On not taking back control

As we enter what may turn out to be one of the most crucial weeks for the future direction and prosperity of the UK, I would like to ask a very important question: are we, or can we ever be, in control of our future? I ask for number of reasons. Primarily because in politics in particular, but in life generally, we try hard to avoid accepting what to me is a basic fact of life – that this life is inherently uncertain. Politicians very rarely stand on a platform to talk about their plans or their visions for the future in ways that acknowledges this uncertainty. Instead they want to appear to be strong and in control. Rather than be honest and talk about what they would like to achieve, together with a reasoned assessment of the chances and difficulties of bring it about, they feel the need to portray their potency whilst exposing the impotency of those that oppose them. And their audiences, we the voting pubic, are equally as culpable for wanting this control. Hence the very effective slogan devised by Dominic Cummings for the Vote Leave campaign: “taking back control”.

This problem (and I really do think it is a problem) is related to what I term our existential paradox: life is, in a most fundamental way, devoid of any meaning and purpose. As Jean-Paul Sartre explained, certain things, things made by humans, are made with a purpose in mind. They are designed to fulfil a certain function. And this function, together with the idea of the creation of the object (its essence) exists prior to its actual creation (its existence). For humans at least, Sartre argued, it’s the other way round. We first of all exist, then we create our essence – our meaning and purpose. Pushing this a little further, I would add that the success of human evolution (so far), and possibly it’s most important aspect, has been our ability to create meaning and purpose. This has allowed us to impose a degree of order on the world, and to be able, to a reasonable degree, to be able to predict events. This meaning does not need to be true – it only needs to work more times than not to give us an advantage over other animals who do not possess this ability.

However, being somewhat arrogant about our relative position in the Earth’s ecosystem, we tend to think in terms of binary oppositions rather than subtleties. We veer towards believing that we are either in or out of control. This is a mistake. It is far too simplistic. In reality, and for reasons that I only have time to very briefly refer to, all life, all living systems, are in their most optimal and creative state when they are ‘on the edge of chaos’, when they have sufficient order to hold the various elements of that systems together (such that it is a recognisable system), but not so much order that it can’t respond to changes in its environment – for if there is one certainty in life it’s that a system’s environment will change. So, too much order prevents adaption to changing circumstance and leads to eventual system collapse, whilst too little order also leads to system collapse.

The problem that politicians face, if they have any desire to be effective decision makers, is to somehow find that optimal line between order and chaos. It’s a line that is impossible to predict in advance, it’s a line that is impossible to define, but it’s a line that I would like to think can be felt and discovered with training and practice. It’s a line that has possibly been best described as ‘going with the flow’, a line that requires both knowledge of how dynamic (social) systems work, and an acquired attunement to the various social and environmental forces at play. I am not even sure that such an attunement is possible in the political arena, but I really do think we should try. At the very least we should eradicate our desire to being in, or taking back, control.

A plea regarding public debate

Politically there is, unfortunately, much to fear at the moment. Apart from the socio-economic effects of our fast approaching climate and ecological breakdown, I am deeply concerned about the amount of not just anger being expressed regarding our ongoing political chaos, but the potential violence that could accompany it. Violent threats appear to be multiplying in every direction. Only this lunchtime I heard a report on Radio Four about closed Facebook groups in which members freely make extreme threats against people, but particularly politicians, who have the audacity to hold different opinions to themselves. The antidote, I suggest, is two-fold. We need to take some advice from Tony Benn, and we need to get rid of some myths about politicians.

Tony Benn once argued (I’m sorry, but I can’t remember where) that we should attack other people’s ideas, not them as a person. It’s ideas that should be challenged, and brought to account, not the people who express them. But doing this requires a degree of skill, skills which I fear as a society we are rapidly losing. These are skills of debate, of critical thinking; skills that enable us to analyse an argument that we do not like, understand not just what it is we do not like about it but why we do not like, and explain all this to other people. In return, we also need to be able listen to other people’s views, understand their argument (even if we don’t agree with it) and respond in a thoughtful way. But most of all, these skills involve us appreciating that there are no absolute right or wrong accounts of any situation, and that listening and understanding to other viewpoints may require us to either amend our own, or even abandon them altogether. In short, we seem to have lost the ability (if we ever truly had it) to have public debates.

There also seems to be a generally held view that politicians are ‘only in it for themselves’, and that as a result they are open game to abuse, even violence. I would like to offer a different view. Since being elected to Dorset Council I have been struck by both the sincerity and hard work of the vast majority of my fellow councillors. With the odd (very odd) example, I have to admit that even those councillors who politically and ideologically I strongly disagree with work with a profound sense of public service, and are definitely not involved in politics to improve their own wellbeing or wealth. And although I am not an MP, I have absolutely no reason to think otherwise of them. In fact, in recent months I have been deeply impressed by the integrity of most of them, and particularly my local MP, Oliver Letwin. I disagree with many of Sir Oliver’s opinions, but I struggle to fault him as a constituency MP. People will always be able to recite examples of corrupt politicians, and politicians whose motives are very questionable, but these are very much the minority and should not be allowed to tarnish the characters of the hardworking and sincere majority.

So, in advance of the inevitable general election, I would like to make a public plea. Please could everyone, unless there is actual and relevant evidence to the contrary, respect the sincerity of all the politicians who will be campaigning for your support – even the ones you disagree with. And could we please try to listen to the arguments, and criticise (even attack) these and not the person expressing them. Once a climate of fear takes hold only the voice of the most violent will be heard – and that would be disastrous for us all.