Imagine I’m David Cameron – imagine, moreover, that I’m a sincere and principled political idealist, jetting off to Toronto for the G20 summit, burning with enthusiasm to make the world a better place.
But! Oh no! I find myself at a lavish dinner, and they’ve sat me next to King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Bin Abdulrahman Bin Faisal Bin Turki Bin Abdullah Bin Muhammad Bin Saud, absolute monarch of Saudi Arabia. You know the regime – women can’t drive, religious and sexual minorities at risk of death, no criticism of the government allowed, etc. By an reasonable standard, abominable.
So my first instinct is to abominate. They might as well have sat me next to Peter Sutcliffe, or even Arthur Scargill! Abdullah smiles and introduces himself, but I refuse to talk to him, quivering with righteous contempt. He seems put out.
Later, my aides explain to me that our relationship to this tyrant is very important to our strategic and economic interests, so I have to be friendly – indeed, I need to get him to trust us, and so I have to persuade him that I trust him. At first I protest, but eventually I am persuaded. I make a ‘realist compromise’ with my indignation.
(this, we may charitably presume, is roughly how things have actually happened)
But here’s a problem. There’s a fair bit of evidence that if I hang around someone long enough, smiling and acting friendly, it will influence my emotional reactions to them. This is especially true if we actively co-operate in pursuing some shared goal. Indeed, the most successful strategy for making people from two demographic groups more willing to respect and like each other is to make them work together for a shared goal.
And this is, I think, confirmed by introspection: as I remarked in my last post about David Cameron, my political emotions are heavily influenced by political socialisation. If I know of an idea only as what ‘some people’ believe, I’m likely to dismiss it far more swiftly than if I know a few people who believe it and have talked to me about it. Talking to a human being generates and works off a sense of togetherness that requires effort to break with.
Why is this a problem? The ‘realist compromise’ I made was that I would be friendly with Abdullah only as far as was necessary to promote the well-being of our respective populations. But how do I make judgements about that ‘well-being’? I don’t believe it’s an entirely dispassionate and technical activity: it draws upon emotional responses, albeit in a complex way. It reflects what I recoil from, what makes me anxious, what pleases me, etc.
And if my friendly state dinners with the king are changing my emotional reactions, then it seems like I won’t really be able to make that compromise without undermining my very justification for making it.
Even worse, what if certain emotional habits or patterns of response are common not just among the kings of Middle-Eastern despotisms, but among heads of state in general, or even among them and those they associate with (civil servants, business lobbyists, etc.)? Then we’ll all be sitting around, reinforcing those very habits in each other, and collectively depraving our moral judgements.
And maybe at some level I know this: a part of me is angry at myself, and says ‘Dave! This isn’t you! These people aren’t supporters of the Big Society!’ Now what will this part of me do? I don’t want to jeopardise the relationships that I’ve struggled to build, or undermine my state’s strategic interests.
But here’s a thing about human desires. They are often susceptible of ‘displacement’ – you’re angry because of X, but you can’t shout at X so you shout at Y instead.
Now maybe I find that some heads of state have conflicting interests to me, and so it’s actually in my interests to de-legitimate them. What if I displace all my subconscious indignation about Abdullah onto some convenient target like Ahmedinejad? That might restore my psychic equilibrium somewhat, but at the cost of a distorted worldview, where the same action is good when done by some people and demonic when done by others.
Perhaps self-awareness and honesty with myself would be helpful here. But even that carries a price. What if the conditions of politics require me to inspire confidence in my judgement, to persuade people that I’m much smarter than they are and know exactly what I’m doing?
‘Of course’, I think to myself, ‘it could be worse. I could be some reverse-cripple sitting in a university department all day, associating only with academics, and displacing the impulses which that milieu doesn’t satisfy onto some invented fantasy-object in a theory.’