“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.


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  • Owen Smyth

    Great quote from Adam Smith, founder of modern free market theory.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you Mick, for posting the link to the “Power of Asking” paper! It makes an very interesting read for anyone approaching the issues with an open mind when set alongside the discussions about Maíria and failure of SF to recognise the significance of GAs utter unsuitability as aleader for any party claiming serious concern in woman’s issues.

    One of those factors the paper did not examine within its remit was the effect of different mediums of communication. There was a great deal of academic research carried out into the non-negotiable effect of visual media in the 1950s and 60s. Much of this has been forgotten today, but as someone involved in film and advertising at one time, I re-discovered this with some interest when I was at London University for a few years (Senate House Library!). The non-negotiable, continious flow of film or screen communication habituates the observer to readily “accept” what they are being told in a manner which does not occur in print or face to face communication, where the flow can be halted, digested slowly, or directly answered (notes on print, conversation when face to face). The nature of how most of us encounter “the powerful” is customarily through visual media nowadays, and those factors the paper identifises must of necessity be amplified by this.

    And regarding “when people are ignorant of the potential consequences of their actions they tend to behave more selfishly.” Your three postings on engagement over the last week have pointed to the need for anyone who cares to begin to realise that its not simply a matter of voting every five years and then sitting back and letting the professionals get on with it. The disillusion this disempowerment must instill alienates citizens and their frustration will come out in some form. The Citizen Discontent posting ends with Brian Eno’s “enthusiasm” and the Brownshirts in a sinister allignment. The paper’s underlining of the tendency to favour the powerful, those in the public eye, is a powerful third significant factor added to the points you’d made in the first two postings.