Philosophy, and things that are not philosophy. That probably covers it.

Draft of a Conference Paper on Future Generations

This is slightly more technical than stuff that I normally put up, but I think it is still more or less followable. I’ll be speaking on this next week at a conference on Environmental Ethics.

I was unsure about whether to post this in advance, but figured that it is a work in progress anyway, and would benefit from constructive criticism before or after the event.

Parfit’s Glass Tunnel: Time, Identity and Intergenerational Justice.

This paper has emerged as the result of a crisis that I had when I was working on my PhD a couple of years ago.  One particular chapter, on future generations, tied my brain in knots and occupied me for far longer than it should have done, and at the time I didn’t see quite why.  What I want to do today is expose the root of this problem, which I believe is one that affects moral philosophy quite broadly, but for reasons that will become clear becomes much more acute when we think about intergenerational justice and obligations to future people.  For the sake of brevity I am going to focus on Derek Parfit today. I do this not because he is the worst culprit, but because I think he goes wrong in more interesting ways than many people maintain.

At the heart of the issue is a particular approach to doing ethics generally, whereby a set of properties are identified that make a being worthy of moral consideration, or moral consideration of certain kinds.  These properties are, as it were, pre-ethical, but they need to be picked out in order to assign moral status.  This approach is nicely outlined by Simon James in his book The Presence of Nature:

According to what I shall call the standard approach, normative ethics (environmental ethics included) proceeds as follows. One begins by identifying what it is that marks a being out as worthy of moral consideration. Then one determines which kinds of being possess it.  … the epistemological task of determining what kinds of being there are with what kinds of properties can and should be carried out independently of ethical considerations. … the epistemological part of the procedure is carried out without reference to ethical considerations: it is, one might say, purely epistemological, just as the ethical part is purely ethical.

The tendency is to suppose that the role of the ethicist is to sort out the applications of values once the metaphysical and scientific facts of the matter have been firmly established.  It is only once the solid immovable architecture has been put in place that the ethicists can be called in to argue about the colour of the curtains.  In terms of future generations this tends to play out as follows (apologies to those of you who are allergic to philosophy in this style).

We begin by examining the claim:

C: There is (or will be) some person (or people) a at time t+1, such that we have obligations to a at t.

C is usually accompanied by one or more of the following presuppositions:

1.            a does not exist at t.

2.            a’s existence (and identity) is contingent on decisions made at t.

3.            at t, a has no properties (usually taken as equivalent to what can be truthfully predicated of a).

4.            Moral status or moral considerability is contingent on a given set of properties, either actual or potential.

Assessments of C are made in order to assign truth values to claims about obligations to future people, or to consider whether such claims are truth-apt.  This underpins Parfit’s approach, as well as Thomas Schwartz’s rejection of obligations to future people, and many endorsements of such obligations.

The metaphysical task we are now confronted with, in order to see if the claims of C are borne out in the world, is extremely daunting (and this is what accounted for the hair-tugging PhD crisis).  In order to engage seriously with this question, we need to have answers to issues concerning the unity and persistence of personal identity, counterfactuals, actuality and potentiality, the metaphysics of time and the nature of properties.  A lot of work in this field has very little to say about these issues, often borrowing language from debates in metaphysics and epistemology without fully exploring it, despite the fact that when employing this approach, the whole result of the enquiry could hinge on these matters.

Parfit, however, is far from being guilty of a lack of engagement with metaphysics, and this is what makes him one of the more interesting writers on this topic, even though I think that this approach ultimately causes him problems. Reasons and Persons is probably best known for its articulation of the non-identity problem and other issues affecting our moral dealings with future generations, but in fact this is only one late section in a book that not only covers ethics, but also personal identity, temporal change and epistemology.  In fact, it seems likely that the case of future people is singled out not only as an important moral issue in its own right, but because it presents interesting puzzles at the point where he sees the intersection between metaphysical and epistemological matters and ethics.

I don’t want to rehearse the non-identity problem in detail to a room full of environmental philosophers, but the basic issue relates to the fact that decisions that we make now (about things like population policy, for example) will affect which individuals will come into existence in the future, such that had a different decision been made, the future would be populated by a completely different group of people.  This means that no future individual will be able to claim correctly that they have been harmed (or benefited) by the decision, since they would not exist in the alternative future scenario.  It might then be claimed that there are no obligations to future people, since there are no determinate people for whose sake we are making these choices (note how this roughly corresponds with the ‘standard’ approach to ethics outlined at the start).

Parfit does not claim to have a fully worked out solution to the non-identity problem, but he is not happy to accept the notion that we do not have obligations to future people, and he gives some indication of how he thinks a solution would have to go.  He suggests that to deal with the problem adequately, we must adopt an ‘impersonal’ approach to ethics, which is not concerned with the identities of specific individuals, and can therefore make comparisons between the life of one possible person, and their counterpart or counterparts under another possible future scenario.  In this way, we can preserve the notion of having an obligation to bring about the best future state of affairs without worrying about the fact that the act of bringing it about will affect the identities of the people who partially constitute it.

Given this line of approach to the problem, it is a little surprising that Parfit has gained the sort of reputation that he has among those of us who are ethically committed to the view that we should have moral concern for future generations, and in fact this is quite harmonious with the wider approach to personhood that he expresses elsewhere in the book – an approach which, at least on the surface, seems extremely amenable to certain kinds of ecological consciousness.  Parfit challenges the idea that there is a determinate metaphysical answer to be found to the question of what ensures the continuity of personal identity, thus loosening the grip of a rigid notion of the separate self.  This allows a greater sense of continuity with both the presently surrounding world and community, and with things that occur beyond the boundaries of the individual’s lifetime.  Here is Parfit’s own description of the conscious realisation of this loosening of the boundaries of the self:

My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness… When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.

This fits very well with his impersonal approach the non-identity problem.  Once the significance of individual selfhood is eroded, the matter of distinct future individuals being harmed or benefited becomes less of an obstacle.  We might see some comparisons here with certain strands in Buddhist ethics, where the attachment to an unchanging ultimate self in a world characterised by change and impermanence is regarded as a cause of suffering and selfishness.  This sort of realisation could be seen as a positive transformation if we are to have greater concern for wider communities, for non-human nature, and for what happens over timescales that transcend the individual lifetime.

So why is there a problem here? To start with, I want to be clear that I do not want to put Parfit back in his glass tunnel.  The liberation experienced in finding oneself less cut off, more intricately involved in the lives of others, is something that has a great deal to recommend it.  At the same time, though, there are reasons to be somewhat suspicious about the way that Parfit goes about this.

We might imagine an overwhelming sense of relief that the metaphysics works out after all.  As it turns out, we don’t have to abandon our deep-seated moral convictions.  The critique of the permanent unchanging self is vindicated, and with it our sense that we are not living in un-splendid isolation.  We could imagine an alternative scenario in which Parfit is convinced, against his prior commitments, that actually such-and-such an account of personal identity has won out, and we need to abandon the notion that we can have any coherent obligations to help people who will live after we have died.  It wouldn’t necessarily just be personal identity that could throw such a spanner in the works – let’s suppose for example that we come up with an account of the metaphysics of time that make our obligations to the future incoherent, for example, a radical metaphysical presentism that reduces all talk of past and future objects, properties and events to nonsense.

The problem here seems to relate to the fact that Parfit’s approach is radically unsituated.  The ‘standard approach’ to ethics outlined by Simon James describes just such a third-person view of the relationship between ethics and metaphysics.  We begin by removing ourselves, our own values and commitments, from the picture, asking how the world ‘anyway is’ when we are not in the thrall of value, and then tries to reintroduce that value further down the line.  It is a way of thinking about time and space that bleaches all meaning out of it, and then tries to paint it back on at the end.  We remove ourselves from our particular standpoint, our own commitments and relationships, and feel surprised that we can’t see the value in the world.  As Bernard Williams remarks:

Parfit can convert the metaphysical into the practical so easily, I suspect, because the view that he takes of the practical, and of experience in general, is throughout the book so radically external. Philosophically speaking – it is not true of his literary allusions – he sees everything from the outside. … his neglect of the first-personal view, in the theory of personal identity as in his earlier discussion of one’s need to induce certain dispositions in oneself, leaves a gap. When we think how the argument is to be understood and applied, a dimension is missing.

The notion that ethics has to be approached primarily as though through the eyes of an impartial observer suggests that we have a deficiency because of our spatial, temporal and personal situatedness.  We need to imagine the world as it would be without these obstacles.  But in fact, it is this situatedness that makes moral life possible, and insulates us against the cruelties that could occur through thinking our dealings with others must depend on an objective metaphysic.

But where does this leave us in terms of Parfit’s glass tunnel?  There are two distinct questions here: firstly, is a situated approach psychologically egoistic, and secondly, how are we to relate this to our idea of the self?

 On the first question, it might be maintained that to take the situated view will return us to an isolated state that promotes both egoism and anxiety.  On the specific issue of future generations, it might lead us to be attentive only to those with whom we share a common life.

Typically in other spheres of normative ethics, questions of this sort are well countered by emphasising notions such as care and attentiveness.  The notion of a relational ethic is brought to the fore (e.g. Simon James, Iris Murdoch, Nell Noddings etc.) There seem to be some specific difficulties with this when we are considering future generations.  Whereas in our encounters with other people, with non-human animals, with plants and so on, we can commit ourselves to attentive interaction with them, where we participate in shared activities, this is not possible with members of future generations.  In the cases that Parfit is discussing, there is no overlap between our lives and theirs.  We cannot watch their lives unfolding or engage in any kind of mutual responsiveness.  They are always at arm’s length, and to some extent abstractions.

The points discussed in the non-identity problem re-emerge here, since it is not just the unknown-ness that creates an issue, but also the indeterminacy of future people.  There is, from our perspective, no solid fact of the matter about what sort of people they will be, how and where they will live and so on, and these things – insofar as we can know them at all – will slip and slide in our imaginations as we consider different possibilities about how to act.

I think this is not so much of a problem as it first appears.  Being the age that I am, many of my friends are currently busy making babies.  Much of my old undergraduate circle is in a whirl of scans, knitting, DIY and excited conversations about anticipated children.  It is certainly the case that, at this stage, the genetic identities of their children have been determined.  It is also true that in some instances the prospective parents know some facts about their future children – their biological sex for example, or whether they will be twins.  Nonetheless, a great deal about them – their personalities, the world that they will grow up in – is largely undetermined and largely unknown.  Many factors could intervene and send them on a different course.

Nonetheless, it does not seem irrational, or a wild leap away from our normal moral concepts, to say that a form of moral care and attentiveness is at play here.  In fact, the indeterminacy helps to shape the nature of the attentiveness concerned.  The anticipation of a new baby is coloured by the knowledge that an inconceivable range of possibilities about them are still open, and the care involved includes ensuring that many of the fulfilling possibilities remain.  It may be that, similarly, while the lack of determinacy of future individuals presents us with limitations, it also helps to shape the appropriate moral response.  Non-identity becomes a moral consideration, rather than a problem.  In this way, viewing future people from our own perspective does not necessarily confine us to an egoistic exclusive concern for our contemporaries.

But this brings us to our second question: what happens to the self when we view matters in this way?  On one hand it seems that what is being considered is outward-looking and expansive, allowing us to reach imaginatively beyond our individual temporal grasp, but on the other, to abandon the third-personal approach might be seen as putting us back into the glass tunnel, where there is a determinate self which is the locus of moral deliberation.  Could this be an egoistic account after all?

Parfit’s erosion of the self is reliant on a metaphysical account, not on a moral life as it is lived.  As we have seen, this creates problems if we hold that our strong commitments can be derailed by an unexpected twist in the ontological track.

The same commitment to a third-personal metaphysic as the basis of his account conceals from Parfit how the self is, as far as our lives and relationships are concerned, not just one person among many.  If this were the case, treating it as our indispensable standpoint would be a kind of egoistic bias.  The self does not emerge as particularly significant because it is regarded much as we regard others, just with special privileges. Rather, it is the background against which anything can have significance or value.  The first person perspective is a perspective on the world, not a look in the mirror.  It is our means of living in a world of value, and to eradicate that perspective is to eradicate that value.  In this sense, retaining the self does not confine us to our isolated glass tunnels – it is the reason for our identification and closeness with others.

Both this conception of the self, and the way that we think about our temporal relationships with others may, for what it’s worth, turn out to be ‘illusory’ given a certain notion of ontology, but this hardly seems to be significant.  As Bernard Williams points out:

If time’s passage is an illusion, so is the flow of time apparently involved in action and deliberation themselves; relative to the metaphysical truth of the matter, the whole enterprise of practical deliberation, and all the various principles that might be brought to it, would alike have to be bracketed. If time’s passage is an illusion, we live that illusion, and finding out that it was an illusion would not provide us with a reason for deliberating in one way rather than another within it.

The beauty of Parfit’s approach is that it allows him, as he puts it, to ‘live in the open air’ and therefore to grant himself moral concerns that extend beyond his individual lifetime.  We inhabit a social and political climate where this kind of un-selfing is increasingly needed, both for present and future generations. An egoistic attachment to the self as the main focus of the individual’s concern needs to be challenged, and Parfit evokes very beautifully the liberation that this challenge can afford. His mistake, and my mistake when I was anxious about my PhD thesis, is to suppose that we need to wait for a value-free third-person metaphysical theory to take us there.


Tackling extremist hatred – one battle, many questions

Since the horrific attack on Lee Rigby, a flood of opinion has been unleashed. We have seen a truly frightening backlash in the form of Islamophobic comments, attacks on mosques, and to date two large marches by the far-right group the EDL, each attracting over a thousand people. Every day more analysis spills out, blaming the rise in extremism of various kinds on one factor or another.  I’ve felt overwhelmed, not seeing where to begin.  Many responses are one-dimensional, but when I try to smooth out the bumps in their carpets, new ones pop up elsewhere. This is enormously fraught, and it is hard to say useful things about it without coming out with stuff that will cause grave discomfort somewhere or other. Please bear that in mind as I look at some of the stuff we have seen.

First off, there was this article by A.C. Grayling:

Not everything that Grayling talks about here is wrong.  It is quite right that a rigid attachment to dogmatic principles is responsible for people doing appalling things.  It can create a sense of justification for the most cruel and bloodthirsty actions.  There are huge problems with what Grayling says here though, quite apart from being pretty offensive to anyone with any religious beliefs.  Firstly, there is an error in logic that I would call up a first year undergraduate on. Part of his reasoning appears to be:

1. Murders are committed by people in an abnormal state of mind.

2. Religious belief is an abnormal state of mind, therefore:

3. Religious beliefs are responsible for murder.

I don’t think I’m going to dignify that with a response, I’ll just leave it up there for you to marvel at.  A second problem is that Grayling takes the abnormality in question to be a failure of rationality, and it is the irrationality of religious faith that causes the problem. I don’t know about you, but the fact that I do not go around committing bloodthirsty murders has less to do with my rationality than it does to do with the fact that I am sickened by the thought of causing grave suffering to other people, and I think this is probably the case for even the most hard line Kantian or Platonist.

Nonetheless, it would be daft to say that religion has nothing at all to do with this – of course it does – the killers themselves were obviously wrapped up in a particular religious worldview, no matter how twisted and distorted a picture of Islam it was. There are a lot of twisted pictures of the world that cause people to dehumanise other people and behave in appalling ways, including the notion of Englishness espoused by the EDL (I’ve written about this elsewhere). So what is it that leads people to adopt these pictures?

An important element of this relates to the social and economic situations that people inhabit.  David Lammy wrote an interesting piece on this for The Guardian, although similar arguments are made elsewhere:

Lammy talks about an alienated and disenfranchised population of young men, who, disillusioned by having been forgotten by the societies that they inhabit, are vulnerable to bewitchment by extreme views of the world, whether those are in Islamic extremism, street gangs, or the EDL.

As Lammy presents it, this is too simplistic.  It does not account, for example, for why such young men will follow one dangerous path rather than another (by leaving aside the issues of religion and of geopolitics, for example, Lammy conveniently clears himself of the charge that his vote in favour of the Iraq war was any kind of contributing factor in the London 7/7 bombings).  But there is a great deal in what he says.  There do seem to be a large disenfranchised group of young men, particularly working class young men, who are alienated in British society.  This shows itself in membership of extremist groups, gangs, rioting and football hooliganism, but also in disproportionately high rates of suicide.

This is sometimes articulated as a ‘crisis of masculinity’.  I don’t like this because it suggests a universal crisis afflicting all men and resulting from the supposed total emancipation of women.  It is a small step from talking in these terms to suggest that ‘the pendulum has swung too far’ in terms of gender relations, and that now we have to look out for the poor men who are groaning under the shackles of female oppression.  The rise in extreme movements of the EDL variety has gone alongside an increase in embittered men’s movements that seek to blame feminism, and often women, for all the ills of the world.

Nonetheless, when feminist issues are raised, some very reasonable concerns about male identity, particularly issues afflicting men at the very bottom of society, are often derided with ‘oh noes what about the menz’. If feminists simply turn their backs on this issue, the alienation of young working class men will be blamed on the heedless middle-class feminist movement, and the suggested solution to this will be that women need to get back to their traditional roles. This problem affecting young men is equally a problem for women, since it creates precisely the conditions under which rape, domestic abuse, and violence against women thrive.  Unless we want to risk more women being subjected to living with men possessed by the clear hatred and aggression expressed by the EDL, we need to take this seriously.

The tendency here is not to make the link between gender and, say, social class and the distribution of property and resources.  Where feminist goals are pursued in a way that is overbearingly middle class in its focus, with no aims to improve the general conditions of those who are least well off in society, it will mean a shift of power and resources where power and resources are scarce and hard to come by in the first place.  In these conditions it is easy to instigate a ‘battle of the sexes’ that feminists didn’t want in the first place. Those who want to perpetuate the economic status quo are best off if they collude in blaming feminism, rather than having to give anything up themselves.  This means that feminism has to be alive to broader social and economic issues, and yes, to problems specifically afflicting men in certain demographics.  Equality of the sexes within an oppressed social group is not enough, and it is liable to lead to a lot of angry and alienated men who will seek an expression of this through violence and extremism of various forms.

(If anyone doubts the significance of social class here, it would be instructive to watch this frankly rather frightening propaganda video by the EDL, which portrays their ‘victimisation’ as the result of being ignored and marginalised by a middle-class elite:)

There is another (related) reason why gender is significant here.  Recall the sinisterly polite words of one of the Woolwich murderers: ‘I apologise that women had to witness this today, but in our land our women have to see the same.’  Meanwhile, the EDL, in the video that I link to above, attack British Muslims on the grounds that ‘they rape our women’.  The imagery and language called upon both by Islamic extremists, and by many extreme nationalist movements, treat women as the territory to be fought for.  The EDL constantly present images of women in Burkas as their chief symbol of something alien to British life.  Women must be fought for, defended, protected, but not fighting, active or speaking.

The symbols of nationalism and many political ideals are frequently presented as feminine. Consider, for example, Plato’s ‘noble lie’ in The Republic:
‘the earth, as being their mother, delivered them, and now, as if their land were their mother and their nurse, they ought to take thought for her and defend her against any attack, and regard the other citizens as their brothers and children of the self-same earth’

The land, or the political cause in question, is presented as feminine (think about Justice, Liberty, Britannia, etc.) and those defending her are male.  The feminine is passive and in need of masculine protection.  These ideas are what makes it so powerful for the EDL to call upon what has been done to ‘our women’, contrasted to the Woolwich murderers’ ‘our women’.  To suppose that this is only a male problem is to ignore the role of women as the inert but sacred landscape for which the ideological battles are fought.  This is not a case of the pendulum having swung too far, it is more to do with a troubled and complicated set of gender relations whose roots are ancient in origin.

I am not claiming to know the answers about what accounts for the horrific murder in Woolwich, or the disturbing backlash from the political right, and I only picked out a few things here about which I think I have some sort of ability to speak. All I know is that if we are going to unite against racism, fascism, violence, terrorism and oppression, there is not going to be a simple answer.  It is not going to be solved by looking only at the oppression of one group by another, or at class conflict, or at religion or geopolitics.  None of us as an individual is able or qualified to see the whole way through this minefield.  To do this we need a multitude of voices from all communities to try and work at this huge fucked-up tangle together. To that end, please be tolerant if I have said anything that offends.

Black April, and some other Aprils.

‘April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.’

T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

Never before have I heard so many journalists and commentators quoting T.S. Eliot in such a short space of time.  They have made use of the opening line of Eliot’s famous modernist poem The Wasteland.  This is unsurprising really – Monday was the advent of ‘black April’: the month when a merciless stream of vicious welfare cuts will blight the lives of millions of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our country.  More than at any time that most of us can recall, April is associated with bleak and unremitting cruelty. I could reel off a list of the cuts, but most of you will have read about them already: the vile bedroom tax, the slashing of legal aid, the dismantling of the NHS, the cap on benefits; all of this arriving at the same time as a massive tax cut for millionaires.

People will accuse me – and others – of being overly dramatic, of employing emotive language in what is supposed to be an objective, neutral and pragmatic debate about an economic deficit.  To make this accusation is to deny the hardship that this will wreak on real people’s lives.  I will not maintain an unemotional tone when human beings are having their lives, homes and communities destroyed by people who have no understanding of what they are going through.  Sometimes emotive language is the most appropriate language that there is.  As Nye Bevan put it, anyone who can callously impose such suffering is ‘lower than vermin’.  April is the cruellest month.

It is a pithy phrase to use, and it emphasises the viciousness of our government’s policies, but Eliot’s use of it was of course more complex.  The lilac springing from the stony earth recalls lost summers.  Memory brings the present into confrontation with a happier past, and rather than a sign of renewal, the new growth is a mockery of the coldness of our present situation compared with the happier days gone by.  Winter is a time of forgetfulness and a numb freezing of the earth in its present state.  This is preferable to the heartbreaking sight of the lone flower that recalls better times.  In our present situation it is hard to see any flowers emerging.  If anything is recalled, it is past winters.

As a child in the late 1980s I read C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and as with many children I had little conception of when it had been written.  In my mind, the White Witch, who had cast a spell on Narnia which made it ‘always winter and never Christmas’ was obviously an allegory for Thatcher, who had thrown the nation into what seemed to me (I was born in 1982) to be a never ending season of cold, darkness and hardship.  This, rather than the warmth of summer, is what is recalled by Black April.  Memory can be painful in many ways.  It can recall happier times that are behind us forever, but it can also recall past hardships on their way back in.

‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’

George Orwell, 1984

April is a popular theme for opening lines.  George Orwell puts it to good use in 1984.  He heightens the sense of the warped  logic of his dystopic scenario by placing it firmly and immediately in a context that we can understand.  The clocks are striking thirteen, the thought police are on patrol, the telescreens are blaring out lies, and paradoxical slogans are carved into government buildings, but still, Winston Smith nuzzles his chin into his breast to avoid the chill April wind.  The seasons are not answerable to Big Brother, and the familiar bright coldness of April takes us immediately into Winston’s distorted world.

We are now living in a world of lies and distortions – we are being told that the nation is overrun by lazy scroungers who occupy too much space, who have to be rooted out and punished.  This is particularly the case with the bedroom tax.  The reality is that social housing is already allocated according to need, that most housing benefit claimants work, that none are living lives of luxury, and that they are already struggling to get by.  But no, we are told to believe the slogan ‘POVERTY IS WEALTH’.

Similarly, Gove recently attacked a fictional red menace haunting our schools.  Apparently Marxists are abroad in our education system.  As we all know, Marxists are determined both to ignore the relationships between historical epochs, and to keep the working class in their place.  Far better for people to be taught through memorising a ‘stock of facts’, rather than developing the skills to think about how things could be different: ‘OBEDIENCE IS EQUALITY’.

This sick and contradictory ideology is put in the service of justifying a cruel attack on the most vulnerable: it is only through being reduced to poverty that people will gain wealth, and only through unquestioningly absorbing the status quo that they can aspire to life being better.

When our worlds transform, it seems inconceivable that nature would just tick along and do its own thing.  The Guardian’s headline yesterday – ‘The Day Britain Changed’ – almost leads us to expect thunderbolts and hurricanes.  There was something peculiar about heading into town to discuss an anti-bedroom tax campaign today, and catching myself smiling to see the crocuses and daffodils in bloom, and to feel the still-weak warmth of the sun against my cheek.  Spring, albeit slowly and tentatively, is beginning to emerge, literally if not figuratively.

This was a theme that Orwell picked up on in his essay ‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad’ in a 1946 issue of Tribune, a lyrical description of the lifecycle of the toad and the coming of spring. We might wonder why a political writer of Orwell’s stature should publish this piece in a political magazine. Perhaps it is bourgeois to think of such things when the nation is crippled by debt and plagued by social and economic inequality.  He asks ‘is it politically reprehensible, while we are all groaning under the shackles of the capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money and does not have what the editors of the left-wing newspapers call a class angle?’.  Orwell’s answer to this is implied in the framing of his question: it is not wicked because appreciation of nature makes life more worth living, does not cost money and is no respecter of class.

To take pleasure in what is freely available to everyone is to contradict the model of the self as rational economic actor, and can give us insight into what freely available benefits are like.  Romantic artists and poets in the socialist tradition saw the appreciation of nature and the political project of improving the condition of humanity as connected.  Through enjoying what was wild, natural and unowned, we see ourselves as part of a common destiny, and recognise that there are things that we delight in and protect as a community, rather than as a collection of discrete property owners. It gives us a reason to strive for a better world: as Orwell says ‘If a man cannot enjoy the return of spring, why should he be happy in a labour-saving Utopia?’

Big Brother can sweep away much of the humanity of our interactions through imposing a culture built on twisted logic.  He cannot take away the bright chill of April:

‘At any rate, spring is here, even in London N. 1, and they can’t stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.’

George Orwell, ‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad’

Orwell’s insistence that it is not bourgeois or wicked to enjoy the coming of spring is an important counterbalance to the vision of a bleak wasteland that recalls only past wastelands.  We must not lose our humanity or our ability to take enjoyment from the world, not just in spite of the cruelty and injustice being inflicted on British people, but also because of it.  Enjoyment of spring is a break from our acts of resistance, but in another way it is an act of resistance all of its own.

‘Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages’

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

Eliot’s evocation of April was a transposition of Chaucer’s opening to the Canterbury Tales (sorry if Middle English isn’t really your thing).  Chaucer paints April as a happy month where the earth stirs into life, and people are awoken into telling stories and their minds turn to taking pilgrimages.  Eliot reverses the optimism of this account, where hopes for the summer ahead are overshadowed by the ghost of summers past.  Orwell’s account of enjoying the common toad might give us some clues for how our current predicament sits in relation to these two Aprils – how we can acknowledge the vicious cruelty of April 2013 and still be called to action by the coming of spring.  Our optimism, and our insistence that life can be enjoyed has to feature in our resistance.  We have to fight the cruelty with a mind to the fact that there will be a good world to be enjoyed once it has been defeated.  If we are permanently set to grim winter, then we have no hope of creating a world where there is anything else.

And this is a month where we are, like Chaucer’s storytellers, called to pilgrimage, although for many of us this pilgrimage is not a religious one.  A pilgrimage is not supposed to be easy.  It is a long and difficult struggle for those who engage in it, and success is never guaranteed, but it is undertaken with the aim of a genuine transformation.  I’m reminded of the story of the 1936 Jarrow Crusade against unemployment and extreme poverty suffered in North East England during the Great Depression.   207 people walked from Jarrow to Westminster, a distance of almost 300 miles, to demand their rights. The marchers achieved very little immediate success.  Their shipbuilding industry was not helped, and the marchers were given nothing more than their train fares home, but their march caused a stir in the Labour movement which continues to have impact today (the marchers were not supported by the Labour Party at the time, although their struggle was later called upon by the Labour founders of the welfare state – perhaps the Labour Party of today should learn a lesson from this).  Without real struggle when there is no promise of success, we would never achieve any real change.  The struggle against this government’s savage cuts is a similar one.  There is no silver bullet, but there is hope: there is more call than there has been in a long time for a real unity of opposition to the greed, individualism and cruelty of the political right.  We need to respond to that call and undertake the pilgrimage. As in the Canterbury Tales, the joy in the coming of the spring, and the stories that we tell each other along the way, are integral parts of that struggle.

View from a Red Planet (by an Enemy of Promise)

‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.’ – W.B. Yeats

Gove’s pseudo-Burkean barrage in Saturday’s Daily Mail blamed a cavalcade of communist conspirators for what he perceives as the ignorance of state school children. Gove has painted himself as part of a holy alliance formed to exorcise the spectre of communism which is haunting our schools.  The Marxist ideology of teachers is, we are told, inculcated by a sinister Politburo comprised of the heads of University Education departments, who are ‘more interested in valuing Marxism, revering jargon and fighting excellence’ than they are in ‘fighting ignorance’ (had I been marking Gove’s piece, I would have picked him up on the unimaginatively repetitious use of the word ‘fighting’ at this juncture, which is sadly out of keeping with his claim in the following paragraph that people should be educated to employ a wider vocabulary, but let’s not be too picky).  As a result, state educated children leave school so inarticulate that they are incapable of modern citizenship.

‘How can it erode educational standards to ask that, in their 11 years in school, children be given the opportunity to use the English language in all its range and beauty to communicate their thoughts and feelings with grace and precision?’

Indeed. It is a lamentable tragedy that those of us who were educated in British secondary schools are incapable of stringing a coherent sentence together.  Permanganate prose is the preserve of private pedagogy.

It appears that Gove’s words are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, but perhaps it is best to weigh the enemy more mighty than he seems.  So what provoked this anachronistically McCarthyist reaction? What made the Education Secretary see red was a letter in The Independent newspaper from a hundred academics, criticising his plans for the National Curriculum.  Their concern was that Gove’s proposals are obsessive about memorisation and recall, with little concern for critical understanding or autonomous enquiry.  Gove’s proposals leave little room for teachers to respond to the interests and capacities of their pupils, or for them to link abstract learning to concrete experience.

Many of these criticisms build on the thoughts of that fearsome advocate of the communist terror John Locke.  Locke felt that education should aim at developing independent minds which are well practiced in the proper application of their rational faculties.

Reason is required for good self-government because insofar as it is free from partiality, intolerance and passion, it leads to fair judgment and action. This is, in a sense, an education for liberty – an education which will lead people to become engaged and thoughtful citizens.

Gove should take note of this.  Although his approach to education suggests the opposite, he maintains that he has a non-interventionist attitude concerning the relationship between the state and the people.  In his evidence before the Leveson Inquiry, he said that he was “unashamedly on the side of those who say that we should think very carefully before legislation and regulation because the cry ‘Something must be done’ often leads to people doing something which isn’t always wise.”  If we are to have a population that is able to challenge unnecessary regulation and intervention, as Locke thought that we should, a list of memorised facts is not going to be enough to help us.  This leads me to suspect that Gove’s purported anti-authoritarian stance is deeply disingenuous, and that in fact he wishes to raise an unquestioning generation who can be subjected to all kinds of unnecessary authority.

Of course, like most people, I believe in certain basic educational standards, and I believe this because I am a creature of the left, not in spite of it.  It is vital that people are proficient in written, oral and other forms of communication – these are the means through which political change is achieved.  I also think that we have to have an understanding of mathematics – without it we would be easily blinded by spurious statistics.  We also, as Gove says, need ‘a knowledge of these islands and their history’.  It is through learning about the history of our country – the Chartists, the suffrage movement and the Diggers, for example – that we learn how things that are now regarded as basic entitlements and freedoms had to be hard won, and how calls for radical reform are written through our history and culture.

Nonetheless, these lessons are not learned through absorbing a ‘stock of knowledge’, as Gove maintains, as though children are nothing but vessels to be filled with context-free (and hence meaningless) information.  In any subject, basic methods, rules and principles have to be learned, but these should always immediately be employed in (depending on the subject) application, discussion, narrative, creativity and debate that is responsive to the needs and interests of the children in question.  Attention to a deeper understanding of the contexts and purposes of the disciplines taught quickly leads us to the view that a ‘stock of knowledge’ is not the way to go.  Wordsworth did not write Tintern Abbey so that children could grow to resent it by having to learn it word for word – his poetry was supposed to help us to cultivate the connections between our thoughts and feelings, and develop a better understanding of our relationship to nature. No mathematician ever developed a theorem because it would be fun to subject thirteen year olds to memorising equations with no conception of their meaning or purpose.  To educate in a way that supposes otherwise seems to me the very definition of ‘dumbing down’.  It is quite instructive that Gove, who has already demonstrated little familiarity with Marxism, ridicules educationalists for their research interests on the basis that they mention the name ‘Marx’, a word that is clearly on his list of ‘bad things’, without actually responding to what they are really concerned with.

It is also quite telling that he uses his piece as an opportunity to slam the unions, labelling their members of being ‘ultra-militants’.  If children are to grow up to be educated, politically engaged citizens, it is best that they are taught by people who are politically engaged themselves, and who have working conditions which will allow them to teach their classes effectively and with enthusiasm.  Again, contrary to Gove’s supposed libertarian views, there appears to be a rather nasty strain of authoritarianism here.

Apparently the educators of Britain’s children are ‘a set of politically motivated individuals who have been actively trying to prevent millions of our poorest children getting the education they need.’  In response to this, I will quote from my own ‘stock of knowledge’, in this case Mr Gove’s beloved King James Bible: 

 ‘And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?’

Body Positivity, Street Harassment, and the Erotic

Below is a talk I delivered for an International Women’s Day event organised by the University of East Anglia’s Feminist Society

What I am going to do today is not so much a detailed philosophical enquiry (I only have 20 minutes) but instead I want to talk seriously about street harassment, and suggest a few ways that philosophy might help us to think about it. Cat-calling, wolf-whistling, groping and other forms of harassment that occur in public spaces are alarmingly widespread, and are generally not taken all that seriously.  We are encouraged to simply ignore it, to ‘take it as a compliment’, or even worse, we are blamed for where we choose to walk or what we choose to wear, as though we have brought it upon ourselves.  At best, we are told to treat street harassment as a minor and inevitable irritation, and at worst, to view it as an expression of a natural human sexuality which we encourage through behaving or dressing in a provocative manner.  The victim of street harassment who complains is simultaneously a slut and a prude.

So first of all, I want to try to express at least one of the reasons why this is not a trivial irritation, but something far more fundamental, and secondly I want to explain why I think that tackling street harassment is not opposed to sexuality or the erotic, but instead that dealing with this problem is something that goes hand-in-hand with a positive attitude to sex and eroticism.

I’m going to begin with a quote from the philosopher Sandra Lee Bartky, describing a fairly typical case of street harassment.  This was written more than twenty years ago, but I suspect the description will sound very familiar:

It is a fine spring day, and with an utter lack of self-consciousness, I am bouncing down the street. Suddenly I hear men’s voices. Catcalls and whistles fill the air. These noises are clearly sexual in intent and they are meant for me; they come from across the street. I freeze. As Sartre would say, I have been petrified by the gaze of the Other. My face flushes and my motions become stiff and self-conscious. The body which only a moment before I had inhabited with such ease now floods my consciousness. I have been made into an object. While it is true that for these men I am nothing but, let us say. a “nice piece of ass,” there is more involved in this encounter than their mere fragmented perception of me. They could, after all, have enjoyed me in silence. Blissfully unaware, breasts bouncing, eyes on the birds in the trees, I could have passed by without having been turned to stone. But I must be made to know that I am a “nice piece of ass”: I must be made to see myself as they see me. There is an element of compulsion in this encounter, in this being-made-to-be-aware of one’s own flesh; like being made to apologize, it is humiliating. It is unclear what role is played by sexual arousal or even sexual connoisseurship in encounters like these. What I describe seems less the spontaneous expression of a healthy eroticism than a ritual of subjugation.

 ‘On Psychological Oppression’, in Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression

While street harassment is not traumatic on the level of rape or physical assault, it is a great deal more than a mere irritation.  We often talk about objectification as what is wrong here, but very often we don’t think so much about what it means.  Here it is very clear.  The victim is transformed into an object, both by being viewed as nothing more than an object in the eyes of the other, but also in being made to feel that she is an object.  We can think of an object in contrast to a subject. A subject is one who sees things and acts upon the world, while an object is something that is seen and has things done to it.  An object is something that can be stripped down into its component parts – breasts, thighs, arse, vagina – with no essential loss.  Each of these is an object no less than the object that they compose.  A subject, stripped down in this way, is no longer a subject.  This is because what we view as important about the subject is what is sometimes described as her ‘inner life’, her thoughts, beliefs, desires and intentions.  With the object, all that we regard is the physical material, which can be taken apart with impunity with nothing significant being lost in the process.

So when we are whistled or shouted at in the street, whether this is in a supposedly complimentary way, or whether the cat-call is an insulting one, we become profoundly aware of this physicality and fragmentation. While before we could easily and transparently interact with the world around us, listening to the birdsong in the trees or enjoying a private daydream, the objectifying act means that we are frozen, we can no longer have a free and easy interaction with our environment, because our physicality gets in the way. We have to manoeuvre this awkward collection of physical parts which stand between us and a world that was previously so accessible, more aware that we are seen than aware of what we can see. And this sudden self-perception is forced upon us, and sprung on us without warning: a loss of personal autonomy and a reduction to flesh that is coerced and unexpected.

This is one instance of a broader culture that frequently forces women into an uncomfortable awareness of themselves as objects. We are told that we occupy too much space, that our breasts are too small, our bums are too big, that unless we buy a particular brand of cereal we will never have that all-important ‘swimsuit body’.  This is not just something imposed by men, women are encouraged to gaze at magazines which point out the cellulite on a celebrity body or speculate about whether someone has had a facelift.  We objectify people, and reflect this back upon ourselves as objects, our worth determined by whether we are larger or smaller objects, older or younger looking objects, than they are.  The cat-call or wolf-whistle is a sharp reminder, in case we are starting to enjoy the world around us or get lost in our own thoughts, that we are nothing more than lumps of flesh.

But might this not lead us to support the voices that tell us we should not be dressing that way if we don’t want to attract unwanted attention?  Some would say that it is the sexualisation of society that leads to the street harassment, and it also leads to the provocative clothing that is seen to provoke it.  Perhaps we need to regard ourselves as less as objects, as well as complaining about others seeing us as such, and that the way that we present ourselves physically is part of this, along with our own attitude to flirtation and sex.  But this seems pretty problematic.  First of all, it veers heavily in the direction of victim-blaming.  Secondly, it seems just as controlling of women – we don’t want a situation where women are caught in an impossible situation where their freedom is restricted from all different directions in a range of contradictory ways.  Thirdly, it doesn’t seem much fun – most of us like to feel sexually attractive, at least some of the time.  Rejecting this plays into the hands of those who wish to silence the opponents of street harassment by accusing us of being prudish or opposed to sex.

Here we need to make a separation between what is objectifying on one hand, and what is sexual – and in particular what is sexy or erotic – on the other. Through doing this, we need to think of sexuality less in terms of the insular ‘inner-lives’ of the sexual individuals in contrast with the flimsy outer husks of the bodies that they are directed towards.  The problem is not so much that we live in a highly sexualised culture – although we undoubtedly do – but that we live in one that is sexualised in a particular way.

Think about one of those really spine-tingling erotic encounters – it could be in the bedroom, but it could equally be something like meeting someone’s glance in mutual attraction, or a first moment of physical contact.  In such scenarios one is immediately made aware of oneself as flesh.  There is a sudden and overwhelming awareness of one’s physicality.  So far, it might be difficult to distinguish this from the instance of street harassment.  But in this awareness, one also becomes aware of the other person registering that you are aware.  At the same time, they become profoundly aware of their own physicality, which one also registers in one’s own physical response. One’s physicality, and one’s awareness of the other’s physicality are reflected back through the other like the infinite reflections we might see when looking at a pair of facing mirrors.  Sartre described this as ‘double reciprocal incarnation’:

I make myself flesh in order to impel the Other to realize for herself and for me her own flesh. My caress causes my flesh to be born for me insofar as it is for the Other flesh causing her to be born as flesh.’ Being and Nothingness

The problem for Sartre is that it is impossible truly to apprehend the other person as being at once an object and a subject.  Either I regard him as an object, or by regarding him as a subject I apprehend myself as an object for him, and I am thus incapable of being at the same time a subject.  During sex, Sartre suggests that there is a struggle experienced between subjectivity and self-objectification, a sort of competition to attempt to objectify the other.  The whole activity is ultimately futile.  But in a way it is courageously futile, an attempt to reconcile the view of ourselves as bodies with our view of ourselves as conscious beings.  For Sartre, this duality haunts human life, but the two aspects can never truly be brought together.

Notice that we arrive at this through thinking of the body as a passive object and the self as an active subject.  If we do this, one can only be one or the other at any time.  But why suppose that this is the case? Any time we touch something, we are also being touched.  Any case of acting upon something is also a case of being acted upon.  The fingertips that caress another’s body are sensitive and responsive to the body that they touch, making an erotic encounter like a dance – an active mutual responsiveness.  There is a heightened awareness of the body, but not the body as a mere object that is acted upon and which can be decomposed or fragmented into its parts – the sexual body is at the same time, and just as much, an active, lived, subjective body.  This allows mutuality, in a sexual flirtation, as well as in sex (or at least in a good sex).

Street harassment not only fails to acknowledge such mutuality, but actively aims to cut off the possibility of it occurring.  The harasser will usually speed off in his car or blank the victim. It is not a bungled attempt at a genuinely erotic encounter, but actually closer to the converse of the erotic.  People often say that harassment of this kind is not about sex at all, but only about power.  This highlights an important aspect of it, and is a pretty good campaign slogan, but I’m not sure that it is quite true.  It is about sex, or sexuality at least, but it is about a kind of sexuality that is deeply unerotic.  Similar things might be said about the more general mode of sexualisation of our culture. The problem is not that we are subject to someone’s gaze, and that we ought to cover ourselves up and avoid sexual attention.  The problem is that our particular sexualised culture is built on a model of sexuality where one can only be presented at one time as either a subject or an object, where in reality it is starkly obvious that we are inescapably both – after all, the cat-calling would have no effect (and presumably no appeal for the perpetrators) if we really were mere objects.  You don’t usually see people hollering at lamp-posts. It is a practice built on treating people as something that they are not.

There is nothing wrong with wishing to be physically attractive to others: there can be a pleasure in it which, provided it doesn’t escalate into narcissism or anxiety, is a perfectly healthy one.  But the sexual body is active as well as passive, the lived body of a subject as well as an object.  Street harassment operates as though it is not.  For this reason, opposing street harassment is not prudish or opposed to sexuality: quite the opposite.  A realistic view of ourselves as sexual beings who seek positive erotic encounters leads to the conclusion that objectification of this kind must be resisted.

Cough, wheeze, snuffle, sneeze (and capitalism and feminism)

I am writing this in bed, with long pauses, because I have a rotten stinking attention-sapping cold/flu bug, and I am being thoroughly ungracious about it (as you can tell already).  I am not ‘soldiering on’, forcing myself to work, or getting the shopping in. Instead I am hiding under the duvet, taking decongestants and painkillers, and sending apologies to people at the various things that I am supposed to be doing.  Despite feeling like crap, this is making me feel extremely irresponsible.

I don’t see a lot of advertisements these days. I have no television, and have adblock on my computer.  This is probably a good thing, because most ads are either (1) boring as hell, or (2) casually offensive in many different ways.  The rare kind that do not fall under these categories mostly (3) make me despair that the creative minds behind them are not producing art for its own sake, or at least engaged in spreading a message that is not all about making profits for shareholders.

Today I am put in mind of one of the ones that falls under the second category.  Given my limited exposure, they may not be showing it anymore, but Boots used to wheel it out every single winter.  The ad featured two women obviously suffering with winter colds, meeting in the street and having a snuffly, wheezy, sniffy, sneezy conversation about how they were getting the groceries, ferrying the kids to their various activities, and so on.  The ‘punchline’ was that the poor hubby was tucked up in bed because the poor darling had a bit of a cold.  I have seen lots of complaints about this advert on anti-feminist forums, wheeled out, along with the use of the term ‘man-flu’ as evidence that men are discriminated against, and that feminism promotes a kind of victimisation and belittling of men.  I would agree with the first part of this, but anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with feminism would understand that it is not the culprit here.  This sort of (very lame) humour is bad for everyone.  The idea is that no matter how worn out and ill the woman feels, she boldly soldiers on, keeps spending money, and behaves like Florence Nightingale to her ailing other half, viewing his reaction to feeling rubbish with a sort of condescending affection. He’s milking it, but never mind, he’s only a man, bless him.  Women are martyrs, nurses, and above all consumers.  They MUST carry on at all times, even when the men (who are weak) opt out of all that to recuperate.  The slogan for this advertising campaign was ‘For when he’s ill and you don’t have time to be’.

Obviously, this advertising is not aimed at men. It instructs women on how they should be behaving, and belittles men in the process.  There used to be an equivalent advert kicking around which was selling one of Lemsip’s instant cold treatments.  This one was set in a macho corporate environment.  Our hero had to deliver that vital report by later that day – but oh no! The flu has struck! Will our brave knight vanquish the dragons of muscle pain and catarrh in time to avoid the ridicule of his colleagues and escape the inevitably associated accusations of impotence and womanliness?  Well obviously he will. He is a manly man who has no time to be ill, so he will pop that Lemsip and deliver the report against all the odds.  The cut and thrust of private enterprise will live to see another day, and our hero has prevailed.

The juxtaposition of these adverts, aimed at different genders, promulgates a ‘battle of the sexes’ idea that is opposed to feminism.  Men are supposed to battle on in their activity to make money and thus demonstrate their manliness, and women are supposed to be bold martyrs who ignore the sniffles to spend it, with the patronising notion that their menfolk are simple feeble creatures beneath the manly exterior.  There is a competition to be the best at ignoring the fact that you are clearly unwell.  The emphasis is on being able to continue with activities that keep the economy running, not on people actually feeling – or getting – better, and this is promoted in a way that sets us in a war against each other: never mind the illness; earn, earn, earn, spend, spend, spend, and pity the poor worms who decide not to.  This leaves no room for the idea that rest and recuperation is normal, and that economic activity should be geared toward the wellbeing of people, relationships and communities.  Instead, both individual wellbeing and healthy relationships are sacrificed for the sake of the money mill.

So if feeling really rather poorly, and responding to it by staying warm, resting and trying to get better is man-flu, I am happy to say that I have man-flu.  And on that, I’m off to have another nap.

Who owns the meaning of ‘marriage’?

On today’s PM programme, one of the questions posed in the introduction was ‘why are the Conservatives divided on same-sex marriage?’. This is an interesting question, but one to which a fairly straightforward answer presents itself: this divide is symptomatic of a broader split in the Conservative party. The party is a slightly uncomfortable alliance between the true conservatives, and people on the libertarian right. The former group is attached to institutions, traditions, church and monarchy, while the latter is driven by a strong concern with a particular notion of negative liberty. On the whole it is the traditionalist conservatives who oppose equal marriage, and the libertarians who support it. Of course, the libertarian ideal would be a total privatisation of marriage: legally it would be given the status of any contract between two individuals, and could take whatever form the contracting parties decided. Equally, this view would logically seem to point in the direction of the disestablishment of church and state, such that the state would not (in their view) be overstepping the mark by endorsing any set of values over any other. Thus the question of equal marriage would simply drop out of what was considered the concern of government – it would be down to each individual, in the context of their own private, romantic, religious and political outlook, to decide what they thought ‘counted’ as marriage and what did not. This would fill most traditional conservatives with horror: for them, the state ought to be promoting certain forms of life over certain others, and the connection between the established church, the state and the traditional nuclear family ought to be maintained.

In a way, a more interesting question when it comes to equal marriage is not ‘why are the Conservatives divided?’ but ‘why is Labour not divided?’ The Labour party, like the Conservatives, has members with a broad range of views, and divisions that are in many ways roughly similar. I discussed this a few months ago in a previous post:

There are elements of the Labour party which are deeply embedded in tradition and history (recently we have seen most of this emanating from the ‘Blue Labour’ faction – something that concerns me, as I have previously said) and other elements that view themselves as more ahistorical, economistic, ‘rationalistic’ and ‘pragmatic’ (part of the Blairite legacy). We might expect to see a split among the Labour ranks on the equal marriage debate similar to that observed on the other side of the chamber, with the traditionalists rejecting equal marriage, and the rational pragmatists supporting it. Thankfully, this scenario has not arisen, but why not? I think that part of this comes down to who our traditions, and our language, belong to.

To see this, we should look at one of the very dubious arguments that has been wheeled out a lot in today’s debate by those on the Conservative benches who are opposed to equal marriage. This is that old chestnut of ‘Marriage is, by definition, a union between one man and one woman’. Quite apart from the many empirically recorded anthropological counterexamples, this line of argument is conceptually flawed.

Firstly, it conflates the concept of marriage with marriage as an actual lived reality – a confusion of a concept and what the concept stands for. If it were actually true that the concept ‘marriage’ had some sort of deep metaphysical reality aside from particular marriages, and that it was part of its very definition that it could only be exemplified by a man and a woman (which also assumes a very troubling kind of gender essentialism) we couldn’t even have this debate. It would be like saying that all triangles have three sides, and that therefore four sided triangles should be illegal.

These people are also saying that this means that we should not ‘redefine’ marriage. But that is no argument at all – if something ‘just is’ analytically part of the definition of marriage, redefinition is impossible. On the other hand, if it is not, the fact that certain relationships currently fall outside the concept does not mean that there is any necessity in them doing so.

It is assumed that what is at stake really is the ‘definition’ of marriage, but I’m not sure that this is true. When we ask ‘What is marriage?’, we might mean either (a) ‘What does the word ‘marriage’ mean?’ or (b) ‘What things are examples of marriages?’. The ‘definition’ argument jumps between the two different interpretations in a way that makes little sense. The ‘marriage is…’ line takes the content of its claims from (b), does some sort of wild leap from a statement of how things are to a statement about how they should be, and then recasts them as (a). This is a sneaky way of avoiding appearing homophobic. It is basically an unjustified assertion that things should remain exactly how they are, made to appear acceptable with a cover of ‘it’s not my attitude, it’s just the meaning of a word’.

But what becomes really significant here the further claim, made more than once today, that it is dangerous or immoral to ‘change the meaning of a word’. Then it is not just ‘things are the way that I want them to be, and that is true by definition’, but a supplementing of this with a statement to the effect that any suggestion that things should be changed is tampering with the sanctity of the English language. We collectively use and shape our language, it does not own us. To suggest that we ought to be ruled and subdued by the meanings of words in this way is making use of language as a tool to maintain unjust hierarchies. This is part of the distinction between the Labour traditionalists and the Conservative traditionalists, and it is a distinction that it is very important for Labour to retain.

On Saturday, David Aaronovitch will present a documentary on Radio Four about George Orwell, exploring among other things the way that the ideas of this socialist thinker have often been appropriated by the political right. I hope and expect that one topic that will be discussed will be ‘newspeak’, the fictional language imposed by the state in Orwell’s dystopian vision. The aim of newspeak was to limit the ability of the people to think in subversive ways – ‘thoughtcrime’ – by robbing them of the conceptual tools to do so. When people on the right appropriate this notion, they often treat ‘political correctness’ and various related notions as an instance of language policing. For them, the main message of this aspect of 1984 is that we should not tamper with the English language – basically that it is dangerous and even totalitarian to tamper with the use and meanings of our words. Thus, the proponent of equal marriage is seeking to ‘redefine marriage’ and thus imposing a kind of newspeak.

This is a partial misreading of Orwell. Of course it is true that newspeak is about restricting freedom of speech and freedom of thought, but where this interpretation goes wrong is in suggesting that any attempt to change our language, or even the gradual shift of the meanings of words over time, is a form of totalitarianism or oppression. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. To try to freeze our language in one place, and to say that we cannot change our activities or institutions because of the definitions of our words, is closer to what is wrong with newspeak. It is an attempt to deny people the ownership that they have of their own language, and to turn that language into a form of oppression that binds people to certain forms of life. In some cases these forms of life can be deeply unequal, hierarchical and oppressive. This is one of the many intersections between language and the traditions that it communicates. To play the conservative game of resisting change because of definitions is not just conservative about the use of language and our forms of life, it also takes the words out of the mouths of their speakers, and the traditions out of the hands of those who participate in them.

The traditionalist strand of the Labour party is, as things stand, more of a grassroots affair. This is influenced by a broad feeling on the left that favours folk songs and stories, local histories told by those who are immersed in the locality, and recovered histories and traditions of people who have been ignored by versions of history which are exclusively focused on the lives of a privileged white male heterosexual upper-class elite. This is naturally accompanied by a similar approach to language. The problem with newspeak was not just that it limited the ways in which people could think (all language does that to some extent, although importantly it also enables as much as it constrains) but that it was not in the hands of the people who used it. This is a form of alienation which sits along many other forms that are widely discussed by Marxists and other socialists. A person is not just alienated from her labour, the product of her labour, her fellow human beings and her own humanity, she is also alienated from her own words and her own thought.

Labour does not have the same sort of split that the Conservatives do when it comes to the ‘meaning’ of marriage, because the Labour traditionalists do not believe that meanings belong primarily to a social and cultural elite that governs the country and keeps people in their place. People will mean what they mean whether those in power like it or not, and in fact those in power should like it. I have said that this is the case as it stands, because I worry about the blueness of Blue Labour. Insofar as Blue Labour is a subversive reappropriation of Conservative language as a tool for left-wing thought, this is in keeping with the idea that we should have the use of our own words. Where the Glassman project could become dangerous is if the words start to use the people, and become a means of imposing inflexible conservative values which keep people in their place.

Leaps of judgment

A couple of days ago, I linked to this article on the Guardian  website: I suggested in my comment that ‘Killer robots should be banned’ is about as unambiguously right as any moral statement gets. I added, in a rather combative fashion, that anyone who disagreed was probably approaching robothood themselves.  Although the link and accompanying comment were ‘liked’ by a lot of my friends, they quite rightly also prompted a flurry of responses arguing that things were, in fact, more complicated than that.  It was pointed out that it could well turn out that ‘autonomous’ drones could be better at discriminating military targets from civilian ones, that they avoided risking the lives of troops on one’s own side, and that the language of ‘killer robots’ (note the inverted commas in the Guardian headline) was highly emotive and already assumed a moral position, putting us in mind of the 38th governor of California on the rampage.

I was, of course, being deliberately inflammatory and facetious in my comment. I don’t believe that the friends who made these very sensible points are robots, and I admit that there are complexities to this debate which my comments knowingly overlooked. There is a background to this: over the preceding days, I had been extremely (some would say excessively) upset about the situation in Gaza, to the point of insomnia. In particular, I was depressed about the way events were being covered by the British media, particularly by the BBC.  The general approach seemed to be that, because of the massive complexity of the situation, and because there was suffering on both sides, it would be wrong to cover the unfolding story with anything other than a ‘neutral’ stance, that treated the wrongs of both sides as equally reprehensible and held back from ‘taking sides’.  This seems to me to be wrong, both conceptually in the idea of what neutrality or impartiality consist in, and ethically in the wilful blindness to domination, oppression and inequality, and the way that such blindness compounded the wrong being done to the Palestinian people.

Ten years ago I was the victim of an assault on a quiet street late on an evening, and was forced to fight off my assailant, who was a great deal larger than me, and who was attempting to physically invade my body.  Witnessing such a situation, nobody with any compassion would either shout at us both to stop it, tell me that my situation could only be remedied if I stopped struggling, or simply ignore the situation on the basis that they are ignorant of the complexities or history that led up to what was happening.  Once again, I am being inflammatory. People could point out that this is a poor analogy, that a nation is not a person, that Israeli civilians are suffering when they are not directly responsible for what is happening, and so on. It might also be said that it is disrespectful to women to bring the example of sexual violence into the debate in this way, rather as comparisons to Hitler trivialise the suffering and death that he caused.

I hold up my hands to this, but I am not merely offering an analogy to be held up and examined for structural similarities that could lead us to a conclusion of ethical parity or disparity.  What I am trying to do is to evoke, rather than explain, the simplicity and clarity that one has to adopt in situations of extreme violence, invasion and victimhood.  The fact of immediate threat and oppression may not make the victim or the observer blind to any complexities of the situation – with a decade acting as a soft buffer between myself and the past, I often reflect on the fact that my attacker probably had a very unpleasant childhood and clearly had a serious drug problem – but when the assault is taking place, these issues have to be overlooked: for the victim this is a demand of immediate necessity, and for the witness it is a demand of compassion based on the recognition of that necessity.

We could say that the two situations are nothing like each other, and that we should not draw any comparisons of this kind, but to go down this road is in danger of leaving us morally paralysed, as I suspect the BBC are right now. Nothing, in history or in current experience, is exactly like the situation of the Palestinian people. As a comfortable middle-class person in Western Europe, I have incredibly little comprehension of what it must be like.  But it is only through interaction and engagement with the particular and the familiar that we can have any sort of compassion at all for people in situations very different from our own.   We abstract from the particular, in a more or less fine-grained way, towards an attitude of care and compassion for those whose particular experiences differ greatly from our own.  This is the ancient concept of agape, a love found towards one’s fellows that is able to transcend the particular and extends to a love of humanity.  This is an extremely different thing from the abstractions of analogical reasoning, and without it any theoretical abstraction in ethics or politics would be empty words.

What does this have to do with the killer robots? It is about the nature of taking a moral stance. Frege described the act of judgment as making a leap. In the case of moral and political judgments, it is a leap from our safe cosy comfortable ‘neutral’ stance and the false sense of superiority that it gives us, towards an engagement with the messy, screwed-up reality of things.  This necessarily involves a certain focus: the reality is messy and screwed-up, but compassion demands that we throw down the gauntlet and describe robots that kill people as ‘killer robots’.  We have to make these sorts of judgments with emotion and conviction, despite the knowledge that things are very complicated, that we will never have a full or complete understanding of the situation, that sometimes we will be battling alongside those whose own motives we might question, and that it could turn out that we were wrong.  A leap need not be a blind one: we should spend some time looking at the size of the chasm to be leapt, and what is on the other side, but eventually a leap must be made, in full knowledge and full ignorance of the nagging voices from both sides of the debate.

One motivation for the particular judgment in this case is that the development of ‘autonomous’ killer technology is itself a failure to make such a commitment, and an attempt to hold moral responsibility at a distance.  The unmanned drones currently in use are the subject of much debate of this kind – the remoteness of the operators is said to give them a sense of distance and unreality, and a lessened moral responsibility.  This debate has been going on for hundreds of years: the invention of the crossbow prompted debates about whether there could be just conduct in wars where people could be attacked from such long distances, and where the attacker was often safely shielded behind a stone fortification, firing through an embrasure, a narrow slit of a window that allows the arrow out and nothing in.  The Catholic Church ruled, tellingly, that such technology could be used against ‘heathens’, but not against fellow Christians.  Reel forward through the centuries and similar things were being said about guns, and much later about the cutely nicknamed ‘doodlebugs’, the sinister flying bombs pioneered by the Luftwaffe in the Second World War.  I don’t say this to undermine the current arguments about drones – quite the opposite, I think there has been a general movement through the centuries toward more remote forms of warfare which have pushed the gap between victim and assailant ever further apart – but I think that the current research into ‘autonomous’ weaponry presents us with a difference of kind, not just one of degree.  In all the former cases, the decision to kill has been made easier and less involved, but it is still a decision that a person makes.  In this case, the very question of life and death is moved out of human hands, into those of an unconscious mechanical killer that is everything but autonomous in the most meaningful senses of the word.  To develop and employ such warfare is to present a hideous caricature of keeping one’s hands clean at the expense of one’s very humanity.

‘man finds himself in an organised situation in which he is himself involved: his choice involves mankind in its entirety, and he cannot avoid choosing’ – Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism.

Remembrance Sunday 2012 (Written Sunday 11th November)

(in this note I make reference to a particular teacher. Some of the people reading this will know who it is, either through having been there, or through the general description making it fairly obvious. Please can I request that you do not mention his name in any comments: my home town is a small place, and I would not wish to upset anyone who knows this person. At the same time, I think I have the right to say what follows, because it is both personally and more broadly important, especially to those of us who work in education today.)

When I was a teenager, I went into school wearing a white poppy. Much to my surprise, my history teacher demanded that I take it off. I was called to the front of the class and interrogated, being told that I did not understand the significance of the sacrifice that people had made, that my sentiments were naïve, and that I was disrespecting all the people who had given their lives for our country, and those in the armed forces who continue to be prepared to do so. I felt a painful lump in my throat and my face burning as I tried to fight back tears, I felt an intense sense of unfairness at the inequality of the situation, but also a deep self-doubt and self-interrogation. Perhaps I hadn’t thought about it enough, and maybe I really was treating ruined lives and unthinkable deaths as a way of making an adolescent statement. At the same time, it seemed obvious that no matter how many clever arguments were thrown my way, war did ruin and destroy lives and communities, and that it should be avoided in anything except the most extreme circumstances. This was what I took the white poppy to stand for, and it seemed to me to be a modest point.

I stood with my feet rooted to the spot, completely at a loss. The simple question of what to do next had taken on the most pressing significance. I had pinned the thing to my blazer in the morning thinking that it would pass with no more than a few questions or comments, but now I had all these arguments thrown at me, twenty-nine pairs of eyes staring at me in what seemed like an unbearable period of silence. To remove the poppy would be treating my teacher’s words as the last ones, but to keep it on might be nothing more than petty teenage stroppiness or posturing in the face of people who had risked far more than losing at some silly classroom standoff – that would make me a monster. I didn’t take the poppy off. I’d like to say that it was down to a principled stance, but it was really more to do with paralysis and confusion, and the sense that if I did anything or made a single movement the tears would become unavoidable and I would be humiliated in front of the whole class. I was sent out of the lesson, which was a relief because it allowed me to rush to the girls loos to splash cold water on my face so that I could pretend that I had been braver than I was.

The teacher’s behaviour was an abuse of authority, and I try to bear it in mind when I teach students, particularly when I teach them applied ethics and political philosophy. There had been another similar moment with the same teacher when we were studying the cold war, although it didn’t reach quite the same heights of drama. I had asked whether we really had a right to tell other countries they could not have nuclear weapons when we continued to have them ourselves. This was apparently a ‘stupid’ remark, and one that I would never have made if I had had any understanding of history or politics. The teacher’s age, position of authority and knowledge of facts was used to silence my opinions, and in fact, for years I believed that he must be right, despite not being able to shake off the contrary conviction.

On a later occasion I got quite a different view of the same teacher. We were on a school trip to the battlefields of the Somme. We had been given the usual safety talk about how we should leave anything we find there on the ground – unexploded material from the First World War still occasionally surfaces there, and obviously needs to be treated with extreme caution. One of our school party found a hand grenade, and despite what we had been told, came running along towards the rest of the group waving it in the air and shouting about what he had found. The teacher ran ahead to meet him before he got close to the rest of the group, wrestled the grenade from his hands and threw it as far as he could to an unpeopled area. Of course, it didn’t explode, but I was struck by how the teacher’s sense of his duty of care went beyond legal obligation and extended to putting himself at direct personal risk. He had struck me as cold and authoritarian – this act did not contradict that, but it illustrated the complexity of human beings. A person who behaves in ways that we regard as hurtful and unethical can surprise us with great actions – in this case an act of great moral courage.

He was a man who took fear and violent death extremely seriously. It is understandable, although not excusable, that a pupil who did not grasp these things, and who wore symbols that he saw as undervaluing human sacrifice, would annoy him in the way that I did. Where I think that he made a mistake was in thinking that the white poppy is supposed to stand in opposition to the red one. When I think about the First World War, I think about the communities that lost vast numbers of young men. I think of my brothers, my partner, my best friends, and even my nephews, who are coming up to the ages of many boys who lied about their age in order to fight in the war. I think about all of those close, unique, complicated personal attachments, made special by how particular they are to that irreplaceable person, and imagine (or fail to imagine) not losing just one, but many of them. It is not just the loss of those who are close to you, but the loss of them to something that is so anonymising – an entire complicated special significant individual is reduced to a machine that kills and a piece of flesh that is killed. Respect for the troops and all who love them, rather than respect for a sentimental myth, requires that this sacrifice should never be made for trivial purposes such as economic gain or political manouvering. Wilfred Owen expressed far more deeply than I ever could that ‘dulce et decorum est…’ undermines the significance of a human life lost or destroyed through a needless war. It also undermines the fight of those all over the world who have no choice but to take up arms against the murder and torture of members of their communities and families. To make this point is not to disrespect the troops, but to respect them as people with lives of their own.

The teacher was right that I was naïve, and I still am. Nobody in my immediate family saw active combat in the Second World War, and although I have friends who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reality of it is very distant to me. My grandfather, who was of an age to go out and fight Nazi Germany, stayed at home because he was an architect; a reserved occupation. His work during the war involved rebuilding areas of Bristol that had been destroyed by bombing. He was also a committed socialist and a local Labour politician. While others were out risking their lives to fight a totalitarian regime, my grandfather was involved in trying to build a country that would be worth living in – housing that would allow people to live happy flourishing lives, regardless of their earnings or social status. These are, or should be, two aspects of the same thing.

Today I wear a white poppy alongside a red one. It is easy for us on the left to trivialise military service and denigrate soldiers without really intending to, in order to make abstract theoretical points about politics. But real respect for them involves making ours a country that is worth living in, and only employing force when it is a genuine defence against the horrors of oppression and violence. If this is to be possible, people must not be forced into blind obedience to authority – they must be allowed to express opinions, challenge oppression and fight violence. This is not just about a lack of constraints at the level of what our government can do, but has to begin with how people are raised and educated. If we are made to learn a particular conception of the world, and made to think that any challenge to it is a feature of our ignorance or pig-headedness, we may become citizens of a country that can sleepwalk into self-destruction, and even when this is not the case our theoretical freedoms become far less valuable. Peace is not an end-state that we can eventually achieve and then relax – achieving it is a constant struggle requiring that we are awake, engaged, critical, caring, imaginative and mutually respectful.

To the English Defence League (written Friday 9th November 2012)

This is what I would like to say to the EDL, who are marching in Norwich tomorrow, but it is too long to put on a placard.

You say you want to preserve Englishness, so let me tell you about Englishness. Our country’s name means ‘Land of the Angles’. The Angles were a Germanic tribe from the bay of Kiel area of the Baltic sea. This is one of the many tribes that found a home in these islands that make up Britain. Over the centuries there have been many incomers: Anglo Saxons, Celts, Vikings, Romans, Normans… the list goes on. But we both know that Englishness is about so much more than etymology or genetics.

Englishness is about many things: languages, cultures, religions, ideologies and identities. It is a living culture that carries its complicated history with it, and that is what makes it so valuable. We have a language that mixes Old English, French, Old Norse, Gaelic, Scots and Latin with the languages of millions of other people who have settled here. We have a Roman alphabet and Arabic numerals, our favourite foods are Italian, Chinese, Indian and Turkish. The dominant religions in England originate in the Middle East, as does our (fictional) patron saint. Much of the music we love has its origins in black American culture, and can be traced (as, incidentally, we all ultimately can) to Africa through the slave songs that are also part of our troubled history.

Every revolution, development and change in England has brought waves of people from all over the globe, most of whom have initially been met with racism and bigotry, but many of whom still found that this was a place they could love, where they could raise children, and where they could learn from and add to our culture.

This is England. There would be no Englishness without it. Our history is a history of a living, dynamic country, and to love England is to love the ways that we are built on change and diversity. John Donne wrote that ‘No man is an island, Entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, A part of the main.’ These islands are not an island entire of itself, cut off from the world that surrounds it. That world, and our relationships with it, constitute us; these ever-changing relationships are what makes England what it is. To be proud of one’s Englishness is to be proud of being a part of a history and a culture whose stories originate from and extend to all corners of the globe. Through our Englishness we are all influenced by what is Anglo-saxon, Viking, Celtic, African, Chinese, Roman and Middle-Eastern, regardless of our ethnic origins. To be English is always to be more than just English, and you cannot help but express that every time you use our language.

When you try to stagnate and ‘purify’ our culture, you do it violence. It is an attempt to preserve a complex identity in aspic while denying its complexity. This cuts off the oxygen that our culture needs to survive – we breathe change and diversity; without it there would be no Englishness left. Love of our history ought to leave us with a sense of the legacy that we can leave for future generations, and we must leave them a culture that they can act within and change as previous generations have, not a mummified corpse in a museum.

We speak the language of Shakespeare, whose poetry deals with interracial love, and whose plays portray incomers and visitors to strange new lands. Shakespeare wrote that ‘Love is not love, which alters when it alteration finds’. Your professed love of your country is not true love, but rather the self-indulgent obsession of the lover who worships a mythologised version of the one they claim to love. This is a ‘love’ that shades imperceptibly into resentment. You are blind to the beauty, dynamism and complexity of the country that you inhabit, and that is terribly sad. You do not love England, or Englishness. You love a dangerous idea that is fuelled by hatred and self-importance, and that blinds you to England itself. Your ideology is directly opposed to Englishness, and seeks to destroy it.