Monday, 9 April 2018

Dangers of believing in your own virtue

One of the recent defences of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn on the issue of antisemitism has been to point to a report by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, and to suggest that its finding of prejudice being worse on the Far Right than the Far Left means that the problem in Labour is exaggerated.

My first thought on this was to question was whether the study was accurate, as other survey work a couple of years ago suggested the Far Left did mirror the Far Right in anti-Jewish views.

But then I also thought, what if the Institute for Jewish Policy Research numbers are accurate in showing fewer people with antisemitic views on the Far Left than the Far Right? If there are no more antisemites on the Far Left than anywhere else, why does Labour have a problem dealing with them?

We all have similar biases of over-rating our own judgement, and of seeking confirmation of our already existing views. Where we strongly identify with a group, these biases get reinforced by the group.

A problem for groups with a strong belief in their own collective virtue is that their confirmation bias renders them incapable of recognising vice within the group, so even though perpetrators of vice may be fewer inside the group than out, they can thrive more easily.

For example the number of people with paedophile tendencies may be no greater inside a religious group than outside, but they can thrive more easily inside because the group’s strong belief in its own virtue makes it harder for it to recognise the problem.

The more a group and the individuals within it believe in their own virtue, the harder the problem is to deal with. To say “I am an anti-racist” or “he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body” (a bizarre expression) and therefore conclude “I am not capable of racism” or “he is not capable of racism” is to be in denial about human nature, human fallibility, the complexities of human thought and human behaviour.

When this kind of thinking becomes applied to a group, even victims of prejudice within the group may find themselves incapable of recognising that prejudice because of their belief in the virtue of the group. This is how a cult functions.

So with Corbyn loyalists, we see a difficulty in recognising any instance of antisemitism amongst their own group.

A logical deduction from the knowledge that antisemitism exists throughout society would be for Corbyn supporters to expect that it also exists to a similar degree amongst their own number, but their strong belief in their own collective virtue—embodied in their belief in the virtue of their leader—means that their first reactions when faced with an accusation are:
  • This can’t be true because our leader is a man of virtue;
  • This must be a dishonest attack by political enemies;
  • This must be anti-Zionism falsely portrayed as antisemitism—even if the accusation has nothing to do with Israel.
So the possible presence of even an average proportion of antisemites is discounted; only explanations in line with preexisting biases can be considered; and explanations with little or no external evidence are felt to be compelling because they confirm well-established expectations.

It’s notable that the recent report about supporters of Jeremy Corbyn attempting to block action against Labour members facing complaints also included an instance of trying to block expulsion of a member accused of using a racial slur against a black candidate.

The greater the Corbynistas’ belief in their own virtue becomes, the harder it will be for them to recognise any vice amongst their own, not just the vice of antisemitism.

It won’t matter if there are no more antisemites, racists, misogynists, or xenophobes inside Labour than outside, the number that are there will find greater protection inside Labour than elsewhere.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Over the line