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.

Welcome

Welcome to the Salisbury Democracy Alliance Webpage.  We are a group of people and organisations dedicated to bringing deliberative democracy to the city.  We aim to provide citizens with the time, space and capacity to engage in free and equal dialogue.  We began in 2017 with the Salisbury Democracy café, which meets at the Playhouse every second Saturday in the month and has been extremely successful.  We now want to create the city’s first Citizens’ Assembly, which will involve randomly selecting a representative group of people to deliberate on an important local issue and make recommendations to our councils. 

We are supported by the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce)

There is no membership fee at present and we welcome new members and supporters.

Democracy Café

Democracy Café is held once a month on the second Saturday of the month. It takes place in the Playhouse here in Salisbury starting at 10 am and lasts 2 hours.