Persuasion, the law, democracy and the power of markets  

Hyde Park Corner has the reputation of being a place where people with loud voices go to stand on soap-boxes in order to express their very firmly-held opinions. Why ‘being on your soap-box’ is the accepted expression, I have no idea. Boxes for other dry goods were no doubt available. Traditionally, you could say what you liked as long as it was not treasonous, defamatory or, these days, inciting hatred of various protected groups. Of course, you had to be prepared for people to shout back at you and probably to be very rude. Although definite in their views, the Hyde Park fraternity (they were mainly men) did not take extreme measures to force their listeners to do as they said.

So then, the ‘Just Stop Oil’ group (and its affiliates) is a bit of an outlier in the ranks of people trying to persuade others to change their ways. They carry out their protests in the way that they do because, they say, ”they have no other option”. But of course they do. Unlike the Suffragettes who were disenfranchised, they could enter the democratic process and become elected to local councils or to Parliament. They say they’ve tried that route, without success.

And so, in their minds, the fact that they did not receive enough support from the people, the electorate, means that, instead, they are entitled to impose their views on us. It all sounds rather self-contradictory and dictatorial. Most of us in fact sympathise with the idea of reducing climate change, but their extreme hair-shirt policies do not go down too well with the population at large.

At the moment, we have a Public Order Bill going through the parliamentary process. It is designed  to limit the ways and extent to which people may protest. It would have an effect on Just Stop Oil, but also on other protest groups and individuals. Obviously it all sounds very 1984.

But is it? I cannot be the only person to be very annoyed by the person with the very loud voice who, during all of the interviews, on College Green keeps shouting that Brexit was a bad idea. Neither can I see why protestors should be allowed to bang drums continuously. It tells us nothing except that, like little children, they wish to be noticed. At the moment, it is very difficult for the police to ‘police’ the activities of the likes of ‘Just Stop Oil’. As soon as they are released, the protestors are entitled immediately to go back to where they were in order to continue with what they were doing before arrest, even though it continues to be a criminal act.

As Daniel Finkelstein said the other day: “The freedom to make a point against whatever you think is wrong is important. But so is the freedom to go about one’s day not caring about their point, or thinking their point is asinine, or wishing to come to their point later after going to work first. Those are civil liberties too. The law needs to protect the right to protest, but also the right to other freedoms.”

And what If those glueing themselves to the road had posters reading ‘Stop Abortion’, or if people glued themselves to the road demanding more coal production, for instance?. What would the consensus view then be as to limiting the ways in which protest may be conducted?

Over in Ireland, we have an alternative approach to persuasion. It seems that an elderly priest, Father Sheehy, decided to devote his Sunday morning sermon at mass to his criticism of modern sexual morality. The priest has relatively recently returned from life as a missionary in South America and was shocked by the “rampant” sin which he found in Ireland. He decried the “promotion of abortion”, and “the lunatic approach of transgenderism”. He called gay sex “a mortal sin”, before saying that the Irish National Health Service, giving out free condoms, was promoting promiscuity.

In an attempt to extricate themselves from the general condemnation which followed, an apology was issued by the diocesan bishop. He said: “the views expressed do not reflect the Christian position” - itself a strange position to take. It is after all an accurate representation of the Catholic church view on such matters. For the Catholic church, sex is not for recreation but for procreation (within marriage) and nothing-else.

Well, I suppose that it’s a view which is at least internally consistent, even if it does not exactly recognise how people behave in real life and the damage which unprotected sex can have. But then no-one said that being religious would promote health or happiness. In fact I’m not sure that the word happiness actually appears anywhere in the Bible. We have to make do with having ‘joy in the lord’. Oh well.

I suspect that Sheehy’s efforts to persuade people of his views have already back-fired, particularly if the Bishop persists in his view that it is not the ‘Christian position’ or indeed the missionary position.

The football world championships In Qatar have created a lot of controversy. There were the appalling working conditions for the people, mainly from other countries, who were taken on in order to build the football stadiums. There was the lack of compensation for those injured or killed on their very dangerous building sites, a lack now partly put right after international pressure.

But recently there has been a growing realisation that Qatar is a strict Muslim autocracy. Who knew? Our latest foreign secretary, Mr Cleverly, has told the football supporters going to Qatar that they should respect the moral values of the country they are about to visit. This despite homosexuality being a criminal offence. A friendly place to go to.

But then we know that morality is not an overriding factor when it comes to football or the award of multi-billion dollar contracts. Neither, it seems, are its supporters the most morally enlightened of people. Although no doubt willing to wear rainbow arm-bands when requested, exceedingly few players seem to be other than robustly heterosexual. As of 2022, there is only one openly gay male footballer in England's top four men's divisions, Jake Daniels, a forward for Blackpool F.C. There are a few others, but they all announced their orientation after having retired from the professional game. Why? Could it be that the supporters would not be very accepting?

So then, perhaps the supporters and the Qataris have more in common than is obvious at first sight, leaving groups such as Stonewall talking to a brick wall.

And then we have the case of Elon Musk and Twitter. To understand what has happened we need to grasp that Musk began his $43 billion Twitter adventure with a clear view that the internet’s biggest problem was the curtailment of free speech due to creeping leftist censorship. “Do something to fight wokeism,” said his ex-wife, the actress Talulah Riley, in a message revealed as part of the court battle that surrounded his acquisition of the site.

If you believe, as many do, that free speech online is being smothered by evil liberals, this sort of talk is very welcome. Yet it was also followed by an upswing in people tweeting all sorts of unlovely stuff, presumably to see if they could. The use of the n-word jumped 500 per cent. Among the terms that trended was “the Jews”. Never a good sign although, in the US, still “within the bounds of the law”.

For an advertiser it’s still not necessarily what you want directly above “please buy a new Volkswagen”. Thus, ad revenue swiftly plunged, with many companies suspending campaigns and a couple of huge advertising groups recommending their clients do the same. And for Twitter, which makes 90 per cent of its revenues through advertising, this is simply unsustainable. Or to put that another way, it’s not just activists and politicians who have spread this “woke mind virus” he’s so worried about. It’s also cold, hard, market economics.

Yesterday morning Musk was tweeting that “Twitter needs to become by far the most accurate source of information about the world”. That would be a change. Twitter has a binary choice: being a place that controls the wilder excesses of its users and makes money, or one that doesn’t... and doesn’t.

8 November 2022

Paul Buckingham


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