The Pretenders

Boris – like Cher and Bono, he only needs one name now – recently told an audience of Tory party members that the whole problem with United Kingdom’s approach to Brexit could be diagnosed as a collective lack of self-confidence. “If only we could see ourselves as others see us…” And in my mind I see the camera slowly panning round to a faded, magnolia church hall somewhere in deepest middle England (the county formerly know as Wankershire, perhaps) to an audience of ham-coloured, tweedy men and women with hyperalert eyebrows and “views” on homosexuality. The bunting from the 1977 Jubilee that got stuck in the ceiling neon fixing, and always proved tricky to reach, suddenly chooses to release itself, and flaps lamely down to wrap itself around the photo montage of Virginia Wade opening the building.

If only… but we live in a world where the camera typically fixes on the speaker (especially Boris) and, as I have very much become accustomed to saying, we are where we are. A major part of the problem with where we are is that a lot of people want to be back where we were. Wankershire may have been expunged by some officious civil servant in the name of redrawing boundaries to create some sort of meaningful representative democracy and maybe, like Rutland, Wessex, the north riding of west Yorkshire, Danegelt, child chimney sweeps, and the right of a landlord to refuse accommodation on the basis of sexual orientation, it is something some people want to bring back. I may be wholly mistaken, but right now my impression is that others do not see us as a suave Sean Connery or even Roger Moore. No, we are the George Lazenby of the international scene. Actually it’s worse than that; we’re the Benny Hill, the Freddie Starr, and the Joe Pasquale, all bundled up into a package that looks like Ann Widdecombe.  Worse still, it is Ann Widdicombe.

But this blog is not about the chaotic and shameful state of our national politics. Our national politics is now past the critical phase. Most people now are looking at the doctor for advice on options for palliative care (she’s looking sombre, glancing over at the electric socket and wondering when would be the best time to mention the machine). No, this blog is about the peculiar approach to boosting confidence that is engineered self-delusion, if it works, and when and why it doesn’t. It is about the further, unintended consequences and damage that such self-delusion causes. This blog, then, is about the collective psychology of our conscious attempts to avoid “the full 360”.

Self-delusion, let’s be clear, has both positive and negative side-effects. Reality often sucks and, I speak as something of a veteran of sucking at reality, one is sometimes best off well out of it (literally and metaphorically). But it doesn’t do to deny its existence or to pretend the unreal is real. The sort of self-delusion that can be effective in the short term is standing in front of a mirror saying things like, “I have dignity and self-respect,” while trying to overcome flash backs to the previous night when the conversation turned to Baroness Warsi. This sort of self-directed verbal power-posing might last long enough to get you over the line to be able to start to undo the damage you have done. But you shouldn’t stay there for long: reality is the ultimate safe word.

Then there’s the damaging denial of reality (or of self) that imagines an even worse, or pessimistic view of the world, than is really the case: for reference see a whole range of psychological disorders and any Spurs league title campaign since the early 1960s.

What I find intriguing and often somewhat amusing are the attempts by organisations to present to the world a view of themselves that clearly does not correspond to the facts or circumstances that pertain. It’s self-presentation gone mad, awful management, but often seems de rigeur among some academic colleagues.

It serves two purposes: first it seeks to propagate a positive image to others perhaps with the intention of accruing benefits from bigging oneself up. For “60% of our research is world-leading,” read, “Please consider allowing our former reputation to paper over the cracks in our next REF submission” (or, perhaps, “40% of our research is not”). There’s a version of this on social media which often begins with the phrase, “So excited to…” For example, “So excited to see my new paper on [insert unexciting research topic here]”. Anyone who regards the first two verbs of that over-employed phrase without a heavy dose of scepticism about the poster’s motives needs a reality check. Generally, with all such overt attempts to engineer an impression, my working assumption is the poster is worried that precisely the opposite is the case.

The problem with this approach is that everyone can do it, it quickly becomes woefully transparent and diminishes the speaker in the eyes of their audience. It is like male hooded seals bulking their throats to attract a mate (which works, but leads to an arms race in hyper-inflated seals) so perpetuates the machismo and posturing that is precisely what academia should not be about. In reality, those who don’t need to do it (for whatever reason), don’t do it.

The second purpose is internal: classic ingroup dynamics. It is the equivalent of standing in front of the mirror trying to get one’s game together before mopping up a little too much honesty in the Baroness Warsi conversation. And it can work, too, but the great danger is that it builds a collective sense of group that denies reality, context and limits opportunities for change and true innovation. When the managerial mantra is that everything is great when clearly it is not, either the group fails or the people in it begin to break down (sometimes literally). Such a mantra demands blind loyalty and allows no room for dissent: again, for reference, see David Icke and Soviet communism.

To be fair, David Icke was/is not exactly over-optimistic about the general state of things but also, and I think it is fair to say this, is also not a close personal acquaintance of reality in many people’s eyes. He’s mostly posting virulent anti-Semitism on his twitter account these days, among an incomprehensible mix of views on climate change, vaccines and (of course) shape-shifting lizards… genuinely, it is impossible to work out what the guy actually thinks! There is little question, though, that he’s self-confidence remains sky-high. Inter-stellar in fact. But now he’s irrelevant, even to others on the lunatic, far right, conspiracy fringe, and even for many of them he’s a salutary warning to those who seek to over-hype an empty message, to engineer reality just a little too far. He is, truly, no longer capable of seeing himself as others see him…