Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Post-Truth and the Rationality of Irrationality

Of all the scholars who've died in the last ten years or so, the one who I wish was still around right now is Nigel Howard. Howard is well-known within the Operational Research community (but few other places) as a game theorist who objected to mainstream game theory, but who developed a mathematical theory of "meta-rationality" which he later developed into what he called "drama theory". This was used in conflict situations including Bosnia and Israel-Palestine.

Howard would have understood Brexit and Trump (indeed, he would have predicted them). He would also understand the dynamics of the UK's Brexit negotiations, the rise of the far-right, and so on. Howard understood that the most powerful move to play in game is the move which breaks the rules. The kind of game Howard was interested in is summarised below in a game of chess between a husband and wife:
Husband: You've lost.
Wife: Have I?
Husband: You have two moves - this and this. Each leads to checkmate.
Wife: You are wrong. I have a third move.
Husband: ???
(Wife lifts chessboard and throws it in his face.)
(in "Negotiation as Drama: How "Games" become dramatic" in International Negotiation, vol. 1, 1996)

Howard explains:
a 'drama' is a set of interconnected games. Games are the situations in a drama that people - e.g., negotiating parties - see themselves as unable to escape from; that is, when they see themselves as ineluctably in a situation (defined by a given group of characters with given options and given preferences) then they see that situation as a game. But - here is the point - precisely because they see their situation as fixed and given, drama theory asserts that it generates in them, in a game-theoretically predictable manner, emotions that may cause them to reframe it - i.e., see it differently. Thus at the climax of a dramatic episode, an audience sees the game change as its characters create new subjectively perceived option sets for themselves and others and change their values, hence also their preferences. Thereby they put themselves into a new situation.
There, in a nutshell is Brexit and Trump. Now let's say, in the chess example, that the husband does not accept that the rules of the game have changed, or he denies his wife the right to reframe the game. "What the hell have you done?!" he might say. Might he then force her to "play properly"? 

Forcing people to "play properly" is basically how the EU treated Greece. It's how the establishment drove their "project fear" bandwaggon in the Brexit remain campaign. The Greeks are still trying to reframe the game, the EU refuses. It's a stand-off, but in the end, the irrational reframing will win, and the EU will eventually have to accept that the game being played is not the game they thought they were playing. It may not survive this. 

It's exactly the same with Brexit: for all the "Brexit means Brexit" talk, there is a palpable sense that the media and the government are pushing for some kind of democratic reversal of the decision - basically that people should "play properly". It's a kind of "media" game. I doubt it will work, not least because the opposite game, the "post-truth" game is unfolding equally potently on Facebook. 

Amidst all this, there is some pretty nasty far-right rhetoric. Some of these statements need to be seen as moves in a game. They scandalise and shock in the way that an air-strike might in a war situation. Trump is good at this kind of stuff. It's a way of saying "we are dictating the rules of the game now". It will continue as long as the opposing side deny that the rules of the game have changed and that everyone should "play properly".

What should universities be doing right now? As I said in my last post, it appears that Universities also believe everyone should "play properly". That is partly because the "proper" game of managerial technocracy has been thoroughly embedded within the university constitution, alongside the ideals of the enlightenment which are also being challenged. Because of this, it's even more difficult for the University to believe the game has changed. But scholars, more than anyone else, should be curious about what is happening. The new game need studying, the enlightenment project needs inspecting, and universities need to be able to adapt to a transformed world. 

1 comment:

Paul Hollins said...

Oh the" paradox or rationality" ! applied to Brexit and Trump ...