shifting the perimeter of debate

September 4th, 2007

Every debate has a perimiter. Which means it has limits, within which the debate unfolds. There is a left extreme, and a right extreme. These limits are not imposed, but they are naturally respected by most people who engage in the debate. And for those who feel the limits are too narrow, and whose position is found outside of the extremes, generally abstain from engaging in it, because they don't expect to find any support for their standpoint.

What is interesting is that this perimeter is not fixed. The extreme positions of the debate represent the most extreme reasonable positions on the subject. Of course, most people don't find the extremes reasonable at all, they find their own position somewhere in between, but they are reasonable limits to the debate. That is to say, people are inclined to think my position is in between, but I recognize the extremes as the correct limits for this debate.

Now, most people are not concerned with the perimeter at all, because they only care about their own position somewhere in the middle. But the perimeter does affect the debate. Just how far to the right the right is, affects the perception of where the middle is.


Suppose you shift one extreme further outwards than it was to begin with. Anyone who is new to the debate will now perceive the middle to be in a different place than it used to be. Those who were present from the beginning will not, they will still have their own bearings. But the debate has effectively been transformed.


Why is this possible? Because people care about the consensus, not the extremes. The discussion is centered around finding a common ground somewhere in the middle, it may be a bit to the left or a bit to the right, but it isn't anywhere near the edges. The consensus is found on neutral territory, the part that is mostly white. And the discussion is ferocious, you can be sure of that, no one is willing to budge an inch.

Shifting the perimeter is a powerful thing. Suppose there is a heavy debate about an issue. In comes someone who presents a view so extreme that it falls outside the limits of the debate. What will happen? Those engaging in the debate will most likely dismiss the argument out of hand, that guy is insane, no one takes him seriously. But suppose he is able to win a little support for his stand. As soon as a handful of people start taking him seriously, the perimeter has effectively changed. To anyone who hasn't heard the arguments before, it would seem that the debate is broader.

Radical opinions

There is a lot of hype about Ron Paul these days. In the distinct absence of politicians who represent people's real values, Ron Paul has become somewhat of an icon for common sense. So much so that his hype has triggered a counter reaction. You will hear people say things like that Ron Paul thing is getting out of hand, as if I believe that he is the *one* honest politician who actually *will* solve all our problems.

And that's a perfectly reasonable reaction, why *should* Ron Paul be the messiah when every other politician lies through his/her teeth through the election campaign? But under the circumstances, given the current political climate, Ron Paul is very useful, because he steers the debate into a sensible perimeter.

Michael Moore is another radical. People have accused him of playing fast and loose with the facts and being purposely misleading even without outright falsehoods. That may be so, but he's very useful nonetheless as someone vocal to shift the perimeter and throw light on issues that really need to be looked at. He isn't the voice of reason, but in his radicalism he makes the reasonable *more likely*. The principle is that you have to *exaggerate* to be heard, you have to go past the line so that people notice and it becomes a real choice. Does Moore do this deliberately? Hard to be sure, but I'd say so.

More radical still is, of course, Richard Stallman. What Stallman accomplished is a pretty amazing thing. He shifted the perimeter for what was for most of us the spectrum between pay-to-use and freeware by saying that no, freeware is not free, genuine freedom is only in Free Software.

Stallman gets a lot of flak for being so pig headed. He's completely unwilling to compromise, and he won't even speak to you unless you accept to use his terminology. Unless the software is completely free he won't use it, no matter how small the concession is. And this comes across as silly, people say he would make more friends if he were just a tiny bit more flexible.

But that's precisely why he's so valuable. He *defines* that extreme standpoint. Must all software be free? No, of course not. At the present time, we are still lacking a few things, like hardware support (video drivers) and access to closed formats (flash), but otherwise the free software desktop offers just about the best experience of what *can* be had with proprietary software. So why *should* I be concerned that there is lots of software that isn't free if I have an experience just as good?

You probably don't agree fully with Stallman, but thanks to his position we *have* a debate about free/open source software. Otherwise we would probably be stuck discussing the merits of shareware vs freeware. Stallman might just be the most powerful example of shifting the perimeter in a positive way.

Lawrence Lessig has tried to do the same with copyright as a whole. He may have called it raising awareness, which is a common term for this. He rejected the whole discussion about whether or not people were infringing on copyright as being beside the point, by saying that most works that are still under copyright should be free. Forget fair use, we need to shorten the copyright term and strengthen the public domain. His involvement has given us the Creative Commons, which similar to Stallman's GNU, is about creating new works and ensuring their freedom from the start.

Interestingly, Lessig has quoted Stallman and GNU very widely as the positive example of what he tried to achieve, so it seems clear that Stallman's position has helped this come about.

Ps. Do not confuse this with personality worship, I'm discussing standpoints, not personalities.

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3 Responses to "shifting the perimeter of debate"

  1. erik says:

    This is very well put. A clear and concise entry on an phenomenon people often instinctively recognise but fail to properly define.

  2. Ramiٌ says:

    Great!! Now I understand clearly by "We need Stallman". Never thought of it this way.

    Gonna digg this!