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Why most referendums are lost

By Marina Christofides

The 2004 referendum in Cyprus plus more recent ones elsewhere clearly indicate that it is not logic and reasoning which achieve the ‘right’ result

The majority of referendums are lost, not won, said conflict resolution and referendums specialist, Quintin Oliver, who was in Cyprus last week to attend a meeting on referendums and peace processes organised by the University of Cyprus.

Judging from our own referendum in 2004 and the spate of referendums that have gone ‘wrong’ recently, he’s probably right, what with Britain voting to leave the European Union, Colombia rejecting peace after fifty years of war, and Scotland only just scraping through. But why should that be? Why is it so difficult to persuade people to vote the ‘right’ way?

It all seems horribly familiar and brings to mind all those endless discussions we all had here in 2004 that went nowhere. Reasoned arguments didn’t seem to sway anyone. For example, the ‘no’s’ didn’t want reunification because it meant that a number of Turkish settlers would be given the right to stay, refusing to see that no solution meant Turkish settlers could come unimpeded to the island for ever. No one ever changed their mind and instead clung to their beliefs even after they ran out of arguments.

Researching the question from a psychological point of view, I recently came across the work of NYU professor of social psychology, Jonathan Haidt. Trying to understand why people’s beliefs are often so poorly connected to objective facts, he ran a number of studies in which he asked participants to make moral judgements and then started stripping away their arguments to see whether they would change their minds. They didn’t. Not even after it had been proved that all of their reasons were irrelevant.

Haidt calls this “moral dumbfounding” and explains it is because it is emotions that play a primary role in moral judgements not reasoning. Referendums, and politics in general, are moral judgements in that they are an expression of how a society wishes to live.

We use reasoning, he says, after we make a judgement to justify our decisions. And because we make up our minds based on emotions, once made up, they are extremely difficult to change. Only if different emotions are triggered do people change their minds.

We suffer from two illusions, Haidt says. We believe our moral judgement is driven by our own moral reasoning, and we believe that we can change an opponent’s mind simply by successfully rebutting his arguments.

“Moral arguments are like shadow-boxing matches,” Haidt says, “where each contestant lands heavy blows to the opponent’s shadow, then wonders why he doesn’t fall down.” And the reason for this, he goes on, is because reasoning is not the source of the moral judgements. It also explains why all those arguments we had during the referendum were so pointless.

In his book on politics and religion, The Righteous Mind, Haidt describes how our morality is based on an innate system of thought that has come about through evolution. We are programmed to care for others, to feel compassion for others, especially the weak and vulnerable offspring and anger towards those who cause harm. We value fairness and reciprocity and it’s the foundation of many religions. Because we are wired to form groups and be loyal to them, we hate cheaters or anyone who betrays our group. We inuitively respect authority and adhere to social order, although when people try to dominate and control us, we are prepared to feel resentment to regain our liberty. Feelings of disgust keep us away from germs, toxins and bacteria and keep things we value pure and sacred.

In politics, Haidt says, this morality translates on the left as caring for people and animals everywhere that need protection. The right also values caring but mainly if it’s directed at the people in their own group rather than universally. The left is concerned with equality and social justice, while the right believes people should be rewarded in proportion to the work that they do, even if it means that the outcome is unequal. The left tends to align itself with the universality of humankind, as opposed to the right which veers towards nationalism. The right values authority far more than the left, as well as the sanctity of family values and religion. For the right impurity is personified by immigrants, or sexual deviants who they consider dirty and degraded.

You can see morality at play in the US presidential election campaigns, where pundits are at a loss to explain the broad appeal of Donald Trump.

Trump intuitively grasps people’s moral values and evokes them all brilliantly in his speeches. For example, he repeatedly accuses Hillary Clinton of being a liar and a cheat, calling her crooked, and a terrible mother. He appeals to the disenfranchised by painting a picture of a system that has failed them, that is corrupt, serving only the elite and where elections are rigged.

He presents himself as an authority figure, the only one who can fix things, someone who will protect people from looming external threats and who will reintroduce law and order to a country where illegal immigrants with criminal records are roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens.

He wants to build a wall to prevent contamination from outsiders who he presents as morally and physically dirty. He repeatedly evokes the emotion of disgust towards women and towards women’s bodies, something that may well end up being his undoing as it alienates half the population.

Here in Cyprus similar emotional arguments are what won the ‘no’ campaign in 2004. Greek Cypriot ‘no’ voters felt that they were being cheated and that the plan for reunification was unfair. It was unfair that the minority Turkish Cypriots were being equated with the majority by having to share power with them in a federation, unfair that Turkish settlers would be legalised and that not all displaced persons would be able to go back to their homes.

The ‘no’ campaign successfully convinced people that they were about to be tricked by imperialist Britain and the US. Like the British voting for Brexit, the Cypriot ‘no’ vote was like giving the powers that be the finger. And for me, the most powerful message of all was that cry from Burgenstock that “The Turks got everything!” which made every Greek Cypriot’s blood run cold.

Now that the possibility of reunification once again looms large, the rejectionists have already started priming the population through official statements and on social media. Following Trump’s example, Nicolas Papadopoulos is deliberately attacking the character of President Anastasiades, accusing him of being a liar and not to be trusted. We will see him repeat this again and again in the expectation that the more it is said the more people will believe it.

An anti-solution video recently doing the rounds on Facebook describes bizonality as ‘wretched’, and rotating presidency as ‘undemocratic’, implying that federation as a political system is morally wrong. These are all messages that press our emotional buttons.

The pro-solution camp should be countering likewise with messages that expose the rejectionists for wanting partition and presenting federation as fair to all Cypriots as a group. In 2004 when Toumazos Tsielepis appeared on television explaining why the solution was fair and how it was a compromise by giving the Turkish Cypriot view, public opinion began to turn. The Papadopoulos government was quick to realise the damage that message would do and squashed all calls for the programme to be repeated.

According to Haidt, conservative messages appeal to a much larger swathe of the electorate than liberals. They press more people’s buttons. People vote for that side of the political spectrum because it offers moral clarity, a simple vision of good and evil that activates deep seated fears. Liberals, in contrast, appeal to reason with their long-winded explorations of a complex world.

In as much as the conservatives sound like the ‘wrong’ side in referendums, it might also explain why most referendums are lost rather than won.

Marina Christofides is the author of The Traitors’ Club, a memoir on the Cyprus problem, and the award-winning illustrated history of Cyprus, The Island Everyone Wanted. Both books are available online from her website and main bookshops islandwide.

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