How far can our leaders be trusted to do what is right?

10 10 2011

Following an exciting lesson with T27 today, I spoke to three colleagues about the arguments we brainstormed. All were convinced throughout the first three parts of the argument, but the fourth level of development was not as well received. One blamed this on a personal bias, of personally being cynical of the trustworthiness of leaders; another suggested shifting the focus of the fourth level slightly.

Clarity is crucial in all essays, but it gets increasing important as your arguments become more complex and sophisticated. An unfortunate reality is that when I mark the scripts of students I don’t know, I find myself re-reading points I don’t understand if it is well-expressed, and I will try my best to understand their point. I am more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that it is my fault when I don’t understand them. Conversely, if it is poorly expressed, it makes it a lot more difficult to understand an already poorly-expressed point, and when I get too tired trying, I stop trying. Harsh, but true.

This post aims to emphasise the importance of clarity, and of linking your argument back to the question constantly and consistently, and to illustrate how this might be achieved.

How far can our leaders be trusted to do what is right?

[This is the well-received paragraph. Stand: Our leaders generally cannot be trusted. Read the text in black first, then re-read the paragraph, along with the comments (blue text)]

Humans are fallible. None of us are perfect, and we all make mistakes. Even our genes, peppered with mutations, serve as a somewhat depressing reminder of this – mistakes and errors are encoded in the very strands of life. Couple our imperfect, fallible nature with a position of power, and we might be more likely to make mistakes, to be selfish, to act in our own self interest and not that of the people we lead. For this reason, one can question whether our leaders can be trusted to do what is right – what is best for the people they lead. [Always LINK your argument back to the question – do this consistently throughout your essay, at the end of every point you make.] But [“but” signals a change in direction. Always signpost your argument clearly – this “but” signals that the following argument opposes the previous one] a cursory look around the world reveals mainly democratic governments running our countries. This means that the political leaders we elect are the ones that received the majority vote – they represent the interests of the majority, and can thus be trusted to do what is best, at least for most people [here, “right” is defined – the reader now has a sense of how the writer is interpreting “right” – as what is best for most  people]. In addition, democracies are in-built with checks and balances – leaders are not in power permanently, but are subjected to re-elections and the possibility of getting kicked out of power at the next election if their actions, be they poor decisions or impractical policies [again, we see a definition of “right” – this adds detail and makes the writer’s interpretation of “right” clearer], are not right in the eyes of the people. Aside from the checks and balances in-built in the democratic process, there are additional checks and balances in society, such as our media watchdogs and social media [by this point, three sub-points to the concept of “checks and balances” have been provided], both of which have proven their worth. Through all these checks and balances, our leaders are under pressure to serve their people well, and it would appear that the presence of these systems in society ensures that we can trust our leaders [Another LINK back to the question. Here, note that “appear” signposts that this conclusion is not the author’s stand]. But can we? [This follows up on the “appear” signpost. The “but can we” signposts the author’s actual stand – it questions whether we can, and, when taken together with the “appear” in the previous sentence, shows that the author thinks we can’t] After all, the very need for such extensive checks and balances suggests that we cannot trust our leaders, surely? Thus, is not our leaders that can be trusted – it is simply the checks and balances in society that we can place our trust in. [Final LINK in the paragraph – this is the author’s stand. What I love  about this rebuttal is that it is an “in fact” rebuttal – see post on “rebuttal tiers” for further explanation.]

 

If this is your last paragraph in your essay, you could add a final bit of insight in your conclusion. Reinforce your stand – make it very clear that you believe that our leaders cannot be trusted because our faith is in the system of checks and balances, not our leaders. Then you could add this final question for your reader to chew on: Ultimately, though, does it matter whether our trust is in the leader or the system? After all, the outcome is the same either way.

[This is the paragraph that wasn’t so well received. It’s an edited version of the original that was discussed in class, such that it is now reasonably (but still not sufficiently) convincing to most tutors polled. However, the conclusion I came to after several long conversations on this was that this stand takes an idealistic worldview, one that ultimately believes our leaders are in that position for noble reasons. The idealistic stand, somewhat sadly, is one that tends to be less convincing, because it tends to be harder to justify. Stand: Our leaders generally cannot be trusted. Note how some of the signposts have been altered (red text) to signal that the stand in this piece is that our leaders can be trusted (opposite of the stand in the previous paragraph)]

 

Humans are fallible. None of us are perfect, and we all make mistakes. Even our genes, peppered with mutations, serve as a somewhat depressing reminder of this – mistakes and errors are part of us. Couple our imperfect, fallible nature with a position of power, and we might be more likely to make mistakes, to be selfish, to act in our own self interest and not that of the people we lead. For this reason, one can question whether our leaders can be trusted to do what is right – what is best for the people they lead. But a cursory look around the world reveals mainly democratic governments running our countries. This means that the political leaders we elect are the ones that received the majority vote – they represent the interests of the majority, and can thus be trusted to do what is best, at least for most people. In addition, democracies are in-built with checks and balances – leaders are not in power permanently, but are subjected to re-elections and the possibility of getting kicked out of power at the next election if their actions, be they poor decisions or impractical policies, are not right in the eyes of the people. Aside from the checks and balances in-built in the democratic process, there are additional checks and balances in society, such as our media watchdogs and social media, both of which have proven their worth. Through all these checks and balances, our leaders are under pressure to serve their people well, and it would appear that the presence of these systems in society ensures that we can trust our leaders.

However, some might still question whether this really is reason enough to trust our leaders. But can we? After all, they argue that the very need for such extensive checks and balances suggests that we cannot trust our leaders, surely?  and that it Thus, is not our leaders that can be trusted – it is simply the checks and balances in society that we can place our trust in. However, it is important for us to ask two questions: Are our checks and balances effective? And will untrustworthy leaders be willing to subject themselves to the scrutiny of such checks and balances, which, in the case of media watchdogs and social media, often strips them of their privacy? Where our checks and balances are effective, we can be sure that any untrustworthy political leader will have his misdeeds found out, and will either not get voted into public office, or will get kicked out if they are already in power. With the knowledge that such checks and balances are effective and that they often intrude into one’s private life, few people with questionable motives will be willing to put themselves through such a system. To have your past – and that of your family members – dug up, to have the media questioning your every action, to have the Twitterverse opine on your capabilities – all this makes it far more likely that those who still choose to be our leaders are those who really do have our interests at heart. These are the leaders who can and deserve our trust.

 Note: Neither piece incorporates any real, specific examples – this is a significant area for improvement. 


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9 responses

11 10 2011
livreordie

Hey Adrienne, I went through this with some of my students and the stand I came up with was that the question was flawed (rather generic stand coming from Mr Lim, to my students). It is not so much whether we can trust them or not (since ‘we’, depending on your definition of ‘we’, elect them) but that we are in some way bound to their decisions. We HAVE TO trust them to some degree; such is the premise of leadership. Otherwise, electing them is pointless and we will never be able to judge them fairly. We can of course look at the resistance, not only from Congress, towards Obamacare and to a lesser extent, the American Jobs Act. One perhaps does not even have to go that far and examine, say, school leadership or the general obstinacy of the Singaporean state. I’m not quite sure if this is the rebuttal you are looking for, but the idea is that perspectives / views are never just yes-no, agree-disagree. Altering the modal verb is sometimes far more pertinent (as it is, I feel, in this case) and urgent.

One of my students suggested that the real issue is whether we DO trust them, given (a) the electoral process or in many cases of distrust / resistance, the lack thereof and/or (b) their track record. She was of course thinking of despotic regimes when she came up with this point and did not hesitate to throw up Mubarak and Gaddafi as examples of leaders who “cannot” be trusted insofar as they are (or rather, was, in the case of the former) no longer trusted by their people.

As you note in a separate thread, it is the value judgement ‘should’ that is worth debating. ‘Can they be trusted?’ is quite colloquial in expression in the sense that the accuracy of expression isn’t really there. Of course, they can be trusted. Everyone, technically, ‘can’ be trusted, whether insane, malicious or in the case of North Korea’s supreme leadership, dead.🙂

11 10 2011
Adrienne de Souza

This “rebuttal” brings the argument down a different line of argumentation, but I think it works actually. And I could actually develop this quite nicely into an entire paragraph on its own – how exciting, thanks!

As for the other two points you raised, I always find it difficult deciding how far to push the cool, interesting, cleverer angles, and whether I’m treading too close to the edge of relevance…

11 10 2011
Mr Glascow

For what it is worth, I think the real issue here comes with the word “should”. Coming from a country with a very old parliamentary democracy, I have a particular view of the sentiment implied in the question. To be honest, the concept of modern democracy would actually demand that we should NOT trust our leaders because this suggests blind faith and a level of ignorance that should not be expressed in a modern, civilised and eduacted context. This goes right back to the Greeks (no not the ones who are ‘sinking’ the Euro!). In ancient Greece, the concept of leadership incorporated numerous differing views as an essential component. The idea was to create “checks and balances” against any one particular vested interest. So, in a nutshell, the system actually requires us not to trust in the simplistic sense. Instead, we are encouraged to trust the system.

This idea translates fairly well to the context of the essay. We can trust our leaders only in as far as the system incorporates such checks and balances. No ‘controls’ means no trust. This kind of approach would allow students to differentiate between different forms of government (for example nepotistic and cronyist regimes would inspire very little trust) and at the same time allow scope depending on context. A very good example is the current debate in the UK about the Defence Secretary Liam Fox. He has been in the post for a little over a year and in that time has allowed his good friend (best man at his wedding) Mr Werrity to benefit financially from their friendship – Mr Werrity runs a firm that offers ‘consultancy’ on defence issues. They even held talks with Mindef in Singapore last year (Mr Fox in his official capactiy and Mr Werrity as ‘unofficial’ advisor). Thankfully, being a democracy, Britain’s press (the fourth estate) has exposed this issue. We can therefore ‘trust’ in a system that exposes poor judgement in our leaders even if we cannot trust the leaders themselves.

Anyone following my logic here?

Lots more to say on the subject if you want to continue!

11 10 2011
Adrienne de Souza

How then, would you explain why “should” is relevant here? Because we’ve done essays where students who answered a “can” essay as a “should” essay were marked down for irrelevance. Which links back to the idea Marc raised above – “can” isn’t really worth debating in this case; “should” makes more sense. But ultimately, the word used in the question was “can”!

Love the rest of the development and the incorporation of “educated, civilised society” context. And it really seems as though we could keep going with this questions – loads of really interesting layers to peel apart.

13 10 2011
livreordie

If we are intent on answering ‘can’, then truly we are opening one (of worms, to borrow a Derekism). To return to the colloquialism (I would argue) ‘Can he be trusted?’, we might answer ‘Yes because he has… a track record’. This is in essence, the standard outcome-based approach (you know, good and bad, pros and cons) that our students are comfortable with.

Another ‘easy’ way into the question is of course the issue-based (which is absolutely specific but can be generalised), rather than context-based (which is more wide-ranging) approach. Why ask this question? I figure that people must have been trusted some leaders but they haven’t quite delivered ‘what is right’ or what their promises are. The GE was just held, so the examiner must be thinking about false promises! However, what is “right”? Is “right” what the people want or is “right” maximum utility or is “right” the morally / ethically courageous action? I may be repeating the answer scheme here, but I am mirroring (or trying to mirror) how our students’ thought process should flow (without clotting). Apologies for frequent use of ironic parentheses.😛

13 10 2011
livreordie

P.S. Rupert is wonderfully Hobbesian. “I will trust you to mistrust you so that I can trust you again to again mistrust you” (Two-term limit, yes) Politics is ever so paradoxical.

13 10 2011
livreordie

Sorry to add yet another comment but of course we should think about the MP expenses expose (July 2009, no less! Talk about ‘practical’!)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Kingdom_parliamentary_expenses_scandal

13 10 2011
How far can our leaders be trusted.. to do what is right? « Progress in GP

[…] up on Ms De Souza’s excellent post on paragraph writing here. Also read the following articles if you intend to do a politics / public figure […]

24 10 2011
Skills Digest 24/10/11 « Gee Pee Land

[…] check out this insightful entry on clarity in arguments based on the question “How far can our leaders be trusted to do what […]

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