Sunday, 27 March 2011

Let's Be Clear

Mass public protests have once again driven me to make a short, sarcastic and possibly glib statement on my Facebook profile. I try not to do this, I really do, but every now and then I feel compelled to spit something out.

In this instance I said this:

“When democracy doesn't give you what you want; When your best arguments just won't change enough minds, SHOUTING SLOGANS is bound to do the trick”

Now I knew that on the face of it, this statement seems to go against the opinion of many people that I know i.e. that protests and demonstrations are an important - even crucial - part of a free society and that they can make a difference. Well I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment, of course. Public protests are a necessary part of a free society - a society that decided to ban protest would of course have become totalitarian and nobody wants that do they? Well I certainly don’t anyway. I’d like to think that people who know me at all, or even not very well would not think I was a totalitarian at heart. If anyone who says they know me were to accuse me of having totalitarian sympathies, I would wonder what exactly had brought them to such a conclusion - oh and I would be interested in the answer too.

Going back to my statement on Facebook, I wrote it - perhaps naively - with the intention of compressing a general query I had into a short, sarcastic and hopefully thought-provoking string of words. Foolishly, I assumed that the parts of my philosophy that I had left unsaid would be assumed by my friends to be limited only to the obvious things that aren’t worth saying, such as that: I am a fan of democracy - I think the right to protest is important - I believe that our representatives should be made aware of the plurality of theories that exist so that their policies can be shaped in full knowledge of all the options - that engagement in politics is important - that ignorance of political issues is bad - that different people have different opinions - you know the sort of stuff I mean. The obvious stuff.

As it happens, my statement was not actually about the current issues that were being protested. My intention was simply to question the motives of those who were taking part. Now, for me, the questioning of motives simply means to ask what the motives were and then listen out for an answer. I want real answers so that I don't end up relying on my preconceived notions when speculating about such things.

There is, for me, a gap between the rights and wrongs of the issues being protested and the actual reason for people attending the marches. In discussions on the subject, these separate items are mixed up and blurred, so I can’t question the motives of protesters without seeming to be making a statement about the political issue itself. With regard to the political issue, throughout the various protests, I have been looking for answers on both sides of the arguments that would help me to come to my own conclusion. So far, none of them have delivered a line of reasoning that would actually change my mind from the agnostic position in which it currently resides to having a belief in their arguments. It’s all speculative at best and idealistic wishful thinking at worst. Oh I find my agnostic position on the economic policies of the government and opposition as infuriating as anyone else - I want to know the answer! That’s why I ask such questions out loud.

Yet time and again, such a standpoint, yearning for solid facts, is met by tirades from people who accuse me of smugness, arrogance and “being a closet Tory”. I maintain that I am not an expert in economics, therefore my opinions on it are worthless. I am however capable of using logic to weigh up evidence that I hear on either side and of building up an idea of what is true and what isn’t. The problem is that the vast majority of the “facts” I hear about economic policy are not facts at all, but the opinions of people with as much grasp of the chaos of economics as I have. These economic experts - amateur and professional - all shout very earnestly and they all say slightly different things, insisting that they are right. This seems to me to be similar to the situation with religions: they can’t all be right, but they can all be wrong. Or as Plato describes it: between ignorance and scientific truth lies opinion.

To me, this means that until I hear something that isn’t based on subjective, opinionated sloganeering, until I hear evidence I can really believe in, the only sound standpoint is one of objective agnosticism. This of course leaves me open to accusations of smugness and arrogance but luckily for me I don’t get these accusations mixed up with reasoned arguments, and after a few hours of anguish I shake them off and brush them into the bin marked “irrelevant”. I am perfectly happy to be seen as arrogant if my position is based on sound logic and if my own opinion of myself is that I am not being arrogant.

Aside from my agnosticism on the subject of the policies themselves, we come back to what my Facebook statement was actually about. I was asking a particular question about human behaviour but holding it up against the backdrop of current events, like what topical commentators do. The backdrop in this instance was the protests. The subject I was holding up against it was this: that humans, when they believe something to be right, will tend to maintain that position even in the face of good evidence that proves they are wrong. (I know for a fact that this happens in at least one living human ( Oh I’d better clarify that I’m referring to myself here - mustn’t leave things unsaid!)).

The only thing that can actually change someone’s mind is evidence - either empirical or anecdotal. The evidence is seen or heard by the eyes or ears, then the brain weighs it up and decides on its reliability and tries to fit this evidence into its existing world view. If it doesn’t fit into the brain’s model of the world, then either the model is changed, or the evidence is rejected due to its incompatibility with the model. This is the difference between open-mindedness and bigotry.

I wondered then, if all the evidence and logic that the protesters had at their command had failed to convince people that the government’s economic policy was wrong, what chance did the bellowing of slogans have? I can not recall a single instance where somebody shouting rhyming slogans at me had ever succeeded in changing my mind about anything - let alone about economic policy. Whereas there are a great many times when reading about a subject has resulted in my mind being changed. I love it when this happens! Each time I realise I was wrong in some belief or other, I am another step closer to a truthful worldview. When people have shouted at me in order to make me do their bidding or believe what they say, it has the effect of making me very resistant indeed to what they are saying. Shouting is just brute force in vocal form and I resent its use. (I have to be honest here and say that my profound disappointment at the sloganeering of the left has indeed made me more resistant to their view.)

Perhaps someone might have answered my Facebook comment, saying “Actually we’re not trying to change people’s minds anyway. It’s an opportunity for like-minded people to show their solidarity and to be reassured that they are not alone in their beliefs, whilst also ensuring that the government cannot at any point say that they were unaware of so many people feeling this way - a demonstration in the true sense of the word. You’re being overly simplistic if you think we’re here expecting tol make the government come round to our way of thinking - we’re not stupid!” They might also have said that the protests were a result of the frustration of feeling that they weren’t being listened to, although that would have raised from me the question of why they thought their views were more worthy of being listened to than those of the people who agree with what the government is doing. (See quote and link below).

If the stakes were higher, protesters could have legitimately told me that the purpose of their gathering was to overthrow the government, as we’ve seen to such inspirational effect in Egypt. But the stakes aren’t quite that high in this instance. If they were, if it was a matter of overthrowing a dictatorship, I’d like to think I’d be right there with them. I’m not opposed to protest, you see.

But no, those who sympathise with the London protesters choose instantly to resort to lobbing straw men and questioning my non-totalitarian credentials. Well since they asked the question, you’ve just read my answer. I’m still waiting for a decent answer as to how and why the shouting of slogans should outweigh democracy and reason.

Guardian 25th March 2011
[Despite Saturday's protest march in London, public tolerance of cuts seems to be sustained. Only 35% think the plans go too far – a 10-point drop since ICM asked the question in November. Meanwhile 28% think the government has found the right balance and 29% say the cuts are not severe enough. That amounts to 57% support for current cuts or more.]