Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Emote with me!!!

I've been meaning to say this for a while - since attending the Social Liberal Forum meeting at the last Lib Dem conference. But it ties in nicely with Charlotte's revelation about the nature of the "progressive" and conservative debate, and how each side thinks they are doing what is right.

Speaker after speaker at the social liberal forum said how deeply they cared about the plight of underprivileged people, so much that the mood of the event could be described as a collective subvocal chant of emote with us! Having been a churchgoer (charismatic) in the past, and therefore having done that sort of thing in another context, I am deeply suspicious of it. It doesn't work for me. Yet these are important emotions to have. Empathy for the poor is better than contempt. It is still only a pale caricature of what the left - the Labour movement - was meant to be about, which was working people asserting themselves, not, as it is now, working people being patronised by the middle classes. I would attribute much of the BNP success to the way that where Labour seem to say "We care about you", the BNP say "We care about us."

But back to the Forum. A speaker goes "We care. We care. We care. 50p tax rate!" to a cheer. I can see how that policy absolutely feels right to people, but I am still left wanting the analysis that it would do any good. "It's a symbol" we are told, as if that were a good thing.

But of course it is not just the left that emotes like this. Only when Conservatives do it, it is something way nastier. Europe: boo. Foreigners: boo. Single parents: boo. I remember the Conservative election broadcasts in the 80s pushing the fear button over nuclear disarmament. Fear leads to hate and hate leads to the dark side. Conservative emoting is all dark side of the force stuff.

Charlotte points out that Conservatives believe they are doing the right thing, and I would agree for the most part. But lets not slip into relativism here - just because people disagree over what the right thing is, it doesn't mean there is nothing to be said about it. Charlotte is right that politics would be better if it were more rational, but rationality alone doesn't give us values. Libertarians of the Ayn Rand school like to portray themselves as driven purely by reason, but this is based on sophistry, and Rand had no answer to David Hume's is-ought gap.

I've written before about the 2 or 5 foundations of morality in evolutionary psychology. These 5 instinctive traits do exist in us, and we can apply reason to ask the question: what are the consequences if we reinforce this instinct or suppress that one in the language that we use - the metaphors we choose - the buttons that we push - to explore and advance our political ideas.

So liberalism as I see it involves a recognition that promoting the wrong foundations - the deference to authority for example, or the ingroup (class/race/etc) - has bad consequences, and promoting the right foundations - reciprocity, no harm, etc, has good consequences. This relies on an assessment of the consequences of freedom or tyranny, class war or class peace, etc. Is this or that a consequence that I want? How do I feel about it? It is an emotional question.


Anonymous said...

where Labour seem to say "We care about you", the BNP say "We care about us."Oh where've you been Joe? :D

You don't write much but you make it count when you do, don't you?

Matthew Huntbach said...

That Charlotte regarded it as a revelation to see that people whose politics were different from hers think what they are doing is right was to me a revelation.

I always thought that was about the most fundamental aspect of liberalism - you supposed everyone was doing what they thought was right, defended their right to do it and argue their case, and if you needed to argue against them at leaast gave them the courtesy of assuming they were genuine in saying what they said - as you carefully and logically pulled it to bits.

Was I wrong in this? Is it possible to be a liberal and yet start off your thinking assuming everyone else is evil and know what they say is out of self interest and is really wrong?

Joe Otten said...

I don't agree Matthew. Liberalism is about the values a liberal holds not the accuracy with which the beliefs of non-liberals is understood to be represented.

I would happen to agree that people of all political stripes are usually sincere in what they advocate. And I agree that the constructive debate you describe is the best kind, albeit the rarest.

But the right to argue your corner is not contingent on sincerity, not least because there is no reliable arbiter of sincerity.

And I'm not sure whether it matters whether a person advocating an evil course has a warped view of morality they are holding to, or a sound view that they are ignoring.

Matthew Huntbach said...


You say "the right to argue your corner is not contingent on sincerity", but I think it is contingent on assumption of sincerity. It's harder to uphold true free speech if we do it on the basis "We know this person is only saying what he says out of self-interest", at the limit it leads to the mentality - "let him say what he wants to say, then shoot him anyway because we know he's a liar".

I was surprised at the vehemence of Charlotte's insistence this was a revelation, since I thought it was a fairly early liberal instinct that one realised there are people in the world who think different from you and that doesn't mean they're bad people.

OK, we always find it easier to take this liberal attitude towards people with whom we're semi-sympathetic than towards people whose views we hate. I'd have been more impressed if Charlotte had suggested she realised people who thought there was a benefit in a more than minimal state were generally people who had sincere reason for believing this.

I actually think understanding what people you oppose are saying, and understanding their argument for it, and assuming they are sincere in that argument is a tremendous weapon in fighting against them. You can then use logic to defeat them. If the line of attack is "Your case is so stupid, that you cannot possibly hold it out of sincerity, it must be because you have ulterior motives", then we almost always reach deadlock, because when both sides in an argument are saying the same there isn't any real way forward. What the happens is that both sides engage in an emoting competition to show they're the most sincere.

Full logic doesn't work, because there are unknowns, and I am happiest when an argument ends with an agreement on the unknowns. Possibly "We agree on the facts, but your case is that you believe human nature mean they will lead to X, whereas my case is that human nature means they will lead to Y".

Joe Otten said...

Hmm. I must say I regard debates as something 'played to the gallery' ever since reading somewhere that even good arguments tend to entrench your opponent's views, rather than weaken them. And therefore the sincerity of your opponent doesn't matter.

I largely agree with the rest of what you say, although perhaps I would see it in terms of the reasonable fair-mindedness of the gallery. Not always true of course, but when it isn't true, it probably doesn't matter what you say.