The Deadest Idea of All
December 24, 2015
There is a point in my Cold Mountain show where I bring up a picture of a seagull, an illustration I did for a film a long time ago. When it appears you can feel the room thinking ‘why is this image here - what does this have to do with Antarctica?’ And I guess that is my very point, to make people ask just what that point is. Ask yourself how often we really question what’s going on, that our expectation of the next word, the next image, the next clip, the next idea is something else, something entirely unexpected? Then I begin to talk about the image, well not about the image, but about dead words, dead ideas, dead thoughts and dead language, which no doubt confuses people further, talking on about how we are surrounded by unneeded, unhelpful, superfluous or misguide dead things, words, ideas, comments, and dogma, but most of all dead ideas about who think we are. By this time people probably think I’ve gone crazy, so to bring them back I address the image and say that I am engaged in a personal battle against dead words, that I promise this talk I am about to give will have some real value and meaning - I hope - and that I endeavour to add something to the static of words that surround us that deserve a place in their heads that night. Then I address the bird, the seagull, but I call it a snow pigeon, and there you have it a new word (which is no doubt ornithologically incorrect). I guess I make my point in a ham-fisted way, but by the end, when I detail all the ideas I had about myself, and those around me that were wrong, it rings true.
Do you need an example of dead words? Well watch this video below and ask yourself how necessary any of what is spoken is, and how much this typifies so much we consume as media (TV news, newspapers, websites). To my mind maybe only 5% of what is said need be said and the rest is just word filler, that no new words, ideas or sentences are given to you, that in effect is a long slow hand-job with no climax at the end, the music score giving you the false impression what you are hearing or seeing is profound when it is not.
This of course is pretty lame stuff, but would you have seen it as so dead if it wasn’t so flagged? Perhaps you don’t, maybe you think it’s mean to even say that, but it’s a thing I have at the moment and see and hear them everywhere (we put so much thought into technology and drones and images but so little on words). Maybe I want to live in a meaner world where there is more substance and we make more demands (this is my main gripe against Bear Grylls, that we get is - by my judgement - so shallow and lacklustre, without genuine joy or enlightenment, words and ideas recycled from his first episode to the last: SAS, Everest, Piss, Boys, Island, Faith, all simply business). But look around you and ask the same of everything else consumed, that’s fed in and fed out, from chit chat to what you read on Facebook. What really makes your heart beat fast, what thought or idea makes you tremble. When did you last argue with someone with so much force it made you shake? How much is living and how much is dead?
It seems that we are surrounded by this deadness, just watch sky news, or the BBC, or any media. How often are we confronted by something that really engages, that is really challenging, upsetting, confusing, that sets our thoughts spinning and how much is just filler? How many people speak their minds, tell the difficult truths, expose themselves by their own doubt? Today someone tweeted “I have to say Andy you’re beginning to smell a bit weird lately” no doubt because what I choose to write, to question (question myself as much as anything else) betrays me as dangerous in some way - but why, is peddling the dead comfortable truth the best way to get on, to pick a side and stay in line?
I’d say we live in a pretty sterile age when it comes to real directed thought, real scrutiny, and self-analysis. What we think, how we feel, what we think we know, is fed to us via channels we sign up for, or some unseen algorithm assigns to us, shows us what we think, we want to see, the same as people just like us, rightwing/leftwing, so we all think the same, just fed things that will not challenge ideas that may be a little dead. If I was to test you by writing I don’t think the 1% wealth thing actually stands up I’m sure you will be outraged (we actually have a healthy GINI rating), after all this is mean to be a ‘safe channel’ about climbing, not crap like this. We click ‘like’ on posts and images that look as if we’d ‘like’ them if we had the time, but often only read above the fold, but by doing this we propagate a lack of real depth of understanding (I’m not saying I do). When was the last time you really consider some right-wing ideas (deep down I consider myself as left-wing, and so imagine most others to be the same), when did you look at evidence from both sides then make a choice based on them both? We accept much of what we are told by a media that gives people black and white hats but ignore anything that conflicts with what we believe. How alive are our ideas? If they are so strong we should be able to throw them in the ring and see them win out over ideas that we believe are dead. I’ve given this idea about dead ideas a lot of thought and personally found I was trapped in my own dogma, read the same newspapers (the Guardian), the same websites (BBC and NPR), read or watched videos by heroes like Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens and Slavoj Žižek. But one day I decided to cast my net a little further, as the truth I believed did not add up, of fairness and liberal values. I began to listen to ideas from the right as well as the left in order to create a full map of thoughts and ideas, to reject nothing from sincere minds, to look beyond a self-righteous archipelago. I started to read what people like Niall Ferguson, Thomas Sowell and Charles Murray had to say about age, our shared history, ideas that were challenging but far from dead, just as alive and valid as Chomsky, Hitchens and Žižek. To find some real answer and understanding it seemed important not to reject living ideas - right or wrong - to pass over ideas formed over a lifetime simply because they are rejected by someone else because they do not sit well with their own beliefs. What was needed was to sit all ideas side beside, with what you already believed to be true, and what was once not even seen to be rejected, and see it all.
Recently I picked up a friend who works in politics who shared a Facebook link for the black dot campaign against domestic violence, a campaign that had been thoroughly discredited by organisations dealing directly with such abuse, not simply a bedroom campaigner. I guess I thought this highly educated and politically aware friend had had her account hacked (click on the link and get ads for viagra or penis extensions I thought), but by questioning the link I was immediately categorised as the enemy, someone condoned the abuse of woman and told that I would no doubt just make a joke out of domestic violence at my next talk and that my ‘navel gazing’ was getting old. Then I was unfriended by someone who’d been my friend for about ten years. And here lies the danger of dead thoughts and ideas, it’s that they are living and breathing inside peoples heads, and to call them out, or even to give them a little poke, to call them zombies ideas, is the invite anger, be those ideas of identity, faith or politics. What we want are ways to reinforce and barricade our thinking, ideas deeply ingrained, which translates as not thinking at all. People - I’d say the majority - who have political certainty - when pushed hard by debate, will most often crumble and just say “Oh I’m not bothered either way”. These dead ideas we take as truth then simply slip through our minds unchallenged and unfiltered, after all, who’s got the time to question everything? Take this example of the hugely popular ex-soldier Harry Leslie’s piece in The Newstaman last week about a trip to the ‘Jungle’ in Calais:
The other passengers in my carriage wore expensive suits and looked preoccupied with sales quotas, market shares and the prospect of their annual Christmas bonuses. I was heading to the refugee camp known as the “Jungle” by its residents because it lacks sanitation, health care or adequate living quarters. I felt sad and angry about the way we ignore suffering through distraction.
Harry’s words slip in so easy, that idea of that good man, a moral man, who’s been through a war, sat on a train, no doubt full of fat business types raping the poor, while he actually takes the time to see the reality of a pitiful situation. Harry is a populist and fulfils this role well, and for me to even question such a man invites attack. But Harry ignores the fact that such fellow travels are actually producing the wealth of our socialist state, they could easily be miners down the pit as businessmen on the train, that they are not focused on their Christmas bonuses at all, but on the stuff of business and commerce, that dirty thing called money, of keeping people in work and being productive, that if they fail there is no money to support those in the Jungle, or keep his pension paying out each month, that multi-millionaire owner of the Newstatemen who his paying his wages, his hotel, is just such a man as this. To me, Harry, an honest and good man, is also what he despises. At the end of his piece he writes “The world has changed since I was young. It has not grown harder: just more foolish and selfish” but I would say that it is Harry that is foolish and selfish and is full of zombie ideas that slip out without the filter of doubt, for Harry, and most others, on the left and the right, they fail to question what they believe. For me, for Harry to be a true hero, he would take the time to come up with some complicated opinions, to consider both sides, to not give a binary viewpoint that fits in 140 characters. If we were to truly filter out the millions of migrants and refugees we would find that maybe half are simply people looking for a better life, but use the cloak of a genuine need to slip in - after all - when the gates of OZ are opened wide who wouldn’t step inside. But to acknowledge that would invite a more complex question, one of more depth and less ideologically defined, where the ills of these people could not simply be put at the feet of the guilty west. But if he did this, said ‘systems are broken, systems are not helping those who need it, in our desire to do good we have done worse’ - it’s clear he’d have no work, only blogging like this, the more honest he became, the more searching of new ideas, the fewer people would listen, after all we live in an age were actually thinking of the tracks is painful. Most of all if Harry did this, tried to leave the dead ideas behind and look for the living people would ask “who’s side is he on?” when the very idea of sides is the deadest idea of all.