Dr Fulminare Bandijcat Noctule Bat


Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Favourite fallacies

Here's a comment on page 5 of a Guardian article on policing by 'runner6':

"What I find amusing -
All politicians are corrupt / incompetent, all police are brutal racist thugs, all readers of right-thinking newspapers are bigots, all BTL landlords are evil.
Massive generalisations made because the above groups indeed contain some that fit these stereotypes. Yet the same paper does not extend generalisations to subjects which may go against its ideology and as a result does not write the kind of articles which may be needed to tackle problem areas of society.
Ergo there is a lack of objective thinking at this newspaper."

Actually, the word 'thug/s' is not used in the article at all. It is used by various commentators under the article, mostly to refer to strikers in the eighties, rioters and young black men who carry knives. It's also a word used frequently by "pro-police, pro-army, pro-law and order" tabloids (Neil Wallis' description in yesterday's Leveson Inquiry) to refer to various groups of citizens, but never to the police, as far as I can tell.

What I find interesting and infuriating about this type of comment is how much it exemplifies the human tendency to mould reality around a narrative one has already taken to heart. We accuse those in power of doing this all the time, but it's important to recognise just how common it is. 'runner6' would very likely have nothing to say about the word 'thug' being used to generalise about those groups he has already, in his mind, designated as thugs. But when the Guardian makes strong criticisms of a group he supports, he is quick to read such excessive disparagement into it.

There are, of course, plenty of criticisms that could be made of the Guardian, and in particular of this article. What stands out in the ensuing clash of commenteers, however, is how strongly most people stick to their chosen mythologies. That's the power of a simple narrative, of course, and it feeds into various 'us/them' mentalities that seem to me to stymy progress and positive change at every level of society. And while I find it easiest to point the finger at obviously unlikeable right-wing commentators, it may just be that the same lesson holds true for the rest of us. As soon as you find yourself accounting for your own position by the natural pureness of your heart, or your dogged subscription to broad moral values, it's worth looking again at what assumptions you might be making, and what facts you might be ignoring.

In other words, I think one of the worst mistakes progressives and activists make is to believe too wholeheartedly in the righteousness of their cause and their people - or worse still, to believe that they are the people. Over the past couple of weeks, I've seen police officers and journalists alike claim to represent the interests of the public (or a dominant section of it), as well as LJ Leveson himself. 'runner6' no doubt thinks his views are those of the ordinary citizen too. Somehow it's always someone else who is the aggressor, the outsider, the dangerous element. Isn't it time we all stopped playing to our respective galleries?