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Politics: Can we handle the truth?

What would it take to have honest and truthful political debate?

Since the UK election leadership debate last night, there has been a lot of chat about whether politicians on either side are telling the truth – whether they are willing to and even whether they should. The resounding sentiment seems to be that you don’t win televised debates without making simple, memorable slogans – ones that simultaneously offer reassurance to the British public and cast doubt on the credentials of your component. A little bit of charisma helps too – not looking like you are phased by any of the questions thrown at you, and definitely not looking as if you are lying.

But why does this appearance-over-substance approach work? And, more to the point, why does it seem like the only game in town?

One answer is that politics is tribal. We don’t really care about the arguments and evidence (and the counter arguments and counter evidence, and so on). This actually makes sense. Politics and social issues are extremely complex. Economies are complex. International relations are complex. Dealing with climate change is complex. Instead of every citizen trying to understand each one of these issues in order to decide how to vote, it makes much more sense to appeal to trustworthy and authoritative sources. Newspapers and politicians fill this space. We trust and consume the same politicians and newspapers that people like us do. Working out who to trust is a social affair. How do we know who is trustworthy? The obvious answer is to look around at the people who are like us – who we already know and trust – and do the same as them. If they read the Guardian and like Mr Corbyn then we go with that. If they read the Mirror and like Mr Johnson then we should too.

This is why politicians must keep things simple and memorable. They are the leader of the tribe. We don’t just watch them to find out what’s true. We listen to what they say – and how they say it – to determine whether they are the authoritative source we should trust or not. By the end of a televised debate, we don’t just care about what each of the party leaders said. We want to know who won – who is the leader of the tribe, who is the authoritative source that everyone else is listening to. From this frame of mind, it doesn’t really matter what is true. What matters is who is popular.

It is hard to break out of this dynamic. Anyone who tries to add a layer of nuance and complexity to public debate could be seen as unpopular and therefore become unpopular. It might be that the British public would love to witness a debate where politicians are more humble and openly discuss complex issues. But this possibility will be seen as off the table insofar as everyone is assessing politicians on the basis of how their performance will be seen by everyone else. If we think that everyone else wants simple and memorable soundbites then we will judge politicians on how well they deliver their message, no matter how untruthful and corrosive their message may be.

But, what if people are sick of simple slogans at the cost of the truth? If there are enough of us that want honesty and complexity over soundbites and charisma then things could be different. We would still assess the performances of politicians on the basis of their popularity – what we think everyone else thinks – but we would now know that others judge nuance and complexity in a favourable light, not the other way around.

For this to happen, we need two things to be in place. First, we need to know that people really do care about truth and complexity. Most of all, this requires a more complex form of journalism – one that is based less around 24hr breaking news and more around delivering news without catchy headlines and firm conclusions. In a competitive news marketplace, this may be a long time coming. Or, it might be a media revolution that is waiting to happen.

The second thing we need is an appetite from the public to not know the truth. At the moment, politics is, despite all the debates and despair, a relatively easy affair. We can happily stay in our political tribes, feeling rage towards members of the other side, and a sense of righteousness towards our own. The truth, in contrast, is not so easy. It requires acknowledging that members of the other side may in fact have a point – that we don’t have all the answers, that our limited perspective on the world is probably wrong.

This change in perspective is hard. We will have to lose some safety and security, which seems to be in short supply these days. But it can be done – on both an individual and social level. We can, in general, be more humble, curious and compassionate in our personal and collective lives, rather than relying exclusively on our capacities for certainty, urgency and blame. We need to stop grasping for control and start embracing uncertainty.

This, I believe, is the political goal we should be working towards. Not an informed public – that is a naive ideal, one that could only be advocated by people with too much time on their hands. But we can have political debate that prizes truth and complexity over charisma and simplicity. If we all want our politicians to tell the truth, we need to show them that we can handle it – in both the media we consume and the conversations we are willing to have.

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