Literature and Politics
Using literary perspectives sensitively to inform public policy
Shamit Saggar suggests that, by giving insights into aspects of the human experience that escape empirical data collection, literature could close the knowledge gaps preventing public policy from effectively addressing the trickiest challenges of our time.
Good public policy analysis rests on being well-informed about the lives people live. Therefore, we typically rely on empirical analyses of those lives: in family relationships, schooling, health, ageing or, indeed, pet ownership. The good news is we have never known more about those lives and how particular conditions are affected by known causes.
And there you might leave it, insistent that policymakers should only focus on known facts.
But such a choice is blinkered and not really ideal. Think of one of the most intractable policy challenges of our time: identifying and combating Islamist-inspired radicalisation. Think of that challenge in a country like Australia, and then think of how its complexity cannot be compared with the problem in a country like Indonesia.
In the foreground, we all agree, it is vital to use empirical research and intelligence to specify the men of violence – those involved in active conspiracies to wreak havoc. Fortunately, our analysis about them is surprisingly well-informed, in part because they are – and remain – small in number (under a thousand in Australia). Intelligence gathering is a realistic tool at this scale.
But twenty years of counter-radicalisation policies have taught that much less is known about the communities in which extremism ferments and where anger and hatred go unchallenged. Elsewhere, this has been described as the “circle of tacit support for violence”, and it matters because it provides – often unintentionally – the moral oxygen for terrorists. Numerous criminal justice trials have pointed to the problem of those who, despite their opposition to violence, are nonetheless struggling to work out how to respond to worries about their nephews or neighbours.
That is a struggle that sits within the human condition. People are conflicted by many situations on a daily basis, and do not see themselves doing anything worse than cutting corners they know others also cut. Speeding on country roads, where covert cameras are rare, is just one example. The practice of turning a blind eye to likely terrorism is a much more incendiary case.
The human condition and the stories people tell themselves instinctively create a harsh environment for public policy analysis, an admission few in government would want widely publicised. This is where the richness of literature (and the creative sector) can possibly help.
It was Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner that first described the complex layers of identity and allegiance underscoring an Afghan-American’s journey through recent Western conflicts with the Muslim world. Moreover, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a powerful account of disenchantment preceded by admiration of America, and how these emotions propel recognisable characters towards condonement of violence.
Most intriguing of all, Samina Malik, a bored young shop assistant at London’s Heathrow Airport, used the online handle ‘Lyrical Terrorist’ to communicate a mix of poetry and rap, conveying feelings of alienation. As a result of her work, she faced a complicated series of legal trials, in which one judge confessed that “in some respects [Malik] is a complete enigma to me”.
Her chosen method of communicating is not unimportant, since it shines a light into a vortex of mostly online discussions and fantasies about grievance. Such grievance cultures matter because they underscore the embedded oppositional politics governments must face.
The larger point is that policymakers usually default to objective evidence about the circumstances of people’s lives; meanwhile, much of what people see and feel is in the realm of subjective experience. The mantra of evidence-based public policy may therefore be getting things back-to-front. If only we can be more open-minded towards all accounts of the lived experience.
People’s stories can be valuable insofar as they illuminate the objective facts. Or to be precise, their subjective understandings of those facts.
This speaks to a constant concern in policy analysis. For example, people continuously report they are more knowledgeable about navigating modern markets and public services than we know they really are. They overestimate their ability to make informed choices; they are regularly distracted by biases, preferences and prejudices; they also under-report their involvement in activities that are taboo or socially disapproved, implying that they abandon or downgrade the truth in an effort to tell the best possible story about themselves and to themselves.
The upshot is that governments have to be more prudent about the kinds of evidence they reach for and rely upon. There is a compelling case to look to writers and others to help fill these gaps in evidence.
Paul Cairney’s new book, Understanding Public Policy, points out that most academic studies of the policy process are at pains to describe policymakers “operating in a policymaking environment over which they have limited knowledge and even less control”. This, he concedes, jars with most popular conceptions of what governments do. One of the reasons for this is that the rush to embrace evidence by policymakers obscures the reality of significant gaps in knowledge. Literary perspectives are a good place to start in overcoming this.