Restoring Sanity to Our Politics, Our Economy, and Our LivesBook - 2014
The co-author of the internationally bestselling The Rebel Sell brings us slow politics: promoting slow thought, slow deliberation and slow debate
Winner of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing
Over the last twenty years, the political systems of the western world have become increasingly divided--not between right and left, but between crazy and non-crazy. What's more, the crazies seem to be gaining the upper hand. Rational thought cannot prevail in the current social and media environment, where elections are won by appealing to voters' hearts rather than their minds. The rapid-fire pace of modern politics, the hypnotic repetition of daily news items and even the multitude of visual sources of information all make it difficult for the voice of reason to be heard.
In Enlightenment 2.0, bestselling author Joseph Heath outlines a program for a second Enlightenment. The answer, he argues, lies in a new "slow politics." It takes as its point of departure recent psychological and philosophical research, which identifies quite clearly the social and environmental preconditions for the exercise of rational thought. It is impossible to restore sanity merely by being sane and trying to speak in a reasonable tone of voice. The only way to restore sanity is by engaging in collective action against the social conditions that have crowded it out.
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The author begins by describing his understanding of reason and its five key characteristics. The limits of rationality as the guiding principle to structure civilisation must be recognised in view of its excesses in the French Revolution, mechanised killing characteristic of modern warfare and industrial development which jeopardises the habitability of the planet. These excesses can however be understood as errors in reasoning and not as an indictment of the Enlightenment project. Our rationality is limited by a host of cognitive biases which operate automatically. These processes evolved as a response to our need for quick decision making in pre-historic times and are correct most of the time within the context where they evolved. Reason evolved very recently, probably concurrently with language skills. It is not our primary cognitive process and usually needs to override our intuitive processes to function. As we now live in a built environment, the reliability of intuitive cognition is decreasing. Advertisers and political operatives have learned to exploit these intuitive processes to elicit responses favorable to their products or positions, thus further reducing the likelihood that we will respond rationally to an advertisement or a politician’s quote. The search for favorable intuitive or emotional responses by the electorate has led to the adoption of patently unreasonable or insane positions. We can improve the quality of our reasoning by recognising how it operates and by employing “kluges” to facilitate its action. Reason often relies on phenomena outside the mind, such as a pencil and paper to perform mathematical operations. One of the most important external supports to reason is the critical review of our thinking through social interaction. Thus if we are to enhance our reasoning, we need to develop a “scaffolding” of physical and social artefacts. Heath presents an impressive review of cognitive biases in arguing the limits to rationality. He also discusses at length the methods used by advertisers and political strategists to distract us from a rational analysis of their messages. Unfortunately he does not present an equally compelling structure to address the threats to rationality. As he says his proposals constitute “Small steps to a saner world”.
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