Philosophy, Politics

“Say ‘Strong and Stable’ again. I dare you, I double dare you motherf**ker”

One of the things that has struck me most about politics of late is the continued reliance on repeated phrases (perhaps a rather ironic statement for a blog using Pulp Fiction as the inspiration for its title).

Project fear

Strong and stable

He’s unelectable

For the many, not the few

Britain must live within its means

The system is rigged for the rich

Brexit means Brexit

Chances are everything I’ve quoted above will be familiar to you. Some may find them irritating but I think they’re significantly more problematic than mere irritation. Not only do they remove all nuance from a discussion but, at worst, I think they highlight a contempt for the electorate and, even more shockingly, they actually work (in all the wrong ways)!

The destruction of nuance

One of the most interesting parts of the George Orwell classic ‘Nineteen Eight-Four’ is the refining of the existing language by The Party into a new language – ‘newspeak’. Doing this was to, among other things, make nuance and opposition to The Party’s ideology linguistically impossible. Strange as it may seem, I do think there are lessons to be learned from this, applicable today.

Of course it would be a paranoid overstatement to suggest that our politicians are intentionally trying to enforce a new, ideologically motivated language on us but our reliance on repeated shorthand really can be damaging to intelligent discussion. These phrases may well begin as a catchy hook or an expedient way of getting the point across, but when overused they descend into vapid responses.

For example, we all remember ‘Project Fear’ as a much trotted out rebuttal to pretty much any claim that leaving the EU could be damaging. It essentially was meant to imply that the claim was scaremongering and intended to frighten us into voting remain. Even when expressed in full, it hardly seems the most direct response to any particular argument made against leaving the EU, but by dumbing down the response to a mere two words, ‘Project Fear’, it became an unwarranted defeater – shutting down the real debate straight away.

Equally overused and repeated phrases can cause us to think of complicated ideas simplistically. One that jumps out at me is the often repeated phrase ‘we need to balance the books’ or ‘Britain must live within its means.’ It’s obvious what this phrase is trying to convey – at a time of economic hardship we can’t be spending money frivolously. It’s also the logic used to support austerity and the cutting of public funding.

I’m no economist, I frankly have no idea how one goes about getting a country out of debt, but it seems clear to me that talking about the country’s deficit as if it’s a household budget is grotesque oversimplification. In a great article on austerity from 2015, Paul Krugman makes this point:

‘When John Boehner, the Republican leader, opposed US stimulus plans on the grounds that “American families are tightening their belt, but they don’t see government tightening its belt,” economists cringed at the stupidity. But within a few months the very same line was showing up in Barack Obama’s speeches, because his speechwriters found that it resonated with audiences.’

Whilst speaking of national debt as if it’s a household budget might be relatable and understandable, it actually conveys very little of the complexity of global economics and risks doing more harm than good. I don’t pretend to know whether austerity actually works, but it feels wrong to justify it by using a false analogy for the sake of simplicity.

We have to remember language really does matter, in fact one could argue that a lot of philosophy and critical thinking is really just trying to understand and agree on definitions. When you remove pretty much everything from a sentence so it’s just a trite soundbite, it becomes almost impossible to really dissect the point that’s being made – it’s simply a sentiment expressed in an inappropriately shortened away.

And it’s in this way I think there’s a genuine comparison with ‘Newspeak’ which was created to convey large sentiments in completely inflexible language – the speaker loses the capacity to speak with nuance and therefore the ability to reflect critically. In our case, politicians willfully choose to use such wording and voluntarily become linguistically bankrupt.

Utter contempt

This brings us to our next question; why do politicians and the media use such language? Well, it’s because they believe it’ll work.

Frankly, Theresa May’s constant reliance on repeating the words ‘strong and stable’ feels to me like contempt for the electorate – she really must think we’re stupid. Don’t get me wrong, I know political parties need a hook and have an image they want to portray, but they really have gone beyond that this election, repeating the phrase ad nauseam with the subtlety of a Michael Bay movie.

And let’s be honest, that mantra really isn’t an accurate reflection of May’s leadership so far. At best it’s a projection of what the Conservatives want to achieve, at worst it’s an overcompensation because far from being ‘strong and stable’, the complete opposite is true. Only today she made her ninth u-turn, this time on a manifesto policy that is only four days old, prompting Michael Crick to ask if Mrs May was in fact ‘weak and wobbly’. Mix that with the fact that her recent dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker reportedly left him ’10 times more sceptical’ about Brexit, and it’s quite clear that strong and stable is good PR, but far from reality.

But it actually works!

Unfortunately politicians and the media rely on these nonsense shorthands because they do actually seem to work, at least for some of the electorate. Anecdotal as it may be, I’ve seen (and spoken with) many people who say they’ll be voting Theresa May, and who can’t help but use either the words ‘strong’ or ‘stable’ when explaining why. These brain-worm of words get into our heads and, when heard enough times, are hard to shake  – I’m sure a psychologist could write an interesting piece as to why.

Another example of repeated phraseology that works was the constant reporting of the media that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable. Now look, I don’t like conspiracy theories and I think reports of ‘media bias’ can be a little simplistic – often the media is simply giving the readership/viewers what they want. Neither am I a full blooded Corbynite – I’m generally favourable to him but I’ve yet to be convinced he’s the saviour of the country some of the left think he is.

But it seems undeniable to me that even if it were the case that Corbyn was unelectable from the moment he took leadership of the Labour party (a claim it would be hard to empirically show), the constant repetition of ‘Corbyn is unelectable’ becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Best not vote Corbyn because he’s unelectable…I think we can all see the flaw in that logic!

What to do

No party is immune to using annoying soundbites or repeated phraseology in a way that hinders real political and intellectual discourse.

We as voters should always, however, be on the lookout for such things.

My own approach – the minute I hear a phrase repeated profusely, a soundbite that won’t go away or an idea that everyone simply seems to accept, I refuse it all together on those terms. Instead, build up what is trying to be conveyed using proper language, then critically examine that claim against the available evidence.

Let’s not let slogans, soundbites and phraseology dumb down the level of debate in this country. We deserve better.

Philosophy, religion

Why conspiracy theories are usually nonsense

The older I get and the more thought I give the world, the more I realise conspiracy theories really irk me. Not because of the content, per se, but rather in the thought processes that generate belief in conspiracy theories. In fact, I think many conspiracy theories exhibit the absolute WORST in human reasoning (namely anti-intellectualism, disinterest in evidence, over-simplification and arrogance.)

Let me begin, however, by adding a caveat. A belief in a conspiracy isn’t stupid in virtue of itself, there may very well be good reasons to believe that a conspiracy has taken place. Heck, we can point to numerous examples throughout history whereby things we would call a ‘conspiracy theory’ have proven to be exactly as conspiratorial in nature as could possibly be feared.

No, what I’m talking about are the many beliefs that fall under the term ‘conspiracy theory’ that are entirely without merit. The beliefs where the ‘evidence is out there’ if you only ‘wake up and open your eyes’ – when conspiracy theorists say this, they seldom mean a peer-reviewed journal!

So let’s look, step-by-step, at the dangers of conspiracy theories and why they represent the absolute nadir in human critical thinking.

Firstly, conspiracy theories encourage anti-intellectualism. After the election of a president who doesn’t believe in global warming and who thinks women should be punished for having an abortion, now more than ever we have to fight against a sinister growing voice that encourages us to disregard experts and simply go with our gut. Conspiracy theories almost always rely on the complete disregard of the views of celebrated professionals in a field (someone who has worked hard and earned the respect of their peers) under the pretence that they’re part of the cover-up. Anti-vaxxers don’t trust medical health experts, global warming deniers don’t trust scientists, Jesus myth propagators ignore leading historical scholars etc.

And what is the voice of experts replaced with? Crappy, poorly researched websites and hours of mind-numbing YouTube videos by someone who is unlikely even to have a degree in the subject they are talking about (let alone be respected by experts in the field.) Under the guise of ‘free-thought’ conspiracy theorists open themselves up to a wealth of information which has had no validation from someone with authority on the matter, and the theorist themselves are almost always going to be unqualified to truly discern the reality from the bullshit.

Secondly, conspiracy theories are rarely supported by compelling evidence. I suspect this is where most contention will come in because for someone engrossed in the world of conspiracies and who consumes the conspiracy media, it probably looks like there is an abundance of evidence. Problematically, however, this evidence is rarely peer-reviewed or widely accepted by those in the know. Occasionally a professor in botany might come out as an anti-vaxxer and, despite 99% of scientists disagreeing, the theorists all of a sudden become interested in experts (whilst carefully ignoring the broad scientific consensus). However, in such a situation the evidence seems to be merely a nice extra and expedient as opposed to vital.

And, annoyingly, conspiracy theories are almost always impossible to prove wrong – they tend to just consume evidence. For example, there might be a wealth of evidence that global warming is taking place, but that can simply be hand-waved by ‘that’s what they WANT you to think.’ In Stephen Law’s excellent book ‘Believing Bullshit’, he explains how being an unfalsifiable belief is not a strength using the example of creationism and evolution. Creationism is essentially unfalsifiable because creationists always amend their beliefs to fit the evidence (which is distinctly different from amending their beliefs FOLLOWING the evidence.) Evolution could be proved wrong, however, simply by finding human remains in the wrong geological strata. The fact that no such thing has been found is a strength of the Theory Of Evolution, not a weakness. After all, I could say there’s an invisible, pink unicorn running around outside and I guarantee you, you won’t be able to ‘prove’ that’s not the case – but that doesn’t make it a reasonable thing to believe!

Thirdly, conspiracy theories tend to over-simplify complicated situations into easy-to-digest narratives. Why ponder the social and economic climates that lead to any particular class voting in a certain way at a general election, when you can instead just say ‘the illuminati did it.’ Why read through hefty scholarly articles on the historical Jesus to get a sense of what can or cannot be attributed to him when you can simply believe it as written or deny it as myth altogether. This broad kind of simplification is lazy and uninformed. It would be remiss of me (and rather hypocritical) to over-simplify why people believe in conspiracy theories, but one can’t help but feel that it attracts a certain kind of person who can’t make much sense of the world without the theories. In fact, one suspects for some people a crazy, purposeless world is so frightening that believing in an evil world order pulling the strings is more comforting. Believing that companies deliberately make us ill may be easier to accept than the fact that disease will always exist and affect us.

In fact, the simplification just leads to a complete lack of nuance. For example, I myself am very suspicious of the way some pharmaceutical companies are run and question just how much money determines how long we’ll live. Equally, I find myself rather unsettled by the current US Administration’s relationship with Russia. The world isn’t all sunshine and roses – money talks, power corrupts and it’s vital that we acknowledge that. However, we must do this in a reasonable, nuanced and mature way. Questioning how much money is a determining factor in our health quality is quite different from suggesting Big Pharma is purposefully giving us cancer. The latter is an unsupported gross oversimplification but, perhaps, an easier narrative to get our heads around.

Paradoxically, as well as over-simplifying, some conspiracy theories actually over-complicate issues – they provide an explanation for something that already has one. For example, one looks at the Brexit chaos of last year and it’s pretty clear what happened. A Conservative government, to ease party tensions, ran a referendum which everyone assumed they would win, then turned into a shock result which the politicians weren’t prepared for. That’s a pretty easy and obvious explanation for the momentarily destabilising events that followed the vote. However, if you believe in the Illuminati, you must now provide a further explanation as to why this series of events took place as they did – a series of events that already has an explanation now needs another! And, as most of us know, a rational conclusion would be to invoke Occam’s Razor and shave away the unnecessary explanation altogether. (Quick side note on the Illuminati – when conspiracy theorists constantly point to lyrics and symbols in music videos as ‘signs of the Illuminati’, I can’t help but imagine the strange circumstances of landing a job in the Illuminati PR department where your job is to get the message out there…but don’t be noticed. That’s one hell of a brief, right?!)

Conspiracy theories can also be extremely dangerous. An obvious example would be failing to get your child immunised against a life-threatening disease, but there are less obvious examples too. For instance, if you believe that the President of the United States is just a puppet for some grand shadowy organisation, then that may well make you apathetic to voting. After all, what does it matter, they have the same agenda anyway. However, as we have recently had the misfortune of finding out, electing the wrong President can have huge ramifications for people’s lives and indeed the preservation of the planet for future generations.

Finally, conspiracy theories, from my anecdotal experience, seem to foster a strange arrogance in its followers. I guess it’s a fundamental problem of any belief system which sees itself as significantly more ‘enlightened’ than the dumb masses, but it really manifests itself with conspiracy theorists. People, many of whom may have had no further education at all, keep bemoaning the ‘blind sheeple’. In fact one gets the sense that this too is part of the appeal of conspiracy theories, it’s rather soothing to one’s ego to think you’re in a significantly more informed place than the rest of the world (it’s essentially like getting stuck in a teenage mentality forever).

It also can create a strange mindset whereby a conspiracy theorist starts believing conspiracy theories simply because they are conspiracy theories. At that point you know that all reason is out of the window and the person has succumbed to an almost religious-unquestioning (all, ironically, in the spirit of so called ‘free-thought’.)

Conspiracy theories are also dangerous because they can often be deceptively compelling. In fact, Stephen Law describes conspiracy theories as an ‘intellectual black hole’, ideas that once you believe, are very hard to shake off. And let’s be honest, if you watch hours of YouTube videos propagating this or that conspiracy theory, it’s likely to eventually become convincing, assuming you don’t have the relevant knowledge to question the claims. A good example is a conspiracy video called ‘Zeitgeist’ which suggests, among other things, that Jesus was a myth. If you watch the video completely uninformed on the study of the Historical Jesus, it’s likely to be very compelling. There’s a clear narrative, patterns are shown and before you know it, you’re sucked it. In this particular instance, however, I did my dissertation on the Historical Jesus and was, thankfully, informed enough on this issue to realise that a lot of Zeitgeit’s claims aren’t just wrong, they’re positively ludicrous.

But it does raise an interesting question; how does one seek to determine truth in this confusing world? Learning what sources to trust is a fundamental rite of passage if you want to understand the world at all. Ideally we would all become experts on every issue but due to the lack of time and, perhaps, capability, that’s off the table. So, instead, we are forced to trust the word of others on most issues we believe, and we’re all acutely aware that this is not a foolproof system. After all, what if Galileo had trusted the consensus of his time?

There is no easy answer I can think of, but I will say this – Galileo thought critically and used evidence to challenge the prevailing views of his day. He was using reason and applying the scientific method to change minds. This attitude to me seems much more in spirit with the scientists and experts of our day, than of conspiracy theories. We have to ask ourselves this question: Are we to become so cynical and shaded that we disregard all expert opinion under the belief that everyone is coerced and has an agenda, so our only refuge for information is unqualified internet bloggers? Or can we maturely do our best to humbly accept the expert advice of those we have no reason to distrust, always with a healthy dose of critical thinking, to come to a nuanced and informed view of the world? I know which I’d prefer.


The people have spoken – and it’s awful

Today the American people elected a racist, misogynist, unqualified reality TV star as their next president. A man who said he wanted to ban all Muslims from entering America, who bragged about paying little tax and who admitted to thinking women who have abortions should be punished.

american-flagFor many this Trump victory came as a surprise but, having experienced Brexit, we Brits were in a unique position to expect the unexpected. Before June 23rd Brexit seemed an extreme right-wing pipe dream. Surely there was no way the UK would go against all sound professional advice and damage our economy in some bizarre attempt to ‘make Britain great again’. Yet, here we are, several months down the line, working out how and when to legally trigger Article 50 in a way that doesn’t totally leave us in the lurch.

So, when the polls were indicating Clinton had the lead, and the populist Trump had no real chance, alarm bells were certainly ringing. And when I checked my phone at 4:30am this morning, and saw the ‘shock’ election results nearly played out, it was a familiar feeling. Once again the political elite have been kicked in the teeth and the populist outsider has surpassed all expectations. This is a new world.

The reasons for Trump’s success are numerous and I’m sure only a removed history student of the future will be able to fully account for all of them. Right now, we are far too close to events to truly gain an objective vantage point to view them from. But, to state the obvious, the reason he won was because people voted for him. He rode a wave of anger, frustration and anti-establishment sentiments, very much a similar fuel as the one which stoked the flames of the Leave Campaign here.

What is most alarming about this particular wave of passion is it’s completely indifferent towards reason and logic. Vague nationalistic sentiments and uniting against common enemies seems to be a far more powerful motivator than sound arguments or debate. As many have pointed out, we are living in a ‘post-truth’ world. ‘The British public have had enough of experts’ said Michael Gove, and many Americans felt exactly the same as they voted.

It seems that many people have realised that there is a political elite who may not always have their best interest at heart and a status-quo the political class preserve which doesn’t necessarily benefit the poorest among us. This is all reasonable enough. But, in the rejection of the elite, the baby has been thrown out with the bath water, and there has been a rejection of experts and academics along the way. A nasty virus of anti-intellectualism has infected the heart of public opinion, which makes reasoned debate impossible.

‘Screw the rich elites’, the public cheers. Quite right. ‘Let the people take control.’ Yes, brother. ‘Screw the academics who have spent years studying’. Wait…’Ignore the experts with their fancy knowledge.’ Oh no. Hang on. You wouldn’t ignore the advice of a doctor when it came to your health would you? ‘Damn right. Corrupt big pharma serving bastards.’

In the rejection of sources we would usually consider wise, a black hole of authority has been created, and those who can shout the loudest and whip up public sentiment are the ones who fill the void. In such circumstances, mob rule can take hold.

You only have to look at the reaction of some of the Brexiteers to the recent judges’ ruling that for the British Government to activate Article 50 they need a vote in parliament. People were whipped up into a frenzy and national right wing leaning rags were behaving quite shamefully even by their low standards. The ruling was a legal decision, and yet the reaction was brutish and inflamed – as if the law itself could not hold back the raw populist power of the 52%. Who were these legally trained experts to tell the public how the law should be applied?

A tell-tale sign of populist movements like the ones in both Britain and America is the replacement of arguments with repeated phrases. When every objection to Brexit was labelled ‘Project Fear’, regardless of the legitimacy of that concern, we should have known we were in trouble. When a presidential candidate simply repeats a meaningless phrase such as ‘making America great again’, it’s scary when that appeals to the masses. The latest repeated phrase is when government ministers are asked to outline what kind of Brexit they are pursuing and they reply something glib about ‘not revealing your hand in a negotiation’. Not only is the analogy flawed (in a business negotiation the people the negotiator works for would have instructed what they wish to gain), it’s really just a tired soundbite to avoid answering the question altogether.

And we’re told, time and time again, that those who vote for the likes of Trump do so out of economic desperation. They are people who have been left behind by the current political system. Yet, I don’t know about others, I can’t help but feel some contempt for those who vote for a nasty bully who talks of building walls and longs for the good old days where protesters could be brutalised. In a way, I almost think it’s patronising of the liberal elite who make these claims to think that these people don’t know exactly what they’re voting for. Maybe Brexit was complicated enough for it to be unfair to label those in favour of leaving as xenophobic or short sighted, but the Trump campaign has shown its true colours on multiple occasions.

Right now there are claims of a ‘whitelash’, that the vote was a reaction against the struggle for equality between races in America. According to exit polls (and yes, I’m wary of ever trusting a poll again!), 60% of all white voters voted Trump. And it wasn’t just the poor working class who we are told don’t know better, he performed well across all genders, ages and education levels of those 60%. I’m not suggesting that racism (or any form of malice) was the defining factor in this election, but things certainly seem considerably more insidious than it just being a ‘cry for help’ from the poorest in society.

Ironically, much like in the case of Brexit, those working class who did vote as a protest against the current system are the most likely to become victims of their own decision. Just as the poorest Brits will be the ones most affected by inflation and suffer decreased disposable income, the poorest Americans may well be hit hardest by Trump’s seemingly uncompassionate politics. Yet this doesn’t excuse those who voted. Much like the Texan who shot an armadillo and ended up in hospital because the bullet bounced off into him, it’s hard to feel sorry for a voter who puts so many minorities at risk knowingly.

And perhaps what scares me most is the people who say they feel disenfranchised and unrepresented might actually be unreachable. Some voters are opposed to modernisation and globalisation altogether, which both feel like inevabilities. Besides demagogues like Trump with empty promises, no-one else seems to have an answer as to how to reach these people. Neither centre-left nor centre-right are able to appeal to them, and the more radical left (embodied by the likes of Corbyn) fare even worse still. Right now there doesn’t seem to be an antidote to the current wave of dangerous populism.

Difficult as it is, I try not to despair. Winston Churchill once said ‘The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter’, a sentiment which is easy to empathise with right now. Yet we must soldier on, accept democratic decisions and fight for what we believe is right. If democracy temporarily makes you lose faith in people, keep your faith in individuals. Support charities who do good works, campaign for what you believe is right and trust that this turbulent period of history can’t and won’t endure forever.