Saturday, 1 December 2018

Mistaken Group Identity

Why do people project unpleasant characteristics to a whole group when that simply cannot be justified? In some cases, it’s because people are angry and upset, and they want to lash out at everyone who resembles someone who has wronged them. In other cases, there are people who deviously want to stir up resentment and hatred against a targeted group that can then be treated as scapegoats for the offences committed by a few with similar characteristics.

But whatever the motive, it is unacceptable to accuse any group of wrongdoing when that is only true of some who possess a number of features associated with that group. Just think of the groundless reproachful generalisations fired off against: “All you foreigners …”, “All you women …”, and the same can framed around people with a certain religion, having to claim benefits, stranded as refugees, etc., when there is absolutely no basis for suggesting that all who fall under the group description in question behave like a number of individuals who happen to fit that description.

It is disingenuous as it is obnoxious to attach blame to every member of these groups. And to recognise this means we should be aware that it applies to all group generalisations with equally shaky foundations. Take phrases that open with “All you white people …”, “All you men …”, “All you police …”, and countless others; unless there is a firm basis for attributing a negative characteristic to all who can be classified under the group cited, such an attribution should not be made.

Women or men; black/white/any ethnicity; one nationality or another; it is as fallacious to claim that some vile feature is to be found in all the members of one or the other of these broad groups. Furthermore, any attempt to criticise people for the violations committed by others is likely to have at least three unfortunate consequences. First, attention is diverted from the real wrongdoers, who are either merged in public perception with others who have actually done no wrong at all, or they escape censure altogether. Secondly, it breeds resentment from the innocent who, quite rightly, are riled by innuendos, or even direct attacks, that they are at fault. Thirdly, and worst of all, it will push some of those who are groundlessly lambasted towards a sense of misguided solidarity with those who are actually guilty. It is not unheard of that some people repeatedly grouped with others as convenient targets end up feeling they should stand together against such targeting – even with those who deserve to be censured.

Of course, there will be cases where membership of certain groups is a ground for collective criticism. For example, voluntary membership of a group dedicated to intimidating and hurting vulnerable people is enough for indicting anyone belonging to such a group. But with most of the critical generalisations around, rarely is there much evidence at all that ‘All the Xs’ are disposed to commit the same wrong as this or that individual X.

If we genuinely want to tackle prejudice, discrimination, and thoughtless abuse, we should start by avoiding them ourselves when it comes to applying mistaken group identity.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Democracy & the 2016 Referendum

One of the most curious things we hear a lot of these days is “it would be undemocratic to go against the result of the referendum”. But if a political process is, in its conception and execution, detrimental to democracy, then to abide by it would be truly undemocratic. Let us look at a few key facts about the 2016 EU referendum:

[1] Parliamentary Democracy, not Plebiscite
The legislation setting up the 2016 referendum made it clear that it was an advisory process. The UK has a parliamentary democracy. All legislative decisions are made by Parliament, unless it has been explicitly passed to a devolved body or local government. The referendum result was thus never intended to be binding, and democratically the ultimate decision was to rest with Parliament. MPs have the right and the duty to make that decision in light of the views registered in the referendum, the impact of different options, and the changing circumstances facing the country. This is not to say the UK cannot give up parliamentary democracy in one or more cases, or agree to a binding plebiscite for specific decisions. But that did not happen with the 2016 referendum. To insist MPs must vote in line with the referendum result, and not take any other critical factor into account is to defy our system of parliamentary democracy.

[2] Fake Options
If dodgy sales people give lots of misleading descriptions of their product to get people to sign a contract to buy it, public concerns would not be on how to force the buyer to pay out, but how to expose the deception and hold the con merchants to account. In the case of the 2016 referendum, the leading campaigners repeatedly stressed that leaving the EU would not mean leaving the Single Market; and they kept citing the Norway model as a desirable way to move forward: Yet, after the referendum, they were adamant that people voted to leave the Single Market and reject the Norway model (when they themselves had urged people to back leaving the EU because it would not mean leaving the Single Market).

[3] Deception and Rule Breaking
In addition to what was on offer in the referendum being routinely misrepresented, the campaigns involved were also full of illegitimate moves that were designed to undermine democracy at every turn. Democracy cannot function if people were pervasively lied to about the issue they were voting on, and the arrangements to ensure fairness and transparency were brushed aside. From propagating false figures about the costs of EU membership to covering up all the risks and damages that would arise from leaving, people were misled about what they should make of the UK being part of the EU. If a jury trial was conducted with so many attempts by one side or the other to submit misleading evidence, the judge would stop proceedings or even order a retrial. Furthermore, campaign rules which were to underpin the democratic legitimacy of the referendum vote were broken through a range of financial violations (to the extent that these are being investigated by the National Crime Agency). Some Leave campaigners had tried to defend their position by arguing that no one could prove that the breaking of the rules played a crucial part in securing the overall majority for Leave. But that is to forget that cheating in exams or sports is in itself sufficient for disqualification.

[4] The Absence of a Threshold
Any government seeking to change the fundamental constitutional and economic structure of the country by means of a direct binding vote would set a threshold for any proposed changes to go ahead. The greater the consequences and more extensive the disruption, the more critical it is to set a threshold. Even on issues which may impact on people’s lives on a much smaller scale, any direct vote may lead to a threshold being set. For example, the Conservative government introduced legislation to require at least 40% of the eligible voting members of a union to vote for strike action in relation to an important public service, before any strike action can take place – on the grounds that such a decision can cause disruption to people’s lives. As any decision to withdraw the UK from the EU can have far more drastic consequences for the whole country, it follows that there ought to be a requirement for an even higher threshold – say, 50% or two-thirds of all eligible voters. But the government set no threshold at all, and on the basis of 37% of eligible voters opting for ‘Leave’ (below the threshold it set for strike action to be authorised), it refuses to subject that decision to parliamentary democratic scrutiny. It is worth remembering that Nigel Farage himself said in an interview before the referendum (referring to % of votes that might be cast for either side): "In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way. If the remain campaign win two-thirds to one-third that ends it."

[5] Timescale and Democratic Responsiveness
Democracy cannot be sustained by any government declaring that it can take a decision that will be binding for all time. If a government wants to treat a referendum-based policy decision as irrevocable for a specified period of time, then it needs parliamentary approval in order to establish that as part of the referendum vote. However, nothing of the sort was put forward for the 2016 referendum. That means that just as after the previous (1975) referendum on the UK’s EU membership, there can be another referendum on the subject, it is legally and democratically coherent to have a third referendum. To claim that to run another referendum would be against the ‘will of the people’ is to overlook the democratic fact that the overriding will of the people is that they are allowed to change their mind. Above all, it is the Leave campaigners who have most ardently stressed that what ‘Leave’ means is fundamentally disputed – some of them insist it means leaving the EU (but keeping the benefits of the Single Market), some maintain it means leaving the EU and any form of customs union, and others argue that it means just leaving the EU (regardless of what other changes may or may not take place). Since those who back ‘Leave’ cannot agree what it should mean in practice, it would be wholly undemocratic to hand the power to decide the matter to an executive which is unlikely to command majority support in parliament.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

In Defence of Cooperative Communities: 7 points to note

Those who promote prejudice, conflicts, and irrationality are getting more emboldened every day. They thrive on lies, reject science, celebrate bigotry, deny exploitation, endorse pollution, and blame scapegoats at every turn. We are aghast at what they do, but we need to be united ourselves to push back effectively.

We can begin by focusing on the kind of communities we seek to develop, and the key threats and obstacles that we must tackle. Below are seven points to note:

[1] The Real Political Divide
We should not be deflected by devious rhetoric or subtle misdirection, and remind ourselves and others of the real dividing lines between those of us who want to build more cooperative communities that foster mutual respect and genuine collaboration, and those who want to have greater power to exploit and oppress others in society. The former seek to foster solidarity, the latter try to con others into subservience.
[Read more at: ]

[2] The Cooperative Community Paradigm
We do not need to invent a new philosophy. The ideas from centuries of progressive, civic republican, and communitarian reflections have shaped the cooperative community paradigm, which distinguishes the kind of rules, customs and relations that should be promoted for the sake of all, as opposed to the attitudes and arrangements that ought to be urgently reformed.
[Read more at: ]

[3] Cooperative Problem-Solving
A vast amount of work has gone into developing the theory and practice of cooperative problem-solving. It is an approach that is known to have facilitated consensus building and conflict resolution. By drawing on the available evidence-based guidance, we can take forward more initiatives to support the development of cooperative communities.
[Read more at: ]

[4] Degrees of Reciprocity
In society, there is a spectrum that goes from those of us who take the Golden Rule of reciprocity seriously, to others who are driven by egoistic and authoritarian tendencies. In between are people with varying dispositions. It is not ethnicity, gender, religion, or any other ‘identity’ factor, but how an individual’s outlook has been shaped that influences the person’s receptivity to cooperative working.
[Read more at: ]

[5] Progressive Lifelong Learning
The more people develop pro-reciprocity dispositions – which may be termed their Cooperative Gestalt – the more likely they will interact with each other with reason and respect. Through progressive lifelong learning, they are more able to assess and share ideas on what is to be believed in an on-going, provisional manner that is open to anyone to contribute, question and revise.
[Read more at: ]

[6] The Pathology of Marginalisation
Oppressors and exploiters con people into joining their cults, gangs, and extremist groups, especially by preying on those who feel marginalised by society. They turn those vulnerable to manipulation into followers who will inflict harm on themselves as well as others, and dismiss any contrary evidence as ‘fake news’. We need to understand such vulnerabilities to be able to expose the con tactics more readily.
[Read more at: ]

[7] The Cult of Thoughtlessness
The politics of manipulation depends on promoting thoughtless attitudes and behaviour. People are easier to con if they are less inclined to think critically. To counter it, educators in all fields have a vital role to play in advancing civic thoughtfulness – with its empathic, cognitive, and volitional elements.
[Read more at: ]

For detailed expositions of why and how we should defend the ethos of cooperative communities, the following books may be of interest:

Time to Save Democracy: how to govern ourselves in the age of anti-politics:

What Should Citizens Believe: exploring the issues of truth, reason & society:

Communitarianism: a new agenda for politics and citizenship:

Monday, 15 October 2018

Four Threats of the Counter-Enlightenment

The Enlightenment has always been about advancing mutual respect, empirical reasoning, and inclusive governance. Contrary to narrow chronological accounts, it has continued to exert its influence through cooperative and progressive development beyond the early 1800s right down to our own time. However, in parallel, the counter-Enlightenment has also been active throughout – tirelessly denouncing intellectual and political progress as inimical to ‘true’ values, while constantly reviving attachment to an assortment of misguided goals.

In the decades following the Second World War, it was thought that with the defeat of fascism, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, wider access to education, social security expanded for all citizens, the establishment of the UN and the EU, and responsible regulation of a market economy, the Enlightenment ethos was safely in place. But malicious manoeuvres to overthrow it did not abate, and by the 2010s the resurgence of the counter-Enlightenment has reached crisis point:

Dismissing Science
Evidence-based examination of truth claims is at the heart of the Enlightenment’s championing of empirical rationality. It supports scientific procedures, which are essential in resolving contested assertions when these arise in legal, policy, or other disputes. Objective expertise and systematic investigation provide the basis of impartiality. Counter-enlightenment advocates therefore dismiss science at every turn. They claim that science should be ignored because it is not infallible, even though they know it is far more reliable than any arbitrary alternative they may call on to back their own claims. The more people buy into the dismissal of science, the more easily vital facts can be brushed aside.

Inciting Discrimination
When counter-Enlightenment advocates attack moral universalism as empty, or savage the cosmopolitan-minded as citizens of nowhere, they are targeting the Enlightenment’s defence of mutual respect amongst humankind. Against the ill treatment of people with different customs or racial backgrounds, the subordination of women, and the neglect of the poor and powerless, the Enlightenment has always called for equality in esteem and fairness in treatment for all. But its enemies prefer to stoke prejudice and hatred against ethnic minorities, anyone vulnerable to stigmatisation, and women who refuse to tolerate abuse or marginalisation. Their goal is to legitimise disdain and discrimination.

Subverting Government
One of the greatest achievements of Enlightenment thinking was to replace arbitrary authoritarian rule by democratic government tasked with serving the public. Like science, democracy is not perfect, but it can be counted on to act in the public interest incomparably more than some narcissistic and unaccountable leader. Yet counter-enlightenment advocates want to see government taken over by an irresponsible elite that will cut protection for the general population, hand more resources and power to the wealthy, feed the prejudices of fundamentalists, weaken if not dismantle public accountability, and threaten dissidents with subversion of the judicial and law enforcement arms of government.

Hijacking ‘God’
Last but not least, while the Enlightenment has helped us realise that people should be left to believe in their own God or none, so long as that would cause no discernible harm, its enemies insist that their ‘God’ is the only true one, and they alone can speak on behalf of ‘God’ in declaring what is right or wrong. They thus try to cloak themselves with ‘divine infallibility’, and condemn all who oppose them as heretics who deserve to be punished unreservedly. Henceforth, anyone disputing their claims, because of their secular outlook or the different faith they hold, are to be castigated as daring to challenge ‘God’, and treated with righteous contempt.

Society has far too long neglected to teach the merits of the Enlightenment. Let us hope it’s not too late to alert everyone to the dangers of the counter-Enlightenment.

Monday, 1 October 2018

How to Mind the Money Gap

Let’s be clear at the outset that being concerned about the ever widening gaps in financial power does not mean that we want to see everyone paid exactly the same no matter what they do. Wanting to reduce the gulf in wealth, which is patently destructive of social wellbeing, is not the same as wanting to eliminate all differentials in rewards for efforts and contributions.

The problem we face is that the few who have obtained the most powerful corporate executive positions are holding everyone else to ransom, by declaring that they must be allowed to gift themselves however big a share of their companies’ revenue, while everyone else must be pushed towards low pay, precarious jobs, and shameful working conditions. They give themselves astronomical pay rises even when their businesses’ finances have done poorly under their watch. And they stop their workers’ pay from even keeping up with inflation.

The solution is worker cooperative management. People who work in the same organisation would not find the valuation of their contributions diverge so radically if they had a say in the process themselves. Research has shown that worker cooperatives are not only on average more productive and offer more stable employment, but they also have lower pay differentials [See Pérotin, V. (2016) What do we really know about worker co-operatives? Manchester: Co-operatives UK]. Workers as members recognise that it makes sense to reward some among them with higher pay, but the extent to which that is agreed is grounded on a shared assessment of how much greater the contributions from those colleagues are, and not simply on the power of those at the top to pay themselves substantially more.

The same principle applies to the differentials in the fees charged by different professionals engaged in resolving potentially adversarial disputes. Just as people can be marginalised as citizens because they are deprived of their share of the proceeds they generate with others, their influence in society can be further diminished by the hyper-sensitivity to wealth when contested assessments are made in relation to issues of critical interest to them. For example, lawyers engaged on either side of a criminal or civil case; accountants involved in establishing or denying financial anomalies; or scientific experts commissioned to scrutinise or defend the safety of a new brand of medicine or food.

In all such cases, if there is a vast gulf between the fees demanded at the lower and upper ends, then firms with fees at the upper end will on the whole be able to tempt and recruit more of the most impressive performers, and they will offer clients who can afford to pay their exclusive fees the unmatched calibre of their recruits in winning the disputes in question. However, if the professional bodies concerned are required to bring their members together to set limits on their fees differentials (with the proviso that they do not all charge exactly the same as would a cartel), then all the relevant firms may then fall into a more affordable range, and can compete against each other on a more level playing field (there is a clear parallel with development in sports where a few wealthy clubs can make the overall league uncompetitive because they buy up all the best players). Consequently, citizens in general will be less likely to be disadvantaged by decisions that will favour the wealthy few at the expense of the interests of the wider public or particular less well-off individuals.

Note: The above is one of the 40 recommendations on how to improve the conditions for attaining a better functioning democracy, set out in my book Time to Save Democracy:

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Democritus: an agreeable hypothesis about everything

When philosophy and religion are taught these days, it is most unlikely that the ideas of Democritus (460-370 BC) will get a mention. That is regrettable since his approach to making sense of the universe, life and society has much to commend it.

At a time when religious thinkers were offering different versions of ‘god’ and ‘creation’, and philosophers were coming up with diverse conceptions of nature and its components, Democritus championed the hypothesis that everything was ultimately made up of indivisible entities – ‘atoms’, literally the ‘undividable’. These inanimate entities have always existed and will never perish. Through a variety of combinations, they form substances that make up all things in the universe – from a grain of sand by the sea to distant stars.

We now know that what Democritus characterised as ‘atoms’ are more like what we call molecules (formed by conjoined atoms), and what are indivisible are entities currently classified as quarks, which make up the protons, electrons and neutrons that constitute atoms. In terms of positing ultimately indivisible entities which are the universal building blocks of the universe, Democritus’ hypothesis is nonetheless apposite. Furthermore, anticipating Darwinist biology, Democritus speculated that just as the indivisible basic entities could combine to produce diverse physical properties, these properties could in turn interact and give rise to a wide variety of living things, including human beings.

For Democritus, the emergence of rich complexity from simpler constituent components also applies to the transition from primitive human existence to sophisticated civilisations. The experience of the dangers for isolated individuals and the vulnerabilities of living in small groups, especially when contrasted with the vastly increased opportunities for improvement in larger communities, prompted extensive social and political development. And eventually people would discover that, in order to ensure the benefits of living in a well-structured polity are not wiped away by some unscrupulous ruler, they must as citizens secure democratic control over the state.

Given his account of the world, Democritus advised we should live with three things in mind. First, in society, we must respect and be helpful to others if we are to expect respect and support in return. Individuals who seek only to advance their own interests regardless of the consequences for others, will turn the rest of society against themselves. Secondly, we should cultivate our understanding of reality, and appreciating that while the basic indivisible entities endure, what they combine to produce are finite and will in time disintegrate once more. We should not be misled by superstitions, or fear the natural sequence of beginnings and ends, but accept it calmly. Thirdly, it would be wise to enjoy life when we can, so long as it is in moderation and does not get in the way of our pursuits of deeper fulfilment. Through life’s vicissitudes, a cheerful disposition is a better companion for ourselves and others.

It’s fair to say that anyone hoping to learn something about the nature of the world and the meaning of life, should spare some time to reflect on Democritus’ most agreeable hypothesis.

Additional notes:

• Democritus’ writings were numerous and widely known in ancient Greece, but they are now largely lost. Our knowledge of his ideas today is based on preserved fragments; quotations from his works made by his contemporaries; commentaries by (for example) Aristotle; and later expositions by thinkers such as Epicurus and Lucretius. A short introduction can be found in Paul Cartledge, Democritus, London: Orion, 1998.

• Although Democritus was well ahead of his time with many of his ideas, he did not have the foresight to reject the practice of slavery or the exclusion of women from political citizenship. Alas, these were personal blind spots he shared with many of his contemporaries around 5th century BC. However, they do not form any part of his characterisation of the universe or how we should relate to the transience of life.

• Some of Democritus’ ideas have been attributed to an earlier thinker, Leucippus. But virtually nothing is known about Leucippus, whose very existence has been disputed by a number of historians. Democritus, by contrast, was a well-known figure; indeed his fondness for recommending the disposition of cheerfulness led to him being widely referred to as the ‘Laughing Philosopher’.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

The Most Important Ideas to Teach

There are those who maintain that society cannot function if its members are not taught a core set of ideas about what they should value, what is unacceptable, and how they should accordingly act. Such ideas are meant to remove any ambiguity about what binds people together, and provide clear guidance on the attitudes and behaviours we should promote or condemn.

However, every attempt to define these ideas has failed to achieve its goal. Either it ends up with platitudes about freedom, fairness, and any other positive sounding notion without addressing any contention over rival interpretations; or it pushes through specific claims that are rejected by large numbers of people who find them misguided, or insulting even.

To retreat from articulating these foundational ideas for community cohesion and national unity is often rebuked for conceding to relativism. The imagery conjured up is that of being confronted with people who say they disrespect others, are poised to act aggressively, and we just shrug and let them be. While some ardent libertarians or anarchists may indeed prefer to see no rules for collective wellbeing, and are ready to leave the obnoxious and militant to threaten and damage as they please, most of us would not want to stand idly by. But in order to establish a common front against irresponsible deeds, it is not necessary to invoke some timeless guidance on right and wrong.

What is needed is an understanding of the ideas on how we should learn and explore with each other what are acceptable claims, rules, and practices that ought to be adopted for our common protection and wellbeing. At any one time, there would already be commonly held beliefs and enacted laws in place. It is vital to teach all citizens that, on the one hand, these are not immutable and could be altered subject to evidence review and critical examination; while on the other hand, they need to be respected and adhered to unless reasons and relevant findings render them obsolete.

So there is no relativistic standing back and letting people do whatever they want, but neither is there to be any dogmatic presumption that there is one eternal set of ideas that have settled everything beyond question.

As to how the contesting of conflicting claims is to be managed, that is precisely why ideas relating to cooperative problem-solving need to be taught more widely and effectively. Provisional consensus, empathic deliberations, evidential assessment all need to be explained and cultivated so that people are not misdirected towards fallacies and lies. People also need to appreciate that while they may personally have strongly held views about what they should do, they must engage others in reconciling differences. The argument that one must stick by one’s conscience or one’s god is no different from fanatics’ obsession that they will ignore everyone else because their inner voice tells them what they must do.

The most important ideas for any civilised society are not about what we must believe or obey, but about how we work with each other to continually determine what at any given time we should deem reasonable to believe and obey. The real threat to civilisation comes from those who insist that they will refuse to listen to or deliberate with others, and will act as they wish regardless of the harm that could bring upon others.

To learn more about how to differentiate what does or does not merit our belief, check out:
What Should Citizens Believe? – exploring the issues of truth, reason & society
Available in e-book format and in paperback.