The International Writers Magazine: Election 2015
Reflection or Reflexion
During the election campaign in the UK I am increasingly struck by the behaviour of those charged with choosing a government: the electorate. As television journalists tour the country thrusting microphones into the faces of passers-by, or set up a discussion with some group or other, the ignorance revealed is quite astonishing.
Nightly, we are treated to images of some Bill or Ethel claiming to know nothing about something that increasingly frantic politicians have done their best to hammer home. This response has at least the merit of being honest. It is questionable whether we have the right to demand that those who vote have bothered to inform themselves on the issues.
Another group, though equally ignorant, respond to the journalists with platitudes that are little more than second-hand opinions gleaned from favoured newspapers. One can often identify the Guardian or Daily Mail readers by their responses to questions about their concerns. I say ‘favoured’ because these people choose to read only that which agrees with their prejudice, be it ‘left’ or ‘right’. They are comfort readers, seeking reassurance rather than information that could challenge their position.
Such people can be easily encountered in the pub, the street, or on a blog-site. Those reading the Guardian, for instance, are dismissed as ‘loony lefties’, while they in turn dismiss the other lot as neo-fascists. Attempting to discuss politics or economics with these people is an exercise in futility. They appear incapable of reflection, and respond habitually from an established position. Lacking information on the subject under discussion they frequently question a speakers motives, branding one as envious or uncaring, depending on their own views.
Sadly, politicians and journalists play to this gallery, re-enforcing existing prejudice, one lot branding their opponents as ‘the party of the rich’, while they in turn warn of the chaos should the other lot win. Most politicians focus on the economy, each side playing on the ignorance of many electors. Each party claims to have the solution to Britain’s ills, most of which have been caused by their previous periods in office. Their claims are cynically echoed and enhanced by newspapers that are a disgrace to journalism. When these papers are unable to argue a case, they focus on the irrelevant in efforts to fool their readers. This focus can be on such trivialities as a politician’s facial expression or on behaviour that could apply to anyone. Is it really relevant to someone’s ability to run a team that they look funny when eating a bacon sandwich? Apparently it is, to many people. Why else would serious, highly educated politicians play up to such stupidity, having cameras follow them while they perform tasks that bear no relevance to the role they wish to fill? Do they see the election as a circus in which they must play the clown so that ‘fools’ believe them to be human?
I don’t share the view that the ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’ is a fool, but I do believe that he often invites that label by displaying a knee-jerk reaction to events. He or she often fails to gather information on an issue, or spontaneously rejects information that is unpalatable. Many are satisfied to judge matters entirely from their personal experience, rather than from broader study. This problem reveals itself particularly in relation to the health service. Any criticism of the NHS is met with personal anecdotes that carry more weight with the listener than hard information that has been made public. So, the fact that one’s auntie received ‘brilliant’ treatment for her bowel problem negates the figures that reveal Britain’s relatively poor performance on cancer survival.
As someone who reads extensively on political-economy, and writes on macroeconomic issues, I frequently come up against this personal perspective problem. I recently reissued a couple of my ‘Hackwriters’ articles on a blog site that I frequent. One piece addressed the problem of imbalance in the economy and argued that we need mechanisms to re-cycle funds locked in surplus balances into those with negative balances in order to stimulate trade and consumption. This is a major problem in the global economy, exemplified most evidently in China. One reader’s response was to accuse me of wanting a socialist paradise in which people were forced to have only grey suits or brown shoes. My article had not mentioned socialism.
The second article that I re-printed warned of the problems associated with Britain’s high deficit on its balance of payments account, and, more particularly, the problem of huge overseas funds pouring into the London property market. For my pains, I was told not to spread doom and gloom. So, the respondent clearly thought that I should keep quiet about a predicted difficulty.
I first became interested in this problem of narrow, uninformed perceptions in the 1970s when my career moved into the field of management development. Faced with a group of about a dozen managers I asked them what sources of information they used. Though all these people were ambitious and saw themselves as potential senior executives, only two or three claimed to read a newspaper. A slightly larger number admitted to relying on rule books or trade magazines, and one or two picked up information from ‘mates’. My expressed surprise was greeted with embarrassed laughter.
Thereafter, I made this subject a central theme in my management development work, beginning with the idea of parallel hierarchies of ‘information source’ and ‘level of seniority’. Very simply, knowing the rules may be sufficient for a supervisor, but the next step up required broader knowledge of the trade, the next step knowledge of the specific industry and the step above that called for broad knowledge of business generally within a socio-economic context. I also used to demonstrate the subjectivity of our interpersonal perception. However, this is not the place to trawl over the whole theory. Anyone sufficiently interested can find details in my 1995 article ‘A Neglected Concept’ in ‘The Journal of Management Development’ Volume 14 Number 1, 1995.
My point here is that we have people making decisions about who should govern the country on the basis of similar narrow, stereotypical perceptions rather than on knowledge of the true state of affairs. This enables the politicians, and their journalist lackeys, to be ‘economical with the truth’, as it was once expressed. In short, we get the politicians we deserve.
© Tom Kilcourse April 14th 2015
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