The scale against which an institution measures what is “good” and decides how to act. Example: if guided by a scale calibrated in terms of “Health and Safety”, an institution may develop a busy and elaborate burden of regulation—and, given a chance, keep adding to it.

But the scale may be recalibrated quite suddenly and radically. “Health and Safety” could be sharply replaced by other calibrations, such as “Boredom Kills”—which might approve without question anything which reduces the burden of regulation, and helps people to sustain the interest and joy in life whose absence increases the likelihood of resentment, depression and suicide. Or another calibration might accept, without inspection, any policy, however absurd and authoritarian, just so long as it could be presented as necessary for reasons of preventing climate change or terrorism.

The governing calibration is so powerful that judgment itself is suspended, and it crowds out higher-level thinking able to choose between the two. Calibration saves the trouble of having to think things through afresh every time—and this may be sensible and necessary—but once the scale of measurement has been settled, it is hard to judge by any other standard until, in an unexpected flip, it is exchanged for another one.


. . . but not yet

Arthur Koestler writes in 1941 of the passive compliance with the occupation of France:

As long as they do not receive definite encouragement from hard facts, the French people will remain partial but passive observers. . . . The French people have been too deeply disillusioned to risk their lives once more without being fairly certain of victory. They have to learn to hope again, like a man after long bedriddenness has to learn to walk. When the scales of success turn in favour of England, the barricades will emerge from the pavements of towns in France, the snipers will appear behind the attic windows, and the people will fight as in the old glorious days—but not before.

Arthur Koestler, Scum of the Earth

Groups with a purpose tend to calibrate their mindsets and prejudices to extreme positions. This is borne out by experiments which bring together small groups of strangers to discuss a given subject, unsupervised, having previously suggested to each person a moderate view (which they were prepared to agree with). As the conversation progresses, views begin to shift towards the extremes. The behaviour psychologist André Martins summarises a trial:

[Within the range of opinions held by a group] opinions become very extreme, with each agent basically sure that his choice is the best one. This can help explain cases where people are led, by social pressure, to believe blindly in whatever opinion is shared by its local group, despite divergent voices in the larger society they live in.C1

In a population as a whole, the views of most people tend to be middle-of-the-road; they want, for instance, reasonably safe living conditions, but they would not go as far in this as the health and safety professionals. But this is at least understandable. If you are in a group of people paid by the state to consider matters of health and safety, you are unlikely simply to maintain a collective view which goes, “Oh, well, we ought to keep an eye on things, place the emphasis on personal responsibility, and chase up people who are really negligent, but let’s keep this in proportion . . .”. Groupthink and diligence will carry you along: all governments and pressure groups find themselves drawn to extreme positions, and this effect is intensified as individuals who would resist this are naturally-selected out.

Grand error makes truth look shabby. And yet the effect of extremism depends on what it is applied to. If the aim is to establish delegated bottom-up decision-making, built on the ethic of lean thinking, principles about affirming community members’ responsibility for their own institutions and lives could be passionately-upheld—that is, a fierce defence of moderation.C2


Related entries:

Assent, Expectations, Green Authoritarianism, Cowardice, Cognitive Dissonance, Big Stick.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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