Posted on October 15, 2019 at 7:46 AM
It is something of an understatement to suggest that we are living through turbulent times. Society today is characterised not just by deep divisions about how to address key social challenges of our time, but also on the emphasis that should be placed on evidence-based discussion of these issues, and the moral values that should guide national policies.
In this context, Elizabeth Anderson’s Uehiro lecture series, entitled ““Can We Talk – Communicating Moral Concern In An Era of Polarized Politics” could not be more timely. In the first of this three lecture series, Anderson offers a diagnosis of the problems that currently bedevil political discourse across the world. This first lecture sets the stage for the following two lectures in which she shall offer her own proposed solutions to the problems that she so vividly describes and analyses in this fascinating initial lecture. The remainder of this post shall briefly summarise the key points of the lecture – A recording shall be posted shortly.
Anderson frames her discussion at the outset by identifying two different problems affecting our political discourse. The first concerns the dissemination of misinformation, misleading information and propaganda. The second concerns the manner in which political discourse is often moved away from fact-based discussions towards more expressive forms of political communication, including trolling, insults, and shaming. Each problem is described in turn.
With respect to the first, Anderson suggests that one of the features of the currently widespread dissemination of misinformation is that it leads to what she terms ‘double-down dogmatism’ (DDD). Those who propagate misinformation are impervious to correction, and simply double-down when presented with evidence that contradicts their preferred item of misinformation.
She identifies two types of DDD: First, DDD with respect to scientific claims about risk (such as claims that climate change is not real, or that vaccination causes autism). Second, factual claims about the government, political figures, and other mainstream authorities; one example is the widely voiced claim amongst certain political groups that Barack Obama was not born in the USA.
Having identified these phenomena, Anderson highlights how the political function of these kinds of DDD claims is to promote distrust and resentment of both the mainstream establishment, and also marginalised groups. This is a hypothesis that she grounds in empirical studies suggesting that public trust in (inter alia) the government and the mass media are at historic lows.
To offer my own brief response to this portion of the lecture, I suggest that this function of DDD claims means that they may importantly differ from other kinds of beliefs. Indeed, they bear an interesting comparison to articles of religious faith, which on some views at least, can amount to a kind of sub-belief cognitive state that (unlike normal beliefs) can be maintained on the basis of non-epistemic reasons. In a similar vein, there are some interesting questions about how Anderson’s analysis of DDD claims relates to the thesis of doxastic voluntarism (the view that belief formation is not under our voluntary control – defended by Bernard Williams amongst others)
To return to the content of the lecture, whilst a number of sources of DDD claims are identified, Anderson highlights populist politicians as the main culprits, where populist politics is defined by the deployment of narratives of elite corruption and humiliation of ‘the people’ to frame the meaning of political events, and to mobilise voters.
Whilst populists from both ends of the political spectrum propagate DDD claims, Anderson usefully compares and contrasts the different narratives that provide the foundations for these claims amongst their proponents, and the different groups that are demonised as the corrupt ‘elites’. These narratives serve to activate and vindicate emotional responses amongst the targeted audience; resentment at apparent betrayal and unfairness, humiliation, fear and nostalgia, each of which Anderson analyses in further detail.
Whilst misinformation at least purports to concern itself with truth-apt (albeit false) propositional claims, Anderson suggests that the populist discourse also includes elements that primarily serve to provide emotional satisfaction for the aforementioned emotional responses. This brings us to the second problem that she highlights at the beginning of the lecture; the problem of what she refers to as identity-expressive discourse. Three types of identity expressive discourse are identified: symbolic self-defence, symbolic aggression (such as the expression of hate speech against the marginalised), and symbolic revenge (such as take downs against the ‘corrupt elites’). Notably, in each case, the pay-off of these elements of the populist discourse is symbolic, rather than material.
This feature of the political discourse also relates to a more general societal view perpetuated by the populist, which Anderson terms the ‘populist economy of esteem’. This view envisions societal groups as being engaged in a zero-sum positional competition for societal goods. Anderson notes that this view diminishes the possibility of political compromise, by obscuring our common ties, and instead setting societal groups in opposition to each other. This in turn further allows symbolic discourse to displace evidence-based discussion of political issues.
Moreover, Anderson notes that current responses to this phenomenon on the left of the political spectrum, including mass-shaming and the legitimization of right-wing populists, merely adds fuel to this fire. They involve the adoption of many of the destructive features that characterise right-wing populism, suppressing fruitful political communication, repudiating the norms that govern so-called ‘elite’ discourse, and engaging in reciprocal antagonism.
Anderson’s broad and insightful diagnosis of these problems concludes by raising two key challenges that she shall take up in the following two lectures:
1/ How do we diffuse identity-expressive discourse?
2/ How do we reconstruct democratic discourse around evidence-based policy to solve shared problems?