Social Boycotts and British protest

The collapse in credibility and confidence in the global banking system and the MP’s expenses scandals have left us reeling and in sore need of moral example. Is it really the case that all these people were so greedy and unaware of the consequences of the actions that caused this crisis, or is this more like Milgram’s experiment, with many people being led astray by a few bad apples in positions of authority. Certainly, it seems, most of the people have been fooled most of the time for the last decade.

What we’ve seen recently is the usurpation of sense by greed; the traders, oil barons and CEO’s deserve nothing but our contempt for their obscene consumption, and, lest we forget the lesson of Frank Goodwin, that is one of the reasons they are paid so much. When it all goes wrong, these are the people who will be made to be pariahs; the mega bonus culture has much to learn from Dr Faustus and Midas; if it seems to good to be true, it is, and the wager in this case is that when you screw up, you have been paid off in order to end up a pariah.

MP’s expenses, meanwhile, offer a different insight; the entitlement that some feel is their reward for responsibility. While the amounts may be smaller, and the consequences of the fraud much more minor, they have betrayed our trust. I’m certain that this was never intentional; concerns about the reaction to a salary rise led to a lax expenses system, which then became institutionalised. Add to this a growing blurring of boundaries between politicians and big business (oh, it’s just crass to point at Mandelson now, isn’t it), and it’s almost unsurprising that the expenses issue got so out of hand.

Surprising it may be, but once you overcome the dismay, I’m not sure many of these cases are so unacceptable. These are public servants, they are abusing tax payers money and they should be held to account. And that’s all that should be said on the matter; as far as I’m concerned, I don’t know how much of the schmoozing and diplomatrivia that goes on is necessary, but there are established ground rules in place. You don’t take the American ambassador to Little Chef, and you don’t wear jeans to meet a trade delegation. It is expensive and difficult to be an MP, and most of them have been reasonable. Most of them.

The moats, duck houses and house swapping shenanigans seem to lie on the other side of the fence, though. We come full circle back to greed, here; just like the corporate fat cats, these politicians have grown lazy and greedy, feeding their sense of entitlement with more and more treats from the taxpayers pocket.

Why do we let people get away with this? We mostly know that this behaviour is indulgent and unfair. What is it in our cultural make up that lets us shrug it off and get on with our own efforts to make the world a nicer place. Perhaps it is the feting of these people by the media, the culture of celebrity and the despicable idea we are sold that somehow these peoples work is worth 1000 times that of the cleaners they employ; I read recently that the two years with highest disparity between highest and lowest earners were 1929 and 2007, preceding the two largest financial collapses of the last century. Sounds like some people in power need to re-read their Anthony Gibbons; it’s been a while since any of our politicians were in their PPE lectures.Or maybe it’s that powerful social dysfunction, bystander paralysis. Poor Kitty Genovese, murdered in her NY apartment because all those watching thought someone else would call the police, and no one did. Are we all doing this; assuming it’s not our place to call these people out on their actions, but we should wait until the behaviour is legislated away; a consensus is reached on the right way to behave.

Well, I think we’ve tried that, and seen that the powers that be simply don’t care about anything other than maintaining status quo. Institutional paralysis has gripped the government.

“The reason why America is not as happy as it was in 1950 or 1920 or whenever, 100 years ago, is because our priorities are wrong, but it has nothing to do with exploiting the planet and has everything to do with losing faith in God."

Glenn Beck does righteous anger so well. Those tears! Those puppy dog eyes! And look what he’s accomplished; the radicalisation of a whole strata of society to get angry about, well, nothing really. All that glorious, juicy unjustified rage, just getting sprayed willy nilly against an eminently reasonable health care proposition. No one really seemed sure what the 9/12 protests were about, but as far as torch-waving angry mobs go, they were pretty impressive.

The right seems to have a monopoly in righteous anger; why can’t those of us  in the left/liberal quadrant of the political compass start getting angry? I mean, sure, we aren’t reactionary, terrified of change or stuck in the past, but there’s a healthy undercurrent of frustration at the simple refusal of most of the people, most of the time, to do the thing that is so obviously good/right/correct. We’ve dropped the ball on being angry; ridiculous anarchists became the face of the movement and we left ourselves open to the accusation of not knowing what we wanted, other than fitful unrealistic dreams of destroying the capitalist state from dreadlocked, disaffected children of the leading members of the capitalist state. Well, bollocks to that, I’ve got no interest in destroying the capitalist state; I just want it to work right.

Every time I ended up at an exciting, progressive event, I’m saddened by the inevitable group of what I like to call red fascists outside. I’m loathe to mention specific groups, lest this become linkbait, but I’m looking at you, SWP, and all the 9/11 deniers and other conspiracy nuts that communism attracted to the left. You are worse for the left than any agent-provocateur could ever be.  And these people can, frankly, fuck off. The last thing the (liberal) left has ever needed is this overwhelming shouting about STUPID ideas when realistically, we need to present a united, passionate front around the idea of just being nice to each other. Categorical Imperative FTW.

Indignation at the way people behave is not necessarily authoritarianism. I’m the last person who’s going to proscribe and prescribe the ways people should behave. It’s stupid, it doesn’t work, and it pushes the most egregious offenders to do what they were doing, but underground and invisibly. Instead, we need a international campaign of gentle disapproval, tutting & tsking and calling people out on what everyone knows is shit behaviour. How very British.

It’s not hard; look at what the auto industry has to say about SUV drivers;

“According to Bradsher, internal industry market research concluded that S.U.V.s tend to be bought by people who are insecure, vain, self-centered, and self-absorbed, who are frequently nervous about their marriages, and who lack confidence in their driving skills.“

I’m not even advocating that you are as mean to these people as the people trying (and more than succeeding) to sell them their conspicuous consumption.

Think it’s all a bit unfair? Why? These are the people breaking the commons; it’s not just a tragedy, it’s an open violation; its open face mining, clear cutting of forests, eating someones last rolo without asking. It is the most shocking statement that they don’t give a fuck about other people, their own children, or anything other than a fat bank balance and conspicuous consumption. The greedy, lazy fat cats read the social contract, tore it up, spat and stamped upon it, and we need to stop giving them the benefit of the doubt.

How do we do this? Am I advocating that we all get angrier, until we’ve completely atomised society where we all obsess over other peoples actions. Of course not; tabloid culture and spirals of fear and paranioa make it too easy to whip up a swathe of the population over a risk that doesn’t, and never existed. The mob is not the solution to our problems.

We need to say “no, it’s not OK” to the outliers; the overconsumers, the overpaid and the overindulgent. You’re spoiling it for everyone else, and you’re the reason us and our children won’t be able to have nice things. Guilt trip them, call them on their lazy thinking and start to uncool the signifiers of greed.

"Ooh, you know what Bill's doing now, he's going for the righteous indignation dollar. That's a big dollar. A lot of people are feeling that indignation. We've done research - huge market. He's doing a good thing."  - Bill Hicks

People love to see how they compare to their neighbours and peers;  got to keep up with the Jones’. So lets play on that; why can’t good behaviour be a competition? Oh sure, you could be like Mother Teresa and just be good because it makes you feel nice inside, but it only takes a tiny fillip in that feeling to have bad behaviour become rewarding. There’s nothing wrong with giving people an extrinsic motivation for doing the right thing. Even those that would have done it anyway will feel more smug about their good deeds.

Recently, studies have shown that putting a smiley on electric bills that are under a neighbourhood average, and frowns on the bills of the heavy consumers has shown that this quiet disapproval can succeed;

“the bill featured a little drawing along with the numbers: a smiling face on a below-average bill or a frowning face on an above-average bill. After that simple nudge, the heavy users made even bigger cuts in consumption, while the light users remained frugal.”

Hello, operant reinforcement. My friend Dale Lane has a thing for ‘smart meters’, and has taken the data from them and integrated into the Xbox Live system; you can win achievements and level up in saving electricity. How wonderfully nice is that?

And there’s the competitive element, of course. Everyone loves scoring points, and sites like dothegreenthing and thenag have bought a social gaming aspect to being environmentally sound.

We’re circling around a lot of motivation science here, so lets dive into that and see what might be good for helping people do the right thing. You might want to go off and read a couple of papers here:

Ryan, R.M. and Deci, E.L.; ‘Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivations: Classic definitions and New Directions’,

Klandermans, B.; ‘The Social Psychology of Protest’.

(i suck so hard at referencing)

But, to recap for those without athens memberships; Ryan & Deci are all about external & intrinsic motivations. Intrinsic being “the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfactions rather than for some separable consequences”; having fun, learning stuff, identifying with a movement, personal politics. Extrinsic motivations are a bit more recognisable, having those delicious separable consequences. Money, reputation and, uh, personal politics.

Politics is a difficult combination of intrinsic identification with a movement, the satisfaction of hewing to your own beliefs, but is generally also something public, at least for those where it is a big motivation. So, I’m writing this essay in line with my personal politics, but you’re reading it on my blog, and it was written for other people. Similarly, protest, which is where we can segue nicely to Klandermans.

Klandermans talks about the ‘action potential’, whereby a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic motivations is enough to tip us over the edge and take some action. For some damnable reason, I can’t overcome my action potential to eat healthier and exercise more, but on a smaller scale, I can bring myself to take the time to monitor e-voting elections, or to write this essay. Smaller actions, over less time are a lot easier.

But changing habits is difficult. We do it on a large scale, I think, by dropping the motivations for the bad activities, increasing them for good. Germany does a great job with its recycling, and we’re very, very slowly moving that way on a corporate level, but bad behaviour by the individuals should also be made averse. More council tax if you don’t recycle, perhaps, or disproportionately higher road taxes for high polluting cars. Let’s pull the lazy activities under the low bar of their action potentials, and raise the motivation to be nice. Reward charity workers, make a fuss in the media when a great example is set or, yes, just give people cash for doing the good thing. That, and laugh in the face of politicians and bankers, and spit on every Rolls-Royce you see.

Anger only really seems to cause affront, no matter how clearly right one side is (in fact, often to the inverse of how right one side is). Persuasion, trickery and skulduggery might be the best way to effect the change we want to see the world. Embarassing public figures, exposing hypocrisy and generally discrediting those who are anti- being nice might help us more by devaluing the currency of status symbols and greed.

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