Richard Dawkins identifies three bad reasons for believing – tradition, authority and revelation. I don’t know which – or what combination – of these bad reasons for believing informs Angus Robertson’s faith in the power of positive campaigning. But there is no doubting the strength of his conviction. And he makes little effort to provide good reasons for believing that positive campaigning is the only way to go.
In an article purporting to explain why a positive campaign will be key to winning independence Robertson speaks of an,
…understanding that people in general like positive people and positive ideas more than negative people and negative ideas. Empathy and kindness are strengths not weaknesses, and demonstrating those virtues makes candidates and campaigns more attractive to people who are open-minded or undecided.
But nowhere does he explain why this should be so, Or supply any evidence that it is so. It stands as an assertion empty but for the cringe-inducing high-mindedness.
He goes on to assure us that there is no need to think at all about the glittering generality he dangles before us.
It is a no-brainer that people prefer to experience positive emotions rather than negative emotions and those people are, of course, voters.
Forgive me, Angus, but being unable to suspend my reflective faculties quite so completely, I am going to insist on a second opinion here. Perhaps from a qualified psychologist with some recognised expertise in this area. I am far from being such an expert. But I note that you neglect to define your terms. You don’t state what, for the purposes of your thesis, constitutes “positive” and “negative” emotions. Given the complexity of the human psyche, I’d hazard that there is unlikely to be a universally applicable categorisation of emotions as ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
However Angus Robertson may choose to pigeon-hole emotions, we know from simple observation that some individuals “prefer” – as in actively seek to experience – emotions which others may quite reasonable classify as negative. It is a commonplace to note that there are people who look for reasons to feel indignation, anger and even hate. Emotions which I strongly suspect Angus would regard as “negative”.
Even something as fundamental as fear – and its absence – cannot be classified as bad (or good) in a facile manner. It is not at all uncommon for people to purposefully put themselves in situations where they are terrified. Just think of fairground attractions, for example.
In terms of political campaigning, what matters is engagement. Getting people to listen. Inducing them to think. Provoking them to act. People are not a homogeneous group. Different methods will work for different people. Any individual may respond to different stimuli depending on the context. The contention that everybody will respond in a particular, and predictable, way to a certain form of campaign message is patently ridiculous.
In relation to Scotland’s independence campaign, it is worth noting that Better Together/Project Fear was negative by pretty much any definition. And it succeeded.
There are a number of things that a political campaign must be if it is to succeed. It must, for example, be focused and consistent. But there is no reason whatever that it must be unfailingly “positive” – however that may be defined. Contrary to conventional wisdom, negative campaigning works. In fact, it is generally easier to rouse anger than enthusiasm. There have been at least as many successful campaigns against something as for.
There is a place for both positive and negative campaigning – however either may be understood. In the context of Scotland’s independence campaign, we’ve already done the positive campaign. Contrary to what Angus Robertson seems to suppose, the Yes movement has, since its inception, been relentlessly, obsessively positive. It is time to try something different. It is time to launch a campaign against the Union.
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