Guest Post: Geri Gray on the Referendum – What do I do when I vote?

Referendum, I – What do I do when I vote?

The Referendum vote in Australia on 14 October 2023 will be, like every mass-decision exercise or election in major democracies, an opportunity for a particular form of self-expression by millions of human beings. The temptation for journalists and political scientists to treat the prospective Referendum outcome as though it were (will be) the utterance of a single entity – ‘the Australian electorate’, ‘the public’, or (even more improbably) ‘the Australian nation’ – is of course extremely strong, if not overwhelming.

Thinking of the citizenry of any modern nation state as being a unitary entity which ‘speaks its mind’ from time to time is a convenience in which many people indulge; but it is only ever a convenience — a thought tool which runs the danger, if over-used, of hiding what is actually going on, subjectively and psychologically, in the minds of diverse people including, at the end of the day, ourselves. This diverse quality is crucial to remember, particularly in political debates, for at the end of the day for each one of us – the ‘you’ and ‘I’ of whoever reads or writes this article – can always be ‘in two minds’ about any question, no matter what it is.

Another challenge for political scientists and journalists – and again, this applies also to most if not all human beings – is how to reckon with the degree of emotion that enters into political questions.

This emotional intensification need not be a sign of people becoming ‘irrational’ or unreasonable; it can be and often is a sign of the passionate attachments that people feel towards their own sense of place, belonging, community, ‘country’. Inevitably, in public argument a tendency for many people, especially in the heightened emotional environment around a public vote, is to diminish the rationality of those who choose a different answer. Again, it is an understandable human failing that we do this, but it works against the possibility of negotiation and dialogue with others on controversial questions. If we speak only with the like-minded – those who share our view on the issue of the day – we self-evidently diminish the possibility of influencing towards our own way of thinking any of those who think differently.

In considering this problem, framed as it is by the diversity of humans (and I speak here only of the diversity of their opinions), and also by the powerful influence of emotion entering into ‘rational’ debates, a remark by the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski about 40 years ago remains germane. In a comment often quoted in the blogosphere, Kolakowski wrote that:

I rather tend to accept the law of the infinite cornucopia which applies not only to philosophy but to all general theories in the human and social sciences: it states that there is never a shortage of arguments to support any doctrine you want to believe in for whatever reasons. These arguments, however, are not entirely barren. They have helped in elucidating the status quaestionis and in explaining why these questions matter.

The precise ‘questions’ that Kolakowski was addressing in the book that he was writing at the time were the traditional – and traditionally hotly contested – matters of the philosophy of religion. Yet as his remark about ‘general theories’ in the human and social sciences suggests, this ‘law of the infinite cornucopia’ has a much wider application. The image of ‘choice’ that it presents – I want to make my case, and I may choose this argument or that argument, depending on the audience, their mood, or perhaps my mood – is undoubtedly a normal part of the human experience of arguing, of trying to persuade, and it can, with equal certainty, be easily applied in political debates, including debates over the 2023 Referendum in Australia. For example, I wish to support ‘Yes’ (or ‘No’) in voting and I wish to influence my neighbours to agree with me and to vote the same way. Which argument or arguments should I use? What will work best? This, again, is a human and normal way to think about being a citizen in a democracy. It leads us to consider what is going on when we choose the arguments that we use to express our opinion on a question to others, whether neighbours, family or friends.

A reverse side to the argument about the infinite cornucopia of choices – the wide range of options we all have to support whatever theory of action we want to adopt – is that in the real world of interacting human beings, reason alone does not carry the day in a great many argument contests. Prejudice and self-deception can play their roles. Even among highly trained reasoners – lawyers, for example, or even judges – it is not unknown for contests of reasoning to end up in split decisions and mistaken decisions, with factors other than logical argument apparently getting involved. There are many historical examples we can think of: one that I often think of is the 1857 decision of the US Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case, effectively upholding the institution of black slavery despite overwhelming reasonable arguments against it. The Justices voted 7:2 in favour.

A conclusion we can draw is that sheer will – the expression of a desire – plays an important role in political choices, despite the fact that we may, habitually, regard these choices as matters of reason alone. And this will is fluid. This is the first point that I think we can and should agree on in relation to the Referendum. What do you or I want? What do or I you wish for? These questions may be fruitful in discussions across the Yes-No divide, because they may give all of us (on both sides) the chance to activate the emotion, locate the emotion, or somehow the will, the wish that we have to shape (or establish) the kind of collectivity that we want to live in and bequeath to others, in making the choice that we make when we vote.

Guest post by Geri Gray

This is an abridged version of a longer piece that can be found via Geri’s linkedin