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Readings and Meanings

Can we restore hope to our societies and politics?

By Gerald Schmitz

Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring Sanity to Our Politics, Our Economy, and Our Lives by Joseph Heath (Toronto, HarperCollins ©2014)

11/05/2014
Gerald Schmitz

With Remembrance Day next week in this year marking a century from the start of the First World War, it's a safe bet politicians will be making speeches about honouring sacrifices made to defend our freedom and democracy - even if the slaughter of the First World War was a folly that could have been prevented.

Nothing wrong with those ideals, but unfortunately there's reason to be seriously concerned about the state of our democratic politics and to not trust governments to safeguard our freedoms in this era of the surveillance state.

Joseph Heath, a Saskatoon native who teaches philosophy at the University of Toronto, has written a most timely book that tackles what ails our civic culture.

Enlightenment 2.0, James Heath

The decline of politics into an emotive contest is most evident in our neighbour to the south where the sideshow of fringe views and conspiracy theories sometimes seems to have seized the main stage. The nuttiness drove comedian Jon Stewart of The Daily Show to organize a Rally to Restore Sanity in 2010. His counterpart Stephen Colbert coined the term "truthiness" to mean any claim that feels true regardless of any factual basis or lack thereof. Political partisans have adopted "post-truth" strategies in which the endless repetition of simple, emotionally resonant "truthy" but false statements is the norm. Along with that often comes a cultivated disdain for experts and "elites" with their "fancy theories" and complicated data.

So far such strategies have been most powerful electorally on the right - viz. the rise to prominence of the Tea Party. They rely on a "privileging of visceral, intuitive, gut feelings (that are) central to the movement known as 'common sense' conservatism, which has become a powerful force everywhere in the Western world, not just the United States." Meanwhile movements on the left - such as "Occupy" which galvanized attention for some months before fizzling - have yet to make significant political gains. Heath offers the explanation that: "progressive social change is inherently complicated, difficult to achieve, and requires compromise, trust, and collective action. It cannot, therefore, be achieved on the basis of 'heart' alone - it also requires a huge amount of 'head.' "

The book as a whole calls for the development of a new Enlightenment, version "2.0," that approaches rationality as a collective project informing a reasonable politics that isn't unhinged from facts, evidence or rational argument.

Of course it is a mistake to make a god of reason, as the Jacobins of the French Revolution did with terrifying results. What is needed is a balance of reason and the intuitive understandings that have evolved through political practice. The conservative critique of pure reason and rationalism in politics has a point. But the pendulum has swung much too far in the other direction.

Restoring a balanced, more rational political culture isn't going to be easy either since the fundamental characteristics of rational thought are that it is "slow; it requires attention; it is linguistically based, conscious, and fully explicit."

Psychology has shown how humans are prone to instinctual behaviours that can be manipulated - e.g. by confirmation biases or "deceptors" that intentionally mislead. As in much advertising, commercial or partisan motives may be behind tactics designed to elicit non-rational responses. There are many ways even highly intelligent people - yes scientists too - can fall prey to things that trick their intuitive faculties.

Fortunately these tendencies can be overcome through what Heath describes as "kluges" - meaning in effect "patches" that don't entirely fix a problem but find ways to work with it or around it to achieve a functional solution. Human nature is never going to be 100 per cent rational, free from biases or exploitable weaknesses. So in a lengthy analysis Heath shows how kluges can be used to promote a more rational outcome. For example, human societies have evolved from tribal groupings. Our in-group bias remains powerful and it can be divisive and dysfunctional. But group behaviour can also be applied to promote social solidarity, even global solidarity that leads to rational co-operation to solve collective action problems. This is a classic kluge.

Heath's next chapters examine irrationality on both the political right and left. American conservatives who delight in "driving liberals crazy" are pursuing a deliberate strategy based on the discovery "that for a vast majority of voters, coherence simply doesn't matter. The objective is to push people's buttons, to appeal to their hearts, not their heads." Liberals and lefties have used anti-rational appeals too. Indeed the "truthiness" of the right was preceded by the "new age" flakiness of 1960s counterculture. "Both involve believing what feels true, instead of thinking through the evidence and consequences in order to determine whether it actually is true."

Historically the left has identified with the progress of reason. But the 20th century saw science and rational planning put in the service of totalitarianism, the atomic bomb, the industrial state, provoking a backlash against technocracy and corporatization - often referred to as the "system" or the "establishment." In the search for a new liberated consciousness, movements from feminism to environmentalism have made intuitive emotional appeals and attacked "bad" rationality (associated with male power-seeking, domination threatening mother earth, etc.). Heath asks whether the progressive left can recommit to the use of reason to improve the human condition through collective political and state action.

Since the Reagan era (the former actor was known as the great "confabulator"), truthiness and "common sense" conservatism have played a strong hand. Moreover, such populist political communication has been magnified by the 24/7 news cycle and explosion of social media in which images and soundbites can be tweeted at viral speed - hardly conducive to careful reflection and analysis. Politicians of all stripes are fed "talking points" and electoral campaigns are run by "war rooms."

So far partisans on the right seem better at mastering populist techniques. Heath observes that the Harper government fits the pattern with its scorn for experts and elites and disinterest in evidence-based policymaking (e.g., the "tough on crime" agenda, "war on drugs," etc.). It's easier to demonize a "carbon tax" than to put forward a comprehensive policy on climate change. Cuts to Statistics Canada, science programs and other areas of government also serve to degrade future capacity for data collection and analysis.

Should the progressive left "fight fire with fire" using equally cynical emotional tactics? Heath doesn't think so. He's skeptical of prominent American theorist George Lakoff's suggestions that progressive Democrats need to frame their proposals in terms of intuitive empathetic appeals. Empathy, argues Heath, is "notoriously unreliable as a basis for large-scale collective action." Lakoff's "new enlightenment" and progressive "moral politics" fails to make the case for a genuinely rational politics.

While a left-wing filmmaker like Michael Moore may succeed in getting attention through a mastery of empathetic agitprop, its rhetorical effectiveness can suffer in terms of accuracy, exaggeration and over-simplification. The comedic satire of a Stewart or Colbert might also score points, but it doesn't lessen the political circus or provide a solid foundation for complex policy.

Heath acknowledges that exhortations to "think harder" and more rationally aren't likely to work. He sees the long-term challenge as creating a socio-political environment that is more conducive to rational thought, that offers a "choice architecture" which, while recognizing our intuitive responses and natural biases, allows an informed public to make better decisions.

Above all, conscious collective reasonable deliberation takes time. Heath doesn't offer a program to fix our politics, although improvements to our political institutions, rules against false political advertising, and making voting mandatory to eliminate voter suppression might help.

What his conclusion advocates is a "slow politics manifesto" as an alternative to U.S.-style "all demagoguery all the time" that exploits people's emotions and prejudices for political gain. There's no quick and easy way to overcome corrosive voter cynicism and restore a civic culture that supports rational deliberation about the big issues facing our society. Still, citizen engagement demanding more honesty and less hot air from politicians seems to me to be a good place to start.