On awareness

Nature is a language, can’t you read?

Successful human interaction is fundamentally dependent on awareness. How aware are you of what your fellow human being is currently thinking or feeling? Where do you think they are in their current stream of consciousness? Watch them as you speak to them. How are they reacting to you? What can you tell by the tone of their voice, the expression in their eyes, the speed of their response?

In short, are you aware? Are you aware of their current state of mind? Is what you’re saying to that person appropriate to this state of mind?

And if you’re in a group situation, how aware are you of the different characters in the group? Is what you’re saying appropriate for this group of people? Will you be understood? Are you engaging with everyone present?

You’ll only know if you’re aware. You need to read everything. And if you’re reading everything then you’ll be well on your way to social felicity: loving and meaningful human interaction, interesting and thought-provoking conversations and shared enjoyment of the light and shade of life.

Beware the silver tyranny – could this be British democracy in 2050?

There’s an age-old conundrum in political theory (pun intended, you’ll soon see why) and it’s called the tyranny of the majority. In short, it’s the ugly face of democracy and I think it’s going to be the big problem we Brits face come 2050. Allow me to demonstrate by way of a 21st century political allegory.

Jonny is a dutiful kid who goes to visit his Gran in the local care home. He arrives one day to find her sitting in the communal living area watching Countdown on the television. It takes some effort but he’s eventually able to prise her eyes away from Nick Hewer and they have a polite chat about elderly things: the weather, the war and the grace of Roger Federer’s backhand. It’s all gone swimmingly well but then just as he’s making to leave he has an ill-fated thought.

‘Sorry to bother you,’ he announces, turning towards the elderly congregation, all of whom are utterly transfixed by the latest offering of letters on Countdown. ‘But could I quickly switch over to BBC 1 to check the football scores?’

There’s a stunned silence. Slowly a swell of grumbling indignation rises from the gathered mass. ‘Of course not!’ they cry in unison. ‘We’re watching Countdown!’ His modest proposal has clearly invoked tangible displeasure so he raises a defensive hand. ‘Sorry, sorry. I just wanted to have a quick look. It would only take 10 seconds.’

The swell of murmured discontent merely rises. His statement has only served to add fuel to the already angry flames. At this moment the senior care worker arrives in the living room. ‘What’s all this commotion about?’ she demands, peering around the room. ‘Who’s responsible for all this?’

A sea of quivering accusatory fingers now confronts Jonny. ‘It’s him! He wants to change the channel but we all want to watch Countdown!’ There is a roar of approval, led by none other than Jonny’s Gran. He makes a mental note not to send her a Christmas card this year.

‘I see,’ the care worker says, nodding knowingly. ‘The classical mistake of trying to change the TV channel. Well then, we know how we resolve problems like this, don’t we folks?’ She suddenly brandishes a well-worn copy of Rousseau’s The Social Contract from her handbag. Before Jonny can even begin to protest she ceremoniously holds it aloft and declares emphatically, ‘We vote!’

‘All in favour of watching Countdown raise your hands!’ The elderly dutifully raise their arms in unison. ‘And all in favour of changing to BBC 1?’ Jonny meekly extends his index finger, cringing inwardly at the absurdity of this situation.

‘Well that settles it then,’ the care worker declares. She turns to leave but then Jonny’s Gran pipes up again. ‘Hold on. I think this young man should also bring us a round of tea and biscuits to say sorry for making us miss the last few minutes of Countdown.’

More roaring approval, the elderly folk now nodding vigorously and stamping their feet. ‘Yes, tea and biscuits!’ they cry. ‘We vote for tea and biscuits!’ Once more the room is filled with arms held proudly aloft. The care worker turns to Jonny, a hint of apology in her eyes, and points him towards the kitchen.

‘I’m sorry dear but the people have spoken,’ she solemnly declares. ‘Tea and biscuits it must be.’ For fear of reigniting the anger of the ancients, Jonny complies without protest and trudges lamely over to the kitchen, quietly cursing his Gran, Rousseau, the Greeks, de Tocqueville, Mill and all those other bright sparks who ever proclaimed the virtues of majority decision-making…

As should be clear, our care home tale of poor Jonny and the evil elders has a simple moral: democracy can be an ugly thing if you’re in the minority. If you’re not careful, you can find yourself oppressed by the democratic will. It’s an age-old political problem that afflicts all democracies, even our own.

Just look at Britain today. Our economy is in a slump and yet the remedy of choice of our political leaders is the euphemistic ‘quantitative easing’, the creation of fresh money to buy up government and corporate bonds. This is a policy of mild tyranny for a minority of the population – people like Jonny’s Gran in fact. Low interest rates give elderly people miserly returns on their savings whilst their pension funds face large deficits as yields on government bonds hit record lows. Quantitative easing also devalues the currency and hence reduces the value of their savings.

Yet why is there not uproar? How is a government allowed to let this happen? It’s demographics. Currently only one-in-six people in the UK are over-65. This means politicians can still win elections even if their parties have been guilty of supporting the surreptitious impoverishment of the elderly. It’s essentially tyranny of the 25-50 year olds over the rest.

But oh how times will change! The UK has an ageing population with rising life expectancy, better medical care and low fertility rates. Come 2050, one-in-four people will be over-65. And if these trends continue (and who’s to say they won’t?) then not soon after we’ll see the day when the elderly form a majority of the population.

What will our democracy look like then? Here’s my guess: a silver-haired Nick Clegg will lean fraily on the despatch box in the House of Commons, commanding an enormous majority having opportunistically rebranded his party as the ‘Liberal Gerontocrats’. In opposition will be the dregs of the Labour and Conservative Youth divisions, forced to unite despite their ideological differences against the silver tyranny of the Lib Gems.

Funding pensions, meanwhile, will be the hot topic of the day. The UK government has already accumulated a cool £5.01 trillion in pension obligations (342% of national income) and that was only by December 2010. With people living longer, what will that figure look like in 2050? And will the economy have grown enough for us to get even close to paying those pensions? Fear not: we’ll have the expert economics of the Lib Gems.

‘No more quantitative easing!’ Clegg the Elder will boom, cheered on by a mass of order-paper waving octogenarians. ‘The economic strategy of this country will be built on three things: higher taxes for young people, longer working hours for under-30s and reduced education budgets. This is the only strategy that will deliver fairness, fairness for all those people who deserve every penny of their pension!’

The tables will have turned. The pensioners will have their sweet democratic revenge. Tea and biscuits, anyone?
Published in The Bubble, Durham’s online student magazine – 24th July 2012


Perhaps you could show some leadership, Mr Cameron?

Daniel Finkelstein wrote an interesting Comment piece (£) in The Times today. Observations on the current PR disaster for the banks and how it had become a political scandal. I liked his thoughts on public perceptions of national events and how the public are too busy to clue up on the gritty details of what’s going and hence the general impression of these events is what really counts.

As with the BSkyB affair, this one is complex and voters probably couldn’t explain it to you (LIBOR?) but nevertheless they understand that all is not right. Similarly, if Labour keep banging on about incompetence, omnishambles and ‘U-turns’, through an osmotic effect, voters get that impression and there’s the chance it will stick. So in the morass of information and spin of today, with all newspapers guilty of some degree of slanting, it seems like the only way for a government to speak directly and persuasively to a voter is through cold, hard reality. That means money in pockets and excellent public services. You can do all the PR you want but there’ll always be interests out there trying to warp and block you. Best to use your actions to speak loudest.

Meanwhile, Cameron’s got his knickers in a twist on Europe. I think Europe is another issue where most people are pretty ambivalent and they yawn at the complexities. But it’s also an issue where the vacuum of knowledge on the part of the British voter makes it ideal for vested interests to lead the masses in a certain direction. We are sheep and all we need is a shepherd. But Cameron doesn’t seem like a shepherd at the moment (again, it’s all about impression) – commentators paint a man prevaricating and flip-flopping, not a leader at all. And that’s not an impression you want if you’re PM.

The truth is Dave’s in an awful position. The situation in Europe is changing by the day so we don’t know what we’d be opting in or out of. It’s a mess. I wish Dave would just show some balls and take a strong position now, something like: ‘We’re happy to give the British people a referendum on membership of the European Union when the time is right. But the time isn’t right now and we’ll be reviewing the situtation on a bi-monthly basis.’ End of discussion. For now, let’s get back to deficit reduction, Syria, sorting out the eurozone and reforming public services.

Starting the Stream

A la Ulysses, this will be a simple stream of consciousness. Thoughts from the day, questions I’ve been asking myself, things to follow up on and ponder. In the past I’ve felt that these thoughts have been seeping through my hands like water. Now it’s time to catch them.

This enterprise will only really work if I’m ‘thinking fast’, to use the language of Daniel Kahneman. It’s just quick, unfiltered and unmoderated thought, put down on a page. The inhibitive ‘thinking slow’ will have to wait. Of course I’ll grimace at all of this in the cold light of day but for now part of the brain needs to shut up. Yes it will be under-developed, yes it will be crude and yes it will be ambiguous but at least it’s something.

Meanwhile this is going to be the guiding mantra of the Stream: ‘Take your time.’

Ok, what’s been engaging me today? Moral obligations to distant strangers has been prominent, thinking about how to support the position that we have weaker obligations to those people with whom we have less of a ‘real connection’ (to use the language of Soran Reader – her excellent paper is here). I was thinking the line could be that it is going against the grain of human nature to demand impartiality in moral concern and that it might even be a psychological impossibility to show such concern. What philosophical argument, then, could satisfactorily demand that people ought to behave against their own fundamental nature?

But then I remembered Sartre and the supposed non-existence of human nature; in his eyes we must accept that we’re ‘condemned to be free‘. Though on reflection I reject the radicality of his position. There is to a certain degree a ‘human nature’, manifest in the similarity of each individual’s general basic wants, desires, fears etc. We’re ultimately all made from the same stuff. This is the source of the common human nature. Yet that’s not to say we’re at the total mercy of this nature. I’m a Platonist on this one. The will, that which distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom, has the final say in conscious decision-making. And herein lies the weakness in the ‘psychological impossibility’ argument entertained earlier: given the individual will, no conscious rational decision is ‘psychologically impossible’. So given this problem with the aforementioned argument we are back trying to justify partiality and the notion that the nature of the relationship determines moral obligation. We’ll keep working on it. We’ve plenty of time.

In other news I’ve been thinking about the ‘God of the Gaps’, perhaps the key argument used to rebut positions that defend theism. I’ll need to write a careful article on that one. It’ll first need some intellectual exploration but I think a fruitful approach will be to reflect on Wittgenstein’s ‘Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent’. Burke will probably also come in, doubting the small stock of human reason. Monkeys and quantum mechanics, ‘what is this gap you speak of…?’, along those lines. It’s standard apologetics but I’d like to get it straight for myself. You need to be ready for the nay-sayers.

I was also thinking about hypocrisy and the history of the Catholic Church, William Tyndale and Bible translations, the Society of Saint Pius X and the comparision with Protestantism and starting up the ‘Wise Words’ section. Plenty to do and develop but all in good time.