Saturday, 14 May 2016

Language and politics

I wrote about the Hierarchy vs. the Networks the other day, and wish to return to an aspect of political discourse - again, this applies to more than just to Poland and the UK.

I wrote about Mankind's journey from barbarism towards civilisation; from brute towards angel.

Language is an important aspect of this.

The Language of Absolutes

Watching Donald Trump, in his use of absolutes, confirms this. He defines himself by decrying things he claims to be against in absolute terms. "The worst...", "always...", "never...", "everywhere..." etc. This is the language of the Hierarch, painting the world in simplistic terms to his followers.

The language of the networks is more nuanced. "Usually..", "in most cases...", "one of the better...". The board, or the committee, or the council, prefers precise terminology to sweeping generalisations.

The wilder the assertions, the better it plays with the unsophisticated, partially engaged voter. 'Post-truth politicians', says the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland of Trump and Boris Johnson. For politicians craving personal power for themselves, the truth gets in the way of a good line. "Pedants still hung up on facts and evidence and all that boring stuff are left for dust, their boots barely laced while the lie has spread halfway around the world," writes Mr Freedland.

Both hierarchies and networks have their narratives, but by their nature those spun by the hierarchs are simpler than the more complex, detail-laden narratives that the networks employ.

The Language of the Playground

Hierarchs are happier with the language of the playground. Insults bandied around by 15 year-old boys, designed to trigger aggressive behaviour, are the ritual of forming a hierarchy. Who's tougher. Who's the leader of the gang. Who's top dog.

As we grow up, name-calling is no longer seen as big or mature. Aggressive language is ineffective in the workplace as a management strategy, especially in a knowledge-based economy. Vilification of colleagues or subordinates does not move the business forward. Leaders stooping to such behaviour are merely revealing their weakness.

But in politics, where it's not a workforce that needs to be motivated on an everyday basis, but voters in a four- or five-year cycle. Voters are not as engaged or as knowledgeable about how the state functions compared to employees, who turn up each day and know how the business operates.

The language of anger and hate has no place in the modern political discourse. And yet it's there. How should civilised people react?

Fighting back

All around the world there are good guys and bad guys. The good side (in my book) tend toward networked solutions to human problems. The bad guys seek to perpetuate or re-establish hierarchical structures. The bad guys name-call and simplify complex issues to laughably basic levels. The good guys tend not to retaliate with aggressive language and will often point out that the issues being discussed are more multi-faceted than the hierarchs paint them. Illegal migration from Mexico? Simple! Build a wall. And make Mexico pay. Will calling Trump "a deluded egomaniac" put off swing voters from putting their X against his name? Or is it politically more effective to point out the many practical reasons why building a wall along the Mexican border, financed by Mexico, would be counterproductive?

How best then, to fight back against the powerful forces that hold back Mankind's slow journey towards civilisation? This is something I've not managed to get my head around yet. The Prisoner's Dilemma offers us a powerful algorithm that sets out how we ought to behave toward our fellow man for the optimal outcome. If he gets along with us just fine, we should never do anything against him. Co-existing with him in honest cooperation, we will both flourish. Win-win. Sustainable growth.

Yet what happens when he turns nasty on us? The answer is to punish him - instantly and robustly - and to continue to do so until the moment he asks for mercy, and decides to return to a policy of cooperation. And then cooperate with him, continuing to do so - unless there's a further transgression.

Played out on computers millions of times, the optimal outcome is always the same:
Cooperate - cooperate. Defect - defect. All well and good. But my problem with the Prisoner's Dilemma model is a) how to define 'defect' and b) how to retaliate. The simple answers are a) breach of goodwill and b) proportionately. But these two guidelines need further clarification.

In the political arena, should the civilised Networkers stoop to the level of the Hierarchs, the use the same simplistic language and name-calling back at them? Or fight the battle on a higher plane, appealing to the voters' better instincts?

This time last year:
Trafalgar Square, then and now

This time three years ago:
GM's city car for Europe fails to wow me

This time four years ago:
A biblical sky

This time six years ago:
The parable of the Iron-Filings Factory

This time nine years ago:
Got to get ourselves back to the Garden

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