What do you think of David Cameron or Jeremy Corbyn? Do you like or trust them? Have you met them? Do you know them well enough to have any view at all?
For the vast majority of voters, these two guys are virtually strangers, the nuances of their respective characters closed books, their suitability for an evening in the pub unknown. Although Corby is teetotal which isn’t a good start for a convivial evening. Yet even comparatively apolitical people form character views of both men. Are those views worth anything?
No - not much.
We cannot have a worthwhile opinion on the character of a stranger even if we see them regularly on TV or online. Not even if we have met them briefly in some kind of controlled context. All we usually have is reported public behaviour. For politicians that means we put them in their political context and judge their behaviour accordingly but not necessarily accurately.
Unfortunately the public domain is managed, manipulated, edited, falsified by friend and foe alike. Like football it is a game with three points for a win, one for a draw and no points for a loss. Perhaps a narrative emerges, but it is the winner’s narrative and we have to accept that winners are not always worthy winners. They and their minders call in favours, twist arms and create distractions.
This is the problem. There is no point guessing at information which simply isn’t there, guessing that it has been successfully suppressed. It isn’t enough. Instinct, allegiance and suspicion aren’t enough, not if we value our own integrity. Too often the guilty get away with it because that is the nature of the game – winners win and losers lose.
In these cases it isn’t easy to accept the role of loser, to accept that many public people successfully hide their failings and failures from the public domain. Guesswork, instinct and allegiances cannot bridge the gap, cannot expose what has been successfully hidden or spirited away. A game lost is a lost game.
We cannot know public people in a personal sense, their foibles, strengths, weaknesses and tendency to be conventional, adaptable, imaginative or whatever. We cannot know them beyond their public behaviour and we cannot substitute gossip for what we do not observe. Obvious enough, but not so obvious when it comes to stories of sexual deviancy we hear so much about these days. Here we depart from David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn who as far as we know live blameless personal lives.
Our culture expends much time and vast amounts of money creating a false sense of familiarity between celebrities and their public, including major politicians. We are excessively familiar with gossip about people in the public domain. Millions go along with the stories, fantasies and fabrications as if they actually know the people concerned. Many soap opera fans behave as if the characters are real, many football fans seem to think they know football stars personally.
There is only reliably reported or observed behaviour and evidence admitted in court. Apart from that, people in the public domain are virtually strangers and best viewed as such. Strange strangers perhaps, but still strangers.