“If you could do anything you wanted to, and be guaranteed you would succeed, what would you do?”
Thus began one of the most helpful seminars I have ever attended on planning for the future. The speaker, who has spent his professional career giving one-to-one consultations to senior executives, wisely identifies that the biggest obstacle we all face when deciding what to do is the fear of failure. As a perfectionist I have no problem identifying with this phenomenon; 90 percent of my paralysis when facing a decision is due to my own fear of doing the wrong thing. This cultural phenomenon owes much to the way we do education in the United Kingdom – from an early age you are encouraged to know the ‘right’ answer, and chastised for giving the ‘wrong’ answer. Formal education eschews the patient methodology of Edison, who did not see the 10,000 attempts to find the right material for his invention as failures, but rather as 10,000 lessons learned.
That same conviction has carried into our modern culture, and especially into social media. No longer are we permitted to explore ideas, to venture opinions, or to entangle the depths of a complicated issue. The strange oxymoron of today’s liberal society is that it is utterly binary in upholding ‘established wisdom.’ Those who comment on anything, whether the EU referendum or the latest Budget, do not venture an opinion – they speak either truth or heresy. Mistakes are not tolerated; misspeaking is a one-way ticket to ignominy and ostracism; and there is no grace for those who make even well intentioned mistakes.
In view of this, is it really a surprise that the Electoral Reform Society are able to reveal polling data showing that 75 percent of respondents do not feel “well informed” to take a decision for the European Referendum? (£ – The Times) Our entire society and culture is focused on risk avoidance, and we are paralyzed by the crippling fear of doing the wrong thing. While it is good and proper that we weigh up opportunity, risk, and cost in decision making, that becomes counter productive when we daren’t decide for fear of deciding incorrectly. Human progress has deluded us into believing we have somehow ceased to be fallible, and rather than embrace the comfort of “to err is human, to forgive divine,” we neither allow ourselves to err, nor descend to forgive.
“Project Fear” is the epithet both Remain and Leave have used to describe their opponent’s campaign. Certainly the campaign has developed in such a way that thoughtful voters, precisely the kind of voters you would want to take a considered and balanced approach to their vote, are being terrified by prophecies of what it would mean to ‘mis-vote.’ Vote Remain and you’re signing up to pay for the Greek bailout. Vote Leave and you’re putting up your mortgage by £1,500. Both sides have already paid tribute to the national religion and declared that only they can save the NHS – although only Sir John Major has gone as far as to say that a vote for Leave would condemn the NHS. These are but a few short examples; the many more that spring to mind demonstrate why many voters feel sick of the referendum campaign.
What if you could do whatever you wanted to do, and know it would succeed?
My favourite (and therefore most overused) quotation about democracy is attributed to Arthur Balfour, who said: “Democracy presumes a people sufficiently united that they may bicker safely.” One of the most unhealthy developments in modern representative politics has been the growth of identity politics – about them vs us; absolute right vs absolute wrong; truth vs heresy. As I commented in an earlier piece, the Christian heritage of elections was that an electoral contest recognised a group did not agree, and was supposed to unify the group behind a decision. The most important thing is not what they decided, but that the group reached a decision, fairly and transparently, so that everyone could accept the outcome.
I very much appreciate my friend sharing Martin Lewis’ helpful blog on the EU referendum – the most helpful part comes near the end, when he says the following:
I’m generally risk-averse, and that pushes me just towards an IN vote for safety, maybe 55% to 45%.
Immediately of course, the Remain camp rushed to seize the plaudits that the highly-regarded and trusted Mr Lewis had ‘backed Remain.’ But that’s not quite what he said. The referendum is a binary decision, so of necessity he could only endorse one side. But when it came to reaching that decision, he effectively said “If I had 100 votes, I’d cast 55 for Remain and 45 for Leave.” Lewis deserves to be upheld for correctly pointing out that the decision before the electorate is extremely difficult, finely balanced and nuanced, and absolutely not an instance of a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. Undoubtedly there are people on both sides using wrong, even abhorrent arguments, but that is not the same as one option being conclusively right or wrong.
Why does this matter? Because this referendum is every political decision in a microcosm. This referendum is also about whether we choose to vote, or not. It’s about how we vote for Westminster, or our local council. It’s about whether we choose to engage in a debate recognising that if we all agreed there wouldn’t be a need for the debate. It’s fundamentally about recognising that debate, democracy and decisions are meant to enable us to divide for a season, to come back together and move forward together.
I began by asking “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” I conclude by saying “When you vote in two week’s time, you cannot fail – however you vote.”