An Ethos of Care Matters in Public Life

People-don’t-care-how-much-you-knowHawke’s Bay Kaumatua Des Ratima quoted to me once “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Actually, I have to take a notebook with me when I meet Des because you can guarantee you’ll have to write a few things he says down!  Yesterday it was “That’s bricks and mortar.  Where’s the *soul*?”

And it’s true. Philosopher Annette Baier worked within feminist ethics (a kiwi who studied philosophy at Otago, then went overseas and became famous, and then returned to Dunedin). She argued that people act not on credentials and information, but on a sense of trust in the messenger. The presumed ‘objectivity’ of the message is not enough.  You have to ‘subjectively’ connect to that messenger.  A mother will trust the teenager next door to baby sit her child because she has a long-standing relationship with that teenager – an extended community of concern.  A mother will not take the credentials of a PhD in babysitting until they know that person.

People have to know that you stand with them and for them, and – in the case of our institutions such as government, science, technology and commerce – that you stand for the truth and independence, and not just self.  A challenge to the spin doctors.  Spin too much, and you risk losing complete faith.  trust is like paper.jpgAnd then it won’t matter what you say.  Our trust in politicians has fallen from well over 50% in the early 1980s, to 23% in 1992 after a history of lies and not listening from Roger Douglas, to Jim Bolger promising “a decent society” in 1990 and giving us Ruth Richardson instead.  Now it is at 8% under the regime of overt justification for the selfish and destructive agendas of mega-commerce.  Who patently, obviously, demonstrably …. do. not.  care.


The idea that there is a cultural setting – a humanities, a moral setting – that needs to be
considered in any work we do is a foreign concept to many technocrats who insist that the ‘objectivity’ of the message will sell itself.  It is divorced, some of them think, from any value set.  It is a strange perspective for me.  Thomas Kuhn showed how much observation is theory and value-laden.  We perform our kuhn paradigm shifts‘normal’ science from within a theoretical construct.  Most we think of as completely true.  Most probably are.  But we also know that in 50 or 100 years time some precious theories and constructs will probably be rejected and replaced with another.  The history and philosophy of science clearly demonstrates it – geocentric to heliocentric, the four elements to Lavoisier’s chemical revolution, Aristotelian to Newtonian to Einsteinian to Quantum physics, static plate to plate tectonics, eugenics and physiognomy to “what race?”  And it is still goes on, with a current shift from mechanical determinism to complex adaptive systems where the focus shifts from the parts to the relationships within particular and shifting settings.  I was taught climax ecology in the early 1980s – the idea of a predictable succession to a ‘natural state’ climax, and then along came patch dynamics theory.  What is true?


Believing (and it is a value, rational_choice (1)
a belief) that the “objectivity of the data” will sell itself so smacks of the atomised view of neoliberal economics, where there is no such thing as society or culture, just a reducible collection of rational calculating all-knowing individuals with spreadsheets for brains.  It is not a credible view.  Any witness to history can see that.


And nor is this a story about the ‘irrationality’ and ‘subjectivity’ of the plebs.  Technocracy can rationalise insanity and immorality.  It can The kestral's viewbe blind to the bull charging because it is closeted within a bubble, looking at its feet.  It assumes that their view is the only view.  They would presume to know the kestrel from a position in another world.

Everyone is ‘subjective.’  We grow up in a society, a view of cosmology and categorisations, within a language that subtly frames how we see the world.  We have these nouns, verbs and adjectives – another language has others often completely untranslatable.  Everyone has paradigms of belief.  Some think themselves to that position and have examined the underlying philosophies bounding a point of view.

It is written.pngAt the other end of the continuum people speak in cliches to justify an unexamined life – “the market will provide,” “it is written,”  “the financial analysis demonstrates,”  “we need to be science-led.”

No it won’t, no it isn’t, no it doesn’t, no we don’t.

The context by which each of us sees the world deeply matters, and people look to that instinctively.    The questions are implicit.  What are their values?  Can I trust this person and his worldview?  And people will judge, not on Ghandi your beliefsdata, but on those values they presume you hold.  If, for example, you are tainted with a short-term or narrow worldview – or profit before people – or what people see as narrow technocracy – then you may lose peoples’ trust to the point where they will not care one iota what is said; *even* if you speak the truth.  Others, of course will think you are a fine fellow because they share those values others find appalling.   If you are insincere, it eventually shines like a warning beacon.

I wrote about this in a previous blogpost on the need for trust and integrity – for our economy as well as our society.

I have seen this in action in both the past and present. There were forestry processing developments in the south where the lack of trust in the company involves, as well as their ‘outside’ gucci-shoed consultants, meant that what I thought was a reasonable proposal didn’t go through.  I suggested they develop some trust.  Show they meant well.  Engage with the community.  I even mentioned Dr Baier’s work on the importance of trust.  They disagreed.  They thought the ‘data’ and the ‘objective’ appraisal would do the job, and then they shut their doors, appeared more and more secretive and untrustworthy, and to top it all, made simple mistakes about even some local technical issues that if they’d bothered to listen and ask would never have happened.  Credibility gone.  Attitude and competence matter if you want to build trust.  We have a Ruataniwha Dam debacle that constantly finds itself on the rocks for similar reasons.

pravda-manchette.jpgI’ve seen councils use spin and propaganda to such an over-the-top extent, which alongside an attitude of arrogance and actions that are more to do with self-preservation than solving a problem or listening to either staff or community, with the result that trust completely goes.  People get to the point of thinking, “if it speaks, it probably lies.” Eventually the Soviet people thought that whatever the Communist Party paper Pravda (which means ‘truth’) published was probably a lie.

Within public engagement processes, you always start with shared and motivating values rather than instruction, whatever the outcome desired. You may have an outcome of more wetlands & woodlands for both a better rural economy and environment? What are their motivation and beliefs?  If it is about profit, or risk, or ecology, or clean water, then work within those beliefs and become a part of it.  Inform, discuss, don’t instruct.  Have an open heart and care.  When selecting staff we shifted to a value-based selection criteria.  Technical expertise is necessary but not sufficient.

Innovative communities.png

National Innovative Communities Conference

 If you are dealing within our rural community and are a completely arrogant arsehole, we didn’t want you.  If you are always positioning yourself and not open to rigorous discussion without taking or giving personal offence, then you won’t be able to serve the community well.  And you won’t learn about this place.

Trying to get a handle of why what some might consider completely rational (e.g. putting woodlands and wetlands within farming systems) is why I started to look at the economics of microsites, and the systems effects of different landscape patterns. You can readily redesign farmscapes that produce multiple positives.  Seek system positives across the field, not some pat instruction manual developed from on high and from a point of view that may be shared by the people, or be completely contradictory to it.

What was hugely ironic was the technocratic and quantitative justification for *not* redesigning integrative land use patterns for the simple reason that the agricultural economists who did that work had no idea about what patterns were there.  They assumed a farm as a uniform flat paddock with a mechanical factory system of agronomy.  Completely false, but with numbers to three significant figures.  You see this sort of nonsense form the most myopic of technocrats and you get a real feel for why so many Tyranny of experts.jpgpeople don’t trust the outside ‘expert’.  They distrust their competence until they prove themselves able to think within a space.  But once a technocrat who understands the field, you encounter more problems from you ‘expert’ colleagues.  I you counter the false analysis by referring to complexity and pointing out that their analysis is framed too simplistically,  then you risk – within the technocracies – being called “anti-science.”  Been there, had that, many times.

Some forestry researchers used to argue discounted cash flows with farmers and try to convince them to become someone they were not – a forester.  Epic fail.  Care about who they are, point out how woodlands and wetlands can make a farm better in so many ways, and farmers – who are farmers first – may listen.  And be completely honest.  If you don’t agree, then disagree.  I’ve told farmer discussion groups in a good natured way that they’re a bunch of chainsaw-happy bastards that just want to cut every tree down from the point that it makes a crash.  We laugh.  But they listen if they trust – not your every word (they’ll still think about it for their context), but at the fact you are trying to do something for the greater good.  Because they know you care.  You can argue and dialogue with people who know you give a stuff.  They may not agree with everything, and they’ll probably be RIGHT in a lot of cases – dare I say the majority.  And so you learn as well.  Everybody learns, everybody teaches.

The learning and communication of information relies on shared beliefs.  Without it, people don’t want to know.  Truth is secondary to belief.  I could put it another way: I can bury someone in literature and ‘data’ and technocratic and scientific ‘evidence’ about the nutrition and sustainability and methods blah blah relating to cooking a dog, and I can give money in order to allow people to buy a dog, but it won’t change many.  This is what so many technocrats do not understand.
It is heart first, not head.  And you *cannot* fake it, certainly not for a lifetime.  They can see it in your eyes, and sense it in your voice.  They can witness the results.  Look quote-we-ve-had-trickle-down-economics-in-the-country-for-ten-years-now-and-most-of-us-aren-molly-ivins-115-74-99at the failures of neoliberalism.  Belief fades when the results don’t come.  Spin becomes a liability because it suddenly stands in sharp relief.  We hear the words “trickle down” and we laugh.  They don’t say those words any more.  They know their power is gone for good.
Advocating a culturally horrifying dog-eating fete at least is not so bad as that.  We see dog eating clearly as a cultural difference rather than a self-serving advocacy (unless you have a dog farm).  Where spin really hits a negative is when the interests of the advocate are so obviously self-serving.

And that pursuit of self-interest replacing any sense of care or community belonging has been the accelerating pattern over the last – I would argue – 30 or so years.  I may not have agreed with all the politicians then, but I did sense that they had the interests of our future generations at heart, bar the odd slimy exception.  They just liked to eat dog.  Fine.  Not for me.  But I didn’t distrust, I merely disagreed.  Discussion and innovationThough now to disagree and discuss is dissent.  And so I trust even less because who can abide a frozen mind in the head of bully.  We have lost a great deal with that loss of care for others from our political and commercial heads.

But the erosion of trust is indicative of a mode of behaviour within particularly big business and politics; and it is working its way down into local government politics.  I would also argue that it has tainted science and taken us from an ethos that sought to communicate, dialogue and understand how to *solve* things, to a more disconnected approach dominated by ‘business management’ rather than caring scientists, such that our once world-renowned public science institutions are now far more focused on creating and then selling a commercial product.  Not all, but the taint is there.  I trust corporatised science far less because there is a lack of care associated with salesmen trying to sell me a water filter in the middle of a campylobacter outbreak (yes, this happened in Havelock North, I kid you not).  Commercial public science, the blind and foolish application of neoliberal market fundamentalism, has degraded our hopes for both science.  The ever-concentrating corporate ownership, and the vampire squid morals of owners like Rupert Murdock, have done the same for the corporate media.

But there is hope.  Extremes can shift so

Yin yang tree

Yin & Yang – one journey creates the prerequisites for another

dramatically.  The world is a ‘complex adaptive system’ with feedbacks and thresholds, not a linear machine reducible to parts.  We are defined far more by uncertainty and complex interactions and behaviours than predictability.   And I think we are reaching that threshold point.  You can’t fool all of the people all of the time.  I think the erosion of public trust means that spin is now far less effective.

Eight percent trust in politician in New Zealand is pretty compelling.  We now expect spin.  We know the word.  We have witnessed the rise of power, and the continued justification of what amounts to immoral ends from people who are so obviously self-serving and narrow in often commercial agendas.  We saw the Global Financial Crisis.  We see the housing crisis justified by neoliberal economists telling us “the market will provide,” and we see the property developers and slum landlords with far too close a connection with – and certainly no condemnation from – the politicians currently on the government benches.

And now we see the chickens coming home to roost with land use intensification’s direct lights flickereffect on our communities and local businesses.  We can connect the dots.  We can see the red light flickering on the dash.  We can see the spin and deflections away from any possible blame on intensive land use, and irrigation, and attempts to make our land a factory to suit the narrow commercial ends of mega-corporate thinking.  Giving our best water to overseas owners is “just the market in action,” they say.  Oil and gas fracking over the catchments feeding our precious Hawke’s Bay aquifers is “great for jobs and GDP.”  The Ruataniwha Dam will bring prosperity and free ice-cream for all.  Wadeable water is fine says Minister for the Environment, Nick Smith.  Campylobacter has nothing to do with the drive to more irrigated land use.  Blame Tai ChiThe people in the regions do not need a democracy to decide whether they want industrial agriculture and GMOs because they are all flat-earth plebs who don’t understand the science.  That’s why we gave Canterbury an appointed commissioner in place of a democratically elected council …. twice.  Totalitarianism by stealth.  And we won the last election by a whicker because a nice German created a fiasco that scared the public, so we should try that getting-rid-of-democracy game again.  It’s a good one.

We don’t trust you anymore.  You don’t care about us, you care about yourselves.

We don’t trust what you say.

Why don’t you go away.

Chris Perley


Chris Perley is standing in the 2016 Local Body Elections for Hasting District Council

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