Literary v social science political thinking

In this month’s The Australian Literary Review, Paul Kelly offers a wide-ranging critique of Australian intellectuals. One thread of his argument deals with intellectuals as political moralists, giving many examples of attacks on John Howard as dishonest. Kelly disputes the interpretations often placed on Howard statements that turned out not to be true, that he would never introduce a GST, children overboard, and Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. As Kelly points out, none of these were straightforward lies if they were lies at all. But assume they all were lies, and I still think we have an interesting insight into how Australian intellectuals think.

Take for example some of the inferences drawn from these statements that turned out not to be true, all from Kelly’s article:

For Raimond Gaita, writing in an earlier Quarterly Essay, Howard is “systematically mendacious”. … [David Marr] asserts Howard was “a liar from the start” … [Julian] Burnside has compared Howard’s manipulation of language to Hitler’s Germany. “The Nazi regime were masters at it,” he said of doublespeak. “The Howard Government is an enthusiastic apprentice.” For Burnside, Howard has a “congenital dishonesty”.

In an earlier post on intellectuals, I pointed out that almost all of the people who make it to the lists of top public intellectuals are moralists or storytellers, and often both. This I thought helped explain why they were more successful with the public than intellectuals with a more empirical or analytical approach. Our brains find it easier to follow narratives than arguments, and almost everyone is concerned with issues of right and wrong.

There is nothing wrong with using stories to make a point. But when stories are used as the model for analysis things can – and do – go badly wrong. We need to distinguish here between ‘literary’ and social science forms of social and political understanding. Continue reading “Literary v social science political thinking”