Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The better mousetrap and the moral high-ground - ethical and evidential arguments in campaigning

Here's a poser for you - is  it better (read: more effective) to oppose a policy as being unethical or as being incompetent?

Oh hai, moral high ground

Ethical arguments depend on your audience accepting the terms of your position.

Underpinning opposition to the bedroom tax, the privatization of the Royal Mail or badger culling, say, are shared assumptions about human dignity, public services and animal rights which are commonplace among progressives. It's not that the evidence isn't there to back up these positions - quite the contrary in fact - but that the arguments expressed are generally value-driven, in the manner of self-evident truths. 

It can be tremendously powerful to tell your truths and find them affirmed.

But if your audience rejects those assumptions - advancing others - what does that do the force of your arguments? Will you be heard outside your social media echo chamber?

Is outrage enough?

A better mousetrap?

Or will you instead, more calculating, keep your values in the background hone in on the fact that a policy just plain isn't working? It doesn't matter if your target disagrees with you on the big questions -- the role of the market in the public sector and the futures of farming and housing provision - as long as you can agree on an 'objective', factual analysis of a specific situation. 

Unlikely bedfellows can line up behind a shared evidence-based position - just look at the breadth of the coalition which supported a 2030 decarbonisation target in the 2013 Energy Bill.

But arguing from competence alone does not make the heart-beat faster. It risks being privilege (technical knowledge) speaking to privilege in its own idiolect. It also assumes your audience are members of the reality-based community

And it does not disrupt the political narrative, illuminate and seek to resolve deeper problems, in the same way that values-based arguments do. Alone, the rhetoric of competence and incompetence risks bringing us to Deng Xiaoping's 'It doesn't matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice.' See the continued existence of the House of Lords as a case in point.

Dude, it's situational

Of course it is. And I'm presenting ideal types here: in practice our arguments combine evidence and ethics to varying degrees. I also haven't talked about how the language we choose might depend on the opportunities open to us and the power we wield.

But I think it's valuable in itself to recognise how we express ourselves as campaigners, the extent to which we tend towards one pole or the other, and the perks and pitfalls of both.

And speaking personally, I'd love to read more from the activist community that is a high quality synthesis of both. Recommendations in the comments section please. :-)


  1. Hello Tim, such a reflective post. What you said about values based arguments disrupting a narrative struck a chord. In terms of tackling structural inequality and oppression I think taking a pragmatic approach consistently will let us down. But then, I am up for revolution (of said power structures) and lots aren't. Does my ego really think I have the power to change that? Is it even about language and argument anyway? Involving folk in a conversation is the approach Paulo Friere, Ella Baker and other radical social change makers would take and I reckon there is a huge lot we can learn from them. If you are after some reading then Freedom is an Endless Meeting and The Revolution will Not Be Funded would top my list. A lot of what you draw out links to the Common Cause debate too. Thanks for sharing your take and picking apart of things. Katie x

  2. Hey Katie,

    Thanks for the reflections and the book recommendations. :-)

    I'm aware here I'm looking at a small aspect of social change and like you I'm drawn towards 'long game' organising, conversational models.

    Does language matter? I'm inclined to think it does, if only because it affects whether someone is listening to you or not. And sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we have to make the right (effective) argument in the short-term to ensure someone listens (the classic 'short-game' campaigns).

    The challenge I think is how to run an effective short-game campaign which also 'disrupts the narrative'. There was a section on UK Uncut in the first draft of this post which I ended up taking out for the sake of brevity, but I do think the work they have done on corporate tax avoidance is a good example of this.