#7 On proportions

Dear Mat,

You’re right, the debating team I was in made no rigorous arguments and instead achieved  some success with recourse to humour, shock-value and vulgarity. My own highpoint was in an debate on a topic like “power corrupts” or similar. Heck, why don’t I just tell the story?

The scene. We were a ragtag trio of boys in one-size-fits-none blazers, hastily put on over our polo-top/cargo shorts public school uniform, lest we disgrace our already disgraced (owing to a recent cluster of grizzly murders) school. We were up against an all-girl team from the local Anglican grammar school, shrouded in ankle length tartan and all but balancing books on their sanctified heads. Their teacher was an absurd anachronism of a prim schoolmarm and it remained unclear what she was doing in Wollongong circa 2001 and not in her own timeline or at least in a mid-century BBC period piece where she would have a name like Mrs Cruikshank or something similarly severe. The adjudicators were local youth centre, community arts types who looked like they might already favour the public school, so I was confident my style over substance approach might not only appeal to them on grounds of staving off boredom, but also embarrass our long suffering but excellent English teacher Mrs Cable and scandalise the schoolmarm (now played by Maggie Smith in this recollection). It worked.

I began my speech with a series of increasingly stretched, increasingly outrageous double-entendres about Bill Clinton: “Good morning adjudicators, fellow debaters and audience. Bill Clinton had the head job in America, but blew it when one day he came in the Oval Office and…” etcetera. It took a while for the audience to catch on but when they did, the look of internal combustion on the face of the schoolmarm formed what was definitely the highpoint of my life, something I must have known even then. Mrs Cable had shielded her eyes from shame and the adjudicators up the back gobbled it up, one of them swinging back on his chair from laughter. We were judged to have won the debate, although I’m sure we had scant argument and broke basic rules of debating decorum.

I’m not sure what this illustrates, except that prudish people are easy and fun to shock and that on rare, golden occasions outright smut beats well gathered evidence.

I like your ship analogy, also your fairly harsh dismissal of anyone trying to argue facts and the influence of Oscar Wilde I detect and share — but I also pick up a slightly worrying hint of relativism in your ideas. If there’s a recognition that anything outside of pure maths or fundamental science is rickety, that surely doesn’t open it up to complete equality between different arguments, at which point we throw up our hands and say, “Fuck arguments, gimme a unique aesthetic.” I mean, I think we should say that most of the time. But there’s a difference between, say, absolute bullshit and just largely bullshit.

The thing I’ve been moving towards is also very aesthetic. In praising a work of art or architecture you would look for a sense of proportion. In a way I think that the aesthetic sense for proper proportions is missing from discussions about politics, or messy human stuff. I think about how people on the “regressive left” will spend 90% of their energy attacking people who agree with them on 90% of things. This seems like a drastic waste of time and shows a bad eye for proportions. In fact, I remember just now the root meaning rational comes from ratio, as in rational numbers.

It’s not an exact way of weighing things up, but artworks aren’t exact either. Nonetheless a sense of proportionality is crucial for making useful distinctions. When people are arguing something, most of the time I kind of think there’s arguments on both sides, anyone can come up with a convincing argument to bolster either side, etc. In The Importance of Being Earnest Lady Bracknell says, “I dislike arguments of any kind. They are always vulgar, and often convincing.” Indeed. But just like we can easily but imprecisely tell that a Van Gogh is better than my latest doodle, we can see some arguments really do have better looking evidence behind them.

I’m thinking that’s why it’s important to learn about history too. Maybe it starts to give you a sense for the proportions of things.