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Published 4 March 2015
Judgements about policies are rarely absolutely, they depend on the social context the policies are being implemented in.

Discussions about social policies and choices are often considerably confused by a mismatch of context. Consider some simple examples.

Drones are abysmal. They are terror. They should disappear.

Versus: Drones are fantastic. They do good. They should proliferate.

Into the fray go the combatants. Neither side gives an inch. Is this about values? Often, but sometimes not.

A child, with a parent, plays with a toy drone. The child laughs and loves it. The parent concurs. Another adult, looking on, sees it like  children in the old south playing with miniature nooses and hanging trees. Good play or bad callousness?

Both these commentators should easily agree that drones are merely things that fly without a person on board. They should also agree that in doing so, drones can collect data or carry cargo. Both should also be able to see that in a bad society drones encroach privacy, propel repression, and, even facilitate massacre so that celebrating them in such a context aggravates their evil. Yet in a good society, both should be able to see that drones could research hurricanes, deliver food into otherwise inaccessible flood zones, and even help with routing emergency vehicles or fighting forest fires.

Take a related example, surveillance. In a bad society, surveillance guides repression and stifles expression. It is 1984ish. In a good society, surveillance can find data useful for curbing abuses or, even more so, for curbing the spread of diseases. It might even catch instances of dangerous social deviance in time to avoid harm.  Surveillance, after all, is just gathering information about people and gathering information is not intrinsically bad, and in certain contexts, can be quite valuable.

The point is, judgments about phenomena, policies, or actions are rarely absolute. Nuclear bombs? I suspect rejecting them is absolute, like rejecting tools with no use other than torture such as thumbscrews. But there aren't many cases like these. Most often if we ignore context we make ridiculous or even suicidal errors.

Think about an activist who says "I am against institutions." This is quite common. And in a horrible society this activist is correct that virtually every institution will be imprinted with the vile logic at the heart of that society's various prevalent types of injustice. In the U.S., pick any institution you like. Family. Hospital. Production plant. School. Election. Police. Church. Their current inner logic includes despicable racist, sexist, authoritarian, and classist dynamics.

Joe sees this and deduces that all institutions are vile. We should oppose institutions per se. Joe's sentiment is understandable. The statement is even nearly accurate - once we read it as all institutions in my society are vile. Of course, even in context it overlooks that those institutions also have positive merits, like providing space to live, options to learn, medical repair, and so on.

Jill looks and sees the positive qualities and says, hurray institutions. Well, this makes sense too, as long as the cheer is for the idea of people creating social relations that define roles they can fulfill over and over, without having to start from scratch every time they want to doanything. But if it means all role patterns are wonderful, even now, in all their aspects, or even on balance, well, then it is idiotic.

This is all simple, yet it is remarkable how often people ignore the simple to arrive at and staunchly advocate the seemingly sophisticated which is, however, actually absurd.

One more example. Call it compromise. Or call it reform. Sam says if we want x but we settle for y, whether it is a negotiation or a demand made in action, we are sell outs to our true desires. We are on a road to submission and ruin. Sue says, if we get y, and it is better than what we had, this manifests our will and approaches our true desires. We are on a road to progress and well being.

This is different views of the same thing, with context unmentioned. It trades assessment of actual circumstances and effects that are judged in context, for waving a flag deemed absolutely certainly in all cases.

So one side says without much concern for the subtleties of real conditions, the Syriza stance in its negotiations is a sell out. It is hypocrisy, submission, because it didn't get x the whole enchilada. The other side says, the Syriza stance in negotiations was courageous, honest, smart and effective. It got y, on the road to the whole enchilada. In truth, carefully assessing circumstances, possibilities, and outcomes suggests both sides have insights and both sights have oversights. Dueling banners are only sometimes an accurate measure of reality's fabric.

Make it more stark. Workers strike for higher wages. They settle. Sellout screams one flag waver. Success screams another flag waver. What's the truth? You cannot know without closer examination.

But here is the insight that I suspect matters most regarding compromise/reform. Did the process of winning the limited again occur so as to point toward further advance, or did it occur so as to end with whatever the limited gain was? Did the process of struggling, and the limited victory as well, shift mentalities and material relations so that continued progress is more likely, or so that it is less likely. Again, you can't know without looking. But at least this reveals what to look for.

And it may also give us some insight into how to discuss, support, or even oppose a particular situation of compromise or reform. In context, are my comments about what is happening not only as accurate and truthful to the facts of the case as I can manage, but also delivered in such a way as to help propel continued gains? Or are my comments either not true to the facts, or delivered in such a way as to undermine continued gains?


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