IN SEARCH OF KINDNESS
Why is it that conservative politicians (and by this I mean Tories in the UK and Republicans in the US) are so often perceived as mean?
It is possible that they are actually just plain unkind, that the taunt used by Labour politicians that they are the the 'nasty party' is true. It is possible that conservative politicians do really go through life trying not to be nice. Perhaps they really do wake up every morning thinking 'hmm, how am I going to screw the poor today? '
Now from my point of view, not being a politician and not spending time with them, I cannot rule out the possibility that conservatives are simply nasty. It seems unlikely to me though. Politicians in general share some defining characteristics; the will to power, the ease with untruth, the ability to speak pleasing words without content. None of these things are unique to any one political viewpoint. More to the point none of these things make one intrinsically nasty. Untrustworthy perhaps, but unkind, no. So any perception of nastiness is not tied to the basic functions of being a politician or the degree to which they are exercised.
So are Tory politicians simply nastier people? Since we wish to first examine the person, not the words that come out of their mouth, we must look to personal lives and actions. It is hard to get a really good feel for this without a gargantuan amount of research, which I am too idle to do. However a simple qualitative glance across the two parties tends to support the idea that they are pretty similar. For every David Mellor or Jeffrey Archer there is a Robin Cook or David Blunkett. Even a politician perceived in his time as pretty horrible, John Profumo, demonstrated a personal level of kindness to shame most of us in subsequent life. Conservative politicians are not immune from being nice to their children or kind to their mothers, neither are Labour politicians immune from being mean to their wives or greedy when it comes to money.
So it seems pretty unlikely that it is the people themselves that lead to the perception of nastiness that hangs over Conservative politicians. So perhaps we should examine the politics instead.
Now this is stranger than it seems at first glance since the distinction between left and right in politics is, to put it mildly, weird. It probably seems quite normal if you are a political animal, but from outside it seems very very strange. In the UK today we have two parties that are barely distinguishable.
Thirty years ago things were easier to define – The Conservative party believed in private property, it looked after business, landed interests, the wealthy. It believed in low taxes and stood for law and order in a kind of authoritarian way. The Labour party was for 'the workers'. It believed in the taking of wealth from the rich and giving it to the poor. Private property was an anachronistic viewpoint (they'd all read the Communist Manifesto and the first few pages of Marx's Capital, which is all anyone sane can actually manage), the Bomb was bad. It sort of believed in law and order but only to the extent of getting its own way.
Now Tony Blair is the voice of law, order and authority, supporting some of the most repressive law ever passed in the UK. David Cameron (the Tory leader) seems to believe in wealth redistribution (though it is kind of hard to know given that he cannot seem to exceed a data rate of 1 byte per annum in his speeches). Both believe in huge government, they really think that they have the answer to our problems right there in their manifestos. Can you really tell the difference? I can't.
But here is the interesting thing. This state of affairs, the evolution of both parties into the same party, has been driven by two forces in modern politics. The first is that political economics has been steadily turning into a proper science. Many of the great debates of the twentieth century are over, decided. Good economics really doesn't look political any more. We are starting to see economic management in the same light as designing bridges – we get to make a few aesthetic decisions but they aren't that important really – the bridge gets built to good engineering principles or else it will fall down. So the modern parameters that political parties have to play with are pretty restrained – the dream of a free lunch anywhere now gets the derision it deserves. So the economics of left and right are now pretty similar. The second major force that has shaped the homogeneity of politics today is that of perception.
The rise of the media, and by this I mean the whole of it, the TV, the Blogsphere, the newspapers, has (as many many commentators have observed before me) transformed politics. Now if we enumerate the main drivers of perception we get an interesting list. It's the same list you'd like to see in your wife, your boss, your friends.
Competence, charm, good looks, kindness, honesty.
With four of these, you have an excellent chance of getting elected to lord it over the rest of us. Although we'd like to have the fifth, honesty, we have built our political systems to select heavily against it so we have to learn to forego it. So let's have a look at the first four.
Competence is not universal (did anyone say John Prescott?) but we have become really really intolerant of evidence of ineptitude, to the extent that a singe gaffe can now finish a political career. This was always true but it used to be that you had to make an error of enormous proportions to get canned. Now you just have to look a bit stupid. I cannot but applaud this in principle although you have to wonder at the perspicacity of the journalists we have charged with the task of judgement.
Charm. Once again this is not essential, but it really helps you get elected. Tony Blair and David Cameron have some of this, or so we are told. John Prescott doesn't.
Scott Adams (that modern philosopher of note) has stated that no one ever gets elected with bad hair now. William Hague can testify to this. It is sad but true that you have to look good to get elected in the full glare of the media today. You can get away with looking like a troll if you just want a minor role and your other qualities are great, but to be top dog you need some looks.
So now we come to kindness and the heart of this essay. This is a quality that is simply a 'must have'. This is not surprising. Who wants a mean friend, a mean boss, a mean wife? It is a quality that is so desirable that politicians work very hard to be perceived as dripping with it.
Although Gordon Brown is almost totally lacking in charm, and is no great shakes in the looks department, he is perceived as competent. And now he has identified kindness as the quality that will fill out the great gaping charm and looks gap. He has been proposing kindness on an enormous scale, billions of pounds of gifts. The 'ending of poverty in Africa'. Setting aside the thorny issue of whether this is actually possible through acts of kindness, it is an astute move. It leads us to perceive him as a nice man. He cares about people he has never met. He really cares, to the extent of spending a lot of money. OK, so its our money, but can your emotions really tell? He has materially increased his chances of election as a consequence of this.
On the other side of the fence, the Tories have been falling over themselves to shed any hint of perceived unkindness. This is tough for reasons we'll get to in a minute, but they are really trying, even to the extent that Oliver Letwin 'refused to rule out' tax rises to fund greater redistribution of wealth, a policy that always plays well when one wishes to be seen as kind. It's nice to give to the poor. The Tories have managed to shoot themselves in the foot pretty well, since that comment alienated a lot of their traditional voters and as it was delivered in a weasel manner it failed to translate into perceived kindness.
So now we come back to the central question. Why are 'right wing' politicians and people so often perceived as unkind? This is no longer a question to answered for pure amusement as it now seriously affects the electability of politicians. We are watching as the Tory party is busy trying to redefine itself as a new Labour party simply to deal with this problem, as it has noticed that the Labour party has nailed the problem of being perceived as kind. It imagines the way to replicate this is to simply turn into the same thing. Given the strength of the 'will to power' in politicians I suspect that this is not a bad policy for Cameron et al. It'll probably get them elected. It is however a terrible policy for all us poor voters out here in the real world. We now have no choices. This is very bad. Regardless of one's political views, a lack of choice is bad. It is an effective one party state. If we have no policy choices to vote on, why vote?
So now it's really important to be perceived as kind. But what exactly do we see as kind? Well, there is inevitably the reality and the perception. As is usual with perception, our modern sight is deeply flawed. We have evolved to deal with small community life, the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation, or EEA. This means that when we see kindness in any form we see it through the lens of small village life. And I mean small village, perhaps thirty people. Now faced with a society in the millions, electronic media, the abstraction of fiat money, we are in real trouble.
To give an example I can use two different pieces of 'kindness' on vastly different scales.
If I go round to my friend's house on a Sunday and spend the afternoon helping him dig his garden, I have been kind. The same applies if I cut my neighbours' lawn for them when they are ill and cannot do it for themselves. Society recognises this kindness and I am rewarded in much the same way we reward politicians who are perceived as kind today – with respect and status.
Now let us consider a large act of 'kindness'. Africa. A continent that has been the recipient of more large scale 'kindness' than probably anywhere else on Earth. In particular let us consider Tanzania. Tanzania is the daddy of kindness recipients. Billions (many billions) of pounds in money have been given to Tanzania in the last fifty years. It has had institutionalised kindness on the grandest scale visited upon it.
In order to judge whether these acts actually were kind we should look at the results. I think it is fair to say that kindness is not actually kind unless it has a beneficial effect on the recipient. Good effects on the source of the kindness don't count. In the case of my ill neighbour his lawn got cut. It's hard to see how this is anything but a good thing. In the case of Tanzania we basically totally wrecked the country. We supported the well meaning but astonishingly idiotic Julius Nyerere as he systematically destroyed any hope of a sane economy. I won't even start on the Groundnut Scheme. Tanzania now may be described as 'one of the poorest countries in the world'. So by any sane measure the large scale institutional kindness done to Tanzania was the very opposite. It was mean. It was nasty and wrong. We meant well. So what? We did a very bad thing.
The key to understanding the reason that both of these examples are perceived as kindness but are in fact polar opposites is their scale. We are simply not evolved to understand kindness on any scale apart from the very small. All our intuition fails. All we have left is reason and logic. Tragically in the case of large scale kindness, reason and logic often lead to directly the opposite (or certainly very different) conclusions from the emotional, intuitionist response.
This is the the central issue. Politicians wish to be perceived as kind. They deal in big things. They don't come round and cut my lawn when I'm not feeling well. But we are rubbish at understanding kindness on any kind of large scale. So when a conservative politician says something like 'lower taxes are good, we'll raise more absolute tax in the long run' we hear 'no raise in the old age pension this year for granny'. We fail to apply reason to the argument. If (and this is a matter for debate I know, but let's take it as read for now) lowering taxes results in a faster growing economy and the short term pain is a lower pension but the longer term benefit is that the pension system is sustainable then the debate is an economic one. It has nothing to do with kindness.
When we hear Gordon Brown going on about aid and debt relief for Africa we hear a kind man. Despite the reality that our record of aid is so astonishingly, terribly, horrible. And we don't notice that the one really good thing that Gordon could have done for Africa, removing trade barriers into the EU, he has gone strangely silent on. Of course, removing trade barriers is a hard task given the EU, but he's not really even trying that hard. In reality, Gordon Brown is not being kind, he is being mean and it is our rubbish perceptual abilities that produce this illusion. He almost certainly doesn't want to be mean. He may even believe that he is doing good. But good intentions don't make good outcomes.
So there we have the reason that conservative politicians are often seen as unkind. They have the occasional lapse (and it really is occasional these days) into rational thought. This dooms them in a world shaped by perceptions of kindness that evolved for village life. The fact that we condemn every rational thought and every politician that has one is now paying dividends in parliament. We have the government that we deserve. God help us.
Things become even more extreme when one considers people of a humanist viewpoint. This viewpoint has a number of central ideas amongst which are the enlightenment values of rationality and kindness. It is an approach to life I have a lot of sympathy with. In discussion with people of more mainstream political views one is often perceived (and here I speak from personal experience) as mean. In fact this perception of 'meanness' is often transmuted into 'slightly unbalanced' in attempt to rationalise their friendship with you – it's ok to be friends with a madman, but certainly not with someone unkind.
When confronted with a humanist approach it often turns out that what someone perceives as mean is simply applying reason and logic to a situation (such as aid to Africa) that they are more used to relying upon emotion and intuition for. They are very uncomfortable with the rational conclusion and would rather assume the source of this discomfort is mean and unkind than believe that their intuition could be flawed.
But their intuition is flawed. Often deeply flawed, to the extent that it turns their acts of charity and kindness into the very opposite, into acts of surpassing meanness. We mean well. But just look at sub Saharan Africa. This is not good enough.
Being rational does not make one unkind. It makes kindness much harder to do, particularly on any large scale. Sometimes it leads to the conclusion that one must do nothing, the hardest kind act of all. We should begin to take the trouble to distinguish true kindness from false, to distinguish between acts that will have a bad price in years to come even if they make us feel good right now. To distinguish between our desire to feel good about ourselves and the true helping of others.
And we should cease punishing politicians for speaking the rational truth by labelling them as unkind.
Uphill Farm - April 2006
1 - The EEA is a concept originated with John Bowlby in 1969 in Vol 1 Attachment and Loss (Pimlico). I first came upon it in Darwinian Politics by libertarian thinker Paul Rubin (Rutgers University Press 2002). This is an excellent and thought provoking book.
2 – It is really hard to come by actual numbers for how much aid money has been foisted on Tanzania in total. The 2005 CIA world factbook which is the only vaguely respectable source of made up numbers about aid that I can find lists annual aid running at 1.2 billion dollars for Tanzania. this is a lot more than almost anywhere else, Ethiopia receives around 300 million dollars, Rwanda around the same and the utterly knackered Democratic Republic of the Congo around 195 million. Tanzania also benefitted from a gift of six billion dollars as debt relief via the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative. None of this seems to have impacted the lives of actual Tanzanian citizens yet, surprise surprise. We live in hope do we not? Interestingly, if we added up that debt relief and five years of annual aid and just gave everyone the cash they could all have six months income (315 dollars) in one parcel. And that includes children and mothers.
3 - This phrase is taken straight from the CIA World Factbook for 2005.