Needy or greedy: a blind political assumption
There is a general election soon in the United Kingdom, and the parties are
out canvassing for votes. Manifestos are being leaked and steadily revealed in
attempts at grabbing the daily headlines. Politicians are thumping the table on
TV and in town halls up and down the realm.
The UK, as with other countries is politically divided along socio-economic
lines (although this has been complicated of late by separatist issues). And
herein lies a common trap. The left looks at the right and caricatures it as
greedy, while the right looks at the left and sees it as needy. There is some
truth in this, but the whole truth is very different.
The general right wing concern for low taxes and small government seems to
indicate they serve the rich only, who greedily want to hang onto their fortunes
and not to give any of this for the greater good.
The left, on the other hand, seem concerned only for the needy, who are
caricatured as being lazy and given to fraudulent seeking more state benefits
than they deserve. In this way, the right also sees the left as greedy, and
perhaps themselves still needing all their relative riches.
The UK has a history of aristocracy and feudalism. Paradoxically, it also has
a far more generous welfare system than many other countries. This was largely
ushered in by the political left which grew out of civil war and industrial
unrest. This has led to polarized politics and a focus on the needy-greedy
debate. It has also caused internalization of this dualist-materialist view,
where each focuses on greedy self-interested needs while framing the other side
as being more greedy and less needy.
Within this schism lies a huge middle ground, where people seem more
understanding and generous, where they are more than willing to pay their taxes
in order to help others and fund a stable, safe society. In the UK the Liberal
Democrats perhaps represent this best, yet they have few parliamentary seats as
oppositional, polarized views hold sway. Maybe this election will see them
recover though, like the left, they have weak leadership.
The most likely result this time will be a Conservative landslide, giving a
strong, right-wing government. They have been promising social policies to help
the needy, but history suggests these will be weak and subordinate to greedier
drives. History also suggests a long rule with arrogant hubris as their eventual
downfall. Yet again, the gaping hole in the middle ground could provide an
alternative to a reactive swing to the far left.
Who knows. The monochrome, planar pendulum has a powerful tendency to swing
between opposites. It will take a strong, visionary leader and an emergent,
intelligent following to damp the forces of left-right, needy-greedy history.
Blame and Shame: Negative methods, destructive
When we are trying to persuade somebody do to something (or maybe not do it
again), we often use 'blame and shame'.
Blaming uses a number of assumptions:
- Actions are good or bad. There is no middle ground. There is no
- People who do bad things are themselves bad.
- Bad people must be punished severely.
- People who call out bad people are good.
This makes the person who blames both judge and jury and absolves us from any
challenge or guilt. As it makes them good, it also makes them superior and
worthy of praise. This is a temptation that many people find difficult to
resist, including when they are seeking to change minds.
Blame can lead to shame. Shame is effectively blaming oneself, which leads to
self-judging and self-punishing. A typical way this is done is with repeated
self-recrimination and feelings of unworthiness. This can lead to depression and
even a self-destructive repetition of socially unacceptable actions that invite
blame (and so confirm the person's feelings of shame).
Blame very seldom leads to anything constructive. Forgiveness is another trap
as it assumes that the subject has already been blamed. In any case, there are
far better ways to motivate people into acceptable action. A simple method is to
ignore unacceptable acts and lavish praise on actions that you like. A simple
approach is to show appreciation for good acts and give extra praise for
If we can avoid blaming other and indulging in shame ourselves, it is
remarkably easy to build a far better life for both ourselves and also for those
Bashful billionaires, billionaires that bash, and
those that become puppeteers
There are a few people in the world who have money. Lots of it. Some were
lucky enough to inherit it. Some have achieved it through owning raw materials,
most notably oil. Some make it through financial dealings. And of course there
are the technology billionaires who come up with the next big thing and float
their small companies into a wildly enthusiastic stock market. No matter the
route, these people find they have remarkable power. They get invited to
exclusive clubs where they talk with other billionaires. Politicians court them,
hoping for sizeable donations. And so they find they have massive influence.
Some of these billionaires like to use their money for good, almost bashfully
giving back some of what they have acquired. Most notably of late, Bill Gates
has poured money into many good causes. This is a continuation of a history of
philanthrophy, where people like Carnegie and Rockefeller first prove they are
clever by earning lots of money, then prove they are good by giving it away. Who
knows, they may even be 'buying a stairway to heaven' as Led Zeppelin once sang.
But not everyone is that nice. Some just want more and more, and will bash
whoever gets in their way. Money give power and the powerful do not have to be
nice. Normal people are civil because if they are not, they can get into social
trouble as even their friends criticize them for being unkind. But when you are
the big boss or can hire clever lawyers to get you out of trouble, you can get
away with a lot more incivility.
Billionaires may also get into politics. Sometimes they want to be visible,
maybe even going for the top job. Politics is, in many ways, the ultimate
expression of power as you gain influence over millions of lives. Yet many
billionaires do not want a public face. Indeed, they shy away from cameras,
preferring to deal in back rooms and face to face. These are the people behind
the thrones, who whisper in the ears of public politicians and fund
organizations that subtly support their causes. Rather than fame, such people
are often driven by either further wealth and power, or by ideology. The
billionaire ideologues are perhaps the most dangerous in the way they may drive
whole nations into courses of action that could ultimately do massive damage to
people, the country and even the whole world.
Just search for 'billionaire politics' on the web and you will find plenty of
detail, and not just on conspiracy sites. Credible sources such as The Guardian
and the Washington Post have uncovered alarming stories about how billionaires
are becoming global puppeteers. Search for 'billionaire climate change denial'
for a specific example. You don't have to be rich to be pull strings, but it
most certainly helps.
One dollar, ten dollar: the power of embarrassing
I was recently Nepal, walking around Bhaktapur, an ancient citadel near
Kathmandu, when I was approached by a street seller, offering me a little brass
bowl. 'One dollar!' she cried. One dollar? That's 100 rupees (being a
closed-currency country, dollars seen often to be preferred). I'd seen the same
bowls for sale elsewhere for much more, so I paused, at which point she thrust
the bowl into my hands, followed smoothly by the demand 'Ten dollar'. I paused,
blinked and asked 'How much?' 'Ten dollar' she replied, and launched into her
How clever! I had passed by many other stalls, ignoring their pleas. By
starting with a fake bargain, this lady had made me stop. Also, she could have
easily triggered an embarrassment response, whereby I realize that arguing for
the impossibly low one dollar price would make me seem greedy and mean, and so
continue with an acceptance of the low price. In fact I would not even be able
to just walk off without giving away my unethical act.
Even arguing that she said 'one dollar' would get me nowhere, as her easy
response would be to assert that she said 'ten dollars' or, with her limited
English, just look pained (more guilt tripping) and repeat the ten dollar price.
For me, this was interesting, though I can see many others feeling trapped
and end up paying the ten dollars. It is surprising how much we will do to avoid
embarrassment and the disapproval of others, even complete strangers who we will
never see again. I briefly considered responding to the game, but felt this
would not be right, so I moved on.
A coda to this story is that the exposure to the bowl aroused my desire and
the ten dollar pricing anchored me to this value. So when I stopped at another
stall where the seller just asked straight out for ten dollars, I paid up
Culture, anger and negotiation
With upcoming Brexit negotiations in Europe and emotions running high, it is
going to be a bumpy ride. Britain wants free trade and border control. Europe
wants to set an example to stop other black sheep leaving the fold.
A question in negotiation is the extent to which you are cool and
professional or whether you should express emotion. Anger in particular is a
tricky one as it easily provokes the
The result is either one side capitulating (which is the implicit purpose of
anger) or a stand-up fight where reason flies out of the window. Culture can
make this a doubly dangerous game as we misunderstand the likely reactions of
the other side. For example Adam et al (2010) found that students from different
cultural backgrounds who used anger in negotiations could suffer from a
significant backfire effect.
Yet anger, used carefully, can have a helpful effect. Adam's experiments made
this work when subjects were warned beforehand of cultural tendencies of the
other side to become angry. When you come from a culture where public displays
of anger are disapproved of, then seeing anger can be alarming as you assume the
other person has lost control of themself. Yet there are also cultures where
non-expression of emotion means you are not really committed. If you know if it
is normal the other side to express anger, then you will be less likely to be
aroused by its use.
If you are faced with the anger of the other person, the first step is to
bite your tongue. Do not get provoked into unthinking reaction. Take a break if
needed to cool down, or just say nothing. Then think about why they may be
anger. Is it something you said? Are they deliberately trying to manipulate you?
If you have said something that could reasonably be interpreted as a
provocation, apologize but do not offer negotiation concession (this is often
the target). If they are trying something on, you can even turn things to your
advantage, even by winding up the argument, being 'insulted' yourself or
otherwise working for your own advantage.
A way to make anger work in a Western context is to remain relatively calm
while indicating in words that you are feeling angry, for example by politely
saying something like 'I am becoming very frustrated' or even 'I find that
insulting'. When working across cultures, a good understanding of whether anger
is acceptable (or even expected) can also help you choose your strategy and
hence be successful.
Adam, H., Shirako, A., & Maddux, W.W. (2010). Cultural variance in the
interpersonal effects of anger in negotiations. Psychological Science,
21, 6, 882-9
Anti-Political Correctness as Power
Political correctness is a term that first appeared in about 1990 as a
criticism of liberal values that promote equality and fairness. It has never
been a real term to promote fairness. Instead, it was only an insult, a
denigration that declares attempts at fairness as being excessive, wrong and
We are naturally biased. We unfairly criticize and act against the interests
of others. We seek out reasons, real or imagined, for those who are not like us
to be wrong and bad. We excuse our ill-treatment of them and justify
punishments. In this way, we build our identity. We are not like them. We are
good and right.
We are also biased towards people who are like us, who share our beliefs and
values, who are similar in all kinds of ways. We seek out such similarity and
focus on being the same. This is the basis of tribalism, of bonding like-minded
people into a cohesive, supportive unit, of creating a powerful 'we' who can
defend ourselves and oppose others.
A tricky tribal problem lies the social rule of caring for the vulnerable,
who are less able to care for themselves. This can make them an uncomfortable
burden and an acid test of morality. Helping our friends is good, but helping
the vulnerable is extra-good. For some, this has been a path to social
superiority as they champion the weak and chastize those who do not provide
This championing is, by definition, laudable. Yet it has also led to
unexpected, immoral effects. Over the past decades, attention to the vulnerable
has escalated at a steady rate. For some, this has not been fast enough. For
others, it has spiralled out of control. In particular, those just above the
'vulnerable' level feel especially hard done by. They see the weak getting help,
with massive funds being used to help the helpless minority. Yet their own
majority position has been losing out as their standard of living is constantly
eroded and jobs threatened or lost. Worse, they feel themselves now at the
bottom of the social order as positive action and other support lifts the
vulnerable above them. They can't even tell biased jokes like they used to, that
made them feel momentarily superior, without the PC police kicking them back to
Feeling ignored, mistreated and downtrodden, many in this underclass had
given up voting, considering it a waste of time as neither of the major parties
seemed interested or able in improving their lot. So when some canny politicians
woke up to this situation, they realized here was an untapped source of great
Paradoxically, the majority parties who had adopted the politically-correct
position of helping the vulnerable (even if they dragged their heels in
practical action) were unable to take advantage of the opportunity. Those able
to grasp the politically-incorrect nettle have been thick-skinned demagogues and
parties on the political fringes. With conventional rules of politics cast out,
they play to their audience, giving voice to common bias and making bold
promises that seem politically suicidal or financially impossible, yet which
their audience laps up.
This style of politics has been labeled 'populism' by a cynical mainstream.
In some ways it is indeed cynical as it tells people what they want to hear, yet
impossible promises have long been a political ploy. Politics is a performance
and playing to the crowd an essential game.
If the dirty truth be known, there are many more beyond the lower classes who
still have plenty of bias and who have tired of ever-escalating
politically-correctness. There are also those of power who have smelled
opportunity in the shifting winds of opinion and played canny backroom games.
The result has been bombshell referenda and elections where the PC-free have
gained power. Even those not elected have found themselves listened to, if not
in awe then at least in fear.
Has the game changed for good? Is political correctness a thing of the past,
a blip in history? I think not. A thing creates its opposite and the shocked
mainstream is regrouping and good people will come to the aid of the party. The
war of politics is never finally won and I expect more battles and further
swinging of the political pendulum.
We live in interesting times and the one thing I don't expect is boredom.
Leave, Remain or Stay: Small words that may have
changed the world
Since 2016, Brexit has been all the talk in the UK. It has also gained a
great deal of interest in Europe and around the world as international trade and
migration are seriously affected by this. The UK's vote to leave the European
Union was a contentious and surprising one. Those who wanted to stay in Europe
were expected to win, but were pipped at the post by a narrow margin.
In closely-fought contests, even the smallest things can make the difference
between winning and losing. In this case, we can look at the words used, and how
these might have been used to bias the results.
Initially, the vote was going to be a simple answer to the question 'Do you
want to leave the EU?' However, someone realized that this would cause bias
because, as all sales people know, people are generally more likely to answer
'Yes' than 'No' to any question. We like to feel positive and 'Yes' just seems
better. The 'Yes' campaign (to leave) would hence have an advantage.
So they changed the question to 'Do you want to leave or remain in the EU?'
Now the choice is 'Leave' or 'Remain'. This seems better, but they are still not
equal. 'Leave' is a nice, simple, one-syllable word. 'Remain' is a two-syllable
word that is more likely to be used by those with greater language
sophistication. A word that is more equal to 'Leave' would be 'Stay'. Why was
this not used? It is a single syllable and is sociologically simpler than
To make this even more biased, the actual voting slip had two choices:
'Remain a member of the European Union' and 'Leave the European Union'. The
first choice is longer than the second choice, again making the 'leave' option a
cognitively easier one to make.
For want of a syllable, the UK's future, as well as that of Europe and the
rest of the world, has been changed forever.
Our two greatest challenges
In our lives we need to face many challenges, some of our own choosing and
some that are thrust upon us. Sometimes they are troublesome, sometimes they are
interesting, and sometimes they are exciting. And no matter how we feel about
them when we face them, we feel good when we overcome them. Indeed, studies such
as Czikszentmihali's 'Flow', have shown that challenge is a great path to
Two of these challenges that we must unavoidably face are perhaps the
greatest challenges that we face during our lifetime.
As a child, we live in the cocoon of the family where much is provided for
us. But this does not last forever. At some time we must face life, striking out
by ourselves, becoming independent and self-sufficient. We go from being child
to adult, from receivers to providers, from students to workers. We have total
choice in all things, but have to face the consequences of our choices.
A difficult transition here is that children are often happy to receive more
authority, gaining control over their lives, but they do not like having
responsibility, with nobody to rescue them and nobody to blame but themselves.
Many people show a failure to complete this transition to adulthood as they
avoid responsibility and try to blame others when things go wrong. It can also
be seen when people feel that they are still somehow a child rather than an
adult well into their 20s and beyond.
As an adult, we grow older and must eventually face the inevitability of our
own deaths. With luck, this comes with old age, but can appear at any time. It
can be a surprise and it can be the end-stop of a terminal illness. When we are
young, life seems infinite, but gradually the horizon gets closer. We busy
ourselves with our lives and ignore it for as long as possible, but aches, pains
and the death of loved ones increasingly reminds us of our own impending doom.
It catches us up as the value we place on the remainder of our life seems
constant, such that the older we get, the more we value each day.
We may find religion, science or philosophy to help explain what it is all
about, yet we must still face our death. A question here is in the difference
between dying and being dead. Being dead may be easier to accept. Religion
promises a glorious afterlife, while science suggests non-existence removes
worry or pain, although the philosopher in us worries at the loss of identity.
The process of dying can be a more immediate worry, as it suggests pain or
perhaps the loss of mental function and consequent identity.
As a young person, we must face life. As an old person, we must face death.
Both are inevitable. While others can help, we must ultimately face these
challenges alone. If we can do this, we will have cleared the way to a happier
Knowing, ignorance and self-knowledge
If you take any subject, you can have a range of knowledge about this,
ranging from no knowledge to full knowledge. Few people exist at the extremes of
this spectrum, though many have little knowledge and a good number may have a
lot of knowledge (but not total knowledge).
There is a second, reflexive dimension on knowledge, which is the
self-knowledge of knowing about your knowledge, in particular knowing what you
do not know. In other words, this is the ability to see the spectrum of
knowledge in any given subject and place yourself upon it, saying 'I know this
but I do not know that'. A paradox of learning is that, as you gain more
knowledge, you realize how much more you have yet to learn.
It can become problematic if you do not know what you do not know, as this
can make you arrogant as you assume you know everything. This can be seen in the
'curse of ignorance', where people are not only ignorant, but are also ignorant
of their ignorance. This does not mean they have no knowledge. Indeed, they may
be very knowledgeable. Yet they are still ignorant of some things, and this lack
of self-knowledge can lead to combative argument.
Why might we not know what we don't know? Sometimes it is because we simply
have not encountered a sub-domain of knowledge. People who understand Newtonian
physics may feel they know how atoms work, even though they have not encountered
quantum mechanics. Sometimes also, we actually do know there are things that we
don't know but feel uncomfortable about this, so we pretend that what we don't
know is unimportant or simply does not exist. This is where we turn to deception
rather than accept ignorance, even as we condemn ourselves to remain ignorant.
The best position is always to accept your ignorance, and always be ready to
learn. This requires a certain amount of humility, which often needs sufficient
self-confidence to publicly and cheerfully admit ignorance. Yet it is a position
from which we can each grown and learn, increasing both our real knowledge as
well as discovering more ignorance as a route into a learning future.
Do, Lead, Help, Nudge or Watch
In your life, whether it is at work, in volunteering or wherever, you can
often see a whole set of activities going on or where some action are needed. A
way to look at these are as 'projects', where there is an intended outcome
following a certain amount of work. These 'projects' can be of any size, from a
few minutes to several years. A critical question for you (or a group you are
in) is 'What should I/we do about it?' Here are five options.
Sometimes all you need is to roll up your sleeves and get on with it. When
something clearly needs doing the best approach is to do it rather than talk
When you are going to do something, either taking the lead or doing it all
yourself, there are three questions to ask:
1. Do I have the energy for this? (Or might I give up?)
2. Do I have the resources I will need? (From money to wheelbarrows)
3. Do I have the support I will need? (Including practical help and formal
Particularly when we fear failure or criticism, we can get lost in the safety
of meeting, talking and planning. While it is usually good to communicate,
sometimes all you need to do is say 'I'm doing X. Did anyone want to join me'.
Then just get on with it.
Some jobs you can do yourself. Other work is just too much for one or needs
the expertise, resources or influence of other people. In voluntary contexts and
where you do not have direct authority, this means you will need to influence
others, motivating them to join your cause.
Leadership is a highly skilled activity, but if you are good at it you can
get a lot done. It means being able to see both the big picture and how all the
parts work together. It also means building such good relationships with the
people involved that they want to help you and one another succeed.
At other times the project may not be yours to do. Perhaps you lack the
energy to lead it or someone else already has the bit between their teeth.
Perhaps you as, have been asked to help using our expertize, or maybe they want
a bit of extra grunt work during a critical period.
Whatever the reason, on these types of projects you are a helper, not a
leader. This makes life a bit easier as you do not have to chase people and be
at every meeting. You can hence just do your bit and leave the worrying to other
In some projects you may have no active role, yet still have a concern for
the outcomes of the work. This can be frustrating, as you want to steer the ship
yet are neither the captain not the crew.
This is the position of the activist. Typically with concerns for social
issues, they agitate, irritate and work to influence the decisions of those in
power. Lobbyists, too, seek to nudge, cajole or otherwise influence the
Sometimes you have little influence, but are still interested in what is
going on, for example so you can prepare for the outcome or discuss it with
others. In such projects, you should just sustain a watching brief. Get hooked
into information streams as you can, such as email distribution lists, notice
boards, etc. and then just keep an eye on things.
If necessary, you can change your status on a 'Watch' project, for example if
you become concerned that things are being done wrong or that your interests are
not being examined,
For more, see the ChangingMinds Blog! Archive or
the Blogs by subject. To comment on
any blog, click on the blog either in the archive or in the column to the right.