The Polite Society

Karl Popper loved the idea of the Open Society. It grounds his arguments against what he calls the conspiracy theory of society, the notion that history can be explained by reference to a sequence of successful conspiracies. Because it is obviously false – according to Popper – that history is not a succession of conspiracies, belief in the conspiracy theory of society must be false and thus belief in conspiracy theories is irrational.

An open society is one in which governments are largely transparent in their operations, and bad behaviour on the part of members of those governments are easily found out by interested citizens. It seems to fall out of that characterisation that conspiracies should be rare in such societies, and so we get our case for a scepticism of conspiracy theories.

Popper’s “The Open Society and Its Enemies” was published in the mid 1940s, and aspects of the open society (the idea, rather than the book itself) seem quaint and just a little naive. As history has shown us, the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s… Well, up till the current day, has been replete with conspiracies and cover-ups. Notably, in “The Open Society and Its Enemies” Popper twists himself into knots to try and describe the Shoah (The Holocaust) as not being the result of some conspiracy because it wasn’t ultimately successful despite the fact that whilst the Nazis might well have failed to exterminate the entire Jewish people, they still ran concentration camps with frightening efficiency for quite some time. Post the publication of “The Open Society and its Enemies” we have had other notable conspiracies like Watergate, the Gulf of Tonkin, 9/11, Dirty Politics and more besides; our supposedly open society is not quite as immune to conspiracies as Popper would have had us believe.

Now, it is unfair to sling Popper with this criticism; after all, he was not necessarily convinced that our society was an open as it could be. Instead, it was more open than it had been. Popper was comparing the world of the 1940s with that of the 30s and 20s, and the world post WWII was, indeed, a more open society than its forebears. However, the trajectory of openness that Popper thought the new world of the Forties promised was not quite the world of the 50s onwards; governments were both loath to reveal more of their inner workings and, of course, there was that Cold War thing. Nothing like having an enemy which is set on infiltrating your governments to make you paranoid about anyone finding out anything of what you are up to.

Which brings me to the Polite Society hypothesis. I have been thinking a lot over the last few years about how to respond to people who base their scepticism of conspiracy theories generally on some version of the open society argument. Some of this work appears in my book, where I look at the notions of Public Trust Skepticism (which I associate closely with both the works of Popper and Brian L. Keeley) and the Openness Objection (which I find in the works of Lee Basham). Some of it comes out of discussion with Basham about these things he calls “toxic truths” (information people refuse to investigate because such an investigation would be deleterious to them or their society), which I mention briefly in the book. A large part of it, however, simply comes out of trying to work out why the numerous scandals in the governing National Party have simply failed to materialise in falling poll numbers.

What is a Polite Society? Well, a polite society is one which thinks or even loudly claims to be an open society, but often overlooks what appears to be bad behaviour on the part of members of its influential institutions on the grounds of politeness.

Take, for example, rumours that a relative has been engaging in inappropriate behaviour with with a minor. You could ask questions of your other relatives to fact check this claim, but that would be impolite; it would cause bother. You don’t want to ask the relative in question because if it turns out the rumour is merely gossip, that would be embarrassing both to them and to you. So, you ignore the rumour because acting upon it would be impolite.

A situation like that, I take it, is the kind of thing Basham is concerned about when it comes to truths which are toxic. In the polite society, however, it would turn out that you are the kind of person who opines that if you heard a good rumour that someone was behaving in such an inappropriate way, you would definitely investigate it.

Imagine, then, that kind of polite behaviour coupled with expressed opinion to the contrary being expressed not just by a few individuals but as society as a whole. “Yes”, members of the polite society say, “we are definitely interested in holding MPs to account for the things that get uncovered!” Yet when it comes to investigative reporting about what MPs might get up to, they invent a whole bunch of excuses for being politely disinterested in such stories.

The problem, then, for a polite society is that members of the polite society are likely to claim they belong to an open society whilst not actually pursuing any active policy towards openness and transparency. Members of a polite society, then, express fealty to the standards of openness and transparency whilst acting otherwise.

Do we really live in a polite society? Do we live in such a society out of choice or because we are told to, or because it is expected of us? These are the questions which vex me; am I buying into some conspiracy theory about our society or is this a real diagnosis of a societal ill? ((I’m not saying this diagnosis is unique to me; similar theories can be found in the work of other theorists concerned with public discourse.)) More, next time.

Next time: Some further rumination on the polite society hypothesis (and some objections to it) and a bit of #dirtypolitics.