BlogWhy Dishonesty in Politics Affects Us On a Personal Level
First shown on Welldoing.org October 24th 2018
In recent weeks we have been hearing blatant denials from Russia and Saudi Arabia about the state sponsored murders they have been accused of committing. The quality of the denials, despite evidence to the contrary, is what is so striking. Individual nations have in times past been responsible for the murder of dissidents on foreign soil, but rarely have we witnessed such blatant disregard for public opinion. In fact, the murder of Sergai Skripal was surely designed for maximum publicity to maximise terror.
When leaders blatantly lie it is a serious abuse. We are born depending on love and family for our survival. We need to be cared for and we need to trust those who are responsible for us and our wellbeing. When this trust is broken, children will suffer. People have often needed the care of their community for their very survival in times of crisis and hardship. When we hunted in groups, we needed to trust the integrity of our fellow hunters. We teach children that lying is wrong and being seen as untrustworthy is bad. We do need to be able to trust each other more than we distrust, if we are to live positive lives.
I think about the damage done to our politics by our Brexit referendum campaign - whether we voted to Remain or Leave - and what will be the long-term consequences for the political life in this country. People worry about demanding another referendum on the Brexit deal because the people who voted Leave will not trust the political process again. That is possible, but we can also consider the loss of trust that has taken place because of the many conscious falsehoods people were fed. Michael Gove, a government minister told us not to trust the ‘experts’ who did not agree with his views. Experts can be wrong of course, but it is a rare expert who deliberately lies.
Loss of trust in expertise will put our very survival at risk. Global warning is now virtually unanimously accepted as a danger to humanity and our way of life. It is a reality and we always deny reality our peril. We have been given only twelve years to make major changes to the way we live and the use of our resources. President Trump now says the climate might be changing but the causes are not necessarily ‘man-made.’ He says that the climate experts have a ‘political’ agenda. Indeed they have. Their agenda is to save the planet. However, in the world of Donald Trump, lying and politics seem to have become one and the same thing and this is very dangerous.
We lie at our peril. We damage our relationships and a sense of trust in the world. Being lied to is one of the most distressing of human experiences. When faced with a partner’s infidelity or a trusted friend’s betrayal, people will say it was the lying that hurt the most. People who lie easily cause immense hurt because our instinctive sense of trust is damaged and we feel foolish at having trusted them in the first place. We need to know what is true and untrue to make considered decisions and good decisions are always based on reality.
People who believed what they were told in the Brexit referendum don’t deserve mockery. They need sympathy because their trust was abused and that is serious. At some point if politics is to recover our respect, then the public figures who lie and distort reality will need either to apologise to us all or be held to account.
The Psychology of Social Media Malice
Apr 22, 2016 posted on www.wellbeing.org
I recently finished reading Jon Ronson’s excellent book ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’ after a client suggested I look at his TED talk on the same subject. I have long been interested in the power of shame and why so many of my clients experience such deep levels of shame and anxiety. In 2000 I wrote two articles on ‘media malice’. Tabloids, then as now, were full of photographs in which a celebrity looked fat, thin, old or merely tired. Any personal pain caused was irrelevant, the fact of being well-known made them fair game for cruel comment. It is a spectator sport and we the audience are trained out of feeling empathy for the victims.
Things have gotten a whole lot worse. Today you don’t have to be a celebrity or even a person of wealth or power to be the victim of ‘media malice’. It is now ‘social media malice’. Ronson’s book details the plight of Justine Sacco who tweeted an ill-considered joke about Africa and Aids. She boarded a plane in the USA and by the time she touched down in South Africa her phone was deluged with thousands of hostile tweets calling her a racist and much, much worse. In a matter of hours, she lost her reputation and then her job. It would take her a long time to recover.
Ronson notes that in the earlier days of Twitter, public shaming tended to be reserved for the abuses of the powerful and the privileged. Public companies that did not pay their taxes could be named and shamed. Oppressive governments rightly fear and try and limit the power of social media. It is a justified triumph when the powerless can hold the powerful to account. Social media has made that possible. But social media has also enabled the individual who has ‘displeased’ in some way to be shamed without thought for the personal consequences.
In psychotherapy we talk about a ‘cycle of abuse’ and how important it is that it doesn’t continue through generations. Children at the receiving end of violence, frequently grow into adults who use violence. It could also be called a ‘cycle of shame’.
A click and it is done, without having to reflect on the unhappiness we might be causing
Ronson also writes about Dr. James Gilligan, a psychiatrist who has worked successfully with some of the most violent offenders in the prison system. He wrote,’Violence: a Reflection on the National Epidemic’. Gilligan believes that the experience of being profoundly shamed whilst young is at the core of violent offending. As children, these men had all been at the receiving end of horrific abuse and humiliation. By the time they were adults they had learned to shut down and project outwards their disowned shamed feelings using their own brutal actions. When they held a knife or a gun to someone and witnessed their victim’s terror, in that moment they were all powerful. The ability to make another experience the feelings that we do not want to feel, no matter how transitory, is I suspect a powerful contributor to why ordinary people can be so abusive on social media.
Whilst not violently abused like Gilligan’s prisoners, most of us have been at the receiving end of some teasing, bullying and shaming and it leaves painful traces. Social media provides an easy outlet to temporarily dump some of that residual hurt onto someone who is deemed ‘deserving’ of our contempt. A click and it is done, without having to reflect on the unhappiness we might be causing. We lose our empathy and this is a loss that can rebound on us. When the external world reveals a lack empathy, then so too will our internal world. How can we develop a robust sense of self if a ‘stupid’ comment, or an unfortunate photograph can make us sitting targets for cruelty? It is a brave person who expresses an unpopular view if it also makes them a potential target for attack. The power of social media is huge both for good and for bad. For all our sakes, it really does need to be handled with care.
How We Lose Trust in Politics and Politicians
As I was writing my thoughts on the erosion of trust in politics and our national institutions, the New Year Honours list was announced. Sean O’Grady, the journalist, wrote a passionate piece in the Independent. He felt ashamed that given the number of terrible events in the last year, the Prime Minister failed to reward ‘a single fireman or woman, police officer, paramedic, hospital worker, or any civilian’ caught up in the horrifying events of the Manchester bombings, nor the Borough Market attack, nor the Grenfell Tower fire. These were people who actually risked their lives to rescue, support, comfort and treat the victims of these terrible events. He ended with, ‘If you want to understand why Britain has become more bitterly divided of late, you need do no more than have a flick through the honours list. It is, like the blackened hulk of the Grenfell Tower itself, a monument to a sickening hypocrisy.’
It is also, I would argue, politically inept. We are living in times where many people feel let down by the political institutions, believing that those with power will look after their own interests first. But looking after your own interests too ruthlessly can backfire. History is full of examples. The victors of the First World War exacted such a heavy price on the defeated Germany, it wrecked that country’s economy and gave birth to the rise of fascism. The ‘victors’ could only enjoy their ‘spoils’ for 22 years before they were at war again.
If society becomes so polarised between ‘winners and losers’, the ‘haves and have nots’, something very ugly and irrational can emerge as resentment builds. Wilkinson and Pickett in their illuminating book ‘The Spirit Level’ showed that in countries with the least income inequality there is a greater sense of wellbeing across all income levels. Everyone benefits from increasing equality and excessive inequality harms us all. If people feel disadvantaged, their confidence and health, both physical and mental, suffer. Their sense of mattering, or having significance, is damaged and multiple problems can ensue.
These feelings of inadequacy can be exploited by the ruthless. President Lyndon B Johnson put it succinctly and shockingly in 1960 with this example: "If you can convince the lowest white man that he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket." In other words, being provided with someone to look down on makes people more inclined to ignore the true cost of the cause they’re supporting. In lieu of better conditions and wider opportunities for all, you can be offered a false, distorted sense of superiority. This is the phenomena that President Trump has encouraged so effectively. Liberals, the ‘elite’, the mainstream media, Muslims, immigrants are all offered up as targets to be attacked and despised. Boosting a sense of importance at the expense of others rather than through the serious work of offering real opportunities for achievement.
People have a profound need to feel valued and if the culture and society don’t provide an opportunity for this to find expression, then it will find an outlet in another way. Why was Michael Gove, the lover of traditional educational values, so quick to dismiss the opinion of experts over Brexit during the referendum campaign? He was telling voters who felt let down, excluded, that their opinion is as valuable as the ‘experts’ also known as ‘the elite.’ The message is that you don’t need an education to understand difficult, complex economic issues. You know what you believe and that is good enough. Except it isn’t. It is deceptive and dishonest. Schooling does not make you a better person or a decent human being, but you do need knowledge and education to succeed in today’s society. Implying you do not, is an attempt to cover up and divert attention from the weaknesses of an education system that has failed to provide a good enough education for all. The ability to question and think critically is fundamental to a decent, democratic society. If knowledge is power then this power needs to be shared as widely as possible. Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the West Wing, said that what worried him the most was the ease with which people had come to disbelieve what was probably accurate in favour of what was patently false.
People, as I have said previously, need to feel important, need to feel they are significant. I have noticed that my clients who most strongly believe in conspiracy theories, often feel relatively marginalised and powerless. The strong pull of the conspiracy theory is that you are part of the ‘privileged’ few who ‘know’ what really happened. It is a powerful illusion to believe you have the truth about who killed President Kennedy, murdered Princess Diana, or flew planes into the twin towers.
First shown on welldoing.org February, 2018