Anger, #MeToo, charities and a whole lot else

Too much anger out there. Too many hardened positions. We’ve focused down on issues which polarise, divide families. If it came to war, would we fight each other? We did in our own English civil war, in the USA, in the Balkans.

We’re never so confident in our own opinions, if we’re on our own, most of us anyway. But find support within a group, and there’s an identifiable ‘severity shift’ to use the term that Daniel Kahneman and others have applied. And it’s not just opinions: ‘We don’t know how we feel until we see how other people feel.’ (Tim Harford, FT.) Feelings and opinions are elided.

Opinions and feelings have always differed radically, but we’ve mostly kept our more extreme opinions to ourselves. Not least our xenophobic attitudes. But post 2016, post referendum, post Trump, the gloves are off. Referenda are yes and no, and no comeback. You’re the victor or the loser. No live-to-fight-another-day – no next election four or five years down the road. And Trump – it could have been a referendum, was a referendum, on two ever more polarised approaches to life. We’re also now feeding off America. We’ve our own rust belt, though we’re spared the bible belt.

We’ve happily talked of social groups down the years. Now we talk of tribes. Tribal loyalties. Without the common ground the share space inbetween politics is a whole lot more risky. And if money piles in…

I’m thinking race, refugees, immigration, resistance to globalisation, ideas of sovereignty…

But there are other issues, including gender, sex and charities, out there, generating strong opinions, new divisions, new solidarities, and the press piling in often with little regard for rational examination or perspectives.

#MeToo – we have Weinstein, a serial offender. We have Woody Allen put alongside him, on the basis of an offence where he’s been cleared by two enquiries. Which isn’t to say he’s not guilty… But he is being damned by association. Likewise his films.

But – as a man – this is one issue where I tread carefully. The severity shift (see above) is reaping big dividends. When the individual is reinforced by the group, and finds space to speak out as they never did before. Sometimes this works for good. Minor offenders get swept up, but it was ever thus.

But what of charities, and Oxfam in particular? Damned out of sight by many, reported as if sex and charity were interwoven. Aid workers generally, not least Oxfam aid workers, do extraordinary work, under sometimes extreme conditions. The same human impulses, individuals mapping out their own space, finding a role, exercising power – they will always exist. Sex is another matter altogether. Oxfam in the Haiti case dealt with that, but not ruthlessly enough. But who imagined running an aid agency was easy? This is not for a moment to excuse – but it is to argue for, to demand, that we employ perspective, and not ride too readily with an eye-catching story.

There’s another side to this of course – the excuse it’s given to many with axes to grind on the subject of foreign aid to pile in, using scandal to try and subvert the whole process – arguing that countries would be better off without subventions from outside, without the help of aid workers. There have long been arguments over how aid should be distributed – whether through governments, or channelled direct to local industries, at one level – and as emergency relief, at another level. The sex scandal is now being used to attack the whole aid edifice. We’re back to the closed border, devil-take-the-refugees, approach that corrupted Brexit.

I argued in my last blog for reason and the pursuit of reason, and the importance of compassion to drive that pursuit. I fear reason is being misapplied, and compassion is running short. But that of course is one trouble with ‘reason’. It can be used to support both sides in an argument. The more we know about a subject often means not a wiser more balanced view, but a more strident approach – the information you choose and use to support your argument has been gathered for just that purpose. It’s called confirmation bias.

I argued in my recent post on Orwell for perspective and self-awareness. But they are in short supply just now. Confirmation bias has always been out there, but surely never as stridently as now.

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