Monday, 25 March 2013

First posted on Backbencher 24th Mar


Truth turns out to be slippery. We’re all pretty sure it’s there but we’ve learnt that it’s different for different people. Palestinian truth is different from Israeli truth, Democrat from Republican, Protestant from Catholic and so on. Most of us at some point turn to science for a resolution – surely the objective standards of science with its disinterested concern with testing, evidence and experiment provides us an arbiter of the final reality?

Not so it appears, and not due merely to the arguments from relativist social scientists but to science’s own discoveries of indeterminacy, quantum mechanics and complexity at all levels. Whether your dealing with sub-atomic particles, meteorological patterns or neural firing in the brain, the truth, if it exists at all, depends on how you look at it. The net result - the Enlightenment dream is left in tatters and if we ever manage to put our feet down it is infrequently and for short periods.

Shifting horizons, constant technological revolution and the end days of the post-war settlement leave us scratching our heads.  What now? What next? How will my kids buy a house when there are so few jobs and change is upon us so fast that once we are settled in one pattern the grounds of reality shift to a new configuration?

We look for hand holds and there are some on offer.  Darwin’s theory of evolution might be first in the line up. Robust, applicable in lots of domains and carrying the certainty we lust evolution offers the potential to be a ubiquitous and all powerful truth. But how does it help us live our lives? In what way does the awareness of the pressure of natural selection on mutant genes help us resolve the problem of getting on with each other or telling us how to live? Hardly at all and in the hands of ideologues, the ‘is’ of Darwinism can quickly become the heinous ‘ought’ driving racial hatred.

Another possibility is the constant, if ironical, truth that life is essentially mysterious and the only final facts are that things will change and we won’t understand them. There is some strength in this and the realization of the essential mystery seems to me to hold the good bits of religion and religious language which struggles with the knowledge that we just don’t know. To this extent religious language carries the integrity of honesty – it tackles the human condition honestly and with good will. Sadly though the recognition of mystery also provokes the bad side of religion with all its dogmas and abuses.  As a potential solution, knowledge of the essential mystery leaves the field open for any and all the crackpot solutions and dream weaving deliriums peddled by the weak, desperate and downright malicious would-be spiritual leaders who do their best to justify their positions and confound our situation yet further by talking complete bull.

There is one global constant though that does at least seem to structure our world and qualifies as some kind of constant truth. The market. The brutal, constantly adapting, profit driven, growth model built, market. But even this won’t really do. It might be the market that delimits and supports our material life, but it is the space beyond the market that generates meaning. Love, insight, friendship, art, the fleeting moments of being at peace exist beyond the market.

With bank balance reality on one hand and mystery on the other. Truth does not seem to yield. Maybe we should look somewhere else?

Monday, 18 March 2013

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Sunday, 10 March 2013

Structural bullying

Structural bullying

The Oxford English Dictionary has ‘Bully’ as ‘a person who deliberately intimidates or persecutes those who are weaker’ and we hear a lot about the phenomenon of ‘bullying’ which goes on regularly in our schools and all our institutions. Clearly the actions of bullies on others are undeniably hurtful and cruel and are experienced as such. Rarely though do bullies themselves see it that way – they rationalize their actions as justifiable within the context in which they live.

I want to challenge the notion that bullying is something done exclusively by individual bad or misguided people. With the 1970s slogan ‘the personal is the political’ ringing written deep in my soul and having served an intellectual apprenticeship with largely leftwing structural analysts, I find it impossible not to see the social world itself as structured by the same abusive and bullying power relationship.  The boss requires you to do more. Your workload doubles for the same pay. The threat of unemployment delivered with ‘like it or lump it’ rationale preys on your mind. You see those beneath you duffed up by yet another restructuring and you pray that the same brutality is not coming your way. You see fat cats racing around in hundreds of thousands of pounds of fancy metal and various forms of dressage whilst you can’t afford the rent. You see the profit motive as the exclusive logic and God of our times and you feel abused by it. The pain and the unfairness of it all is not really very different and the only substantial distinction between personal bullying and institutional bullying is that it is our institutional customs and relationships clothed as ‘fair play’ rather than ‘a person’ that deliver the pain.

Such is the human condition and we are rarely able to escape the inequity that circumscribes how we live – I’m with Isaiah Berlin in believing that a liberal democracy is the best we can hope for – capitalism with its worst excesses under some kind of control.  But the mechanisms by which what are actually the structural rules of social reality, are translated into the personal responsibilities of the individual, are very subtle and have very negative effects.  They delude us and serve to subjugate our imagination. They also locate blame - with bad people - rather than the system. True, the consequences of our capitalist organisation realised as the oppressions under which we live, serve to maintain order and, ironically, engender the creative effort to seek free expression and pull back the veil of illusion. But they are still oppressions experienced more or less harshly depending on the position you find yourself.

I have met very few truly ‘bad’ people who would fulfill the OED’s description of a bully as someone who deliberately seeks to hurt and most of those I’ve met whilst working in prisons. I’ve met a lot of confused poker playing folk trying to get by with no time to empathize with others. I’ve met some genuinely uncaring people who operate with a malicious form of defensiveness but who are usually scarred in some way themselves. In the institutional world I’ve met a lot of people who play their hands with focused determination and with little mind to the effect of their actions. Such folk tend to claim to have learnt at the school of hard knocks and legitimate their actions by appeal to the tough but fair social rules under which we all live.

It is easier to locate the individual bully as the source of social evil rather than recognize the structural conditions in which we live as the grounds from which such bad behavior emanates – after all the distress we experience is nearly always delivered by individual human hands. Whether by means of religious mythology or the political manipulation of semantics, it is easier to see the human stuff as essentially flawed than recognize the mechanisms that give the lie to meritocracy for what they are. It doesn’t seem too far of an intellectual stretch to replace the OEDs definition of a bullying as ‘a person who deliberately intimidates or persecutes those who are weaker’ to ‘the social rules by which the forces of wealth deliberately intimidate or persecute those who are less wealthy into accepting their subordinate position’.

Ok. I admit that does seem a step too far down the path of leftist utopian delusion, but do you know what I mean?