Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The political wilderness

I recently added a comment over at James Higham’s blog referring to Kingsley Amis and his book “Stanley And The Women”. One of the themes of Amis’ novel was the tactic of creating a social wilderness (Amis didn't call it that) - placing certain issues off-limits and being conspicuously offended if these limits are not respected. Some people seem prepared to raise the social stakes without limit by flatly refusing to explore certain issues, however worthy of exploration they may be.

 Amis saw the use of this tactic as predominantly female, but by far the most striking example I ever came across was male. However, I think the wilderness tactic applies as much to institutions as to people.

The political wilderness is off-limits to mainstream political groupings and institutions such as the BBC. Sometimes it seems to be some kind of hinterland where one may acknowledge the existence of a political wilderness but can’t go there. The boundaries are not always clear, but failure to engage is more and more overt and even aggressive if attempts are made to visit the wilderness in polite society.

A  political wilderness is very useful for setting boundaries, areas of discourse where demons lurk and smart people lie in wait, ready to twist the world into strange, unnatural shapes.

Even more significantly, the political wilderness is where myths and lies may be used by the faithful as tools of damage limitation. Those who explore the wilderness may be legitimately misled, abused and even threatened.

The wilderness lies behind boundaries built from interlocking webs of self-interest, special pleading and discreet corruption. This is what bloggers and commenters threaten with their endless exploration of these delicate places.

The role of the BBC.
Capital punishment.
Academic integrity.
The competence of the NHS.
Official corruption.
Electoral fraud.

The list is huge. The wilderness doesn’t so much hide issues, as warn off the timid, the lazy and the hysterically conventional. It sits beyond the limits of quiet lives. Wilderness explorers offer no comforts and are not satisfied with lies.


Sam Vega said...

Good point. I am reminded of a very old piece of political theory by Bachrach and Baratz about "nondecision-making". Power is about the ability to make decisions, but a more subtle and pervasive form (the "second face of power") is the ability to set the agenda, to decide what is legitimate to discuss. If you can create a culture where people smirk or blush at your oponents' views and objections, then you win without even breaking sweat.

A K Haart said...

Sam - yes, setting the agenda runs all through society from parents to teachers to managers to politicians.

It's something the political classes seem to spend a huge amount of effort on and the media generally go along with it.

Anonymous said...

Just tap 'The Dark Political Arts' or 'Framing the Debate' or 'Dogwhistle Politics' into the WEB. The sophisticated development of PR skills has meant that rubbish policies and completely dishonest policies can be presented as honest truths.

Small wonder we are in a mess, no need for careful policy making or thinking through the consequences - oh no, just lay on some spin, frame the debate and move on.

How hard can it be to educate children, count passports, check up on care homes and recognise that people will cheat and lie if they can.

A K Haart said...

Roger - I agree, but it's how societies seem to work.