It begins with an essay

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Having marked essays in a number of countries and written by people from many nationalities, it is interesting to note the relationship between essay construction, how people argue and ultimately, how their judicial and political systems function.

With essays, there are two basic approaches. The first method is to start with the arguments and evidence for and against the proposition and draw conclusions based the relative strengths of the argument. The second is to state the conclusion first and the bring evidence to support the conclusion.

In the  first case  – ‘arguments  first’ approach  –  the  evidence is drawn from an objective observation of the facts, perhaps from different perspectives and from different people with different points of view. The logic here is that it is not possible to draw conclusions until the facts and the evidence have been rigorously presented and considered.

Thus, in a court of law of some countries, the defendant (who is ‘innocent until found guilty’) is represented by a counsel who puts forward the evidence in his or her  favour. The counsel for the prosecution presents the evidence for the defendant’s guilt. The judge, like the essay writer, plays the part of an impartial observer, making sure the rules and the process are followed, with the jury of 12 people delivering the verdict. Similarly, discussions are  conducted in this way, with both parties adapting their original points of view to some of the information they have gained from their counterpart.

In the second approach, the ‘decisions/conclusions first’ essay, the point of view is stated at the beginning. Sometimes, opposing points of view are brought in but  as the conclusion has already been stated these opposing views serve no useful role. Such opposite arguments may be introduced so that they can be demolished. In fact, strong evidence disproving the conclusion may be left out altogether as ‘inconvenient truths.’  The role of the argument  in the essay is only to confirm the conclusion that the writer has already come to.

Following this pattern, in a court of law, the judge has already made the decision (or has been instructed which decision to make by a ‘higher authority’). In this case, the legal process is simply to legitimise the decision which has already been made. The evidence may be heard from both sides, but as the judge has already made the verdict, this process is merely symbolic. A  classic example of this (amongst countless before and since) is Roland Freisler who acted as judge, jury and prosecutor in ‘The People’s Court’ in Nazi Germany between 1942 and 1945. Freisler relentless attacked and ridiculed  the accused so that no defence could be given.

Freisler is said to have attended the Stalinist purge  trials in 1938 and was particularly interested in the manner of the chief prosecutor, Andrei Vyshinsky.

This is the style of legal proceedings  of an authority that cannot accept any other opinion or interpretation except its own. Those who dispute their conclusions are punished for daring to express them. The state will do its utmost to crush any attempt to challenge their beliefs. In the 21st century, this should be a thing of the past.

Perhaps it is time to strengthen  the process of critical thinking in the education system in such countries. Teaching how to write an ‘arguments-first’ essay might be a start.

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