would be too boring to have a straight, devoid of emotion piece all the time. Some variation is good, provided its not taken to the extreme.