Monday, April 25, 2016

Stacking the Referendum

Brexit is shaping up to be a closer run thing than the Scottish Referendum. That said, I find it amazing how much the 'debate' is still cast in terms of 'better off/worse off' economic conjecture, when experience shows that most speculations about the positive (or negative) economic consequences of this decision or another are almost invariably wrong, often orders of magnitude wrong. So I take all the economic forecasts from both the In and the Out campaigns with a large pinch of salt. They simply serve the task of reassuring their own supporters that they have made the 'smarter' choice.

Anyway, I think the more interesting campaign is the one about Identity. As Scott Adams keeps reminding us in relation to Trump's campaign, arguments based on Reason are useless (though marginally less worse than arguments based on Definition) - here's the Persuasion Stack as he calls it:

Arguments based on Analogy are better, but arguments based on Identity are best. The Brexit campaign - when everyone finally tires of even more ludicrous prophecies of economic doom following Brexit (i.e.: persuasion by Reason) - will give way to one about Identity (as it already has in some quarters).

But the big question is which 'Identity'? In a polity as complex as the United Kingdom, you can very quickly fall back down the persuasion stack to Definition, and then you lose. But it is a tricky one. As I noted  before on the Brexit topic, Old England is dying, and may already be dead. I mourn its loss, funny enough.

There is though another Identity worth revisiting. Frank Ferudi sees an opportunity to reclaim Europe from the EU, opening up the vista of a 'Real Europeans want Out' kind of Identity campaign. But it may be too late: the referendum is less than two months away (June 23rd), so unless Boris Johnson goes full Trump (not beyond the bounds...) then the debate may just remain at the level of Reason.

But whatever the outcome (for the record: if I was English I'd vote Out, but being Irish it suits me better if they vote In) the issue of Identity will keep coming back into focus, and not just in England and not in a good way either. Glynn Harrison has a superb essay on The Modern Crisis of Identity over at the Jubilee Centre, which raises even bigger issues than Brexit.

As he observes in the context of Western Civilisation's headlong rush into 'Identity-fluidity' and some of the pathological consequences that follow:
Issues of identity are relevant to the quality of relationships and our ability to form co-operative communities. Durable relationships depend upon the capacity to anticipate the needs of the other and to respond in predictable ways. This is especially important in families where stability and predictability are fundamental to the healthy development of children. Community is undermined as well if individuals are constantly in flux. And where an individual’s sense of worth is constantly at stake, empathy towards others is reduced: few emotional resources remain available for others when so much care and attention needs to be expended upon oneself.
If Identity politics circles right back to Definition then we all lose - as we're witnessing in a growing number of European nations, and even back home here in Ireland.

The next two months will be very interesting: the next two years will be unprecedented.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Our Tribal Future

If Robert Conquest had gotten around to composing a Fourth Law of Politics (and not just three) I think it would have gone some like this:
Everyone belongs to a tribe they're prepared to defend, whether aware of it or not.
The recent shenanigans over the formation of a new government in Ireland has gotten the talking classes quite vexed: "why can't Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael just form a government together?" Or "what's the big deal, sure aren't they really just the same: Tweedledum and Tweedledee?" And "isn't it time to forget Civil War politics?"

Being from the North I don't have much emotional investment in either party myself. Still, many people do. Sure, to the outsider the differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael may indeed seem 'trivial': the narcissism of small differences and all that. But here's the thing, we are all tribal about the things that matter to us.

And if you don't believe me then tell me how you feel about the suggestion that:

or The Irish Times & Irish Independent
or Leinster & Munster rugby clubs
or Kerry & Dublin football clubs
or Manchester United & Manchester City

should "just together 'cause there's no real difference between them any more and sure what's the big deal anyway?"

Discovered your inner tribalism yet?

Tribalism has a bad press: it's an 'ism' after all. But tribalism explains more of what we see across the political landscape than even the classic Left-Right political spectrum (or Public Choice Theory reducing politics to the actions of atomised, utility maximising voters at the ballot box).

Scott Alexander recently explored the nature of tribes (even admitting to belonging to one himself), though he wonders if tribes have a future:
Some vital aspects of modern society – freedom of speech, freedom of criticism, access to multiple viewpoints, the existence of entryist tribes with explicit goals of invading and destroying competing tribes as problematic, and the overwhelming pressure to dissolve into the Generic Identity Of Modern Secular Consumerism – make maintaining tribal identities really hard these days. I think some of the most interesting sociological questions revolve around whether there are any ways around the practical and moral difficulties with tribalism, what social phenomena are explicable as the struggle of tribes to maintain themselves in the face of pressure, and whether tribalism continues to be a worthwhile or even a possible project at all.
But I think he misses the point. He thinks people join tribes as a way of rallying around a particular purpose or cause. I think it's simpler than that: people join and belong to tribes (often more than one, and often without deliberately 'joining') because we are all cognitive misers. As someone put it to me recently, "it's easier when we're all wearing the same jersey: you know whose with you and whose against you". Especially in conditions of scarcity: the less 'stuff' there is to go round, the more important your tribe becomes.

That is why most political commentators (and even a few economic ones) keep getting it wrong. They view everything through the prism of rational, individual choice (possibly because that's how they view things), whereas they would gain much more insight (if they're not just interested in signalling) by focusing on the tribal dynamic. That applies to Brexit, to Trump and to the prospect of a Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael coalition.

Which is also why there isn't going to be one: the tribe comes first.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The People's Proclamation

One of the highlights of RTE's excellent Centenary show last week:

If that doesn't bring a lump to the throat of every Irishman and Irishwoman then nothing will.
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