Human kindness and economic migrants

The BBC News website recently reported that a “group of Conservative politicians has called for tougher action against the rising number of migrants crossing the English Channel”. The 23 Tory MPs and two peers told ministers that they must do “whatever it takes” to address attempts from migrants to enter the UK using small boats. In a letter to the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, they said that the “current surge in illegal immigration must be addressed urgently and radically through stronger enforcement efforts. It is strikingly clear that, rather than a ‘hostile environment’, invading migrants have been welcomed”. This last phrase echoed a comment from Nigel Farage a few days previous when he described a small group of adults and children landing on a beach in Kent as a “shocking invasion”. Comments on the Conservative Facebook page are even less benevolent, with repeated calls to stop economic migration, take back control of our borders, stop treating them like royalty by putting them up in our best hotels, and return them to their country of origin. Why do we feel so threatened by fellow human beings fleeing from war, persecution and / or starvation that we term their arrival an ‘invasion’? Why do we want to create a ‘hostile environment’ for them? Why does their arrival provoke so much anger and hatred?

In his recent book, Humankind, Rutger Bregman presents an argument that, if the above example is anything to go by, is struggling from the very start:

There is a persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish, aggressive and quick to panic. It’s what the Dutch biologist Frans de Waal likes to call veneer theory: the notion that civilisation is nothing more than a thin veneer that will crack at the merest provocation. In actuality, the opposite is true. It’s when crisis hits – when the bombs fall or the floodwaters rise – that we humans become our best selves. p4

He goes on to point out that:

The doctrine that humans are innately selfish has a hallowed tradition in the western canon. Great thinkers like Thucydides, Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Luther, Calvin, Burke, Bentham, Nietzsche, Freud, and America’s Founding Fathers each had their own version of the veneer theory of civilisation. p17

However, using a number of real examples, like a group of six British schoolboys who successfully lived as a group of castaways for more than a year after surviving a plane going down somewhere in the pacific without exhibiting any behaviour predicted by Lord of the Flies, and overturning the results of several famous psychological ‘experiments’, like the Stanford University ‘prison’ and Stanley Milgram’s ‘shock machine’, Bregman makes a very convincing argument that we human’s are not innately selfish at all.

With regards to the above reactions to the so called invasion of the Kent coast by a number of economic migrants, Bregman’s argument begs a number of questions. First, assuming that he is correct in his analysis, why do so many people seem unable to be in touch with their ‘kind nature’? Why do so many people seem unable to feel any empathy for the migrants? Why do so many people seem unable to appreciate the situations that compel these migrants to risk their lives to get here? Maybe it’s this selfishness that’s the veneer; a hard crust built up by many years of capitalist ideology covering a deeper kindness. Maybe it will take some kind of disaster or trauma to allow this kindness to break through.

Perhaps it’s that we reserve our kindness for people that we are in close contact with. That without this contact we treat others in a less benevolent way than we do our ‘home’ group. It’s a well known social phenomenon that no matter how prejudiced we may be towards a certain group, if we inadvertently get to know someone from that group we soon think that they are different from the group – that they are ‘ok’. This may be related to the sociological concept of ‘othering’, a process whereby we define our own ‘normal’ identity by distancing ourselves from ‘the other’; where we understand or give meaning to a society or culture (say Britishness) by creating an intrinsic difference between it and other societies. Such a process, by definition, excludes members of other societies or cultures from our own – effectively making them aliens that must be kept from the gates. In which case, perhaps we need to get to know, have real contact with those fellow humans we regard as ‘others’? That if we do, we will quickly discover that they are just like us.

Or maybe Bregman is wrong, that human life is really like Hobbes described it: a ‘state war of all against all’ where life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’, a condition that we can only soften by giving up our liberty to a monarch or state. Such a condition would also vindicate the premise of capitalism, that we are all motivated by self-interest and that if allowed to work through this will be for the benefit of everyone. The main problem with this view, however, is that all the anthropological evidence suggests otherwise. The accumulation of wealth and power, and the dominance of self-interest, only became an issue some 20,000 years ago when human hunter-gatherer tribes started to farm and create fixed settlements. Prior to that any emergent self-interest was kept firmly subservient to co-operation and the needs of the group / tribe. In other words, our ‘natural’ condition, human life as lived for 85-90% of our evolutionary past, was pretty much as described by Bregman.

The bottom line is that I haven’t got a definitive answer to any of these questions. But I do believe that if human life is going to survive on this planet we need to start not just seeing others as our fellow human beings, but to genuinely start feeling positive towards them; we need to ditch the self-interest and righteous indignation and start to foster a sense of global co-operation. If you have a view on this, whether you agree with me or not, you are more than welcome to debate the issue at the next Bridport Philosophy in Pubs (virtual) meeting on August 26th. If you want to join us please email me through this site and I’ll send you a link. And don’t worry if you are not from Bridport – that’s one (the only?) advantage of virtual meetings.

Dorset Council’s Climate Emergency Strategy

This morning I ‘attended’ a meeting of Dorset Council’s Place Scrutiny Committee. I am not a member of this committee, but because they were considering the Council’s recently published Climate and Ecological Emergency Strategy, and because I do sit on the panel that has supposedly produced this strategy, I wanted to ask that committee a question – and in so doing make a public statement regarding both my frustration at the speed with which the Council is actually committing to any climate action, and my belief that they have got their methodology ‘arse about face’.

I say that the Climate and Ecological Emergency Executive Advisory Panel has only supposedly produced this strategy because in effect the work (the very good and very professional work that has gone into its production) has been done by council officers. And whilst in theory the panel has been consulted, I for one do not feel that the opinions of the panel have counted for much. No, the direction and methodology of the panel has been largely supplied by its chair, as has most of the decision making. Despite feeling quite impotent during this process, I have resisted the urge to speak publicly – until now. I have done this out of respect for the request that we keep our discussions confidential until we are ready to publish. Anyway, my question was:

This Council has already agreed that we face a climate and ecological emergency. Does this committee consider that this strategy document fully acknowledges the urgency that is normally associated with an emergency? The methodology that has produced this document is expressed in its Forward: “while other councils around the country may have chosen to set deadlines for carbon reduction and then work out how they’ll achieve them, I’ve always wanted us to do the investigation and information-gathering first before setting out our strategy. This ensures that our action plan and timetable is both realistic and achievable, as well as ambitious.” Such caution is far from ambitious. We have never faced such an emergency before. As we have no relevant experience, we cannot know what actions are realistic. But we do know what needs to be done – the IPCC (the International Panel on Climate Change) have been telling us for years. It’s no longer about the science or evidence, it’s about the political implications of the science and evidence – it’s about the political leadership that this council is prepared to give. This Council should have, by now, clearly laid out what needs to be achieved across the Dorset area. It should have set the challenge and be provide the leadership to meet the challenge.

I can illustrate what I mean with two examples. First, the Navitus Bay windfarm project. In September 2015 planning permission for the wind farm was refused by the Planning Inspectorate, due to the visual impact effect the development would have had on the region – a tourist area which included a World Heritage site (the Jurassic Coast). Had it gone ahead, it would have supplied approximately 85% of the electricity for the whole of Dorset – a short fall that could easily have been made up through the use of solar panels. This would have allowed Dorset to be supplied by 100% renewable energy. I will avoid a detailed discussion now about the reasons why this application was rejected. Needless to say I do not think them valid. But that’s not the point. Five years down the line there is a lot of talk about resurrecting this project. This is where the Council could (should) show political leadership. It should state openly that it wants this, or a very similar project, to go ahead. Rather than following its current methodology of only committing to projects that are “both realistic and achievable” it could commit to projects where the realism and achievability are questionable, but do all in its power to make them real. There may be a lot of obstacles in the way of turning such an idea into an actuality, but without the political will these obstacles will never be overcome.

Second, UK building standards need to be changed. Local planning authorities like Dorset Council need to have the power to require all new developments to be built to the highest standards of energy efficiency. All new builds need to be net zero carbon. If they are not they will need, at some point in the future, to be retrofitted to make them so – a process that will be far more expensive than making them so in the first place. Because these changes need to be brought about by Westminster, demanding them of developers now is neither realistic not achievable – at least in the short term. However, the Council could make a very clear and unambiguous statement that they need these powers for the long-term wellbeing of their residents. They could start speaking and working with other local planning authorities, and could devise joint strategies for bring the necessary changes about. My point is simply that unless they commit to such an action plan, unless they make bold and ambitious statements of intent, they will never find the ingenuity and creativity to realise them. Not all of the commitments will be actualised, but that’s not the point. It’s far better to aim high and fall short, than to only aim at something you know you can reach. Or, as a fellow councillor commented after the meeting: “if you aim for the stars you stand a better chance of climbing out of the gutter than if you only aim for the pavement”.

So, did my question to the committee change anything? No. Despite the chair of the committee almost admitting that he agreed with me, the committee unanimously approved the document. The next step will be Cabinet next Tuesday, followed by a public consultation. Meanwhile the time we have left drips slowly away.

Reflecting on my first year on Dorset Council

I have learnt a lot during the last year, during my first year as a councillor on a principle council. Much of this learning has just been about relatively straight forward stuff; stuff like the planning process, stuff that raises questions that have answers, stuff that once you’ve got your head around it you are reasonably well sorted. However, perhaps more profoundly, there’s been some learning that just seems to defy resolution. This learning has emerged from a series of tensions – tensions between different aspects of my thinking and experience, tensions that I’m struggling to reconcile.

One of these tensions has been the need to negotiate the difference between being, on the one hand, a political activist and campaigner, and on the other a politician. Whilst I have experienced no conflict regarding what I believe in and what I’m trying to bring about, I have learnt that how I go about being an effective politician is quite a bit different from being an active campaigner.

In many ways, campaigning on a certain issue is relatively straight forward. Your aim is to not only make an argument to bring about a certain change, it’s to make that argument to as many people as possible in the hope that public opinion will force the relevant decision makers to make that change. Even if, on the surface, your argument is directed at the decision makers, most of the time you are trying to get so many people to support you that these decision makers have no choice but to go in your direction. And to do this any stunt, any publicity helps.

However, as a politician, particularly as a politician from a minority party, you are trying to directly influence these decision makers. And because you need to work closely with them you need to develop a certain relationship with them. In particular, you to need get them to take you seriously. To get them to listen to you and take your views on board you need to develop a certain degree of trust and respect – even if politically you disagree with them. And none of this can easily be achieved by adopting the techniques of an activist. Both techniques can be effective, but perhaps they need to come from different directions.

This particular tension has been most prevalent within Dorset Council’s climate emergency agenda. As a Green Party councillor on the council’s Climate and Ecological Emergency Executive Advisory Panel (CEE EAP) I am experiencing deep levels of frustration (perhaps even anger) at the Council’s (the Chairman’s) overly cautious approach to responding to what I consider to be an existential threat to the long-term survival of humanity. This approach has been to first collect all the evidence, then review it, then develop a strategy, and then (finally) produce an action plan. All very sensible if it wasn’t for the fact that despite having only 8-10 years to make serious reductions in our carbon emissions, and despite declaring a Climate Emergency in Dorset over a year ago, we haven’t even seen a draft action plan yet. I want the Council to show more ambition. I want it to show political leadership. I’m struggling to resolve the activist urge to go public, to attract attention, with the political understanding that such action may well weaken what little influence I do have.

There’s also a tension between being a politician and a philosopher. The political dimension is still the same, that of trying to directly influence the decision makers, of trying to get them to take me seriously and not dismiss me as the holder of irrelevant radical views who can be safely ignored. But this time the tension comes from the opposite direction. Not from the overt actions of an activist, but from the theoretical reflections and considerations of philosophy – from the desire to question basic assumptions, to challenge what we often regard as ‘common sense’. As I have no doubt written on many occasions, in political terms this most often manifests in what I consider our use of an invalid economic theory, one that actually creates individualism and selfish behaviour rather than modelling our economic action on these so-called natural traits. In many ways our current economic model has replaced religion as the source of all meaning and purpose in life. This economic model has become so engrained in our thinking that we generally take its propositions to be just plain ‘common sense’. I genuinely believe this to be not only false, but to be as existentially threatening as our climate emergency. In fact, I consider it to be the main cause of this emergency.

But believing this creates an irreconcilable tension within me. Even if, by some miracle, a majority of councillors elected onto Dorset Council were sympathetic to this alternative view of economics, the Council would still need to operate within the prevailing economic environment and would flounder if they tried to step too far outside. So, what do I do? Do I support decisions that allow, in the short term, the Council and Dorset as a whole to economically flourish within this economic model, even though I believe they are detrimental to the long-term flourishing of human life? Or do I oppose them and risk the short-term suffering of residents when essential services are shut down through a lack of funds?

Part of me believes that whilst this three-way tension, this triangulation between persuasive politics, theoretical philosophy, and direct activism, is irreconcilable, it is also highly creative. Just attempting a reconciliation can lead to new insights. But another part of me just wants to reach for the whisky bottle.

Stories and the art of persuasion

How do you persuade or convince someone that your opinion on an issue is either the correct one, or, at the very least, worthy of serious consideration? Or, to phrase the problem in a slightly different way, how to you get someone to understand something from your perspective – particularly when their perspective is so radically different? This is a problem that has haunted me for many years. I have, for example, particular views on what the economy is and how it should be modelled, views that are radically opposed to the current dominant neo-liberal model, views that are dismissed by the people I want to engage as (at best) against common sense or (at worst) part of a communist take-over plan.

Whilst this is a chronic issue for me, it occasionally become acute – like when the government, in lifting COVID-19 restrictions, blatently prioritises consumption and the revival of economic growth over the health and safety of its citizens. A standard response would be that I simply need a good argument – that if it doesn’t convince people of the correctness of my argument then it is wrong. Plain and simple. In other words, we are all rational thinkers and are quite capable of making decisions and evaluating ideas using good old reason. But it’s not as simple as this. And we have known it’s not as simple as this for well over two thousand years.

Aristotle was probably one of the first thinkers to study the art of persuasion, or, as he termed it, rhetoric. His work on the subject is still quoted today and still forms the essence of most modern studies. And it certainly moves us beyond a narrow focus on rational argument. For Aristotle, there are three ingredients to the art of persuasion: logos (reason, rational argument); pathos (emotional engagement); and ethos (the character the person making ‘the argument’). So yes, whilst presenting a well-reasoned argument to your audience is important, it is not enough. It’s necessary but not sufficient.

Engaging with your audience on an emotional level is also important. Despite the idea expressed in classical economic theories that people make economic decisions based on rational self-interest, in practice (as people engaged in the advertising industry, people paid to persuade us to make decisions in their clients’ favour, know) it’s usually emotion that sells. And regarding the character of the speaker, I suggest that the only reason why some people have supported Boris Johnson is because they warm to his character. They accept what he says because they regard him as ‘one of us’. Never underestimate the importance of the assessment of character. However, despite my belief in the necessity of all three of these ingredients, I don’t think that taken together they are sufficient. There’s a vital forth ingredient that has not so much been ignored as taken for granted. And that is story or narrative. Or, to use the closest word from ancient Greek that I can think of, mythos.

Mythos is the story that has to be present in order to make sense of any argument related to it. It supplies the relevant history or histories of an argument, its context and background. However, I use the word mythos with some caution because it obviously implies fiction or fable, a story that is essentially untrue. But when you think about it, if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that these stories have to be, to some degree, fiction. Take for example the recent debates about the British involvement in the slave trade. Yes, the history we tell ourselves about the slave trade must be based on evidence – evidence that is, to some degree, factual. But this evidence cannot, on its own, form the story that we use to make sense of what happened. First, someone (or some group of people) decide what evidence to include and what to ignore. History, someone once remarked, is written by the winners. Not by the humans that were captured, traded, bred and put to work to make a fortune for the businessmen whose work we celebrate with statues in public places. Not by the women who, for centuries, were deprived both of a vote and an opportunity to express their views on important issues. Arguably a true history needs to include all these voices, though in practice some selection is inevitable. And second, because a narrative (a story) needs to be written that connects the selected evidence in a cause and effect way. Or, to put it another way, the evidence needs interpreting.

My point, then, is that logos, pathos and ethos are all necessary elements in the art of persuasion, but that on their own they are insufficient. What’s also needed is a story or narrative (mythos) that explains the context or history of the situation we want to change, a story that explains how we got to this point and where we need to go from here. These stories have always been present whenever someone or some group is being persuaded of something, but they have always been implicit. I want to suggest that to become really effective in the art of persuasion we need to make these stories explicit. We need to show how the story being told is rational. We need to facilitate emotional engagement with the story. And we need to make the characters of the main players in the story clear – not only the narrator, but the victims, the villains and the heroes. We unconsciously do all these things already. But what we do not do is to pay attention to the story itself. If we fail to do this we risk telling the same old story, a story that we are comfortable with, but a story that doesn’t support the argument we are trying to make.

The necessity of rewriting history

Writing in today’s Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson ‘warns’ that “Britain cannot ‘photoshop’ its long and complicated cultural history.” His comments refer to the boarding up of the statue of his beloved Winston Churchill in Parliament Square ahead of threatened Black Lives Matter protests at the weekend, and the toppling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol the weekend before. His choice of metaphor, however, seriously misrepresents the process that creates our, or any, history. In fact it reveals a serious lack of understanding as to what ‘histories’ actually are.

“Photoshopping” refers to the editing and / or manipulation of images – images originally taken of an actual event. So, is an original photograph (or any artefact) a history? Well, obviously, no – not on its own. The best we could say is that it is a piece of historical evidence. But even as a piece of historical evidence we can’t claim it to be a definitive description of its subject. We first need to ask a series of questions: Who took it? Why did they take it? Why did they choose this angle as opposed to another? What did they decide not to photograph or record? Why? And even then we don’t produce a history. Even a whole collection of photographs spanning many years do not constitute a history – not without some narrative that connects them together.

On this point, the Home Secretary’s comments the week before reveal a greater understanding of the historical process. Also writing in the Daily Telegraph, Priti Patel wrote: “I profoundly dislike the rewriting of history through a twenty first century lens.” However, whilst acknowledging that histories are written, she seems unaware that we have no choice but to rewrite history, any history, each and every time we revisit or think about them, and that we have no choice but to do this through a twenty first century lens.

Histories, all histories, are stories. They are narratives. Hopefully these narratives are constructed from actual evidence and are not complete works of fiction, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate all elements of fiction from them. Think about it. The past is a seamless flow of events. Even the selection of particular events out of this flow is problematic. For example, both the start and the end of the First World War are contentious points. Did it start with the assignation of Archduke Ferdinand, or was this just a tipping point in a process that had many origins? Did it end with the armistice on 11th November, 1918, or, as one general predicted, was this just a pause in proceedings? Proceedings that recommenced in 1939?

The First World War was not a single event. It was a very complex collection of interrelated events. However, it is impossible for all the events that occurred, events that could legitimately be regarded as being related to the war, to be included in its history. And events that are included in this history are linked together by a narrative that relates them to one another and to the war as a whole. It is, then, a matter of judgement as to which events to include and how to interpret them in terms of the overall narrative. Both the inclusion and the interpretation (and therefore the narrative as a whole) is open to revision (to rewriting) when either fresh evidence is uncovered or methods of interpretation change. For example, the psychological condition of ‘post traumatic shock’ was in its very early stages of being described during the period 1914-18. So rather than offer this as a diagnosis of the symptoms displayed by many who refused to return to the trenches after recovering from their injuries, these soldiers were regarded as deserters and shot. With hindsight we can view this as wrong. So we rewrite what happened. We don’t eradicate the events from the narrative, but we do change the narrative to tell a different story. In the original they were deserters. In the rewrite they were victims of an actual psychological illness and of an unfair justice system.

Likewise with both the history of the British Empire and our involvement with the slave trade. Many of the atrocities committed by British troops in these colonies were not, for a long time, included in the official histories. They happened – but were not part of the narrative until certain historians either uncovered evidence of their occurrence or started to interpret events in a different way due to a change in values. Historically, for many people in this country, the slave trade was regarded as a legitimate business. It wasn’t until people like William Wilberforce started to argue that this trade in human beings was deeply wrong and should be abolished that opinions started to change. Changing our interpretation of events involved in the slave does not airbrush out any historical event, but it does both rewrite that history and allow a wider range of evidence to be included. The trade in human cargo that was once regarded as legitimate, and was a cause of celebration, is now regarded as immoral and a cause of deep regret. The once excluded experiences and suffering of the slaves are now included. How could this not require a rewrite?

The statue of Colston has acted as a reminder of the slave trade to all who pass it. This was deeply offensive to Bristol’s black community. It should have been deeply offensive to us all. That it had not been removed earlier is a disgrace. Its peaceful removal by BLM protesters should be seen as positive acknowledgment that we are not proud of our historic involvement with the slave trade, and that commemorating its main proponents by, quite literally, placing them on a pedestal, is immoral. Yes, it’s removal is yet another edit to our national history. It is a rewrite. But if we do not make these edits we include interpretations that no longer apply.

The moral case for open borders

One of the main ‘rules’ of rhetoric is to never start with an apology. Nevertheless, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for my the overly sentimental way that I’m going to introduce a very serious idea, but that’s just the way it is. Get over it.

I’ve been reminded this last week of the song ‘Borderline’ by Chris de Burgh. I realise that being familiar with songs by this particular singer is probably enough to destroy any ‘street cred’ I may have, but I am. I confess it. And I can’t stop this particular song bringing a tear to my eye. It tells of two lovers being parted by the outbreak of war because they come from the opposite sides of a borderline, and includes the refrain of him pleading with her to wait for him “until the day there’s no borderline”. I can vaguely remember another, less sentimental song about getting rid of borders between countries, this time (I think) by a British folk rock band – but I can’t remember who. Whilst I remember the idea capturing my attention at the time, this is something that I have given practically no consideration to in recent years. Not until a late chapter in Rutger Bergman’s Utopia for Realists that is.

So, in an era when the UK government is in the process passing a new immigration bill that will further restrict ‘low skilled’ immigration, when there is outrage from the nationalist right wing of politics about desperate refugees risking their lives by crossing the English Chanel to seek safety and shelter, and when this country treats anyone found to be here illegally so inhumanely, I would like to propose the opposite: the opening of borders. Obviously the UK could not act unilaterally on this, but it could start to at first consider, and then campaign for, the gradual elimination of regulated national borders.

As Bergman points out, formal borders controlling the movement of people is a relatively new phenomenon: “On the eve of World War I, borders existed mostly as lines on paper. Passports were rare and the countries that did issue them (like Russia and the Ottoman Empire) were seen as uncivilized.” So why do we need them? National governments could still administer their geographical area and its services. And it would be possible, for the sake of planning and resource management, to restrict access to all but emergency health and social services to people who have been living and / or working within the administrative border for more than a certain period of time. We could even have a collective of administrative governments entering into an agreement to allow total free movement of people and services. Or has this been tried already?

We live in a global society. The most serious of the problems faced by humans are global. The effects of a rise in mean global temperatures, the slow erosion of habitats capable of supporting human life, and the corresponding erosion of our wider ecology are not phenomena restricted by national borders. Arguably the migration of people fleeing these problems could be controlled or restricted, but that would be so inhumane it would be off the scale of perversity. If we are serious about equality and human rights (and I really hope that we are) we surely have to accept that it is grossly unethical to actively prevent people travelling to seek food and work, to seek safety and refuge from war and civil unrest, and to escape the effects of climate change and ecological collapse. And just in case someone is inclined to argue against, could I point out that many, if not most of these problems were caused, either directly or indirectly, by the economic expansion of those Western states that suffer them least. These states have a moral obligation to accept responsibility for their colonial histories and their plundering of the Earth’s resources.

We also have a moral obligation to greatly reduce global inequality. In terms of wealth, it is scandalous that (according to UN figures) the poorest billion people in the world are responsible for just 1% of all consumption, whilst the richest billion are responsible for 72%. “In the nineteenth century”, Bergman argues, “inequality was still a matter of class; nowadays, it’s a matter of location.” It’s not even that the opening of all borders to facilitate the sharing of global wealth would cause those in the richest countries to be noticeably worse off. It’s been estimated that the gross world product would grow by between 67% and 147%. The whole world could be twice as rich. And even the Centre for Immigration Studies, a think tank that opposes immigration, concludes that immigration would have no effect on the wages in the countries receiving people. In standard economic terms, a bigger workforce will increase consumption and create demand, which, in turn, will create jobs. It is just that these new jobs will go people who really need them.

We really need to rid ourselves of the prejudice that immigrants are criminals or scroungers or terrorists that have no right to a share of the wealth that we, in rich countries, enjoy. Those that struggle with this thought should ponder where we got our wealth from in the first place. Instead, we need to move towards a truly global society, and rid ourselves of any thought (other than in sport) of nation competing with nation. Our human survival, and the survival of our wider ecology, demands that we cooperate and support a global conception of humanity. And if all of this is just too sentimental for you – I can’t apologise. It’s just the way it is.

Creating the ideal society?

I have finally got round to reading Rutger Bregman’s Utopia For Realists. Apart from a lack of emphasis on our climate and ecological emergency (he refers to it, but not in any detail) the book reads like my ideal political manifesto. In it Bregman calls a complete change in our socio-economic model through the development of a replacement for GDP as a ‘measure’ of our national economic efficiency, the introduction of a universal basic income, and a significant reduction in the number of hours we spend in paid work each week. One of the main benefits of such a manifesto (apart from a massive reduction in the seriously harmful inequality that plagues our society) would the unleashing of human creativity.

Whilst directing this creativity into the arts (music, dance, fine art, poetry etc) would have a massively beneficial effect on human society, developing human creativity in general may well be they key to the long term survival of human life on this planet. All life on this planet is organised into complex systems nested within larger complex systems, with the planetary eco-system forming the largest. Each of these systems is at its healthiest when it is at a point that is often referred to as being ‘on the edge of chaos’, a state when the system can also be said to be at its most creative. To understand why I first need to explain what I mean by a complex system.

Complex systems are any collective of living units that are held together by a high degree of connectivity between the units – a connectivity formed through the flow of energy and / or information. So the individual bodies of humans and animals (indeed, all living things) themselves are complex systems, as are the communities they live in. A key feature of such systems is the emergence of novelty. These phenomena, like language, culture and the rule of law, cannot be explained through a reductive analysis – they are not simply the product of the correct arrangement of certain pre-existing ‘bits’; they are much more than the sum or their parts. This emergence of novelty is vital for their long term survival. It allows for the adaptation to changes in the system’s environment. But emergence of novelty is highly dependent the strength of the energy / information that connects the individual units.

In terms of human societies, lets call this connectivity ‘social norms’. Our norms, our bits of social connectivity, can be of different strengths, but they are vital. Without them there is simply no system, no structure. There is chaos. However, these norms can also be too strong. As I have said, all systems are nested within larger systems upon which they are dependent (for example for food to eat, water to drink and air to breathe), systems which are subject to constant change and uncertainty. If our norms are too rigid our societies are unable adapt to changes in our environment, but if they are too week they can easily fall into chaos . In the language of complex systems, the ideal balance is termed ‘the edge of chaos’. This is the point where the norms are sufficiently strong to maintain a high degree of cohesion, but sufficiently open to modification as to allow adaptation to a changing environment. And the one certainly in life (apart from death and taxes) is that our environment will change. It is a highly dynamic, complex system itself. A system can be said to be at its most creative when at the edge of chaos.

Because of this complexity, there cannot be a definitive way to organise society. There is no ideal system. Any system will allow certain social phenomena to emerge whilst repressing others. And whilst it will be impossible to know, in advance, what phenomena will emerge, it is totally impossible to know what is being prevented from emerging. What we need is not a definitive system, an ideal structure, but a system that is on the edge of chaos. Perhaps most importantly we need a system of government that can both adapt to a highly complex and uncertain environment, whilst accepting not just that they have not got all the answers, but that there are no definitive answers. We need a new system of government, one that is vastly more creative than the one we have at the moment.

Some system of proportional representation would be a large step in the right direction. We need politicians from different perspectives (perspectives that truly represent the views of the population as a whole) to sit around a table, to listen to the different perspectives, to accept there are no definitive solutions to our problems, and (above all) to be creative in their decisions. Our current, highly adversarial system is the antithesis of the creative consensus we need. Another step forward might be the introduction of citizens’ assemblies. And all this will be made easier to achieve is we start moving in the direction advocated by Bregman. The introduction of a universal basic income and a reduction in the working week will allow time for people to properly engage in government and decision making, and will allow us to become both more creative and less rigid.

COVID-19 and our mental health

There is no correct response to the COVID-19 crisis. Any and all actions we adopt will have a mix of good, bad and uncertain consequences. Take the need to ‘lockdown’ our social and economic life for example. The government is being heavily criticised (probably quite correctly) for failing to apply this lockdown early enough. Countries that did adopt this measure hard and fast appear to have suffered a much reduced death rate. So, on the surface at least, such a response would appear to have been a good thing, and I have no wish (for the time being) to question or interrogate this aspect of it. However, there are obvious downsides to it. Perhaps the most obvious is the financial hit that many workers and small businesses are taking. Whilst this particular hit is being mitigated by the government’s socialist measures (oh the irony) there is another for which, so far, I see no response at all. The nation’s mental health.

Last Saturday (16th May, 2020) The Guardian reported that “People with no history of mental illness are developing serious psychological problems for the first time as a result of the lockdown”. The most obvious causes for this, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, are “growing stresses over isolation, job insecurity, relationship breakdown and bereavement.” Now arguably the government could have reduced the number of people suffering bereavement by introducing the lockdown sooner, and they have, to some degree at least, off set the potential number of job losses. But what could they possibly do to reduce the effects of social isolation? After all, that’s the actual point of lockdown. By restricting our contact with others we restrict the ability for the virus to spread through the community. It’s a bit of a ‘catch 22’ situation.

The problem is that humans, at their very core, are social beings. As I’ve said on so many occasions, we are not the individuals depicted by classical economic theory. We are not self-contained rational beings who choose to come together to achieve certain ends. Whilst physically / biologically we are individual entities, psychologically and socially we are inter-subjective and highly interdependent. Basically we are, and only can be, who we are because of our relations with others. Our subjectivity is not something we are born with. Whilst certain predispositions are present at birth (though genetically selected through the accumulated intersubjectivity of previous generations) how they develop is highly dependent on social circumstances and relationships. It seems obvious to me that suddenly reducing these social relationships to those permitted by the lockdown may well trigger traumatic responses in many people.

The other side of this relative social isolation, of course, is that those relationships that remain, those involving the others who you are living with during the period of lockdown, come under the spotlight light of intensive scrutiny. Or, to put it another way, these remaining relationships expand to fill the social vacuum. This can place an obvious strain on many of them. By expanding in this way not only are these remaining relationships stretched to possible breaking point, but the counter balance of outside relationships have been removed. Conversely, of course, the testing of these relationships in this way may show them to be very strong and resilient. I feel very thankful that my personal experience of the lockdown has been very positive in this respect.

Another aspect that concerns me is the development of possible anxiety about returning ‘to normal’. Here I’m thinking about the possible psychological responses of returning to social situations that we have quickly become accustomed to thinking of as dangerous. For example, there has been a lot of discussion this week about the gradual reopening of schools. Now, quite correctly in my view, teachers and their unions have been raising concerns about their safety – about their exposure to infection from the children they are teaching. Even if children are as resilient to infection as some people claim, they can still be carriers of the virus, and it will surely be very difficult for teachers to wear full PPE and / or adopt strict social distancing. So how will teachers feel about returning to school? What levels of anxiety will they experience? What will be the long term effects of low, but constant, levels of anxiety? And conversely, what will be the long term effects on children being taught under such clinical conditions?

I have no answers to these questions. I am not a psychologist, and in the end we may prove to be far more psychologically robust than I think. I really do hope that this is the case. But we should also be prepared for a psychological after shock. As the popular mantra goes: we should hope for best but prepare for the worst. This not only means having the necessary professional support available for those of us who may need it, it means being prepared to talk openly about our mental health in the same way as we are about our physical health. And it means being as empathetic as we can to the concerns and worries of others.

The lockdown and the ‘is-ought problem’

Over the course of the last week I have been reminded of a problem articulated by the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Known as the ‘is-ought problem’ it simply points out that we cannot derive ‘an ought’ from ‘an is’; that we cannot, with any justification at least, first make a positive statement about an actual state of affairs (a description of what is the case) and then, from it, make a normative statement (a prescription of what should be the case). Two things have fed my thinking here: the various reports that I’ve heard and read about concerning outbreaks of anger directed at people who appear to be flouting the rules of the lockdown, and the book that I’m currently reading – Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer.

I wrote a few weeks ago about people protesting at others who appeared to be ignoring the lockdown rules by entering public spaces like parks and sunbathing. Even though no actual harm was being done by the sunbathers (provided they kept two or more meters away from anyone that they were not living with) others were angered by the thought that they were outdoors unnecessarily. There have been innumerable other examples, ranging from having parties, travelling to second homes, or simply not respecting the request to keep 2 meters away from people you are not living with. I’m not (at the moment) attempting any ethical evaluation of these examples. I simply want to point to a very much reported example of a trait of human behaviour that is not necessarily logical. Yes, it seems rational to argue that having a party could very easily help spread the virus, but it seems much more a problem to apply the same argument to sunbathing in a park whilst keeping at least 2 meters distance from others.

In the above book, Boyer draws on both anthropology and evolutionary psychology to describe how human behaviour is the result of a large number of universally evolved ‘inference systems’ that are given shape by particular cultural influences. These systems he describes as “specialised explanation-devices…each of which is adapted to particular kinds of events, and automatically suggests explanations for these events”, though, to be honest, ‘explanations’ isn’t necessarily the best word as some of the outcomes of these devices are emotions like fear or disgust. With regards to our evolution as a social animals, a large number of these systems have evolved to maintain group social cohesion and cooperation, necessary traits for group survival. One system in particular reacts to the perceived detection of another group member flouting the rules of the group by producing a feeling of anger. In evolutionary terms, such a reaction helps reduce behavioural deviance and therefore helps maintain social cohesion. My point in saying all this is that feelings of anger directed towards social others who are ‘breaking the rules’ are quite natural and to be expected. But does their being ‘natural’ make them desirable?

Human social evolution is running at a faster rate than our biological evolution. Adaptive behaviour that was effective ten thousand years ago may be less so now. For example, despite what classical economics says about our ‘rational self-interest’, we have evolved to be cooperative. Cooperating with other group members was essential to group survival. But this ‘ingroup’ cooperation did not necessarily extend to ‘inter-group’ cooperation (though sometimes it did). However, as groups of hunter gatherers have settled and merged, as our social groups have become progressively larger and more complex, we have gradually extended the boundaries of our ‘ingroups’. The desire to cooperate with group members is a naturally evolved adaptive trait. However, if things had remained this way modern social life would not be possible. Instead, contemporary cultural influences, influences derived from the experienced rationale that so much more can be achieved (and so much suffering alleviated) when we cooperate enmasse, have added an ought to this trait. The ‘ought’ has not been derived from the trait (the ‘is’), but has been added to it from a different direction.

The same applies to our feelings of anger at people who we infer are breaking the rules. We have a naturally occurring inference system that produces these feelings. This is how we feel. It’s quite natural to feel this way. But that doesn’t mean that that is how we ought to feel. Or rather, as we will be unlikely to be able to just turn off such feelings, we can allow a little rational reflection to modify any expression of anger. We can ask ourselves whether the behaviour that upsets us is really that bad? We can try to extend our feelings of empathy to those who are the source of our anger and ask ourselves how do they feel? Basically, we could stop being so instantaneously ‘judgemental’ and start trying to see the bigger picture. Ultimately, whilst the ‘is’ will be derived from the prevailing factual conditions of what is actually taking place, the ‘ought’ will be derived from our collective desired outcome – an outcome that requires more imagination and thought than the ‘is’ can supply.

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

Last weekend the Independent newspaper reported on recent research that revealed “Almost half of the British population believe that the coronavirus is a ‘man-made creation’” and that “8 per cent of people think that 5G technology is spreading the virus”. Whenever I hear of such reports, or become aware of certain ‘conspiracy theory’ campaigns, I become haunted by the question: What leads people to believe in these and other conspiracy theories? From my perspective it’s certainly not any actual evidence. In fact, such theories fall foul of the same ‘evidence’ problem as many religions – you can’t prove that something doesn’t exist. My concern here isn’t so much the fact that people believe strange stuff on the basis of little or no evidence; it’s that some believers are further motivated to adopt dangerous or anti-social behaviour – there have, for example, been several incidents of telecommunication masts being subject to arson attacks.

A recent meeting of my Town Council’s Environment & Social Wellbeing Committee, which I chair, received a presentation from a group of very sincere local campaigners who believe that 5G technology is not only unsafe, but that our government is lying about its safety. They go as far as to say (in the leaflet they handed out) that “there is no defence in law for complicity to commit genocide”. Their implication being that that is the government’s intention. It was the very dubious wording of this leaflet that prompted me to do a little research into this technology. For example, it included the sign “Danger Non-ionizing radiation”. Now I am no scientist, but I was fairly sure from my fire service days that the main dangers of ‘radiation’ came from ionizing radiation, from x-rays and gamma rays. My memory hadn’t failed me. Non-ionizing radiation includes ordinary radio waves, visible light, as well as the millimetre wave (microwave) radiation used by 5G. In and of itself, non-ionizing radiation is not a danger. If it were, there would be no life on this planet.

This isn’t to deny that microwave energy, applied at a high enough level, can cause harm to biological tissue. However, the evidence suggests that this new technology will expose us to nowhere near such dangerous levels of microwave energy. As reported in The Guardian (on 12th March), the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), a German based scientific body, have found overwhelming evidence that 5G technology is safe and that exposure from base stations reaches about 1% of the maximum level of millimetre-wave non-ionizing radiation. So, my question remains: Why, despite evidence to the contrary, do people still believe in these conspiracies?

I haven’t (yet) got a convincing answer to this question, but I suspect that the answer may be found in two different directions, not the irrationality of the conspiracy theorists themselves. The first relates to our intuitive need to read agency into social phenomenon. We have not only evolved the ability to interpret social interactions from the perspectives of others, an intuitive ‘theory of mind’, but have a strong propensity to over interpret social situations; to ascribe meaning and purpose to events that, for a variety of reasons, are without such agency. We all do this. In evolutionary terms it is safer to over interpret than under interpret. But why, for some of us, does this intuitive and non-voluntary trait become so out of control?

A second direction concerns our attitude to governments in general and politicians in particular. Another piece of research I came upon recently (sorry, I can’t remember the source) suggested that in this country Brexit supporters and people who distrust the political system are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories than others. And in a similar vein, Futurism magazine (29th April) quotes what they call a ‘Trumpian conspiracy theorist’ as saying “the scariest thing about this pandemic is not the virus itself, it’s seeing Americans so easily bow down and give up their blood bought freedom to corrupt politicians who promise their safety.”

Now it’s obvious that not everyone who distrusts the political system and wants it either replaced with a radically different one or just eradicated altogether is open to the adoption of conspiracy theories, so there must be a lot more to it than this. Does our intuitive ability to over detect agency in social phenomenon contribute or interact with extreme distrust of the political system? And if so, how? It’s too easy (and probably quite unfair) to suggest that those people who do start believing in conspiracies are cognitively impaired. So, what is the answer? How can this phenomenon be explained? If anyone can point me in the direction of some relevant research I would be very grateful. Alternatively, if anyone wants to share their own ideas on conspiracy theories I would love to hear them.