Sunday, 17 May 2015

Shiny images, dull truths

People will judge your character by the state of your shoes.
I do hope Conway wears a suit and tie for the interview.

The first comment was made to me in the late 1980s by a friend's father upon seeing my dirty black leather shoes. He handed me a shoe shining kit as he said it.

The second was said by a Prof to a friend of mine just before said Prof interviewed me for a lectureship in 1997. He gave me a right grilling, but as I wasn't that keen on getting the job, and knew the odds weren't in my favour, I enjoyed the interview by giving direct and honest answers that deviated markedly from the ones he wanted. My only regret is that I went with the suit and tie instead of the Big Bird outfit.

These memories floated up in my mind because I was reminded by friends the other day that a) image matters and b) my approach to the world is too empirical, literal and rational. I can see why people feel the need to remind me of these things. It's not that I'm unaware of their significance; it's that I choose to interact with the world in my own way. For example, I'd rather listen to what a politician says and judge whether it makes sense than be swayed by their appearance or rhetorical skills or cheers from loyal supporters. It takes conscious effort and discipline to listen like that, and I don't always manage it.

I've been somewhat immersed in the fiscal nuts and bolts of Scottish politics lately, as my own blog clearly shows. (For immersed read obsessed if you want.) Clearly, my way of dealing with this highly irrational political situation (as most are) is to go all uber-rational on a subject closely related to it. In contrast, ardent supporters of the Scottish National Party, especially the post-referendum recruits, seem unfazed by fiscal and economic arguments. The empirical analysis that I and others write is therefore largely an exercise in self-satisfying preaching to the converted, or rather, reasoning with the rational.

I accept that many people, perhaps most people, aren't interested in making sense of the world in a consistent and logical way. They're not stupid or deluded. Few people can run and jump like a practised athlete, and equally there's no reason to suppose most folk can think like a disciplined scientist, and scientists themselves often lapse, especially outside their own discipline. Arguably, most people would rather have fun, embrace hope, surround themselves with peers with similar views and chase a common dream. Who wouldn't? Well, me, for one. I experience a repulsion to group-think, which can be partially rationalised. Let me explain.

A meme is an idea that spreads from person to person in a society, and certain, simple memes spread much faster than more sensible assessments of reality. Let me get to specifics with a couple of current political examples.

The Conservative party in the UK has got a sizeable chunk of the public believing that Labour crashed the economy and that public sector finances are like that of a household:
We must balance the books and zero the deficit! Pay down our debts! There was no money left when Labour gave us the keys to the Treasury - look here's the note! 
I see the appeal of the idea that underlies these pronouncements, but cannot accept it based on the evidence (see my many longer and more boring blog posts for why).

The current Conservatives are driven by a thinly disguised ideology to shrink the state, and to serve the interests of an elite stratum in society. In contrast, the Scottish Nationalists are up-front about their ideology. It's the first point in their constitution. No matter what the economic conditions, the fiscal circumstances, the result of a referendum, the situation in the wider world, the solution and ultimate goal is an independent Scotland.

But, is ideology bad? That is, is an organisation of people formed around a belief that they will not challenge always detrimental to society? Not necessarily, but it can be if the firm belief of a minority comes to dominate more diverse views of a society. Ideology can also win support for policies that are insulated from reasonable criticism by invoking a meme that superficially supports the unchallengeable belief.

Here are two memes that spring from these two very different ideologies:
  • Substantial spending cuts are needed to pay down the national debt. This meme rests on the belief that personal or household debt is undesirable, and so by extension the same must be true for a country, therefore public spending must be reduced to equal taxes collected. No further explanation is required of why the cuts are necessary.
  • Scotland will be stronger if it has full financial responsibility or independence. Being an independent individual and being responsible for your finances are desirable, and so this meme encourages you to view a country in this frame. Concerns raised about currencies, or forecasts of large deficits are less important than the principle of independence which will in any case bring with it new powers needed to deal with such problems.
These memes are superficially appealing and simple to express and so they spread quickly in society in all forms of communications, from tweets and brief conversations in the street, to newspaper headlines and public speeches. There are of course more elaborate and substantial arguments for both the Conservative cuts and Scottish independence, but those arguments are not responsible for convincing a sizeable minority of the population to accept the idea. Those arguments become effective only after the meme has seeded the idea.

Both these memes work by associating complex national issues with familiar individual ones. But you cannot swap a person for a nation in a given argument and expect it to remain valid. In fact, even at the personal level both of these are suspect. If debt itself is bad, why do most people prefer to buy a home with a mortgage rather than rent one? If independence is good for an individual, why do people sacrifice it in emotional and financial terms to embark on long term relationships?

If you're a Conservative or SNP supporter then you may have stopped reading this by now. That would be a shame, because I'm not saying that you are wrong and that I'm right. What I am doing is shooting down a couple of memes and saying they relate to certain beliefs that are inconsistent with my world-view. It is possible this is my failing rather than yours, and if it is then it has to be someone like you, or more specifically, someone who has built up a consistent view around such beliefs, that corrects my thinking.

Now ask yourself this: can you turn that last paragraph around so we swap places? If you can, that would be consistent with the fact that you've read this post to the end.

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