All judgments are comparisons

‘Hammygar’ commented yesterday that he did not have The Conversation bookmarked, but he did go to Catallaxy, which he thought far right in its leaning. It dealt badly with critics: you couldn’t get much of a conversation going there. I went off to see, and indeed Catallaxy describes itself as centre right and libertarian. I didn’t check out its comments sections.

What interested me more was that Hammygar thought me ‘well right of centre politically’, an interesting judgment in two ways. The first is that I would place myself in the centre, for a variety of reasons that might form the basis for a future post.

The second is that his remark reminded me of an old theme I developed when teaching undergraduates: that all judgments are finally comparisons, and it is often instructive to pull the judgment apart to discover the implicit comparison. There seemed to me to be three possible kinds of comparison.

The first was with an ideal, or an accepted standard. Judgments about another’s truth or honesty have in mind standards of behaviour based on ideals. We should tell the truth and behave honestly, and we all know and agree on what those standards are.

The second was a comparison across space: ‘Melbourne is the best city in which to live’ is one of those. ‘Australians have a high standard of living’, and ‘Roger Federer is the best tennis-player in the world’ are two others. We are talking of the here and now, and these claims are testable in some way.

The third is a comparison over time. ‘These floods/droughts/fires are the worst that Brisbane/Australia/Victoria has ever experienced.’ Once again, these judgments are claims that are testable, at least in principle. In this example, we do have records that might allow a decent comparison over time.

But, as so often, in doing so we may not be comparing like with like. For example, the most recent floods that swamped Brisbane suburbs did not come from the flood with the highest recorded level – that was more than a hundred years ago. In the 1890s, however, Brisbane had a much smaller population. The recent flood affected many more people. So which was the worst flood? That depends on what it is you are measuring, and why you chose that yardstick.

Courts of law have to get into this kind of analysis, but I suggested to my students that they should bear in mind that understanding is improved if we do this kind of work ourselves. The world of politics is full of claims about the way we are, and the way we might be: pick the claims apart, and they turn out to be comparisons of one kind or another. What force do they have? How accurate are they?

Thirty years ago I did a small lecture tour of Korean universities, where my students were postgraduates in the social sciences, all of whom had English to a degree, because all the books they used were in English. They wanted to know how their democracy stacked up against the American version and, given my presence, the Australian. That got us into a discussion of ‘left’ and ‘right’, and what those terms meant in Korea.

In my judgment, the whole party system in the Republic of Korea was well to the right of our own, and probably to the right of the American, as well. In each society you could point to the party of the left and the party of the right, relative to each other, but if you could imagine a universal left/right yardstick, then the whole system in Korea was further to the right than any other party system I had examined closely.

The Korean students were unimpressed. They knew what they knew, and they knew almost nothing about Australia. They were young, and to the left, and wanted change. And what was the key variable? It was not the means of production, distribution and exchange, or the ruling class, or the role of big corporations.

What distinguished the left from the right in the Korea of the 1980s was the extent to which the parties differed about extending feelers to North Korea. The right, older and remembering only too well the horror of the war, wanted nothing to do with Kim il-Sung and his henchmen. They were intent on building a modern, prosperous and defendable South Korea.

The left, on the whole younger and tired of the tales of woe given by parents, wondered whether some kind of rapprochement was possible. They wanted to give it a go, but they were not interested at all in dismantling the capitalist system that was doing so well. It didn’t seem the ordinary kind of left/right distinction to me, but it made great sense to Koreans.

When I tried out these ideas back in Australia I was given a pretty dismissive hearing: either I or the Koreans had got it badly wrong, probably both. We all knew what left and right meant, didn’t we? I go on wondering more than a little whether or not those terms have any meaning in Australia, and if they do, what those meanings are.

And when I find out, I might then know what Hammygar had in mind.

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