Thursday, 15 August 2019

The Art of Political Criticism: an educator’s guide

One of the most difficult and yet indispensable life-skills to instil in citizens is the art of political criticism. It is dangerous for people to accept everything they are told without question by those in power. But it is just as risky to reject whatever is put forward without giving it due consideration. Knowing how to scrutinise political claims in a coherent and effective manner is a vital part of being a responsible citizen.

Educators may find it useful to approach the task through five learning routes:

[1] Grasping Key Concepts
At the roots of most flawed arguments and attempts at misdirection are inappropriate uses of key concepts. Notions such as ‘freedom’, ‘rights’, ‘responsibility’, ‘democracy, are often taken to imply certain general principles which are in fact quite unfounded. Freedom, for example, is something we value, but not if it becomes a licence for people to act in callous and harmful ways towards others. Democracy is a much-needed form of governance, but it is not obtained merely by a majority vote if misinformation and corruption influence voting intentions. Educators should ensure key political concepts are widely understood.

[2] Reviewing Historical Perspectives
What happened in the past can often be highly relevant to what society should do now and in the future. But that relevance is only discerned through proper interpretation of the causes and consequences of different events. Dwelling on some events while ignoring others, or distorting the reasons behind notable successes or failings, would only lead to misunderstanding or mistakes being repeated. Educators should be equipped to cite balanced historical accounts, and facilitate learning of the critical lessons that are still applicable today.

[3] Identifying Practical Options
One of the biggest challenges for political educators is how citizens can take part in the decision-making of government institutions when there are so many seemingly insuperable obstacles. Whatever democracy may suggest in theory, it is often felt that in practice members of the public will seldom be able to have any meaningful say at all. It is up to educators to draw attention to the many successful approaches and examples of deliberative engagement and state-citizen cooperation, and promote their adoption in all spheres of civic life.

[4] Cultivating Critical Challenges
Demagogues seeking power and many of those who have already gained high office, are adept at rhetoric that makes the most dubious claims sound rousing and convincing. It takes the development of a critical mindset to see through such claims without falling into some form of ‘we-can’t-believe-anything’ scepticism. It is incumbent on educators to inculcate the disposition and ability to question the powerful in a logical and objective manner, appreciating what expertise and evidence can be relied on, and what unwarranted claims to discard.

[5] Exploring Alternative Futures
Imagination can be an important tool in bringing out what people may otherwise overlook. Misplaced complacency on the one hand, and mind-numbing saturation with negative news on the other, could leave many oblivious to the threats posed by plutocracy and fundamentalism. Dystopian literature helps to highlight what may otherwise be overlooked. Educators should facilitate the exploration and discussion of stories that dramatically present the kind of political outlook and social structures that everyone should seek to avert.

For a short guide to Henry Tam’s learning resources relating to the Art of Political Criticism, click on:

Thursday, 1 August 2019

The Stoic-Epicurean Resolution

How are we to navigate the vicissitudes of life? On the one hand, Stoic philosophy is often presented as directing us to fulfil our public duties and lead a solemn, simplistic existence. On the other hand, Epicurean ideas are supposed to guide us towards the quest for private pleasures, away from the wider turmoil of society.

But this apparent dichotomous choice is a false one. On closer examination, what Stoic and Epicurean thinkers put forward actually fit into a single coherent ethos. The starting point is what will bring us fulfilment – that state of being which we would be content and happy to attain. Stoics come at this by setting out what everyone must do for the conditions to be in place for each to find fulfilment. For example, we should not harm others, but defend one another from aggressors; we should respect other people, and treat all on honest, reciprocal terms. It follows that there are public duties that should be upheld by all if each is to find fulfilment. Epicureans come at this by reminding us that nobody who neglects one’s own wellbeing can ever truly experience a fulfilled life. For example, we should not damage our own health, but nurture it; we should evaluate our desires, and pursue only those that are realistic and would not undermine our longer-term happiness.

Together, the Stoic-Epicurean approach leads us to take a holistic view about what we should do in relation to both ourselves and others, and consider the long term as well as short term implications. Strategic thinking and impulse control are vital. There is no room for insatiable chasing after pleasures, power, fame, wealth, or anything that may directly or indirectly ruin the chances of attaining a fulfilled existence. Moderation, consideration, cooperation are key ingredients in cultivating the collective and personal conditions for living a genuinely satisfying life.

If one can make a difference in strengthening the social and political structure needed for such cultivation, one must act on one’s public duty. If circumstances are such that one would have no real opportunity to influence wider trends and outcomes, then one should sensibly focus on the more limited sphere within which one can shape the course of events.

The assessment of desires, personal aptitudes, social arrangements, scope for development, and options for action and abstention, should be guided – and here Stoics and Epicureans are at one – not by superstitions, dogmas, rash assumptions, or flawed reasoning, but by the systematic application of logic, evidential findings, and experimental learning. Wisdom, grounded on critical thinking and practical examination, will thus help us decide how we should live.

But what about the Stoic respect for ‘God’ and the Epicurean dismissal of divine causes? There is actually no contradiction between the Stoic ‘God’ as the totality of nature and the Epicurean notion of nature as the ultimate foundation of all existence and meaning. By whatever name we call it, nature interacts with us as we seek to make the most of the life we have. We need to study and understand nature, and recognise that it has no volition of its own to grant us wishes or thwart our pursuits. There is nothing beyond nature, and we must develop plans and solutions in line with nature if we are to attain a life worth living.

Monday, 15 July 2019

What to do about Manipulative Authoritarianism?

Despite the use of terms such as ‘populism’, ‘illiberalism’, or ‘neo-fascism’, the many related movements that are posing a serious threat to democracy are in essence all variants of ‘Manipulative Authoritarianism’.

Its tools are intimidation and marginalisation. It will wear any mask and exploit any theme that can help win them support, dressing up as patriots, traditionalists, champions of freedom, defenders of ‘democracy’ even, so long as it gets them more support to obtain more power to do whatever they want with fewer and fewer constraints.

Its ultimate enemy is democracy as a political culture which strives to enable society to work out in an informed and uncoerced manner what should or should not happen in the common interest of its members, and hold to account those who go against the agreed positions.

To counter manipulative authoritarianism, we need to identify where they are posing the greatest threats, and what counter-measures should be put in place.

Let us focus on four areas where the foundation of democracy is being most seriously corroded, and what actions must be urgently taken.

Democracy is not just about giving the people a say about what should happen, it is about giving them an informed say. And without an objective basis for distinguishing reliable info from fabrication, we become extremely vulnerable to deception. So we must:
 Debunk absolutist rhetoric about ‘freedom of speech’; regulate against irresponsible communications; and set clear criteria to define the unacceptable promotion of hatred, lies, misleading stories, and intimidation.
 Not allow political speech to be exempt; and legislate to give powers to disqualify candidates who deceive the public.
 Establish legally recognised professional standards for journalists, scientific researchers, investigators in line with medical or engineers’ standards.

Democracy is about enabling people to hold those with collective power to act on their behalf. Without proper accountability, political leaders can do what they want regardless of the consequences. So we must:
 Put in constitutional protection of democratic institutions from those who seek to undermine them; and not allow people to stand for office with the professed aim of undermining/dismantling the democratic institution in question.
 Strengthen rules on transparency and enforce them strictly against over-spending on campaign limits; financial impropriety; obstruction of justice; and support from foreign government.
 Make punishment commensurate with seriousness of offences, e.g., removal from office for defined violations.

Democracy functions on the premise that everyone counts as equal as a fellow citizen. But anti-inclusion rhetoric and practices have spread without counter-measures put in place. So we must:
 Facilitate cooperative culture and opportunities to meet, across cultural divides, age gaps, and any other superficial differences that are irrelevant to civic solidarity.
 Increase deliberative and meaningful engagement (see, Whose Government is it?).
 Reduce power gap, guarantee decent pay, and involve workers in setting pay differentials.

System Integrity
Democracy requires rules and procedures to facilitate decision-making that reflects people’s concerns and deliberations. But cunning manipulation of these rules and procedures can give unfair advantages to their supporters and exclude those they want to marginalise. So we must set up a Democracy Commission that will have the responsibility and the power to:
 Scrutinise (and, if necessary, reject) proposals to bring in new barriers (e.g., Voter ID), constituency boundaries, or selectively lower the bar to suit one party (e.g., campaign finance limit).
 Explore alternative voting systems, thresholds, procedures, campaign advertising etc. that may make electoral participation fairer.
 Invalidate results where rules have been twisted or broken.

Monday, 1 July 2019

Key Lessons on Power Inequality

History has taught us that power can take many forms – money, weapons, status, land, authority; and if any individual or group is allowed to amass much greater power than others, then the powerful elite is liable to act to the detriment of everyone else. Let us take four specific lessons from the past that have been instructive to this day.

First, even the most conservative-minded about the need for reducing inequalities domestically are quick to recognise that in international affairs, a balance of power is essential to guarantee good relations. If one country is becoming so powerful, or is forming a formidable alliance with another, that others are at risk of having to bow down to its demands, then something must be done to check its rise, or counter-alliances must be formed. This is reflected in diplomatic manoeuvres and military strategies through the ages. The only reason why some refuse to promote at home a principle they would wholeheartedly follow when dealing with others abroad, is that at home, they rather hope their own superior power would go unchallenged.

Secondly, from the overthrowing of kings by the Athenians and Romans, through the English Civil War and the French Revolution, to the rejection of colonial rule and military dictatorships since the Second World War, the pattern is clear. If a few could ‘take the throne’ by birth-right or belligerence, they would use their power to shield themselves from having to justify what they did to others who were subject to their whims and decisions. When leaders are only answerable to their private conscience or a god whose voice only they can hear, the danger of oppression is deep and permanent. But the system of absolute rule can be displaced, not just in relation to countries, but to businesses too, as worker-owned enterprises and multi-stakeholder cooperatives have demonstrated. The more those in charge have to count on the consent of those they oversee, the less likely they will treat the latter irresponsibly.

Thirdly, even if the route to the top is based on an open electoral process, there must be on-going checks and balances that can constrain, and if necessary, remove those in ruling positions. Louise Napoleon won the popular vote in France and made himself Emperor. The Nazis won seats in an election and proceeded to dismantle democracy in Germany. Without adequate power or dedication to keep watch over those who have taken control, misrule can quickly entrench itself. Democratic systems have to keep learning and improving so that public deception can be more effectively exposed, the power of money to buy political influence curtailed, and the abuse of power more swiftly detected and rectified. From national presidents to corporate CEOs, there can be no guarantee that they will not deliberately put their own interests above those of the people they have authority over, or make seriously erroneous judgements of what should be done. The only reliable redress is that they are subject to scrutiny that is backed by enforceable demands to make them step down as a last resort.

Finally, we must not forget the impact of power polarisation on social cohesion. When a powerful elite relentlessly elevate themselves to an ever higher level of power with attendant privileges and luxuries forever beyond the reach of others, their dismissive attitude towards the plight of everyone else corrodes all bonds of solidarity. The trajectories of the collapsing Roman Empire, the degenerative downfall of dynasties in China, the disintegration of the Ancien Regime, the intensifying sense of alienation amidst the widening inequalities today in the US, Europe, and more broadly, the global plutocratic society – all point to an unhappy ending, unless the power gap is narrowed between the have-not and have-lots.

[A longer version of this essay was previously published with the Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics]
Against Power Inequalities: a history of the progressive struggle is available in e-book and paperback:

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Humpty Dumpty’s ‘Democracy’

“When I use a word,” said Humpty Dumpty (in Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass), “it means just what I choose it to mean.” And in this topsy-turvy world beloved of make-belief politics, no word is more prone to egoistic manipulation than ‘democracy’.

Since democracy is ultimately about the power of citizens to shape their own governance so that they would not be oppressed collectively or individually, it follows that any attempt by authoritarian wolves to cloak themselves with the appearance of ‘democracy’ is not going to stand up to serious scrutiny.

At the most basic level, democracy needs robust and transparent rules to operate. Otherwise, anyone can lie, intimidate, bribe, break the law to gain an illegitimate advantage in the electoral process, and claim to have a democratic mandate to rule.

Unfortunately, the Humpty-Dumpties around us seem to have been given a free pass these days to use the word ‘democracy’ in any way they like, regardless of how nonsensical they are being.

Listen to them defending as ‘democratic’ a referendum outcome that is produced by mass deception and systemic law-breaking. When their lies are exposed, the best they can say in response is “Everybody lies”. When their illegal activities are discovered, they insist that everyone else is biased against them.

Meanwhile, a new Prime Minister will be installed in the UK by 124,000 members of the Conservative Party, while the rest of the country’s 46.8 million registered voters will have no say whatsoever. If the House of Commons chooses to eject this leader with a vote of no confidence and call for a general election, be ready for cries of outrage against this affront on ‘democracy’ – as though 0.26% of voters should override MPs representing the whole electorate.

Under the ‘democratic’ system in the US, you can become President of the country by getting fewer votes from the people than your rival. Once in power, you can put your faith in the words of the Russian leader even though everyone else in high office back home has warned against Russian interference in American elections. If anyone is likely to expose any financial crime or deliberate obstruction of justice you may have committed, you dismiss them or appoint someone in a more senior position to sideline their findings.

Furthermore, in both the UK and the US, those who assume poor and minority ethnic people are more likely to vote against them, have turned to devising Photo ID requirements that will serve little purpose other than preventing these categories of citizens from voting. All in the name of defending ‘democracy’ [Note: the evidence has shown that voter fraud is actually few and far between].

If we value democracy, we can’t allow the word to be used by demagogues to mean whatever they choose it to mean. Humpty-Dumpties are full of themselves, but they too can fall – quite spectacularly.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Ask Grayling: the politics of chaos

Politics is meant to be the art of bringing people together, promoting harmony, and enabling people to work together to achieve what none individually could attain. But in the name of ‘politics’, some people practise the devious craft of sowing seeds of divisiveness, breaking up joint endeavours, and weakening the many so as to gratify the powerful few. This ‘politics of chaos’ presents itself as a governing option for the people, but in truth, it is little more than a series of tactical moves to disrupt society so an irresponsible elite can do as they please.

How does it work? Perhaps we can learn more about it by raising a few questions in connection with Chris Grayling, a long serving member of the Conservative Government in the UK, who seems to have an abiding interest in advancing chaos as an ideological goal.

The National Audit Office has found that changes pushed forward by Chris Grayling when he was Justice Secretary in 2014, which led to part-privatisation of the probation service in England and Wales, involved serious failings and had cost taxpayers almost £500 million. The Chief Probation Inspector, Dame Glenys Stacey, said what Grayling insisted on bringing about despite having been warned against it, was "irredeemably flawed" and people would be safer under a system delivered by the public sector.

Having created chaos in the supervision of offenders, Grayling moved on to become Transport Secretary, and continued with the mantra that private companies were better at meeting public needs, irrespective of the evidence. As the previous privatisation of the railway service was fuelling a growing chaos, and the railway regulator issued a report to highlight the need for the government to deal with the crisis, Grayling declared that it was not his responsibility – as the Secretary of State for Transport – to sort out the underlying system problem, which only the government could tackle.

The one area Grayling seemed to accept was his responsibility was to help the UK prepare for a no deal Brexit, since that could lead to critical imports not reaching the country, and vital medicine and key manufacturing components being held up indefinitely. So Grayling took immediate action by awarding a £13.8m contract to a ‘start-up’ company to provide extra ferries to help with shipping goods into the UK, even though that company had no experience in running ferry service – in fact, it had no ships at all. For the record, Grayling gave contracts to other companies too, and his handling of those arrangements led to costly compensation having to be paid out – estimated by the National Audit Office to be over £50 million.

Was Grayling just overwhelmed by the fear of Brexit chaos that he ended up rashly taking some rather ill-considered decisions? Actually, on all matters relating to Brexit chaos, he was all for turning the country upside down for the sake of combating the cause of all ills – immigration. Back when he was Leader of the Commons, he warned that mass immigration “will change the face of our country forever”. He actively campaigned for Brexit to keep ‘foreigners’ out and claimed that otherwise “additional demand for housing will gobble up vast tracts of green belt land and mean we will have to dramatically expand our transport system to avoid gridlock.” And he did go on to demonstrate, irrespective of levels of immigration, he could ensure chaos across our transport system all by himself.

Wasting public money, undermining public services, stirring up animosity towards immigrants – have we here a litany of utter incompetence, or an ideological obsession with the politics of chaos, or both? Ask Grayling.

For a report on the failings of Grayling’s part-privatisation of the probation service, see:
Other reports on his role as Transport Secretary and advocate for Brexit can be found in most newspapers published in the UK.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Cooperation First: a new educational focus

Cooperation First is an approach to human interaction that should be the focus of every form of education, at every level. It teaches us to recognise that reciprocity is key to mutual wellbeing; that helping each other succeed is better for all than if some were allowed to push ahead by taking unfair advantage of others; and genuine cooperation can only take place on equal terms without deception or prejudice distorting relationships.

It does not matter what party labels people prefer, what religious or secular beliefs we grew up with, or what our cultural heritage happens to be, we all have the potential to appreciate and engage in positive cooperation with others. What is needed is sustained support in developing our understanding, so that we are ready to reach out to others, and at the same time be on guard against those who refuse to reciprocate our readiness to work with them. We also need to grasp the necessity of two-way scrutiny of reasons and evidence, and be able to apply cooperative problem-solving and avoid dogmatic assertions, when we seek to establish what can be accepted as shared beliefs.

Furthermore, Cooperation First can be taken forward in learning programmes that enhance:
Skills for workplace cooperation: the most important are transferable skills that can be applied at successive levels in the work context – these are skills for cooperation, from customer service, production liaison, setting up quality circles, to rota management and strategic planning, and the setting up of worker cooperatives.
Skills for political cooperation: the most important are critical skills in understanding policy proposals, grasping intentions, unpacking rhetoric, checking the reliability of sources, debunking false or misleading claims, persuading others to think and act, and learning to anticipate deflections, and address others’ underlying concerns.
Skills for community cooperation: the most important are social skills in ice-breaking, building trust, devising joint activities, defusing misunderstanding, and facilitating consensus exploration. Particularly important is the ability to improve empathy amongst diverse groups, and generate a sense of common purpose.

In parallel, we all need to learn more about how to deal with people who appear not to want to work with us. We should be able to understand what is behind their stance. For example, some may have been deceived or indoctrinated into going along with prejudiced and irrational actions. Some would have missed out on opportunities to think through issues in an open and rational manner, engage with people beyond a closed circle, or be treated with trust and respect. There are those who been conned into believing they should target their anger and frustration at people who are in fact innocent scapegoats. In all such cases, we should engage with them sympathetically to help them escape from their distorted perceptions of the world. Through appropriate learning, they may come to see through the lies, and channel their feelings where they will make a positive difference for them and others.

Unfortunately, there will also be those who want to gratify their own ambitions regardless of the consequences for others, and some will even seek the subjection of others to give themselves a twisted sense of superiority. With them, there can be no compromise. Their duplicitous agendas must be exposed, their overbearing power curtailed, and their insidious policies reversed. This, too, is something that must be widely taught if true cooperation is to be secured.

Check out the one-volume learning resource for democratic mutual support and cooperative problem-solving: What Should Citizens Believe? – exploring the issues of truth, reason & society.
Available in e-book format:
And in paperback: