Archive for February 15th, 2015

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I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I will be republishing earlier posts on related topics as this sequence of posts unfolds. Below is a post from 2010, slightly amended and of particular relevance right now. 

As we see the election campaign just beginning to hot up, even at its most passionate it will be a far more benign affair than the political processes in less democratic countries tend to be. So far, so good – and something to be thankful for probably.

However, when we see the increasing scepticism of the average voter about our political process and boggle at the ineptitude of our representatives in parliament as they bungle their efforts to respond to the complex and often global problems that confront us, we are driven to ask how much faith should we have in such a divided, parochial and partisan system? Maybe we don’t help them do much better by our insistence on decisive clarity when a more measured caution would be more appropriate.

There are various factors underpinning this need of ours.

Politics as Security Blanket

One of the seemingly most compelling, which may have been recently working overtime in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, is that we may feel safer if we can deceive ourselves into believing our leaders know how to protect us and we may vote for them in consequence.

Life is a risky business. Emily Dickinson nailed our feeling of unease about this in a short poem:

I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my Feet the Sea –

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch –
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience –

When we are given any additional reason to be terrified, things can go badly wrong especially if our leaders lose their heads as well and/or simply exploit our fears to stay in power. Dan Gardner points out:

In reality, the fact that a politician may have something to gain by promoting a threat does not mean he or she does not believe the threat is real.

(Risk: page 143)

Sarah Bakewell describes Montaigne‘s view of how terror may distort our thinking into cruel and tyrannical shapes:

As history has repeatedly suggested, nothing is more effective for demolishing traditional  legal protections than the combined claims that a crime is uniquely dangerous, and that those behind it have exceptional powers of resistance.

Does that sound a touch familiar? Montaigne protested when it happened in his day and

. . . .pointed out that torture was useless for getting at the truth since people will say anything to stop the pain – and that, besides, it was ‘putting a very high price on one’s conjectures’ to have someone roasted alive on their account.

(How to Live: page 209)

Dan Gardner suggests, however, that the evidence may not unequivocally support the benefits of exploiting the fears of the electorate. He quotes a study that looked at the use of positive and negative emotions in adverts targeted at either well-informed or ill-informed potential voters:

. . . the effect of the emotional ‘enthusiasm’ ad was universal – it influenced everybody, whether they knew anything about politics or not. But the effect of the fear-based ad was divided. It did not boost the rate at which those who knew less about politics said they would get involved. But it did significantly influence those who knew more – making them much more likely to say they would volunteer and vote.

(Risk: page 147)

Conviction gets things done

If fear is not the main or only reason we respond well to decisive clarity in our leaders even when the problems we face are so complex such clarity is almost certainly self-deceiving, what else might be at work?

Perhaps we respond well to conviction, even if simplistic, because it promises to get things done. Obviously someone without any convictions at all is likely to be too paralysed by indecision to act at all. Not a good person then to have at the helm in a crisis. We look for people who share our frustration at the gap between how things are and how we feel they ought to be.

Susan Neiman is very good at pointing out what an effective driving force for good this discontent can be:

The demand is . . . not to abandon the ideals of our youth. . . . . . [W]hat you must abandon is the naive belief that they can be completely fulfilled. The abyss that separates is from ought is too deep to bridge entirely; the most we can hope to do is narrow it.

(Moral Clarity: pages 161-162)

And she clearly feels that it is right and proper that we do so.

What she says next gives us a clear glimpse of the dangers:

. . . the wish to bring the is and the ought together may imply a wish to be God, but it makes perfect sense.

(Op. Cit.: page 162)

This brings us to the point that Jonathan Haidt deals with so well in his brilliant book The Happiness Hypothesis.

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large proportion of violence at the individual level, but to get a really mass atrocity going you need idealism – the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

(Pages 75-76)

Montaigne apparently also had an interesting take on this;

Renaissance readers fetishised extreme states: ecstasy was the only state in which to write poetry, just as it was the only way to fight a battle and the only way to fall in love. In all three pursuits, Montaigne seems to have had an inner thermostat which switched him off as soon as the temperature rose beyond a certain point. . . . [H]e valued friendship more than passion. ‘Transcendental humours frighten me,’ he said. The qualities he valued were curiosity, sociability, kindness, fellow-feeling, adaptability, intelligent reflection, the ability to see things from another’s point of view, and ‘goodwill’ – none of which is compatible with the fiery furnace of inspiration.

(How to Live: page 200)

In other posts I have already explored the dangers of conviction.  There are also obvious difficulties in asserting uncertainty as of any value in a politician. So where do these insights take us? Is there any way of avoiding the pitfalls of zealotry without crashing into the abyss of ineffectual indifference?

I think there is.

Widening the Moral Imagination

Robert Wright’s fascinating book The Evolution of God, in its closing pages, discusses a concept that might prove helpful to us here.

. . . the expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely, remarkably like our own interior.

(Page 429)

And, because the book concerns God and religion, he concludes:

Any religion whose prerequisites for individual salvation don’t conduce to the salvation of the whole world is a religion whose time has passed.

(Page 430)

It is important to emphasise one crucial point. Here he is referring to a salvation of the whole world that is objectively so, not just so in the fanatical imagination of some partisan sect bent on imposing its will by force on the rest of us. On that basis I would wish to extend that conclusion to every ideology including those of the major political parties represented in the UK Parliament even if they would wish to substitute some term such as ‘benefit’ for the word ‘salvation’ drenched as the latter is in religious associations.

Wright’s idea or ideal of expanding ‘the moral imagination’ would imply that what gives us our sense of certainty, in that case, and our drive to change things would also make us more tentative (i.e. less arrogant) in our understanding and more compassionate of others. It would at the same time  enable us to recognise more effectively potentially dangerous limitations in our own and other people’s views and combat them vigorously but humanely.

Present day party politics doesn’t do a lot to widen the moral imaginations of its participants. Michael Karlberg presents the weaknesses of this system clearly:

As Held points out:

“Parties may aim to realise a programme of ‘ideal’ political principles, but unless their activities are based on systematic strategies for achieving electoral success they will be doomed to insignificance. Accordingly, parties become transformed, above all else, into means for fighting and winning elections.”

. . . . Once political leadership and control is determined through these adversarial contests, processes of public decision-making are also structured in an adversarial manner.

. . . .Western-liberal apologists defend this competitive system of electioneering, debate, lobbying and so forth as the rational alternative to political violence and war. Based on this commonsense premise, we structure our political systems as nonviolent contests, even though most people recognise that these contests tend to favour more powerful social groups. . . . . [T]his premise embodies a false choice that arises when the concept of democracy is conflated with the concept of partisanship. . . . . [W]e lose sight of a third alternative – non-partisan democracy – that might be more desirable.

(Beyond the Culture of Contest: Pages 44-46)

He describes in far more detail than is possible to include here an alternative model, based on the  Bahá’í experience. The nub of his case is:

Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

(Page 131: my emphasis)

This insight that the whole of humanity is interconnected – is one family as it were – and our sense of the need to devise ways of expressing that understanding in our political processes, would give us the means to judge the value of our politicians as individuals rather than as party members – we might be asking not how good a Tory they are or Liberal but rather how broad are their sympathies and how widely do they identify with all humanity as against some small sub-group? We might not be as concerned to ensure that they are promising to promote our particular interests but rather to know that they see the well-being of all peoples as the central issue.

This is antithetical to the partisan spirit of party politics which by definition owes its existence to an identification with some interest group or other.  Maybe though this system of government is well past its sell-by date. The problems that face us are too global in reach and affect us all too significantly, though in different ways, for any single and simplistic perspective to provide the required solutions.

I am not even probing in this brief post other unhelpful dynamics within our current system such as how the dependency on the popular vote places the candidate for election in a double bind: (s)he must promise both to cut our taxes and increase our services. In mental health, a double bind was thought to be linked to the creation of psychotic states in the growing child: in this different situation perhaps we end up with quasi-delusional ones.

We need a shared global vision and a strong sense of common humanity if we are to move beyond the mess we see around us. Somehow I don’t see any political party, with its limited views, coming up with the answers we need. But – and maybe it is a big but – it needs many more of us to stand up for something bigger and better before the sustainers of the present system will expand their horizons beyond what they imagine are our immediate interests. They will continue to pander to us with their inadequate fictions as long as we continue to pander to them in return with our votes or our indifference.

Maybe there really is a third way. I think there is if enough of us believe there is.

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