The paradox of a positive pessimist
(verses the sadness of a pessimistic optimist)
Two very late interventions have emerged in the #IndyRef debate. One from Carol Craig and the other from Ewan Morrison. Why they are so late is interesting to me. Why have they not felt able to speak out earlier? Of course in Ewen’s case, he has. He spoke out for YES, but how has moved to NO. One of his friends Kevin Williamson has written an excellent response to this.
I have been hesitant to comment, particularly on Craig’s essay, because it deserves a thorough response and I have restricted time. However a number of people have asked me what I think as the vote is so close, so I share these brief thoughts.
I combine both because they have a common theme. I mainly focus on Craig’s work because it is more considered and presents a serious challenge to the YES campaign. There is much in her essay that I agree with. But I’m left with a nagging doubt…
Drawing back from the evangelical YES
They both seem to have drawn back from what they see as excessive or evangelical YES. This is something I partly accept as there is a passion and zeal that can overpower which emanates from some of the YES camp. But I have not found a caricatured YES as seen in these articles. I’ve seen diverse groups (there are many facets of the YES movement) of people from incredibly different background, mindsets with very different values and politics. There has been debates, sometimes (polite) arguments, dialogue with nuance, criticisms, doubts and concerns expressed. I wonder if this drawing back has lead them away from debate and discourse into the privacy of the study from where we can all write with certainty – of both the negative and positive kind.
Problems with the arguments
I think there are problems in some of the arguments. This is be overly simplistic, but here is how I read the logic.
1. Yes are over optimistic
I mostly agree
2. ‘They’ (the SNP, nationalists or YES) ignore the arguments and dismiss criticism as scaremongering
I partly agree
3. ‘They’ are wedded to a hidden ideology: for Craig it’s nationalism, for Morrison its close to a religious cult.
Now I’m getting a little worried…
4. The YES movement is caricatured (slightly) as naive: musicians, artists, celebrities, young, inexperienced – not ‘big business’
Partly true, though this is pretty jaded and possibly cynical. And ‘big business’ is inherently risk averse, wants stability and power structures they understand, and dare I say it, can manipulate. And there are a lot of business voices that argue Independence is good for Scotland, as well as intellectuals, academics, economists, lawyers, doctors and so on (of course these voices argue also for NO).
5. There are a lot of risks
I agree, but would argue there are risks both ways. There may be more risks with a YES. And it seems to me that there are also many more opportunities and possibilities. There are certainly more unknowns. Risk and reward is always a trade off. Is the risk you are embarking on worth the potential benefit, not just in monetary terms? And what is the risk of not choosing to take a risk?
6. These risks have not been addressed
I think I agree with this, but am feeling pulled along by a slightly pessimistic undertow, that may be about to become a rip tide. But I can’t be overly optimistic as that has been shown to be naive or blind so I’m sticking with it.
7. Selecting the negatives
The massive negativity and fear mongering of the NO campaign is not really brought into the frame. Craig mentions it in passing, but she majors on YES accusing NO of fear mongering as a negative tactic of the YES campaign. So paradoxically YES’s optimism can now be framed as ‘blind’ optimism because if it’s refusal to address the negative: the fears, the concerns, the risks. This is subtle. To me it kind of makes a negative a positive and a positive a negative.
Also, this tends to circular reasoning or a logical fallacy, I can ignore the criticisms of the consistent negativity of the NO campaign because the overly optimistic YES people have their fingers in their ears and they are the REALLY dangerous ones. You may have seen the cartoon front page in the Spectator where we YES people are all following a kilted Alex Salmond running over a cliff like lemmings!
Lets be absolutely clear. The ‘better together’ campaign has been relentlessly negative and focused on stimulating a contagion of fear amongst Scottish citizens. This is almost universally accepted by independent observers. I would argue they have not just fought a terrible campaign, but have been willing to use any tactic, no matter how pernicious, to intimidate Scottish citizens. As I’ve written elsewhere, there is a positive case for the Union, but this is not it.
Making YES a negative
So, if I vote YES it seems like I’m an over optimistic YESer blind to the risks and concerns. However, if I do have concerns, and think there are risks, the logical and pragmatic thing to do is vote NO. There is no middle ground. Where people can be either YES or NO with doubts, fears, concerns and hopes.
While Craig rightly critiques the dangers of an over optimistic approach, she undermines her case by falling into the trap of selecting her evidence. For example, she chooses to quote one Nobel Prize winning Economist (who says we should be ‘very, very afraid’ incidentally) but ignores another Nobel Prize winner who criticises the NO camp as being overly negative and says iScotland can be successful. Like so much in this campaign, each ‘side’ can choose their ‘expert’ to back their views.
She manages to make voting YES sound not just naive, but dangerous, making the optimism of YES a negative. She has subtly shifted the ground to make her version of pragmatism supreme. The trinity of ‘analysis, foresight and scepticism’ together have more weight than hope.
Ambiguity and doubt
David Grieg spoke brilliantly recently on the issue of doubt and ambiguity. He is a clear advocate for YES because he believes (as I do) that this gives us the best opportunity to create a modern social democracy. However he is not certain! He, like I, has doubts. However these doubts don’t paralyse him.
He said: ‘When I commit to YES, what am I silencing in myself? What is the cost to my spirit?’ I love what Gerry Hassan says about finding the no in yes, and the yes in no. This YES-NO is a binary choice, but the benefit of this is that it forces us to a decision point. Grieg said the vote is like the bomb under the table. He tells writers if things are getting stale, put a bomb under the table. It forces something for sure!
Grieg, as a playwright, said that the best way to make a character unbelievable is to make him/her certain. I think this has been a problem for the YES campaign which Craig picks up on. However, she ignores the certainty of the relentless NO, the fear, the risks. In fact the NO campaign has sought to make some of these risks certain – for example by ruling out the currency union. One of my favourite movies is 12 Angry men. In it the most certain character breaks down at the end: the Hispanic boy was guilty. But his certainty came from his transference reaction about his son. Have you never wondered about the certainty of the NO campaign?
He went on to speak about how the polls are 50/50, half dreamy, sparkly, optimism, the other half concerned, doubt, fear, worry, love of past. He goes on to say that interesting: if you find that in one person that is a recipe for a healthy human being! The other, overly optimistic or overly skeptical are in fact neurotic. I’ll come back to this later.
Doubts and the normal Scot
Some people see me as a YES zealot, and people that know me, understand that when I commit to something, I commit with passion.
Do I have doubts? Yes. Do I think things will be tough? Yes. But my considered view that, having looked at the evidence, I moved from NO to YES. This is a step I believe we must take. This is an opportunity we must embrace. Do I believe that a YES vote will lead to a utopia? No. But neither do I take the pessimistic view that “If Scotland gains independence then for decades most of its political and intellectual resources will be channelled into becoming another, largely inadequate, European state.”
Why do I think this? Not because I believe the Scots are some super race better than the English or others. But neither are we worse, or somehow genetically determined to be unable to manage our own affairs. What’s inspiring is the level of engagement in the YES movement. The awaking of people not just to voting (although that is amazing: 97% registered to vote), but becoming activists and engaging in all kinds of self organising groups. NO groups are also engaged, albeit without the creative diversity of YES and mostly through normal party mechanisms.
I reject Craig’s pessimistic view that we will just end up with the same old (usually) men in suits running things. Or that the SNP will dominate. Where’s my evidence? My own thoughts and many I’ve spoken to. The evidence is that a majority voting YES are not actually nationalists. In 2016, they will move towards the party that best articulates their values, their hopes and aspirations. And I have it from solid sources that there will be at least one new party emerge post YES, possibly two. How exciting. And with proportional representation, we will end up with a diverse group who will have to agree common ground to govern. Our experience of coalition politics in the UK has been pretty chronic, but that is within the bounds of a broken westminster system. In the Netherlands, coalition politics works very well indeed. With the government able to plan much longer term than till the next election in five years.
Negative optimism and the dismissal of hope
But where I take most issue with Craig is in her focus on a negative optimism and her dismissal of hope. One of her headings in her essay is ‘the limitations of hope’
I have learned, working internationally with leaders and teams, that one of the key breakthroughs in leadership is the ability to work with paradox and ambiguity. And working with polarities, has been at the core of my work for the last ten years. What do I mean by polarities? These are two things, which seem opposite or opposed, but are both essential. Think of work and rest. We clearly need both. If you focus on one to the exclusion of the other you will be unhealthy and ineffective.
The danger of polarisation is that we focus on only one aspect of a polarity and we end up in serious difficulty. Craig does this in her essay with an overbalanced focus on reality/pragmatism to the exclusion of vision/hope.
Hassan, in his book ‘Caledonian Dreaming’ touches on hope with some insight. He quotes Barbara Ehrenreich in saying: ‘Hope is an emotion, a yearning, the experience of which is not entirely within our control. Optimism is a cognitive stance, a conscious experience, which presumably anyone can develop through practice.’
He goes on to say that this mental position of optimism is very congruent with a capitalist mindset. And I agree with Craig that telling people to be optimistic and forcing them to shut out negativity is very unhealthy, and this may be ‘sold’ as optimism, which is dangerous.
However aligning optimism with hope is deeply flawed. If optimism is of the head, hope is of the heart. Marcel speaks of the epistemology of hope. Of hope as a ‘creative ethic.’ This is completely different from optimism. Hope is deeply connected to being human. That is one of the things that some people have not been able to grasp in this movement, and some of the more cynical have dismissed or even mocked. People have found hope, and this hope has inspired them. Has lifted their spirits. Has generated the belief that something different is possible. Marcel also highlights that hope is often fashioned in the face of adversity and is intimately linked to community. Many people have found community in the hope that working with others for YES has brought. At times that has almost felt like a religious fervour, but to critique it simply as a kind of cultish mindset profoundly misses the point.
We all see what we want to see. Recently in a piece of very difficult work, a trusted colleague challenged me that I had made my mind up about a situation. And, as a result saw everything a certain way. She said to me ‘Joe, everything is yellow to the jaundiced eye.’ That was a difficult for me to hear. I’m sad to conclude that, despite her attempts at balance, I think that Craig is looking at YES though a jaundiced eye which affects her judgement.
‘Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It needs no courage, only a certain naiveté, to be an optimist. It needs a great deal of courage to have hope’ (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)
This hopeful, courageous, pragmatic optimist is voting yes.