Getting your bearings
Yesterday I wrote a blog about my impressions of Scotland post-referendum, half love letter to Scotland - a place I once called home - a place within a country I once called home - half reflection on how it had changed in a very subtle way (being more politically aware is good, but not if you allow a party more rope just because you hope it’s different). It was also about nationalism (I’ve been reading a lot about Russian nationalism and fascism of late) and how one’s beliefs and hopes in politics and politicians will always be a letdown because democracy reflects the will of the people, and the people are not one (you and your friends are not necessarily a reflection of a shared reality), but a divided tribe of thoughts and ideas, understandings and misunderstood, of belief and disbelieve and blind and inspired ignorance.
Why would I write such a blog, that is bound to offend people I like and even love, to be so blunt and apparently ignorant, not on their side, but the other? Yes, who’s side am I on?
As I said, I’ve just returned from talking to a couple of thousand Scottish citizens, who traipsed through the wind and rain, handed over the coin to see me talk. There I stood, honest and naked in who I think I am, telling as much truth as I dare, so no doubt it’s a let down to hear views that opposed your own because what I do - my business - is the business of charm, that I’m like you, we are the same. for some, it’s like Tom York running for UKIP. So yes I felt their love yet wrote what I did anyway.
To write what I did, not the love, but the confusion, is to invite the confusion “where does he stand?” “I thought he was a good guy?”. You can read it in the words, in Facebook comments and comments at the bottom of the post, in emails I got, where people either hope my impressions were wrong, or that they are simply corrupted (you’re a good guy Andy, but you’re talking bullshit). But an impression is an impression, that rosy glow in the sky the most beautiful you’ve ever seen, while beyond the hill a nuclear power station burns. It’s like a stab in the back for some, for others, it’s a ‘that’s how I feel’. But again the question is why bother writing that at all? What do I have to gain?
Simple: as soon as I get any thought in my head, such as this one, about Scotland and nationalism, that I believe in one tribe, and how nationalism wounds a country and its people (to deny independence is about nationalism is to deny the very thing you know deep down gives the idea speed), well it’s because that voice in my head says ‘don’t write it, Andy’. I’ve made a conscious decision to not self-censor myself. If it’s not illegal, but personal, moral or political then if it becomes flagged as an idea then I cannot hide it.
I’ve been on a long journey of late, a journey that I hope is leading to a better me, not a worse one - although sometimes I’m not so sure, as the process is a destructive one in a way. I also think it’s a path that would maybe make other people happier (it’s all about happiness dude). This journey is a dejunking of dead thoughts, dead ideas, dead memory, dead ideology, dead belief, to throw and out and burn the junk in my soul, my past - that bonfire of the vanities, plus all the other shit that lurks in your head. And I think that job is doing some good, and so now I’m looking not at the in, but the outside. What I am doing is apply my own rules of law, which are:
Is this what I know, what I feel or what I hope? This has been a big one for me, at the heart of my dogma of certainty principle, where I’ve looked again at everything I was certain about, all that stuff you cut and paste into your head and call them your own. I guess this began when I began to get serious about wanting to understand, to be a writer, to know my enemy. I imagined what it would like to be Hitler. I imagine what it would feel like to be so certain, that what you were doing was moral and right, that history would treat you kindly, not call you evil or the devil. To imagine yourself like that is a kind of bravery just as keen as climbing the Eiger North face, to switch off your morals and preconceived ideas and put yourself behind the devil’s eyes. From there it’s not a long walk to the realisation that Hitler was a populist, he was nationalist, that he levered support from the hope of good people, that eight million germans were signed up as Nazi party members, and many of the greatest minds of that age fell for that idea too, and where did it lead? Almost sixty million dead. To write someone off as being simply evil, that the nazis were a small bunch of German jihadis, the SS their strutting foot soldiers is to fail to grasp that lesson of history, that people can be led, that they acquiesce to political trickery, then claim they have led astray when everyone is dead at the table and the bill must be paid. This was the first step I took to where I am now, a less tribal, more questioning, more pragmatic and humanist view of things that I hope is self scrutinising of what I believe (but I admit that I must maybe simply delusional).
Am I falling into the trap of confirmation bias? This is a big one, and an easy trap for us all, where we latch onto a little truth that makes sense, as a short cut, that we can use to come to some conclusion, then look for only those things that conform to it. This is another very damming problem for us all, as we tend to place ourselves in a position where we see any evidence coming from “the other side” as being an attack on our certainty when it can often simply be valid proof we are wrong. A good example of this was the other day I got into a mini argument with a very intelligent man before a talk (I seem to argue a lot these days) about the idea that all of the rich are out to fuck the poor (I disagree, and is simply in that ‘Hitler was the devil’ school of lazy thought). At one point he said “You know the Tories have no mandate from the people, they only have 37% of the seats, the system is rigged for the rich”, to which I had to reply, would you argue the point if that was your labour government in power? (labour only had 35% in 2005 when they won). You see confirmation bias everywhere, and we feed it through social media and our friends, rejecting anything but the strongest arguments that conflict with this bias (Hilary Benn’s speech on Syria is a great example of a great speech that cannot help but undermine an honest and morally correct view that war is wrong, a viewpoint that fails to grasp that immorality of both politics and in all living things). Confirmation bias is like a tool I use to attempt to reach some balanced equilibrium of reality, neither left nor right, feeding in as much data as I can, crunch to the numbers and find as much truth as I’m able.
The rejection of the politics of thought - that old thought crime thing - where you get trapped in a labyrinth of imagined offence and exposure of the inherent bigotry and tribalism of your humanity, a humanity that is not morally fit yet for the 21st-century ideal. This is self-defeating in every way, as it hides away that which could be confronted, it makes anything beyond a set of norms a ‘phobia’, that people are defective, wrong, stupid or ignorant. This kind of idea only marginalised people, creates extremism where people were no extreme. To reject or sideline anyone who dares to point out that Islam is utterly incompatible with western democracy (anyone who labels that ‘phobic’ has not crunched the numbers) is to silence that person from society and radicalise them, they become a victim, and what they do is conform to your greatest fears, they vote UKIP or National front because they know their fears are not so easily shrugged off with a word. This radicalisation of a large number of the population, whose very understandable and human concerns are not addressed, in fact, they are scorned, is leading is to the right. If we cannot address this simple thing, the banning of thoughts that are unkind, where it is news that someones say that a dead politician would ‘spin in his grave’ or another ‘needs his head examined’ will ultimately lead to a clash of extremes in Europe, fascism and Islam, the middle squeezed out. Yes - what a crazy idea… how could words have so much power, but for them when you have people killed for crappy cartoons it’s not such a great leap of imagination. So offence or not, I’m writing my own rules and if I must defend my freedom to think and speak and if that price is the ‘outrageous’ one of offence - then so be it.
We are all complicit and it’s way more complex than hurt feelings. Beside me now is a guy ranting on about bankers and stupid politicians, talking with a real visceral hatred of Hillary Ben, another man let down, a son no doubt a disappointment to his dead father. I think he’s a teacher, drove up in a nice Ford Focus. For him it’s simple, it’s all about morality, what right, but history and events do not work or conform to a moral framework or timetable, it is complex as a beach, it looks like a beach, a strip of sand, yet it stretches around the world, under and above the sea, a construct of grains as big as houses and as small as… sand. Tony Ben closed more coal pits than Thatcher did, but he was one of us. This man’s pension, along with nurses and those who have and do serve the state must be grown, a bulk of money that does great violence in an economy that has to be fed. I’m sure he didn’t buy his car with cash, probably has a mortgage, a credit card, has a higher wage than the same teacher would ten years ago, as well as a higher standard of living, life expectancy, and is sat here at midday drinking very fine coffee. The bombing of Syria is an issue of global politics at a time of great and increasing uncertainty, probably the most dangerous time ever in our history as human beings, where really are close to the brink. Does he think the RAF will now carpet bomb the cities of Syria? Has he ever met a killer? A drone pilot or man who comes in the night to kill like they killed Bin Laden? I have, and those people, what they do, what they do for politicians and for us is not irrational, or insane, or murderous, it’s not personal. Perhaps our outrage at them is an outrage that the word and history do not conform to our will?
Lastly, I’m conscious that more and more we seem to be moving towards a binary world that reflects the logic of coding, not of complex human lives and it’s the drama of history and hopes. It seems that we must all take sides in some moral dilemma: yes or no, bomb or don’t bomb, right or left, East or West, faith or apostasy, in or out, a process that is dehumanising us all. I doubt there is any conspiracy behind all this, but we are living in a time of division and separation, of divide and rule, played off one against the other, the great strides we’ve made in partnership and law undermined by nothing more than grit (refugees, the mythologising of societies, Sunni versus Shia, short short-termism in public policy, ISIS, geopolitics). I chose to reject a binary world.
Right now in this moment, two coffees down, everything in flux in my head I don’t know what to think, but maybe that’s the point of ignorance where you begin to understand, like turning, turning, turning until dizzy you stop and find your bearings.