26 June 2012

Nudging The Ignorant Masses Into Line: Soft Paternalism, a Nannyism By Stealth

Soft or libertarian paternalism is all the rage, slowly replacing the tired old nanny state. David Cameron’s government has its own “nudge unit”, the Behavioural Insights Team, set up in 2010 to “find innovative ways of encouraging, enabling and supporting people to make better choices for themselves”.

It’s an interesting concept, and it’s quite difficult to argue with its stated aims. But I don’t like it. I think it represents the continuing estrangement of the governing elite, and the substitution of technocracy for democracy.

But I won’t say more. Though he wasn’t writing about soft paternalism, philosopher Slavoj Žižek put it best:

Instead of bringing freedom, the fall of the oppressive authority thus gives rise to new and more severe prohibitions. How are we to account for this paradox? Think of the situation known to most of us from our youth: the unfortunate child who, on Sunday afternoon, has to visit his grandmother instead of being allowed to play with friends. The old-fashioned authoritarian father’s message to the reluctant boy would have been: “I don’t care how you feel. Just do your duty, go to grandmother and behave there properly!” In this case, the child’s predicament is not bad at all: although forced to do something he clearly doesn’t want to, he will retain his inner freedom and the ability to (later) rebel against the paternal authority. Much more tricky would have been the message of a “postmodern” non-authoritarian father: “You know how much your grandmother loves you! But, nonetheless, I do not want to force you to visit her – go there only if you really want to!” Every child who is not stupid (and as a rule they are definitely not stupid) will immediately recognize the trap of this permissive attitude: beneath the appearance of a free choice there is an even more oppressive demand than the one formulated by the traditional authoritarian father, namely an implicit injunction not only to visit the grandmother, but to do it voluntarily, out of the child’s own free will. Such a false free choice is the obscene superego injunction: it deprives the child even of his inner freedom, ordering him not only what to do, but what to want to do.

Žižek, How To Read Lacan

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