Friday, May 4, 2012

Botman, Chess, and Context

[Yeah, I know, we'll get back to looking at bad fiction at some point.  Anyway, more on the Selma Botman no confidence vote for now.]

Context matters.

Consider the phrase, “and they stayed together forever.” Imagine that a story ended with that phrase. Is that a good or a bad thing? Is the ending happy or sad. Is it a reward or a punishment for the characters? You don't know. You can't know. You lack context.

Depending on their relationship, and the circumstances, and any number of other things those five words could be anything from a down ending so brutal as to shake your faith in humanity and leave you depressed for a week, or they could be the equivalent of, “and they lived happily ever after.”

Context matters. And in terms of rules it matters even more. When I joined the Student Senate at USM one of the few things they did right was make sure that everyone understood that our rules existed in context. We had our rules, and they were withing the larger context of the Student Government Association (SGA) constitution, which was within the context of the University Governance Document, which was within the context of many things reaching up to the US Constitution.

That's important to understand because it informs how you read the rules. Taken in isolation a rule might seem ambiguous when in context it is actually quite clear. Taken in isolation a rule might seem to say one thing when in reality it says the opposite. Taking rules in isolation can make true things seem false and false things seem true.

Imagine that the SGA wanted to make a new position and the decided that the rule would be that someone could be appointed to that position based on whatever criteria the Student Senate deemed appropriate. (As far as I know this has never happened, but it's illustrative.) Take that rule in isolation and you'd assume that the rule indicates that, “Must be a straight white cis male Christian,” would be acceptable criteria if the Student Senate deemed it appropriate, because the rule says whatever criteria deemed appropriate. In reality the rule would say nothing of the sort because it exists within the context of all the other rules, and there are rules against discrimination.

Or, for a non-hypothetical example, consider chess.

The rule governing how the queen moves and captures reads as follows:
The queen may move to any square along the file, the rank or a diagonal on which it stands.
   - FIDE Laws of Chess Article 3, Section 4

That rule is only helpful when looked at in light of other rules. For example rule defining what a file is, the rule defining what a rank is, the rule defining what a diagonal is, the rule saying that bishops, rooks, and queens may not move over intervening pieces, the rule saying what a move is, and the rule saying when it is legal to move.

If you take it out of context then you could use it to argue that, for example, a queen is unblockable (it says any square, not any unobstructed square.) Or that a queen can move as a knight for surely a knight's move meets the dictionary definition of diagonal.

Botman is arguing that a queen can move as a knight. Metaphorically of course.

She is taking the rule described in Faculty Senate bylaws Section C, Subsection 5, Part b, and interpreting it in isolation in hopes that she can convince people that (1,2) is just as diagonal as (1,1) and thus the queen can move as a knight and so she wins. (Checkmate.)

Or, to be somewhat less metaphorical, she's using it to argue that since it says 2/3rds it means two thirds of everyone, not just two thirds of the votes. Which is all well and good and one of multiple perfectly legitimate interpretations of the rule if it is looked at in isolation. A knight's move really is pretty damned diagonal when you think about it. Where it falls down is when it is placed in context.

For example, the document that governs these sorts of things, that being the document that supersedes the Faculty Senate bylaws, specifically states in no uncertain terms that the necessary vote is “a two-thirds vote of those voting”. Which means that the queen doesn't get to move as a knight. Selma doesn't win.

Except that the media has, thus far, declined to check the rules of chess, and awarded victory to the person who randomly claimed it in spite of all evidence to the contrary. So if you're ever in a tournament in Maine, keep in mind that you don't have to win, you just have to claim you win and that's what everyone will report.

And I didn't have to point to that particular document (the University Governance Document, if you're interested) because it's not the only thing that governs how these things work, and thus is not the only thing that says that a two thirds vote means two thirds of those who actually vote. But since I'm not in the mood to dig through parliamentary procedure, I'm going to stick with that.

It states:
On matters which require the approval of the chancellor or the Board of Trustees, recommendations of senates not concurred in by the president shall, upon a two-thirds vote of those voting, be forwarded with the president’s recommendation.
So what should have happened is that the vote be considered a success, reported as such by any who cared to report it, and then passed on to the higher ups along with Selma's recommendation that it be completely ignored. Instead Selma claimed that it failed, the matter was over, let us never speak of it again, and everybody ran with it.

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