Tuesday, 15 May 2018

What Should Citizens Believe?

In order to have an informed discussion about what should be done to protect individuals and advance the common good, we need reliable evidence and sound arguments. Yet all around us, charlatans are not only spreading lies, but also conning people into rejecting what have been put forward with good reason. Citizens often end up not knowing what to believe, or buying into false and dangerous narratives. But what can be done?

Following the publication earlier this year of Time to Save Democracy (Policy Press) with detailed proposals to reform our system of governance, the ‘Question the Powerful’ project is now bringing out a new book, What Should Citizens Believe (published in association with Citizen Network), to help anyone interested in promoting democracy to engage others in exploring how disputes over rival claims ought to be resolved in society. It contains five sets of ‘Explorations’ that will, in diverse ways, assist teachers and students of politics in discovering how to establish what merits belief.

Introductory Explorations

What Should Citizens Believe will introduce you to the problem of belief evaluation with ‘Fallacies Unmasked’, which flags up sleight-of-hand arguments that are liable to obstruct rational judgements; ‘The Justification Challenge’, which highlights various pseudo-defences against critical scrutiny that should be overturned; and ‘Experimenting with Cooperation’, which explains how a cooperative approach to problem-solving has evolved over time to help us navigate through contested claims.

Practical Explorations

You will next be involved in considering the practical implications of the approach being put forward, with reference to four key sets of issues: ‘The Impact of Cooperative Problem-Solving’ will demonstrate the positive difference that can be made; ‘Empowerment Matters’ will outline the developmental support needed to advance the cooperative approach; ‘Crossing Institutional Barriers’ will review the obstacles that should be overcome; and ‘Reflective Leadership’ will set out how the necessary changes can be taken forward by those in leadership positions.

Civic Explorations

You will discover what kind of civic outlook and arrangements are required to sustain cooperative problem-solving in ‘Communities of Thoughtful Citizens’, which explains what should be done to advance the nurturing of thoughtful members of overlapping communities. The key implications relating to the three types of civic thoughtfulness to be cultivated are then elaborated in the chapters on: ‘Mutual Responsibility & Empathic Thoughtfulness’; ‘Cooperative Enquiry & Cognitive Thoughtfulness’; and ‘Citizen Participation & Volitional Thoughtfulness’.

Philosophical Explorations

A number of philosophical issues will be shared with you in exploring how the ideas underpinning cooperative problem-solving can stand up to epistemological scrutiny. A historical perspective of the debate is given in ‘The Baconian Revolution’; the notion that we should settle for nothing less than absolute certainty is challenged in ‘God & the Cartesian Quest for Certainty’; a classic paradox is critically reviewed in ‘Inductive Reasoning & the Grue Paradox’; and the nature of reasoning itself is put under the spotlight in ‘Wittgenstein & the Tortoise: a philosophical fable’.

Novel Explorations

In the final part of the book, you will explore aspects of anti-democratic manipulation through the prism of dystopian fiction. You will encounter extracts from three novels (Kuan’s Wonderland; Whitehall through the Looking Glass; and The Hunting of the Gods) that have been recommended by the Equality Trust, the WEA (Workers’ Educational Association), and others for promoting wider interest in what should be questioned in society, along with instructive discussion topics derived from those works.

Conclusion

Whether you want to acquire an extensive overview of the problem of belief evaluation in society, have access to a selection of materials to engage people with different interests in ways to settle disputed claims, or be better equipped in facilitating discussions on how to expose fallacious arguments, you will find What Should Citizens Believe a handy primer. It may not have all the answers regarding the legitimacy of different beliefs, but it will help to fortify minds in combating those who seek to thrive through lies and misdirection.
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What Should Citizens Believe? – exploring the issues of truth, reason & society, is available in e-book format: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07CSYRF8H and in paperback: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1548183105

For more about Time to Save Democracy and the political reforms it puts forward, read ‘The Vote is Not Enough’, posted with the Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics: http://www.crickcentre.org/blog/vote-not-enough/

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Society’s Identity Crisis

How people see themselves has always been a key factor in the political struggle for a better society. For reactionaries, their arbitrary dominance over others can be more effectively preserved if most people identify with their assigned position in a highly unequal hierarchy. For progressives, by contrast, the challenge to overturn neglect, oppression and exploitation, becomes stronger as people view themselves as fellow citizens united in pursuit of their common good. In recent decades, the reactionaries have gained the upper hand because a range of identity problems have, inadvertently or deliberately, been stirred up – undermining the civic solidarity that is vital for the progressive cause.

One notable strand of this societal identity crisis is the antipathy shown towards any pluralist conception of ‘belonging’. Under primitive conditions, people may well feel that belonging to their tribe is the be all and end all of their lives, and their assigned role in the tribe encapsulates their identity. As a result of social evolution, however, each of us can now identify strongly with different groups, institutions, characteristics, cultures, and rituals, and still recognise our shared citizenship in a sovereign state. But the fashionable rejection of pluralism means that people are expected to immerse themselves in one monolithic identity – defined by a narrow ethnic profile, religious affiliation, some parochial accent and customs, plus whatever other arbitrary features picked out by those promoting their version of ‘true Brits’, ‘real Americans’, etc. This outlook blatantly ignores the fact that multicultural development is at the heart of all our identities. Those who hark back to ‘their’ Anglo-Saxon roots forget that Angles and Saxons were different tribes that not only in time integrated with each other, but also with Celts, Normans, Danes, and others from the Mediterranean and the many different Commonwealth countries.

Another strand flows from the formation of exclusionary group identities that in effect divert efforts from tackling perpetrators of discrimination and abuse, and channel them instead towards divisive generalisations. Ethnic minorities are rallied to stand up against ‘Whites’, while white people who are themselves badly treated are urged to direct their frustration against ‘Minorities’. Women are encouraged to see ‘Men’ as the aggressors, while men who have suffered injustice themselves are goaded into regarding ‘Women’ as being unfairly favoured at every turn. Such crude, and often manipulative, divisions into rival camps can also be found in relation to religion, sexuality, age, class, nationality, and numerous other factors. Their net impact is to corrode common civic bonds and leave individuals more susceptible to siren calls to detest/resent/oppose the ‘enemy’ group.

Furthermore, the obsession with having an absolute identity fuels demands for stringent demarcations. Instead of focussing on battling those who mistreat others because of the latter’s biological, cultural, or some other characteristics, people have their attention directed towards protecting their ‘identity’ from being diluted by ‘interlopers’ who must never be allowed to become one of them. Thus people who rejoice in celebrating a culture not traditionally associated with their ethnic lineage are castigated for trying to appropriate something that ‘belongs’ to others. People who undergo gender reassignment are warned that their previous biological history render them unacceptable to be members of whichever gender they have sought to transition to. Such rigid delineations end up pushing aside issues that deserve serious consideration, and leaving behind immovable obstacles to any cooperative quest for solutions.

Progressives have too often in the past hesitated in promoting the value of civic identity, and supporting its teaching to raise awareness and understanding of how citizens are to unite to secure the common good, their mutual respect, and protection for their diversity. The resultant vacuum has drawn in both misguided demarcations and malicious divisiveness. To cure society’s identity crisis, we must revive our civic identity and champion a pluralist culture that brings together the best in all outlooks and traditions, as the only sensible foundation of long-term solidarity.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

The Real Political Divide

Political commentators see the causes of social fragmentation everywhere. Localists are supposedly at odds with the cosmopolitan minded. Women and men are split into warring factions. Traditionalists can find no common ground with progressives. Ethnicity or religion is turned into a permanent dividing line. Advocates for diplomacy and rehabilitation are confronted by champions of force and punishment.

But is society so irreparably splintered? Or is our attention being diverted from the real divide that is threatening us?

On closer examination, we can see that the one true conflict exists between those who are determined to get whatever they want at the expense of others, and those who are unwilling to put up with such aggression. The former comprises people who want to enrich themselves by deceiving consumers, exploiting workers, and squeezing suppliers; and individuals who have no compunction about treating various categories of people as subordinate or inferior even though nothing warrants it on moral or rational ground. Since the late 1970s and early 1980s, a political alliance has developed that brings these people together to secure more power to get their own way.

In staunch resistance against them are people who take reciprocity seriously. They support business that is conducted fairly; they do not want to demean or subjugate others as they have no wish to be so demeaned or subjugated by anyone else; and they are content for diverse customs to flourish so long as there is no encroachment against interpersonal respect or the public good. These cooperators do not accept that their antagonists have any right to mistreat others, and they do not buy into their lies that such behaviour is necessary for economic prosperity, national pride, or upholding the most precious traditional values.

Unfortunately, the anti-cooperators are adept at deception and many people fall for their routine con that tricks people into supporting what is in fact at odds with their real interests. For example, people are rallied to march under the banner of ‘freedom’ when the actual policy agenda is to further the freedom to make money from selling harmful products, to intimidate and marginalise scapegoats, and to mistreat others because they have the power to do so. The flag is waved to summon ‘all patriots’, but in fact it is being used as a cloak to hide support for foreign dictators and initiate aggression abroad and repression at home. And ‘God’ and ‘goodness’ are notions stripped of gentleness and compassion, and turned into false labels to legitimise discrimination, abuse, and even violence.

Whenever the anti-cooperators and their con go unchallenged, the majority of people suffer economically while the few siphon off more to go into their offshore tax havens; minorities are threatened with worse treatment; women are told to comply with macho commands crafted in line with a medieval mindset; and force is deployed without adequate justification or accountability.

It’s time to put aside minor differences and unite around a shared agenda to protect ourselves from the anti-cooperators. We value freedom, and that is why we must not accept it being granted only to those who will restrict others’ freedom for the sake of their own profits and prejudices. We are patriots, and our conscience will not let us tolerate scoundrels projecting their selfish goals as the nation’s destiny. We believe in moral values and responsibility, and for that very reason we can never allow callous egoists to keep conning and exploiting others.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

The Brexit Con

Imagine a group of people who for decades have been getting increasingly resentful that they could not make more money because there are so many laws stopping them from selling unsafe products, deceiving the public, polluting the environment, and mistreating workers. They think back nostalgically to a time when they could bankroll a few of their own to go into politics and change the laws to expand their profiteering at the expense of the wider public, and lament the fact that since the UK has joined the European Union, where the consensus goes against their exploitative agenda, it is no longer enough to buy control of the UK government.

Then it occurred to them that all would be well again if they could get the UK to withdraw from the EU. Like his counterparts at the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, Rupert Murdoch dislikes the EU because it has powers to rein in business irresponsibility. It was reported that “when asked by the journalist Anthony Hilton why he was so opposed to the EU, Murdoch is said to have replied: ‘When I go into Downing Street, they do what I say; when I go to Brussels, they take no notice’.” (Martinson & Mason, 2016).

So this group began to collaborate closely to run the ultimate political con. The objective from the outset is to pull the UK out of the EU, jettison good standards for trade and employment, and reset requirements relating to the protection of people’s rights, their safety, and the environment to such token levels that more easy profits can be made. It is not an agenda members of the group are afraid to own up to. Speaking to the Treasury Select Committee, “Jacob Rees-Mogg said regulations that were ‘good enough for India’ could be good enough for the UK – arguing that the UK could go ‘a very long way’ to rolling back high EU standards.” (Stone, 2016)

But speaking bluntly about lowering standards in a meeting which few members of the public would hear about is one thing. To convince enough people around the country that the UK should leave the EU is quite another. Here a two-prong strategy was adopted. On the one hand, attack the EU as costly and inefficient, even though it has provided far greater leverage to secure trade deals all around the world that benefit the UK, facilitated vital cross-border cooperation across every major industry and policy area with our nearest neighbours and partners, and is far leaner in terms of its staffing numbers/jurisdiction ratio compared with that of the UK government.

On the other hand, attack the EU indirectly as the reason why the UK is ‘flooded’ with immigrants and foreigners, who are to be routinely presented in a nasty, negative manner. As the Leveson Inquiry found in relation to the behaviour of the British press, “when assessed as a whole, the evidence of discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced reporting in relation to ethnic minorities, immigrants and/or asylum seekers, is concerning” (Leveson, 2012).

As the UK’s Brexit negotiation continues to be mired in a mix of confusion, denial and fantasy, it is becoming clearer every day that there will be less, not more, money for our public services; protection for workers, food safety, the environment will be made more vulnerable; British based research, manufacturing, and creative institutions will suffer from loss of collaborative arrangements with others across Europe; the Good Friday Agreement is put at risk; and standards of living for the vast majority of people will plummet.

Why then is there still this unrelenting push for a hard Brexit that maximises the severing of ties with the European Union? Of course it makes no sense for anyone except for those who devised this con for the sole purpose of lining the pockets of their unscrupulous friends at the expense of everyone else. Then with their friends’ political donations and biased press coverage, they hope to form their very own basement standards, tax loopholes aplenty, plutocratic government that, if they should win a big enough majority, may go on to celebrate the handing over of the NHS to some private US healthcare company.

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References

Leveson (2012): https://www.ein.org.uk/news/leveson-report-finds-sensational-or-unbalanced-reporting-relation-immigrants-and-asylum-seekers

Martinson, J. and Mason, R. (2016) ‘Theresa May had private meeting with Rupert Murdoch’, The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/sep/29/theresa-may-meeting-rupert-murdoch-times-sun

Stone, J. (2016) ‘Britain could slash environmental and safety standards “a very long way” after Brexit, Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg says’, Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-safety-standards-workers-rights-jacob-rees-mogg-a7459336.html

Thursday, 15 March 2018

The ‘Public Money Protection’ Act

Unethical draining of public funds should not go unpunished. We pool our resources for the common good, and if anyone – through greed, malice, or sheer thoughtlessness – deplete those resources, then the law should take action.

However, no government to date has thought through how this ought to be done. Individuals who claim, say £100 more benefits than they should, are portrayed as public enemy number one, and an over-zealous system is instituted to root out such behaviour, even when that means many others end up being wrongfully deprived of desperately needed payments. On the other hand, generous deals and concessions are ever ready to be offered to those who evade taxes to the tune of millions, or pocket even larger sums from the public purse to cover their mismanagement of everything from banks to railways.

One suggestion the government should consider is to put in place a Public Money Protection Act, the purpose of which would be to empower the public to take action against people who have unjustifiably added to public financial burden without any corresponding public gains. Individuals who defraud on benefits or expenses claims would be covered, and so would those who cheat on their taxes, misspend public funds, make illegitimate claims for public subsidies, take irresponsible actions that require public bailouts to prevent wider calamities, order unlawful evictions that fuel homelessness-related public expenditure, pay under the minimum wage and add to the burden of public benefit payment, and anyone else whose behaviour leaves the government with a higher than necessary bill to pay (including irresponsible ministers in government).

A dedicated arm of the public prosecution service would be set up to bring cases to trial with a jury that will not only decide if the accused is guilty, but also in cases of conviction, determine what punishment is to be handed down, subject to judicial advice.

The punishment will have three components. First of all, it covers what must be paid back as direct compensation for the loss of public funds, and what additional fines should be levied as a deterrent. For offenders who are below the poverty line, pushing them further into unpayable debt would be counter-productive. But for people who cheat or misspend millions of public money, and think they can go on living the high life with their off shore savings, a substantial fine would be very relevant indeed.

Secondly, there should be various options for jail time. In some cases, weekend imprisonment over two or three years may be more effective than a six-month sentence. The jury should be able to take into account the pain and disruption the individual in question has caused others in society, and what may be needed to deter any repeat offence. The duration of any incarceration put forward would have to be proportional to the amount of public money involved, plus any knock-on damages caused.

Thirdly, we have what may be a supplement (or in some cases, an alternative) to a prison term, namely, the restorative process. The jury would consider what would be a fitting activity for the convicted individuals to carry out. For some, it could be that they should spend time helping those they have hurt through their financial misdeeds. For others, it could be having to carry out menial tasks in public. There may be options to take on specific assignments in the community where being remorseful and conscientious in repairing the damages caused are integral criteria for measuring completion of the rehabilitation programme.

The fines imposed will help fund this prosecution service, and it would be apposite if this arrangement incentivises it to prioritise cases where the financial damages are most serious. At the same time, for those who think even a hefty fine would be proportionately small change out of their holdings, having to perform duties they may consider beneath them in public on a regular and prolonged basis, and to have to make real efforts to connect with those affected by their thoughtless acts, may just get through to them that they need to change their ways in the future.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Democracy on Life Support

For many people, the votes for Brexit and Trump, cast in spite of, or rather because of, the lies and misdirection at the heart of those campaigns, suggested that when democracy could no longer draw a clear distinction between well-informed and ill-judged voting, its time is up.

But will the demise of democracy pave the way for an era of happy government-less anarchy? Alas, history has shown us that it is politics’ nature to abhor a power vacuum. Without an open and peaceful system to set policies in the absence of unanimous agreement on every issue, tensions will escalate into conflicts, and the devious and the ruthless will push their way to the top, until one or another is established as the unaccountable ruler of the realm.

Imagine Trump with no democratic safeguards, and he and his family are able to rule arbitrarily so long as no rival manages to usurp the throne. But can democracy be revived? The answer depends on whether concerns with its decline can be directed to fuel the necessary action. It is one thing to know that with a third or more eligible voters routinely not bothering to vote (in the UK or the US), it is easy for those with concentrated wealth to buy large-scale manipulation to trick enough people to vote for their preferred outcome. It is quite another to know what should be done about it.

Getting more people to register and to turnout to vote is a laudable aim. But the people saturated with mass deception may just end up voting for politicians who view them as mere fodder for their own gains at the expense of the public. Changing electoral systems may make more votes count, but who is to say those won’t be votes tilted to go in the direction of those supported by the best manipulators money can buy?

Enemies of democracy are ever ready to hide behind the facile claim that people should be left to judge for themselves, as though the law should have nothing to say about people putting out words and images that can mislead, deceive, incite, or divert others into doing what they should not. These are often the same people who demand tough actions to stop people spreading extremist messages, releasing confidential information, or exchanging vile pictures to feed perversion. They are right that the law should take a firm stand against unacceptable communication, but they are wrong to suppose that nothing can be unacceptable when is put forward in the name of politics.

In fact, to save democracy, we must not only institute better regulatory arrangements to deal with irresponsible communication, we need to put much tighter restrictions in place to stop political con merchants and extremist leaders organise activities to target scapegoats, exploit cultural misunderstanding, and stir up distrust and animosity. In parallel, community relations should also be strengthened with the help of inclusionary events, neighbourhood meet-and-greet, and where appropriate, restorative reconciliations.

Finally, the elephant in the room must no longer be ignored. The relentless rise in wealth and power inequalities since the 1980s has eroded the foundation of democracy. Democracy cannot survive if the few can go on amassing vastly more money and hence control over the lives of others. Through a combination of curtailing tax avoidance and evasion, guaranteed levels of public service and basic income, redistribution to even out purchasing powers, and pre-distribution through the development of worker cooperatives to attain more equitable pay differentials, democracy’s revival will be achieved in so far as the power gap between citizens is substantially reduced.

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Henry Tam’s new book, Time to Save Democracy: how to govern ourselves in the age of anti-politics is available from Policy Press: https://policypress.co.uk/time-to-save-democracy

Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Cooperators’ Dilemma

An unequivocal lesson from the Prisoners’ Dilemma is that in order to attain the optimal result for all concerned, those involved need to possess sufficient mutual trust to enable them to be fully committed to doing what will best help each other [Note 1]. This in turn requires relationship-building over time, the development of a code of conduct, support for the exploration of collective solutions, and the establishment of enforceable rules.

Instead of suspicion, alienation, or exploitation, cooperators engage others in a reciprocally supportive manner so that their local institutions, organisations they work in, and government bodies under whose jurisdiction they live, will all develop for their common wellbeing.

However, not everyone subscribes to this approach. For example, there are people who because of their warped upbringing, indoctrination, or mental pathology, find it virtually impossible to empathise with anyone they have routinely perceived to be ‘beneath’ their social level, ‘outside’ their tribe-like group, or simply ‘alien’ to them. Others, consumed by greed and ambition, cannot help but ignore the concerns of others.

Then there are those, whose reasoning capability and susceptibility to misdirection, render them liable to be conned by charlatans in commerce, religion and politics. Having bought into incredible deals that are clearly too good to be true, no amount of evidence or explanation can persuade them that there are actually better ways to secure a more rewarding life, if only they would be prepared to cooperate with others who can see through the deception that has entrapped them.

Cooperators thus face a dilemma. On the one hand, they can try to cut off interactions with those who won’t cooperate with them. For example, they may retreat and set up a commune or some form of self-contained commons, where cooperation can thrive, and the antics of the ant-cooperators can be kept at bay. But in this ever more inter-connected world, that is unlikely to be sustainable. Moreover, the laws and policies of society cannot be suspended wherever cooperators would like them to be set aside. Disengaging from local, national, or transnational government jurisdiction is not a realistic option.

On the other hand, they can continue to live and work alongside the anti-cooperators. While they know the latter are ready to undermine cooperative working at every turn, they hope they constitute too small a minority to undermine the overall cooperative arrangements in society. Unfortunately, this all too often falls down when the disruptors turn out to have a majority – e.g., when there are enough of them to overturn collective arrangements for the common good, with their vote in a critical referendum or an electoral college process that decides who will be president.

In truth, cooperators cannot withdraw into their own enclaves shielded from outside turbulence, or keep putting up with the activities of the anti-cooperators in the hope that they would not have too much impact. Anti-cooperators will not hesitate to use the political powers they gain to take unfair advantage over others; and attempts to hold them to account will be met by aggressive derision of the judiciary, attacks on those who back parliamentary or congressional oversight, and persistent undermining of independent investigators.

Cooperators cannot work on the assumption that everyone is disposed to cooperate, or that the damages done by the anti-cooperators will always be manageable. The only way forward is to defend and strengthen the rule of law, work with politicians who are genuine in their support for cooperation, and promote education at all levels to counter ignorance and the tricks of demagogues. It is the only way out of an otherwise impossible dilemma.
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[Note 1] Successive studies of the Prisoners’ Dilemma have found that individuals are more liable to choose options which do not serve them well if they are not aware and convinced that there is a reliable way to secure a better outcome. Left to themselves, each may betray the other thinking that would save their own skin, and both end up going to jail on the testimony of the other. By contrast, if both are confident that the other won’t talk, and thus stay silent themselves, neither will be convicted on any incriminating evidence submitted by their partner.