Thoughts on communication #2

Nobody is stupid, nobody is deluded. (Or at least, nobody should be called these words in any conversation which is intended to persuade). However, this is not quite as nicey-nicey as it sounds because …

… some people are misinformed, misled, over-confident, mis-educated, or find themselves in miscellaneous other circumstances which cause them to be wrong in specific circumstances or on specific topics.

But nobody is stupid or foolish and it is counterproductive to say that they are (even if it makes you feel ever so clever to do so).

Are those who describe other people, in public fora, as “deluded”, “confused” or some other variation on “stupid” really interested in being heard by such people, in persuading them to consider alternatives?

Or, for that matter are they really interested in anyone listening in on the conversation being persuaded? An audience to this sort of shouty “you iz stooooopid” talk can go one of two ways. They can think “how rude, the person they’re shouting at must have upset them in some deep way, so perhaps the person being yelled at is right”. Or they can feel “hey! This guy is calling someone stupid, so it’s ok to be agressive in the service of certain opinions – in fact to ally myself with those opinions shows how smart I am – yippee I can be obnoxious with a good conscience”.

*****

Side observation: robust language and hyperbole can be much less offensive in real life, and in printed media, than the same words used on the net. At least I can imagine situations where someone could say to me “sheesh – you’re talking complete crap” and I’d reply, fairly unconcernedly “oh Yeah? So come on then – what’s crap about it?”. But that sort of language really stings on the net – it’s enough to put me off entirely a lot of the time. Which suggests that there are people it puts off all of the time.

Thoughts on communication #1

[This is a very slightly tweaked version of a comment I left on the COIN blog a few weeks ago. The post itself was about the euro ‘remain’ campaign which the author described as:]

an object case in bad communications

It sure was. An interesting question which isn’t really asked though, is why on earth such bad mistakes are made – mistakes which, to anyone interested in communication issues, are pretty obvious. A possible answer which occurs to me is as follows.

In order to even start thinking about how other people might view matters requires a certain humility because there is some sense in which you have to start imagining what it’s like to not be me. Attempting to put oneself in someone else headspace first requires that one steps outside onself by temporarily suspending ones own assumptions, beliefs and ways of thinking. This is scary to do because, if done properly, (1) one has to accept the possibility that one might change one’s mind and (2) it also involves, in imagination, suspension of ones elite status.

I would also argue that even if one tries to avoid this worrisome ‘stepping outside oneself’ by relying entirely on research (and thereby fancying oneself entirely ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’) then one will not understand how to apply the research, or even understand what it is suggesting.

[counter-argument: sociopaths are supposedly excellent at manipulating people’s behaviour, but they, by definition, don’t go in for this method-acting-y thinking-yourself-into-someone-elses-head business. Still, most of us aren’t sociopaths and I think there might be something in my comment]

The obligatory euro referendum post

I voted remain. This is what I said in a previous post:

In the long term (thirty years plus), and quite possibly in the medium term (ten years plus), the EU will not survive – that is just not the way the world is going. However, in the short term, the EU will still be here. If we leave, an awful lot of environmental damage can be done in those next ten years, as things get chucked on the bonfire to “create growth”.

From the Green perspective, the EU is a very mixed bag, but on balance, things would have been a lot worse if we had not been in (there’s some chapter and verse on Jonathon Porritt’s blog, and many other places,  if you’re interested). If we leave, there will be precious few checks on the government desire to rip the place up and return to us to a state of spoiled grubbiness – redefined as “vigorous and entrepreneurial” – and anything that stands in the way will be sneered at as “red tape” and “a burden on business” (and a labour government will be almost as bad, whatever they say).

Anyway, this post is a brief list of reasons not to get too glum about Friday’s result. It is mainly directed at myself (who has just snapped at someone online. This is inevitably what happens when one decides to describe oneself as “good at communication”. Rueful emoticon). I was surprised how deeply I reacted to the result – it seems I had started thinking of myself as “european” at least partly.

One

The key thing is that one can’t really predict the future; the actions we take in response to our predictions change the choices which other people make, which make those predictions much less likely. Before you say “well duh!”, yes, I know this is stunningly obvious, yet we always kind of forget it.

Sometimes silk purses do emerge from sows ears. Dreadful politicians can accidentally do good things. Moods change in unexpected ways. Black swans and all that.  You really never know

Two

The tone of the ‘debate’ was, for the most part, and to put it politely, unedifying. There is now a load of daft oversimplification about what sort-of-people-voted-which-way flying around in comment sections. However, both sides contained all sorts of motivations and misunderstandings and more importantly there were noble impulses (in some people) on both sides.

Three

There was a respectable green ‘leave’ position which basically welcomed the potential for change which leaving would bring – such a radical step would surely shake up everything and make a change of direction possible. I think this was unrealistic (are we really going to vote in a whole lot of environmentally-enlightened new people? No, we’ll be stuck with the same old growthy, fossil-fuelly, bunch) but of course I could be wrong (see point one above).

Four

Hah, at least politics has become interesting.

Five

If things are going to get bad long term whatever happens, then perhaps it might be better (ultimately) if they get bad right now. One might have a personal preference for either outcome, but there’s no way of telling what will really happen (see point one again).

*****

Oh the internet. Why do I bother? In the unlikely event that anyone reads this, you’ve just wasted your time – your should have read Chris Smaje’s latest post instead.

Framing and the Euro debate

I’m interested in communication, rhetoric and debate.

I’m trying to keep away from the depressing euro referendum gubblebleugh, but as I still haven’t broken my today habit and still watch the daily politics once or twice a week, I still keep hearing it. Last Monday, I caught the tail end of Eddie Izzard being interviewed on the today programme. (Still available here – he’s 1 hour 40 mins in) He was talking about running multi-marathons, but right at the end he managed to toss in a quick comment about the EU referendum.

He’s in favour of staying in (he’s well known for his view on this), which he characterised in an off-the-cuff way as “the people for leaving are for running and hiding – we’re British, we stay and fight!”. I thought this was rather splendid because it is first “stay” comment I’ve heard which works on the general rather than the particular level.

All the discussion about the EU is pretty handwavy (it could hardly be otherwise because there are so many unknowables), but there is still a distinction to be made between assertions about actual things (trade, markets, economy, place in the world, environment) and appeals to generalised emotions. So far, it has only been the “leaves” who have come out with the more emotional calls. There are the trumpet-blasts about “freedom” and “democracy”. And “sovereignty”. That one causes me to start shouting at iPlayer when some MP I haven’t heard of gets interviewed. What the hell is “sovereignty” to me? And what, really, is it to you, you backbench nonentity? Puffing up your chest to make up for your own humiliation as lobby-fodder? Fancying yourself as having any real power? Bleah!

Anyway, (cough). My point here is about framing. The implied metaphor for leaving the EU is of a person or group of people walking away from another person or group of people. So far, the “leaves” have framed this as “we should walk away because … you’re cramping our style … we’re just too big for you …”. Izzard’s comment reframed this as “we should stay because … we‘re big enough for anything … we’re not delicate and weak, so why walk away?”

The “stays” really should get moving with the general emotional arguments because I suspect that is where most of the action is going to be, the ground on which many people are going to be motivated, swayed and persuaded – so don’t try to be too “logical” or “sensible”, and don’t let them get away with all that blah about “freedom”.

The other nice thing about Izzard’s remark was that it was jokey – and in a quite subtle way – which did not detract from there being a real point in there. By contrast, and with the right approach, the “freedom and democracy” shtick could be made to look both pompous and naive.

****

Seeing as I’ve brought the subject up, I suppose I’d better state my position on the referendum. I shall be voting to “stay” and this is why. In the long term (thirty years plus), and quite possibly in the medium term (ten years plus), the EU will not survive – that is just not the way the world is going. However, in the short term, the EU will still be here. If we leave, an awful lot of environmental damage can be done in those next ten years, as things get chucked on the bonfire to “create growth”.

From the Green perspective, the EU is a very mixed bag, but on balance, things would have been a lot worse if we had not been in (there’s some chapter and verse on Jonathon Porritt’s blog, and many other places,  if you’re interested). If we leave, there will be precious few checks on the government desire to rip the place up and return us to a state of spoiled grubbiness – redefined as “vigorous and entrepreneurial” – and anything that stands in the way will be sneered at as “red tape” and “a burden on business” (and a labour government will be almost as bad, whatever they say).

What is the point of the Green Party?

I’d like to explain why I think it worthwhile to support the Green Party. (I’m not in any way suggesting that you do so as well, simply explaining why I do).

I’m really not a political beast (not even a small, cute and furry one), but I seem to have acquired the habit of watching BBC2’s The daily politics. This started when I was following the Scottish independence referendum, but I continue to find it amusing. Anyway, there was the Lib Dem conference, and someone (Tim Farron, I think) made some big defence of the Lib Dem involvement in a Conservative coalition by saying that he was in politics to change things and therefore there was no point in not being in power.

I kind of take the first point – that a desire to “change things” attracts people to politics. (But even that is an oversimplification 1). But the point I want to take issue with here is that there is no point in not being “in power”, because I do not think that you have to be “in power” to help “change things”. Conversely being in “in power” actually gives you less real power than you might imagine.

We have this gleaming notion of “leadership”. Some of us, from outside the centres of power, seem to imagine that if we could only get inside that command room, all we would have to do is screw our “political will” to the sticking point, enact our enlightened laws (“forcing them through” if necessary) and we would have “made the world a better place”2. Naive to say the least. There are considerable constraints, both local and global on what can be done; nothing at all can be done without compromise, tradeoff, payoff and payback; laws have unintended consequences, people find ways to avoid obeying them, enforcement requires resources that can’t be spared, the police drag their feet; business and finance defend their vested interests with vigour; the rest of world has its own stake in what the UK does and will apply all sorts of nasty pressures; and nobody whatever has the slightest compunction to play fair. If politics were a game of rugby it would be mostly a series of very muddy scrums.

And then, less obviously, there are all the subtle social psychological effects that come into play. On gaining official “power” you will be surrounded by, and have to deal with, a new bunch of people with different ideas and assumptions. All normal human beings (even politicians – perhaps especially politicians, because they are, maybe, less than averagely self-aware) will modify their behaviour in response to those around them. “Behaviour” includes beliefs of course. It’s a bit mean to call it “selling out” because it’s just natural human behaviour – we are deeply, deeply, social beasts.

I’ll go further. There isn’t a single thing that causes change. It is difficult-to-impossible to enumerate all the causes of what happens. We cannot possibly predict all the consequences of political actions – they ripple out down the years, interacting with other actions which we haven’t seen coming. Whatever nice plan you have (“we could meet all the worlds energy needs if only we spent enough money on …”) you can be sure it won’t work out quite as you thought. On the other hand, silk purses do sometimes emerge from the sows ears of apparently disastrous decisions made by other people (a reason to not get too downhearted even with the 2015 election result).

What would happen if a miracle happened and a Green government was elected in 2020? Less than you’d hope. More skilled political operators (and politics is a skill, requiring both natural aptitude and practice) would run rings around our poor wee lambs. The first Green government would most likely disappoint the hell out of its core supporters and I’d give it less than a month before the first cry of “sellout!”.

What would happen if a slightly lesser miracle were to happen – in fact not a miracle at all really – and a couple more Green MPs were elected in 2020? More than you’d think – though it would not be spectacular. I shall now answer the question which forms the title of this post and say that the point of the Green Party – that is to say, a separate group with all the tedious administrative gubbins that political parties have, not just green-minded politicians affilated to the traditional groupings – the point of having a a Green Party is educational. Not in a teachery, giving-the-facts-and-explanations sort of way (we’ve had eco-education till its coming out of our ears and see how much good that has done), but in a much broader sense.

The point of the Green Party’s existence is to remind people of the wider environmental context of our actions. That context is certainly wider than the jolly politics and media game, and even wider than the national-pride and diplomacy context. The mere presence of a Green party in boring old mainstream politics – having councillors, MPs, MEPs MSPs, Assembly Members, Lords – has the effect of making it feel legitimate to take the environmental context seriously. It gives salience to the wider physical context in which all the fun of finance and politics and business and trade and art and shopping and human life in general takes place. Green ideas will sound louder because some of their proponents are willing to play the game of mainstream politics.

That might sound an insubstantial gain but I don’t think it is. A couple of paragraphs up, I talked about the difficulty of getting anything done in politics, about the multiple pressures and determinants on one’s actions. One of those pressures is the surrounding ‘talk’, the environment of ideas. More Green politicians around changes the air, makes certain actions more possible, others less, makes some things more sayable.

The thing that sparked my own interest in green issues was the so-called fuel crisis in 2000. This was surely a ‘teachable moment’ as regards fossil fuels yet the government made no mention of the connection between fossil fuels and climate change. None. Despite Kyoto and nice-sounding blah about the environment. They could still have given in to the hauliers, fine, all it would have taken is one line in a speech to draw modest attention to the fact that we can’t go on like this forever, something will change at some point. But no. not a sod. Unbelievable. If we’d had a Green MP then you can be sure it would have got some air time.

(That was fifteen years ago. I’m really not an optimist y’know).

The ‘official’ Greens are unlikely to get much credit for the good that they do in this way (there’s a suitable quote from the tao te ching that I’ll leave you to fill in for yourself) – but that hardly matters, does it?

*****

Added 2nd August 2016

I’m delighted to say that I’ve come across another, more substantial, reason why it’s worth having a green party. At the local council level, a green majority could actually enact real, green, things in the housing and transport areas.

Footnotes

(Oh I love footnotes – it’s like eating the crumbs after a slice of fruitcake)

1. “I’m in politics to change things” – you hear it said, and it sounds grand, but is it always true? First, you could quite legitimately be in politics to prevent things from changing. Second, it’s quite clear from the politicians I’ve actually met (admittedly this was mostly in their embryonic stage, when we were students together) that, whatever they say, they are attracted to politics because they just like the kinds of things you have to do to be in politics – they simply enjoy doing politics, playing the game, in it for the craic (doesn’t that explain Boris?). Whatever they might imagine, their opinions have a degree of negotiability (as is the case with all of us). Anyway, the point I want to take issue with here is that there is no point in not being “in power”, because I do not think that you have to be “in power” to help “change things”. Does this also apply to people involved in less conventional forms of politics? I rather suspect it does, at least to some of them.

2. I don’t really believe in “making the world a better place” – I think the thing to punt for is “making the world less bad than it otherwise would have been”. This is a serious point which I might expand on in a separate post.