N Touch
Wednesday 22 January 2020
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Commentary

The public and the private view

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Last week our electorate showed unequivocally that people in TT are inert, either through lack of care or pure disillusionment. In any event, there were surprises for all concerned in the result of our local government elections, some good and some bad. Let’s see where next year’s general election leads us. As I write this column, the British are at the polls, deciding on one of the most important moments in modern British and European history. By the time this edition of Newsday appears the decision will have been made.

If the Tories under Boris Johnson win, then it’s a definite future outside the European Union, with all manner of economic and social adjustment to come. Johnson promised Brexit regardless of the cost, and it will be very high.

If it’s the Labour Party, then the future is by no means certain, since its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had to promise a second referendum on Brexit, which could produce yet another “leave” result and the prospect of pro-EU Scotland voting to leave the United Kingdom.

Labour also promised an unbelievably ambitious programme of public spending and nationalisation of a raft of public services, both of which are the direct opposite of what the Conservatives stand for. So it is an election of extreme choices.

It is fascinating to observe how easily things fall apart and how difficult it can be to find the centre. Both big UK parties have alienated many of their traditional voters by their adversarial politics of the left and the right.

The Tories had for the last eight years made so many austerity cuts that salaries reportedly now average below 2008 levels, whilst costs have risen and middle-class people are finding it hard to pay their way. Others have already fallen over the edge, so that soup kitchens are now widespread and the number of street dwellers continues to rise. Promising to make it all disappear would have won Labour votes, regardless of the improbability of the prospect.

I return to my question of last week about people making irrational choices: Why did the British, decide to shoot themselves in the foot? What is the force that leads to mass suicide and why is it so unfathomable?

We are surprised constantly by how things seem to happen, as if from nowhere, such as Brexit, the unrelenting demonstrations in peaceful Hong Kong, the #MeToo campaign, which just snowballed, with a staggering 45 per cent of Facebook users in the US speaking out about sexual abuse within 24 hours of the first tweet by Alyssa Milano, who called others to join her after Taylor Swift and Beverly Yong Nelson had led the way.

Cass Sunstein at the Harvard Law School has written about why things appear to fall out the sky and puts it down in part to the fact that there is a discrepancy between the private and the public view, ie, people say one thing and think something else, so we never really know what will happen, and live in a state of pluralistic ignorance. He calls it “preference falsification.”

Sunstein quotes the example of Saudi Arabia’s sudden decision to allow women many forbidden rights, such as driving cars and going to work. A research study found that the vast majority of Saudi men privately thought it right that their wives should go to work, but they also thought that other men like them would not agree with that point of view, so they did not voice it.

Yet just four months after researchers told them that other men shared their opinion, there was a big spike in the numbers of Saudi women applying for jobs.

Like me, you may have been wondering how the Crown Prince has been able to so easily change the cultural traditions and introduce radical social and economic reforms.

The answer is that everyone wanted it, but none had dared say it for fear of reprisals or isolation. People adapt to the status quo and usually remain silent on moral convictions and personal experiences especially in environments that are unsympathetic.

Sunstein’s study is really about how change happens. He breaks it down into four or five essential elements.

The second is the level of patience we each have for tolerating a situation. Once someone else, who is less patient, voices your inner thoughts it gives you licence to say what you think. He calls this “diverse thresholds and interdependencies.” The level at which you join in the conversation varies – are you just behind the leaders or are you hardly visible at the back? – but the various factors together help to drive change simply by mobilising existing elements.

We may all be fretfully questioning our government’s inexplicable decision to ruin the season of joy and goodwill by forcing us to shed our blue notes in just two Christmas weeks.

Our Minister of Finance once pointed out, after announcing another unpopular policy, that the citizens didn’t revolt.

It doesn’t mean that they don’t want to.

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