The Worm

By Legal Eagle

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

(William Blake, The Sick Rose, Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1794)

plate here

There is a canker eating at the heart of our political society. I felt that the KRudd government was interested in appearances rather than reality, but despite the change of Prime Minister, things don’t seem to have changed. And I certainly don’t feel that the Opposition is any better, or an alternative for which I can vote.

How did things come to this pass? I have decided that, in part, it is the obsession with opinion polls. I presume that when Abe Lincoln was President, he didn’t have access to opinion polls. All he could do was go out there into the public and say what he believed in, and what he thought was good for the people, and why that was. How did he find out what their opinion was? I suppose he would have had an immediate gauge if people started to pelt him with rotten vegetables or heckle him, or alternatively, if they cheered him uproariously. He had to actually speak to the public and engage with them to get an idea of what their reaction was, though.

As I’ve already said, I didn’t watch the GillAbb debate. In comments, Dave Bath wondered if Australian politics had always been like this, or had it just plumbed new depths recently.

The worm typifies the problem. It’s a blow-by-blow account of how the audience is reacting to each little thing the debaters say. Thus, pollsters can obsessively follow it and see which arguments appeal to voters more, which policies are more popular.

My disappointment comes down to this. I do not feel that either party will pursue policies that are initially unpopular but which they believe are the good of the country. Neither party is guided by belief, or principle, or by a sense that they are representing us. They just seek to stay in power by appealing to popular sentiment.

Opinion is a strange thing, though. A while back, I participated in an Insight episode on climate change scepticism (unfortunately it hasn’t aired yet, but I guess it will after the Election). At the end of the show, we were asked if we’d changed our opinion. No, I hadn’t changed my opinion, because I was still thinking about it. In fact, a month after filming, I’m still mulling over the questions that were raised in the program. I wouldn’t say that my opinion is settled, and I’m always open to further discussion. Just simply asking, “Have you changed your opinion?” (Yes/No) doesn’t cover the complexity of my response.

There have been occasions on this blog where I have taken a particular position with respect to a political or social issue, and through informed discussion and debate with other commenters and bloggers, I have changed my opinion. Sometimes I don’t change my opinion instantly. Sometimes it takes a long time. Sometimes I don’t change my opinion until after something occurs, and I see that the effects were not as bad as I thought (or that they were far worse, as they case may be). The proof can be in the pudding.

A lot of people take a while to think about their opinions too. My Dad and I develop our opinions by talking out aloud with other people. My Mum and my sister hate this. They both need to go away with the information and mull over it in private. “Why do you and Dad always ask me what I think of a movie as soon as the credits roll?” complains my mother. “I’m still thinking about it.” By contrast, Dad and I are likely to have an opinion straight away, but in talking it over with each other, we might change our opinion or firm up why we think as we do.

If I wanted to get my sister to think about something, I learned to toss the new argument or information at her much as one might lob a grenade into hostile territory, then close the door to her room and leave her in private rather than immediately asking, “What do you think about that?” She hates being put on the spot, and if I corner her with a new argument without giving her time to digest, I’m likely to hear one thousand reasons why I’m wrong. If I want a considered answer, I wait until the next day. My daughter is very similar to my sister, just a lot louder.

The point of this discursion into my family’s opinion-making habits is simply to point out that some people don’t react very well to new proposals if you don’t give them time to think about it. So naturally enough, if you ask them straight away what their opinion is on a new proposal without giving them time to digest it and research all of the available information, it’s likely that their opinion will be negative.

Bu there seems to be no attempt to explain a policy, to let people take it in and digest it, and then to discuss why it might be necessary. It’s simply presented as a fait accompli and initially, if people react negatively, they’re just dismissed. However, if they continue to react negatively in enough numbers, then the policy is dropped because it might affect opinion polls. There’s no middle ground.

Dave said, “The agenda of both appeals not to a single virtue, but to the vices, probably all of the 7 deadly sins.” My aunt yesterday said, “It seems like both parties are engaging in a race to the bottom.” I’d say rather that the politicians are playing on fears. Of course, fear always plays a part in politics, and this is hardly a new thing. Demagogues of the right and the left have long played on fear.

There’s fear about boat people, fear about immigration and different cultures, fear about jobs, fear about climate change, and the politicians are all trying to play on it. Politicians should be aware of these fears, and understand them. It’s important not to dismiss fears, even if you think they are foolish or bigoted fears. Nonetheless, politicians shouldn’t play on fears to get policies through, and fear shouldn’t the driver behind decisions. As I’ve said long ago, I decry the politics of fear:

Fear doesn’t make for intelligent, reasoned decisions: people make panicked, knee-jerk reactions based on prejudice rather than fact.

If you are seeking to persuade me that a particular course of action is necessary, don’t try to make me fearful to push me down that path. Reason with me, engage with me, talk to me.

What would my advice to politicians be? The Worm should be ignored. Politicians should focus on principle; on doing what is best for the people, not on keeping high in the opinion polls. They should be attempting to allay and address fears, not playing on them.


  1. Miss candy
    Posted July 26, 2010 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    What’s the point of power if you don’t believe in anything? What’s the point of believing in anything if you have no power?

    This is the dyamic that is constantly in the minds of politicians and parties. They constantly need to compromise their principles and the ultimate policy pitch is always going to be coloured by the need to be elected in order to actually address these issues.

    It’s easy to blame politicians for their lack of conviction, and it frustrates everyone that they seem to hardly stand for anything. But the harder work – the real work – is in shifting public opinion. It is here that money makes a big difference (vis the mining tax), but where advocacy and evidence can also have an impact (vis climate change and mental health policy). This is rarely the domain of politicians, because it can’t be.

    However, there is one qualification to that – there is a darker art, and one you’ve touched on, one over which John Howard had considerable mastery. It is the art of fabricating dangers in order to look like you’re addressing it. I found the Tampa situation a particularly disgusting example of this, as did the horrific treatment of boat-based asylum seekers, as did the Iraq war. Lawandorder campaigns are often like this – usually they’re not arising out of an original fear in the community, or out of an actual problem in the community, rather the fear is raised and shouted by politicians in order for politicians to claim to be able to address it. In all cases, it results in terrible public policy on a range of indicators.

  2. Posted July 26, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    That’s all very well, but look what happened to Chris Evans when the journalist from 2UE or 2GB or whichever it was snuck into the conference and caught him saying the refugee policy was “killing us.” Po-faced shock-jocks (well, it was radio, so they could have been potty-faced, for that matter) sententiously intoned “If only the government was always straight with the people” whilst simultaneously taking totally unconscientious advantage of that realistic concession as to reception of the government position as an admission of the failure of its policy. Politics is like litigation: in a conflict zone it is very hard for people to talk frankly without giving a hook to their adversaries. You can’t just blame politicians for a lack of leadership without taking a look at the culture which reports them and receives their message out in the ‘burbs – where the critical votes are.

    Even politicians who desire to eschew playing on fears still have to be defens[?c?]ively prepared for them.

  3. Posted July 26, 2010 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    A book i like, “The Gates of Fire” is about Thermopylae, has among all the blood, the Spartans waxing philosophical about fear and it’s opposite, with the conclusion “the opposite of fear is love”

    As love is a virtue, if fear is the opposite, it is a vice. Certainly fear arising from wilful ignorance and/or a lack of empathy for our fellows is a vice. Inflaming vices in others is a worse vice. If we think of those pictures of a little angel and demon, each on a shoulder whispering in an ear, then the current two party system puts a demon on each shoulder.

    No appeals to the better angels of our nature. No Gettysburg from these pollies – and Gettysburg wasn’t much longer than a typical soundbite.

  4. Posted July 26, 2010 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    Maybe, as a thinking public limits the manipulative armoury of the politicians (and advertisers!), the politicians have taken to heart a phrase from Frank Herbert’s /Dune/

    Fear is the mind-killer.

  5. Posted July 26, 2010 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    The Financial Review ran a story last week in which a study showed that people typically do not change their mind even if confronted by facts that contradict their opinion. In fact it has the effect of entrenching their opinion.

    A few days after I read this I came across another book by Edward De Bono (he always writes the same book basically) and I was reminded of one thing he’s said that always struck me as true. He says the smarter you are the more potential you have to be a bad thinker.

    The reason for this is that because you’re smart you’re used to be being right a lot of the time. Therefore when you are confronted by an issue and you instantly form an opinion based on your feelings and prejudices you hang on to that opinion more doggedly than others because all of your intellectual power goes to defending it. After all you’re smart. You’re used to being right and a lot of your confidence probably rests in the veracity of your opinions.

    The Fin interestingly enough backed this up by saying clever people tend to hang on to bad opinions longer.

  6. Posted July 26, 2010 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    I watched the ‘debate’ and it was a performance. Gillard did better than Abbott generally. However does the fact that Abbott can’t speak directrly into the camera making ‘eye contact’ really mean he’s not a good choice? Does the fact that Gillard is able to do these things and sound genuine make her trustworthy?

    Everyone knows it’s horseshit. And the explanation for this nonsense could be found on the front page of The Herald-Sun this morning that declared Abbott the winner, just. Because News Ltd are in a media war, because they’re locked into supporting the LPA they must tell whoppers complete with distractions (the Masterchef winner was the lead story). The ‘analysis’ of the ‘debate’ that followed did not mention Abbott’s fudgety immigration figures or the fact that Gillard cut him off at the knees there.

    The facts were secondary, the spin and the alliance were primary. Meantime the PR armies are busy ensuring these people ‘stay on message’ meaning the ‘debate’ was a catalogue of stock phrases like ‘fair dinkim, ‘fair go’ , ‘moving forward’ and all the rest of it.

    Everyone knows it’s a sham. Everyone votes for the friendliest avatar. And meantime the country is lost under a swamp of technocratic babble and every mounting piles of useless legislation.

  7. Posted July 26, 2010 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Adrien: smart programmers/data analysts are the ones who constantly ask “what have i missed”, “what can break my work” before it leaves the drawing board or a least, before anyone else uses the subroutine. Maybe that’s not smart, but certainly wise.
    That said, I’m guessing you’de love the “encomium moriae” (in praise of folly) by erasmus, and yes, it probably was a pun on his friend’s name.

  8. Posted July 26, 2010 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    The Financial Review ran a story last week in which a study showed that people typically do not change their mind even if confronted by facts that contradict their opinion

    Which people? what types of work do they do? What beliefs are those which do not change? If the Fin review did not report on these variables then stuff the Fin Review.

    There is huge variation in how people respond to new information. In economics people may not change their minds,. hence the interest of the Fin Review in that research, but that says more about the state of economics than it does about people in general. Most people I know have changed their minds about many things. What’s the point of learning anything if you don’t change your mind? If your reading strategy is designed to prop up your existing beliefs then you need to consider if you have made a strategic error. That is one reason why I randomise some of my reading.

    *Gelett Burgess

    If in the last few years you haven’t discarded a major opinion or acquired a new one, check your pulse. You may be dead.

    Now that’s smart.

  9. Posted July 26, 2010 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    The Financial Review ran a story last week in which a study showed that people typically do not change their mind even if confronted by facts that contradict their opinion. In fact it has the effect of entrenching their opinion.

    This goes back to the principle of consistency. A lot of people feel that they need to be consistent. Using consistency against someone is a classic tactic of sales punks and pollsters.

    But it works the other way too. If you’re faced with someone with an entrenched position, it sometimes helps to create the space for them to change their mind without losing face.

  10. Posted July 27, 2010 at 12:53 am | Permalink

    [email protected]

    It’s not so much facts that contradict an opinion, it’s facts the contradict the wider worldview.

    See: which gives a potted summary of a study with the lead author from Yale Law school.

    It posits and tests the idea that your worldview will make you, near-instinctively, reject evidence based on whether the actions guided that evidence would conflict with your worldview.

  11. Posted July 27, 2010 at 1:13 am | Permalink

    It’s not so much facts that contradict an opinion, it’s facts the contradict the wider worldview.

    There is an easy solution to that, don’t have a worldview. No matter how many facts we may gather to support our worldview, it is always a mythology. Throw it down.

    Posted July 27, 2010 at 3:19 am | Permalink

    Jacques Chester makes a good point, win over an opponent rather than inspire antagonism within them toward you.
    what comes first, the cheap swipe or something that exposes something so criticially different in a reality that whatever caused the friction becomes irrelevant.

  13. TerjeP
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    LE – demanding that people justify and defend their positions is a major social failing that I suffered for much of my life. I’m kinder to people these days. However I still wish people took their own opinions, and my opinion, less personally.

  14. kvd
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Adrien’s comment that “Everyone knows it’s a sham. Everyone votes for the friendliest avatar” had me nodding in agreement, but then – if this is the case – why do the politicians and their minders and the press carry on with the charade?

    If “everyone knows” then why doesn’t “everyone” rise up and tell them all loudly, in a single voice, that the process “is a sham”?

    I think that maybe the group being aimed at is that group of swinging voters, or at least a majority of those swinging voters, in specific moveable/winnable seats. And that the “message” is probably judged to still be effective for that target audience.

    I just can’t otherwise balance the truth of Adrien’s comment with the continuing media spin employed by both major parties, and their agents in the press. Maybe “everybody” no longer matters in our form of democracy.

    Posted July 27, 2010 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    LE, “I suspect…my vote doesn’t matter”.
    Don’t we all.

    I think much too much power has been concentrated into too few and too unaccountable hands-things have changed. An unlucky person is the one who won’t/can’t keep their wits about them. As Hume apparently observed, things might turn out the same a million times; its still no guarantee that it will be the same again tomorrow. As for freedom, we’ve been told its price is eternal vigilance.

    My guess in retrospect is, we have to refer back to our nous, or basic instinct, on an issue and work forward from that point.

  16. Ken Nielsen
    Posted July 28, 2010 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    May I say that this has been a very good discussion.
    My criterion for a worthwhile blog is that it should challenge and sharpen my thinking. Few do that.
    Good work L E and all.

  17. Ken Nielsen
    Posted July 28, 2010 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Tis getting so rare LE that’s it’s good to note when we see it.

  18. Posted July 28, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    On the subject of shopworn phrases and tired campaigning, it seems that ‘moving forward’ is a slogan used by Guide Dogs UK. I noticed it on one of their donation tins this morning and, sure enough, it turns up on their website in various spots:

    Somehow, I prefer it when Guide Dogs use it, not some political party.

    Posted July 28, 2010 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Legal, you are so cute when you blush..

  20. Posted July 28, 2010 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    If “everyone knows” then why doesn’t “everyone” rise up and tell them all loudly, in a single voice, that the process “is a sham”?

    There are 21 million + voices. And they belong to people whose culture has not equipped them to deal with mass marketing as yet. Politics is branding now. It’s selling an image. And what it uses to do that is the same thing it uses to sell everything else: fear and desire.

    The sham is just a crazy game and we’re all stuck in it.

  21. Posted July 28, 2010 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Maybe I’m a bit too pessimistic. The ALP and the Libs represent different clusters of interests in our society. These interests have created political parties that supposedly stand both for those interests and a superior worldview that’s best for the nation. The parties compete to hold government.

    This attracts ambitious people. And ambitious people do what it takes. What it takes is the deployment of techniques many of which involve the use of modern media and communications in order to win elections. As the parties compete to win they use these techniques more efficiently and more ruthlessly.

    Generally speaking we’re aware we’re being manipulated and at the same time believe we’re somehow above it all. Likewise they know they’re spruiking ever mounting piles of bullshit and there’d be those among them that’d prefer it another way.

    But what else can we do?

  22. kvd
    Posted July 28, 2010 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    Adrien, my point was that the “sham” as you term it is not directed to “everyone”. If the technique was not successful, then it would not be pursued by either side. A sham it may be, but it endures because the 2-10,000 swinging voters needed to win/hold government are still thought to be influenced by it.

    Personally I blame the womenfolk. Next thing you know there’ll be female lawyers. And then they’ll want the vote.

    Posted August 3, 2010 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    kvd, the real trouble starts when they work out what automobiles are.
    Scepticlawyer speaks of the blind leading the blind elsewhere, but not in this case people who suffered the grave misfortune of losing or never having, the gift of physical sight.
    Adrien reminds us that if the public had its way, how quickly some of the crap dished up us by media would be slung.

  24. Posted August 4, 2010 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    [email protected] talks of the public having its way with media content.

    I guess then that consumer choice and market forces are mythical, thus the theoretical underpinning for the utility of capitalism for The Good is ripped away. (Heh heh goes lefty me)

    In the context of the worm, and especially the debate specifically on the economy Julia is calling for, perhaps more than one worm is needed. One controlled by the currently selected mob, the other by a set of economists drawn from more than one sector (ex treasury, academic, private as well economics journos).

    The difference between those two worms could be /really/ instructive, especially if those differences are discussed in the media and feed back into public awareness of the issues.

    I wonder if there were two “pleb” worms.. One from the plebs, and one from plebs who could see the experts’ worm in real time. It’s probably the only way to get plebs taking notice of the experts!

    Posted August 4, 2010 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    ” the difference between these…worms…could be instructive”.
    I understand more than a few species reproduce asexually.
    Yes plebs, particularly in really poor places, do suffer worm infestations and not just theirbodies.
    and yes, exact lefty definition.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Did you see the one about . . . « Homepaddock on July 28, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    […] The worm – Skeptic Lawyer finds a canker at the heart of political society. […]

  2. By Skepticlawyer » Election Reflection on August 21, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    […] the campaign only lasted 6 weeks, I was heartily sick of it by the end. As I said in my post on the worm, I think the immediate attention on focus groups, opinion polls and knee-jerk reactions produces […]

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