Thursday, August 01, 2019

Love is a DIY Kit

Love is a do-it-yourself kit. We have to work at it, put it together day by day, piece by piece, little by little. We have to work at love. It doesn't just happen. 

Furthermore, love is not an emotion, a feeling. It is a commitment to another person: 'I love you. I am going to be what you need me to be. I a going to do what you need me to do. I am going to say what you need me to say. This is what I mean when I say "I love you". If you succeed I will rejoice with you in your success. I will be in the first row of your cheering section, clapping my hands off for you. If you fail, I will be sitting there quietly at your side, holding your hand. this is what I mean when I say I am committed to loving you.'

Love is a sweet and beautiful thing. It also will challenge every ounce of determination and courage in us. It is a gutsy commitment that invites another to 'take us for granted'. Take my love as a given. (John Powell SJ)


Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Dominic Cummings

If the mainstream media was all we had to go by, the only 3 things we'd know about Dominic Cummings are 
a) Benedict Cumberbatch 
b) he said rude things about Tory MPs 
c) he didn't show up to a select committee. 

If they'd spent as much time actually reading his blog as they did trawling it for headline-worthy quotes we might all benefit. There is some pretty incisive critique of the way we do politics ("it is impossible to describe the extent to which politicians in Britain do not even consider ‘the timetable and process for turning announcement X into reality’ as something to think about — for people like Cameron and Blair the announcement IS the only reality and ‘management’ is a dirty word for junior people to think about"), and a guy who has thought and read deeply about how we do decision making and deliver results. 

Fascinating and rewarding read, if you have a spare hour. dominiccummings.com/

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

We've Had Our Eye On You For Quite Some Time Now, Mr Parker

It took a few hours for the parallels between The Matrix and Spiderman: Far From Home to finally compute. Like all postmodern superhero movies, they have a conflicted lead character, with a mentor, an antagonist, a global threat, and a girlfriend. But it's the final showdown (spoilers follow) which seemed so familiar.

In The Matrix, the final confrontation happens in a corridor, with Neo at one end, and Agent Smith at the other. Neo is 'resurrected' (long story), and finally sees reality for what it is - a computer generated illusion. He can literally see the code, rather than the objects they are rendering. It's an ability only he has, and it enables him to see what is real, and what is not, and to defeat (sort of) Smith.

In Spiderman: Far From Home, the final confrontation happens in a corridor - the viewing gallery of Tower Bridge. Mysterio, the villain, has control of an army of drones who can project an alternative 'reality' so real that it fools everyone. The movie up to this point has referred a few times to Spidermans 6th sense, his 'tingle'. As Mysterio turns the corridor into a fake 'reality' projected by the drones, Spiderman uses his 6th sense, rather than what he can see, hear and touch, to combat what is really there, work his way down the corridor, and defeat (sort of) Mysterio.

Both movies are built on the same premise: instinct is a better guide to what is truly real than the senses. Spidey is on a class science trip across Europe, which is a great excuse for the movie to destroy several famous landmarks across the continent. One of the science teachers has an explanation for all the weird things that keep happening: 'witches'. So much for science, despite the fact that the whole scenario depends on a stack of high level science -drones, holograms, satellites etc.

But the big message is underscored by the two post-credits scenes. In the first, Spidermans defeat of Mysterio (recorded on camera) is re-edited to make it look as if Mysterio is the hero and Spidey is the baddie, and presented by the media to the world. Fake news - what can you believe? In a clever throwback (one of several), JK Simmons plays the Daily Bugle newscaster who presents the story, having played the editor of Tobey Maguires Daily Bugle newspaper back in the last reboot of the franchise. In the second post-credit scene, Nick Fury is shown to have been a shapeshifting alien all along, allowing the real Fury to have a holiday (on a beach which also turns out to be fake).

What is a more reliable guide to reality, instinct or sense perception? (and why does it have to be an either or?). What, if anything, can we trust?

If scepticism extends to everything we see, then lets go there: can we trust this film? Or my reading of it?

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Ron Weasley, Political Commentator

Boris Johnson is Prime Minister
Dominic Raab is Foreign Secretary
Priti Patel is Home Secretary
Gavin Williamson is Education Secretary

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Ben Elton, where are you now?

So there's to be scrutiny of the support given to guests on reality TV shows. I'm guessing once the Kyle furore dies down, not much further will be done, and the digital Colosseum will continue to trade in bread and circuses for the good and pampered citizens of Panem.

At the turn of the century, Ben Elton penned 2 novels about reality TV and public media consumption, both squirmingly close to the bone, and both relevant to the current public outcry. (Funny that last week nobody had a problem with Kyle). Dead Famous is a parody of Big Brother, but core to the plot is the production team engineering a murder in order to push ratings. Popcorn is even more brutal: 2 vigilantes set up a live TV feed into the house of the man they've taken hostage, along with a monitor which shows them how many people are watching. They tell the viewers: switch off, and we'll spare his life, if you don't switch off, we'll shoot him. The viewers don't switch off.

The likes of Kyle, Big Brother, Love Island, all happen because we provide it with an audience. Maybe it suits us to count ourselves as passive consumers of TV, but in the digital world, everyone knows who's watching, what, and for how long. Every viewing minute is a vote in favour of the programme I'm watching.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Phobia?

This week Parliament will debating something other than Brexit. I know, hard to believe isn't it. The subject in question is a definition of 'Islamophobia' drawn up by the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims. Ahead of the debate, the government has already rejected the definition.

Here's the definition
“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”.

Where to start? Well, several other people have, so I won't, much. But a few thoughts
1. It's not a definition, unless you take off the first 8 words

2. Where 1 type of Muslim attacks another type, for being the wrong type, is that Islamophobia? Or is it more niche- Shiaphobia, Sufiphobia etc.? Or does it depend on whether they come from a different racial group?

3. To pick another trending phobia, homophobia is variously defined, but the definitions all cluster around an irrational fear, dislike and aversion towards homosexuals and homosexuality. This overlaps reasonably well with the psychological definition of a phobia as an unreasonable fear of or aversion towards x (where x is clowns, spiders, enclosed spaces etc.) If Islamophobia really is a word, and not a slogan, then why not define it in the same way: "An unreasonable fear, dislike and aversion towards Muslims and Islam." That sort of definition is transferrable to prejudice against Jews, Christians, Buddhists, devotees of the Flying Spaghetti Monster et al.

4. In the political and public sphere, us of the '...phobia' label carries more than just the connotation of fear and aversion. It is mainly attached to words and actions, rather than mental states. The label is often used in a similar (but less potentially fatal) way as accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan - someone has said or done something you don't like, and an accusation of 'xphobia' is the easiest and clearest way to label them as an enemy of the people, and someone to hate, ignore and pour invective upon. Whereas a medical diagnosis of a phobia is descriptive, a politically defined phobia is performative, it is public language used to claim or defend territory, to win or shut down discourse, rather than a description of a psychological state.

5. But does that help? In the Islamophobia definition, there is no reference to fear or psychological states at all. It has cut loose from its etymological moorings. It also, oddly, brings in racism: a Christian living in Pakistan may have an irrational fear of Muslims, but it's more likely to be based on Islamic terrorism and mob abuse of the blasphemy laws than on race. In fact, they may have a deep fear and aversion towards Muslims which is entirely rational, if their experience includes repeated examples of anti-Christian violence, church burnings etc.  Some Islamophobia may have a racial component, but some doesn't. So if it doesn't, would it qualify for the APPG definition, or is that something else? What if Muslims themselves are irrationally afraid of their fellow Muslims, and their forms of 'Muslimness'? Or rationally afraid of them?

6. At what point does a 'definition of Islamphobia' cease to be a definition of Islamophobia, and simply be a definition of something else, which has been labelled 'Islamophobia' for political and rhetorial reasons? In the film The Princess Bride, antagonist Vizzini keeps declaring that things are 'inconceivable!' eventually sidekick Inigo responds "you keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means". Repeated use of a word to mean x doesn't entail that x is what the word means. Humpty Dumpty famously declared "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, no more, no less", which results in 'impenetrability'. If the definition of a word is down to the user, rather than a commonly accepted meaning, then we lose the ability to communicate, and with it the ability to reason together.

7. The medical definition of a 'phobia' carries no moral baggage, but the political definition does. With two diverging understandings of what a phobia is, which one will give way first?

8. There is a danger that Islamophobia, and along with it homophobia, transphobia, and all the modern phobic family, will cease to mean anything. That it will just mean 'Booooo!', rather than communicate any clear content. If a word becomes 100% condemnation, 0% content, then another word will be needed to explain the phenomenon behind it, if we are actually serious about tackling it.

9. In order to be fair, we would not just need a working definition of Islamophobia, but a word for every other form of irrational prejudice and antagonism towards other social, racial, religious and demographic groups. At what point does this just get silly?

10. The (hopefully) blindingly obvious point that any definition needs to allow for rigorous analysis, critique and legitimate criticism of Islam, from historic sources right through to contemporary behaviour, without being used to shut this down.

11. And finally, which is more effective, running backwards away from something bad, or running forwards towards its opposite? It's easier to avoid negative behaviour if there is a positive culture of love, respect, hospitality, generosity and altruism. Focus on those positive things, and the negative behaviour withers away. Perhaps our focus on phobias is a symptom of a wider dis-ease, that we no longer have a shared ethos of goodness which we strive towards, and to which we can hold one another to account. Wrapped up in the supremacy of individual personal choice, a culture of rampant individualism is barren ground for a communal ethic. So more and more we find ourselves policing language, attitudes, and behaviour, so that you cannot be a threat to my rights. That's not a way of being society which has much of a future.

Maybe one day a traveller in an ancient land will stumble across a plaque, inscribed with descriptions of all the phobias defined in the early 21st century. And around it, the lone and level sands will stretch far away.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Why think when you can emote?

I've been following the Roger Scruton saga with interest. Scruton was recently sacked as an unpaid government advisor on housing, following an interview in the New Statesman. The selective quotation of Scruton by the journalist, and faux outrage on social media, led to a rapid sacking without, seemingly, anyone exploring the evidence, or the agenda of the journalist involved. The Spectator has got hold of the interview tapes, and Scrutons remarks, in context, are often saying the precise opposite of the spin put upon the by the journalist.

It's tempting to see the parallels between this and the recent no-platforming of Jordan Peterson by Cambridge University. In neither case has there been an attempt to engage with the actual thought of the person concerned. Instead, short circuit to dog whistle, emotional responses, and play your chosen  Ace of Trumps ('Offensive!' 'Racist!' 'Homophobe!') so quickly that nobody can check you actually had it in your hand, or whether it was produced from a secret drawer under the table.

Are we losing our ability to think? I'm no great letter writer, but the advantage of handwriting is that it takes time. And by the end of the letter you've maybe already decided you're writing nonsense, or you know that by the time it's written, sent, and received, the party at the other end has already had 3-4 days, and so have you, to gain a longer view of whatever you're writing about. For a philosopher like Scruton to be publicly accused, tried and found guilty within the course of a day, none of which would be possible without the social media/24 hours news cycle, is a worrying development. George Orwells '5 minutes hate' has become a daily feature, or even hourly feature, of social media. We know what trigger words to use. We know how to stir the crowd. We know how to signal virtue, and which virtues to signal - the protests over Donald Trump's visit will dwarf anything seen for the savage despots of China and Saudi Arabia.

Another post on the Scruton case laments the disappearance of serious thought within the Conservative party. It has disappeared in the nation at large too - a telling example of this was Tim Farrons (electorally disastrous) attempt to explain how liberalism works in practice. That someone might hold one set of views, but believe that the ideal democratic state was one where people could hold other views and openly practice them, seemed a thought too far for Farrons critics. Far easier to play the Ace of Trumps and add another body to the pile.

Orwells 5 minutes hate had two objectives. One was catharsis for the baying mob (who have always needed it, the cries of 'Crucify Him' echo down through history from the first Good Friday), and the other is to intimidate anyone who might feel like identifying with 'the enemy'. Alongside this was 'newspeak', a progressive editing of language so that it became impossible to think in a way which the state didn't want you to. I re-read 1984 last year and it was chilling to see how prophetic, still, Orwells depiction is. If you fear actual engagement with opposing arguments, its obviously tempting to simply erase them, saving you the bother of a) debating and b) the terrible inconvenience and existential threat of discovering you were wrong.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Who Do We Talk To?


A YouGov survey published this week found that 71% of us have someone we can talk to about big personal issues - 76% for women, and 65% for men. There's a sizeable chunk of people who have nobody they feel they can turn to, and not far off half the population who only have 1 person they can turn to. That's pretty precarious. 

A lot of services I'm aware of, both Christian and secular, have some form of mentoring, befriending or accompanying scheme, recognising that accountability and ongoing support help people with life change, and perhaps reflecting the scarce social resources out there to many millions of us.