One great thing about my job is the feedback I get from Fellows. I particularly enjoy being challenged. One of my fiercest critics has been Australian Fellow John Montgomery who thinks I am a soft headed, jargon spouting, leftie.
John and I have been sparring on and off since I joined the RSA. He has just sent me an essay entitled ‘A New Enlightenment’. It’s a powerful and basically reactionary piece (I say this not to be disparaging but because the central thrust is a call to react against modern ‘isms’ in favour of older certainties).
Sorry, John, but I can’t give you the full response the piece deserves (it’s the pressure of last minute work before my holiday).
However, the starting point for my disagreement is that the old truths haven’t simply been displaced by modern fashion but by more profound changes in the world and our understanding of it.
Globalisation, climate change, complexity, technology and the web, new science from quantum physics to neuroscience; these all challenge aspects of the Enlightenment world view.
Moreover the Enlightenment itself helped to unleash forces which have created a hollowed out sense of the good society and the good life, which would horrify the authors of the Enlightenment.
I wonder why right of centre thinkers like John want to lay so much blame for modern problems at the feet of a few French philosophers whose theories are unknown to the vast majority of citizens, and so little at the door of consumer capitalism and the hubristic myth of the separate autonomous self, all of which are ubiquitous aspects of modern life?
The RSA’s ‘new enlightenment’ mission seeks to combine thought leadership, social engagement and innovative forms of collaboration.
We have some way to go still until we are delivering on that mission. In particular the activities and support on offer to Fellows outside London too often falls short. We are investing significant resources in addressing this failing and our best regions and local organisations are working hard to transform the face of the RSA outside London.
But we do have days here at John Adams Street that offer a window into the future. Yesterday was one of those days
At lunchtime over 200 people attended a fascinating talk by Nudge exponent Richard Thaler, a speech that will soon be available on RSA Vision. Thaler’s ideas are having a big impact in policy making circles, being quoted in a recent speech by David Cameron. And they are very relevant to the RSA’s big idea of ‘closing the social aspiration gap’.
In the evening we had an excellent event to launch our new Tomorrow’s Investor project. David Pitt Watson, who is leading on the project and is Chair of Hermes Equity Ownership spoke and there were powerful responses from Paul Myners, Chair of the Personal Accounts Delivery Authority, Penny Shepherd, Chief Exec of the UK Social Investment Forum and Jasmine Birtles the finance journalist and author.
There followed an excellent debate about how better to inform and empower the two thirds of us who hold shares directly or indirectly. On Saturday we will be holding a citizens jury to examine these questions with a group of ‘ordinary’ small investors.
Last night also saw a really lively network event jointly organised between RSA and Teach First. The event came up with some good ideas for initiatives, there were generous offers of support for these initiatives and some of Teach First Fellows alumni asked to join the Fellowship.
I hope that by this time next year networks events of this kind are happening regularly in every part of the country and that they are baring fruit in new initiatives and real social impact for the RSA. The RSA nationally is developing an ever higher and stronger brand the challenge now is to make this the case wherever we have a presence.
Thanks to everyone who came to my lecture last night, despite the heat and the alternative attraction of Andy Murray (although I still had time to get home and watch the fifth set!)
David’s views are valuable, in part because they raise issues I need to address more fully but also because his interpretation helps me see which bits of my argument I am not communicating clearly. So briefly, my responses to his responses:
1) David argues that just because our view of our selves and reality may not accord with the science it doesn’t mean it doesn’t work nor that we will change. For example we know the earth revolves around the sun but we still think about the sun ‘rising’ and ‘going down’. I agree.
However, my argument is that as we become more aware, for example, of counter-intuitive facts about our brains (such as the neurological process associated with taking an action preceding us thinking about taking the action) this opens us up to more profound questioning of how we relate to the world.
That questioning won’t stop us going about our day to day business but it might widen the canvas of public discourse about how we persuade citizens to do the right thing, whether that’s volunteering, recycling or living more healthily.
2) David disagrees with my suggestion that human behaviour is often ‘idiosyncratic’, ‘irrational’ or ‘myopic’. He is right that this suggests a too disparaging a view of people (I’ve probably been reading too much John Gray).
David argues that most acts – whether it’s failing to save for old age or not living up to our commitment to sustainability can be explained as being rational as long as we have a sophisticated view of what constitutes rationality. I have two problems with this.
First it is a circular argument to say that human behaviour is always rational then prove this by extending the definition of rationality to include the fact that, for example, human beings have a non linear view of time leading them to make decisions today that don’t seem to accord with their own definition of their best interests.
If your definition of rational includes apparently contradictory or self deceiving behaviour then ‘rational’ has become a very loose term.
Second, and more importantly, I want to include the concept of moral consistency within my idea of rationality. So, in relation to climate change I think it is irrational to desire a social outcome which demonstrably cannot be achieved if everyone else behaves like me. This is a disputable point but one I think worthy of more debate.
3) David argues we should be less concerned with people changing themselves and more with creating the circumstances in which the best parts of our selves are expressed.
I entirely agree and it is a failing of my speech that this doesn’t come across. My only argument with David is that I believe that in winning legitimacy for the kinds of policies that strengthen, for example, social commitment we need to open up the broader debate that my speech seeks to provoke.
You will soon be able to see some of this debate on our web site. I suspect I am using my blog to respond to David because he got the best of the argument last night!
This evening I’ll be delivering my annual RSA lecture. As you might expect, I am very nervous and haven’t yet decided whether to read the speech or take the risk of delivering it in a more discursive manner. I am however reassured that David Willetts will give an interesting response. He and I were on the Today programme this morning discussing some of the ideas in the speech, and he was, as always, a thoughtful, challenging but friendly critic.
Hopefully we will have a full house but anyone else who wants to watch can do so on our website – hopefully as early as tomorrow (our wonderful Multimedia Manager, Sarah Staar, has offered to work during the night to turn it around before she goes on holiday). I guess if I had to pick out one passage in the speech that I am really keen to explore it would be the distinction between difference and separation:
One of the great confusions of modern selfhood is to mistake difference for separation. We are all a unique combination of our genetic inheritance our conditioning past and our present context, but our thoughts and behaviours are the result not so much of the ways we are separate but of the ways we are connected, to the world and to other people. Fifty years ago Galbraith talked about private affluence and public squalor. Reflecting on opinion poll data that shows we are over confident about our own prospects and over-pessimistic about the state of society, I recently suggested the phrase ‘private optimism public despair’. But when we compare the illusion of individual autonomy with the reality of the deep connections between our minds and the social world they inhabit we should perhaps speak of private myth and public blindness.
I received an interesting email this morning from Max Hogg about some of my recent posts on cognitive capacity – here is an extract:
Somewhat ambitiously, I would suggest that the framework within which this research can best be viewed is nothing less than a new definition of freedom.
It’s become a dirty word recently, I think largely because it has been defined in purely negative terms as the freedom of the individual from overt outside influences on her/his action.
Yet increasingly we are seeing that neurological and psychological influences on our actions are rampant and in many cases destroying our freedom (Tim Kasser’s work detailing the impact of materialist psychological influences on our children is a good example.)
Neurological reflexivity, or learning how to think, offers an escape from this.
If we can better understand how external (or indeed internal) neurological and psychological influences impact on the way in which we think, we can better understand some of the reasons why, for example, as a society we are currently unable to take concerted collective action on issues such as climate change.
And if we can understand and mitigate against these psychological barriers, we would then be free to decide whether or not to take individual and collective decisions that will benefit us as individuals and society as a whole.
That would be true freedom, and true progress for society. Our lack of neurological flexibility is at present severely hampering our ability to make free choices, individually or collectively.
I think Max makes a really powerful point and one which I may shamelessly purloin for my speech on 30 June.
I wrote yesterday about the problems facing the Conservatives as they explored the problems of increasing civic engagement and community capacity without expanding the state. At a meeting this morning of Government ministers and officials, the same issue was discussed in the context of the Government White Paper on community empowerment.
Listening to representatives of the third sector, it was clear that there is real tension between the commissioning model in which the delivery of local public services is handed over to 3rd sector organisations and a participative focus.
The unavoidable bureaucracy of the commissioning process (involving as it does substantial public money) makes it especially hard for small community based organisations to compete. It appears that many of these small 3rd sector providers – particularly in the care sector – may go to the wall as a consequence.
On the other hand, an emphasis on community participation points towards a more traditional grant-giving form of funding in which it is recognised that the good the organisation does extends beyond quantifiable service outputs.
Central and local government, facing a long period of public sector belt-tightening, find themselves caught on the horns of this dilemma.
There is cross party commitment to third sector, community and volunteering, but it still seems to me that aspiration and exhortation too often drive out realism and policy coherence. The Government’s White Paper will tell us whether current ministers have found a credible way of addressing the hard issues.