Contra Dictions — the battles between facts and fictions

(Part 3 of the Wake Up series)

Minding the Gaps

Perception gaps are a source of wonder and amazement. They are also hugely frustrating. The contrast between reality and popular presumption is often shockingly vast.

Perception Gaps abound in many areas of life — this is not unique to Brexit-related debates. Hans Rosling, founder of Gapminder.com, spent much of his life revealing to astonished audiences the huge diversity of human life on our planet and demolishing popular ‘myth-takes’. At times he was at war with averages — the deadening drain that destroys understanding by eliminating nuanced details. In his battles against a pervading lack of awareness he even felt obliged to explain that ‘Africa is not a country’.

Some gaps are clearly generational — others are rooted in their geographic and economic contexts. North V South. Public V Private. Rented V Owned. Rich V Poor. In or Out of anything.

But awareness of these gaps is of little value except to those wishing to exploit them - advertisers who need a differentiating pitch or politicians steering paths through seas of objections.

For much of the time, for many of us, these gaps are of little or no consequence — we believe whatever we choose to believe and those beliefs shape our own lives. Our beliefs may be a constraint or a stimulant but these are choices we make as individuals. At the same time we belong to several, often-overlapping communities — families, neighbours, schools, businesses, congregations, umpteen varieties of clubs or societies — and the belief structures within those have wider impacts that may change of over time.

Persistent Perceptions

Despite the ever-increasing availability and free flow of data, Perception Gaps are remarkably persistent. After three decades of very rapid technological development, folks should now be vastly better-informed and skilled in finding data and assessing its accuracy — but evidence-based living is no competitor to deeply-held convictions except, perhaps, when shopping for bargains.

In the rarified world of espionage, analysts would normally take care to avoid asking questions for which they have already declared that they know the answer. Without open minds, the answers they find will inevitably reinforce their prior convictions. There’s an illustration of this in Ben Macintyre’s retelling of Oleg Gordievsky’s life as a double agent. Such was the paranoia of KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov that the British intelligence Services had difficulty in believing the [Russian] Centre could really be ‘so out of touch with the real world’. Misperceptions lead directly to unintended consequences.

Market researchers, similarly, try to avoid this bias — unless, of course, their client has a long-term disruptive strategy. The key to subversion is to drip-feed these pre-set beliefs over a period long enough for them to become deeply rooted. It then becomes relatively easy to refresh those erroneous beliefs whenever they need to be tested at, for example, an election, referendum or takeover bid.

Simply presenting the Perception Gaps, as the FT did in the build-up to a vote, may be entertaining but effectively impotent because the battle had already been lost to non-evidence-based influencers. The chart above merely illustrates what should have been more obvious and more clearly articulated in the previous four decades.

‘The Sponge of Amnesia’

The breathtaking extent of this patient reworking of facts into fictions demands the most unlikely ideological gymnastics. Take, for example, the current contradictions of ostensibly loyal right-wing advocates to a Prime Minister’s speech at Lancaster House. No, not Theresa May’s ‘red lines’ speech in 2017, but Margaret Thatcher’s in 1988.

Celebrating her great legacy — instigation of the European Single Market — this far-sighted PM described “A single market without barriers — visible or invisible — giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous people” and she railed against, “Insidious . . . differing national standards, various restrictions on the provision of services, exclusion of foreign firms from public contracts.” The current ideological contortions were attributed to a ‘sponge of amnesia in Ben Chu’s memorable Independent article back in January 2017. The voices of reason speak complex truths that do not easily lend themselves to strident headlines in the popular/populist press and so deep-rooted are the paranoid convictions of the Brexity brigade that these arguments rage on.

Shaping a Get Well plan

Anyone searching for a Get Well depolarisation plan must take account of those deep roots but also consider the stamina required for healing. To stand against the populist tide demands considerable bravery.

Acquiescence, ‘what can I do?’– is the default option for those who feel disempowered. Anyone daring to go against the grain must inevitably expect a torrent of abuse, or worse. But acquiescence - non-committed opting out - is, in our current parlous state, a form of cowardice. The Holocaust could not have happened without the acquiescence that allowed it. The nearest historical examples we have, come from the very extremes of the political spectrum where the dystopian destinations of right and left collide with each other in some sort of circular argument.

Finding common ground will therefore demand considerable patience, courage and resilience before any negotiated peace plan can be discussed. Both sides need time and space to reflect on their foolish ways but history tells us that conflicts often worsen before wake up calls are heard. Right now it would be unduly optimistic to assume that some new national leader will magically emerge from the present shambles. More likely, any attempt at defusing the struggles will be overtaken by events in, as Archbishop Welby observes, ‘a world where the rule-based order we have become used to and which gives us security, is more and more fragile’. We are just a month away from bonfire night. Last week half the nation oohed and aahed at red flares in Liverpool. Will the other lot in Birmingham this week light the blue touch paper?

Perhaps the best hope for finding ways forward rests with those diverse small and local communities to which we all belong. Within those trusted networks of friends with common purpose a process can begin to examine the perception gaps — setting aside the top-down diktats and deciding locally on some collaborative principles for peace and collaboration with our neighbours.

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This Wake Up series reflects ongoing debates. It is an open-ended production with weekly episodes. Links back to: Part 1 ‘So You Did . . .?’and, Part 2 ‘What Happened’ .