On Politics and Language

September 13, 2013

This will be the last post for the foreseeable future on this blog, as I have accepted a politically restricted position and will be ceasing partisan comment. Given this, I’ve decided to actually explain the blog’s title, which – alongside people pointing out its obvious pretension – is something that has apparently caused some confusion.

Logos (pronounced low-goss), from the subheading given above, refers to a rational principle. It is an ancient Greek word, and has taken on many meanings for a range of different authors, differing even from Plato to Aristotle. It is Plato’s meaning which is relevant here: the logos is the means by which we access the eidos, the Forms. For those not familiar with this theory, a coarse form of Plato’s argument is as follows. We can recognise a unity across differing objects – for example, we can see a red car and say that it is red, see a red brick and say that it is red, and see a red bucket and say that it is red. How do we recognise red, when there is not one red in one form, but various in many? There must be an exemplar that we call upon in order to recognise such abstract concepts, such unities. This exemplar is a Form, an eidos.

We can have Forms of any abstract concept: the Form of a horse, say, is a perfect exemplar of Horsiness. All particular examples of any abstraction approach the perfection of a form, but do not fully achieve it, but it is in their proximity to the ideal that we are able to recognise them. We gain knowledge of the Forms through a logos, which is a way of expressing the content of a Form. The classical example is that of shape: Socrates says in the Meno, when asked how one would explain shape to someone with no understanding of it, that shape is the limit of a solid. This latter clause is the logos of the eidos of shape. It looks rather like a definition, and indeed one could claim that Plato holds a theory of meaning that states that a word has a fixed meaning given by a fixed definition, and that definition can be uncovered through philosophy, which allows one to identify the logos of a particular Form, or the rational principle by which one accesses it. This is a very primitive statement of his argument, but it will suffice for the point I wish to make.

This understanding of meaning as fixed is one that is perennially popular in philosophy, even to this day when at least one famous academic has made his career from taking as the starting point of his argument: “We want words to have a fixed meaning. What needs to be the case for this to work?” However, it is almost trivially untrue, as even the most cursory reader of Wittgenstein will be aware. Instead, words take part in games of meaning, in which participants in a particular game may assign a meaning to a word while other games assign a different meaning. Meaning is thus fluid and only given in how the word is used. However, it remains crucially important, even without the fixed points of eidos: only with a shared logos can we successfully communicate.

What does any of this philosophical abstraction have to do with politics in the real world, you might be asking? The answer is a great deal, because our main political parties have all been complicit in activities which subvert the logos for their own ends, and in doing so have created a situation in which we are governed by groups of people who in a very meaningful way no longer speak the same language as the public.

The first example of this – indeed, the example that directly inspired the title of this blog – is a phrase used extensively by the Liberal Democrats: ‘local campaigner’. Typically, this phrase is used in the Party’s public-facing literature to describe candidates at both local and parliamentary levels. It seems innocuous – the overwhelming majority of Lib Dem candidates do campaign on local issues, and do so genuinely. My objection to it is not based on dislike of candidates, but rather on the way in which its use in this context changes its meaning. The habitual use by Liberal Democrats of this phrase to refer exclusively to their candidates in their literature and not people who campaign for their local area without political aspiration adds to their logos for this phrase, while the public spirit inherent in campaigning lends the phrase an air of altruism when interpreted by the public. These logoi are as below:

libdem

While it may seem unusual to think of Lib Dems as seeking power, it is clear that the use of this phrase packs in a great deal of utility: the leftmost logos presents an inducement to vote for the candidate.The Lib Dems are not lying when they use this phrase to describe their candidates – in my experience, politicians rarely lie – but instead they have bastardised the meaning of a phrase for political gain.

Of course, the public is not quite so easily deceived as I paint here, but we have two options for their response: either they accept the Lib Dems’ use of ‘Local Campaigner’ as being equivalent to their use (and thus the Lib Dems are not really communicating with them as they are in two different language games) or they recognise that the Lib Dems are using the phrase differently and that actual communication is not happening. Either way, the use of this phrase with its Lib Dem logos erects a barrier to genuine conversation between politicians and the public. It is the case, however, that they are not necessarily aware that this could be in any way considered untoward, which I shall consider later.

The second example I want to pick up on was used by Ed Milliband in his speech to the TUC conference. In it, he claimed that he was presenting a ‘fundamentally different vision of our economy’. In practice, this means a greater emphasis on apprenticeships and potentially something like Germany’s KfW running alongside the existing Green Investment Bank, with perhaps a greater reluctance to deregulate employment thrown in. ‘Fundamentally different’ is, as a result, an exaggeration at best. However, it is highly likely that Milliband believes that he is presenting something very different, because of a feature of political trench warfare: all differences are magnified by competition. Thus, we have two logoi that are even further apart:

labour

Nonetheless, this use of the phrase retains its utility, as it prompts party supporters to believe that Labour is genuinely pushing for real change. However, the sheer disconnect on show here means that such supporters will necessarily be disaffected as time passes, because they are literally incapable of communicating with their leadership using phrases like this.

To maintain parity, the last phrase I want to consider is the current form of the perennial political favourite ‘hard working families’, the slogan of the Conservative Party: ‘For Hard Working People’. This phrase is interesting, as bound up with its positive tone is its negative: it is against people who don’t work hard. It is also deceptive, functioning like ‘local campaigner’ by providing the implication that it will support all hard-working people, even if they fall foul of another more capricious hard-working person who employs them. We therefore have:

tories

Again, communication is hampered by meanings that differ; meanings that have been subverted in the name of political utility. The practice of assessing messages against both polling and focus groups is done with the explicit intention of finding a package of words that delivers support regardless of what those words mean to the person saying them.

The end result is a political class that is incapable of communicating with the general public, and more troublingly, with each other: all three parties have their own language games, and debate between relies upon the protagonists being sufficiently intellectually adept to move between games at will. It is hardly surprising that the public is increasingly disaffected with a political class that does not speak the same language as them – not, in its normal usage, because they use big words and overblown rhetoric, but because they do not share a common logos. UKIP does at present, which partly explains its rise, but the temptation of the sheer utility of abusing meaning in this way will overcome them in the end.

People working in politics will doubtless find this very odd, overly abstract and unimportant compared with the big issues of the day. What does it matter that they distort the meaning of a few words in order to save the NHS, for example? To answer this, I’d like to use an analogy with the foreign exchange market. At every moment, large computers are comparing prices for currency in all the markets around the world, and where they find a momentary opportunity for arbitrage, conducting hundreds of trades a second. The profit on each trade is typically in fractions of a penny, but the sheer volume of these trades makes the practice very lucrative indeed. The same applies to the abuse of the logos: each time a politician says something using a meaning with which they privately disagree, they commit a fractional sin. When they do it hundreds of times a day, they commit a much bigger sin. Even worse, by sheer repetition the sin is normalised, to the point that most political types reading this will respond with ‘Well, that’s just how it is’.

It cannot continue. Without a genuine effort to communicate with the public using meanings that we all share, our political system is left at risk of even greater disaffection and the dangers of a public growing disenchanted with democracy. Without bravery from our politicians, the logos will continue to decline.

Debate on the Internet takes the form of a many-tailed temporal worm: many different segments of argument persisting across time and yet standing in relation to a particularly obstreperous character as their starting point. This post is in response to a post by Mark Wallace, which in turn was in response to an article by Owen Jones, which itself was a response to Sunny Hundal.

Sunny made the dreadfully uninteresting argument that people he disagreed with were evil, for a definition of evil so broad as to include any health minister forced to ration healthcare by virtue of not possessing infinite resources. Despite being mind-bogglingly stupid (or, indeed, perhaps because of this) it attracted quite some debate, with Owen Jones responding that Tories weren’t evil but rather rationalisers of policies which defend their own privilege. This is absolutely true: it is entirely possible to ostensibly believe in policies which enable entrepreneurs to produce products which improve the lives of millions while at the same time supporting policies which reduce the amount of tax one personally has to pay. Very often they can be the same policies; simply having good intentions doesn’t grant one altogether altruistic motives.

Mark wrote a response to this which includes the following statement:

“Or maybe Conservatives think what we think because, having interrogated
the logic and the evidence, we honestly believe conservatism holds the
best solutions for the problems the nation faces?”

Mark suffers from an all too rare flaw in contemporary politicians: the need to ensure that what he’s doing is right. As a result, he clearly believes that Conservatism, as an ideology, is based upon a rational assessment of the evidence. This is fascinating, because it’s difficult to square this notion with, well, the evidence. To take a few examples:

  • Osborne’s economic policy appears to be less based upon evidence and more upon throwing darts on a board composed of random fiscal manoeuvres. He’s combined a particularly arbitrary approach to cutting public spending (20% cuts across all departments except politically protected ones without any particular exemption for capital spending) with a few random quasi-Keynesian initiatives. The Help to Buy scheme in particular stands against everything we learned from the credit crunch and even all the arguments made by right-wingers in the States: Government underwriting of mortgages for first-time buyers is a bad thing.
  • Iain Duncan Smith, while starting from the well-intentioned position of wanting to lower the marginal rate of taxation on people transferring from benefits into work, has decided to start ignoring the evidence in favour of his own belief that he is right.
  • The Conservatives’ official position on Europe is to negotiate the repatriation of some powers which they think are better held at the national level. However, the recent report on this subject has caused at least one Tory adviser to complain about the weight it puts on evidence, as the facts appear to run contrary to their position.

I may be being unfair, as Mark appears to want to have this debate at a much more macro level:

“Conservatives believe in doing what works – not holding tight to nice means, and to hell with the ends. We recognise and embrace human fallibility, and seek to sculpt policies that turn it to society’s best advantage. We would rather acknowledge the profit motive and channel its energies towards alleviating ills, than seek to restrain it at the cost of greater human suffering.”

Conservatives, having looked at the evidence, want to use capitalism and the greed of mankind to achieve good. This is entirely reasonable – as a liberal I want the same thing. But crucially, as a liberal, we’ve wanted this for much longer. Opposition to the repeal of the Corn Laws and other restrictions on trade in the 19th century came primarily from the Tory benches, and their eventual repeal caused the formation of the Liberal Party. Either conservatism has changed since then to require evidence before making policy, or it continues to be an ideology founded most of all upon retaining particular structures of power.The latter is a more Burkean Conservatism, and it is undeniable that such an approach is still common within the party. Such an ideology is less concerned with what works than what works for oneself.

However, this does not mean that Mark is wrong: as I mentioned above, it is entirely possible for at least some Conservatives (although not, apparently, the ones in the Cabinet) to support a policy on the basis of evidence while that policy simultaneously supports existing power structures. But it does present a problem to his more sweeping claim that Conservatism has some kind of lock on rational evidence-based approaches to policymaking in comparison with other ideologies: this is as obviously nonsensical as the claim that right-wingers are evil. The intellectual tradition and current practice of the Party points to Conservatives being no less and no more likely to rely on evidence than any other political grouping, and rightly so, otherwise all Conservatives would agree on absolutely everything. Only socialists all think the same.

The Wild Wild Wind

July 16, 2013

About a year ago Chris Townsend wrote a defence of his opposition to wind farms in the wilderness, a defence notable for its lack of venom and the mindless shrieking about imagined technical issues that infects too much of the opposition to wind power. I unfortunately did not read the article at the time, but came to it late via a tweet last week.

It is so different from much of the bile that pumps from the spout of the Telegraph and the like that it deserves a proper response, even now. To summarise, Townsend argues from a position that has a long history within the environmental movement, dating back to Thoreau and the Transcendalists: that of wilderness being essential for human flourishing. By imposing our own practicalities on the wild – to whit, by concreting it over – we conceal something potentially grander and hence impoverish ourselves. The viewpoint of man is necessarily limited, and by assuming our needs are primary we miss out on manifold other forms of interpretation. An example that Thoreau uses is that of squirrels, which around here are frequently dismissed as tree rats, but from another perspective can be seen as the ‘planters of forests’.

The wilderness allows man to have access to this manifold of interpretation and in contemplating it we are free to grow both intellectually and aesthetically. This approach could be seen as having much in common with Kantian aesthetics, albeit on a much broader scale. By introducing symbols of man’s practicality within the demesne of the wild we break this manifold: an interpretation is forced upon us and shocks us out of our contemplation. Townsend claims that wind turbines play this role, and are an intrusion into the wild.

I wish to argue the opposite, but before I do so we must better understand why the wild is able to play the role that it does. Firstly, it is ostensibly impractical. The wild has no easily perceived use, and only through contemplation and investigation can we see the role it can play. Secondly, it is chaotic. It is not constructed according to a single coherent design, but rather the complex interaction of many forms of life, and forces much larger than life itself. Thirdly, this impractical chaos lends it beauty. The aesthetic of the wild as outlined above is an aesthetic of happenstance and of engagement: beauty lies in the capability of the wild to open new ways of seeing the world.

With the above in tow, it is not clear that man made objects are necessarily excluded from the wild if it can be shown they can manifest the features given above. I claim that wind turbines can. It is frequently claimed by opponents of wind power that they are impractical, being less controllable than the huge coal furnaces they’re more used to getting electricity from. This is true: compared to fossil fuels, wind turbines represent a surrender to nature. But in that surrender there is mystery: they force the user to consider new ways of powering civilisation, ones which are more in line with the forces that determine the shape of the wild. They are chaotic – certainly in output – but in interaction across the country bring a unity of output not of a single design, but of many. In the contemplation of this new world in which the wild moves into civilisation, rather than the other way round, they are certainly beautiful.

The train journey between Carlisle and Edinburgh now goes through what can only be described as a wind farm landscape. It is beautiful. When passing through it, one cannot help but contemplate how our world is changing, and how our very understanding of the previously hermetic worlds of the Wild and the Civilised are changing with it. Thoreau believed that man, through art and literature, could create the wild itself. In placing more of our civilisation in the hands of natural forces, we are bringing the wild home.

Imagine, if you can bear it, that you’re Ed Milliband. You inherited a party that had reclaimed its sense of moral purpose, however misguided, in opposition to cuts to a managerial state that it had spent thirteen years building, a state that provided many benefits and services to a population grown accustomed to its largesse. The economy was foundering in the wake of international money market pandemonium, and appeared to be being made worse by the muddled policies of a Chancellor of aristocratic descent. Opinion polls put you in the lead by a country mile.

And yet somehow you’ve found yourself in conflict with your most significant source of funding and are on course to voluntarily allow your opponents to outspend you at the next election. You’ve allowed the source of your party’s traditional strength to become a weakness, to allow organisations representing the working public to be vilified by a party made up of self-interested millionaires. You’re frantically trying to manage over-mighty bosses that should be coming to you in supplication for a hint of power, and are on course to somehow lose the next election.

In short, you’ve managed to ruin your own party, your election prospects, and any hope for class identity the British left may once have had. You’re literally your own worst enemy, and the bosom ally of the Conservatives. You’ve made this Liberal Democrat feel that even his party isn’t quite so bad in comparison. How did you come to this?

Planet Littlewood

June 24, 2013

Mark Littlewood recently called for the names of benefit recipients to be made publicly available. Let’s imagine what that kind of world would be like.

There was a sign on his window again. Every morning when he opened his curtains, it would always be there, blocking out the light. He ripped it down every night, but it was always put back up. Even worse, it’d started changing every day. Originally the sign was just £2,953.60, but now it’d started rising by £8.11, every day. He considered just leaving it up this time, but Kev felt very strongly that this would be letting the bastards win.

It was his neighbor. He’d caught him at it a few times, coming back in from another fruitless job hunt, finding John slapping paste onto the glass and placing the various sheets of paper along a carefully measured line. His balding head bent over in intense concentration, John actually brought a level along with him to ensure that the sign was perfectly aligned. Such fastidious attention to detail doubtless explained why John had been able to keep his database job when the call centre downsized.

Every confrontation went the same way. Kev would yell out, and John would turn around with a vicious grin on his face. He’d then turn back to his task, aware than Kev could do nothing at all. Kev didn’t own his house, and his landlord was perfectly happy for scroungers like Kev to have their shame displayed on his property, even though he’d made his fortune on the back of the diminishing pool of Government housing benefit. When Kev had first complained, the landlord had laughed him out of his office and added John as a Facebook friend.

It had been so different, only two years ago. John and Kev had been colleagues, although never friends. Then the banks had gone down again. Prime Minister Littlewood, as he now was, had told the public that the problem wasn’t the banks, it was the Bank, and had come to power on the back of a promise to scrap the Bank of England and prevent credit bubbles ever happening again. Now there was no interest rate, only multiple competing interest rates, but somehow things hadn’t picked up. The papers were saying that this was all a necessary market correction and there was nothing the Government could or indeed should do.

But this correction seemed to be taking a very long time. People were getting angry, and so the Government had created The Register. It was a big online database containing the name and address of every benefit claimant in the UK, along with the amount they were claiming. Initially it had been an identity fraudsters’ paradise, with hundreds of thousands of people finding they’d lost their benefits to a range of criminal gangs. The Government claimed they’d sorted all this out, but Kev kept hearing stories about old ladies found dead in their flats because their pensions had stopped and they didn’t know how to look for help.

The call centre Kev and John worked in had let hundreds of its staff go. Lots of new centres were opening in Uganda, apparently, as part of this African Boom. Kev was happy for them, but there seemed to be a great deal less work around here, and every job he went for he seemed to be competing against people with far higher qualifications than him. Shortly after he left, John had started pasting signs on his window.

He should leave, he supposed, and look for work elsewhere. He really wanted to – the day after The Register was extended to people who used the NHS John had put a sign on his window saying ‘Treatment for herpes – £30′ because Kev had gone to the doctor to get cream for a coldsore. But if he left he’d count as Voluntarily Homeless and under the very strict new restrictions on benefits he wouldn’t be able to get a place to live anywhere else without already having a job. His benefits just covered the cost of living, and certainly didn’t extend to the train or bus ticket he’d need to attend interviews. He felt trapped.

Turning away from the window, he switched on the radio and started to make breakfast. The Today programme was playing, and the Prime Minister was on.

“…The Register has been a fantastic success in incentivising people to get into work and letting the public know exactly how their hard-earned money is being spent. That’s why today I’m pleased to announce the logical extension of this programme.

“From today, all benefit claimants, young and old, will be required to wear a yellow armband on which will be written the precise amount they claim from the State every year. When you meet a benefit claimant on the street, you should know exactly who they are so you can tell them what you think. Only through transparency and public information campaigns like this one will everyone be able to take part in monitoring how taxpayers’ money is spent. Remember, cutting spending helps the economy – and that’s what this initiative would help to do.”

Kev swore. Things were about to get a lot worse.

The News is one of my favourite shows, but over the last few years it’s been replaying the same old story with slightly different characters. Every week, some new evil big company will be accused of paying beancounters to manufacture complex legal frameworks in order to avoid paying the ‘correct’ amount of tax, as defined by a group of angry protestors. Google and Apple are the latest villains of the piece, and have variously protested that they’re forced to pay the minimum amount of tax by law and that if we don’t tax them less they’ll just keep all the money.

If this was any other show, reviewers would be complaining about recycling tired old plotlines, but somehow the real world is immune to tedium. The political debate in the UK over this issue can be summarised thusly:

AGAINST TAX AVOIDANCE – The Government needs money to deliver vital social services, and everyone should play their part. Attempting to avoid playing your part, as tax avoidance is interpreted as, is therefore immoral. If countries compete to attract multinational companies by offering very low tax rates, then there will be less money available for social services in all countries, particularly developing ones.

NOT AGAINST TAX AVOIDANCE – Tax avoidance is different to tax evasion, which is breaking the law to evade paying tax. Tax avoidance works within the law to minimise the tax liability to companies, which companies are obligated to do in order to deliver returns for shareholders. ‘Moral’ doesn’t mean anything when it comes to tax, as you can only pay your tax in accordance with the law, and if the law is immoral then it’s up to politicians to change it. If we tighten up our tax code too much, we’ll drive companies away.

Political debate is only meaningful if the public actually pay attention, because only then can one side ‘win’. This debate is entirely pointless, as both sides are talking only to themselves . Tax avoidance as an issue has traction with the British public, but not for the reasons that anti-avoidance campaigners would want and not for reasons that avoidance defenders can admit. This is because the debate as characterised above is tribal: it’s a re-run of social democracy versus liberalism. The public don’t see the debate in those terms, as some helpful polling by Christian Aid reveals.

It’s true that over half of the population – 56% – does see tax avoidance by multinationals as morally wrong. It’s also true that 37% of the population would use the same avoidance methods as corporations if they knew how. The latter statistic is highest in my age bracket (25-34) at 54%, while 47% think it’s morally wrong, implying that there are people my age who both think avoidance is wrong and that they would do it themselves if they knew how. What a charming generation we are. Two thirds of those who think it’s morally wrong think so because it reduces money available for services.

However, while the above would indicate at least a plurality of people who tax avoidance as morally wrong, an astonishing 71% of people think that low rates of tax help attract investment and deliver economic growth, and 70% think that countries being able to set their own tax rates helps them compete for investment. 47% think that if the Government were to collect more taxes from corporations, there may be no benefit to the public. The public seem to simultaneously believe that tax avoidance is morally wrong and that low tax rates are good for growth. Both sides apparently win.

To explain this paradox, consider one of the highest levels of agreement found by the polling: 75% of people agree that corporations receive much more lenient treatment by the taxman than individual taxpayers. This reveals that this issue is seen as more a question of fairness than a question of ideology. The public see corporations as having an easier time of avoiding tax than they do.This feeling of unfairness will contribute to the feeling that tax avoidance by multinationals is immoral, as ‘fairness’ and ‘morality’ are often conflated, but doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about peoples’ attitudes towards tax avoidance per se. Indeed, of the over 60% of people who wouldn’t offshore their accounts, it would be interesting to find out how many have an ISA.

This result is useless to the tax justice crowd, who want peoples’ feelings about the unfairness of corporate tax avoidance to translate into support for the State. They can’t admit that the public appeal of this particular issue is a question peoples’ sense of fairness rather than ideology. It’s similarly dangerous to the avoidance enablers, because if they accept that tax planning on the corporate rather than individual scale is unfair then this implies that corporations and the rich are able to buy special access to the law. If a law is complex and access to the facilities it offers (in this case, lower taxes) is only possible through the purchase of specialist knowledge about an area, then it is tantamount to bought privilege. Admitting that money can buy privilege is anathema to the majority of this side of the debate, who believe that the restrictions on the rich it would imply in order to secure a level playing field for all are morally wrong in themselves. The closest they come are the rather disingenuous calls from the likes of the Taxpayer’s Alliance, which involve simplifying the tax system to make it easier for everyone to engage with. While this is not without merit, it only works as an answer on this issue if you forget that the avoidance under discussion has to do with the setting up of legal frameworks in order to get money away from the UK tax system, regardless of how simple it is.

As a result of the above this debate is necessarily interminable, as neither side can talk to the public directly without compromising their own position. Tax avoidance is not morally wrong, but it is socially corrosive. It diminishes the bonds of trust between different sections of society, and trust is the fundamental thing we require in order to make this thing where we all get along on our small island work. It would be wonderful if both sides could sit down and work out how to organise things so that they could both win without losing face, but instead I suspect we’re in for many more re-runs yet.

We, as a country, have decided to make tackling climate change much more expensive. This is the logical consequence of today’s news that onshore wind, the cheapest form of low carbon power, is to suffer much heavier restrictions on where it can be built. Given that the need to tackle climate change has not gone away, the options left to us to reduce the impact of our need for electricity are much more expensive.

But there’s a bigger problem than this, and that’s the message it sends about our future as a country. The new restrictions on wind turbines will make it more difficult to build them in areas where wind turbines already exist, on flatter land and near old buildings. But the key change is this statement by Eric Pickles:

“the need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protections and the planning concerns of local communities”

While this sounds reasonable, ‘environmental protections’ does not refer to the natural world, but rather to views. How opponents of wind power have got away with conflating the natural world and the views of people who’ve retired to the countryside is baffling, and a failing on the part of its advocates. Previously, while aesthetic impact was taken into account, it only resulted in a refused planning application when there was an impact on genuinely astonishing views, like national parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Now it seems likely that rather than permitting national needs to occasionally override the concerns of people who’ve bought houses in the countryside, much more of our country will be locked in stasis.

People tend not to like change, and people especially don’t like change if they’ve retired to the countryside. The majority of objections to wind farms come from retirees and incomers to communities, rather than lifelong countryside dwellers. Eric Pickles’ statement realigns the UK to serve this interest group. While people of course deserve their retirement, turning the countryside into a care home is not the way to run an economy.

We have a proud heritage, and we could have a proud future. But changes like this, which place more power in the hands of people with little interest in the future, make it more likely that that future will be as a museum for Chinese tourists. This is not the legacy the Coalition should leave.

For the energy geeks

June 3, 2013

For all those of you with a deep and abiding love of energy policy, over on my business website I’ve put up my first article: How to decarbonise domestic heat on the cheap.

It’s astonishingly easy, it seems, for people who have the privilege of writing in national newspapers to be very, very wrong about very simple things. This is relatively easy to explain: when you’re writing for a newspaper, you’re not writing with the intention of being right, but rather to make the people reading that newspaper feel righteous about themselves. That’s how you keep getting commissioned to write articles for that newspaper: by helping it sell copies.

It’s a privilege all columnists should examine, because it can lead to them being wrong en masse. That’s happened here. To recap, Louise Mensch wrote an article complaining that British feminists spend their time analysing categories of privilege rather than getting out there and making strides for the sisterhood. It’s not surprising that Louise thought this, because she’s a Tory and many contemporary feminist battles over equal pay take place within unions, far away from her ken. However, given that even Cosmo is running a campaign for equal pay, her research may have been limited – or perhaps, given that she’s wealthy, she doesn’t even consider the enormous bulk of the female workforce receiving the same pay for the same work an issue at all. Indeed, her call for a ‘power feminism’ in which women empower themselves by making lots of money and achieving office sounds more like a girly Nietzschianism than something about securing equal rights. There’s a lot of analysis she needs to carry out on her own position before critiquing others.

Painfully, Laurie Penny responded by being nearly right, but as is so typical of the private-school-educated girl she failed to set her argument out properly. ‘Check your privilege’, the three little words that have given birth to far too many other enormous words, simply means to her ‘consider how your privilege affects what you have just said or done.’ This relatively simple phrase is far too easy to misinterpret, as Dan Hodges has taken great glee in doing, because unfortunately one has to talk about about domains and categories before something that is simple really makes any sense to anyone not versed in it. In claiming that it’s simple I’m exemplifying my privilege of having read stuff about this before. However, to start us off easily:

  • CYP only applies to a limited domain of questions. It does not, for example, mean that only a disabled albino can be right about the distance between the Earth and the Moon.
  • CYP does not preclude the possibility of every black person everywhere being wrong about the effects of racism.
  • CYP does not stop well-educated white middle class people being right about most things on account of their education.

It only really refers to the domain of opinion about how people experience things. I can claim that something’s not racist but my only experience of racism is being called a ‘Gyardee Angreszch’ (‘stupid English’) on the streets of Jaipur. That’s an indication both of my privilege and my pomposity. How I analyse and understand the experience of people being racist to someone else is through that framework, which I cannot avoid. Therefore, when someone claims that an act is racist and my initial reaction is to say that it’s not, I should check whether the framework through which I’m analysing that act is adequate. I might dismiss something as a minor sleight, but to someone who’s spent their entire life being told they’re stupid because they’re black, that minor sleight may be yet another reinforcement of a society that’s holding them down. In this instance, they would be right.

Of course, there will be lots of instances when that same framework will work against them. I’ve lost count of the number of tribunals friends and colleagues have been to when they’re trying to get rid of a useless member of staff who’s screamed racism as soon as a P45 was wafted in their direction. Just because society is racist doesn’t mean you’re not rubbish. What this implies is that ‘privilege’ is the wrong word: even if you’re less privileged, you should be aware of you’ve become predisposed to interpret society. I’d prefer ‘Check your framework’ but that’s much less catchy. It’s a useful intellectual discipline for everyone.

What this means is that the villain of this minor commentariat vignette is Laurie Penny. Dan Hodges we can forgive; he doesn’t understand what CYP means and wants the Left to win ultimate victory through the creation of a race of non-reflective Spartan super-campaigners. Louise Mensch we can forgive; she doesn’t understand what CYP means and just wants all women to become world-bestriding Dagny Taggarts. But Laurie Penny does understand what it means and despite that decided to (a) use it in a context ill suited to it (‘What is racist? is a CYP issue, ‘What is an effective way of combatting racism?’ is a much more empirical question once you’ve sorted the first one out) and (b) bemoan having to use it. Learning that you’re wrong is wonderful, because you learn something. Analysing your own position to make sure it’s correct is also wonderful, because it gives you intellectual integrity. Despite this, she used her position as a national commentator to complain about having to learn. That’s a privilege she wants to get sorted out pronto.

A senior Tory has allegedly stated a belief commonly held amongst central party managers everywhere: that their activists are ‘swivel-eyed loons’.  ‘Loon’, of course, is ultimate derived from ‘lunar'; the traditional belief that madness was more common during full moons. If we assume that voting Conservative is a form of madness, we can check whether a full moon does in fact impact upon the Tory vote by cross-referencing it with daily polls:

Loony ToriesSource: Polling undertaken on the UTC date of a full moon since beginning of 2012 when YouGov started recording UKIP separately.

There is a small but noticeable impact on both the Conservative and UKIP voting intention, with the former impact significant at the 5% level*. This is the inverse of what people who would also be happy to dub UKIP nutters would expect, and presents a danger for Mr Cameron. The first Thursday in May 2015 is the day after a full moon. The motion of our nearest celestial partner may yet cost the Conservatives the next election.

*This relationship attenuates as the data set grows, precisely as a non-crazy person would expect. From 2010 to the present day it’s practically insignificant. One could attribute the short-term effect to science being right or Nigel Farage being a werewolf.

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