Wednesday, 15 January 2020

A Smokescreen called ‘Politically Motivated’

Are we not getting tired of politicians shamelessly shielding their repeated wrong-doing by rejecting any criticism of them as ‘politically motivated’? When the likes of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are found to have lied about sexual liaison, making up stories about their opponents, covering up policy failures, or putting their personal interests above their public duties, they and their allies trot out the same old line – this is all politically motivated. And that is supposed to be the end of that.

But let’s pause and think …

[A] Is there anything wrong inherently with being politically motivated – if what that means is that one’s actions are motivated by political objectives? Surely, it’s hardly surprising that politicians are often driven by political aims, and though some of these aims may be questionable, others could be quite appropriate or indeed noble in serving the wellbeing of society. Compare the notion of ‘religiously motivated’ – must it be bad if someone criticised an organisation out of a religious motive? It depends on what the criticism is directed at – is it simply because the organisation is being kind and welcoming towards people of all faiths, or because it is worshiping Mammon in its constant celebration of greed?

[B] Even if in a particular case, the political motivation has more to do with causing problem for an opponent than anything else, one still has to look at the facts of the case. If someone has committed serious fraud, or ordered a murder, it does not matter what is motivating the exposé, the crime should be brought to light. Authoritarian-minded political leaders, not unlike crime bosses, will readily accuse others of seeking to tarnish their ‘good’ name, but if the charge in question is correct, then they deserve to be punished. Deflection about motives should never get in the way of holding wrongdoers to account.

[C] Of course, ‘politically motivated’ may be used interchangeably with ‘biased on partisan grounds’. For example, if one is going to take action to hurt the other party when one would not otherwise do anything similar towards one’s own side in similar circumstances. No one is keener on dismissing criticisms as ‘politically motivated’ than the Republican Party in the US. They should know. They channelled energy and resources in their attempt to impeach President Clinton over his lying about his sexual affair. But when Trump has been found to lie about his sexual affairs, cover up his financial dealings from public scrutiny, make money through his public office, side with Russia in dismissing the US’s own national security experts’ analyses, and pressurising a foreign government to help him discredit his potential rival in the 2020 presidential election, the Republicans rally to Trump’s defence by saying the move to impeach him was unfounded simply because it was ‘politically motivated’. In the sense of ‘biased on partisan grounds’, it would be appropriate to dismiss Republican posturing as ‘politically motivated’ and irrelevant.

[D] One final point: there are cases where the charge might be accurate, yet it serves no real public interest other than to harm the reputation of someone, embarrass them, or ruin their career. For example, a politician who has a long track record of serving the public dutifully is found to have behaved badly when much younger – e.g., committed some acts of vandalism. If it has no real bearing on the person’s character and behaviour now, dredging something that happened thirty odd years ago in an attempt to put the person off from running for a higher office could be rightly dismissed as ‘politically motivated’, but only because in such a case the motive is not one worthy of endorsement, and the censure sought has no public value.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

The Path of Thoughtfulness

When lies, hatred, and anger seem to be shutting down the voices of reason everywhere, it is tempting to surrender to the cult of irrationality. One can slip into thinking there is no scope for distinguishing truth from falsehood anymore. The politicians who perpetrate deception on an unprecedented scale have not been isolated as charlatans, but like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, have managed to create an atmosphere wherein evidence and expertise are readily discarded, and beliefs are secured by those most adept at manipulation.

But all the more we must strive to stay on the path of thoughtfulness, and make important choices with mutual respect and objective understanding. Plutocrats and fundamentalists alike want to stop schools teaching anything other than what they favour – money-making skills, readiness to serve the rich, or unwavering acceptance of groundless doctrines and denunciation of anyone not sharing their ‘faith’. With no sense of irony, they insist that anything else would be indoctrination. Brazenly, they intimidate teachers from inculcating open-mindedness, and condemn anyone daring to counter the real prejudices being advanced in society.

We must not give in to them. Resistance against subjugation, deceit, and atrophy is fuelled by thoughtful exploration of what we, in cooperation with others, should come to believe and pursue. Instead of closing our mind to every option except for what the manipulators and dogmatists want us to accept without question, we need to cultivate three related forms of thoughtfulness in discerning what should be the way forward.

First, everyone should learn to develop empathic thoughtfulness and recognise our mutual responsibility. Our actions can impact on each other, and just as we would not want others to behave thoughtlessly with no regard for the consequences on us, we should be mindful of how our attitudes and actions may affect others. Ideologues and fundamentalists tell their followers to wilfully disregard the feelings of others; they thereby cut themselves off from any reciprocal consideration that would otherwise be extended to them.

Secondly, all should advance in cognitive thoughtfulness and acquire the capability for cooperative enquiry. Over centuries, human beings have come to realise that the only viable alternative to arbitrary beliefs is sustained objective examination with a free flow of evidence and analyses between people. Only when we facilitate hypotheses-making, careful observations, experimentation, and informed revisions, without repression or groundless dismissal, can we at any given time, reach a reasoned consensus on what warrants belief.

Thirdly, we should foster our volitional thoughtfulness and ensure that decisions made on behalf of others should in line with the democratic ethos of citizen participation involve others appropriately. In a moment of rashness or when swayed by misguided confidence, we may give the go-ahead to a policy or a process without having sounded out others who will be affected. We would not want anyone to get away with deciding what is to happen to us regardless of our informed assessment of the options; we should equally be vigilant against allowing ourselves to impose our unilateral decisions on others.

While there are undoubtedly other skills and dispositions that should be taught, they will all need to be underpinned by the capability for thoughtfulness. Educators should not hesitate in prioritising the emotional and intellectual development outlined above. The further we deviate from this path, the closer we are to wandering off to a thoughtless existence.

For more details, see ‘Political Literacy & Civic Thoughtfulness’.