Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden - 27/10/2020

Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden -

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Half-right no substitute for the whole truth

“A problem well-defined is a problem half-solved,” the saying goes.

Caricatures of complex problems on the other hand, lead us to bitter, divisive debates and no closer to solutions. We certainly weren’t anywhere near half-way to a solution following the unexpected (and mostly unwanted) obesity debate that flared up before the election. Blaming the “system” or the “individual” for our social problems is a false dichotomy.

“A problem well-defined is a problem half-solved,” the saying goes.

Opposition Leader Judith Collins came out with a simple message: “people need to start taking some personal responsibility for their weight,” urging us to “not blame systems for social problems.” Deputy Leader Gerry Brownlee came out in support, saying his weight was solely his responsibility. They are half-right.

Or, as Tongan-born Aucklander Isoa Kavakimotu put it in a social media post that garnered over twenty thousand likes, Collins “isn’t half wrong.” “We do have to accept personal responsibility for the choices we make,” he says, “however, I am a product of my surroundings.” Growing up in Otahuhu surrounded by takeaways and liquor stores and living on fattier cuts of meat like lamb flaps that are staples for many Pasifika doesn’t help. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern agreed that it was more complex, saying “we are all products of our environment,” as did National MP Mark Mitchell who broke ranks with Collins.

Even Winston Peters said it was a combination of factors, calling for a “seriously practical dialogue about it rather than just condemning people.” For this kind of dialogue to happen, reductive, oversimplified arguments need to be called out for what they are. This time it was obesity—but poverty, climate change, or terrorism—any other wicked problem, all are prone to oversimplification. Selling one preferred part of the story as the whole story is politics as usual, but it doesn’t have to be.

This time it was obesity—but poverty, climate change, or terrorism—any other wicked problem, all are prone to oversimplification

Half-right is no substitute for the whole complicated truth. Personal responsibility plays a role, undoubtedly. Our choices matter. But our choices are made in a context. “We are all sedimentary creatures,” writes Law Professor Robert Fishkin, “our abilities and disabilities, our preferences and values, and our character traits all arise through layer upon layer of dynamic interaction between self and environment that build us, gradually over time, into the people we are.” These kinds of layers of complexity must be part of our policy debates.

This isn’t just an attack on “personal responsibility.” Reductive explanations of “the system” or environment as being the sole cause of social problems can be just as harmful, leaving only government to solve all our problems and stripping people of their agency. With the rise of a strong progressive government, a weakened opposition, and no antagonistic coalition partners, there is potential this kind of half-truth could become the default political message. They must resist this temptation.

Our choices matter. But our choices are made in a context

And while I don’t think Collin’s simplistic stance of obesity was the root of National’s woeful results this election, it certainly didn’t help. Rather than doubling down on half-truths, if National have any chance of convincing voters in three years’ time, they best reckon with the whole, complicated truth.

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Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden -

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