I am indebted to the always pertinent Ben Goldacre of the ‘Guardian’ (Bad Science column) for initially calling my attention to a recent study from the Kellogg School of Management (no, it’s not about rice krispies or cornflakes) at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.
As reported in ScienceDaily
“The new study, entitled "The Scope-Severity Paradox: Why doing more harm is judged to be less harmful," has been published in the current issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science (published by SAGE) and was conducted by Loran Nordgren of the Kellogg School of Management and Mary-Hunter Morris of Harvard Law School. The researchers found that a "scope-severity paradox" exists in which judgment of harm tends to be based on emotional reactions, and thus people have a stronger emotional response to singular identifiable victims rather than to an entire crowd of sufferers.”
This accords entirely with my own lifetime experience of people’s reactions to suffering. It is understandable, but dangerous, and in its worst manifestations, genuine sympathy is replaced by self-indulgent sentimentality.
Charities attempting to solicit donations for humanitarian cries involving hundreds of thousands of people have little choice but to recognise this, and their appeals has to be directed through the prism of heart-rending individual pictures and films, rather than at the enormity and magnitude of the devastation and hardships caused and being endured by large numbers of victims.
Politicians, of course, or at least politicians of a certain type – we have a few notorious example on the opposition benches in Holyrood – exploit individual cases to divert attention from much wider issues affecting large numbers of people.
Perhaps the roots of the problem lie in Matthew 11 “For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always”, used for millennia to justify the riches and profligacy of churches and organised religion while their followers languish in abject poverty.
And so to Donald Trump and the Commonwealth Games, an unlikely pairing.
I received an email from 38 Degrees, a campaigning organisation whose petitions I normally support, asking me to sign a petition against Donald Trump receiving an honorary doctorate, because he was forcing people out of their homes. I declined, and advised them that they were being politically exploited by the opponents of the Scottish Government as a anti-SNP ploy.
People have been forced out of their homes throughout human history, usually for profit or greed for land. From the Highland Clearances, the dispossession of the Native Americans in the US, through to Israel’s profoundly inhuman and immoral actions on the West bank, such actions have been and still are crimes against humanity.
But there is another kind of dispossession, with much more difficult moral and social choices involved. In discussing these, I get on to some very tricky ethical territory, not least for my own conscience, and I do not claim that there are simple answers.
Crichel Down – there’s a trigger for the memory of those old enough to remember it – a political scandal in 1954 that led subsequently to rules on compulsory purchase by government, and which probably led indirectly to the Ombudsman concept.
(There was also the tragic case of Edward Pilgrim in 1954, who committed suicide over a compulsory purchase incident.)
The fact is that roads have to be built (some of them, anyway) and economic development has to be permitted – providing appropriate safeguards for people and the environment are maintained and applied. That’s why we have planning enquiries, and that’s why Swampy dug tunnels in the woods and why people chain themselves to trees, and so on.
But we would have no industrial society, no infrastructure of roads, airports, rail terminals, commerce and industry, no cities and no road system, no hospital, no schools, etc. if every person insisted on hanging on to their home and their land. We would all be living in primitive, harsh conditions in an overpopulated set of islands, and probably engaged in perpetual conflict with our fellow human beings for food and shelter.
We do this by consultation, by pubic enquiries, and ultimately by recognising the right of property owners and landowners to get a fair price for what they own, and compensation for related losses.
No society can, however, maintain a right for someone to block major and necessary developments for the greater good by refusing to sell, refusing to move. Such a position is just not tenable.
But there’s the rub – what constitutes a fair price and equitable compensation for giving up property rights and perhaps a place and a home with deep emotional significance to the dispossessed individual?
TRUMP and the GLESCA GRANNY
Let me nail my colours to the mast – I believe that if a development – international golf and hotel complex or Commonwealth games facilities are manifestly in the wider public interest, some people may have to lose their homes, property and land if they stand in the way of that, providing there has been full consultation and all relevant environmental, social, economic and personal arguments have been properly heard and adjudicated on.
If it happened to me, I would be sad, but I would recognise its inevitability and focus on getting the best price.
The objectors in Aberdeen on environmental grounds have been heard, and they have lost the argument. If such arguments had been accepted throughout the centuries, we would have no cities, no roads, no industry and no modern infrastructure in Scotland.
God knows, we are not short of wild unspoiled places, vibrant with animals, fish game and species in abundance, much of it regrettably in the grip of private landowners. I have no wish to turn Scotland into a concreted-over theme park, but neither do I want to see thousands of families condemned to unemployment and penury because of lack of work.
Those who are refusing to sell their homes are in another category entirely. I sympathise with them and I want them to get a price that reflects the hardship and emotional upheaval that the loss of their homes will visit on them, but I do not support their right to veto a major project by refusing outright to sell. So I have little sympathy for the Aberdeen protesters.
But I do stand up for Margaret Jaconelli, the Glasgow grandmother who has fought to get her idea of a fair price for over a decade for her two-bedroom flat in Dalmarnock. Unlike the Aberdeen protesters, who appear to have elicited public sympathy by virtue of the Scope-Severity Paradox (see above), she is well on her way to being demonised, together with her lawyer, for asking £300,000 for the land the Games authority wants to acquire and £60,000 for the inconvenience of being evicted.
Glasgow City Council plans to evict her for refusing to accept the £30,000 figure assessed by the District Valuer, a UK government agency under the compulsory purchase order.
When I was teaching negotiating skills in the early 1990s to managers and businesses of all kinds, I was introduced by Professor Gavin Kennedy, an international expert and best-selling author on negotiation, to the concept of ransom strips in property dealing, i.e. often small piece of land, privately owned, that stood in the way of a large, multi-million development. I used one of Gavin’s cases when I worked for him as director of Negotiate Ltd. to show how both ends of such a negotiation worked, the clear objective of the seller being to maximise the sale price and the buyer to minimise it.
No one, then or now, ever suggested that there was something immoral in recognising that the value of the land was determined, not by comparison with similar plots that were not the object of development, but by the particular circumstances of them being positional goods in the development context.
Governments don’t like such negotiating clout and good fortune to be in the hands of small property and landowners, however, hence the compulsory purchase legislation. While the UK government is totally reconciled to paying enormously inflated prices for armaments, defence contract, consultancy and IT projects based on market circumstances and leverage, they don’t like the idea of a Glesca granny trying to exploit her once in a lifetime opportunity.
Well, I do – go for it, Granny Margaret (she’s 23 years younger than me!) – get the best deal you can.
Do I think £300,000 for the land and £60,000 for the inconvenience excessive? Well, it’s an opening bid, and Margaret and her lawyer would, I’m sure, settle for a smaller amount in negotiation if she and her lawyer are permitted to bargain. But of course, they won’t be – the steamroller of local government and UK law will roll over them, in a city where municipal corruption has been endemic for generations, where dirty land and property deals have been the order of the day and where corrupt council officials who would have been sacked in any just society have been quietly retired with massive settlements and pensions over the decades.
But you’ve lost nothing by trying, Granny Margaret, and if there is any justice, you’ll still get the price offered, a new home, and with luck, tell your story to the tabloids and media and make a few bob.
Meanwhile, if there is a petition to protect you, I’ll sign it most willingly. But I won’t support your Aberdeen counterparts in their efforts to stay put.