Category: philosophy

A half baked theory

Sorry it’s a letting off steam post.
We’ve got to the stage where aggressive, nasty behaviour abounds and people can be attacked for being nice. The Gary Lineaker débâcle a few weeks ago, where he was savaged for being a nice, compassionate guy a while back was a low point for me.
Here’s my theory:
We can be quick to blame politicians and the media for the state we are in, and they certainly have power and influence. I certainly wouldn’t claim they are *not* culpable.
It’s depressing to hear all the anti-immigrant, anti-thoughtful, anti-clued-up-person anti-“do-goooder” rhetoric that is out there, but maybe it isn’t a sentiment that has spread, but a noisy minority who has been encouraged by the current climate to get nastier and noisier.
The Daily Mail has had the same business model for over a century, an Andrew Marr history programme showed how they were doing similar things in 1911. They engage their readership by playing on their negative emotions. In this respect the Mail (and to a lesser extent the Express) are not *pushing* an ideology, they are reactive creations who take the existing hate of their readership and publish news in a way that legitimises the hate, bigotry and fear of their readers. In that way it is not the press publishing *their* lies, but just telling their readers “you are right, you know.”
In recent years political movements have evolved to do pretty much the same thing, and one of their targets is nice people. By which I mean the thoughtful, considered people who disagree with bigotry and ignorance. We now even have a Prime minister who says being thoughtful, compassionate and, well, nice is a bad thing and makes you “the elite”, and prejudice and ignorance is just another opinion. I mean of course you shouldn’t be mean or cruel when you disagree with people who aren’t as informed or tolerant as they could be, but there seems to be a view that an reasonable person standing up to prejudice is treated as a harridan screaming, “RACIST, RACIST!”
I’m not saying the press and political class aren’t terrible at the moment- they are, and that they aren’t culpable- they are, but the agenda they are forcing on society isn’t their own, and the whole of society shares the shame and blame. Why they are choosing to endorse that agenda in such a way is another question.
Where do we go from here- who knows. But thoughtful people should not just agree and say “I am part of the problem, I should shut up.”
If you’ve read this far, apologies for taking up your time and thank you for helping me get my head round a world that terrifies me.

No, it isn’t honesty, it is problem behaviour.

OK, the moment has passed for this post too, but I’d better write it anyway.

A couple of months ago there was an incident on the internet. Someone upset someone with their behaviour, and were banned from participating in a particular forum until they apologised. So far, so commonplace, so dull.

It’s the fall-out that was particularly worrying. The thread surrounding this trivial incident spiralled out to over 100 contributions. Two things struck me- one was someone trying to claim that bluntness and abrasiveness isn’t rudeness, and another describing bluntness and abrasiveness as “honesty”. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily follow that being nice, measured and thoughtful is dishonesty, but it does feel like a slight to reasonable, kind people to describe it as such.

I feel there is a problem, not just on line but in general, where a certain level of background aggression being seen as normal or “having a personality”. I mean I can understand people, get annoyed and passionate, it’s a sign they care, but there seems to be a level of excitableness that people treat as normal, rather than merely understandable. People who write in a mature, reasonable and non-aggressive tone are misjudged to be snotty and condescending.

In politics things need to be done. Abrasiveness and aggression are necessary evils- we need people to achieve things, and that isn’t always going to be achieved by being nice. Tolerance of abrasive personalities, and respect for what they achieve is often blurred to the point that people fail to acknowledge the problem nature of those personalities. Sometimes abrasiveness goes too far and those who either take a stand, or lack the coping skills to deal with it properly are often misdiagnosed as the problem, rather than the person suffering the problem.

Kindness, diplomacy, intelligence and thoughtfulness are also necessary and useful traits, these need to be valued too. We need to recognise these as positive traits, and far too often in politics they are dismissed as mere differences, or even worse weaknesses or negative traits.

The most of humanity brigade

I was just thinking right now about a rather odd turn of phrase. It turned up as a comment on an article about gaffes by Prince Philip.

Not gaffes, he is just not a signed up member of the PC Brigade.

Now while Prince Philip’s faux pas tend to raise a smile with me rather than anger or annoyance, I still recognize them as such. It wasn’t the suggestion of support for Philip’s behavior that rankled rather than the phrase “PC Brigade.”

It’s a widespread idiom, calling a group of people a “Brigade”. It usually seems to me to be a turn of phrase used by people describing a nice, positive form of behaviour or viewpoint that they don’t subscribe to. It seems to be an attempt to portray that nice, widespread quality as unusual and problematic. The use of the phrase “brigade” is almost always scathing, and an attempt to portray people that someone doesn’t like as a noisy and problematic minority. The brigade labelled is often trying to deny the fact that the attitude they despise is both positive and mainstream.

As Stewart Lee observes, Political Correctness is just a form of institutionalized politeness. Yes it can be done unthinkingly by idiots, but on the whole it is a positive thing that does more good than harm. Yes, I think there is a case to be made for humour that rises from offensive behaviour. But not for trying to make out that offensive behaviour isn’t offensive, or that those that are offended are kiljoys.

Using phrases like “The PC Brigade” and “The Human Rights Brigade” doesn’t make you look witty or down to earth, it makes you look like a loony and an idiot.

Disinterested?

There should be a word for what people mean when they say disinterested and don’t mean disinterested. Disinterested means something similar to impartial- you don’t have a view and can arbitrate the debate fairly. What people seem to mean is that they have an extreme form of negative interest in a subject. Uninterested doesn’t quite cover it, that seems to be to the concept of interested what amoral is to moral.

I’m talking about a vehement anti-interest that leads people to complain about the thing they lack interest in existing, and leads them to resent and despise people who are interested in it.

Hmm…

What we need to know about IT

I was involved in discussion recently about the teaching of IT, and how it should be compulsory for everyone in further and higher education. Personally, I don’t think IT skills need to be taught post-16, at least not to everyone.  The basic grounding in computers most people need can be taught pre-14. It isn’t that complicated. The rest is all specific stuff that anyone who has this basic grounding can pick-up. If you teach IT to everyone post 16 you’re either going over the same stuff again and again, or teaching unnecessarily specific and untransferable skills that will rapidly go out of date.

I also feel that it does not need to be a separate, compulsory, subject post 14. I mean sure an IT GCSE should be available to those who want to do technically oriented jobs, and all other GCSE equivalent courses should cover relevant IT skills. But IT needs to be part and parcel of what people are learning. It needs to be a tool rather than a thing in its own right for most people.

It almost goes without saying that education is a good and necessary thing, we can always find ways to improve teaching. However I think education is only a small part of the problem with IT knowledge.

The biggest problem is attitudes to knowledge. We need to become a society that values knowledge, and expects people to know the stuff they were taught at school. Taking science as an example- that has been compulsory on the national curriculum since the early 90s, and it before that it was fairly standard for most people to be encouraged to do at least one science subject. Yet as a society we don’t seem to consider that teaching as basic background knowledge. Newspapers do not seem to pitch stories to a public that was taught basic science at school- they pitch them to people with almost complete scientific illiteracy.

There’s a similar story with maths, I was once privy to a conversation with two adult education advisers who were teaching basic maths to nursing students. One bemoaned that some of the stuff they were expected to learn was GCSE level. Well, that *is* basic maths.

The other thing we need as a society is to be more relaxed about, and aware of our ignorance. We should be relaxed about our weaknesses and not be aggressive when they are pointed out. We all lack knowledge that it is reasonable to expect us to know. I know this because I am no different. Be too harsh about lack of knowledge and people hide and don’t seek help. However, if you normalize a low level of knowledge, many people who need to know more assume they are doing fine and don’t seek help either. In the second situation people feel better about themselves, but otherwise are no better off.

The problem with normalizing a low level of IT knowledge is that we end up with policy (in businesses as well as the public sector) being driven by people who know little, but feel that they are well informed. They know quite enough, thank you very much, and those who know more are difficult pointy-heads. These people do not seek the advice of specialists because they judge those specialists to be pedants, geeks and weirdos (I’m generalizing of course) who just make the mumbo jumbo up as they go along. Anything they don’t understand is irrelevant and nonsense. Well it must be.

So my point is, yes we do need to teach IT at school. We all need the basic aptitude to use computers so we can easily pick up the specifics as we go through our lives. But unless attitudes in society towards knowledge change, much of that teaching will be going down the drain.

Unfortunately I can’t see how these attitudes can be fixed.

In drafts hell

No, this isn’t about anything productive. I’m not talking about any book or article I’m about to publish or even a piece of coursework I desperately need to finish.

Several posts to this blog remain in drafts hell. Most have never left my head as the idea I had while walking to the playground evaporates or loses cogency when I’m faced with the tools to turn my thoughts into words other people can read.

One thought that keeps bubbling to the surface is how I took a stand against online bullying and normalised aggression and nastiness five years ago. I ultimately failed to make a difference, but I am still proud of myself- I feel I deserve a lot of respect for it. Sadly, even proud of my actions as I am, there are unresolved issues relating to this event that mean that this post may be less about my actions to make the world a better place, and more about my sense of unresolved bitterness at the way I was treated- as if I was the problem rather than the brave person standing up to it.

The second post is surrounding this post on a true story about Daily Mail lies. Mine is a more general piece about lies and the media, namely that I don’t think the fact “they all do it” makes it OK, and that there is a big gap between skewing a story toward a newspaper’s agenda, and simply making stuff up.

Part of what holds me back is the futility of blogging. Something that drives me on each day is a desire to work towards making the world a nicer and better place. Even standing up for people wronged as rude and nasty on the internet, by those far ruder and nastier, counts. Trouble is my capacity for actually achieving this is limited (as evidenced by the fact I chose a time where I tried and failed as a “proud moment”).  It sometimes seems that more intelligent and philosophical blogging is unlikely to change minds, only to get the converted nodding and those that disagree riled rather than challenged. Opinion pieces seem to reinforce opinions, rather than change them.

Ideological cross contamination

I may come up with a less psuedy title if I can think of one.

Most of the people or organisations I am involved with are interested in people being nice to each other in some way. The Lib Dems believe in a society where we balance the values of liberty, equality and community, and where no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance and conformity. [1] Which basically boils down to lets all get along and be nice to one another and encourage people to improve and grow. The Scout Association believes in encouraging the physical, spiritual and mental development of young people [2], and the ways it does this is by encouraging them to help others, be aware of the world around them, and to understand other cultures. This seems to boil down to more or less the same thing.

Sometimes I wonder though, whether I’m reading my own values into the stated values of both organisations and imagining stuff that isn’t there. It is true to say that there are many in both who don’t fully subscribe to the values of the organisations they are members of. Some Lib Dems who are really socialists not liberals, or indeed join the party because it’s nicer than the others. Some Scout Leaders are just in it for the outdoor activities and look down at those who provide a broader programme at the expense of the summer expedition to Mount Everest. In Scouting I will sometimes see leaders with a severe right wing outlook and wonder how they get on with the whole “helping others” ethos behind the movement that takes up most of their free time. And I wonder if my own view of what the association stands for is filtered by my own values.

A notable deviation from the official line of the Scout Association’s message of inclusiveness is that it doesn’t quite stretch to atheists, although it includes just about everyone else. And given this I’m sure that Britain being Britain there are one or two Scout Leaders and Commissioners who are culturally Christian, but are really closet atheists. Indeed there are probably many members of the association who told the right kind of truth in the warrant interview.

Because of my beliefs I often find I’m the one pushing the global and environmental side of the Scout Programme to make sure they are adequately represented. This has been dismissed as “hippy cr*p”[3] by some of the leaders I have worked with. Recently a quick review of the unit programmes locally showed that the programme our unit was running was a lot closer to the values and ideals of Scouting as promoted in the literature and training materials, than the programmes of the ambitious types in the district. And yet these ambitious types, with their unbalanced programmes, were the ones sneering at the quality of ours.

I tend to look on politics as service to community through other channels, and feel that gaining control of any public office is no good if you make no effort to help others through it. It does worry me to see people who lose focus on why they want to win in order to concentrate on winning. It jars with me when more extreme political types have bad things to say about Scouting when fundamentally it is trying to achieve similar ideals through different means. Yes, I can see that it’s fair that some have an image of Scouting as a white middle-class Christian club, even though that is not accurate. The truth is one in three members of the world Scout Movement is Muslim, and the representation in this country fares well when compared to the population as a whole. As a liberal I don’t believe there should be any law against having such prejudices, it’s what you do about them that really matters.

I often question whether I am confusing my sets of values when I hear an argument from a member of the movement beginning “I’m not racist, because…” or speak to Lib Dems who would rather take pictures of piles of litter to shame their opponents, than put on some gloves and clear it up.

It could be that for all the waffle the fundamental values of both organisations are quite generic Good Things that most people would subscribe to, and that many of us see more than is actually there. Both organistaions are in their own way a broad Church in which the members do their best to make the world a better place.

Oh hang it all I’ll just try and do the right thing.

[1] Preamble to the federal constitution
[2] Not a direct quote of POR
[3] The leader who said this is now a born again Christian. That’s probably not
relevant.