Sometimes people can reach the right conclusion for the wrong reasons. They can arrive at some truth despite having taken entirely the wrong route. They can accurately describe what is happening and give a good account of the likely consequences while attributing the wrong motives to the actors involved. This is because real life can be endlessly complicated. The same outcome can flow from dissimilar actions. By the same token, two indistinguishable chains of events can have outcomes which are diametric opposites. People do the same things for different reasons. Observers tend to ascribe motives on the basis of prejudice and preconception. Or they plump for the ‘obvious’ explanation. Polarisation of positions arises as much from those in disagreement assigning each other to ever more narrowly defined and mutually exclusive camps as from actual differences in perspective. If you’re not with us, you’re against us is an all too common attitude. And, of course, this generates a self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating process
People are not innately rational actors. We have a conceit of ourselves that because we come equipped with these immensely powerful brains, everything we do is carefully calculated. All the pros and cons have been weighed. All the facts have been gathered and considered. This is very much the exception which proves there is no rule that says we must use the brainpower at our disposal. Mostly, we don’t.
People are only rarely rational actors. But they are always lazy. Being rational all the time is very effortful. It burns a lot of energy. And it’s seldom necessary. In almost all the situations we encounter in our day to day lives, good enough will do. The best guess. An approximation. We hardly ever find ourselves in situations where wholly or predominantly rational think is absolutely necessary. When we do, we tend to fuck things up. But most of the time, we get by. We muddle through. If it all works out well in the end, we congratulate ourselves on having developed and implemented such a rational plan. If it goes badly, we blame the irrationality of others. Win/win!
We survive on answers and solutions which suffice for the time being. But we survive. And that’s what matters. Nature abhors a non-survivor. Nature eliminates them. Nature loves a survivor and keeps them alive despite them being being irrational and indolent – intellectually if not physically. Every human being alive now and every human being that has ever lives in all the history of our species is descended from a survivor. Had our ancestors been obliged to be highly rational, none of us would be here. We all take after our ancestors.
Survival isn’t only a matter of physical well-being. We need good psychological health as well. Psychological well-being is not aided by realisation of our irrationality and indolence. So we pretend. How many people do you think were persuaded to vote No in 2014 by the ‘economic case’? None! Or as close to none as makes no difference for present purposes. How many people claim to have voted on the basis of a rational assessment of the economic arguments on both sides? Thousands! Tens of thousands! In fact, there never was any economic case against independence. There couldn’t be. It’s not a matter of economics. What the ‘economic case’ against independence did was give people who were intending to vote No for entirely or principally emotional reasons a figleaf of rationality to cover their embarrassingly naked prejudice. So desperate were they for such a figleaf the economic arguments didn’t have to be honest. They didn’t even have to make sense. So long as there was something they could seize hold of that would allow them to pretend – to the world but mainly to themselves – that they were acting rationally.
We all do it. Nicola Sturgeon being no exception. She ascribes to Alex Salmond the pettiest of motives for his actions not as a conclusion arising from thoughtful consideration but because it’s an explanation that fits while serving her prejudices. She would doubtless claim that it’s a conclusion informed by a decades-long relationship. But for most of that relationship Sturgeon herself claims to have known nothing of the character traits she now identifies as the reason for her antipathy towards Salmond. It’s a textbook example of post hoc rationalisation. That antipathy comes from the gut, not the mind. But Sturgeon can’t admit as much. Especially not to herself.
Neither can she allow that Salmond’s motives might be entirely worthy and principled. Not that they’re likely to be. But to whatever extent they are – and they almost certainly are to some extent – Sturgeon can’t admit it. She cannot acknowledge her own irrationality. To do so would be psychologically damaging.
Sturgeon’s fans will by now be all of a frenzy to put on the record that it’s not just their hero, it’s Salmond as well. And they are quite correct, of course. Alex Salmond is no cipher. He is not passive. He is an actor in this situation every but as much as Sturgeon. But in the protestations of Sturgeon’s loyalists and apologists we will find more of that simplistic thinking that is the popular default. There will be a tendency to see either a false equivalence or total opposites. It can go one way or the other. Either they’re both as bad as each other, or one is innocent while the other is guilty. It doesn’t really matter which. Neither is such as would not be the conclusion of a rational assessment. Both are good enough as an explanation. The process of polarisation is in train.
That process of polarisation is on a down gradient with pish-poor brakes and no reverse. It’s hellish difficult to stop and impossible to restore to a previous state. You can’t go to a place that no longer exists. It is given added impetus by the fact that for all the defective and inadequate thinking that has led her there, Nicola has reached the correct conclusion. Alba Party is not helping Scotland’s cause and may very well hinder it. That it is also the conclusion which suits her is just a bonus.
It is not, however, a complete conclusion. Had Nicola Sturgeon thought beyond the point that she finds amenable she would have arrived at the realisation that Alba Party has only come into existence because conditions which she is largely responsible for creating made it inevitable that it would. She brought us to this place. A place where irrationality reigns.
Nicola Sturgeon claims to offer Scotland “experience and leadership”. Scotland’s cause has experienced her leadership. Look where it’s got us.