The main story in Stornoway this week is that there’s an election happening soon – for five people to be elected to the Stornoway Trust and effectively become our landlords.
For the benefit of those who don’t know, the Stornoway Trust is a very significant public body – in the Outer Hebrides, yes, but across Scotland, too, as it’s thought to be the oldest community-owned estate in the country.
It was set up in 1923 after Lord Leverhulme gifted a large part of the Isle of Lewis to the people. And every three years, five people from the community are elected to serve as ‘trustees’.
They serve a term of six years before they must stand down, although they can stand again for re-elction and quite a few do, most notably Sandy Matheson who was a trustee for 42 years.
In many respects, the Stornoway Trust has been a shining light for community ownership over the years. It’s been an example for the land reform movement, for a start – although they do have their problems too and anyone who follows my blog will know that.
However, my purpose with tonight’s post is not to get into the nitty gritty of what their issues might be but to look at their make-up… and to explore some issues here around democratic engagement and the decision-making process.
The number of candidates standing at this election is really interesting – because it’s actually really high. It is close to their all-time record and is the highest number of candidates for 40 years. The record is 24 and this year we have 22. We would have had 24 except there were two withdrawals.
We also have three women candidates and while that might seem low to some, at least we have three! Last Stornoway Trust election, we had none and there were only nine candidates altogether, so you can see how times have changed.
I think that’s a sign of how energetic the public debate is in Lewis right now and we can expect some pretty hot discussion over the next two 10 days.
The election is on the 27th and while you could say there will be as many reasons for standing as there are candidates, there are a few hot topics. There is the renewables issue, obviously (and I’m watching positions on that with great interest) but there’s also the economy, crofting (particularly in light of Brexit) and of course Sunday opening, too. That’s likely to be the biggest battle line.
I’m not going to make any statements here tonight about Sunday opening. Partly because I have a bit of Sunday-opening-issue fatigue. People are still fighting about it so much.
Facebook is the absolute worst for this. Nowadays, I take a very light touch to Facebook because there is something about this social media platform in particular that seems to bring out the worst in folk. Although I admit I find it quite fascinating at the same time and one recent development that I noted with interest was the creation of a ‘We Love Lewis and Harris Sundays’ Facebook page.
Almost overnight, that page – a celebration / defence of the traditional ‘quiet Sunday’ on the island – sprung to 2,300 followers. By comparison, the page run by the Western Isles Secular Society, who are very much pro-Sunday opening, has 303 likes.
That is a massive difference and I can’t help wondering if, for example, the leadership of An Lanntair will pay any heed to this, as an indicator of public opinion, when it comes to deciding whether to turn their Sunday opening trial into a permanent fixture?
In fact, I have been thinking a lot about decision-making recently – and how well equipped (or otherwise) people are, at taking information on board when it might not fit with their world view.
I’ve partly been thinking about this because I have noticed a uniform response from officialdom whenever I have written blogs which could loosely be called ‘difficult’ or ‘controversial’.
Whether it’s been the way An Lanntair went about their decision to hold a Sunday trial, or about the way Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and Stornoway Trust are backing EDF over the wind farm at the expense of the crofters, or whether it’s councillors peeved at what I wrote over Stornoway Primary not getting money for a new gym… the reaction has been the same.
Instead of engaging with points for debate, the response has been to say I am ‘ill informed’.
That is a bit annoying but more than being annoyed at it, I am starting to analyse it as a reaction. My thoughts on it have been sparked by a TED Talk I saw recently, sent to me by a friend, as a link on Messenger. I absolutely love TED Talks – great talks on a wide variety of issues and with the common tagline of ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’.
On this occasion, the particular talk that inspired me was called ‘Why you think you’re right – even when you’re wrong’ and the speaker was one Julia Galef. I followed this up by watching another talk in the same category: Kathryn Schulz, ‘On being wrong’.
Both of these talks have been watched millions of times and they had some fascinating insights.
Julia’s talk was about the difference between two particular mindsets and she likened them to the roles of soldiers and scouts in the army.
While the soldier’s job is to attack and defend the line, the scout’s job is to do neither. Instead, his job is “to understand”. The scout maps the terrain. The scout is the one who “wants to know what is really there as accurately as possible”.
In a real army, both are essential – but her argument is that, when it comes to our daily lives, “having good judgement and making good decisions… is mostly about which mindset you’re in”.
She gives a cracking example. The story of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French soldier who was convicted of selling military secrets to the Germans in the 19th Century. There wasn’t a shred of evidence to convict him but the men in charge had genuinely believed he was guilty. The French army at that time was anti-Semitic and it was only when new information came to a light that another French officer started questioning whether there might have been a miscarriage of justice.
This officer was a Colonel Picquet – himself an anti-Semite and therefore the poster child of scout mindset, according to the speaker, because he overcame his own prejudices in pursuit of the truth.
Scout mindset, said Julia, was not about making “one idea win or lose but to see what’s really there as honestly and accurately” as you can… “even if it’s not pretty or convenient or pleasant”.
Couldn’t be more different to the soldier mindset.
Staying with the Dreyfus case, where there had been no evidence against him, she said of the persecuting officers: “They genuinely believed the case against him was strong. What does it say about the human mind that we can find such paltry evidence to be enough to convict a man?
“Scientists call it ‘motivated reasoning’ – that way that our unconscious motivations, our desires and fears shape the way we interpret information. So some information or ideas feel like our allies. We want them to win, to defend them – and whatever information or ideas are the enemy… we want to shoot them down.
“Our judgement is strongly influenced, unconsciously, by which side we want to win. What’s most scary to me about motivated reasoning or soldier mindset is how unconscious it is.”
The next talk – ‘On Being Wrong’ – continued this theme. Its speaker, Kathryn Schulz, is a writer for the New Yorker and has become known as a ‘wrongologist’, so fascinated is she by the topic.
Food for thought here, too. She was exploring the reasons why we sometimes misunderstand the signs around us and asked the audience, “How does it feel emotionally to be wrong?”
‘Dreadful, embarrassing…’ came the responses.
They were good answers, she said.
“But they are answers to a different question. You guys are answering, ‘How does it feel to realise you’re wrong?’” Actually being wrong, she said, felt a whole lot like being right – in fact, she likened it to that moment when Wile E. Coyote runs off the cliff after Road Runner.
He keeps on running until he looks down – because it’s only then that he realises he’s no longer on solid ground. There’s a name for this. “Error blindness.”
Kathryn said: “Most of us do everything we can to avoid being wrong or at least to avoid thinking about the possibility that we ourselves are wrong. We get it in the abstract. We know that everybody makes mistakes. But when it comes down to me right now, to all the beliefs that I hold in the present tense, suddenly all this abstract appreciation of fallibility goes out the window and I can’t actually think about anything I’m wrong about…”
Her argument is that if we can step outside that need to feel right all the time, that it is “the single greatest moral, intellectual and creative leap you can make”.
She believes this is a massive social problem because, if we cannot countenance the possibility that we are wrong, how do we deal with all those people who disagree with us?
She breaks that down into three reactions. Firstly, we assume the other side doesn’t have all the information; that they are ignorant. (Takes me back to ‘ill-informed’ …)
If that doesn’t work, we dismiss them as being too stupid to understand all the information.
If that still doesn’t work – they have all the information and we have to admit they are quite clever – then our final attempt to rationalise them having different views to us is that they are ‘evil’.
One final point. A long, long time before Descarte was thinking and therefore existing, Augustine said: “I err, therefore I am”.
As Kathryn said: “To screw up is not some embarrassing defect in the human system. It’s totally fundamental to who we are.”
Personally, I would like to see more of our public leaders accept that, as human beings, they are capable of getting it wrong sometimes and make a plea for more scout mentalities when it comes to actually going out there and looking for information, even if the information you get might not suit the position you hold.
If more of them can do that, then we might start getting somewhere.