The political parties of the Left often still hold to the Enlightenment belief that we are rational creatures – that the person who has the best evidence based argument will win the debate. Sadly, as long as they do they’ll keep losing.
It’s only recently that brain imagining studies have shown how much of our actions stem not from our frontal lobes, where rational calculations take place, but from the deeper emotional centres of our brains. In a great number of cases it’s been conclusively shown that those emotional centres have already decided on a course of action before that decision is even registered in our frontal cortex. Our thinking centres can override that emotional decision if its consequences are perceived to be disastrous, but all too often we use our frontal cortex to rationalise the poor decisions that have already been made much deeper down in our brains.
As a dramatist, this is a Godsend for me, as the basis of satire is watching people behaving badly who don’t realise they’re behaving badly, but the audience does.
Foucault fervently attacked the assumption that our rational brains were in control. All literature he argued is simply an attempt to use the emotional power and slipperiness of language to prosecute the power interests of whatever group the writers belonged to – which all too often was the privileged white male. He was partly right of course. It’s hard to argue that Shakespeare doesn’t have clear indications of sexist and racist bias, as was totally common in his era. What Shakespeare and other great writers also have, is keen insight into the eternal workings of that very same emotional power that distorts and warps so many of our decisions. And has done so since our species began.
Like Shakespeare’s characters we still crave recognition and love, we still are angered by humiliation and rejection and seek revenge, we still overreact to perceived threat, and we are still capable of great compassion when we see others persecuted, and still feel anger at injustice. And often we use devious and unconscionable methods to attain those emotional ends. In forgetting that literature is the greatest repository of wisdom about our human nature, Foucault tried, all too successfully in many pockets of academia, to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Shakespeare’s most powerful exploration of our human nature was his depiction of how desperately and ruthlessly many of us will fight for status and power.
Which brings me to politics. The arena where that fight for power is hugely in evidence.
In the last election, when a party in ideological tatters, led by a man of little charm, armed with no policies, no effective frontbench team, and nothing much more than slogans, beat a party which had an election platform of some well thought through rational merit, and an effective front bench team to implement it, might at first glance seem mystifying. In hindsight, which is an easy vantage point I acknowledge, it wasn’t so strange.
Sure Bill Shorten was not a riveting presence and the Labor platform was complicated and not sold all that well, but I don’t think that’s what lost them the election.
Scott Morrison knew, deep in his marketing psyche that we aren’t rational creatures. That we’re more fearful and much more susceptible to emotional string pulling than rational creatures ever would be.
I had my first inkling that Labor was going to lose the night before the election. I was in a taxi and I asked the driver if he would be pleased, that if Labor won, the unconscionable tax lurks available to the rich, (Some of which I’ve benefitted from) would be stopped and the money saved go to those who need it. I wasn’t prepared for the vehemence of his reply. “I couldn’t give a shit,” he replied. “I’m on the breadline and all that matters to me is that I can keep my head above water. Labor will fuck the economy. All I care about is jobs and growth!”
Sure the electorate will tell surveys that their greatest concern is the environment, but for those on the margins it isn’t. In a Neo- liberal economy which has decimated the protections of unionism, and which has promoted the belief that increasing the already toxic levels of competitiveness in society will benefit us all, insecurity about the future is the dominant emotion amongst those who used to vote Labor.
Scotty from marketing had precisely the right message to go straight to my taxi driver’s emotional insecurity. “Jobs and Growth”. The careful rationality of Labor’s platform to take unjust tax concessions from the wealthy and improve the life of our less well off patently failed to strike a chord with those it was aimed at. Scotty, understanding that fear and insecurity are humanity’s default positions, got large swings from those fearing for their economic future.
Until the parties of the left can get their heads around the fact that Enlightenment assumption that rationality will win the day, and find a way to address the emotional fears of those whose interests they are supposed to represent without plumbing the depths of prejudice and fear, then even wounded and dysfunctional parties of the right will still keep winning.
As they’re doing all over the Globe
David Williamson’s ‘last’ play Family Values can now be enjoyed at the Griffin Theatre, Sydney