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.

On wine, The Boss and bird song

It’s Monday morning. And despite the sun being out my mood is less than sunny. I’ve already has a brief rant to anyone who will listen on Dorset Council’s Teams about my feelings of impotency regarding (what I consider to be) the Council’s slow response to our climate emergency. Perhaps I should have drunk less wine over the weekend, but I need something to look forward at the end of the week. And two experiences last Friday evening, an hour or so after wine o’clock, were of lasting value.

The first resulted from a desire the listen to The Boss, and in particular from listening to the last track on Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album – ‘Reason to Believe’. I’ve always been struck by the line “At the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe”, but on the this occasion it seemed to have a bigger impact that usual – an impact that haunted me all weekend. Regular readers of this blog will now that I have often talked about the essential role stories play in our life; about how we construct / adopt stories that allow us to make sense of our experiences and give meaning and purpose to our lives. To my understanding this an existential human need. We cannot survive without meaning and purpose. No matter how hard or chaotic our lives are, no matter how much our focus is on material survival rather than intellectual contemplation, we are forced by a deep need to believe in some purpose bigger than our own life – even if that purpose is the belief (for example) that it’s a dog eat dog world and that I am, therefore, entitled to take any action necessary to stay alive. My point is that this story does not need to be true, we just need to believe it to be true. We need a reason to believe.

This experience has had two further effects on me. It fanned the flames of the socialism that has been burning within me since my teenage years – though, to be fair, this was more as a result of listening to Bruce in general than this particular song. People at the lower end of the social hierarchy are being disproportionally hit by the current pandemic. Those on low wages are least able to take any financial hit, let alone the hit that is going to be struck by the biggest economic recession since the depression of the 1930s; their jobs are most at risk, especially those on zero hour contacts; social distancing is so much more difficult when you live in high density housing with no garden or outdoor space of your own; and going into self-isolation is close to impossible for large families with a limited number of bedrooms. It also made me feel so much more understanding of those people who, at this time of crisis, have resorted to weird conspiracy theories to explain what is happening. Whilst a part of me will always remain critical of such theories and intolerant of those who resort to them, I can at least comprehend the role such theories play.

The second experience came shortly afterwards when I took my partner’s dog for a short walk before we ate. The streets of Bridport, and our nearby park, were silent. A silence that you would not normally believe possible for an early Friday evening. Well, actually not quite silence – the sound of birds was overwhelming, and not a little eerie. When I returned home and told of my experience I was informed of a recent explanation made by the folk singer Martha Tilston, who has suggested that the lack of traffic noise is allowing the mating calls of birds to be heard more clearly and over greater distances, and this is generating a lot of bird activity. Another example, then, of how this enforced lack of human activity is having a positive effect on both non-human animals and the planet.

I really hope that we can take some of our experiences and learning with us to the other side of this crisis. I really hope that the value we have been placing on health and care workers, on delivery drivers, and on foreign workers lasts. I hope that the general degree of civility and social cooperation that I’ve experienced continues. I hope that we are better able to appreciate the effects human life has on our only planet and the other life we share it with. And I hope that we do not forget the shortcomings of a market led economy and the value of cooperation over competition.

Reflections on the common good

A few days ago, in response to a question raised by a friend regarding the ethics of sunbathing in the park during the current crisis, and an associated article in the Guardian, I tweeted: “Yes, solidarity is important, but not the solidarity of a collection of individuals. We are who we are by virtue of our relationship to others, so perhaps we need to reflect on how our actions contribute to social flourishing, to the common good.” I quickly realised, however, that I failed to express my meaning clearly enough. This may have been down the sheer inadequacy of Twitter as a platform for philosophy / ethics, or it have been a lack or clarity on my part. Either way, I would like a second go with a few more words at my disposal.

For those of us on the left of the political spectrum in particular, the idea of solidarity is held in high regard. The suggested unity of interests, especially among those of the same social class, has historically been associated with strength – the strength to overcome oppression. And there is also the strong implication of being unified in our endeavours towards a particular outcome. Whilst I do not want to dismiss these notions out of hand, I would like to question this implied unity. In fact, if I’m being honest, I have a problem with the notion of unity itself. My concerns come from my understanding of complexity and complex systems, or what the French philosopher Michel Serres has termed ‘the multiple as such’; sets “undefined by elements or boundaries. Locally [they are] not individuated; globally [they are] not summed up”; they are neither an aggregate nor discrete. No collection of people, no matter how big or small, can be defined by either the individuals who make up the collective or by the collective as a whole. This is because the relationship between group members is too rich, too interactive, and too subtle. From this highly dynamic relationship (referred to as “background noise, the murmur of the crowd”) novelty is always being created. In the language of complexity science, any group of people form a dynamic complex system which is self-organising. This means that structure emerges. If structure is applied, for example by defining the overarching task or purpose of the group, either the group will only function in a limited setting (like a sports team) or it will loose all creativity and eventually stagnate and die.

To return to the pandemic. I have no problem at all with the desire for everyone to work together to achieve a specific outcome – for example, fight the pandemic. What I do have a problem with, however, is for the actions and behaviour of group members to be overly defined or controlled. This does not mean that I endorse a libertarian approach. Far from it. It’s rules and norms that hold the group together. But if these rules and norms are rigidly defined, if they are largely imposed rather than emerging from within the group itself, the group loses its creativity and ability to adapt to novelty. So in terms of the specific example that led to my initial, clumsy response (a Guardian article about people sunbathing in parks during the lockdown) I think that there should be a clear and specific objective (reducing the spread of the virus), together with clear guidelines for how to achieve it (social distancing / washing hands), but no rigid control of individual behaviour. If someone who lives in a flat wants to lie in the sun on their own and does so at least two metres from anybody else, what harm is done?

I think that I also want to make a wider ethical point, one related to Aristotelian virtue ethics, but the details of this may need to be deferred to another occasion. The gist of this, however, is that we are all highly interdependent on each other, and that our flourishing (a better translation of Aristotle’s ‘eudaimonia’, often translated as ‘happiness’), our common good, is achieved collectively by each of us developing certain character traits – character traits that facilitate our flourishing / common good. It would be for the greater good if we could all spend some time during this crisis reflecting on our own behaviour / character traits: deciding which of our traits support the common good and which don’t, then working to develop the former and weaken the latter.

Exposing the competitive myth

One of the prevailing myths of our global economic society concerns the supposed fundamental nature of competition. The origin of this myth can arguably be traced back to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. In this influential book Hobbes famously described the state of human nature as a war of all against all, as a war in which individuals are in constant competition with each other for scarce resources. In doing so he rejected any notion of a natural political community working together to achieve the greatest good for all. In fact, this state of nature was not very productive at all:

“In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (XIII.9)

For Hobbes, it is the desire to rise above this state of nature that drives us to give up certain of our liberties to a monarch or government. However, by the time classic capitalism emerged as an economic theory, that natural state of man, his rational self-interest, was deemed a good thing. Basically, if left relatively unrestricted, and as if by some invisible hand, this self-interest promotes the good of all. And, by the time neo-liberalism took hold, this free market rationale was extended into areas of society that had previously been seen as outside of market influence.

This theory of human nature is quite simply wrong, and the atomisation of society that has resulted from it is grossly detrimental to human flourishing. My greatest concern, however, is that this understanding has been so absorbed into our common sense view of the world that most people, people who are not in the slightest bit interested in economic theory, just accept it as fact. It is relatively easy to argue against a theory, but a great deal more difficult to expose the error of common sense. The theory can be challenged by pointing out that for about 90% of human evolutionary history group cooperation has been more dominant than in-group competition. Not only have groups survived because cooperation within the group has proved itself to be of greater benefit than unbridled competition, but in many cases inter-group cooperation has proved to be of mutual benefit as well. Put simply, just about any modern evolutionary approach to understanding ‘human nature’ will provide a serious challenge to the core principles of capitalism. The real problem we face is that these core principles have been repeated and repeated so many times across recent decades that they have been absorbed into our ‘common sense’ view of the world, and challenging ‘common sense’ is never an easy task.

However, our response to Coronavirus, particularly the multiple responses that have emerged at community level across the country, are surely evidence that when we face a completely novel situation, one for which our we have no ready made habitual thinking to fall back on, we ‘naturally’ engage in cooperative, not competitive behaviour. Yes, there are still calls from a few on the right of the political spectrum, a small number of ardent free marketeers or extreme libertarians, who argue that doing all we can to preserve market competition is a priority, but they are very much in the minority. For these poor few, the ideology of the free market has so totally taken hold of their thinking that their natural cooperative behaviour has been completely suppressed. Fortunately, for the vast majority of us, this ideology has a less strong grip. Most of us feel a natural desire to cooperate in a crisis, not compete.

Our task then, the task of those of us to the left of the political spectrum, is to firmly re-establish cooperation as our default setting. Starting with the wonderful examples of community cooperation that have spontaneously emerged all over the country, we need to talk about cooperation as much as we can. We need to talk about it, write about it, and, most importantly, cite local examples of it, at every opportunity in all that we do. We need to do this until the idea of cooperation is so firmly embedded in our thinking that it feels like it has always been there – in other words, until it feels like just plain common sense, until it feels like the natural thing to do. Then, and only then, will left wing or socialist policies be met with a positive response from the electorate.

On time being out of joint

The Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen has written about the importance of a cohesive story of the self. “To be a self”, he says, “is to be able to give an account of a self through a narrative of who one has been, who one will become and who one is now”. In other words, our sense of selfhood requires us to be able to gather into a unity our past, present and future, or rather, I suggest, a ‘healthy’ selfhood requires this. I’ve been thinking about this creation of a unity of the self through the use of narrative quite a bit recently, but in the last few days, in relation to the current coronavirus emergency, it seems particularly relevant. To what extent has this emergency, and the strange situation we find ourselves in, disrupted our personal narrative? To what extent has this disruption of a personal narrative interfered with our sense of unity? And, perhaps more importantly, how does this make us feel?

Speaking personally, whilst I am obviously still able to provide a narrative account of the relationship between ‘who I have been’ and ‘who I am now’, the sense of unity I feel between these two tenses seems somewhat fractured, or, to paraphrase Hamlet, my “time is out of joint”. Just a few weeks ago my diary was nearly full. I was often attending several meetings a day, I was engaging with many people each day, and (perhaps most significantly) I was going to the gym most days. Now my diary has been stripped of meetings, and the only people I’m really engaging with are those who I am ‘staying at home’ with. Whilst this could change in the coming weeks as virtual meetings are gradually arranged, the sudden difference between now and then seems strange, perhaps even unsettling. And most unsettling of all – the enforced change to my exercise regime. Whilst walking my partner’s dog is most enjoyable – it doesn’t provide the same ‘buzz’ as a good workout in the gym!

And the relationship between ‘who I am now’ and ‘who I will become’ is equally ‘out of joint’. At the most extreme level, whilst I have no underlying health conditions and therefore should not expect a serious threat to my future existence should I contract the virus, it’s difficult to entirely dismiss the increase in threat level. But even at a less dramatic level my timeline is somewhat fractured. All short term plans have been cancelled. And whilst it’s still reasonable to make loose medium term plans (i.e. plans not tied to specific dates and places), because of the vagueness of these plans they fail to provide the same sense of direction that planning for the future usually does. I feel like a bird who has lost a wing and can only fly in circles. Alright, I’m not sure this last analogy works – I’m not sure that a single winged bird can fly at all – but you get the image! My point is simply that without something tangible to work towards we / I lose momentum. My fear is stagnation.

So the question is: How do I overcome this disruption to my time line? How do I avoid stagnating in a pool of psychological / social / physical inactivity? Well, my suspicion is that just being conscious of the need for a narrative, and actively talking or writing about it, actually restores it to some degree; that talking or writing about the past, present and future puts ‘my time back into joint’. The danger, in contradiction to the advice of ‘mindfulness’ or many meditation manuals, is to focus too much on the here and now. Concentrating too much on the present literally fractures my personal sense of unity; I surrender my sense of becoming to being trapped in the present. So thank you for listening. In fact, it doesn’t even matter if you don’t exist, it doesn’t matter if no one out there reads this. Just sitting down and writing this restores my sense of time, unifies my sense of self. I feel better already.