Beware the popularist wolf

The long and steady drift towards popularist politics, epitomised by the election and performance of Donald Trump, is a very dangerous wolf in sheep’s clothing. It clothes itself as the voice of the down-trodden, morally good people fighting back against the corrupt and all powerful elite, but instead simply opens the doors for the most corrupt and self-interested to gain power with the minimum of public scrutiny. Rather than liberating ‘the people’ it patronises them with emotive headlines, and in so doing supresses their ability to critically challenge.

I am not against all popularist writing. Popular science or philosophy books can be a real force for good, introducing people with no or little back-ground understanding of a subject to ideas that allow them to not only see their world from a fresh perspective, but provides them with the critical tools that allows engagement with problems in an enhanced and more effective manner. Such writing has the capacity to encourage further study or research, and (hopefully) the desire to ask increasingly more forensic questions of those in power. No doubt with the odd exception, such writing does not ‘dumb down’ the issues – rather it opens them to greater scrutiny.

The same cannot be said of the popular press. The main purpose of these ‘news’ papers is not to inform its readership, but to increase their numbers. Their aim is to increase the number of copies sold (and therefore their profits) through evocative and emotive headlines – headlines which feed prejudice and ignorance rather than trying to combat it. Any ‘analysis’ lurking behind the headlines simply (very simply) supports the headline, and makes little attempt to either inform the reader or sharpen their critical skills. These papers, under the guise of supporting the people, instead seek their support; their support in buying the paper, and their support in any campaign they might run; both of which only support the wealth and power of the paper’s owners.

Popularist politicians like Donald Trump adopt much the same attitude. They speak in headlines, phrases which are aimed at their supporters rather than the people, institutions or governments that they need to be talking to, phrases which are evocative and emotive, but which have little or no depth. Thinking, together with any attempt at critical analysis and understanding have been demonised along with ‘experts’. Not only is critical thinking not encouraged, it is overtly drowned by a rising tide of emotions, a tide that is actively fuelled by emotive language. They do not want people to think, to critically engage with the issues. If they did they would see these politicians for what they actually are: people with a greatly over inflated sense of their own self worth and importance, and who are only interested in the wealth and power that public acclaim can supply.

We need to increase public debate and scrutiny. We need as many people as possible to become engaged with the issues we have to deal with, not leave it to a minority of wealthy and powerful individuals who know how to avoid critical scrutiny. It is not only deeply, deeply patronising to the general, none expert population to assume that they have no need of expertise or additional information, that they have an intuitive grasp of a very complex situation, but also very, very dangerous. It it the path towards tyranny, the path towards government by a few very wealthy people.

If the readers of the popular press and supporters of popular politicians are guilty of anything, it is probably laziness; a reluctance to critically engage with issues, a desire for (followed by a belief in) simple solutions. And this is not just a belief in simple solutions, it’s also a belief that the underlying problem is simple. This is where we really need to wake up. We need to understand that very few, if any, of the problems we face are simple. They do not follow a straight forward cause and effect model, where if we dislike the effect we simply modify the cause. The vast majority of the problems we face have have a multitude of causes, causes with varying degrees of significance that we can never be sure of; and any cause (because it can never be isolated from causes outside of our control) can have any number of unpredictable effects. There are no simple explanations, no simple solutions – there really are not! And to believe that there are only opens the gate to the wolf with a sweet tongue yet very sharp teeth.



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