Friday, 12 May 2017

Hey Presto!

As we contemplate the upcoming general election, and what appears to be its inevitable, depressing outcome, it's worth remembering an obvious statement, but one that bears repeating: people are not, never are, and cannot be entirely rational. Least of all, when it comes to voting.

When we say that someone is being or has made a decision that is "not entirely rational" – oh, let's say, just as an example, to leave the EU – this is an understatement intended to convey that, in our opinion, that person has either allowed their feelings to interfere with their judgement, or has gone rather too far along the spectrum that ends in "barking mad". It also implies that we, unlike them, occupy the rational high ground, that sunlit upland bathed in the pure light of reason. In political terms, the rationalist's argument goes like this: if only people listened to the arguments, understood them, and made rational, reasonable decisions about what courses of action are, primarily, in their own and, secondarily, in society's best interest, then they would inevitably vote the right way, that is, for us. It's the only reasonable, rational thing to do!

The only problem being that the arguments are many, confusing, and contradictory, and that there are various competing "us" factions to decide between, all of whom consider themselves to be occupying that rational high ground. Which either means it is very crowded up there, or that there is more than one high place, or, more likely, that the sunlit uplands are a delusion. So, in the end, those of us without tribal loyalties to any particular party, no great interest in "current affairs", and without any gift for sophisticated thought – that is, most of us, and certainly the ones that matter most, electorally – tend to vote for the nicest hair, the most reassuring smile, the firmest handshake, or – I suspect, most often – whichever way we sense the tribe as a whole is moving, as reported in our entertainment and news media of choice. Thus, an election can be turned by something as apparently trivial as a politician's inability to consume junk food.

Interestingly, you rarely hear any choice, political or otherwise, being criticised as "over rational" or "under emotional". Reason and reasonableness are the gold standard for civilised behaviour, the common sense of an informed, intelligent, humane person. But it's a curious word, "reason". It means rather more than, say, "a capacity for logical thought", and seems to stand in a similar relation to "logic" as "wisdom" does to "knowledge". That is, it is the fullest, most integrative, non-reductive expression of a human faculty, one able to take into account and give due proportion to those other human faculties and proclivities that will complicate even the simplest judgement. When we appeal to someone about to carry out some harmful action – voting Conservative, for example – "Please, be reasonable", we are not asking them to apply pure logic to the situation, but we are asking them to consider factors such as empathy for the feelings and situation of others, factors which would result in a more fully thought-through appreciation of the wider consequences of their act.

Consider the difference between "unreasonable" behaviour and "irrational" behaviour. It's unreasonable to throw rubbish into your neighbour's garden, or to bully your employees into voting against their own interests. It's irrational to throw your neighbour's rubbish into your own garden, or to vote to leave the EU when your depressed locality is in receipt of generous subsidies from that body. There are laws against most forms of unreasonableness, enforceable by the consensus of right-thinking citizens; there are very few, if any, laws against irrationality. Electoral irrationality is no exception. Turkeys are free to vote for Christmas, and – amazingly often – do. But why?

I think it's to do with astrology. Not in the sense that Theresa May has consulted her astrologer, and decided that, as May 2017 is the last time Saturn will trine Uranus until 2047 (which it is), this is an auspicious time for a major electoral gamble (which it may be). To the best of my knowledge, the post of Court Astrologer was abolished somewhere around 1945, and replaced with the Office for National Statistics. No, what I mean is that, in the end, pretty much every systematised understanding of the social world turns out to be no better than astrology, once it is turned to predictive ends. I think we should feel free to call out as "astrology" any set of reassuringly precise predictive protocols which is based on a profound confusion of correlation with cause, and of description with explanation.

Look no further than the inability of economists to predict the crash of 2008, so obvious and easily explained by the very same economists in retrospect. I expect the proper astrologists have a pretty convincing account, too, after the event. Let's be honest, pretty much everything – even reasonably well-understood things like tomorrows's weather or the workings of a smartphone – is far too complex for any normal person to understand. Worse, it probably involves mathematics. So, everything – everything! – has to be taken on trust, simplified, explained to us with entertaining parables and over-extended metaphors, until you end up with a murky soup of apparently conflicting explanations that actually cannot be understood, as a whole, rationally, by anyone, because they're not the actual explanations, but easily-digested substitutes.

So we who can truly understand nothing, have no obvious tribe, and have nothing to give but our trust, must be courted by astrologers and charm-artists of various stripes, who claim – with every appearance of confidence and competence – to have determined some fixed point around which patterns and predictions we can actually understand and even live by can coalesce, like a stick thrust into the whirling chaos of a candy-floss drum. Look, here is some truth I made for you! It doesn't last long, though, and do try not to get it in your hair. In other words, political charisma creates its own logic, and just as a well-executed magic trick is far more compelling than any explanation of how it is done, so a polished political performer – charlatan or saviour or tribune of the people – must excite the trust of voters, not demand or presume it, and thus motivate us to vote for them; even, it seems, when this is against our own interests. Which is a good trick. We vote irrationally, in the main, guided not by reason but by trust in someone else's congenial display of conviction. Democracy has never been a science, but seems to be becoming ever closer to some consequence-free game show.

But any political leader (yes, that includes you, Jeremy Corbyn) who, for all the right reasons, abjures charismatic astrology for sober reason, who refuses to wear the magician's hat, or to thrust their magic wand into the chaotic soup – in short, whose best hope is that the electorate are reasonable, rational people who, given the facts, can be depended on to come to the right conclusions about what is in their own and the national interest, without any demeaning hocus-pocus – is simply choosing to walk off the stage on which the ritual magic act must be performed, and – worse – expecting everyone in the audience to follow. Which is both unreasonable and irrational, but not in a good way.

NOTE: I will be in the Scottish Highlands over the weekend, and have no idea what sort of wifi or phone signal to expect. Comments, etc., may have to wait until next week.


Martin said...

It would all have been so different if Peter Capaldi had got elected as leader of the Labour Party. I mean, now we're living in the shadow of cyber-attacks! Maybe I'm being a little irrational? Not unreasonable, though.

Omer said...

Charisma was one of the defining traits of successful US southern politicians, in a kind of tragic, gothic way. It is not coincidence that Hollywood found inspiration in the South for flamboyant, good 'ol boy characters. It seems, strangely befitting, Hollywood has usurped the South as an incubator of charismatic wannabes.

amolitor said...

This is a wonderfully cogent summary of a great deal of stuff.

But somehow, somehow, we seem to blunder along somewhat OK. How on earth do we do that?

Mike C. said...


Thanks for your comments, which, as always, are excellent. I've just got back home, exhausted from helping a friend herd and "drench" his sheep, amongst other exciting and novel things.

I may respond later, when I've had a bath, a good sleep and stopped smelling of sheep droppings.