Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Inner Dimension of Politics

"How terrible for you, teachers of the Law and Pharisees! You hypocrites! You give to God one tenth even of the seasoning herbs, such as mint, dill, and cumin, but you neglect to obey the really important teachings of the Law, such as justice and mercy and honesty. These you should practice, without neglecting the others. (Matthew 23:23)

As we approach the elections in Jersey, it is perhaps time to look back on the last three years, as Daniel Wimberley has been doing. If you go to his site, you will see a good many of the States decisions, and why he sees many of the actions and words coming from those with the levers of power as misleading the general public.

It is the commentary of someone of great integrity, who has been rather shocked to see how politicians really behave, and what he sees as a fundamental lack of honesty. I don't agree with every one of his comments, but some, such as Lime Grove, display clear evidence of deception and mismanagement.

He refers to this as "lying", a charge which I am sure will be denied by most of those mentioned, or over the events discussed. Now lying is perhaps deliberately chosen as a strong word, to get people to think, but it is also perhaps the most easily dismissed of words. It can be argued that these are matters which are difference of opinions, and to hold a different opinion is not to lie.

But there are shades of deceit, of a lack of honesty, which do not perhaps manifest themselves in obvious ways. It is a powerful irony of conscious rational thought that it is blind to all other forms of cognitive engagement, such as that gained from introspection, or learning to listen to others, and so can believe itself correct, and obviously correct. Self-deceit is perhaps the most dangerous form of lying, and I think there is a lot of self-deception in politics because of its very nature

The art of listening, of engaging, and really concentrating on what others are saying, and understanding what their concerns are, is not one that we are good at. Our own ego tends to come first, and while most people will engage in turn taking in a conversation, that is not the same as listening. More often, it is a case of letting another person speak, before we can come in with our own thoughts and ideas.

When another person is talking, what are you doing? If you are like most people you are thinking about what you are going to say as soon as there is a break in the conversation. If no break appears shortly you rehearse what you plan to say. Is that you? Do you know what the other person said? Can you repeat what has been said or do you merely know what you are going to say? Embarrassing, isn't it?

There is a technique called active listening that can help you overcome this habit. Active listening is where the listener takes an active role in the communications process by applying four techniques: restatement--restating or paraphrasing a message, summary--summarizing the main issues of a series of important points, responding to non-verbal cues--acknowledging and verbalizing the presence and effect of non-verbal messages, and responding to feelings--acknowledging and verbalizing the presence and affect of the feelings expressed... Managers need to be active listeners to improve their communication effectiveness by verifying understanding, clarifying communication, and encouraging more effective communication. Active listening also demonstrates to the communicator that the message was important, and that the manager is conscientious. (1)

Now there are a good many consultations, of asking the public what they think, and this is deemed to be politician engagement. But it is not. For a start, the matrix for the engagement is often limited by the kind of questions asked by the politicians or their advisors. But equally importantly, not only is the politician setting the agenda for the way they want the consultation to proceed, they are also removing themselves from engagement with real human beings, with going and actively listening to what people have to say. Imagine Jersey was another example - get people together, and fix the agenda on which they can speak. Active listening doesn't just involve this kind of consultation, which may be little more than listening and then persuading people that your view is right, and picking a selection of views, so that you have some that agree with you - it also means engaging in an active way in the listening process, of being humble enough to be able to change, however difficult or even painful that might be.

Within the States, what has struck me more than anything over the last three years, much more so than in fact on Frank Walker's watch, was the way in which there was a division between us and them, reflected quite clearly in voting patterns, and a fortress mentality in which dialogue was not taking place; instead of harnessing talents of all the members, there seemed to be a fear that this would lead to compromises or weaknesses in the Council of Ministers own position. The promised consensus, of bringing a wider States into the heart of Government, which was in the speech of the Chief Minister evaporated within a week on his election. Political commentators in the Jersey Evening Post have noted this, but there has been no sense in which the contradiction between word and act has ever been the subject of introspection.

There seems to be a failure to learn, and I don't just mean leaning from mistakes, I also mean learning to see one's own motivations, to be more introspective. Perhaps politicians in their quieter moments, are introspective, but that doesn't often appear apparent to me from anything they say. The interior journey, and the self-examination, with regrets, mistakes, apologies seems to be almost wholly lacking. Instead when mistakes are made, "the last word" seems to be the order of the day, coming back with a final vindication of one's own position.

O God, you have searched us out and known us, and all that we are is open to you. We confess that we have sinned: we have used our power to dominate and our weakness to manipulate; we have evaded responsibility and failed to confront evil; we have denied dignity to ourselves and to each other, and fallen into despair. We turn to you O God; we renounce evil; we claim your love; we choose to be made whole. (Anglican Confession of Faith)

We acknowledge that we are on the land of our Indigenous people. We honour their care of this part of the earth, their capacity to tread lightly over God's creation and to share its gifts. We weep, 0 God, for the lives of our people. We toil day and night and still our children go hungry. We sow the fields, planting your seeds of abundance and bringing in the gifts of your harvest. But this is torn from our hands and all that is left are the crumbs from tables of the rich. The gap grows wider and wider as we die from lack of health care and fall back in life without education and freedom. We bow our heads in shame, 0 God, for our tables groan with plenty. Our only questions are about which good thing to eat, and how much is too much. We puzzle over what more we can choose to add to our clothes, our homes and our style of living. As we hear the cries of the suffering people in the distance, we know that we have betrayed your dream. We have failed to live in your just community.(Confession, Service of Trade Justice)

One of the remarkable facts in the blogs, and on occasion - though usually slapped down by the speaker in the States - has been the appeal by those in opposition to the religious beliefs of some of those in power, even though some of those making those appeals are not themselves religious believers. But they see an inherent contradiction between the way the religious areas of life do not seem to have any impact on the politic arena, either in introspection, and any kind of confession that those in power might be mistaken, or in the values of social justice which they rightly see as apparent threaded through.

It is always as if they are saying: you are Christians - surely we expect better of you than a pragmatic attitude to fixing things, and some acknowledgement of when you make mistakes, a little less arrogance, a little more social concern and compassion for others. In fact they are saying that Christian belief should make a difference, but they can't see that it is apparent. And of course, the whole arena of debate deliberately is such that politics and religion have been sharply divided in a way that our ancestors of even two hundred years ago would have found hard to believe, so that even the word "godforsaken" is forbidden in the States Chamber. It is almost as if the removal of the Rectors from the States Chamber have shunted religious matters out as well. But that ban shouldn't mean that politicians can't draw upon those religious traditions in speeches outside the Chamber, and show the roots of social justice are deeply part of their lives. No one wants a theocracy, but the prophetic voice has also been silenced, where truth speaks to power.

Why is that important? I think it is important because it means that the kind of introspection which is needed, such as that which can confront the subtle tendencies to "dominate and our weakness to manipulate" (as the Confession above states) are also lost, or become simply an empty form of words, declaimed on Sundays, but unseen elsewhere. Without that element, politicians who are not prone or able to reflect on their motivations, tend to recall themselves in the best light, simply because their are powerful mechanisms for self-deceit within all human beings:

In every person's memory, times of not knowing what they now know are accompanied by moments of discovery--times when they are presented with new information that contradicts and then changes their prior beliefs. Such memories reinforce a widely shared folk theory of how people learn: Take ignorance, add information, and then gain competence at tasks such as knowing which of two remote cities is farther north. The human ability to recall such sequences is nearly universal. So is the ability to describe them. As a result, the folk theory is easy to communicate. Relative to more complex explanations of how we learn, we should expect this one to suffice in casual conversations in which the cost of being incorrect is insubstantial.

But the folk theory can be deceptive. The deception takes the form of inducing people to derive a causal story about how people learn from data insufficient for that task. The deception is a consequence of what statisticians call "selecting on the dependent variable." In other words, people recall the cases where the theory is accurate (for example, we start incompetent at a particular task; we pay attention to a new piece of information; it changes our views, and we then gain the ability to accomplish the task) and not cases in which it fails (for example, we start, incompetent, at a particular task, we either ignore new information or use it in a way that does not increase our intelligence, and we, therefore, gain no task-relevant abilities) (2)

Politics can be tough, and politicians often need to develop a tough shell. That's even been stated during the course of these elections. But the danger is that the protective layers that keep one's self esteem intact can also lead to all kinds of other problems, and in particular, a kind of reflex action to defend one's position, rather than ever subjecting it to self criticism. Instead, what develops is the ability to create "rationalizations as protective devices":

In a very important sense, life is devoted to the protection of the ego, the care and promotion of the self. Nor is the definition of what is ego or ego-involved confined to the body, or even to wholly personal attributes. On the contrary, it tends to be extended to people, symbols, ideas, and objects which in some way are associated with some aspect of the person. The selection of these ego-involved objects is the product both of social designation and idiosyncratic personal preference, the operation of the two factors making for individuality within a common framework. Self-esteem, then, inevitably rises and falls with the "fortunes" of the ego-involved objects. The socially determined sources of self-esteem have been termed "status," and the individually determined sources as "self-integrity." In reinforcing self-esteem from these sources, people fall back upon rationalizations as protective devices. (3)

Political motivation, is in part to do with an effort to maintain or enhance self-esteem. This can lead to an inability to decide once one's preferences have been clarified. But it does not always have to be that way. The example of Gandhi shows us that introspection can go hand in hand with politics, and the external journey can also be guided by the internal journey:

Though he freely experimented with western ways during his stay in London, he remained faithful to the Hindu beliefs of renunciation and selflessness, which served as a formative moral and ethical matrix throughout his life. These virtues also contributed to his identity as both a spiritual and a political figure and reflected his perception of his own development as a process of "self-realization" gained through "deep, self-introspection." (4)

A sea-change in politics is perhaps not likely to come overnight, but I think there must be room for improvements, and for more introspection into motivations, more active listening to the general public, for at the moment, we are still in the shallows and the dry places, and the deep well of life is still some way in the distance.

"How terrible for you, teachers of the Law and Pharisees! You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look fine on the outside but are full of bones and decaying corpses on the inside. In the same way, on the outside you appear good to everybody, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and sins.
(Matthew 23:27-28)

(1) How the Manager Can Use Active Listening. Contributors: Jay T. Knippen, Thad B. Green, Public Personnel Management, 1994
(2) Deliberation Disconnected: What It Takes to Improve Civic Competence. Arthur Lupia , Law and Contemporary Problems, 2002olitical Life:
(3) Why People Get Involved in Politics. Robert E. Lane, 1959
(4) Gandhi, Mao, Mandela, and Gorbachev: Studies in Personality, Power, and Politics. Anthony R. Deluca, 2000

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