Monday, May 29, 2023

Alex Penk: Beware of the Blob

What do Climate Karanga, Podiatry NZ, and the Free Store Wellington have in common? Probably not much, except that they’re all committed to co-governance.

They’re among dozens of NGOs who signed an open letter urging the government to carry on and implement the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights. The media picked this up and amplified it, echoing their concern that this work might be paused.

This represents the arrival of the Blob—a gelatinous agglomeration of elite opinion that suffocates and skews public debate.

The Blob takes its name from a 1958 sci-fi movie about a flesh-eating, amoeba-like alien that descends on a small town and absorbs everything in its path. In the UK, “the Blob” refers to the mutual embrace of civil servants, quangos, NGOs, and vested interests. In the US, “the Blob” means a foreign policy elite that advocates for intervening in other countries’ affairs. In both cases, the Blob pushes a very particular view of the world, one that’s often against public opinion and even contrary to political leaders.

The open letter looks distinctly Blobby—NGOs, unions, academics, supportive media reporting, all lined up in favour of a highly controversial position.

But what’s wrong with the Blob? Isn’t this just a group of public-spirited citizens and community-minded organisations sharing their sincere views on a matter of public importance? Isn’t this just Democratic Deliberation and therefore a Good Thing? No. No, it isn’t.

The Blob isn’t democratic and it isn’t deliberative. It creates a false consensus that sucks the oxygen out of different opinions, overpowering them by making it look as though everyone important agrees.

Look at the way RNZ reported uncritically on the open letter. They told us that “More than 60 organisations” have signed it. Actually, it’s 53, plus 10 individuals, but what’s a few organisations between friends?

RNZ also told us that “major organisations” like the Mental Health Foundation signed the letter. But they don’t explain why the Foundation has any expertise in co-governance or the UN Declaration, and they don’t include any contrary viewpoints.

The Blob also skews the debate: here and in the UK, the Blob is biased to the left. Can you imagine 50+ NGOs signing a right-leaning position on co-governance, or the media repeating this uncritically?

Some members of the Blob are also “sock puppets”. This is a term for organisations that receive government funding and then turn around and lobby the government, like the Citizens Advice Bureau, also named by RNZ as a “major” signatory to the open letter.

There’s another problem. The Blob isn’t representative. No-one selected these people to take a public position on co-governance, but they have cultural power beyond their numbers, influence without accountability.

This wouldn’t be such a problem if the groups who signed the open letter were experts on the subject. Let me give you an example. There was another open letter recently, this one against some of the Three Waters legislation, signed by a much smaller group who were all constitutional law experts. They know what they’re talking about, so there’s a good reason to listen to them.

But the open letter on co-governance is signed by organisations like Podiatry NZ who, surprise surprise, are expert in podiatry, Barbarian Productions, a Wellington theatre company, and the NZ Society of Authors, which represents writers and promotes literary culture, Free Store Wellington, which distributes retail food waste, and Climate Karanga, which is focused on climate education in Marlborough.

None of these organisations look like experts on co-governance. They’re just a random group with some reckons, and there’s no reason the rest of us should listen to them.

It’s tempting to treat this as a bit of a joke, but this is how we end up with an elite view that’s disconnected from the majority of us.

To be clear, these NGOs are fully entitled to have a view and to tell us what they think. And one organisation or a handful of them can’t stifle or skew debate. The problem with the Blob is the way it multiplies and echoes these opinions. That’s how important institutions and debates get captured by ideology and groupthink.

So what should we do?

First, we should see the Blob for what it is, and we shouldn’t pay too much attention to what it has to say.

Second, we should diversify the Blob, and this is much harder. This means doing the long, slow work of bringing a range of views into society and giving them all a fair hearing.

In fact, this means de-Blobbing the Blob. After all, a diverse Blob isn’t really a Blob any more.

If we can do this, we can stop the Blob devouring our public square and restore debate to what it should be—not the one-sided, overbearing imposition of a false consensus, but a genuine conversation among equals.

Alex Penk is an independent researcher and writer with a background in law and public policy. This article was originally published by The Common Room and is published here with kind permission.


robert Arthur said...

As with submissions by many organisations, they seldom represent the outcome of full informed debate, but often the view of the secretary or some one dominant member
That RNZ supports anything pro maori is now a matter of course.

Anonymous said...

So the pay more tax open letter is a Blob?
Plenty of Blob around the Voice in Australia.

Anonymous said...

Any one with half a brain who can think for themselves should be able to see through that letter. One just has to ask, "What is the motivation, and what are they trying to prove?"
It fails to mention co-governance or anything specific actually. Just blurbs on about TOW and it's re-interpretation and how we were colonised and blah, blah.
Some people are waiting with bated breath for us Boomers to pop their clogs. But it will be many years before our numbers drop significantly and in the meantime we will give them all a run for their money. Many of the younger ones brought up to think for themselves are not buying the new democracy BS either.