In the democratic west it seems we are going through a political crisis. We dislike our politicians and, worse, we dislike our political systems. This is dangerous. Where political systems are held in contempt the opportunity arises for demagogues and dictators to emerge.
Political systems exist to make our lives better. If they fail to do that then we may as well do without them. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should be happy with the systems themselves but surely we should feel more well-disposed towards them than we currently do. People who live in countries with oppressive regimes yearn for the freedoms that democracy brings - so we should surely hope that our democratic regimes can inspire pride in the way they work.
Why, then, do we feel such contempt for the political system? I’m sure that there are a number of reasons, but one must have to do with the fact that many of us, rightly at least some of the time, view our politicians as dishonest and inauthentic. They don’t say what they really think, they don’t answer questions and they don’t keep their promises. This is true whatever party they belong to. The only politicians who are popular are those who come across as “unspun”, who say what they think and do what they do irrespective of what people think about them.
One reason for this malaise is a lack of respect by politicians, by the media who report them and by us who vote for them for the rules of good analytical thinking. The aim of analytical thinking is to get to the truth. By getting to the truth we make better decisions. This, therefore, should be vital in politics. Of course, we won’t always get those decisions right but even in cases where we go wrong, we can console ourselves that we have done our best and that our reasoning was as good as it could have been, given the knowledge we had available at the time.
However, all too often other considerations take priority over good analysis. Too often in politics the priority appears to be to beat one’s opponent rather than make the right decision. A good policy may not be implemented because it was proposed by an opponent. So the country suffers because the benefits to the politician and the benefits to the community as a whole are in conflict.
What, then, can we do about this? One thing we can all do is demand of our politicians that they respect the rules of analytical thinking and publicise each and every occasion where they do not. We must keep them honest.
The media does not help. Newspapers and other organisations have their own agendas. These agendas may well not be those of the people as a whole and for organisations supposedly devoted to reporting the truth, their commitment to that truth can often be marginal at best. We must demand better of them and until they improve, we must treat whatever they say with scepticism. For a democracy to function well, its people must be well informed. We should demand that our media organisations publish only the truth. As for our politicians, so must we require from our media the highest standards of analytical thinking.
Finally, we cannot absolve ourselves of responsibility. The decisions taken by politicians affect us all, so we should all take an interest in them. The democratic experiment that was Ancient Athens required the participation of all its citizens: because any citizen might have to speak in public, it was considered necessary that they all be educated in the arts of rhetoric and critical analysis.
We should hold ourselves to the same standard. Not only should we ensure that we take an interest in the decisions that affect our lives, we should aim to ensure that our views on those decisions are underpinned by the highest quality of analysis of which we are capable. We should hold ourselves to the same standards to which we would hold our politicians and our media. As such, it is absolutely essential that we are familiar with the techniques of analytical thinking and that we should apply them in all aspects of our lives.
I thought I’d share with you one of the reasons that I think this is so important.
We humans have been blessed in our brains with the best computer that the universe has so far produced and it has enabled us to have lives filled with so much more opportunity than our ancestors. Without it I wouldn’t be able to speak to you like this now. However, we are in many ways still subject to a huge number of selfish primitive urges and if we’re not careful, we might end up ruining the world just at the point where we really should be able to understand it and use it for everybody’s benefit.
As far as I am concerned the only way to solve the problems we have all created is by thinking about them. This can be hard, sometimes unrewarding and take time. It can be so tempting to go for the easy solution and this pursuit of the easy solution in my view is one of the factors that leads to the terrorist acts that seem to plague the world right now.
I suspect that part of the mindset that produces these acts is the belief that it would be so much easier if a particular group of people, whether those of a different religion or political persuasion, just ceased to exist or was cowed into submission. This, aside from the devastating pain and hurt this causes, is as a result of lazy thinking. Actually solving the problem of us all living together is hard, really hard - so much easier to just get rid of people who are different from us. This is why it is so important to commit to developing the brain / mind. We should be trying to solve these problems in such a way that everyone is able to live the life that they would aspire to live.
I’d be interested to hear what anybody else out there thinks.