On reflection, perhaps there was something deeper to my 2018 rejection of political engagement

Three years ago, I vowed to eschew political engagement. Pointless, I groaned, this pretense that it helps with anything. I’m proud to say that I kept up my New Year’s resolution for that entire year, plus another. But I wasn’t letting on the whole picture.

Part of it was what I said — I was losing faith in the concept, and making it a resolution was just adding self-discipline. I became more conscious not just about disengaging, but also about retraining my social media feeds, including unfollowing some good friends who I agreed with. I kept up with newspapers, but…


“People, not policies” seems to have helped a little

In 2014, I started a personal tradition of writing a bit about my thoughts on my party vote shortly before the election (2014, 2017). This year, I started three months early by explaining a shift in my meta-thinking. I had come to the conclusion that, contrary to conventional wisdom, policy is a poor way to decide who I should vote for. The quality of the people in office, I argued, is the important question. At the same time, I worried that this new paradigm might not actually make my life any easier.

The good news is that it has indeed…


There’s no such thing as a good opposition policy for a crisis that’s changing by the day

I feel like New Zealand has struggled to figure out what the opposition’s role in this pandemic is. Simon Bridges was eager to hold the government to account, but struck the wrong chord just when he thought it was safe to speak out. Left-wing partisans have called for national unity, taking anything not supporting the government as irresponsible politicisation. Right-wing partisans, well, they’ve struggled to find a raison d’être, especially with a government that on the whole isn’t doing too badly.

I’m not really prepared to believe that the opposition exists for decoration just because of a pandemic. With an…


Why it’s not policies that’ll carry my vote in 2020

In the first two elections I could vote in, I dutifully followed conventional wisdom. I studied parties’ policies, watched debates, reasoned about which policies I liked, and voted for the party most closely reflecting them. I have to say, it was laborious, even for someone who follows political news closely. Some initiatives tried to make this easier, summarizing parties’ stances on a range of topics. In practice, they didn’t help much. I was still frantically perusing parties’ websites the night before the election.

It’s hard because policy is complex. There are several dozen policy areas. Since no party will agree…


Spending a summer in continental Europe, I never got used to the ubiquity of English in a place where it’s no one’s mother tongue

A few years ago, a friend (let’s call him Johannes) suggested to me that the world would be better off if everyone exclusively used English in any international context. The idea shocked me, all the more given that his first language wasn’t English. Why should my native tongue be privileged above all others? We would be on a more even footing, I argued, if everyone learnt foreign languages. But it was hard to deny that his vision was far more efficient and effective than mine.

I admit, there’s a personal bias at play. I’m embarrassed to be monolingual and from…


The intentions are good, but the policy is a total misdiagnosis of why women are underrepresented

In some ways, it’s a predictable script. Whenever a university announces that they will accept a lower admission rank for members of an underrepresented group, there are always these three classes of responses:

  • “This will welcome more members of [group] into [profession].”
  • “It’s not fair that [group] doesn’t have to do as well to get in.”
  • “It’s patronising to members of [group] who have earned their place.”

And normally, if you want to dive deeper into the topic, you should start by asking questions like: What are the factors that cause members of this group to be disadvantaged in attaining…


I posted this quiz in a few debating groups a couple of months ago. Although the quiz was light-hearted, it was sparked by two errors in the tab for USUDC 2018, the national title tournament for British Parliamentary debating in the United States. Indeed, the images are all from scoresheets from that USUDC. Many thanks to the 2,121 people who took the quiz, and to the ten chair adjudicators who accidentally lent their handwriting to the cause.

On the off-chance that you were here for the proposals rather than the numbers, the last section (“What can we do about this?”)…


After two errors in the team tab were reported to me, I spent a weekend reviewing all 445 scoresheets from the 2018 United States Universities Debating Championships. I discovered six further errors, making eight in total. Four of these errors affected the team tab, including two affecting the order of breaking teams. Of the other four, two affected the speaker tab, and two only affected speaker positions.

A quick primer on procedure: Every scoresheet must be seen by two different people before being confirmed in the tab system. The first person types in the scoresheet; the second person checks it…


When I resolved for New Year’s 2018 to quit online political discussions, I left open the question of when I should refrain from in-person political discussions. I wanted to do this in principle, I said, but sometimes find these discussions useful, and hadn’t found a way to tell the helpful from the unproductive. I didn’t know it at the time, but my real mission for 2018 would be to figure out how to draw this line.

At the time, I listed four cases that are sufficient conditions for engaging:

  • where someone is explaining an issue to me that I have…

When I was a teenager, I thought politics was the most fascinating thing in the world. How was it that ordinary people could come to startlingly different conclusions? I used to pore over opinion pages, particularly those I disagreed with. I started a blog, and found that articulating my stances was a good way to make me scrutinise them. In my undergraduate degree, we were allowed just one course outside engineering; I did mine in political science. On the big issues of the day (in New Zealand) — civil unions, Māori rights, welfare structure — I felt that people often…

Chuan-Zheng Lee

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