I’m delighted to welcome Peter Taylor-Gooby to Being Anne today. The last time Peter was here, it was shortly after the release of The Baby Auction. You might remember the wonderful strap-line: “Romance, revenge, revolution – and a forensic analysis of how market capitalism destroys human kindness”. Peter’s latest book, Ardent Justice, was published on 8th December by Matador, available in paperback (£6.99) and for kindle (just 99p). I have to say it looks every bit as intriguing as his last:
Ade is a tax-inspector. She believes the money she raises pays for a decent NHS and adequate public services. She hates the City of London, the endless corruption, the bland assumption that tax is for the little people. She hates the casual sexism, the smug self-assurance, the inviolability of the men she deals with, and the cold certainty that nothing you can do will ever touch them.
She meets Paul, an Occupy activist who works with homeless people. As their love for each other grows, they find real fulfilment in fighting for the rights of ordinary people, such as Gemma, a homeless single parent. Then she has a chance to do something of permanent value, but at great cost to her own integrity.
Ardent Justice is a gripping feminist thriller, endorsed by Polly Toynbee, the leading Guardian columnist. It tells the story of Ade’s struggle against the City and for her own integrity, and of her love for Paul, and of how hard it is to live a morally good life in a corrupted world. It has been inspired by Zoe Fairbairns and Lionel Shriver and will appeal to fans of character-led thrillers. Profits will be donated to Shelter, the housing and homelessness charity.
Peter joins me today with a great piece on empathy and the value of novels. Over to you Peter…
Apart of course from the enjoyment, engagement and the engrossing and enthralling nature of novels, is there any point to them? Does writing and reading them make any difference to anything?
Put it another way: can you imagine a society without creative literature? I don’t think I can, but I’m not sure why. After all you could have production, consumption, distribution and government without reading novels. People would survive, life would go on – but it would be different. If society is to be anything more than ‘different people living in the same place’, as Bloom puts it in Ulysses, it needs cohesion, a sense of identity, solidarity, social trust, some kind of glue to link it together. All the interactions that make up our material life have to be accompanied with the understanding of others, with empathy.
The great virtue of novels, is that they deal in empathy. Novels enable you to see how people live and make choices in a social world and also why they do what they do, the feelings and thoughts and perceptions that shape their actions both at the same time. You can understand how Dorothea in Middlemarch comes to marry Casaubon, and that it’s a mistake and also why she does it. Or Kathy in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and the love for Tommy that directs the whole course of her short exploited life. It is this combination of internal and external perspectives, enabling the reader to examine action critically and to experience from the actor’s viewpoint the feelings and reasons that drive that action, that is so powerful and valuable, and essential for those being trained for graduate jobs.
Something has gone wrong with trust in our society. Many people don’t trust experts, they don’t trust politicians and policy-makers. Of course a critical stance to others in a position of power is entirely rational, but the capacity of those who are skilled at persuasion to generate ‘fake facts’ and alternatives and for people to treat them as exactly equivalent to the real facts is profoundly corrosive. If anything goes, nothing is truth. This direction has always been present in public life but it emerged with particular force in the Brexit debate and in recent election campaigns, particularly in the US, and it matters profoundly. It is particularly relevant to anyone who must deal with this difficult world and that includes virtually all our students at some stage in their careers.
Social scientists generally distinguish two kinds of trust which might be termed cold and warm. Cold trust, as Russell Hardin analyses it, depends on the alignment of interest: we trust someone because we calculate that their interests will cause them to act in a way that runs alongside and supports our interests. As Adam Smith put it, we trust the baker to supply good bread not because she cares about our nutrition but because it’s in her interest to do so: she knows we’ll pay her.
Warm trust works differently. It is the trust discussed by sociologists like Luhmann and Barber and psychologists like Misztal and it rests on feelings, beliefs and values. We trust those who seem to care for us, to be on our side, the nurse or doctor who puts themselves out to help us, those who seem to understand our experience, who smile and are friendly, who share our values.
Society depends on the balance between both kinds of trust. We need the faculty of cold trust to be able to stand back and look at others from outside to judge whether what they do will actually work for us. But we also need warm empathic trust, and warm trust is particularly important for dealing with uncertainty, when we simply don’t have good information to judge whether politicians and policy-makers are telling us the truth and can or will do what they say they will.
The problem is that our public policy apparatus increasingly works through cold trust just at a time when the blizzard of information of varying quality to which we are exposed and the weakness of government in the face of a rapidly changing world erode our confidence in what we are being told. Globalisation, changes in the world of work, population ageing, immigration, the financialisation of the economy, let alone the 2008 recession and subsequent stagnation expose public policy to complex and unpredictable external forces and most of us, non-experts, are not in a position to assess what the right course of action is or who’s telling truth or lying to us.
On the more local level, we have turned so many of our public services over to cold trust systems, using markets rather than professional judgements to allocate resources in the NHS, or determine choice of school and run the probation service and the new industrial training apprenticeship system. Increasingly government shifts to commercial providers, adding another layer of uncertainty – and demand for trust – as it becomes even harder to get good information from behind the barrier of commercial confidentiality.
The need for social trust in a context of endemic uncertainty makes warm trust more important, and warm trust rests ultimately on empathy. Empathy can be a traitor. A skilled performer can mimic the signals that enhance warm trust: the claims about similarity of experience, of being on your side, of sharing your values. The construction of the world that attributes the difficulties we face to an external enemy – immigrants, the political elite, benefit scroungers, experts. It’s us against them and I’m definitely the champion of us. Without good information it’s hard to stand back and critically assess these claims. But information is harder to get and harder to think about. So warm trust – empathic trust, flourishes.
In an increasingly uncertain world where correctly placed trust is both harder to achieve and more crucial we need both warm and cold trust. That’s why novels are worthwhile. They offer us characters living a social life seen both from the outside seeing what happens and from the inside, how someone feels about things and lives her life. They can be seen as thought-experiments, vital training opportunities in an uncertain world.
That’s why I write novels alongside my work as an academic studying how public policy works out and the alignments of interest that direct it. It’s also why novels are good for you – and anyway there’s always the enjoyment!
Also firmly on the side of “us”, Peter – thank you, that was fascinating…
About the author (with thanks to Amazon)
My novels deal with how people live their lives in a diverse globalised capitalist world. In ‘Ardent Justice’, Ade struggles against the corruption of the City of London, where high finance and street homelessness flourish cheek by jowl. In ‘The Baby Auction’ Ed and Matt struggle to lead a passionate, humane and generous life in a world dominated by the market.
In my day job I’m an academic. My research shows how market capitalism generates inequalities between haves and have-nots and promotes a corrosive individualism that stunts our capacity for empathy, charity and love.
I enjoy hill-walking, riding my bike, holidays and looking after my grand-daughter (not in that order). I became interested in social policy issues after working on adventure playgrounds, teaching, claiming benefits and working in a social security office in Newcastle. I’ve worked in the UK, most European countries, Canada, the US, China, Korea and Japan, Australia and South Africa.
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