Mrs May, the Zeigarnik Effect and Freedom of Speech

‘I sincerely believe that freedom of speech is under threat’, writes David Wethey

Bluma Zeigarnik was a Lithuanian-born Soviet psychologist who worked out that incompleted tasks cause more stress than ones that have been completed. She had spotted that waiters forget the orders they have written down the moment they have completed serving that table.

Apparently it’s the brain’s way of clearing the decks for the next order. I have always thought that news is a good example of the Zeigarnik Effect. Even dedicated news freaks like my wife have forgotten the TV and newspaper headlines the moment the TV is switched off or the paper put down. It’s just as well really, otherwise who would buy the paper or watch the news tomorrow?

This ‘instant oblivion’ phenomenon is bad news for a Prime Minister desperately clinging to office and trying to make sense of Brexit. Mrs May basically has to come up with something new and convincing every single day. She also needs to say memorable things that strike a chord with people, and which they don’t forget instantly.

The problem with the Prime Minister is that she follows the news rather than making it. Or if she does make it, it tends to be for the wrong reasons.

It has not been a good few days for her. Iain Martin’s Comment piece in The Times on the 25th: “Will someone rid us of this appalling PM” fell short of offering her his whole-hearted support. Only a day later almost enough Tory MPs had written to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee asking for a leadership election. Her entertainment of President Macron at Sandhurst hadn’t exactly been a roaring success. Macron told her that we could stay in the Single Market, but only if we abandon Brexit. At Davos her speech was thinly attended, probably because she chose the occasion to talk about internet security, rather than Brexit or the threat from Russia.

While May was saying what everyone else has said about the responsibility of the owners of social media to stop doing the work of the terrorists, Trump used his moment in the spotlight to communicate one simple and powerful message: ‘I’m for America First, but it doesn’t mean America alone’. May obviously cannot say, ‘Britain First’, because as Trump himself discovered, that’s the name of a far right group. But she could find words for a more directly patriotic appeal. She voted in the Referendum for us to remain and flourish alongside our European neighbours, but now has to make Brexit sound like a good thing.

I would also have her taking up more fundamental – not to say brave – causes like freedom of speech. Why do I suggest that? Two reasons: first, it is a vital issue, at least a lot of my friends and I think so. Secondly it is not something we associate with the PM – so her intervention would be newsworthy, and might make her new friends.

I sincerely believe that freedom of speech is under threat. I blame the insidious blurring of the division between news and editorial in the media. Radio 5 Live is a prime offender. Usually the news is ‘themed’, with a ‘cause’ for almost every day, supported by an instant survey, or a pronouncement from an academic or someone in health or education. The presenters nail their colours to the mast, with heroes and villains clearly cast. All they need then is carefully selected supporters and activists on the phone-ins. We also have what I call the double jeopardy of social media, whereby individuals and groups of people can be attacked, as a prelude to crowd-sourced vilification on a grand scale.

George Washington famously said, ‘if the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led like lambs to the slaughter’.

I belong to a generation born at the end of the Second World War, when Britain came within a whisker of being crushed under the Nazi jackboot. I grew up believing that free speech was one of the liberties our parents and grandparents had fought for. ‘It’s a free country’ was a mantra we frequently trotted out. Freedom of speech was a significant component of that.

During my lifetime that freedom – rightly in my view – has been restricted to discourage and penalise insulting, inflammatory and hostile language. We all know, without having to have it spelled out in a statute, that there are certain words and phrases you mustn’t use. We live in an increasingly diverse community and saying and writing things that attack, demean and objectify people on the basis of colour, race, religion, gender, disability are unacceptable. As a rule of thumb, saying or writing something that could inspire or motivate people to do something violent or horrible, is quite wrong – and that’s a freedom we don’t have and shouldn’t seek to use.

But intolerance and prejudice are also unattractive. Puritanism is a personal choice, but no one else has to be compelled to share it. And, as far as I know, social media and radio phone-ins weren’t invented to provide strident activists with a forum to bully and shout down anyone who disagrees with them.

As we know, Washington did tell a lie – a whopper actually – in 1780.

Not the story of the cherry tree. He owned up to that.

This was the one about Rochambeau’s French Army being just about to arrive to liberate North America from the British. Because of Benedict Arnold’s treachery the deception worked brilliantly. But maybe the New Puritans are about to trash his reputation retrospectively for mendaciousness, as the poet Liz Lochhead has done this week to Robbie Burns, whom she has branded a “Weinsteinian sex pest”.