The people’s voice: as rage and as healing

There’s a spectre haunting Europe … and the rest of the Western world. We have elaborate ‘diversity’ programs in good upper-middle-class places to prevent discrimination against all manner of minorities (and majorities like women). It’s a fine thing. But there’s a diversity challenge a little closer to home which is tearing the world apart. There’s a war on the less well educated.

They’re falling out of the economy in droves, being driven into marginal employment or out of the labour force. This is a vexing problem to solve economically if the electorate values rising incomes which it does. Because, as a rule, the less well educated are less productive.

Still, the less well educated are marginalised from polite society. Polite society even runs special newspapers for them. They’re called tabloids and they’re full of resentment and hate. And yes, a big reason they are the way they are is that the less well educated buy them. They’re also marginalised, except in stereotyped form from TV.

Then there are our institutions of governance. While less than 50 per cent of our population are university educated, over 90 per cent of our parliamentarians are. Something very similar would be going on down the chain of public and private governance down to local councils and private firms.

And I’m pretty confident that a lot of this is internalised even by those not well educated. The last working-class Prime Minister we’ve had in Australia was Ben Chifley who was turfed out of office by a silver-tongued barrister in 1949. Barrie Unsworth in NSW going down badly in his first election as NSW Premier despite seeming – at least to me to be doing quite a good job. But he sounded working class – because he was. I wonder if that was it?

The world is made by and for the upper middle class, those who’ve been to the right schools and gone to unis (preferably the right unis), to get on. The ancient Greeks had a political/legal principle of relevance here which is entirely absent from our political language. In addition to ‘παρρησία’ or ‘parrhesia‘ which is often translated as ‘freedom of speech’ but which also carries a connotation of the duty to speak the truth boldly for the community’s wellbeing even at your own cost (as Socrates did), they also had the concept of ‘ισηγορια’ or ‘isegoria‘ meaning equality of speech.1

In Australia Pauline Hanson’s One Nation represents the political system’s concession to isegoria – toxified as a protest party within a hostile political culture. My own support for a greater role for selection by lot in our democracy is to build more isegoria into our political system in a way that, I think there’s good evidence, can help us get to a much better politics and policy.

In any event, the big, most toxified political events illustrating these problems are, of course, Brexit and Trump – concrete political acts of transformative significance standing before illustrating the power of isegoria as rage.

We’re used to this kind of thing. But stop for a minute and look at the images.

That’s one reason why I think Brexit presents such a dramatic opportunity to confront isegoria as rage with isegoria as healing. For a whole host of reasons, participants in citizens’ juries are eager to explore different perspectives so as to compromise and unite to arrive at some collective decision, as opposed to the alternative enshrined in electoral politics which is the accentuation of differences to assemble a majority.

It’s been instructive trying to get Brexit Deliberation Day off the ground. I’ve spoken to lots of people who might be in a position to help. Almost everyone I speak to likes the idea, many like it a lot. But there’s a catch. They need to be well disposed to political activism of some kind to be likely to do more than talk about the idea, but if they’re of activist bent, they’ve already picked their side.

I’m strongly against Brexit and so, notionally on the side of the creators of this image.

Right now there’s a fair bit of money being put into an anti-Brexit campaign which is seeking a second vote. I can show them good evidence that running the deliberation day would improve their chances of averting Brexit – as I argued in my piece, there’s good evidence that moving from the will of the people to their considered will on this subject produces a swing away from 50:50 to about 60:40 for remain.2

But I can’t guarantee it. And campaigners are campaigning for one outcome, not for Good Debate. And no-one can guarantee them that the process won’t end up endorsing Brexit.

So I’ve been toying with another idea. Local councils have some ‘skin in the game’ in the sense that they’re full of politically engaged councillors. They’re Brits. Many if not the overwhelming majority would have a strong view on Brexit. So, with Brexit tearing the country apart, what if councils from strongly pro-Brexit regions buddied up with councils from strongly anti-Brexit regions to try to forge greater understanding between these two populations which seem to be drifting ever further apart.

The same goes, perhaps even more for Trump’s America. I was taken aback by the huge demonstrations that broke out at the time of Trump’s victory. It is true that he won with fewer votes, but that didn’t reflect a deliberate Republican-engineered gerrymander as the Republican dominance of the House does. So unless one is demonstrating specifically for some review of the Electoral College system, the idea of simply rejecting the winner of a democratic election seems shocking to me. Indeed, so scared am I of the American right’s penchant for violence – which put paid to hundreds of people in the last century through lynching – I’ve been surprised there’s really only one notorious example of white nationalist terrorism since Trump took office – at Charlottesville. Perhaps I’m wrong and more people are being bumped off than I’ve heard.

As the son of a holocaust survivor I find all the images on this page horrifying. We’re so used to this kind of demonisation of our political opponents. But what are these images if not an invitation to contempt and hate? Are we out of our minds?

If anti-Trump voters wanted to do something, I recall a friend suggesting after the election, they should collect some of their like-minded friends, find some people who voted for Donald Trump and break bread together to try to generate greater mutual understanding of each others perspectives. So here’s one plausible institutionalisation of that idea.

We could try to forge ‘sister council’ arrangements between differently minded council areas. Co-funded by councils and whatever crowd-funding and philanthropic funding one might be able to cobble together, I’d suggest there be two tracks. Those participating would all meet in one of the two council areas.

One track would be a properly organised citizens’ jury consisting of equal numbers of representatively randomised citizens from each area who would go through some properly organised process of discussion seeking points of understanding. The citizens’ jury would draft some communique of the majority’s views – and minorities would also be able to draft communiques. And changes of mind in both directions would be significant for the wider political world as it looked on to observe any systematic patterns emerging as people moved from less, to more considered views.

And it would be great if this was taken up by others as an exciting opportunity to deepen their engagement with different perspectives. So I’d like to see a vigorous ‘voluntary’ track. Having a weekend or two in another, area of the country with different demographics and different values, ideally billeted by citizens of the host council, people could get together informally, keep tabs on the citizens’ jury and meet each other in pubs and elsewhere to really try to get inside one another’s heads. Even if they couldn’t change each others minds, I’m dead sure they’d dial down the self-righteousness and hate.

They might come to feel, as I’ve felt on more than one occasion driving home when displeased with another driver. Road rage welling up inside me, I’ve contemplated a strong blast from my horn, and perhaps some gesticulation. Perhaps I’ve gone ahead with it. Then I’ve been mortified to discover not only that it’s my next door neighbour to whom I’ve been attributing such vile motives, but that of course we’ll be getting out of our cars right next to each other. What was I thinking?

1  Here’s a good article on the two concepts which I think goes off on a tangent seeking to make them relevant to ‘no-platforming’ on campuses. It’s an interesting argument it makes – that ‘no-platforming’ is in defence of isegoria. Perhaps. But the kind of speech policing that’s going on in defence of ‘political correctness’ is to a large extent stigmatising forms of speech that are more typical of less educated people. Also, by the way, apologies, for the pomposity of including the greek lettering. I can only plead that, having learned the letters up in school and then relearned them marrying a Greek, I find picking my way through them cool.

2 That produces an ‘optics’ problem. It would be preferable to raise an equal amount of money from both sides but Brexit supporters’ money won’t be forthcoming given how much it’s likely to work against their interest. But I’d be happy to wear that and simply say to the electorate “yes, this process was funded mostly by Remainers, but it’s governed in a transparently bi-partisan manner with two respected people – one Remainer and one Brexiter as co-chairs and each of those, plus an overwhelming majority of participants in the citizens’ juries must sign off to say that the process was fair to both sides.

3 Responses

  1. Hi Nicholas,

    Thanks for this – the observations regarding the “diversity” story are very well put, IMO. Diversity is held up as a value, but only diversity according to certain parameters. Of course, in practice things are even worse than in rhetoric. This is just another example of liberal hypocrisy.

    The less educated are certainly discriminated against by the electoral system. However, painting this as being derived from them being “less productive” is misleading. Saying that they are “less productive” is not an explanation of their lower income but simply a different way of saying that they have lower income.

    It is also worth disaggregating education from networking. It seems that the two are very different analytically – and are not necessarily that well correlated empirically.

    As for getting together over a pint: I think this misses the issue. As you point out, there is a real reason for the animosity – exploitation. That issue has to be addressed before distrust can be reduced and de-escalation can be achieved.


  2. Thanks Yoram

    The observation on employee’s productiveness wasn’t intended to be explanatory of anything further. Just an observation. I’m not sure how you read it as such.

    Education and networking agreed.

    On your final point, I’m glad you have it all so well sorted in your own mind.

    As for myself, there’s clearly some and I expect it’s grown, but beyond that I not sure how much ‘animosity’ there is. Clearly we see a lot of it because our attention goes to it and it sells newspapers and gets clicks.

    But if there were both exploitation and animosity arising out of it, I don’t know how we address such things outside of discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. In the current situation, a discussion would be useful only if it is part of a democratic decision making process. If decision making power remains in the hands of the ruling elite, an idle discussion airing one’s opinions is at best a distraction.


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