Self interest vs values

October 13, 2010

Big Bad George Monbiot hits on some interesting points in this article about how the left should change its message to win more supporters. He starts by highlighting some interesting choices people have taken, seemingly of their own free will but against their interests:

“The acceptance of policies that counteract our interests is the pervasive mystery of the 21st century. In the US blue-collar workers angrily demand that they be left without healthcare, and insist that millionaires pay less tax. In the UK we appear ready to abandon the social progress for which our ancestors risked their lives with barely a mutter of protest. What has happened to us?”

He thinks that the left should do fewer facts and more championing of values:

Conservatives in the US generally avoid debating facts and figures. Instead they frame issues in ways that appeal to and reinforce extrinsic values. Every year, through mechanisms that are rarely visible and seldom discussed, the space in which progressive ideas can flourish shrinks a little more. The progressive response has been disastrous.

Instead of confronting the shift in values, we have sought to adapt to it. Once progressive parties have tried to appease altered public attitudes: think of all those New Labour appeals to middle England, often just a code for self-interest. In doing so they endorse and legitimise extrinsic values. Many greens and social justice campaigners have also tried to reach people by appealing to self-interest: explaining how, for example, relieving poverty in the developing world will build a market for British products, or suggesting that, by buying a hybrid car, you can impress your friends and enhance your social status. This tactic also strengthens extrinsic values, making future campaigns even less likely to succeed. Green consumerism has been a catastrophic mistake.

Common Cause proposes a simple remedy: that we stop seeking to bury our values and instead explain and champion them. Progressive campaigners, it suggests, should help to foster an understanding of the psychology that informs political change and show how it has been manipulated. They should also come together to challenge forces – particularly the advertising industry – that make us insecure and selfish.

It’s an interesting take but as Norm points out encouraging the downgrading of facts for values is hazardous.

My view is that people ‘on the left’ – particularly those working locally or the foot soldiers – often engage in hectoring or patronizing their audience and respond with surprise when people are turned off their argument. Such a style can lead to the perception that a person is more interested in demonstrating their moral superiority than anything else. George’s appeal to talk more about values is potentially disastrous if it leads to further holier than thou impressions being left on target audiences.

What seems ever more important is an ability to employ simple factual analysis to a complex situation – but to also do this in a way that relates back to people’s everyday lives and circumstances. You’re always going to be asked how what your policy or proposal relates to Dave and Deidre’s life – something the right somehow manages to be better at even though their policies benefit the few rather than the many – and I don’t think inarticulately bollocking on about values is going to help win that many arguments. Simplicity, but with a focus on key facts in your argument, is essential to explaining a complex world and that’s where the left’s intelligensia – like Big Bad George – should help employ their efforts. These simple messages can then be adapted by people with less grey matter than BBG.

And, importantly, humour should be emphasized for its persuasive abilities. Not dressing up as a toff and quoting mark thomas but subtly ribbing on the fact that, for example, fairness must be a key part of the entrance requirement at the £30, 000 a year Eton College.

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