Vivez les misanthropes!

Activism used to be synonymous with protest: you raised the alarm and then called for action. You explained ways in which something is bad, called on people to do their duty, gave them something constructive and well-defined to do, and entertained criticism of the ones who didn’t do it. Campaigning is not really like this any more though – at least not if it’s successful. Last week that change hit me with some force when in the space of a few days I encountered several deterrents to traditional forms of activism, and a turn to psychology.

The first example was Sunny Hundal’s Guardian piece on how activists should change their ways in the face of a 17% drop in support for tackling climate change, as expressed in the British Social Attitudes Survey. As well as the anti-capitalist associations of the Green movement, he also points to the problems with feel-bad campaigning. “Talk about solutions rather than focusing on doom. A recent paper, titled Fear Won’t Do It, by the Tyndall Centre found that sensational representations of climate change “can successfully capture people’s attention” but also disengage them and “render them feeling helpless and overwhelmed””. I think this is over-generous. I think that people doubt that climate change is a threat after all. So does the Daily Mail. Anyway, despite promising strategies, Hundal confuses them with goals. Nothing here except a pervasive ‘Don’t scare the horses’.

Another example was Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity. They say that dwelling on what’s wrong with surface level transport (the bad air, the asthma, the expanding waistlines) is a losing strategy for those not already convinced. They learned to avoid cognitive dissonance from the famine charities; apparently the emaciated kids with flies crawling over their open eyes was too much for prosperous global northerners – they might give once to take the edge off the guilt but, finding that the guilt persisted, they rarely sustained the giving. So concluding that giving is mostly self-serving, leading charities had to change tack. We abandoned regular religious worship, and because there’s nobody left to tell us what to do, some charities decided on a strategy of manicuring our self-image. When it comes to transport it’s better to emphasise the positive, the opportunities, the alternatives, our heroism. We are all heroes. We are all Gandhis and Mandelas.

By Sarah Richards on Flickr

By Sarah Richards on Flickr

What do these commentators think is wrong with us? Mrs Hall is such a slave to feeling good that it’s assumed her moral fibre has turned to pulp. We’ve arrived at very low expectations of her acting on duty or conscience – it would be mistake to invoke them at all because she would probably refuse on principle. Mrs Hall has been taught to think of herself as unimpeachable. Consequently, Mrs Hall probably couldn’t recognise anything wrong with the way she lives her life. She is thought to expect extravagant praise for any act not obviously in her own self-interest. She’s thought inert except when somebody is gratifying her vanity. Mrs Hall is assumed to be above all interested in her own self-image. Mrs Hall is anybody’s fool.

And this is the crux of it. Feeling good is not a virtue. This can be clearly seen in my third example, Eve Garrard’s substantial examination of the pleasures of antisemitism and the failure of rational, cognitive approaches to combating it. Thankfully she doesn’t recommend a feel-good approach to dealing with antisemitism – in fact she talks past the people indulging in it when she writes “Here the devil frequently does have the best tunes, and the thin and reedy voice of rational argument is often quite drowned out by their brassy insistence. But we’ll do better in the combat, however we conduct it, if we realise that the views which we’re struggling against provide deep emotional satisfactions to those who hold them, satisfactions not easy either to overcome or to replace”. Eve too wants us to recognise the power of feel-good.

Deep emotional satisfaction isn’t a vice, but it isn’t a virtue either. Feel-good isn’t intrinsically anything moral at all. Sadism is a feel-good behaviour – in Iran, members of the National Guard can feel good raping young male anti-government activists, relishing their future isolation as their unspeakable shame eats them up from within. It feels good but it’s evil. It can feel fantastic when rapists rampage with abandon through Congo villages with abandon, but it’s evil. Ethnic cleansing can feel powerfully good, but it’s evil. Assisting your incapacitated neighbour can feel good, and it is good. Eating dead animals can feel very satisfying (this example is different because it’s normal) but I expect future generations will shudder at the suffering and wonder where our conscience was.

I welcome psychology insofar as it can explain things, but it can be badly used in policy. Don’t tell me the ‘nudge’ phenomenon – libertarian paternalism – doesn’t represent a failure of better means, for example. This Mrs Hall construct of Oxfam’s, which stands for all of us, has a character flaw which is vulnerable to, and contains the germs of, bad social movements. Rather than pander to her failings and pragmatically dream up ways to part her with her cash without disrupting her self-image, I’d prefer people gave more leeway to their inner disappointment in themselves and humankind, and treat moral discomfort as a civilising route to truth in untruthful times. If the Taliban score 10 for misanthropy, the Puritans, 9, Bob Geldof, 5 and Bob Geldof’s daughters, 0, I’d say we’re currently at 2 but we need to be at 6. Which allows for different approaches to campaigning, along the lines of the Daily Vegan who, encountering criticism about preachy vegans, responds with a defence of diversity.

No, I’m atheist-secularist.


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