Fact v Fiction in Public Discourse

In an era of fake news, alternative facts, deep state conspiracy theories, absolutists and populists, “political truths” are wielded like linguistic weapons. Any form of dissent (or contrary evidence) is branded as “unpatriotic”, “undemocratic”, “unconstitutional”, “disloyal”, “treasonous”, “elitist”, or “subversive”.

“The Treachery of Images” (Painting by Rene Magritte, image sourced from Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Experts are treated with scepticism, scientists with suspicion, relativists with disdain, pluralists with apoplexy. Anyone seen to be challenging the status quo is dismissed as an “enemy of the people”. The public is being co-opted/coerced into buying wholesale certain political claims and party agendas (often hidden), without any opportunity to subject them to independent scrutiny or fact-checking.

Facts and logic are often the first victims in this abuse of language in the exercise of public discourse. Political slogans don’t even bother to avoid or deny accusations of propaganda: “Yeah? So what?” is often the response.

With that in mind, let’s play semantics and semiotics! To begin with, some opening statements:

1. This is a red car. (Observation, and a Fact if we agree on what is “red”) *

2. Red is the most popular colour of car. (Statement of Fact, if proved statistically) **

3. Red cars hold their value more than green cars. (Opinion, but also a Fact if it can be proved statistically, and we agree on what “value” means in this context)

4. Red cars are better than green cars, but blue cars are better than red cars. (Judgement tending towards a display of bias and prejudice)

Depending on the positioning and messaging, #1-#4 could be used in various marketing and advertising campaigns to sell red cars (or in the case of #4, sell blue cars).

Now, here are two reasonably uncontroversial propositions:

  • “Traffic laws are important to the functioning of society.”
  • “Good government relies on the democratic will of the electorate, and adequate funding of public services via taxation.”

We can see from the way language and truth are mangled in the service of current political debate and social commentary, that “statements of fact” can be easily positioned as “expressions of opinion” (and from there manipulated into pejorative and derogatory accusations or subtexts):

1. Red cars are involved in more road accidents than any other colour of vehicle
(Anyone who drives a red car is more likely to drive recklessly.)

2. People who drive red cars don’t observe the speed limit.
(Anyone who drives a red car is either a libertarian or an anarchist.)

3. People who drive red cars fail to pay their taxes.
(Anyone who drives a red car is anti-government.)

4. People who drive red cars are subversives.
(Anyone who drives a red car is a terrorist.)

5. People who drive red cars are law-abiding citizens.
(Anyone who drives a red car is a conservative. OR: Anyone who doesn’t drive a red car is a criminal.)

6. People who drive red cars give to charity but people who drive blue cars give more.
(Anyone who drives a red car is a better person than someone who drives a green car but not as good as someone who drives a blue car.)

The combination of sweeping generalisations and over-simplification in public discourse can obviously distort meaning and generate distrust. For example:

1. What if all taxis are red? That might mean they spend more time on the road, and therefore are more prone to be involved in traffic accidents.

2. What if more sports cars are red than any other colour? That might mean their drivers are more likely to speed. Or that their owners have more money. Or they are status conscious.

3. What if people who drive red cars come from a specific socio-economic, sectarian or ethnic demographic? Even then, they won’t all agree on the same issues, and they will likely display a similar range of divergent, opposing and contradictory views as the drivers of any other colour of car.

Unfortunately, the current environment for political debate and public commentary is being reduced to a binary state, where nuanced and subtle argument is being sidelined in favour of polarised and partisan politics, where facts are not allowed to get in the way of some convenient diatribe. If only politicians were accountable to voters under the Trade Practices Act – although we may soon see election campaigns subject to misleading and deceptive conduct legislation.

* Colour can also depend on context, as these experiments demonstrate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFC7EyR1lhU

** It’s not actually true: https://www.whichcar.com.au/car-news/most-popular-car-colours

Next week: Business as Unusual  

The “new, new normal” post-Covid-19

After the GFC of 2007-8, we were told to get used to the “new normal” – of low/slow/no growth, record-low interest rates, constant tech disruption and market dislocation as economic systems became increasingly decoupled from one another. And just as we had begun to adjust to this new reality, along comes Covid-19 and totally knocks our expectations sideways, backwards and upside down, and with it some negative long-term consequences. Welcome to the “new, new normal”.

Just what the doctor ordered: “Stay home and read a book!”

In the intervening years since the GFC (and don’t those days seem positively nostalgic from our current vantage point?), we have already seen ever lower interest rates, even faster disruption in business models and services, and a gradual dismantling of the trend towards a global economy. The pre-existing geopolitical landscape has either exacerbated this situation, or has been a prime beneficiary of the dismantling of the established structures of pluralistic, secular, non-sectarian, social-democratic and liberal societies.

First, relations between the Superpowers (USA, Russia and China) have not been this bad since the Cold War. Second, nationalism has not been as rife since the 1930s. Third, political leadership has tended toward the lowest common denominator of populist sloganeering. Not to mention the rise of fundamental religious sects, doomsday cults and tribal separatist movements. Let’s agree that even before the current pandemic, our resistance was already low….

Whatever your favourite conspiracy theory on causes and cures for Covid-19, it’s increasingly apparent that populist leaders of both the left and the right will use the pandemic as vindication of their policies – increased xenophobia and tighter border controls, increased centralisation of power and resources, greater surveillance of their citizens, a heightened intolerance of political dissent, a continued distrust of globalisation, and a growing disregard for subject matter experts and data-driven analysis.

The writing’s on the wall? Message seen in East Melbourne

There are obviously some serious topics up for discussion when we get through this pandemic. Quite apart from making the right economic call (“printing money” in the form of Quantitative Easing seems the main option at the moment…), governments and central banks are going to have to come to grips with:

  • Universal Basic Income – even before Covid-19, the UBI was seen as a way to deal with reduced employment due to automation, robotics and AI – the pandemic has accelerated that debate.
  • Nationalisation – bringing essential services and infrastructure back into public ownership would suggest governments would have the resources they need at their disposal in times of crisis – but at the likely cost of economic waste and productivity inefficiencies that were the hallmark of the 1970s.
  • Inflation – as business productivity and industrial output comes back on-line, the costs of goods and services will likely increase sharply, to overcome the pandemic-induced inertia.
  • Credit Squeeze – banks were already raising lending standards under tighter prudential standards, and post-pandemic defaults will make it even harder for businesses to borrow – so whatever the central cash rates, commercial lenders will have to charge higher lending rates to maintain their minimum risk-adjusted regulatory capital and to cover possible bad debts.
  • Retooling Industry – a lot of legacy systems might not come out of the pandemic in good shape. If we have managed to survive for weeks/months on end without using certain services, or by reducing our consumption of some goods, or by finding workarounds to incumbent solutions, then unless those legacy systems and their capacity can be retooled or redeployed, we may get used to living without their products all together.
  • Communications Technology – government policy and commercial settings on internet access, mobile network capacity and general telco infrastructure will need to be reviewed in light of the work from home and remote-working experience.
  • The Surveillance State – I’m not going to buy into the whole “China-virus” narrative, but you can see how China’s deployment of facial recognition and related technology, along with their social credit system, is a tailor-made solution for enforcing individual and collective quarantine orders.

Another policy concern relates to the rate at which governments decide to relax social-distancing and other measures, ahead of either a reliable cure or a vaccine for Covid-19. Go too early, and risk a surge or second wave of infections and deaths; go too late, and economic recovery will be even further away. Plus, as soon as the lock-downs start to end, what’s the likelihood of people over-compensating after weeks and months of self-isolation, and end up going overboard with post-quarantine celebrations and social gatherings?

Next week: The lighter side of #Rona19

 

Brexit Blues (Part II)

Brexit finally came into effect on January 31, 2020 with a transition period due to end on December 31, 2020. It’s still not clear whether key issues such as the post-Brexit trade agreement between the EU and the UK will be completed by then (a major talking point being imports of American chlorinated chicken….). Nor is it clear which other areas of EU laws and standards will survive post-transition. Both of which continue to cause uncertainty for British businesses and local governments that have to operate within and enforce many of these rules. Add to that the recent UK storms and floods, the post-Brexit air of racism and xenophobia, plus the coronavirus outbreak and the resulting drag on global markets and supply chains, and maybe the UK will run out of more than just pasta, yoghurt and chocolate. Perhaps those promised post-Brexit savings of £350m a week really will need to spent on the National Health Service…..

The “Vote Leave” campaign bus, 2016 (Image sourced from Bloomberg)

The seeds of the Brexit debacle were sown in David Cameron’s speech of January, 23 2013. As I wrote last year, that set in motion a series of flawed processes. Despite the protracted Brexit process, it’s now unlikely that the decision to leave will be reversed, especially as the opposition Labour Party has just been trounced at the polls. Instead, Labour continues to beat itself up over the failure of its outgoing leadership either to make a solid case in support of the Remain vote in the 2016 Referendum, or to establish and maintain a clear and coherent policy on Brexit leading right up to the December 2019 General Election. The Conservative Party under Boris Johnson has a huge Parliamentary majority, a fixed 5-year mandate, and a general disregard for traditional cabinet government and the delineation of roles between political advisors and civil servants. We have already seen that any form of dissent or even an alternative perspective will not be tolerated within government or within the Tory party, let alone from independent and non-partisan quarters.

Since that fateful speech of January, 2013, it’s possible to follow a Brexit-related narrative thread in film, TV and fiction. Not all of these accounts are directly about Brexit itself, but when viewed in a wider context, they touch on associated themes of national identity, democracy, political debate, public discourse, xenophobia, anti-elitism, anti-globalism, and broader popular culture.

The earliest such example I can recall is Brian Aldiss’s final novel, “Comfort Zone”, (published in December 2013), while the first truly “Brexit Novel” is probably Jonathan Coe’s “Middle England” (November 2018). Somewhat to be expected, political thrillers and spy novels have also touched on these themes – Andrew Marr’s “Children of the Master” (September 2015, and probably still essential reading for Labour’s current leadership candidates); John Le Carre’s “A Legacy of Spies” (September 2017); John Simpson’s “Moscow, Midnight” (October 2018); and John Lanchester’s “The Wall” (January, 2019). (For another intriguing and contemporary literary context, I highly recommend William Gibson’s introduction to the May 2013 edition of Kinglsey Amis’s “The Alteration”. Plus there’s an essay on the outgoing Labour leader in Amis junior’s collection of non-fiction, “The Rub of Time” published in October 2017.)*

Elsewhere there have been TV dramatisations to remind us how significant, important and forward-looking it was when the UK joined the EEC in 1973 – most notably the chronicling of the Wilson and Heath governments as portrayed in “The Crown”. Even a film like “The Darkest Hour” reveals the love-hate relationship Britain has had with Europe. More distant historical context can be seen in films like “All is True” and “Peterloo”.

No doubt, Brexit will continue to form a backdrop for many a story-teller and film-maker for years to come. And we will inevitably see recent political events re-told and dramatised in future documentaries and dramas. Hopefully, we will be able to view them objectively and gain some new perspective as a result. Meanwhile, the current reality makes it too depressing to contemplate something like “Boris Johnson – Brexit Belongs to Me!”

*Postcript: hot off the press, of course is “Agency”, Willam Gibson’s own alternative reality (combining elements of the “Time Romance” and “Counterfeit World” referenced in “The Alteration”) – I haven’t read it yet, but looking forward (!) to doing so….

Next week: Joy Division and 40+ years of Post-Punk

 

Signing off for Saturnalia

According to a Gallup Report, in 2018 the world was “sadder and angrier than ever. If recent global events are anything to go by, 2019 will easily top that. And as I write, much of south east Australia is on fire (the bushfire season having started back in early August), only adding to the sense of rage. I can’t recall an angrier year, maybe not since the 1970s.

Image of Scott Walker scanned from the NME Annual for 1968

Reasons to be angry? World politics, climate change, fake news, growing nationalism, economic stagnation, and sectarian intolerance. Evidence of anger? Brexit, Impeachment, Hong Kong, France, Chile, Iran, India, Iraq, Adani, Extinction Rebellion, #MeToo, etc.

Meanwhile, considered academic debate has been reduced to very public slanging matches. Even popular music seems shoutier than ever, and no action movie is considered complete without gratuitous violence, hyperbolic pyrotechnics and pounding soundtracks.

So much noise, so much hot air (verbal and atmospheric) and so much sheer rage, not always easy to articulate or understand – and not easy to predict how that will translate at the ballot box, given the election results in Australia and the UK. Politicians of all persuasions are increasingly seen as being a key cause for voter anger, but in both cases, continuity was deemed preferable to change.

As we wind down for the holidays, it’s frustrating to think that the “season of goodwill” is limited to just a few weeks of the year. I’m not suggesting 12-month-long Black Friday Sales. Rather, can we find it in ourselves to be more civil to each other throughout the year, even if we disagree on certain things? In particular, I’m thinking of the growing evidence of sectarian strife. Established religions may condemn to hell (or even death) anyone who disagrees with their belief systems, but in a democratic, secular and pluralist society, the right to “freedom of religion” also means everyone is entitled to “freedom from religion”.

In light of that, I’d like to wish all my readers a safe and peaceful Saturnalia. Normal service will be resumed in the New Year.