The art of persuasion

Do we need to do politics differently? How effective is engaging people from an opposing political camp in rational debate? If you disagree with me about the importance and priority of taking political action to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, how can I make you change your mind? How certain should I be that I am ‘right’ whilst you are ‘wrong’? These are some of the questions that have started to dominate my thinking since I started reading The Righteous Mind by Jonathon Haidt. Whilst only a few of the ideas he puts forward are completely new to me, his way of putting them together is both very effective, and, for me, very timely.

In opposition to the rationalist tradition in philosophy, the tradition that places our rationality, our use of logical argument, and our pursuit of objective knowledge and truth at the centre of our endeavours, the Scottish philosopher David Hume famously argued that “reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions”. Whilst Haidt argues that our ability to reason is not quite as restrained as the relationship of slave to master implies, he does provide a wealth of research that strongly supports Hume’s position. According to Haidt, our thinking is dominated by our emotional response to events and circumstances. Reason has evolved not to help us find ‘the truth’, but to construct arguments that support how we intuitively feel. Most importantly, these arguments aim at engaging the support of our group or tribe and of bolstering our reputation within that group.

Haidt uses the metaphor of a rider and an elephant to describe the relationship between reason and emotion / intuition. The rider can, with some effort control the direction the elephant wants to go, but ultimately the elephant will go where it wants to. If it becomes scared of something it will be very difficult to control, whereas if it is lured by food, the company of fellow elephants, or even by a human worker that it trusts the rider’s task is relatively easy.

One of my first thoughts on reading this was the extent to which it supports Aristotle’s take on rhetoric – the art of persuasion. According to Aristotle there are three elements to our ability to persuade someone to see things from our point of view. One is the obvious logos (reason). The reasons we present in support of our position need to be coherent, they need to logically flow from one another, and they need, as far as possible, to correspond to the world of experience. However, for Aristotle, just as important as logos is pathos (emotion). Over two thousand years ago, in line with Hume and Haidt, he recognised the if you want to win someone over you need to emotionally engage with them. But of equal importance is a third element, ethos, your character. In the same way as an elephant can be enticed to change route by a worker it trusts, an audience will be more open to persuasion if they trust the speaker. Research has revealed the importance of reputation in the evolution of social life, social coherence, and in making an important contribution to the evolution of ethics, so it is hardly surprising that the reputation or character of a speaker is an important influence their audience.

But Haidt also points to another factor that raises questions about how we do politics. Knowledge and effective discussion making is (and has to be) a group enterprise. In philosophy, rationalists from Plato onwards have assumed that individual thinkers, through the use of their reason, could get to the truth. The claim here is that if the philosopher could only eradicate the distractions of the physical body and the emotions then the world of truth and pure knowledge would open up to them. This line of thinking assumes the primacy of reason, and its ability to penetrate eternal truths. It’s a line of thinking has been revealed to be fantasy. As Haidt so clearly articulates, in reality, throughout our history we have constructed arguments to support what we already intuitively believe – intuitions based on our emotional response to events and circumstances, together with our need to feel part of a group. This means that any individual, even a philosopher, is incapable, on their own, of making good decisions – let alone of understanding ‘the truth’ of any situation. In order to make good decisions and plans we need to have our arguments challenged. In order to even approach ‘the truth’ of any situation we need to approach it from multiple perspectives.

So, what does all this say about how we do politics? Well, for one thing, we need to ask ourselves whether our adversarial approach to national government, our having a ruling party on one side and an opposition party on the other side is a good way forward. I’m not sure whether we could easily move away from party politics, but we should certainly explore ways of not solidifying viewpoints into two opposing camps. Life if far more complex than that. Is it really a good idea, for example, to have important decisions made by a cabinet purposely selected by the Prime Minister to support his overall (and very narrow) political views? Then for members of the majority party to be whipped into supporting this view whilst members of the opposition automatically construct arguments to oppose it. I haven’t got answers to these questions, but I would like to persuade people to start discussing them.

Creating debate within Dorset Council

Earlier this month, at a full meeting of Dorset Council, I spoke against paying six newly appointed Lead Members an additional allowance of £10,000. These new positions have been created to assist certain cabinet members with their portfolio. Whilst I do not think that now, with so many people facing a very uncertain financial future as a result of the Covid restrictions, and with Council itself having taken a substantial financial hit, was the right time to do this, the argument I tried to make was somewhat different. I tried to say that I would feel much more inclined to support these allowances if the new posts were open to all councillors, not just those who are members of the ruling party. The problem with the current cabinet system is that it either dampens debate, or hides it from public scrutiny. This became very obvious at this week’s Cabinet meeting.

Either there is very little (if any) discussion and debate at Cabinet level (which I find very hard to believe) or this debate occurs in private. On both counts this is very unhealthy. At all the Cabinet meetings that I have attended there are a range of proposals on the agenda for official approval. For each one the cabinet member responsible presents the report and its recommendations. Following this there is the opportunity for other members to ask questions (which usually receive straight forward replies). However, even if a councillor manages to provoke something approaching a debate, by the time it comes to the cabinet deciding on the proposal you get the very strong impression that everything has already been decided. The Chair invites the Cabinet to approve the agenda item, and they do. Simples. Which leads to the obvious questions: Do the Cabinet members not have questions? How can they always be in agreement? The answer to these are yes, they must have; and, they can’t. The problem is that these questions and any dissent are not aired in front of their fellow councillors and any members of the public who decide to attend. I can’t help thinking that this might change if members of different parties were involved in the background discussions.

Also at Cabinet is the opportunity for councillors and members of the public to ask questions on any topic that they think important. These questions get a formal reply from the Cabinet member responsible. And when I say formal I mean the reading of a written statement that more often than not tries to avoid directly answering the question asked. A really good example of this occurred this week when a member of the public asked: “In view of the ongoing crisis in the affordability of housing for younger working people in Dorset, does the cabinet have any plans to build or provide ‘Council Housing’”? This question about the future received a factual statement of the present in reply: “Dorset Council is a non-stock holding authority. It does not have a Housing Revenue Account and therefore is unable to access finance and borrow money to build houses in the same way Councils with their own housing stock can.” This was a classic example of avoiding the question. And there was no opportunity for the avoidance to be challenged.

Whilst only approximately half of local authorities still have a Housing Revenue Account (HRA) there is nothing, as far as I can see, to prevent them from opening one again. Doing so would enable the Council to borrow money cheaply to build their own housing stock, and to have more control over that housing stock in terms of building specifications and cost than they do over other social housing providers. What I find so frustrating is knowing how to get a serious debate started within the Council. In this and many other areas (our response to the climate crisis for example) I feel that any debate that does take place takes place behind closed doors – safely away from any unwanted influence or awkward questions. This is unhealthy. No one, and no political party has all the answers to the problems we face. The decisions we make need to be made after listening to as many viewpoints as possible, after drawing on the widest range of experience and expertise that we have. This is why I am so opposed to the Cabinet system of local government.

BBC bias?

My MP, Chris Loder, seems to have a problem with the BBC. In a letter to the new Director General, Tim Davie, a letter that he has milked for maximum publicity, he writes that “the BBC is now increasingly seen by licence fee payers as anti-British and politically biased; focused on delivering for the ‘on-demand metropolitan elite’, and being out of touch with its core audience who want an independent and impartial national broadcaster.”

Now I am probably being too naïve, but I genuinely have not noticed any political bias. I will hold my hands up to being on the left of the political spectrum, so will probably be accused of exhibiting ‘confirmation bias’, and I have to admit to not having done any focused analysis of their output, but I feel the same when my friends accuse it of being biased in favour of the Conservatives. I am assuming, of course, that Chris considers the beeb to be biased in favour of the Left. Maybe he would consider me to be part of the ‘metropolitan elite’, and therefore being fed exactly what I crave? The only problem with this is that the only metropolis that I have lived in for the last forty years is Stoke-on-Trent – and I doubt that anyone would consider that qualifies. Maybe he would consider me being part of the elite, after all I have to admit to having gone to university as a mature student and to like having my intellect challenged. But again, I have never heard the label ‘elite’ applied to graduates from Staffordshire University. And as for its ‘core audience’, I’ve no idea who these people might be.

He was most incensed, however, by the BBC’s decision (now reversed, thanks to Chris’ intervention of course) to not have ‘Rule, Britannia!’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ sung at the Last Night of the Proms: “Our most recent cause for concern is the BBC’s proposed change to the Last Night of the Proms. To our knowledge, not a single constituent has ever raised a complaint about the lyrics or connotations of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ nor ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. As the national broadcaster, the BBC should have explored the full context of those lyrics within British history. Instead, all the BBC can offer is censorship and ahistorical apologism for doing so.”

This, I find, most confusing. As far as I can tell, the only people drawing attention to the association of the lyrics of these two ‘patriotic anthems’ with colonialism and slavery were the people protesting about the decision not to sing them! They were probably assuming that this was just another example of ‘political correctness gone mad. So Chris may well be correct that hardly anyone has complained about their lyrics or connotations. I for one am more than happy to ignore this annual event and leave it to those patriotic souls who feel good at being associated with those elements of our history. No, the BBC originally decided not to have the words sung, to only have orchestral versions performed, because of Covid-19 restrictions. The reaction came from those flag wavers who were to be deprived an opportunity to believe, for just a few minutes, that Britain is a major power who others should prostrate themselves before.

But what I find most concerning about all this is the amount of time and energy he has devoted to the issue. He no doubt feels that this what his constituents want him to do. He has said, after all, that he consulted with us via the local press – though I know of no one who has referred to this consultation. Or at the very least, he feels that this is what will make him attractive to the rural Conservative voter of West Dorset. However, what I want to know is: will he devote the same amount of time and energy to fighting for something really important? Will he, for example, support the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill to be laid before Parliament?