It does not make the job very appealing

Although my work focuses on education and technology, rather than party politics, the book I enjoyed reading the most last year was Harriet Harman’s biography [1], or more accurately her reflection on a career as a leading Labour politician in UK. The book is largely about being a woman in a man’s world. Harman was the first candidate to fight and win a by-election while pregnant and joined a House of Commons which was 97 per cent male. She went on to bring up three children while working all hours in Westminster and in her constituency.

Harman’s book is unusual in political memoirs as having a focus on women and the challenge of changing attitudes, not just by taking on the Conservative governments but also entrenched sexism in the Labour party. Although she achieved much in advancing women’s rights on a national stage, when just to be a committed constituency MP would have been an achievement in itself, what shines through is her vulnerability. In particular she was very firm in her feminist principles but acknowledged that she felt it much more difficult to stand up for herself than to stand up for others. She had to be persuaded to fight her constituency by-election in the first place and was worried in case her campaigns for more family friendly working hours in parliament might be seen as about her. Not surprisingly she needed encouragement to stand for leadership positions. The photo chosen for the book cover conveys this vulnerability well. It shows the young Labour candidate looking rather out of her depth, and this provides a sharp contrast to the conventional steely gaze on the dust jackets of most political biographies.

The book has been reviewed sympathetically. Interestingly these reviews have nearly always been written by women. McNicol [2] in particular provides a good description of the book and begins by saying that Harriet Harman ‘doesn’t make being a female MP sound very appealing’. In fact it does not make the job of an MP in general appealing and Harman was only ever able to go on and achieve what she did as she was part of a network of women who were determined to change the system. The surprise for me was that I had seen Harman as a rather inconsequential political figure, worthy but not very effective but I realized that I was reading this wrong. She was consistent and determined. She found the everyday sexism she encountered demoralising and at times it got through to her. She could have walked away. I had underestimated her leadership. She was offering a kind of servant leadership, though this is not a term she used herself. As a politician she put her ego backstage and tried to articulate the wishes of her network of women colleagues, it is a collective leadership though of course does not rule out standing up for your beliefs or making difficult decisions.

I was particularly interested in the early part of the book. She described her difficulties in fitting in at school (she went to a school which was academically very successful but was ‘carrying a smug sense of superiority’ quite out of tune with the changing times). She benefitted from the expansion of higher education in the 1960’s and went to York University where again she asked herself what she was doing there. In the reviews much is rightly made of a story she tells of a lecturer who, told her if she slept with him he’d make sure she got a 2.1. She turned him down and got a 2.1 anyway.

After university she found herself beginning legal training, encountering more sexism, and none of it making much sense. She started volunteering in her spare time in a legal rights centre in Brent, London. This was part of a network of centres offering legal advice and support for those who could not afford to pay for it. She found herself becoming involved with tenants associations, trade unions and radical lawyers. She felt at home and became committed to women’s rights and by extension to support for the Labour party. This led to working for the national Council for Civil Liberties, becoming deeply engaged with feminist politics.

Harman’s story of Labour in Parliament follows an arc that is well known to those following UK politics over the last 20 or 30 years. There was a right wing Prime Minister, Thatcher, opposed by a sectarian militancy that almost wrecked the Labour party. Next came the movement to make Labour more mainstream and electable. This was followed by three terms of successful labour government which only fell apart due to external events – the world financial crisis 2008 / 9. We now have had three conservative (led) governments and the unpicking of what Labour had achieved with the danger of left sectarianism re-emerging. There is a lot in this version of events but did Labour leaders like Harman end up losing the plot at least as far as their supporters were concerned? There are two events that stand out. The first was the Iraq war. Harman explains she supported the war on the grounds of there being weapons of mass destruction. She was wrong and the decision taken had tragic consequences for everybody concerned. Labour supporters and women became particularly critical of the decision, at least in its aftermath [3].

The second incident was local and purely symbolic. It was the decision she took as stand- in leader of the Labour party after the lost election of 2015 to have the party abstain on the conservative government’s welfare bill that included cuts to social security. To abstain on what was the first reading of a bill was not unusual and to vote against would have made no practical difference. However to Labour supporters it signalled that the party had lost focus in fighting the cause of the people they represented. Jeremy Corbyn was the only leadership contender that voted against the Bill and went on to win the Party leadership. It is difficult to comprehend why Harman had got this so wrong.

Harman’s book makes a timely contribution to the debate on gender and sexism, but I would recommend the book as much for its tone as for its content. She does that rare thing of showing modesty and humility at the same time as conviction and persistence. I would particularly recommend it to anyone not enjoying higher education or over committed to getting a ‘good degree’ as well. Looking at her account of volunteering in the Law Centre, she shows life will fall into place, you don’t need a first class degree to see it, just be alert enough to notice.

[1] Harman, H. (2017) A woman’s work London, Allen Lane.

[2] McNicol, J. (2017) The Angry Men, London Review of Books, 39, 24, 13-16

https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n24/jean-mcnicol/the-angry-men

[3] Dahlgreen, W. (2015) Memories of Iraq: did we ever support the war?, You Gov   https://yougov.co.uk/news/2015/06/03/remembering-iraq/

[4] Wintour, P. (2015) Anger after Harriet Harman says Labour will not vote against welfare bill, The Guardian, 12 July 2015

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/jul/12/harman-labour-not-vote-against-welfare-bill-limit-child-tax-credits

 

 

Post-truth and a good argument

The term post-truth was, according to Oxford Dictionaries, the Word of the Year 2016. It was defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016

In USA of course the term became widely used in the context of the US presidential campaign, and in UK it was aired in the debates on Brexit. It was these two recent campaigns that formed the backdrop to a fascinating programme on a BBC Radio 4 on post truth politics:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b086nzlg

One thing the programme did very well was to alert us to different kinds of untruths and facts [1]. For example Trump in his campaign said many things which were simply untrue by any reasonable definition of the word. This was illustrated when, talking about the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York 2001, he said ‘I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down’. It either happened or it did not and as much as far as we can take anything as objective, then Trump is simply wrong [2]. However pointing this out seems to have had little effect; those disposed to vote for Trump did not care, the statement expressed a sentiment – presumably that there were groups of different ethnicity that were not patriotic in the same way as they were.

In our own Brexit campaign a different kind of fact emerged: if we left the EU then there could be £350 million extra for a new hospital to be built every week [3]. You can say it is a lie if you like, and I don’t think any economist would say that we would have an extra £350 million a week by leaving the EU – or if by some miracle we did have the money it is unlikely that it would find its way into building hospitals. However the claim about the hospital is not an untruth in the same way that Trump’s claim about the Twin Towers is. It is describing something counter factual, extremely unlikely, but not a fact that can be disproved.

Finally there are arguments which seem to be about facts which are really about values –for example more egalitarian societies are better than ones in which wealth is unevenly distributed. This has an appeal to the facts and is often dressed up as an argument about the facts but it cannot really be divorced from value judgements about what kind of society we want. The distinction was put very well in the BBC Radio 4 programme by Professor Peter Mandler who offered objective comments as an academic on Brexit (again as far as objective has any meaning) while recognising that in terms of values and identity he was aghast at the decision taken.

Why is post-truth on the rise? One presenter felt that all this started with the claim that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction in 2002, but I don’t really buy that, at least not in UK. For example, the issue of missing WMD was well known before the 2005 election in UK and it did not seem to be a significant factor in the result [4]. Of course the consequences of missing WMDs has been lingering and toxic particularly for those who supported the war in Iraq but I don’t think it has undermined our belief in the possibility of establishing truth. Quite the opposite. For example when it came to the Chilcott Inquiry into the war it was striking how far most people believed that this inquiry had really got to the truth by painstakingly sifting through evidence.

A second candidate for the rise of post-truth is that we increasingly live in ‘echo chambers’ – another term that has ‘spiked’ over the last couple of year. The idea here is that we tend to move around only with ‘people like us’ so that what we take for granted is rarely challenged; when we meet at work or socially, opinions are  echoed not challenged. Predictably the internet gets the blame for this increasing polarisation as, particularly in the USA, people are said to get their news from social media and block out dissenting views – or social media algorithms block dissenting views for them. To compound matters, if and when we do access views from those outside of our echo chamber then we make an active attempt to rationalise our views rather than reason about them. In fact this process of rationalisation might end up strengthening our prejudices, for rather than loosely go along with something we have now actively worked out a line of defence; interaction with others no longer seems a way to strengthen democratic debate but to reduce it. I find interesting  here the claim that those with ‘cognitive advantages’ (e.g. higher levels of literacy or numeracy) might be more adept at rationalising and better able to undermine the arguments that disturb their thinking. This offers a new take on the idea that the problem with democracy is that it leaves those with less education vulnerable to populist movements, but that is for another day.

The thing about echo chambers is that by design or by accident, or more likely both, we have ended up living in increasingly segregated worlds [5]. This argument is expressed particularly strongly in the USA. It is something that is widely discussed in UK too though my hunch is that the effects of ‘echoing’ are softened by the position of the BBC as a national broadcaster and the more inclusive character of organised religion.

Hope for addressing the consequences of the echo chamber was given by a ‘die hard’ conservative Bob Inglis, someone who had changed his view of climate change, but nothing else as far as I could see. As he put it, if the arguments come from  ‘another tribe’ (‘liberals and Al Gore’) you don’t need to engage with them, it is only, as in his case, when the argument came from someone with similar values that he was prepared to listen.

I find post-truth disturbing as a phenomenon. My career has been in teaching and learning and like many others I believe that being educated is about being able to weigh up arguments and to understand values. It is also very much about learning to get on with other people as a community. Some of my recent work has been about what it might mean to strive for a rational consensus online; we might not ever be objective but we have the concept of objectivity for a reason, it is something that we can measure our patterns of argument against. We know we can do much better online than attack others and shut down argument.

It is tempting to see post-truth as a new phenomenon but it is not. We have always stayed firm in a belief when evidence points the other way and we have always been manipulated by the media and those controlling the media have always sought to manipulate us [6]. My hunch is much of the thinking about post-truth is generated not by WMDs but by the recent banking and economic crises; we are returning to politics as a zero sum game with whatever advantage going to one group being seen as at the expense of another and it is in this climate in which selective reasoning thrives.

[1] Toulmin is a common point of reference for those interested in theory of argument – Toulmin, S. (2012) The Use of Argument, Cambridge, CUP.

[2] See for example fact checking sites such as:

http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/nov/22/donald-trump/fact-checking-trumps-claim-thousands-new-jersey-ch/

[3] I am not sure anyone wants to revisit this but the claim was:

‘The EU costs us £350 million a week. That’s enough to build a new NHS hospital every week of the year. We get less than half of this money back, and we have no control over the way it’s spent – that’s decided by politicians and officials in Brussels, rather than the people we elect here.’

[4] If interested in the result go to the BBC site at

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4360597.stm

[5] On the day after the Brexit vote I was talking to a friend who said how pleased he was with the result and how he had not met anyone who voted to remain. Until that point I don’t think I had met anyone who voted to leave. This kind of polarised experience was I think fairly common.

[6] This is Orwell in 1943 reflecting back on the Spanish civil war:

I remember saying once to Arthur Koestler, ‘History stopped in 1942’, at which he nodded in immediate understanding. We were both thinking of totalitarianism in general, but more particularly of the Spanish civil war. Early in life I have noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’.

Looking back on the Spanish War http://orwell.ru/library/essays/Spanish_War/english/esw_1