Socrates and common sense

I find it curious how minds work – or at least, how mine works. For the last couple of weeks I developed an increasing urge to revisit some books I have about Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher. Socrates is the closest I have to a philosophical hero, but he’s a bit of an enigma. Not because his writing is obscure or difficult to understand, but because, as far as we know, he wrote nothing. The only accounts we have of his ‘philosophy’ are the writings of others, primarily Plato, who used the character of Socrates as the central figure in his dialogues . Of these, it’s generally regarded that Plato’s earliest writings (those which recorded the last weeks of Socrates life) are the most historically accurate – though it’s impossible to be certain.

This lack of a ‘philosophy’ however is his greatest attraction. He didn’t wander around the ancient market of Athens trying to teach any particular idea or thesis. No, in effect, he did the complete opposite. He went up to people who claimed to know the answers, who talked about their ideas with and air of authority, and challenged their certainty. Through the careful questioning of what they said he effectively deconstructed the reasoning of his interlocuter and the arguments they used to justify their lives. Through conversation he urged them to explore the principles by which they lived and what they understood by ‘the good life’. He lured them into examining the meaning of their existence and the consistency of their beliefs. That’s what appeals to me about him anyway.

But why does that appeal to me? It drove his fellow citizens of Athens up the wall and caused some to find a reason to get rid of him. His approach to philosophy appeals to me because I think contemporary life is in desperate need of it. Because I do not think that there are any certainties in life (except, of course “death and taxes”, and even the latter of these is questionable for some) and those that think there are need challenging. Because not enough of us are challenging basic assumptions like the measuring of our success in life by the wealth we have accumulated or the fame / celebrity status we have gained. We are not asking and discussing basic questions like what constitutes a good life and what sort or person should we aspire to become?

Relax, though, you’re safe. However much I would like to I will not be wandering around Bridport on market day challenging what people say and think. My urge to do this, however, is partly met by the Philosophy in Pubs group that I run. Once a month we meet in a local pub and discuss a topic that a group member has prepared an introduction to. The aim of the discussion is very much about challenging ideas and asking questions and not at all about giving a lecture or arguing for a particular point of view. Whilst this, I hope, proves to be very satisfying for those people who attend – those that do attend are not necessarily the people that I think would benefit most from the questioning.

At the last meeting of the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group we discussed ‘common sense’. Without attempting to summarise the discussion I would like to briefly refer to Antonio Gramsci’s take on the topic, one that I think particularly relevant to the comments that I’ve made above. In his Prison Notebooks he describes common sense as that comforting set of certainties in which we feel at home, and that we absorb, often unconsciously, from the world we inhabit. For him these are the basic realities we use to explain that world.
However, whilst we may have no choice but to begin from the common sense into which we are born, we should not accept its comforting familiarities unthinkingly. Instead we should continually question them; we should drag them into the light of day and expose all the implicit, taken-for-granted assumptions that otherwise present themselves as simple reality. In short, for Gramsci, ‘common sense’ is a confusion of unexamined truisms that must be continually challenged. Now that is philosophy in the spirit of Socrates. That is the philosophy that I like. That is what the world so desperately needs right now.

A lack of political leadership

A few days ago I noticed in the morning news that our Prime Minister is receiving criticism from his own side for a lack of leadership. In a different context, I have been (and remain) critical of Dorset Council for failing to show enough political leadership regarding our climate crisis. Yet despite my frequent use of the term leadership (and particularly political leadership) I am not totally sure what I mean by the it – it’s something that I’ve been intending to give some thought to for some time but never quite got round to. This then is my starting point. Any thoughts or views are welcome.

To get things moving, here are two descriptions of leadership that I warm to: “A process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common and ethical task”; and “An influential power relationship in which the power of one party promotes movement or change in others”. From this I would tentatively suggest that there are three main elements to leadership: Having a vision of what is to be achieved; being able to communicate this vision to others; and being able to motivate others to buy-in and work towards that vision.

Aristotle argued that whenever we do something we do it in order to achieve something we consider good, and we want to achieve that something in order to achieve something else good. At the end this line of reasoning we eventually arrive at the greatest good, and this provides our raison d’être. I think a similar line of reasoning applies to politicians, except, perhaps, that the good to be achieved often lies someway short of the greatest good. But where ever it lies, this good provides the reason for that politician being in politics. To be effective, therefore, that politician needs to have a clear vision and understanding of what for them is the good they want to achieve, and if they happen to gain a position of leadership that good must surely be their guiding principle.

A political leader stands no chance of leading others towards their vision of the good they want to achieve unless they can share that vision with others. This requires, therefore, the leader to effectively communicate their vision of the good to others in such a way that they see it and understand it in much the same way as the leader does. This, of course, is no easy task. Our leader needs to be a very effective communicator, a skill that not only involves speaking to other people but listening to them, understanding the others understanding of their message, and adapting their message accordingly.

But whilst the successful communication of their vision to others is necessary it is not sufficient. The political leader also needs to be able to motivate those others to buy-in to that vision, to adopt it as their own vision. I would suggest that in effect this is achieved through the use of narrative, that the leader can tell a story of where they think the country or their organisation is going in such a way that those being led are able, in fact want to, synchronise their own personal narratives to it.

What does this mean for our PM? Here the task should be easier in terms of his own party than it is for the country as a whole as there should already be a high degree of synchronicity between the narratives of party members, MPs, and their leader. The fact that there isn’t probably tells us a great deal about the vision Boris Johnson has – a vision that focuses on himself more than the party or the country. In fact in terms of the country all we hear from him regarding a vision is an endless series of clichés like ‘levelling up’ and ‘let’s get Brexit done’. The problem with clichés is that whilst they can be easily absorbed into an individual’s personal narrative (because they are vacuous of any real meaning and refer to no clear vision) for the same reason they achieve no synchronicity between the individual’s ‘vision’ of their future and that of the leadership of the Government.

What does this mean for Dorset Council in terms of our climate crisis? The short answer is that, outside of their own estate and organisation, there is simply no clear vision of what they hope to achieve, of what the geographical and political area of Dorset will look like and how it will operate in response to the crisis. This vision needs to integrate the key areas of planning and transport to create a reimagined Dorset, an image that they then attempt to communicate to the residents of Dorset and encourage them to adopt themselves.

Some reflections on politics and democracy

My experience of last Thursday’s meeting of Dorset Council was more positive than the one four weeks before, but not to massively so. The main area of contention was a Conservative motion that condemned the actions of the two women protesters who disrupted the previous one. The meeting was accompanied by a demonstration taking place outside the council chamber, an occurrence that seemed to further inflame many Conservative councillors – causing one to describe the protesters as “a rabble” and say “I’m disgusted at some of the people we represent.” An amendment to this motion, one which softened the language to “regret” but which was additionally critical of how the Council leadership handled the previous disruption, was proposed by the Lib Dems. I was prepared to support this amendment, even though I wasn’t sure that I did regret the disruption. What had made me angry was being denied an opportunity to speak at the previous meeting by the Chair’s decision to go straight to a vote when the meeting reconvened.

The outcome of the voting was predictable, with the Conservative’s voting en bloc: The amendment was defeated and the main motion was passed. What I found so hard to swallow, apart from the obviously inappropriate condemnation of a peaceful protest, was the seemingly inability of many Conservative councillors to understand the purpose of such protests. Many of these councillors made a point of saying that none of the people they represent had contacted them to raise concerns related to the climate emergency, thereby implying that it wasn’t an issue for them – which is exactly the point! For the many residents of Dorset (and many Conservative councillors) it is not an issue – at least not an urgent, in-your-face issue. The point of the demonstrations was to make it an issue; to try and inject some urgency into the climate emergency.

The main issue for me, however, was not addressed. As I said at the meeting, in reference to the previous reconvened meeting which, on the Chair’s direction, went straight to a vote: “I utterly fail to understand how a motion can be voted on without those who oppose it being given an opportunity to speak. This was a flagrant erosion of democracy.” The closest we got to an answer was the Chair saying she did it in the best interests of the councillors, presumably to get the meeting over with, and allow councillors to go home, as soon as possible. But if she didn’t think that there was time for a proper debate she should have deferred the debate to a later meeting, not deny councillors the right to speak against the motion. In many respects I am becoming increasing concerned about the gradual erosion of democracy on Dorset Council.

The following day I had an entirely different political experience. I have recently joined Bridport’s University of the Third Age (u3a), and Friday morning saw a meeting of their Political Discussion group. This meeting, actually about the results of the recent local elections, sparked a number of thoughts. How, for example, do you get people interested in local politics? Many people, possibly the majority, whilst very quick to complain about a whole range of things that directly inconvenience them, have very little idea about what local councils and local councillors do. In fact many would probably tar all politicians (both local and national) with the same ‘only in it for their own benefit’ brush. This is probably why the turnout for local elections is usually so low. Which is a shame. So how do you get people to become actively involved in democracy? To want to understand the issues?

Part of the problem, I think, may be the blatant bias of many national newspapers. Whilst I’m sure that many people to the right of the political spectrum would claim that The Guardian, for example, has a definite left wing bias, they at least carry headlines that appear to be objective statements. Papers like the Express and Daily Mail, however, usually carry headlines that openly support the Conservatives and condemn Labour politicians. My concern here is that many of their readers, particularly those with only a limited interest in politics, will simply accept the messages being sent. And even if they venture beyond the headlines they will probably read the article uncritically. They will not ask questions of it. They will not try and find alternative accounts. They will not ask what hasn’t been reported.
I know that I’m being unrealistic, but don’t you think that our democracy would become so much healthier if people were better able to think critically?

Critical thinking used to be taught in some schools, but nearly always only as a ‘fill-in’ GCSE or A-level course. I think that we would be helping our future generations no end if we started teaching them critical thinking as a integral and core part of their general education. We should be teaching our future voting public to not accept at face value what they are told and hear. We should be teaching them to ask questions, of their own thoughts as much as those of others. We should be teaching them to try and understand an issue from multiple perspectives. We should be teaching them a healthy scepticism. And it wouldn’t only have a positive effect on those who vote for politicians of course – it would also help provide far more effective politicians. Perhaps such politicians would even be better able to understand the motives of protesters who disrupt their meetings.

Some reflections on the local council elections

Didn’t we do well? In April 2019, the Green Party had 175 councillors across England and Wales. Following Thursday’s local elections this has grown to 542 on 164 local authorities. These elections produced some phenomenal results for Greens across England and Wales. We made a net gain of 75, taking seats from both Labour and the Conservatives, and becoming the official opposition on several councils. My heartiest congratulations to all those successful candidates and the hard working local parties that got them there!

Looking through various news websites this morning (the Saturday following Thursday’s local council elections) one thing that strikes me is the wide range of interpretations of the results on the national newspaper front pages. These range from The Financial Times’ headline “Johnson faces renewed threat as Tories hit hard in local elections” to that of “Bullish Boris back on track as ‘red wall’ keeps faith” in the Daily Express. What are we supposed to make of this? I suppose my biggest fear (other than, or course, the Tories somehow getting their act together and managing to retain power at the next General Election) stems from a generally unthinking electorate who only ever go to one source of news and generally accept whatever they are fed. How can we raise the general level of political scepticism across the country? Note – I do not mean cynicism. I mean trying to avoid confirmation bias. I mean asking critical questions and not reading only the news that supports what you already believe.

One headline that did strike me as being of particular relevance to my situation as a councillor on Dorset Council was that of The Times: “Tories punished in south”. Dorset, of course, did not have any local elections this time round – Dorset Council elections will be in May 2024. But the Tories on the council are already rattled, as evidenced by their aggressive attitude at our last full Council meeting. Their agitation seems to have stemmed from last month’s by-election in the Lyme and Charmouth ward which they lost to us (The Green Party). The results from numerous local elections across the south of England now seem to confirm what we experienced on the doorstep whilst out canvassing for our candidate locally – that voters are so fed up with the Tory Government that they cannot support them locally. In Dorset the Conservatives only have an overall majority of four. This means that it would only take two further by-election losses for them to lose overall control. Will these results rattle them even further?

One other thing that really struck me about this week’s results was the number of new young Green councillors elected. Now I don’t want this to come as a shock, but the average age of councillors on Dorset Council isn’t particularly young. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that it is not easy being a councillor on a principle council if you have a full-time job. Many committee meetings are during the day, and the allowance paid to councillors is no where near that of even a modest wage. Whilst Dorset has a few councillors that manage to maintain some form of employment, I don’t think that they find it easy. This means that in practice most councillors are either retired or can afford to work on a very part-time basis. Despite these obstacles, it would be so refreshing to have some young people with a different take on life involved in local decision making.

But it’s not just difficult to find young people to stand as councillors, in my experience it is difficult to find candidates full stop! In regards to the Green Party situation in Dorset, this is a real shame. My feeling is that there are many wards that would be eager to elect a Green councillor if only one would stand. But to do this well we need candidates who are not only prepared to stand for election, but who are prepared to get themselves known in their potential wards in advance of any election. This means that for the 2024 elections we need to start finding potential candidates now! So how about it folks? Anyone out there fancy putting themselves forward? I’m not claiming that it’s easy being a councillor in a minor party, in fact at times it can be damn frustrating at times, but as one councillor from a different party said to me a short while ago – “you Greens punch far above your weight”! We do. And could be even more effective if there were more of us.

If you fancy discuss discussing what it’s like being a councillor, please contact me. In fact if there are any other issues playing on your mind about local issues, get in touch. You can either message me via this website, or email me direct – my contact details can be found on either the Dorset Council or Bridport Town Council websites under ‘councillors’. Alternatively you can drop in to see me at me regular weekly surgery. I’m to be found every Wednesday morning in the front of Soulshine, South Street, Bridport between 09.30 and 10.30. Come and have a chat and a coffee. Soulshine’s coffee is very good!