Should I have voted in the UK general election? I’m not sure, but here’s one possible reason for saying ‘no’.
I’m currently reading ‘After Virtue’ by Alasdair MacIntyre. One of the claims he makes is that all moral philosophies presuppose a sociology and a type of society. In particular, he thinks the social content of ’emotivism’, according to which moral expressions are merely expressions of emotion, ways of shouting out what we like or dislike,
“entails the obliteration of any genuine distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations.”
His point is that if all values or principles are equally valid, and none can be called correct, then moral discussion can’t be about seeking truth, nor can I aim to ‘persuade you only using good reasons’, because all reasons are equally good. The aim becomes simply ‘persuading you’ – but someone who just wants to persuade us, in whatever way they can, by playing on our biases or emotions, distorting facts, making us afraid, etc. seems like the paradigm of a manipulative speaker, a mere propagandist or spin doctor.
MacIntyre also clearly thinks that emotivism is fairly widely accepted in modern capitalist societies – not hegemonic by a long shot, but an idea that everyone is vaguely aware of in some form. Although he doesn’t draw the conclusion explicitly, doesn’t this amount to saying that in modern society, we have trouble reliably and robustly distinguishing propaganda from sincere attempts at dialogue? Sadly, that idea isn’t implausible. People could probably put together a long list of ways they feel modern society is manipulative (though perhaps also a list of opposite reasons), from work to politics to advertising.
Why is this relevant to the initial question? Well, one good example of a ‘manipulative’ behaviour, surely, is playing a game without respecting the rules. That doesn’t have to mean breaking the rules – maybe I obey the rules because if I’m caught cheating I won’t be able to win, and there’s money riding on the result.
But if I could get away with it, I’d break them – and yet if I catch the other players cheating, I make a big fuss. When there’s a rules dispute, I pick a position that benefits me and argue for it vociferously, even though had it not benefitted me, I’d have vociferously argued the opposite. I participate, even though I see no value or importance at all in the rules that define the activity.
That’s manipulative, isn’t it? It might be for a good motive – maybe I’m playing a game for money, and hope to use the money to keep the local orphanage open. Whether or not it’s a good idea overall, it’s still manipulative.
Now, if I don’t believe that representative democracy confers legitimacy on governments, and indeed don’t recognise the British state and law as legitimate, is it manipulative for me to participate in its big important games, like elections?
When it’s a political enemy, lots of people are keen to say ‘yes’, whichever side of the political spectrum they’re on. Anti-fascist leaflets often make a point about the BNP’s hypocrisy, standing in elections and demanding their democratic rights, even though when in power their many fascist members will be hostile both to elections and to whatever those ‘rights’ are. Conversely, there’s a long tradition of red-baiters and conservatives being outraged at the ‘dishonesty’ of communists working within and making use of the very liberal democratic system that they regard as illegitimate and wish to dismantle.
I don’t know if that kind of voting would be manipulative. Even if it was, that might not be an argument against voting, overall. Indeed any such argument – that I should refrain from voting ‘on principle’ – is open to the criticism that it’s a self-important conceit that should be set aside in the name of ‘making a difference’. This would be analogous to saying you should cheat at a game for money, if you would use that money for good – an argument which is neither obviously wrong nor obviously conclusive.
I do suspect, though, that its strength would be proportional to how much of an effect would be produced, which in my case would be very little indeed. Which point is nicely expressed in this story about an under-age boy voting in secret (then telling someone). After being sent a polling card by mistake, he voted libdem because he “wanted to make a difference.” 3 paragraphs in the article notes that “[some twat] won the seat for the Conservatives with a 15,844 majority.”
This example is interesting – was this a manipulative vote? Because it broke the rules? Or not, because he believed in democracy? Or did he? Does it matter that he then told his teacher? Or is he manipulative simply for voting tactically, backing the libdems in the incongruous name of socialism?