Party conference season presses the well worn alarm button of personal inadequacy. As a peripheral member of Tony Blair's speech writing team, my material was like a Premiership team's third string keeper, its rare selection said little about its merits but much about the insignificance of the occasion. However, this was not entirely a matter of quality. While my speaking and working style tends to be discursive, Blair - like most modern political orators - preferred a declamatory style. A fascinating research study sent to me by my old friend Ian Christie makes me want to go back and fight harder for my way.
The research, by a team from Lund University, involved asking subjects for their views of a range of philosophical, and more concrete and topical, moral issues. Using a trick the researchers then changed two of the answers given so that it seemed the subjects had chosen a reverse point of view. Seven in ten of the subjects failed to identify at least one of the two changes and most of them managed to offer perfectly convincing justifications for views which they had in fact strongly opposed a few moments earlier.
Quite apart from demonstrating the uselessness of much opinion based polling, the research appears to confirm other studies in suggesting we are shallow in our values and driven more by the need to self justify than any moral compass. However, as the researchers argue, there is a more sympathetic judgment.
We live in a world drenched with opinion; a world of strident bloggers, raging Tweeters and where an editor speaks proudly of turning his organ from a newspaper to a views paper. But despite the phoney certainties proffered by a bunch of people who are generally intellectual gnats, many of us know that every complex argument has many sides. The research may simply be showing that we are implicitly aware of this plurality, enabling us to offer different opinions depending on the context, including the invitation to defend our own position.
The problem then is not that our opinions are inconsistent (for example,only a saint would apply the same moral judgment to their loved ones as to a stranger), but that we are told that they should be and, worse, are encouraged to admire false certainty in others.
In this sense a progressive (by which I mean intending to progress human understanding) political speech would be one which addressed this complexity. Instead of saying 'lean is good, fat is bad, I am lean, he is fat, everything I propose will make us lean, everything he proposes will make us fat', a speaker would say 'we all sometimes prefer lean and sometimes fat, but when it comes to this choice let me explain why I am choosing lean even though there is a case for fat and let me ask your support for this choice (because, by the way, whether it turns out to be right will depend a lot on how you respond)'.
The conventional speech writer responds by saying 'who would listen to such a tentative and complicated pitch'? To which I respond 'who is listening to your false certainties, disengenuous dichotomies and empty promises'? Indeed maybe it's because I am getting old and bitter and twisted, but more and more often in response to political speeches I want to borrow this utterly wonderful statement from the film Billy Madison:
' What you have just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points and may God have mercy on your soul'.
If you are going to rely on name calling rhetoric, at least do it with style.