Making people feel stupid is a bad campaign strategy in the referendum

When was the last time someone made you feel stupid? And how did you feel afterwards?

Making people feel stupid is a bad campaign strategy, argues Peter Carroll
Making people feel stupid is a bad campaign strategy, argues Peter Carroll

For me, it was at a social function. Someone mentioned a supposedly famous author and it was pretty evident I didn’t know who they were talking about.

There was no obvious statement saying I was stupid, just the gentlest of non-verbal communication from the other person.

And having been to a thousand functions and experienced these little hiatuses in conversation, I didn’t care much, and after that momentary uncomfortable feeling the conversation moved on.

But an emotional exchange had taken place. And the truth is that none of us enjoy the feeling that others think us stupid. It just doesn’t make us feel good.

That’s why you won’t see it advocated as a sensible motivational technique in any environment, be it family or work.

Making the other person feel stupid fails every test of emotional intelligence. So why is it that so many hugely important campaigns adopt that strategy?

From the tenor of recent exchanges in the EU referendum, each side is implying that the other side – and, more damagingly, that those tempted to support the other side – are stupid.

Both sides have drifted into this dead end to varying degrees. But the reliance of Remain on ‘Project Fear’ and the utterances of its leaders, such as labelling ‘Leavers’ as ‘Little Englanders’, suggests they are further down the cul-de-sac.

The reality is that the issues around a campaign such as this are not simple. They are hugely complex. And the people involved in making this decision are doing so from a multitude of perspectives – young, old, rich and poor, but to list a few.

Just firing broadsides at the opposition in ever-more shrill tones denies that complexity. Using language that implies supporters of the other side are stupid gets the same reaction in people that I had in my social encounter, and that we all have when in similar positions.

The campaign gurus will say that it’s a valid campaign tactic to polarise opinion. Sometimes it is, but not to the extent that we alienate rather than differentiate, particularly when the polls are so close there’s a need to influence swing voters.

The emotionally intelligent way is the one that sounds counter-intuitive. You need to let the other person know that you understand how they are feeling and, crucially, that it’s OK for them to feel that way. With that bridge in place, you can then try to persuade.

Some might argue that Better Together won the Scottish referendum using the same techniques, tone and messaging as being deployed by Remain.

But I have two warnings for those of that view. First, the supporters of independence were a lot further behind than ‘Leave’, which has made up a huge amount of ground during the campaign.

Second, yes, they won the referendum but, in a very real political sense, isn’t it true that they lost Scotland?

Peter Carroll is the founder of Tendo Consulting


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