Tuesday 15 October 2019

Liam Weeks: 'Cosy consensus could do with a reminder about the 'unknown unknowns' in life'

So you think you know the truth? Chances are you are deceiving yourself just to stay onside with the chattering classes, writes Liam Weeks

'It was not so long ago that Irish public opinion had similar misgivings about the European project.' (Stock photo)
'It was not so long ago that Irish public opinion had similar misgivings about the European project.' (Stock photo)

what do we know? There is a general misplaced tendency to associate science with the expression of facts or truths, but this fails to comprehend the reality that science and scientific theories are evolutionary works in progress. Science does not stand still, and facts we hold true today may be dismissed as falsehoods tomorrow.

Many years ago, it was widely believed that the Earth was flat, that it lay at the centre of the universe, and that all other planets and the Sun revolved around it. Few now subscribe to these theories, not because the Earth has since changed shape, or has moved its position in the solar system, but because our understanding of these phenomena has changed.

Great scientists such as Galileo and Copernicus were condemned for challenging these consensuses, with Galileo tried for heresy by a papal-led inquisition, and being forced the spend the last decade of his life under house arrest.

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The era of religious inquisitions seems at an end, but a subversive culture continues to prevail within Irish society, which condemns as heretics those who seek to challenge a cosy consensus.

This cosy consensus can be heard routinely in political debate on radio panel discussions, or read in the opinion features and letters pages of certain broadsheet newspapers. It is the voice of the chattering classes of bourgeois Ireland, who wine and dine together, and have convinced themselves of the invincibility of their own beliefs.

They are the kind of people who, because they see a few white swans, deduce that all swans are white. And woe betide anyone who disagrees with them.

Those who choose to stray from the wisdom of bourgeois Ireland are depicted as misguided deviants, blinded to the obvious truth. The cosy consensus demands that they are silenced, or at least mocked, for their non-conformist views. Hence why you read or hear of so few dissenting voices to this consensus in the Irish media.

Not only does this stifle a healthy pluralistic debate, but the danger with consensuses is that in time, many are shown to have as little substance as the flat-Earth theories. And so we should not cling to them as if they are universal truths. But this is exactly what happens with debate in the cosy consensus of Irish politics.

Take Brexit as an example. The prevailing line of thinking is that the EU is good and Brexit is bad. Our commentariat seems incapable of any notions other than that Brexiteers are misinformed, stupid and ignorant. They cannot contemplate any fathomable reason why more than 17m British voters would want to leave the EU.

Those buying into such sentiment have short memories. It was not so long ago that Irish public opinion had similar misgivings about the European project. We voted No to the Nice and Lisbon Treaties, and during the depths of the recent recession, had plenty of misgivings about the manner in which we were treated by the EU and the Troika.

But, that is all now forgotten, and official Ireland has decreed that the current consensus must be not to challenge the EU. The green flag is being waved, as a hardline stance over the backstop, and the potential for a unified island, are being championed.

Brexit is not the only issue where the cosy consensus prevails. Another favourite target of bourgeois Ireland is the localism of Irish politics, which it sees as representative of a backward-looking gombeen-man-type culture. In the eyes of this consensus, parish-pump politics, where local TDs and councillors represent the views of their constituents, is a disease, symptomatic of an ill-functioning system.

This consensus derides the likes of Michael Healy-Rae and Shane Ross, who are guilty of nothing more than speaking up for the interests of their local community. What is so wrong with this? In many countries, there is a considerable element of apathy because of the disconnect between people and their politicians. In contrast, in Ireland, anyone can make contact with their local parliamentarian, which should be celebrated as an example of a functioning linkage between a demos and its rulers, a necessary component of any successful democracy.

So, rather than indicating an illness, localism is a healthy sign of the openness of our political system. Whose wishes but the people should our TDs represent?

Of course, bourgeois Ireland doesn't want to contemplate this. It shares a disdain for local and rural politics, which feeds into, and correlates with, another consensus, that of a recently dominant liberal culture, whose mantra is "liberal good, conservative bad".

While in the past those who subscribe to these beliefs bemoaned the intolerance of a then conservative majority, they are now acting in the same manner. Wanting to impose their value system on the rest of society, this new consensus condemns as atavistic dinosaurs anyone who does not subscribe to its creed. We thus have confused Catholics being told by this consensus that the right thing is to vote for marriage equality and abortion, even if this is in contradiction of the teachings of their church on these matters.

Just as it was not appropriate for a previous Catholic consensus to foist its belief-systems on the populace as a whole, so too the current liberal consensus should not express similar dogmatism.

After all, we have no idea what will be the dominant paradigm in another generation. Just as science evolves, so too do political mindsets, but at a much faster rate. Today's consensus may be tomorrow's fish and chip paper.

For this reason, we should encourage more challenges, not more consensus. What we need more of in our politics are individuals such as the late Limerick TD, Jim Kemmy. In the 1980s, he opposed the silent nationalist consensus that supported the H-Block protests. He defied the Catholic majority who wanted to enshrine religious values in the Constitution.

The subject of vicious campaigns, with the Bishop of Limerick, Jeremiah Newman, a vociferous cheerleader, Kemmy lost his seat in 1982 because of his stances against the prevailing sentiment.

In time, though, much of what Kemmy fought for has now come to pass, as his policies have been embraced by the cosy consensus. This should be a salient message for those wishing to silence the current incarnations of Kemmy looking to challenge the status quo.

We need to remember that in all these cultural clashes, between liberals and conservatives, between isolationists and integrationists, between rural and urban, it is not necessarily a battle between right and wrong. It is a battle between different perceptions of what is right.

And these perceptions change over time. Liberals become conservatives. Truths become myths.

There is no correct way of doing things, just the best policy based on what we know. And what do we know? I posed this question at the beginning of this piece, because those who think they know the truth are misguided. We cannot know everything, and so we should seek to challenge consensuses because they are all based on limited information. There may be black swans who disprove the theory that all swans are white.

It's not often I quote former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but in 2002, he provided a meaningful insight on the limited extent of our wisdom, and of any consensus: "There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know".

Would someone please remind the cosy consensus of these unknown unknowns?

  • Dr Liam Weeks is director of the MSc in Government & Politics at UCC

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