DAVID WILLIAMSON. The Trump Card of the Right.

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


This post kindly provided to us by one of our many occasional contributors.

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16 Responses to DAVID WILLIAMSON. The Trump Card of the Right.

  1. Avatar Charles Lowe says:

    It is 2020. It is not 1770. We are well beyond – 250 years beyond – the ‘classical Enlightenment’.

    We now accept that our rationality can be well used to explore and more deeply understand our emotionality. And we are doing so. Not least because of the imprint (and impact) of magnificently credible playwrights like our amazing David Williamson – trained as an engineer (how much more rational could one be?) (and likely at the insistence of his ultra-conservative banker father) and the delectable author of Australia’s best theatre.

    A balanced brain is our best brain. Labor needs desperately to rationally excise the (relatively few) Dark Triadists occupying positions of central power within the NSW Branch so that the tidal wave of kindness and compassion that is overwhelmingly experienced each and every day by its collective human members finally resurfaces to drown and to bury the detritus of its “Whatever It Takes” sociopaths.

    I urge all readers of this Blog to take up this critically important political cause with passion, determination and persistence.

  2. Avatar Hugh Gould says:

    I love David Williamson’s interesting referral back to our classics. It has some valid parallels with human behavior and are worth consideration.
    I’m a practical person however and heap a large amount of reason on to a lack of leadership and the inability for our leaders to sell the message they promote. Perhaps a little too simplistic you might think.

  3. Avatar Jerry Roberts says:

    Labor insiders were glum in the final two weeks of the May campaign and they did not hear the news from taxi drivers whose world was torn apart by the Uber de-regulation. Labor had genuine policy problems , especially in Queensland, and still has. Labor may have gone further towards the Greens than necessary and Albanese appears to hold that view but the problem persists with mining and environmentalists. I have the impression Albanese is playing for time.

  4. Avatar Kien Choong says:

    I would like to defend the role of good reasoning and public discussion. Rather than criticise Labor for appealing to people’s rationality, I would criticise the Coalition for appealing to prejudice.

    I recall Bob Hawke saying something to the effect that he believed Australians were willing to be persuaded, if only politicians took the trouble to explain the reasons for difficult policies. Past Australian governments have been re-elected on a platform of reform.

    The mainstream media has a responsibility to foster good reasoning in public discussion. If they have failed, then we ought to examine the case for media reform.

  5. Avatar Philip Ludington says:

    Perhaps a sub heading for the article could have been “bullshit baffles brains”

  6. Avatar Ian Robinson says:

    The work of linguist George Lakoff on how the message is “framed” is very relevant here. It’s about time progressive politicians harkened to his ideas.

    Read “Don’t Think of an Elephant”. Or the article below for a short version.


  7. Avatar Jocelyn Pixley says:

    I think there’s far too little debate on emotions and rationality; often too much, these days, on “emotional intelligence” and similar marketing devices. Hard line economists like to dismiss all emotions and talk about Rational Economic Man – that caricature. Marketing and advertising do the opposite, trying to “empathise” with the consumers they aim to exploit. In my efforts in sociology, I don’t see either are superior or separable. If there’s a fire, it’s perfectly rational to feel fearful. For years I interviewed financiers and central bankers on trust – in what part of the financial world, in which institutions, and about what promises. The thoughtful ones were interesting, and put in distrust; they also talked of betrayal of trust and its consequences. Playwrights are often the best about all these variations.

  8. Avatar Felix MacNeill says:

    Fair points – but it’s easy to criticise…

    Firstly, exactly HOW would David, or anyone else, suggest a message about, say, climate change can be framed and phrased to elicit that emotional kick without tripping over into despair?

    And then, that rather harder second question is: Even if you succeed at this (and I believe that probably is possible) how do you then stop the collective boot of the Koch’s and Rhineharts from grinding forever into the faces of those people who made the unforgivable mistake of reaching a different conclusion to the one that currently serves their sad and grubby privilege?

  9. Avatar Rob Stewart says:

    Superb commentary David. Absolutely spot on. But I am confident Labor, cynically, has given up on the likes of your taxi driver.

    In our corporate kakistocracy real democracy and choice will always be enemies of the rightfully deserving elites. And the thugs of power in the neoliberal age have mastered messaging fear and delivering precarity and uncertainty to the masses. Discussion of left and right in this reality is quaint, passe and somewhat boring to corporate masters. The GFC didn’t cause neoliberalism to collapse, perversely, it only strengthened it.

    It’s true Labor offered a few genuinely redistributive progressive policies at the last election. I think it has learnt its lesson. Fear and uncertainty cleverly manufactured and spun has achieved the divide and rule objective in which the masses turn on and eat each other (perhaps your taxi driver) while modern day robber barrons steal what they already haven’t taken. No place for unions in this Randian u(dys)topia.

    In an era of professional career based politics winning, no matter how pyrrhic, is all the counts. Human values, morals and ethics are a political problem to sociopathic neoliberalism. This is why Bernie Sanders has no chance of winning in the US and it’s why Labor was not allowed to win here last year (eg. Clive Palmer’s $83 million political investment). I am sure Labor will obey the rules next time around.

  10. Avatar Mark Freeman says:

    Thanks David for a most interesting article. Good to see someone from our literary arts world on the his site.

    Conservatives have always been about fear and progressives about hope. Progressives have their own means of emotional appeals too.

    I hope we see more from you.

  11. Avatar R. N. England says:

    The difficult work of public administration, to be effective, requires the highest level of Enlightened expertise. We now have a system that consistently delivers it into the hands of bullshitters, and the problem is slowly getting worse. The public service is supposed to be government’s established source of Enlightened expertise. In the past, elected representatives had a more realistic idea of their own level of expertise and relied more on advice from the public service. That has slowly changed as fervent popular belief in “democracy” has deluded elected representatives into believing that carrying out “the will of the people” is their sacred duty, rather than acting on expert advice.

    And how is the “will of the people” decided? A circus is arranged in which aspiring administrators are invited to compete before an audience off the street, by performing feats of rhetoric whose content consists mainly in denouncing each other. The audience, who have been aggressively misinformed by those who stand to gain most by corrupting the victor, determines, by ballot, the winner, who then takes charge of the administration.

    The main strength of a system of ballot is to preserve the peace by convincing the losers not to escalate the fight because they know they are in the minority. Its great weakness, is that the Enlightened are consistently on the losing side because bullshit has decided the outcome. Bullshit’s consistent victory dims the Light, and leads to the decline and fall of democracies.

    Whitlam’s greatness did not derive from his undoubted ability as a circus performer, but from his remarkably wide command of expertise, enabling him to engage in productive communication with the breadth and depth of Enlightened, disinterested expertise in the public service and beyond. His command of detail and his fact-based historical perspective also enabled him to reject bullshit advice. That is what won him the loyalty of Enlightened people. That same tradition was upheld by the ALP after Whitlam’s retirement as a circus performer, attracting Enlightened MPs, rank-and-file members, and voters, rather than existing merely as the party of envy to complement the party of greed in the contest of private intrest. The ALP will lose that crown if it abandons the fight against fossil fuel use.

  12. Avatar Chris Borthwick says:

    “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…. ”

    Until mankind finds a way to make water dry…

    I mean, it’s in the same sentence twice, once as good and once as bad.

    Or perhaps it’s just the depths that have to be avoided: “We exploit the same fears, but not quite so deeply, so vote for us.”

  13. Avatar Richard Habgood says:

    An insightful article and compliments something earlier from Michael Keating https://johnmenadue.com/michael-keating-scott-morrisons-policy-agenda/

    Marketing seeks to segment customers into sub-groups with more homogeneous needs and wants and then develop market offerings for those segments. Traditionally demographic and socio-economics factors were used as segmenting variables. (For example, Michael Keating referred to the labour/capital split).

    Contemporary marketing now also uses “psychographics”, sometimes referred to as “pictures of the mind” as segmenting variables.

    Scotty from Marketing (with assistance from LNP apparatchiks) was able to very cleverly tap into those inner fears and needs that many voters have and then offer them a reassuring but essentially a do nothing solution.

  14. Avatar Evan Hadkins says:

    This is well said.

    And it comes down to finding new work for those who will lose their jobs in the fossil fuel industries.

    • Avatar Charles Lowe says:

      That is the second-most important thing that Labor needs to address.

      (The most important thing is what will enable Labor to address it – electoral donations reform (see Andrews’ 2017 reforms in Victoria).)

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