It was Karl Marx who said: "Religion is the opiate of the masses"
. An opiate relieves pain, numbs, and before it wears off, gives a sense that all is well with the world. But knowing that opiates are addictive, Marx went on to say: "The first requisite for the happiness of the people is the abolition of religion.”
A state of numb unreality does not create happiness.
Napoleon Bonaparte saw religion differently. He said: “How can you have order in a state without religion? For, when one man is dying of hunger near another who is ill of surfeit, he cannot resign himself to this difference unless there is an authority which declares, ‘God wills it thus.’ Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet.”
So is simplicity.
Bertrand Russell said: “There is something feeble and a little contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths. Almost inevitably some part of him is aware that they are myths and that he believes them only because they are comforting. But he dares not face this thought! Moreover, since he is aware, however dimly, that his opinions are not rational, he becomes furious when they are disputed.”
This piece argues that simplicity in political discourse has become an opiate of the people in the manner Russell suggests. Simple explanations to complex problems, ‘comfortable myths’ that cultivate false security, are now stock in trade for politicians, fostered by a lazy and compliant media and swallowed by a gullible electorate.
Life is complex. Complexity abounds in nature, human endeavour and in individual and collective interactions. We try to understand that complexity, to reduce it to bite-sized pieces that we can assimilate. Reductionism seeks to drill down to find ‘the simple answer’, the ‘magic bullet’ that will solve life’s complex problems. Much of medicine is reductionist, particularly in medical science and the narrow specialties, and has provided us with countless profound insights that have lead to startling discoveries, innovative approaches and new cures. But alone it is insufficient. Many problems are not ‘down there’, at a cellular, molecular or genetic level, but ‘out there’ in the totality of an individual’s existence, subject as it is to all the influences of home, family, environment, work, community and the political system.
Why then do politicians, particularly those in opposition, seek to reduce life’s complexities to simple catch phrases? Because it works! Why do Governments have such difficulty in explaining what needs to be done, what they have done, and what they plan to do? Because it involves complexity, and complex things take time and skill to explain.
Our society has evolved to a point where ten second clips are the norm, and insignificant actions and inconsequential events become the news of the day. In a fine article on 4 January by David Horton in The Drum Unleashed: Wanted: serious political reporting
, which should be essential reading for political reporters, the concluding paragraph reflected the theme of his piece: “Have political reporters become merely stand-up comedians with humorous one-liners, or do they see themselves as serving the public interest? Are they going to keep on doing the equivalent of The Guardian celebrity profile with great weight placed on how the subject holds a wine glass or folds a napkin, or will they begin reporting seriously about the qualifications, experience, interests, political beliefs, aims of the people who govern us or wish to do so in future?”
It is not surprising that in this media milieu short, snappy yet plausible slogans that imply a simple fix have become the stock in trade of politicians. The federal Coalition has used this strategy brilliantly and to good effect; it almost won them the 2010 election. It will take you no effort to remember: ‘end the waste’, ‘repay the debt’, ‘stop new taxes’ and ‘stop the boats’. There was no need for Tony Abbott to explain these slogans or to validate them. Their purpose was not to inform or argue or even suggest an alternative path. The sole aim was to incite antagonism towards the Government, to give the impression of Government incompetence, and to subtly suggest that the Coalition had the answers and could readily solve difficult political problems – all the public needed to do was to elect them.
The recent Queensland floods gave Barnaby Joyce and Tony Abbott another heaven-sent opportunity to make similar political capital out of what was a tragedy for people, communities and the whole nation. It took no time for them to talk about Australia having ‘a dam phobia’, implying Labor governments ought to have built more, notwithstanding recent LNP opposition to dams that were being proposed. Virtually every expert commentator cautioned against a rush to build dams, but that was of no consequence to Abbott or Joyce. Their aim was to create yet another memorable three-word slogan – ‘Build More Dams’ was suggested as a possibility. Like all the other three-worders, it has a ring of plausibility, indeed to the unthinking and uninformed seems an obvious solution. Wait to see what three-worder emerges as Abbott institutes his Coalition committee to investigate the utility of dams in this country.
We can expect more of the same – pithy slogans about banking, tax review, the minerals tax, carbon mitigation, or anything else the Government suggests or proposes. Even the actions of the Government following the High Court granting access to the courts for asylum seekers who have been rejected and assigned for return to country, was countered by another simple Abbott statement – ‘it won’t stop the boats’. You see, the substantial complexities of the new arrangements to give legal rights to asylum seekers is reduced to the simplest counter argument – ‘it won’t stop the boats’. It is mind-numbing simplicity that makes no contribution to balanced discourse on this troublesome subject, but serves Abbott well – he knows that given the choice of trying to understand the complexities of the matter, or clutching a short superficially believable slogan, the majority of the electorate will likely choose the latter.
The repeated recourse to simplicity by the Coalition, while smart politically, is corrosive of balanced, well informed and sensible discussion of complex issues that cannot be reduced to three-word slogans or ten second TV grabs. Yet by and large the media lets the Coalition get away with it again and again, declines to challenge it, avoids asking awkward questions about it. Many believe this is because much of the media is lazy or unthinking, or in some cases unwilling to paint the Coalition in a bad light – that might be dangerous for those who work in the Murdoch media.
What about the converse – acknowledging the complexity of most political issues, yet making these complex problems, controversial proposals and complicated solutions easy to comprehend and remember? This is a dilemma for governments. Since the electorate has been conditioned to expect simple answers, how does any government in power, of whatever persuasion, get its messages across? How does it reduce inherent complexity to understandable lines?
The federal Labor Government has been spectacularly unsuccessful in getting its good-news messages heard and appreciated by the electorate. It successfully negotiated the GFC, avoided crippling unemployment by keeping people in work through its stimulus program, but received little credit. In fact the Opposition managed to turn its laudable efforts into a ‘debt and deficit’ story. It conducted a highly successful BER with over 97% satisfaction, but the Murdoch media managed to turn that into a ‘waste and mismanagement’ story. It carried out a HIP that was successful in insulating over a million roofs, but the Coalition and the media painted that an administrative disaster and linked it with four deaths, three of which are now the subject of court proceedings in which employers are charged with OH&S breaches. Every Labor success has been turned into disaster or mismanagement by an Opposition uninterested in finding the facts, and a media intent on belittling the Government and in some instances intent on bringing it down. There is no denial of administrative failures in some of these programs, but their extent is small compared with the hugely beneficial effects of them. Labor simply did not sell its success and was unable to counter the negativity of the Opposition and the media. That was its real failure.
It has often been contended here that Labor needs a much better media unit than it has, one that can reduce messages that are necessarily complex into understandable communication, bite-sized units that are assimilable, plausible and memorable. It ought not be impossible for experts in education and communication to fashion them. Yet we read that the Obama administration suffers the same impediment. It seems that the current short attention span of the electorate and it insistence on simple solutions to complex problems, on simplicity rather than complexity, is a root cause. It’s a serious problem that must be solved.
Simplicity is the opiate of the people. It numbs, it relieves the pain of thinking about difficult issues, of finding the facts and figures and coming to a reasoned conclusion. It gives the feeling that all is well with the world, that even the most complex problems can be readily solved by reducing them to simple propositions, captured in an easy-to-understand, easy-to-remember catch cry. Simplicity as a proxy for irreducible complexity is dishonest and dangerous. Yet it abounds and is ruthlessly used for political advantage, particularly by those in opposition. Is there any counter? Is change possible with the political media we have to put up with in this country?
On the other side of the coin there is a question for governments – can complexity be simply communicated?
What do you think?