Is it time to be unreasonable?
Address by Paul Wheeler from service 30.6.19
During an interview in the run up to the EU referendum in 2016, Conservative politician Michael Gove said that people “have had enough of experts”. The liberal media and most liberal minded people were appalled that a supposedly serious politician would express such a view.
What he was essentially saying is ‘reason no longer holds sway in the public mind’. But, subsequent events suggest that for many people what he said is right. The “knowledge” of experts is no longer respected by many people. How has this state of affairs come about? And how should Unitarians react to it? Since reason is one of our core values.
In seeking to answer how this state of affairs has come about, I am drawing on analysis from the recently published book “Nervous States: How feeling came to rule the world”, by William Davies.
Davies states that the modern world endeavoured to build itself upon what it perceived to be the most solid and admirable of materials: truth and progress. From the seventeenth century onwards philosophers and scientists alike sought to regulate and transcend human feeling in order to provide an objective description of the world, to produce what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes called “a basis for peaceful consensus”.
Davies reminds us what expertise was supposed to offer when he says: “Much of the value of objectivity in public life, as manifest in statistics or economics, is that it provides a basis for consensus among people who otherwise have little in common. He goes on to observe “It may be hard to fathom now, but facts – and the consensus they allowed, no matter how temporary and tenuous – were a basis for progress.” Yet, in our own time, science and expertise more broadly seem to have lost their capacity to unite us on a common ground, with facts themselves often leading not to peace but to conflict.
Expertise depends on our ability to fix the world in place long enough for an agreed version of the facts to take hold: it needs time for investigation and reflection. That doesn’t happen anymore.
Davies writes: “The promise of digital computing, by contrast, is to maximise sensitivity to a changing environment.” He says: “In the times in which we live speed of reaction often takes precedence over slower and more cautious assessments. As we become more attuned to ‘real time’ events and media, we inevitably end up placing more trust in sensation and emotion than in evidence. Knowledge becomes more valued for its speed and impact than for its cold objectivity. Emotive lies often travel faster than sober facts.
It’s fair to say that in situations of physical danger, where time is of the essence, rapid reaction makes sense. But the influence of ‘real time’ data now extends far beyond matters of personal security. News, financial, markets, friendships and work engage us in a constant flow of information, making it harder to stand back and create a more reliable portrait of any of them. The threat lurking in this is that otherwise peaceful situations can come to feel dangerous until eventually they really are.”
Davies observes that: “Feelings are how we orient ourselves whilst also providing a reminder of shared humanity. Our capacity to feel pain and love is fundamental to how and why we care about each other. But…...survival instincts and nerves are not always reliable. The information that feelings convey in the moment can conflict starkly with the facts that are subsequently established. The crucial quality of feelings – their immediacy – is also what makes them potentially misleading, spawning over-reactions and fear.
Unscrupulous politicians and businessmen have long exploited our instincts and emotions, convincing us to believe or buy things that, on more careful reflection, we needn’t have done; real-time media, available via mobile technologies, exacerbates this potential, so we spend more of our time immersed in a stream of images and sensations, with less time for reflection or dispassionate analysis.”
In rhetorical terms “wars” seem to engulf us with a frightening regularity and diversity, penetrating traditional civilian culture and politics. Nation States today are engaged in a range of wars that are less and less tangible: the war on terror, the war on drugs, cyber warfare. Civil society and democracy are also framed as wars. In our current time, “politics is a continuation of war by other means”, although precisely where peaceful means end and violent ones begin is becoming less and less clear.
Davies points to an article by Russian General Valery Gerasimov published in 2013 suggesting that the division between war and peace is dissolving and in which Gerasimov states that non military means of war could be far more threatening to State powers in the future than traditional military ones. Davies sees this leading to expert knowledge moving from being held up as something esteemed as a means of civil advancement to something used as a weapon. He says, in this world, truth threatens to become an issue which heightens disagreement and the potential for conflict.
So, what has made the hearts of many receptive to arguments that dismiss reason and tap in to feelings?
In my view, this has much to do with the march of neo liberal economics and globalisation, which began in the 1980s and together played a large part in the financial crash of 2008. Neo liberal economics led to deregulation of financial markets and consumer finance, which in turn led to banks becoming gambling houses trading massive packages of debt and placing bets on future movements in markets, alongside expansion of lending without limit to people with little or no ability to repay the loans they were given. Globalisation separated companies from communities. There was no longer any sense of mutual support and benefit in business. When the crash came the banks were bailed out by Governments and the burden of reigning in the debt incurred to do that was placed on those with least. To coin a phrase, many people felt “Well and truly shafted”. They felt those in power had shown contempt for them.
Davies says: “One may recognise facts as valid and experts as trustworthy, but if one suffers a collapse in one’s community and existential sense of significance, then authoritarianism and nationalism become more ethically and politically attractive. When an entire political and economic system appears rotten, a flagrant liar can give voice to an underlying truth. If there is one thing more important than prosperity to a person’s wellbeing, then it is self-esteem. Those suffering a collapse of self-esteem, for whatever reason, are often the most receptive to nationalist rhetoric. For those living with fear and pain, the idea of war-like mobilisation acquires almost therapeutic properties, placing those feelings into a grander public framework.” In the US, Donald Trump has tapped in to this fear and pain with his call to “Make America great again”. And in the UK, although they have not used it as a slogan, the clear message of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson is “Brexit can make Britain great again”.
How could we Unitarians respond? - We who uphold reason as one of our core values. And respond in a way that effectively engages with the discontent and feelings of worthlessness that have made millions receptive to the message of populists and nationalists?
First, we could accept the manifest failings of the world order that has brought about our current state of obscene economic inequality and environmental destruction. That means we would accept the pain and alienation of those millions of people as valid.
Second, we could support the development and the moblisation of a readily understandable alternative message. A message that engages with the pain and alienation, rather than simply observing it; which mobilises using the same tools as those tapping in to that pain and alienation for their own ends.
Third, we could help frame it in such a way that the alternative message engenders a heroic spirit in which people unite to create economic justice and save life on this planet.
Now, you might think that this is an address that it would be appropriate for a larger Unitarian audience to hear, not simply this single congregation – and I wouldn’t disagree. But, for now we can reflect on how we can connect to the spirit that puts feeling before thinking.