Thursday, 27 September 2012

Feeling Reasonable?

Easter Island, which I wrote about in my last post, is the most isolated inhabited island in the world. Its nearest inhabited neighbour, 1300 miles to the west, is Pitcairn Island. By a coincidence, I recently attended a read-through of a new play called “Pitcairn” by Richard Bean (he of One Man, Two Guvnors). It’s a powerful piece and I hope it makes its way into production, as planned, in 2014.

The play tells the events following the mutiny on the Bounty when Christian Fletcher and his men landed on that island and tried to set up a “paradise” republic. The munity occurred in 1789, also the year of the French Revolution, and right in the middle of a period of European political and social revolution that included the American and Haitian Revolutions and saw the publication of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This period is usually known as The Enlightenment and its achievements were celebrated in Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemming’s Paralympics Opening Ceremony.

According to The Oxford Guide to Philosophy, one of the central tenets of The Enlightenment is that “Reason is man's [or woman’s] central capacity, and it enables him no only to think, but to act, correctly.” We usually think of this period as the beginning of our supposedly rational modern world and, as a result, probably most of us today like to think that we are able to make decisions and judgements on the basis of rationality and reason.

It is something of a paradox, therefore, that it was the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume who observed that Reason is subordinate to the Passions. This old insight has proved remarkably robust and one which has been extensively tested, explored and confirmed by modern-day psychologists. Modern day political tacticians talk about the “reason of voters riding into battle on the elephant of intuition” and they advise that politicians “talk to the elephant.” In other words, to “sell” a political idea, you need to appeal to people’s deep-seated values and biases.

Common Cause, a report from 2010 sponsored by WWF, Friends of the Earth and others explores the implications of these insights for those working in the climate change field. Although it is rather dense in places (I was glad for example that I already had some understanding of cognitive science), it is an intriguing and often compelling read. It quotes the scientist George Lakoff who specifically highlights the danger of utilising “Enlightenment Reason” - that is, that “if only people are made aware of the facts and figures, they should naturally reason to the right conclusion. Voter should vote their interest…. [However] Voters don’t behave that way. They allow bias, prejudice and emotion to guide their decisions; they argue madly about values, priorities and goals.”

The report makes the point that if facts don’t support a person’s values and their sense of self-identity, “the facts bounce off”.

There is supposed to be a Saami tribe in Finland who believe that anyone wearing white clothing whilst observing the Northern Lights will be snatched away by the spirits. They believe this even whilst showing the lights to white-clothed (non-snatched) tourists.

The report goes on to quote the cognitive scientist Dan Kahan “The prevailing approach [in trying to influence the public about climate change] is still simply to flood the public with as much sound data as possible on the assumption that the truth is bound, eventually, to drown out its competitors. If, however, the truth carries implications that threaten people’s cultural values, then… [confronting them with this data] is likely to harden their resistance and increase their willingness to support alternative arguments, no matter how lacking in evidence”

So if we do want to influence people’s behaviour, how do we work with (and not against) people’s values and attitudes? How do we harness “passion” and strong positive feelings; how do we engage with people’s values? The report has some interesting things to say on this and I hope to return to this subject again.

Meanwhile, for those of you who, like me, have to attend work meetings, ask yourself what do you remember from meetings – particularly those that have had a positive (or negative) impact? You almost certainly won’t remember what other people said; you might remember some of what you said; but what you will remember – long after the event – is how you felt. There may have been no revelatory insight or significant agreement but if you left with a warm glow of enthusiasm, or inspiration then that warm feeling will not only last but also motivate.

On his return from Elba, Napoleon famously remembered the name of a small-town mayor he had met for just a few minutes some years previously. The man was so impressed that he followed Bonaparte all the way to a pointless death at Waterloo. An example, perhaps, of Reason being not so much subordinate to as eliminated by Emotion…

A few decades earlier, back on Pitcairn after 1789, reason did not prevail against emotion either. Richard Bean’s play is about many things and works on many levels so I don’t want to be reductive but, as well as being a story of extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, it is an another reminder from history of the catastrophic failure that results from attempting to create a civilisation that does not respect the natural, human and social capital on which that society is built. As with all good art, big issues – in this case, what makes a just society; and how do we live with each other without destroying each other and where we live – are presented so that you not only think, but - most importantly - feel.

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