In the last week we have had the Prime Minister and President take a lead in speaking openly to the people of this country about the status quo. They were both criticised, for different reasons, but they should both be commended for attempting to use reason to engage with us because we have to find rational ways of determining what a better future could be.
Her Excellency President Weekes was unequivocal about the rot that has set in, making educated people selfish, lazy, dishonest and bursting with a sense of entitlement, and these are people she encountered when they turned up, year after year, at a local law school for training to be legal luminaries, upholders of the laws of this land. Her statement should be no surprise when we live with the daily consequences of the ugly society we have created since independence. She was right to warn presidential medal winners that they are products of our society and must therefore guard against our base instinct. Who needs more dishonest policemen and business people, over-weaning middle managers, lazy menial staff, hubristic, self-serving politicians and the undermining civil servants whom the President has cited in the past.
It is a conundrum since we have never had a better time of it – people are less poor than they have ever been, with everyone having access to education that did not exist for most of our history, and with relatively little unemployment, although the economy is not expanding in the right way or quickly enough to absorb these newly “educated” people. Quite correctly, the President has identified our educational system as part of the problem and has recommended its overhaul if we are to produce better human beings but, of course, parents also have a critical role to play in our education, since children learn from example. We get our ideas, develop modes of behaviour and of thinking and derive our value systems from those around us. It means that what we learn when young shapes us irrevocably.
Some interesting research by Tali Sharot, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London and author of two best selling books, The Optimum Bias and The Influential Mind, about how beliefs are formed in the brain, shows that it is extremely difficult to get people to change their opinions and therefore their behaviour. She found that the strength of the opinions we hold determine whether we can be persuaded by facts or data presented to us. It seems we evaluate all data and information based on our beliefs, so that data can inadvertently reinforce rather than challenge a belief. Essentially, people believe what they want to believe. No matter what the correct facts are, if we are not given to believing them, we deem them incorrect.
That is bad news for the Prime Minister who, whether he was electioneering or not, made two easy-to-understand presentations using simple graphs, calling on his ample lecturer skills to explain the economic realities of the last few years that form the basis of government policy. He stressed that he was presenting “data”, but some economists and the Opposition challenge the data. In response, the Ministry of Finance challenges their arguments about the data – routine political stuff. We on the sidelines, who found the PM’s exercise useful notwithstanding its shortcomings, can only lobby for such expositions to become annual and more expansive reports to all the electorate, since it is a way of encouraging us to engage with politics and perhaps feel more responsible.
In politics, people tend not to change their views as it is appears to be weakness, but professor Sharot’s research does hold some promise. Although we rarely actively change our minds on matters important to us, change can happen gradually and imperceptibly. She points out that since the only objective of wanting people to change their minds is to achieve an outcome, we should focus on that and not on changing opinion. Furthermore, the tendency to scare people into action is not recommended, as it can be counterproductive; the more productive strategy is highlighting what could be gained. Reward can be seductive.
This brings me back to the young. Instructing young people on matters of citizenship and democracy should be central to their education. Equipping students to be more responsible citizens should include teaching them not only about the workings of government, but also about political rhetoric and how to analyse contradictory opinions in order to achieve outcomes that benefit all of us, not just the party-faithful. Study after study has shown that better governance is achieved through diversity and public participation and it is therefore this sort of active and rewarding education that will produce the sort of citizen we, and our President, desire.