Democracy Café

This meeting (9 November 2019) took place a couple of days after the official start of the General Election campaign which will take place on 12 December 2019. Both topics chosen had a political feel to them – to be expected I suppose – and both were related.

The first topic was should we be able to delete social media history from when we were young? The concern was that rash or ill-considered comments made in someone’s youth could be dragged much late in life to embarrass them. This applies to political and other public figures of course and the point was made that the media was always on the lookout for such remarks. The main charge laid against someone in these cases was hypocrisy and some wondered whether this was said too quickly. Maynard Keynes is credited* with saying ‘when the facts change, I change my mind, what do you do sir?’

Someone observed that to change one’s mind shows you have one.

Much of the discussion focused on trust and how to establish it. Consistency was one aspect and being able to see what someone said in the past and compare it with today was a way. Deleting the past would frustrate that of course. Some examples were quoted of well known politicians arguing, before the Referendum, for a second one once details were known are now to be heard saying people knew full well what they were voting for. The question of course is where and when to draw it.  These were not statements made when they were young. 

It was noted that student debates were often on some nonsense subject so to hold someone to things they said then would perhaps be unreasonable. It was also said by several people that we all change our minds as we go through life, cannot politicians do the same? It would seem that time and distance in the past is the key here. If someone did change their mind, was it not justified to ask them why and to give a reason?

The debate moved on to freedom of speech issues and the issue of causing offence was discussed. There is arguably an increase in the number of instances where politicians and others are asked to apologise for ‘causing offence’ to a group, usually a minority one. There was a difference of opinion here with some thinking that causing offence was a real problem and can make minorities feel vulnerable or victimised. Sometimes this hate speech led to physical acts.

Another significant point made by several, was the importance of teaching children to question what they read and the information they receive. They should learn the important distinction between facts and opinions.

The second half of the session switched to the question ‘can a politician tell the truth today and expect to be elected?’ The election had started with some startling claims to spend vast sums on various parts of the economy. Could any politician stand up and say that this may be reckless or unaffordable and would in any event take many years to achieve (the promise of more GPs for example would take a decade)?  Was it possible for a prospective politician to say for example ‘our economy is weak, our debt is 80% of GDP, our productivity is poor and if we want a better NHS and more help for the elderly, we are going to have to pay for it with higher taxes.’  

It was pointed out straightaway that arguably there were a few who did(do) and Shirley Williams and Caroline Lucas were both mentioned.

The discussion moved quickly onto the life led by MPs now and in particular the role played by social media and the tech giants.  A number of MPs – particularly female MPs – were not standing again the main reason appeared to be the constant stream of death, rape and other violent threats they regularly receive.  The life of an ordinary MP was described at length in Elizabeth Hardman’s book Why we get the wrong politicians. She paints a fairly dismal picture of life in parliament and the expense and problems of getting there in the first place.  At the end of the book you get a good understanding of why we end up with such poor decision making, bad laws and poor governance.

Another key debating point was the nature of ‘fact’ and ‘truth’ and who decides? A lot of what politicians say is about what will happen in the future if they are elected into office. This is by its nature speculative. In this connection, a local MP can make all sorts of promises but they are promises about his or her party and over which they will have little say (unless they become a minister).

Needless to say the Referendum was mentioned and the point was made that our system was based on the concept of an MP being a representative. This had changed into them becoming delegates. So an MP who thought, prior to the referendum, that we should stay in the EU but his or her constituency voted to come out, what should they do? Were they honest to continue carrying out a policy which they believed to be wrong? Some thought they were not. Also, carrying on supporting a policy knowing that it could not be done was dishonest.

The role of the media was discussed and it was suggested that they often focused a lot on the future which, as we’ve said, is essentially speculative. It was here that we touched on the first debate because what politicians say they will do has to be looked at in terms of what they said they would do in the past and did they do it?

Was it the media’s duty to inform? Some would say yes but it was also noted that newspapers were about selling papers and they had to reflect to a large degree what their readers wanted. No doubt if there was a demand for facts then they would be provided. At least conventional media was subject to some kind of control and the laws of defamation. Social media platforms were outside anyone’s control and enabled people to say anything and say it anonymously. Which is where we came in and the role social media is having in the nation’s discourse…

No doubt we shall come back to this topic area in the future.  The next meeting was scheduled for 14th December but it may be too noisy to have a debate in the Playhouse.  We shall meet anyway and see.  

Peter Curbishley

*there are doubts whether JMK said this.

Democracy Cafe

The next DC is tomorrow Saturday 9th November at 10 as usual in the Playhouse. With the general election announced the other day, there will surely be lots to talk about. The bidding war between the two main parties is extraordinary: it only seemed like yesterday that the cry was our financial woes, and the need for austerity (remember that?), was due to the Labour party recklessly overspending. Now countless billions are promised.

Is this degree of spending the right answer anyway? Will pumping that degree of money into the economy risk inflation? Are the promises to be believed?

Lots to discuss and it doesn’t have to be about the election anyway.

Climate change

Several of us attended a meeting of the Salisbury Area Board in the Guildhall last night (4 November 2019) which was a joint event with Wiltshire Council (WC) and the City Council (SCC). It was extremely well attended with – I estimated – around 110 or so there.

There were presentations by a WC officer and by the Mayor for the City. Each table was then asked to think about suggestions they would like to make and there was a feedback session with one from each table.

Both organisations must be complimented on organising the event and the numbers attending demonstrated real concern for the subject.

The first thing to note was that both the WC and SCC contributions were essentially top down. It was what they were going to do. They neither of them costed or showed a timescale in any realistic way. It took Prof. Graham Smith, speaking for his table, to point out the need for a baseline analysis. By this I assume he meant the need to assess what would be needed to achieve carbon neutrality by looking at where we are now and where we need to get to. Looking at WC’s webpage on the subject, there are no statistics, solid plans or timetable for what has to be done between now and 2030. Similarly with SCC’s plans.

Jeremy Nettle emphasised the need to ‘do something now’ and, as he put it ‘it was difficult stuff [and] costs money’. The council has a budget of £56,000 for the work. Both presentations however were short on how people’s minds, attitudes and behaviours could be changed although Nettle did say ‘the hardest thing is changing people’s minds’. It was just a bit light on how.

The elephant in the room of course was that those present could be assumed to be people who accept the threat of a climate emergency and that something needs to be done urgently. In the population at large there are many who do not. There are still many denialists.

One speaker noted the limited powers that local government has in comparison with the national government. In that connection we must mention our local MP Mr Glen who, according to ‘They Work for You’ website, generally votes against climate change policies and is openly dismissive of Extinction Rebellion. DeSmog analysis shows him at 15%, a dismal score. The question of making new homes more thermally efficient was mentioned. Fine but what about existing homes? Making rented homes more efficient was voted down by this government (supported as ever by Mr Glen).

But our biggest disappointment was that neither Mark Read of WC nor Jeremy Nettle of SCC mentioned a Citizens’s Assembly despite several meetings and emails between us and them on this very subject. Cllr Nettle is allegedly in favour and has certainly led us to believe this. Citizen’s’s involvement was left to a request for people to leave their names on a sheet of paper at the exit. This will assemble a wholly unrepresentative list of people – all of whom will be in favour of climate action – and drawn from a narrow demographic.

The approach does seem to be essentially flawed. Without a structured involvement by the citizens of Salisbury, guided as necessary by appropriate expertise and supported by baseline data, the result is likely to be an uncoordinated series of actions which – however well meaning – are unlikely to achieve the goal of carbon neutrality. Achieving climate change is going to need robust and grounded policies many of which will be met by indifference or hostility. The forces of resistance are well funded by the fossil fuel industry. Both authorities are going to need a lot of solid support from local people and on this showing, they are unlikely to get this.

Peter Curbishley

[These views do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance]

August meeting

Over 20 people attended a lively discussion at the August 2019 meeting of the Democracy Café in the Playhouse. Many familiar faces and some welcome new ones. We are delighted to see new people coming to these cafés which keeps us from becoming stale.

The topic chosen by vote for discussion was ‘has the Right commandeered the language of Brexit? How can we reframe the debate? This topic was put forward by someone who is reading George Lakeoff’s book one of which is ‘Don’t think of an elephant! know your values and frame the debate.’ Chelsea Green Publishing. Framing is crucial since it is difficult to change the course of any discussion if the agenda has been framed in a certain way. See a blog post from the Salisbury Compass site.

Recent examples were given. One was the notion that low taxes make us better off. A second is that when we leave the EU we shall be ‘free’. The right in our society have, it was claimed, commandered social media and have successfully promoted a number of soundbites. Some of the language is quite subtle, for example the change from ‘social security’ to ‘welfare’. The former was based on the notion that we all pay into a system which is there for us in time of need, whereas the second implies simple payouts. This language change was crucial in the post 2018 crash austerity period when there was a concerted attempt to cut ‘welfare’ and to (successfully) demonise those in receipt of payments as ‘scroungers and skivers’

In this context, it was noted that the £850bn (not £500bn as was said) bailout to the banks was not called ‘welfare’. It was given the name ‘quantitative easing’.

The importance of education and understanding what we read in the press was important. A book on how to read a newspaper is RW Jepson’s Clear Thinking: An Elementary Course of Preparation for Citizenship 1936. [1948 version]

As well as language – as in words – was the fact of presentation and how the politician puts it across. The example of Blair with his easy charm and broad smile was widely believed. Similarly with Boris Johnson with his blond hair and optimistic statements. These attributes were as important as the words used.

On the media, the fact that substantial parts are foreign owned is a factor it was claimed. The Daily Mail; Daily Telegraph; The Times and the Sun are among those papers owned overseas.

A big part of the debate was the fact that the Right seemed to be most successful in their use of the soundbite. They were able to encapsulate their ideas into short phrases which resonated with people. In the Brexit debate for example ‘freedom to make our own laws,’ ‘taking back control’ and ‘not being ruled by unelected Brussels bureaucrats’ are all examples of pithy and highly effective soundbites. Similar soundbites were mentioned during the post Reagan/Thatcher era in politics to sell the idea of free markets and small government. The question was raised: why has the Left failed to come up with its own short statements of what it stood for? ‘For the many, not the few’ was the only one anyone could think of. The tendency for longwinded explanations and factual rebuttals do not work. Back to Lakeoff and his argument that facts do not persuade, going for emotional appeal does. Which raised the question, how do you counter lies without lying yourself? People promoting Brexit had been much more successful in pressing emotional triggers, immigration for example.

This led to a discussion on the need for a debate which focused on nurture rather than competition.

Walter Lippmann’s ‘bewildered herd’ or ‘bewildered masses’ was mentioned and did rather sum up our debate quite well:

Bewildered herd is the masses that are tamed through propaganda and mass media in order that the machinery of democracy is kept properly oiled.

The bewildered masses must be subdued, tamed and injected with the popular opinion of the upper class of politicians, leaders of corporations and others belonging to the elite class of intellectuals and wealthy in order to govern a nation and circumvent any defect in democracy.

The single function of the bewildered masses is to be spectators, not participants, in the democratic nation.

Urban Dictionary

Finally, the Full Facts website was mentioned and asked for it to be linked to this discussion.

Part two was a discussion around ‘is liberalism dead?’ The debate started with someone who had heard a radio programme in which it was revealed that among the 18 – 34 age group, 20% would not vote. However, this did imply that 80% would which is higher than the current level of voter participation in most elections. Perhaps too many choices was a problem it was suggested. Climate change had generated considerable interest and activity among the younger generation and Extinction Rebellion was mentioned.

Was activism stronger in the ’60s say? It certainly seemed to be a time of protest and there was arguably a sense of utopianism. The NUS was strong. Now this seemed to be gone, perhaps a victim of the Brexit saga and people feeling drained. It was also noted that life was easier for young people then with no student fees to pay.

It was noted that social liberalism was quite strong, the acceptance of seat belts and crash helmets wa instanced so maybe there was a need for a more nuanced approach.

There did seem to be a desire for strong leaders to solve their problems. So it was not a question of being anti-liberalism, more a case of looking for competent leadership. The idea a ‘nuture’ surfaced again rather than looking always for a dominant figure. Dictators start with benign intentions but always end up by being totalitarian. Some said we should worry about any dictator claiming ‘I will save the world.’

The idea was put forward of ‘freedom under licence’ ie within the law. But this raised the question of which freedoms and who decides? It also gives the impression of freedoms being granted by the powerful rather than being more fundamental. It is surprising that no one mentioned the UN Declaration or the Human Rights Act in this connection.

The debate got onto the political system and capture by the corporate elites. Millions spent on lobbying and the revolving door corruption was mentioned.

Two interesting debates without any clear conclusions but a lot of useful points made.


First Democracy Café in Bemerton Heath

SIX people – including the new Deputy Mayor of Salisbury, Cllr Caroline Corbin – joined a Salisbury Democracy Alliance facilitator for the first Bemerton Heath Democracy Café.

The topics for discussion were chosen by the participants and the first question was: Should we have an unelected leader to deal with climate change? The under-lying assumption here was that our democratic system is unable to cope with the pressing threat that climate change poses to the planet.

One of the problems was how you would choose such a dictator? And if it is true that, as the 19th century politician Lord Acton claimed ‘power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely’, how would you ensure that they would serve the country rather than themselves?

After the break the participants chose a topic relating to the extent to which social provision should be provided by the State or charity, which raised several interesting points including the possibility that what is really missing, in the West at least, was a sense of community.

The next democracy café will be held on Saturday 6 July at St Michael’s Community Centre between 10am and 12noon.

Book review

The Political Mind by George Lakoff

So, here we go again! The Political Mind: Why You can’t Understand 21st Century American Politics with an 18th Century Brain is yet another book in which the author uses dense reasoning to attack what he falsely believes to be the traditional view of rationality.

The Political Mind was written by cognitive linguist George Lakoff in 2008 and has been followed by a slew of similar attacks on reason that, without any sense of irony, use reason to do so. Lakoff argues that our brains use the logic of framing, prototypes and metaphors to think and if we only understood then progressive politics, would, in a ‘just so’ sort of way, win out. The weird thing about this book, however, is that one can fully accept all of his conclusions about progressive politics and the need to use metaphors etc without accepting any of his science.

For example, he relies heavily on the claim by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga that 98 per cent of what the brain does is unconscious. Even Lakoff acknowledges in a footnote that numbers like these make little sense because one cannot count thoughts. Nevertheless, he writes that the percentage ‘seems about right’. But he then goes on to repeat the figure ad infinitum throughout the book as though it is an unchallengeable fact. It is contestable, however, and not only for the reason that Lakoff provides, but also because it is a quantitative measurement not a qualitative one.

Even supposing we accept the 98-2 per cent split, it may be, as Lakoff acknowledges, that much of unconscious thought is taken up with keeping the body functioning, while the 2 per cent is usefully spent on writing books like The Political Mind and inventing the internet. An analogy might be with the 98 per cent (estimates vary but they are always close to 100 per cent) of our DNA with chimpanzees but that 2 per cent and a few switch genes makes a huge cognitive difference between homo sapiens and chimpanzees – although some might argue of course that it might be better, and less destructive, if we were more like chimps.

Another major problem with this book is that it presents a hopelessly simplified and homogenized version of what he calls ‘The Old Enlightenment’, in which its great 18th century universally privileged rationality to create an over reliance on cold reason. In fact the Enlightenment thinkers held a widely differing positions ranging from the Scottish philosopher David Hume, who insisted that ‘reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions’, to Emmanuel Kant who really did privilege reason. Other thinkers like Diderot argued that although the true philosophe was guided by reason, he does seek to eliminate the emotions. Instead he ‘works at not being dominated by them, at benefitting from them, and at making reasonable use of them’. Many thinkers acknowledged that humans are often the ‘slave of the passions’ but thought we should at least try to question ancient ideas and traditions rather than blindly accepting them. In other words, Lakoff is guilty of the straw man facility in which he sets up an argument that doesn’t hold water in order to render is easier to knock down.

Yet another problem is Lakoff’s pathological reliance on the metaphor, which has to do some very heavy lifting. One gets the sense that we literally think in metaphors etc. all the time. “So far we have seen that we think in terms of frames, narratives, metaphors, metonyms, and prototypes.” But it is metaphors that carry the heaviest load. He sees metaphors even when there is one. Conservative attitudes are defined by the strict parent metaphor while progressives are defined by the nurturing parent and so on…and on. Truth only appears once and that is pejoratively when referring to the formal logic of philosophers like Bertrand Russell – although it never occurs to Lakoff that hi book might have benefited from a sprinkling of formal logic.

And you don’t need any of his neuroscience to agree with his final chapter which is a paean to progressive thought, but the irony is that it is written in a literal non-metaphorical way. Metaphors are useful ways of bringing ideas to life. Witness John Donne’s ‘No man is an island, entire of itself’. More prosaically this means, as Lakoff points out in his last chapter, that ‘our brains evolved for empathy, for co-operation, for connection to each other and to earth. We cannot exist alone’. Quite so! It beggars belief that either Lakoff or Donne thought of this truth metaphorically first and then pondered what its literal meaning was. Metaphors in themselves are neutral and their truth or otherwise depend on the ideas they are trying to express.

And what of his conclusion that his naturalistic account leads to what he calls Moral Accounting of which utilitarianism is its non-metaphorical expression? Or that the nurturing parent metaphor leads to non-metaphorical empathy? One of the problems with naturalistic accounts of ethics is that one can always ask whether its conclusions are right. Do altruism and empathy, both of which are said to evolved, always lead to right action? The answer must be ‘no’. One may sacrifice oneself for or have some empathy for a monstrous cause or person. And it is just too pat that his scientific account leads to utilitarianism, conveniently bypassing other normative ethical theories. And is Moral Accounting the only framework for moral decision-making – I think not.

One might agree that the use of metaphors, framing, narratives, metonyms and prototypes are important and that emotions are form an important part of our reasoning without having to give up on the notion of truth. Afterall, we surely believe that ‘No man is an island, entire of itself’ brilliantly expresses an important truth in a particularly vivid and memorable way – not that the metaphor replaces truth. Framing of truths is an important skill that progressives need to learn but the framing itself should not replace the truth. Shifting public opinion is important in order to re-establish the sort of progressive ideas that fuelled the post-war consensus but this work can equally well, if not better expressed within the notion of the dominant ideology or Gramsci’s idea of hegemony as it can in terms of cognitive linguistics.

There is an element of ‘just so’ about Lakoff’s book. It is all too convenient his neuroscientific just happens to coincide with his progressive politics.

Dickie Bellringer

George Lakoff

Democracy Café

Meeting held on 9 March 2019.

The 19th monthly Democracy Café meeting was held at the Playhouse, with a big turnout of regulars and new (and younger) faces. The two topics voted for discussion were “Populism” and “Does the Home Secretary have the right to make someone stateless?”

The definition of populism proved a difficult concept, but it was agreed that populists claimed to speak  for “the people” while usually being part of the political elite. They thrive on the “them” and ”us” idea,  and manipulate people’s legitimate grievances. A hot button issue will get support, but may not be the actual agenda of the manipulators. The distinction between “popular” and “populist” raised some issues, as populism need not have a particular ideology, or even wide support..

It was agreed that for all the difficulty of definition “we know it when we see it.” It was still suggested that this lack of definition was a dangerous state of affairs, as so much is encompassed by the term, and are populists actually interested in the outcome of their movements? . The French gilets jaunes movement began with a particular issue, and developed into something much larger, with people all protesting about different things.

So the general view of the meeting was to see populism as essentially negative, if not dangerous, especially as it thrives  where people have grievances and feel they can’t do anything about them.

The second discussion, on statelessness turned more theoretical. There were two issues – 1)  What is the morality of making someone effectively a non-person?  And  2)  How can a country cease to be responsible for a citizen, but pass the responsibility on to another state?

Clearly, if someone has dual nationality, one could be taken away without difficulty, but there was a feeling of pass the parcel about the government’s approach.

The Home Secretary’s action would be legal for someone coming over here and committing a crime, and then being sent back, but not for someone born here.

With the Shamima Begum case, the issue of the criminal’s remorse also arose. But the group questioned how we could expect people to equip themselves in such a situation, and felt it was hard to judge.

Further discussion centred on one’s right to be a citizen (or subject in the UK’s case!) as part of general human rights.

The usual thoughtful debate on weighty matters, then.  Our thanks to all who took part, and we look forward to the April meeting.