The Politics of Peak Shift

It is probably the nature of modern life that, to adapt the words of Orwell, unserious politics “has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting”.

In the past fortnight, our politics have seen a BBC journalist, Nick Watt, abused and chased by a crowd of anti-lockdown protestors in Westminster; England’s Chief Medial Officer, Chris Whitty, become subject to abuse as two men manhandled him for a “selfie”, only a day after protestors had gathered outside his home; and the Batley and Spen by-election become increasingly rancorous with each passing yob. Labour’s candidate, Kim Leadbeater, has already been accosted by young Muslim men, and, according to Tracy Brabin, West Yorkshire’s mayor and former MP, other campaigners have been “pelted with eggs and kicked in the head”.

Look wider afield and militant “activism” seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Extinction Rebellion dumped horse manure outside the London offices of The Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday, whilst even a figure as benign as Rafa Benitez has been subject to threats ahead of his rumoured appointment as Everton’s new manager.

It’s tempting to explain why each of these incidents are so different.

Chris Whitty was subjected to the worse of “lad culture” where the cheeky “one photo mate” attitude has always meant to excuse a variety of crimes.

Extinction Rebellion, by their own logic, think they are saving the planet and labour under the mistaken belief that low-grade lawlessness is acceptable if it helps people understand the scale of the environmental crisis.

The Benitez story is just football.

Kim Leadbeater, meanwhile, is fighting in a particularly hostile environment where the murder of her sister, Jo Cox, at the hands of a far-right terrorist, makes it all feel so sensitive.

Yet isn’t there also a palpable sense that something has changed and is in the process of changing? Why are we increasingly talking about people from the fringes of civil discourse? Who put the cranks and charlatans in charge? And why the hell is George Galloway still a political force, however diminished that force happens to be?

The Benitez story is perhaps the oddest story (the claim to “know where you live” was disproved given that the clowns responsible left it outside the wrong house) yet it makes a strong case for how we should view the others. The narrative that Benitez would stir such animosity if he managed Everton isn’t one that’s widely shared in the community. The Liverpool / Everton rivalry is unlike other local rivalries. Families are often both red and blue, and the Merseyside derby one of the few where supporters from both sides mingle. Yet, one photograph of a crude message left out in the street apparently changes all that.

So why have we become hostage to the grossly amplified acts of stupidity?

A couple of weeks ago, fans of boxing lamented the death of the sport when Youtuber, Logan Paul, went toe-to-toe with former World Champion, Floyd Mayweather. The contest had no sporting value. It was mere spectacle around hype generated on social media by Paul, who has previously grabbed the media spotlight by posting video to Youtube of his visit to Japan’s Aokigahara forest (known as the “suicide forest”) where he posed next to the body of a dead man hanging from a tree. His brother, Jake, meanwhile, has his own long history of controversy that has led him to amass a $20 million fortune.

The Paul brothers are extreme examples but teach a harsh lesson about the way that social media amplifies marginal voices and that, seemingly, is the fault across our politics, where all media is social. Our press has increasingly followed the path of maximal buzz. Whether on the Left or the Right, the pundits with the biggest by-lines are those that offer a vision of some earthly apocalypse; from the Peter Hitchen’s school of “Britain on the cusp of becoming Soviet Russia” to Owen Jones’s petulant walkouts (but he’ll be back next week, folks!)

Be loud, be crude, be successful seems to be the message.

There are psychological reasons why most of this should come as no surprise. Human psychology is understood so well that psychology has become a key mechanism driving our behaviour. We are appalled by the video of Chris Whitty’s assault and in the process of being appalled we spread it further. We amplify the very messages we know shouldn’t be amplified but in this we are partly blameless. Both Facebook and Twitter employ psychologists to help design the systems that hook us into addictive behaviour. They understand that we are predisposed to prefer the extreme point of view or, at least, take more notice of it, a phenomenon that they call “peak shift”.

To put it crudely, we all grow accustomed to baselines and respond best to deviations from the norm. This is how great political caricature work by exaggeration, but the very same rules work inside politics (or art or entertainment or pretty much any area of life). We respond best to people who offers something different to the average. Tony Blair diverged from the stereotypes of Labour leaders before him but, in turn, created a new norm of the polished, mannered, gesture-perfect politician. Nigel Farage, in turn, dominated the Brexit debate by eschewing everything that Blair represented. Boris Johnson, too, engages because he understands how susceptible we are to the exaggerated gesture. Brand “Boris” is easily deconstructed with the scruffy hair, untucked shirt, and constant thumbs up for the cameras. It might annoy anybody who notices who artificial it all is, but it is also effective. Loud, crude, successful.

There’s also little sign of any of this diminishing. If postmodernism amounts to our preoccupation with form over content, then, in political terms, it explains why the game of politics dominates the substance. We are susceptible to the powerful archetypes and, in the very same way that Marvel Superhero movies build upon a generation’s understand of formula, our politics has become a charade of seriousness in which George Galloway can throw himself into a campaign like the return of some long-forgotten villain. Except, in this timeline, there’s no caped crusader leaping into the fray to teach The Chancer a lesson.

2 thoughts on “The Politics of Peak Shift”

  1. Again really interesting. So good to be reading stuff like this again and being able to write more than 280 characters in response. This odd makes an interesting companion peace to Nick Cohens latest Observer column. Have you seen it? He goes deep into the events are the Batley by-election but you come to similar conclusions.

    1. Odd you mention it. I read Cohen’s latest lying in bed this morning and found myself wondering if everybody else thinks he’s as great as I find him! Thought it a fascinating piece, though ultimately a very familiar argument about the purity of the left keeping them out of power but I hadn’t thought about it in those specific terms. My own thought of the by-election now is that it proves that it’s not the centrists keeping Labour out of power but the more radical left. It made for a small majority for Labour but the centre-left/left vote was still sizable. I just don’t see how we ever get a progressive alliance to give us proper opposition in this country. It requires too many idealist to make the sacrifice in order to win power.

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