Wednesday, 11 April 2012

"More left-wing"? Demos and the Absolute Comparative

There's a slippery grammatical construction known as the "comparative absolute" (or the absolute comparative) in which the adjective of comparison (larger, bigger, better) syntactically expects a comparator, but does not get one. It remains implied, however. My copy of Fowler's Modern English Usage notes that "such implied comparisons are a feature of advertising language", and it's easy to see why: the construction allows the advertiser to make impressive-sounding claims without having to back them up.

"Persil washes whiter" is the classic example. Whiter than what? Whiter than other washing powders, the reader is invited to deduce, but Unilever doesn't actually say so explicitly. So if you can show that, in fact (and this is a pure hypothetical, you understand) Persil performs less well than other leading brands, the company can respond by protesting, "We never said that Persil washes whiter than other brands; we just says it washes whiter. Your clothes are whiter after they've been through the machine than when they were covered in mud, aren't they? Persil washes whiter. Can't you understand simple English expressions?"

I feel a bit like that disgruntled (and, I stress, entirely hypothetical) customer today, having been accused by Demos of "misunderstanding" their claim -- much bandied about in various media outlets over the past few days -- that religious believers were "more likely to hold left-wing or progressive opinions on key social questions around equality and immigration."

Or, as the Observer headline had it, "Religious people are more likely to be leftwing, says thinktank Demos".

Or, as "Daily Mail Reporter" (yes, him/her again) explained, "Christians 'more likely to be leftwing' and have liberal views on immigration and equality".

The natural reading of such statements is that there must be a comparator group (non-believers, perhaps) than whom religious believers are "more likely to be left-wing". But you'd be wrong! The report that Demos were pushing, entitled Faithful Citizens (available here) never actually says that. Indeed it can't, because a close reading of the report shows that religious believers were considerably more likely than the non-religious to call themselves right-wing.

The Demos analysis was based on figures from the European Values Survey and from the UK's National Citizenship Survey. The figures for political affiliation were as follows:

Religious ("exclusivist" and "pluralist") :

Right-of-centre: 44%
Left-of-centre: 56%

Non-Religious ("secular")

Right-of-centre: 35%
Left-of-centre: 65%

It's true that a majority of the religious described themselves as being left-of-centre, whatever their actual views (and a closer analysis of a number of basic political opinions presented a distinctly mixed picture). Indeed, the propensity of a clear majority of the population to identify themselves as being left-of-centre, even when they're not, is an interesting sociological phenomenon in its own right (and one that Conservatives would do well to ponder). But "secularists" (the term Demos used for those people who assented to the proposition that "none of the great religions have any truths to offer") were by a full nine points more likely than believers to call themselves left-of-centre, and similarly much less likely to call themselves right-wing.

It would have been more accurate for Demos to spin these results as "Non-believers more likely to be left-wing" or "religious believers more likely to be right-wing". But that wouldn't have suited the case that the think-tank seems to be putting across, which is that the Labour Party should cosy up to religion.

Being neither left-of-centre nor religious, I don't really have a dog in this fight, and I must say I was rather taken aback with the vehemence with which (in private correspondence) Demos attacked me for suggesting various flaws in their analysis and, most especially, for pointing out that the reports claiming that religious believers were "more likely to be left wing" were seriously misleading. Until I forced them into it, Demos did nothing to correct this misleading impression by publicising the true figures.

Publicly I was accused of being "dismayed" by their findings. I suppose I am rather dismayed to see yet another push to increase the profile of religion in politics, coming hot on the heels of David Cameron's calls for a Christian "fightback" against militant secularists. But I'm more bemused than anything. The rapprochement between religion and the political left is one of the most striking features of contemporary British public life, the more so because levels of religious affiliation continue to decline. Reports such as this one from Demos, or Giles Fraser writing in the Guardian about how the Occupy movement represents authentic Christianity, sit at the more benign end of this coalition. At the other extreme we find that weird love-in between the far left and radical Islam represented by the preposterous figure of George Galloway.

What's it all about? I tend to agree with Max Dunbar that it's part of" a definite intellectual slide towards earthy spiritual values and away from bourgois neoconservative constructions such as secularism, feminism and human rights." Now that global socialism no longer looks like providing a viable alternative to consumer capitalism and increasingly vertiginous social gaps, religions, with their communitarian traditions and critique (in Christianity's case, at least) of worldly success can indeed make common cause with disappointed Lefty liberals.

Indeed, a good case can be made (Michael Merrick makes it) that seemingly left-wing or "progressive" conclusions (at least on socio-economic questions, rather than, say, sexuality or abortion) are for many Chrisitians a logical "consequence of their orthodox commitment to faith". On the political compass, for example, Pope Benedict XVI comes out very strongly as "Authoritarian Left".

Ah, the Authoritarian Left. We had quite enough of that under New Labour, thank you very much.