The asymmetry of ‘leave’ and ‘remain’

There’s one perspective to the ongoing and intractable Brexit debate that doesn’t seem to have been discussed. When ‘remainers’ like myself point out that those who voted to leave did not know what they were voting for, we are usually met with a wall of hostility. ‘Of course we did’ is the choral and angry response. This response is angry because it is generally taken to be insinuating that either those who voted for Brexit were too stupid to know or understand the issues, or that they were gullible and misinformed by devious politicians. But this misses the point. Whilst individual voters may well have had an idea of what they were voting for, this idea could not have been as concrete or as clear as that for which ‘remainers’ had voted. This has nothing to do with the capabilities of individual voters. It results from a fundamental asymmetry between the two concepts.

Whenever we refer to anything in language, the word we use has a referent. So, to use the standard example used by philosophers down the centuries, when I talk about a cup I will have a very clear idea of what a cup is. Whilst I may have the image of an actual cup in my mind when I speak or write, like the one on my desk now, those listening or reading do not need to have exactly the same image to understand what I mean. Cups are very common items. Whilst they all vary to some degree in size, shape and design, they all have sufficient in common that they can be identified by anyone. Such is the case for most, if not all, actual physically existing things.

But what about more abstract concepts, like say marriage or being the member of a social club? ‘Marriage’ and ‘social club’ are both nouns like ‘cup’, and work in the same way in language. They too have a referent, but this time what they refer to is far more abstract. Yes, a social club may be located in an actual building such that people passing could point and refer to it as a social club, but that club is far, far more than the building. It is a complex set of relationships between those people who are members of the club. Some of these relationships may be formalised in a written constitution that can be referred to in a similar way to a cup, but understanding and applying that constitution will involve many abstract concepts that defy being written down. Marriage is also essentially a relationship, primarily between two people, but also, in actuality, often between two families.

The key term here is ‘relationship’. Relationships are very complex sets of behaviours, only some of which are written down in constitutions, marriage agreements, and the associated state laws. They essentially describe how individual human actors behave, respond and associate with other human actors in a variety of different situations – some formal, some informal, with many grades between. We may not be able to formally describe all the relationships that exist for us in any particular situation, but we ‘know’ them intimately. To varying degrees, they form part of who we are.

But what happens if we want to leave one of these relationships? If we are a member of a social club but fall out with the committee we are at liberty to leave the club and have nothing further to do with it. We may continue to meet and have some relationship with members of the club, but we can, if we want, completely disassociate ourselves from the club. Marriages can be somewhat more difficult. If there are no children, no joint assets, and no wider family involved, it is possible, following the formal divorce, to walk away without any agreement on a future relationship. However, when children in particular are involved, some type of ongoing relationship cannot be avoided. Some type of ‘deal’ is essential.

And so to the UK’s relationship with the EU. This relationship takes complexity to a new level. In addition to the formal treaties and agreements there are a host of informal relationships that have not only developed during the course of the life of the EU, but through the course of European history. So my point regarding the asymmetry between ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ is simply this. Whilst none of us is able to describe the full complexity of the UK’s relationship with the EU, for each of us this relationship, however strong or weak, however positive or negative, is real. When we say ‘remain’ we are referring to an actually existing set of relationships. However, when we say ‘leave’ we not only find it impossible to do the same, but we find it impossible to imagine what set of relationships could exist. We could only do so if a ‘clean break’ divorce was possible, and it isn’t. The term ‘leave’ does not, and cannot, refer to an actually existing referent. It is therefore impossible to know what ‘leave’ actually means.

In the best interests of who?

First of all, an apology. I’ve been rather busy in the last few weeks, with the consequence that I’ve had to place certain projects and activities on hold – including this blog. But now that the local elections are over, and the initial turmoil of my election onto the Dorset Council starting to calm down, it’s time to start writing again. My aim during my time on this council will be to use this blog as a place for philosophical reflection on Dorset politics.

There’s been a great deal of criticism at the national level of ‘tribal politics’, of politicians voting for party political reasons rather what’s in ‘the national interest’. In a similar vein, during various training and introductory events for the new Dorset Council there have been many comments from councillors calling for cross-party co-operation, for councillors to talk and listen to their fellow councillors, of all political colours, and make decisions in the best interests of the residents of Dorset. This all sounds very reasonable, but not as straight-forward as many of the advocates would wish.

However much we would prefer it to be otherwise, notions like ‘the national interest’ and the ‘best interests of residents’ are far from clear cut. And they are certainly not objective states against which all decisions can be referred. They may sound like reasonable reference points against which political decisions can be made, but they are even more ephemeral than political theory and party political statements of policy. At least the latter of these have the advantage of being written down and argued in a rational manner, and therefore subject to criticism and debate. The ‘national interest’ and the ‘interest of residents’ are more often than not just disguised notions of subjective political opinion.

For example, I strongly suspect that my understanding of ‘the national interest’ would be somewhat at odds with that of a strong adherent of free market economics, someone who genuinely believed that if left to itself, and free from state restrictions, the market will come up with solutions to the fast approaching climate breakdown. How then do we agree on what this national interest is? In compromise, I hear people shouting! In the rational centre ground of politics. But I seriously doubt whether we can save ourselves from climate catastrophe through compromise. And likewise with the ‘best interests of residents’. I strongly believe that it is in the best interests of the residents to do all we can to provide locally sourced renewable energy, through both solar panels and wind turbines (on land and off shore) – but many people would argue that their ‘best interests’ are harmed by those ‘unsightly’ turbines ruining their view and devaluing the value of their property. I would argue that preventing a one metre rise in sea level trumps such aesthetics and personal wealth.

The problem is, however, that no single statement, whether written or spoken, whether from an individual person or agreed by a collective, can be definitive. And that includes anything I write and say. Including this. Basically, the world is just too complex. There are too many variables, there is too much inherent uncertainty, for such positions to exist. However much we may crave such simplicity, and we do crave it, often intensely, it doesn’t exist. There is no intrinsic meaning to the world and life, there is no objective purpose. We create all meaning and purpose.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us with the need to accept that whatever we believe cannot be the whole truth, and it leaves us with the need to listen and talk to people, and particularly to those people who we disagree with, in as open a minded way as we can. We need to learn to debate. We need to participate in political discussion. And on the political stage, councillors and MPs of all parties need to engage in genuine dialogue – but please, let’s drop any notion of ‘national interest’ or the ‘best interests of residents’. Whilst I certainly do not wish either the nation or the residents of Dorset any harm, such phrases are too contested to be used as the rationale for any decision.

An appeal to the good citizens of Bridport

On May 2nd we go the the polls to elect three councillors who will represent Bridport on the new Dorset Council for the next five years – five crucial years in which a lot of vitally important decisions will need to be made. Now, I know that most of you are totally fed up with politics and politicians, but could I please ask you to not dismiss these elections out of hand – they are important! Our First Past the Post voting system means that if people use all three votes for the same party then, with the opposition vote divided, Conservatives will quite likely win all 3 seats with about 40% of the vote.

Bridport members of the Green Party have decided to purposely stand only one candidate in this election. We have done so in the hope that supporters of all the progressive parties that take issues like the fast approaching climate emergency, the need to fight Conservative austerity and their creeping privatisation of public services and the NHS, and the need be proactive in addressing our housing crisis seriously. We have done so with the hope that if our supporters decide to co-operate and make a collective response we can prevent Dorset Council becoming a one-party council.

A Conservative dominated Council will not be good for democracy, it will not be good for the people of Dorset, and it will certainly not be good for our planet. But that is the likely outcome of elections not run on some form of proportional representation. I accept that I represent a minority party – but that does not mean that supporters of this party should not have their views represented on the council that will be responsible for so many of their local services. Even if only 10% of voters agree in principle with Green Party policies they deserve, and have a right, to be heard. In actuality it is difficult to be sure of just how many voters support the Green Party because so many vote ‘tactically’ for parties that they think have a better chance of winning. This is just not democratic!

When we learnt that the Bridport ward for Dorset Council was to be a three-member ward our initial reaction was one of hope. Just do the maths. In both the 2017 Dorset County Council elections, and last year’s by-election, the Conservatives in Bridport received 40% of the vote. Collectively, the Green Party, Lib Dems and Labour received 60%. So, if these three parties agreed to co-operate, agreed to stand just one candidate each, and urged their supporters to use all three of their votes for these three candidates, the chances are that all three would get elected. And each party would have a far greater chance of having a candidate elected than if they stood a full slate.

However, it soon became clear that this would not happen. For too many reasons such rationality is too easily defeated by tribal politics. And even my Green Party is not completely free from guilt.

So, we are where we are. We have gone alone, and taken a chance. We have decided to stand just a single candidate – myself. I know from talking to many people in Bridport, ordinary voters, not members of particular political parties, that their loyalties are split. By asking you to cast just one Green vote I am suggesting that you can also cast your other two votes for other progressive candidates in a concerted attempt to prevent Dorset becoming a one-party ‘state’.

Nietzsche, ressentiment, and public anger

Nietzsche is an enigma. He’s dangerous to read and quote, yet intoxicating and thought provoking. In places he writes poetically, in others he writes like the mad philosopher he became. There are passages that are just plain wrong, yet there are others that are incredibly insightful. Recently I have been drawn, via Pankaj Mishra’s book Age of Anger, to his concept of ressentiment and his analysis of the origin of the antithesis ‘good and bad’ in an attempt to understand our current situation – a situation dominated by very deep feelings of frustration and anger.

According to Nietzsche’s analysis, the origin of the antithesis ‘good and bad’ can be traced back to a feeling of “complete and fundamental superiority” by “a higher ruling kind in relation to a lower kind”, most notably to the aristocracy of the ancient Greek city state. Then, aristocracy meant rule by the best, by those of good character, by “the noble, the mighty, the high-placed and the high-minded, who saw and judged themselves and their actions as good…in contrast to everything lowly, low-minded, common and plebeian.” Put very simply, the good was what ever the aristocrats of the time said it was, albeit a good influenced by the practical necessity of maintaining a flourishing city state with them in charge.

In time, the baton of defining ‘good and bad’ was taken by the priests, beings who claimed to be the mouthpiece for the expression of God’s own word on the subject, a situation that created a great deal of tension between the political / military leaders and the priestly class. However, this led, according to Nietzsche, to a slave revolt in morality, a revolt (according to my understanding) which coincided with the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism. Under this revolt “only those who suffer are good, only the poor, the powerless, the lowly are good, the sick, the ugly, are the only pious people”, whereas the “rich, the noble and powerful” are now eternally wicked. This brought about what Nietzsche describes as the ‘herd mentality’, a situation that encapsulated everything he hated about Christianity, a situation in which people stop thinking for themselves, stop striving for power, all because they are led to believe that “the meek shall inherit the Earth.”

Whilst reluctant to completely dismiss this as a description of the origins of morality, I have two serious problems with it as an analysis of our current situation. The first concerns ressentiment. For Nietzsche, “The beginning of the slaves’ revolt in morality occurs when ressentiment”, a deep-seated existential feeling of resentment towards those with power, “turns creative and gives birth to values.” In historic terms I just do not think such a creative turn occurred. The values adopted by ‘the masses’ were not of their origin but of a new, emergent class of pious philosopher that appeared originally as a social response to the English Civil War, then as part of the Scottish Enlightenment, and subsequently as a reaction to the French Revolution. I think that rather than turning creative, this ressentiment has grown, turned socially cancerous, and is currently revealing itself through the symptoms of public anger for anything and everything.

The second problem, a corollary to this, is that our sense of good and bad is still being defined by a small group of powerful people. These are no longer the Greek city aristocrats, nor the medieval priests, nor the Victorian public school nobility (though there are still echoes of the latter), but the leaders of business, those who control our economic model, those who, because they have wealth, influence what’s left of our government, together with the celebrities who endorse their brands and the marketing executives who create our wants and desires. They are the ones who now define our sense of good and bad. They are the source of our hopes and desires, they create what we aspire to, our goals and aims in life. But they have created aspirations and goals that can only be achieved by the very few. They have created dreams that will never be fulfilled. The result is that people feel frustrated and angry. There exists, to quote Mishra, “An existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness”. People, quite understandably, don’t understand the source of this feeling, but instead direct it at any wandering scapegoat that happens to appear.

Inequality, knife crime, and ressentiment

Much has been said in the last week about knife crime. But little has been said about the strong correlation between rising income inequality and violence. This correlation has been documented by many scientists, most notably by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their two best selling books, The Spirit Level and The Inner Level. However, as Peter Wilby correctly points out in the current edition of New Statesman: “cause and effect cannot be derived from a statistical correlation”. Such a correlation can, though, strongly suggest a relationship that should be explored further. It’s disappointing that this exploration has had such little press coverage. So what could explain this correlation?

In Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra uses the word ressentiment to describe an “existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness.” This isn’t jealously or envy of any particular person or situation, but a deep feeling that flows from the very core of our being, a feeling that leaves people feeling, well…angry. Angry at everything and everyone. We suffer, he concludes, “from an extraordinary if largely imperceptible destruction of faith in the future – the fundamental optimism that makes reality seem purposeful and goal-oriented.” And, like Wilkinson and Pickett, he points the finger of blame at the rocketing increase in inequality: “The world has never seen a greater accumulation of wealth, or a more extensive escape from material deprivation…But such broad and conventional norms of progress cloak how unequally its opportunities are distributed.”

Our current economic model has produced a very large increase in wealth, power and influence for those at the top of the income ladder, whilst leaving those at the bottom barely better off, in real terms, than they were several decades ago. Social mobility, the opportunity to climb the social ladder and live at a level above that of your parents, has ground to a halt. The unequal growth produced by this economic model is largely fuelled by consumerism – the promotion and enticement to purchase lifestyles and social status that, cruelly, will always be beyond reach. Consumerism, as someone once said (sorry, I can’t remember who) is the purchasing of goods we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t know. This is criminally wasteful of resources, it pushes people into debt, and it fails to achieve the social respect we so desire.

For the vast majority (about 95%) of the last 200,000 to 250,000 of human history we have lived in egalitarian groups, groups in which co-operation and equality were essential to survival, and in which competition and status seeking were shunned. It is only since we left this hunter-gatherer life style and settled down in farming communities that humans have felt the need to revert to pre-human dominance hierarchies, a social format in which it was essential to know and adhere to your position in the hierarchy, to avoid eye contact with your superiors and to demand respect from your inferiors. Think of the famous Monty Python sketch at this point. This means, as Wilkinson and Pickett point out in The Inner Level, that there are two potentially opposed systems within our social brain, two rival sources of social anxiety – one acutely aware of our place in the hierarchy, and one that is assertively egalitarian.

As humans, rather than higher primates, we feel at our best, our happiest, when we feel connected, when we feel part of a community. This is the socially evolved result of our hunter gatherer lifestyle, a lifestyle that actively resisted any member of the community getting too dominant or too powerful, a lifestyle that respected everyone simply because it was acknowledged that every one was important and of value. However, during the course of the evolution of capitalism, and particularly during its most recent incarnation, neo-liberalism, we have been indoctrinated to believe that the purpose of our life is to create wealth for ourselves and compete with our neighbour in an attempt to ‘get on in life’, to accumulate wealth and status, to believe that we are all individuals who should pursue our own self-interest.

At best, this competition for status is a zero-sum gain. If you increase your status, power or wealth by moving up the hierarchy someone else must slip down. At worst (at the present moment) the problem is that the status, power or wealth of the vast majority of people rarely, if ever, changes. The lifestyles we aspire to, those that are sold to us by celebrities or marketing companies, are constantly out or reach. The result? Deep feelings of envy, humiliation and powerlessness, together with the need to make the pain go away. We feel anger. And if we don’t take drugs to take the pain away, we find groups of people to blame – so called elites, foreign immigrants or rival gangs. And we find ways to try and acquire the money we are told we need to gain the status we believe we deserve. And we find ways to gain respect within our own communities. Or if we feel ignored by our wider community we find respect within a gang. Knife crime, I can’t help thinking, is just one manifestation of an ever steepening social hierarchy, of ever growing inequality.

It’s the economy, stupid!

James Corville, the campaign strategist for Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign, supposedly used the phrase “The economy, stupid!” to keep his team ‘on message’. Since then it has become a truism of political commentators at election time – that the dominant issue is always the economy. This dominance of the economy in political thinking has been around for a long while, but, like a cancer, it has grown. Now it dominates everything, and is causing all manner of problems. Two of these problems are particularly serious: imminent climate / environmental breakdown and rising social inequality. And whilst the former is potentially the more serious of the two, the latter is the cause of the anger and social discontent that gave rise to the Brexit vote and the election of popularist politicians like Donald Trump.

There is much I could say against our dominant economic model, but I will restrict myself to its most insidious feature – economic growth and the accumulation of wealth as the end goal and raison d’être of all economic activity. I say insidious because this goal appears as the saving angel of all our woes and problems, as the solution to all our ills. But this particular angel’s glittering clothing covers a malevolent devil, an evil that is not only goading us to slowly destroy the environment upon which human society depends, but is directly eroding the very structures of human society through the promotion of inequality. The pursuit of wealth has become so accepted as not just an aim, but the aim of human activity, that to question it appears to fly in the face of common sense. But question it we must. We need to replace this common sense with some good sense.

Naomi Klein has coined the phrase extractivism to describe our economic attitude to the planet Earth. Certainly since the dawn of the industrial revolution, this attitude towards our natural environment has been one of a resource to exploited. Not only has our planet been viewed as one vast store of raw material to be extracted and used for the generation of wealth, it has also been used as a vast sink into which all the waste from our economic activity can be dumped. Dumped free of cost. A cost that has been neatly bracketed out of our economic calculations as an ‘externality’, as something we can ignore. Unfortunately for us, these ‘externalities’ are now making their presence known. Out of sight can only remain out of mind for so long. Thanks to the gradual build up of these ‘externalities’, principally (but by no means exclusively) carbon in the atmosphere, we now face a climate breakdown that potentially threatens the very future of human life. Our planet is biting back.

This generation of wealth is usually defended as being necessary, as the only way to acquire the money that can be spent to alleviate poverty, provide essential public services, and to generally improve the quality of human life. Yes, the argument goes, the owners of industry and multinational corporations are the immediate recipients of this wealth, but due to the ‘trickle-down effect’ everyone benefits. The main problem with this defence is, quite simply, that it’s false. The evidence says something different. Across the world, particularly in the richer countries, inequality is rising. As national economies grow, the rich seem to get progressively and proportionally richer. And even though there is generally a slight rise in the wealth of the least well off, this has not been accompanied by an increase in happiness or wellbeing. What it has been accompanied by is an increase in mental and physical illness. The gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in rich countries, the levels of relative poverty, is by far the biggest cause of a whole range health issues.

But the effects of this increasing wealth gap are broader and deeper than the levels of recordable ill-health. It is also causing an incipient growth in social discontent and anger. People have been led to believe that the wealth being accumulated by the ‘elites’, by the leaders of business and industry, by the leaders of corporations and governments, will trickle down and make their lives better. But these improvements are not happening. People are feeling let down, cheated out what they believe to be theirs. Public services are being cut. Traditional jobs are disappearing. Yet rather than blame our economic system, the economic model that is actually producing this rise in inequality, people are blaming those people who the rich are setting up as scapegoats: foreign workers, immigrants, the bureaucrats of the European Union. Rather than challenge our dominant, cancerous economic model, people vote instead for Brexit and Donald Trump in the vain hope of a solution to their ills.

It is, however, too simplistic to blame the Trump-Brexit supporters for a failure to see the true cause of their discontent. And however tempting it might be, it is also too simplistic to blame the wealthy owners of business and the politicians that champion the pursuit of growth – they are, after all, only doing what they have been brought up to believe is just common sense. And simply blaming people only fans the flames of social discontent. No, what is needed, and needed as a matter of extreme urgency, is a public debate and critique of our dominant economic model. Alternative models, ones that truly meet the needs of all, ones that respect the limits imposed on them by our planet, need presenting to the public by as many politicians on the left as possible. We need to be encouraged to exercise some good sense, rather than just accept what we take to be common sense.

Feeling an alien in the country of my birth

This is going to sound a patronising thing for a late middle-aged white male to say, bearing in mind the relative ease and comfort of my life, bearing in mind the lack of prejudice directed against me. But a few days ago I was made to feel a potential outsider, an alien in the country of my birth. Why? Because I came across the Rural Conservative Movement. Not only did I find that what they believe in to be offensive to my sense of reason, to my philosophical attitude to life, but I felt it to be a potential threat to the very notion of who I feel myself to be.

They advertise themselves as believing in:
• A full, clean Brexit
• Immigration reduced to near zero
• The primacy of British culture and values
• The primacy of our Christian faith
• Protection of our rural heritage
• The traditional family
Whilst I can seriously question the validity of all of these beliefs, it was the “primacy of British culture and values”, and the “primacy of our Christian faith” that made me feel most ill at ease, together with the various graphics that accompany these statements. These graphics, overly romantic drawings of ‘traditional’ rural life, are reminiscent of those used by the Nazis in 1930’s Germany.

I have nothing against British culture and values, except that I have no idea what they are. Accepting the general definition of culture as “the values, ceremonies and ways of life characteristic of a given group”, the immediate problem becomes that of defining a given group of people bound together by an identifiable set of values and practices. When has there ever been such a group of people living in the geographical location of the British Isles? Our history is that of a multitude of different settlers and invaders bringing a diversity of different values and social attitudes with them. The most that can be said is that with time, different groups of people have found a way of living together. A number of generally shared or common beliefs and values, social practices and ceremonies have emerged, have become an identifiable feature of that group. But they will never have been adopted or believed in by everyone in that group. Not only that, but these values and practices will have differed across the country, and changed with time. I accept that a degree of uniformity emerged across the country, but only a degree. I totally reject that there ever has been, or ever can be, a defining set of British cultural values and practices.

But it’s worse than that. The implication is that if you do not ascribe to this defined set of values you are not part of British society, and therefore not welcome; that whatever values you happen to hold dear, they are of secondary importance to those of the mainstream. But who is going to define these mainstream, accepted British values? Who would dare to stand up and declare a definitive set of such values? And more importantly, how many of them do you need to hold? And to what degree? To be regarded as ‘British’, do you need to hold dear all these values, to the highest degree? If not, where do you draw the line? And what happens if you happen to fall on the wrong side of this line?

I have, however, much against the Christian faith. I’m not however prejudiced against Christianity. I regard all faiths with equal distain. My reason? Because they are faiths. People hold them to be true because they want them to be true or because they emotionally feel them to be true, not because there is any verifiable evidence that they are true. I will totally concede that religion has served a purpose during the course of human social evolution. In the absence of scientific knowledge, they have provided a narrative, an explanation and purpose to human life that has allowed for a degree of social cohesion and therefore supplied us with an evolutionary advantage. But as the tenets of the different religions are shown to be false or contradictory to knowledge capable of being scientifically tested, they need to be dropped. We will never be in a position to deal with the challenges humanity faces if we hold onto superstition rather than pursue scientific explanations.

But maybe it was the Nazi overtones that unsettled me most. The implication that there is some pure sense of Britishness to be found in a traditional past, in some mythical period of our history when everything was well with life, before it was contaminated by time, foreign cultures and alien religions. If such a belief can be fostered (a totally false belief for which no evidence can be found) then all manner of violent behaviour becomes ‘justified’ in fighting for its restoration. I didn’t end well the last time it was tried. And it will not end well if tried again.

Finding Common Ground

This is probably a first for me. I’m going to speak in support of some comments made by the Queen last week that have been interpreted as her commenting on the state of division, anger and chaos we find our society in as the aftershocks of the Brexit referendum continue. I want to take her comments regarding “speaking well of each other and respecting different points of view, coming together to seek out the common ground and never losing sight of the bigger picture” at face value and not try to over interpret her particular meaning.

I add this final caveat because in calling such approaches “tried and tested recipes” and “timeless” she not only suggests that they have always existed and been practiced, but she implies that this existence and practice is somehow intrinsic to a ‘British way’ of doing things, somewhat akin to the notion of ‘British values’ that did the rounds a few years ago and always seems to be lurking under the covers of an overly nationalistic reaction to, or interpretation of, a problem situation. I suggest that the interpretation that follows has not existed to any great degree in this country, and that further, it is very, very far from being uniquely British (in fact quite the opposite).

On the positive side, I think it very obvious that unless we want the social divisions that have been exposed as a result of Brexit to fester away and become infected to such a degree that open civil strife appears on the streets, or somehow naively believe that when which ever side we happen to support finally wins out everyone opposing it will finally see the error of their ways and fall into line behind us, that somehow, from somewhere, common ground needs to be found. It will be on this common ground that our future will be build. It needs to be as firm and as uncontested as possible. The problem is that so far all candidates for this foundation, candidates like ‘British values’ or ‘the national interest’ lack any clear articulation and are open to as many different interpretations as there are opposing factions. They are also too insular and naïve.

My suggestion is that we agree to the notion of universal human rights, or some variant of it, becoming this common ground. By definition, being universal these rights are common to everyone (there can be no exception) and as basic rights they form (or should form) the very ground of society. Let me illustrate my point with an example from a project that I am personally involved in. Here in Bridport (that’s in Dorset, UK, by the way, if you’re reading this from afar) we have declared our town a ‘Rights Respecting Town’. We have drawn up a Citizen’s Charter that has been adopted by the Town Council, and which we are encouraging both individual citizens and local organisations to sign and pledge their support to. In this Charter we have adopted / adapted the UN Declaration on Human Rights to what we think relevant to the citizens of an individual town. The first of our five key principle rights and responsibilities concerns the “Freedom of belief, thought and expression”. It not only says that “We have the right to make up our own minds, think and believe what we like, express our thoughts freely and discuss our thoughts with other people” but that “We are all responsible for respecting the ideology, thoughts and feelings of other people and defending their right to express them within the limits of the law. We have the right to safe and public spaces where people can speak and share ideas freely and with respect.”

I have written previously about the need to develop our skills in public debate and critical thinking, together with the need to foster safe environments to both speak and listen. This is a relatively easy thing to do within the confines of my Philosophy in Pubs group, but doing it on the public stage is both much harder and very much more urgent. Until we both feel able to freely express our thoughts and have them listened to, and until we learn how to both understand other points of view and have our own respectfully challenged, the social wounds that are now appearing could become deeply infected – infected to such a degree that they are resistant to all conventional forms of treatment.

But the Queen’s comment about “never losing sight of the bigger picture” should be interpreted on a much larger scale than I suspect it was meant. Universal Human Rights do not only apply to all the citizens of this country, they apply to the citizens of all countries! We need, as a matter of urgency, to stop thinking about the needs of just one nation state, and about trying to make our own nation independent of the of the needs and situations faced by citizens of the world. Particularly because of modern technology, all global citizens are highly connected and very interdependent upon each other. Our individual national economies are highly connected and influenced by the global economy, and the looming disasters associated with climate change and ecological degradation, together with those of terrorism (both physical and cyber), migration (from war zones, economic collapse or rising sea levels) and global epidemics require us to think collectively. We need to consider the rights of all global citizens and how we can collectively defend ourselves against the multiple developing global threats to our existence.

Politics on the edge of chaos

As we teeter on the edge of what could turn out to be one of the most dramatic weeks in politics for a generation, if not longer, I feel the urge to explore the positive aspects of the approaching storm rather than the negative. Whilst the Sunday papers are carrying stories about the Tories being on the verge of imploding, about how the very roots of our democracy are under attack, or about how parliament is plotting a near revolution by seizing power from the executive, I think it of value to note that, in terms of systems thinking, being ‘on the edge of chaos’ is being at the optimum point of health and creativity.

Any social or political system can be understood as a complex system. Such systems are composed of a large number of social actors (you and me) who interact with a very large number of other social actors such that their totality can be talked about in terms of a whole – a whole like ‘the British political system’. Such systems are always embedded with larger complex systems, like ‘the European political system’ or ‘the world political system; interact with other political systems, like the French or American political systems; and contain many smaller systems, like individual political parties or institutions, that are embedded within it, and likewise interact with each other.

Such systems are held together by an incredibly complex system of norms, rules or laws. Each social actor within every system, at all levels, interacts with other social actors according to what each actor regards to be the norms of behaviour. These norms range from unwritten forms of behaviour that just feel like the correct way to behave in any given situation, through to having these norms written down and agreed as rules within particular parties or institutions, right up to having these norms passed as laws with legal penalties for their infringement. In terms of systems thinking, the degree to which a norm has been agreed as a rule or turned into a law can be termed its degree of codification. The greater the degree of codification, the less room for manoeuvre any individual actor has regarding how to behave in any given situation.

The important thing to grasp is that at any level, any system is always embedded with a larger system upon which it is dependent for its continuation as a system, for its survival. Even ‘the world political system’ is embedded within the global economic system and the global ecological system. However, the one and only constant in all this is that things change.

One of the main features of such systems is that because of the richness of interaction between individual actors, and because of such features as feedback loops, both positive and negative, there is an inherent and inescapable uncertainty to the whole process. The only thing that is certain is that something, somewhere will change. And it’s impossible to predict the effect this change will have on the system or systems as a whole. Some small occurrence can have a massive system changing effect, whilst some potentially devastating occurrence can be absorbed into the system with hardly a ripple.

At any level, if the environment in which a system is embedded changes, then to stay healthy that system needs to respond in some way. It may need to stay unified in the face of war or external political attack, or it may need to adapt to irreversible changes that would otherwise prevent its continuation (climate change for example). But here’s the dilemma. A system’s ability to change is largely controlled by it’s degree of codification. A system that is highly codified is very good at holding together in the face of a storm, but not good at adapting to longer terms changes affecting its environment; whereas a lightly coded system easily responds to environmental changes but can be blown away, dissolved into chaos, by a sudden storm. The optimum place for any system, the point when it is at its healthiest, is often referred to as ‘being on the edge of chaos’.

Being ‘on the edge of chaos’ is the most creative and healthy state any system can be in. It is a state when there is sufficient codification to hold the system together in the face of most storms, but not so much codification that it can not adapt to irreversible changes to its environment. The British political system, and the wider social system in which it’s embedded, needs to change, that is obvious. It needs to adapt to global economic and ecological changes, and it needs to influence change in other political systems. But at the moment the degree to which it’s norms have been codified is preventing these changes. It’s my sincere hope that the current political storm will loosen these codes and allow a more creative political and social system to emerge, one that remains perpetually ‘on the edge of chaos’.

Healing the Brexit scars

Being an atheist and a committed secularist, it’s not often that I support comments made by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. But certain comments made in his New Year message were spot on. Referring to the degree of social division and anger that has been stirred up by the EU referendum and subsequent events, he noted that we not only “disagree on many things” but that “we are struggling to disagree well”. If anything, I would put it more strongly. Everyone seems to have an opinion, often a very strongly held opinion, and many are strongly dismissive of contrary opinions. This seems to be fuelling social tensions that are only likely to increase. And this is all deeply worrying. The remedy, I suggest, is that we all need to develop our ability to critically discuss important issues; we need to learn the arts of public debate and critical thinking.

These are abilities that community philosophy helps to develop. At the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group we have one golden rule – that we are critical of ideas, not of the person expressing them. This may sound very simple and straightforward, but in practice it is anything but. It means that when listening to an opinion that you don’t agree with you really do need to listen to what the other person is saying, not just hear them; the quick and easy thing to do is to assign the other person to a stereotype and then attack that caricature – often with an insult. It also means that you need to think clearly about why you disagree with their opinion; you need to do this so that you are able to explain your reasons for disagreement in a way that is both logical and respectful of the other person.

This is of vital importance. If group members think that the moment they say something they are verbally attacked they either keep quiet or don’t turn up in the first place. Either way, their views are not heard. And this is of even greater importance on the national stage. A great many people feel that politicians are not listening to them, that their genuine worries and concerns are being either ignored or paid lip service to. Everyone in society needs to feel comfortable expressing an opinion, to not open themselves to a torrent of abuse for doing so, and, at the very least, to having that opinion listened to.

But there’s another side to this coin: that in expressing an opinion everyone needs to accept that their thoughts and ideas may well be challenged; that not everyone is going to agree with them, let alone praise them for a unique insight into the problem at hand. This means that we must all be prepared to be critical of our own position; that we must be able to defend this position with reasoned argument and evidence, not just make a serious of unsupported assertions; that we must learn not to take offence because somebody has the audacity to disagree with us; and most importantly, it means that we must be prepared to change our mind! We need to understand that thoughts and opinions are best formed through critical debate and discussion, not born from our minds fully formed and perfect.

It may seem like a typical reactionary opinion of someone my age, but I really do think that we have lost the skills of public debate and critical thinking – if we had them in the first place. Most of us read or listen to the same news sources that we always have done, take on board the opinions of politician or political parties we have always supported, and automatically defend our opinion if and when challenged. This does not make for a healthy society. Unless we learn the arts of effective public debate and critical thinking I fear that the Brexit scars will take a long time to heal.