Philosophy, Politics

A few brief thoughts on the recent terrorist atrocities

It’s been an awful few months for our country. Men, women and children have lost their lives. The number of victims might be counted, but the pain of the families who lost someone will never be quantifiable.

I was in two minds whether to write anything on this at all – in the face of such tragedy, words can seem so glib and, really, what is there left to say? What can be said at all? But I’ve decided, for my own catharsis and for the very few readers who find their way to this tiny pocket of the internet, I’m going to share some brief thoughts.

We hear a lot that ‘the terrorists won’t win’. And, if you believe that these terrorists have any sort of long-term political goals, that’s probably right. Western Democracy is never going to curtail to the whims of an oppressive death cult.

Some may say, however, that the terrorists’ goals aren’t even that sophisticated – their intentions are merely to cause harm, destroy lives and stir up fear. And in that way, I guess, they kind of can win…but only because their goals are so pathetic.

The truth is, if you are determined to go through with it, devastating lives is easy. Most of us have access to a car or a kitchen knife. If we so choose, any one of us could go out there and cause unthinkable pain. Such a cowardly act only works, however, by exploiting the trust of our civilisation. We are a free country, we have entered into a social contract to trust each other – our streets aren’t designed to stop us causing harm because basic human respect for life is assumed. That’s how a free society works. Only a coward would abuse that trust and take innocent lives. Destruction is easy, pathetic and weak.

What is difficult, and what these terrorists have absolutely no capacity to do, is to build…and just look at what we’ve built. We have a welfare state to protect the poor and vulnerable in our society. We have a National Health Service to look after the sick, regardless of wealth. We are a country made up of different ethnicities, cultures, and religions. What’s more, we don’t merely tolerate these differences, we celebrate them as one of the things that make us great. And it’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s hard to show love. Sometimes we disagree about how best to do it.

But, as a country, we have public servants who go beyond the call of duty to protect and heal us. We’ve produced policeman, paramedics and civilians who, in the face of unspeakable danger, risk (and, in some cases, lose) their own lives trying to save others. Not, it must be said, for any gain or reward, but simply because they couldn’t bear to stand by and watch another human suffer. It is through the actions of these people that we catch a glimpse of the divine.

On Sunday night, Manchester held a concert to celebrate unity and love, in memory of those who had lost their lives. This concert was set-up by a 23 year old pop star, herself deeply affected by these events, who did what little she could to help a city and a nation heal. This concert raised over two million pounds, as ordinary people volunteered their money to help others in need. And what was so cathartic about the concert, beyond just the outpouring of love, was to see people having fun, caught up in the music. There’s a reason these terrorists have no regard for art and music – it’s because they’re acts of creation, and all a terrorist can do is destroy. Creativity itself becomes glorious defiance. Whereas terrorism is an act of deep jealously and emptiness, and in that small way I almost pity them.

It’s important to be critical of ourselves. To create a just society is so much harder than causing destruction. It’s vital to recognise our flaws, our hypocrisies and our deep, dark moral failings. But it’s equally important to, once in a while, take a look at just how far we’ve come. Just look at what we’ve built. We’re protectors of each other. We are creators. We are artists. We are free. That’s how we win.

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Philosophy, Politics

“Say ‘Strong and Stable’ again. I dare you, I double dare you motherf**ker”

One of the things that has struck me most about politics of late is the continued reliance on repeated phrases (perhaps a rather ironic statement for a blog using Pulp Fiction as the inspiration for its title).

Project fear

Strong and stable

He’s unelectable

For the many, not the few

Britain must live within its means

The system is rigged for the rich

Brexit means Brexit

Chances are everything I’ve quoted above will be familiar to you. Some may find them irritating but I think they’re significantly more problematic than mere irritation. Not only do they remove all nuance from a discussion but, at worst, I think they highlight a contempt for the electorate and, even more shockingly, they actually work (in all the wrong ways)!

The destruction of nuance

One of the most interesting parts of the George Orwell classic ‘Nineteen Eight-Four’ is the refining of the existing language by The Party into a new language – ‘newspeak’. Doing this was to, among other things, make nuance and opposition to The Party’s ideology linguistically impossible. Strange as it may seem, I do think there are lessons to be learned from this, applicable today.

Of course it would be a paranoid overstatement to suggest that our politicians are intentionally trying to enforce a new, ideologically motivated language on us but our reliance on repeated shorthand really can be damaging to intelligent discussion. These phrases may well begin as a catchy hook or an expedient way of getting the point across, but when overused they descend into vapid responses.

For example, we all remember ‘Project Fear’ as a much trotted out rebuttal to pretty much any claim that leaving the EU could be damaging. It essentially was meant to imply that the claim was scaremongering and intended to frighten us into voting remain. Even when expressed in full, it hardly seems the most direct response to any particular argument made against leaving the EU, but by dumbing down the response to a mere two words, ‘Project Fear’, it became an unwarranted defeater – shutting down the real debate straight away.

Equally overused and repeated phrases can cause us to think of complicated ideas simplistically. One that jumps out at me is the often repeated phrase ‘we need to balance the books’ or ‘Britain must live within its means.’ It’s obvious what this phrase is trying to convey – at a time of economic hardship we can’t be spending money frivolously. It’s also the logic used to support austerity and the cutting of public funding.

I’m no economist, I frankly have no idea how one goes about getting a country out of debt, but it seems clear to me that talking about the country’s deficit as if it’s a household budget is grotesque oversimplification. In a great article on austerity from 2015, Paul Krugman makes this point:

‘When John Boehner, the Republican leader, opposed US stimulus plans on the grounds that “American families are tightening their belt, but they don’t see government tightening its belt,” economists cringed at the stupidity. But within a few months the very same line was showing up in Barack Obama’s speeches, because his speechwriters found that it resonated with audiences.’

Whilst speaking of national debt as if it’s a household budget might be relatable and understandable, it actually conveys very little of the complexity of global economics and risks doing more harm than good. I don’t pretend to know whether austerity actually works, but it feels wrong to justify it by using a false analogy for the sake of simplicity.

We have to remember language really does matter, in fact one could argue that a lot of philosophy and critical thinking is really just trying to understand and agree on definitions. When you remove pretty much everything from a sentence so it’s just a trite soundbite, it becomes almost impossible to really dissect the point that’s being made – it’s simply a sentiment expressed in an inappropriately shortened away.

And it’s in this way I think there’s a genuine comparison with ‘Newspeak’ which was created to convey large sentiments in completely inflexible language – the speaker loses the capacity to speak with nuance and therefore the ability to reflect critically. In our case, politicians willfully choose to use such wording and voluntarily become linguistically bankrupt.

Utter contempt

This brings us to our next question; why do politicians and the media use such language? Well, it’s because they believe it’ll work.

Frankly, Theresa May’s constant reliance on repeating the words ‘strong and stable’ feels to me like contempt for the electorate – she really must think we’re stupid. Don’t get me wrong, I know political parties need a hook and have an image they want to portray, but they really have gone beyond that this election, repeating the phrase ad nauseam with the subtlety of a Michael Bay movie.

And let’s be honest, that mantra really isn’t an accurate reflection of May’s leadership so far. At best it’s a projection of what the Conservatives want to achieve, at worst it’s an overcompensation because far from being ‘strong and stable’, the complete opposite is true. Only today she made her ninth u-turn, this time on a manifesto policy that is only four days old, prompting Michael Crick to ask if Mrs May was in fact ‘weak and wobbly’. Mix that with the fact that her recent dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker reportedly left him ’10 times more sceptical’ about Brexit, and it’s quite clear that strong and stable is good PR, but far from reality.

But it actually works!

Unfortunately politicians and the media rely on these nonsense shorthands because they do actually seem to work, at least for some of the electorate. Anecdotal as it may be, I’ve seen (and spoken with) many people who say they’ll be voting Theresa May, and who can’t help but use either the words ‘strong’ or ‘stable’ when explaining why. These brain-worm of words get into our heads and, when heard enough times, are hard to shake  – I’m sure a psychologist could write an interesting piece as to why.

Another example of repeated phraseology that works was the constant reporting of the media that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable. Now look, I don’t like conspiracy theories and I think reports of ‘media bias’ can be a little simplistic – often the media is simply giving the readership/viewers what they want. Neither am I a full blooded Corbynite – I’m generally favourable to him but I’ve yet to be convinced he’s the saviour of the country some of the left think he is.

But it seems undeniable to me that even if it were the case that Corbyn was unelectable from the moment he took leadership of the Labour party (a claim it would be hard to empirically show), the constant repetition of ‘Corbyn is unelectable’ becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Best not vote Corbyn because he’s unelectable…I think we can all see the flaw in that logic!

What to do

No party is immune to using annoying soundbites or repeated phraseology in a way that hinders real political and intellectual discourse.

We as voters should always, however, be on the lookout for such things.

My own approach – the minute I hear a phrase repeated profusely, a soundbite that won’t go away or an idea that everyone simply seems to accept, I refuse it all together on those terms. Instead, build up what is trying to be conveyed using proper language, then critically examine that claim against the available evidence.

Let’s not let slogans, soundbites and phraseology dumb down the level of debate in this country. We deserve better.

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Politics

The people have spoken – and it’s awful

Today the American people elected a racist, misogynist, unqualified reality TV star as their next president. A man who said he wanted to ban all Muslims from entering America, who bragged about paying little tax and who admitted to thinking women who have abortions should be punished.

american-flagFor many this Trump victory came as a surprise but, having experienced Brexit, we Brits were in a unique position to expect the unexpected. Before June 23rd Brexit seemed an extreme right-wing pipe dream. Surely there was no way the UK would go against all sound professional advice and damage our economy in some bizarre attempt to ‘make Britain great again’. Yet, here we are, several months down the line, working out how and when to legally trigger Article 50 in a way that doesn’t totally leave us in the lurch.

So, when the polls were indicating Clinton had the lead, and the populist Trump had no real chance, alarm bells were certainly ringing. And when I checked my phone at 4:30am this morning, and saw the ‘shock’ election results nearly played out, it was a familiar feeling. Once again the political elite have been kicked in the teeth and the populist outsider has surpassed all expectations. This is a new world.

The reasons for Trump’s success are numerous and I’m sure only a removed history student of the future will be able to fully account for all of them. Right now, we are far too close to events to truly gain an objective vantage point to view them from. But, to state the obvious, the reason he won was because people voted for him. He rode a wave of anger, frustration and anti-establishment sentiments, very much a similar fuel as the one which stoked the flames of the Leave Campaign here.

What is most alarming about this particular wave of passion is it’s completely indifferent towards reason and logic. Vague nationalistic sentiments and uniting against common enemies seems to be a far more powerful motivator than sound arguments or debate. As many have pointed out, we are living in a ‘post-truth’ world. ‘The British public have had enough of experts’ said Michael Gove, and many Americans felt exactly the same as they voted.

It seems that many people have realised that there is a political elite who may not always have their best interest at heart and a status-quo the political class preserve which doesn’t necessarily benefit the poorest among us. This is all reasonable enough. But, in the rejection of the elite, the baby has been thrown out with the bath water, and there has been a rejection of experts and academics along the way. A nasty virus of anti-intellectualism has infected the heart of public opinion, which makes reasoned debate impossible.

‘Screw the rich elites’, the public cheers. Quite right. ‘Let the people take control.’ Yes, brother. ‘Screw the academics who have spent years studying’. Wait…’Ignore the experts with their fancy knowledge.’ Oh no. Hang on. You wouldn’t ignore the advice of a doctor when it came to your health would you? ‘Damn right. Corrupt big pharma serving bastards.’

In the rejection of sources we would usually consider wise, a black hole of authority has been created, and those who can shout the loudest and whip up public sentiment are the ones who fill the void. In such circumstances, mob rule can take hold.

You only have to look at the reaction of some of the Brexiteers to the recent judges’ ruling that for the British Government to activate Article 50 they need a vote in parliament. People were whipped up into a frenzy and national right wing leaning rags were behaving quite shamefully even by their low standards. The ruling was a legal decision, and yet the reaction was brutish and inflamed – as if the law itself could not hold back the raw populist power of the 52%. Who were these legally trained experts to tell the public how the law should be applied?

A tell-tale sign of populist movements like the ones in both Britain and America is the replacement of arguments with repeated phrases. When every objection to Brexit was labelled ‘Project Fear’, regardless of the legitimacy of that concern, we should have known we were in trouble. When a presidential candidate simply repeats a meaningless phrase such as ‘making America great again’, it’s scary when that appeals to the masses. The latest repeated phrase is when government ministers are asked to outline what kind of Brexit they are pursuing and they reply something glib about ‘not revealing your hand in a negotiation’. Not only is the analogy flawed (in a business negotiation the people the negotiator works for would have instructed what they wish to gain), it’s really just a tired soundbite to avoid answering the question altogether.

And we’re told, time and time again, that those who vote for the likes of Trump do so out of economic desperation. They are people who have been left behind by the current political system. Yet, I don’t know about others, I can’t help but feel some contempt for those who vote for a nasty bully who talks of building walls and longs for the good old days where protesters could be brutalised. In a way, I almost think it’s patronising of the liberal elite who make these claims to think that these people don’t know exactly what they’re voting for. Maybe Brexit was complicated enough for it to be unfair to label those in favour of leaving as xenophobic or short sighted, but the Trump campaign has shown its true colours on multiple occasions.

Right now there are claims of a ‘whitelash’, that the vote was a reaction against the struggle for equality between races in America. According to exit polls (and yes, I’m wary of ever trusting a poll again!), 60% of all white voters voted Trump. And it wasn’t just the poor working class who we are told don’t know better, he performed well across all genders, ages and education levels of those 60%. I’m not suggesting that racism (or any form of malice) was the defining factor in this election, but things certainly seem considerably more insidious than it just being a ‘cry for help’ from the poorest in society.

Ironically, much like in the case of Brexit, those working class who did vote as a protest against the current system are the most likely to become victims of their own decision. Just as the poorest Brits will be the ones most affected by inflation and suffer decreased disposable income, the poorest Americans may well be hit hardest by Trump’s seemingly uncompassionate politics. Yet this doesn’t excuse those who voted. Much like the Texan who shot an armadillo and ended up in hospital because the bullet bounced off into him, it’s hard to feel sorry for a voter who puts so many minorities at risk knowingly.

And perhaps what scares me most is the people who say they feel disenfranchised and unrepresented might actually be unreachable. Some voters are opposed to modernisation and globalisation altogether, which both feel like inevabilities. Besides demagogues like Trump with empty promises, no-one else seems to have an answer as to how to reach these people. Neither centre-left nor centre-right are able to appeal to them, and the more radical left (embodied by the likes of Corbyn) fare even worse still. Right now there doesn’t seem to be an antidote to the current wave of dangerous populism.

Difficult as it is, I try not to despair. Winston Churchill once said ‘The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter’, a sentiment which is easy to empathise with right now. Yet we must soldier on, accept democratic decisions and fight for what we believe is right. If democracy temporarily makes you lose faith in people, keep your faith in individuals. Support charities who do good works, campaign for what you believe is right and trust that this turbulent period of history can’t and won’t endure forever.

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