Collective Blindness and the Failure of Elite Rule
Allan Whyte on why those disproportionately affected by Covid-19 need to be at the centre of the movement for change in the aftermath of the pandemic. Exploring how a lack of diversity in decision making leads to ‘collective blindness’.
The old oak tree of UK politics is going through one mighty storm, lurching from incompetence to scandal as Holyrood, Westminster, Stormont and the Senedd try to deal with Covid-19 and the economy, whilst society grows restless with lockdown and the way our countries are run.
It is tough to wade through the sludge of wrongdoings, from PPE to a lack of testing, locking down too late, the care home scandal and herd immunity, there have been a series of missteps leaving a void of confidence in the ability of leadership to lead.
However, that people from the most deprived areas, those whose lives are most burdened by the weight of inequalities in our society, are dying in disproportionate numbers is perhaps the biggest indictment of the failure of the constitutional, economic and societal makeup of the UK.
Poverty and inequality is increasing and it is costing people their lives. This is not news, we have known for decades that poorer people die younger, have worse health and a lower quality of life, but it has taken a global pandemic to magnify the situation and lay it bare for everyone to see.
At the heart of the issues that blight society – poverty, poor educational attainment, inadequate housing, a lack of support and opportunity – is a lack of diversity in decision making. It’s the same faces, the same suits, political parties and lobby groups, giving the same information about what needs to change.
Anyone who has met a politician or a bouncer at the door of a pub will know that even a small amount of power breeds a sense of authority. This, along with the gender, age, class and sexual orientation of those in power can go some way to explaining why certain areas remain deprived and what needs to change.
In his book ‘Rebel Ideas’, Matthew Syed discusses the socio-psychological concepts of collective blindness and the wedding list paradox. To briefly summarise the former; groups of people, let’s say career politicians for example, often tend to come from similar backgrounds. Whilst we are used to the homogeneity of parliamentary line-ups, we are too often led to believe that this homogeneity, however unjust, exists for an important reason: that they are there because they have received the best education.
However, whilst they are undoubtedly very well educated, problems frequently arise from the fact that they have all received the same education and share similar life experiences and perspectives. The problem with this overlapping of perspective is that there are gaps in their understanding of significant aspects of the lives of the electorate.
This lack of diversity of backgrounds and therefore approaches to problem solving can lead to a collective blindness and an inability to see the impacts policies have when put into practice.
Coupled with an ‘I know best’ mindset that arrives with the parliamentary security pass, it can see decision making based on a mistaken perception of what is the right thing to do, rather than doing the right thing. Syed refers to the wedding list paradox, where despite receiving a wedding gift list, guests are inclined to go off piste and give the couple something more thoughtful or personal. Spoiler alert – more often than not, the receivers of the gift, who have told you exactly what they want, are left disappointed.
Far too often, policies are made on this basis, for example on 14 March more than 200 scientists wrote an open letter to the UK government warning that a tougher measures were needed to stop the spread of deadly Covid-19. It wasn’t until 23 March that the Prime Minister announced the lockdown. The same too for the victims of Grenfell. The residents warned of the fire risk to the building 18 months before the tragedy struck, but no action was taken.
These atrocities are the product of political systems which often don’t work for the people most affected by change because those same people aren’t part of the process of change. A diversity of voices in decision making is essential to creating a more equal society.
There are well documented barriers to engagement for people from deprived areas, those from BAME backgrounds, the disabled and others who share the burdens marginalisation brings. If the vision of a fairer, more equal society is to be realised, it will begin by ripping up the rule book on how politics and people interact, making it relevant to those with the most to gain from a new future and the most to lose from the status quo.
The top-down, prescribing of policy can and should end with Coronavirus, with communities getting organised to make the changes that benefit all of society.
However, even the idea of a more equal society is to consider change from one perspective. Whilst endless news feeds spew out reports of tragedy and incompetence there is a simmering but potent desire for change. In democracy, the shape and direction of society should be directed by the public. Without a diversity of voices change cannot be representative.
This is a period of so many unknowns. A time when we can’t make plans, we can’t look forward with any certainty and a time of little hope. When the worst of the crisis is over change will come, but for that change to have any value it cannot be the sick medicine of the establishment, it must come from a network of communities unified in a recognition that the old normal is not good enough and the new normal is a society for everyone, created by everyone.