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Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Fear - How to Use Slogans and Sound-Bites to Get What You Want

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Research on how people make judgements suggests that we all too often rely upon skewed models of how the world works and perverse common sense. In making sense of the world, we are vulnerable creatures, easily swayed by rhetoric and slogans. For more on this see Daniel Kahneman.

Policy makers are increasingly aware of their ability to nudge us in particular directions and use slogans and compelling phrases to shape the way we see the world and the ways in which we behave within it. Nudge is the thing which which they'll tempt the conscience of the Kingdom.

People listen to politicians. For evidence of this, check out how millions of us reacted to comments made by ministers about the possibility of a fuel shortage. All they had to say was "don't panic", and that's what everyone did. It's as if whole generations raised on Dad's Army hear the phrase and are frog-marched into action.

Slogans tune into our inherent laziness, our need to reach conclusions about things and to quickly move on. They can become powerful motivators for action or opinion when the words feel about right. "Yes we can" is simple and clearly convinced millions that they could indeed change America. History may tell us otherwise.

Nike has been imploring us to "Just do it" for years. Whether any more of us are exercising or achieving is one matter. But, for sure, we're buying costly training shoes and wearing T-shirts. Maybe that's all it really means.

But there can be a darker side to using slogans. They can be hard to argue with and can have the effect of closing down debate. They can make it easier for millions of people not to think about things too deeply.

"We're all in it together" is a brilliant phrase. It is easy to remember and suggests a sense of community. Coming from a Conservative government in particular, it marked a departure from a previous sound-bite - there apparently is such a thing as society, we all live in it together.

The trouble is that we're not (all in it together). Some people will always thrive in difficult times. Some may remain unaffected by cuts in public services. It's probably fair to say that every one in the public sector is in it together. But what the "it" is may depend upon where you're standing. And, of course, it ignores the obvious questions about how these circumstances were created. This matters not because we need to hark back to the past but so that we can avoid having to go there again.

Nothing to hide

In recent weeks, we've learned about new legislation that will give ministers (and no doubt many others) the power to scrutinise our electronic communication - emails, texts, web visits and phone calls. The covering slogan is compellingly simple: if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.

Who could argue against that? After all, it's there to protect us from those who would do us harm, a sentiment that is irrefutable.

But we might hope that there are very few people planning to do us harm. There clearly are some. Whereas there are many people who would rather not have the contents of their in-boxes shared with the world. And, of course, many people do have things to hide. Such is the deceptive nature of daily life that many would rather keep certain aspects of adult life hidden from others. The trouble we have is that the binary nature of the slogan forces us into one of two camps.

There is much more to the question than this simple choice. It is, as they say, the thin end of a large wedge. Once powers are extended, they're rarely retracted. Often, like taxes, they continue to creep on and before you know it, many areas of private lives will be accessible by people we don't know, will never meet and who will never be directly accountable to ordinary citizens. And that's...

Common sense bypass

That whole debate, however, is by-passed through the use of a powerful slogan. It says that anyone who is kicking up a storm must indeed have something to hide, something not at all nice. Why else would they be making such a fuss? There's no smoke without fire.

In the end, major corporations and political leaders will always rely upon rhetoric and sloganeering to push their messages through. It's hard to get people to tune in otherwise. And slogans will always play on our desire to cut to the chase and avoid having to think about things too much. We are essentially lazy.

It is our inherent desire for an easy life that makes us vulnerable to the compelling, brutal and ineluctable worldview presented by powerful slogans.

If you're not with us, as they say, you're against us.

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