“vices and follies of the powerful are much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent.”

This is soooo good, I’m just going to post a big chunk of it below. It’s Chris Dillow nailing a key problem with the UK media’s obsession with bringing celebrity to the big politics table… He cites an experiment (pdf) by James Andreoni and Justin Rao involving a constructed roleplay scenario involving a ‘dictator’:

There are two things going on here. One is that if someone communicates with us, we tend to become more sympathetic towards them – even if that communication conveys no new information. The other is that, on the dictator’s side, communication creates meanness, because a hollow apology substitutes for generous actions.

This implies that having celebrities appear on TV will increase our sympathy towards them. Because celebs are overwhelmingly likely to be rich, this increases our sympathy towards the 1%. This is an example of the mere exposure effect.

And, of course, the converse is true. Because the poor tend not to appear on such shows – especially in unedited form – their interests are under-weighted: out of sight, out of mind.

In fact, it might be worse than that. Experiments by Agne Kajackaite show that when people are ignorant of the potential consequences of their actions they tend to behave more selfishly. This suggests that excluding the poor from political discourse – how often do you see someone claming disability benefits on the Question Time panel? – can increase meanness towards them.

What’s especially nasty about all this is that, in making us more favourable to the rich and less so to the poor, the media’s celebocracy is exacerbating a longstanding tendency, identified by Adam Smith:

“We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous. We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent.”

(Theory of Moral Sentiments,I.III.29: Smith was using “great” to mean eminent rather than worthy)

Like the accumulation of power in the marketplace by private monopolies, this voicing of the already rich and/or powerful issue within the media is overly neglected.

As Chris notes towards the end of the piece, merely responding by chucking lefty celeb into the fray misses the key point which is about missing voices in the discourse. It has consequences far beyond the social policy niche/ghetto to the constitutional.


Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty