Saturday, August 27 2011
By Mark Vernon on Saturday, August 27 2011, 10:35 - General
I think it must be the whites of the eyes. On the left, a real chimpanzee. On the right, a fake ape, from Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The film is a slick, entertaining if rather obvious morality tale for our times - and left me thinking how they best conveyed the smart minds of the altered apes.
There was the advanced use of tools, the signing, and eventually even speech. But I think the most convincing moments were mostly achieved with the whites of the eyes.
(Image left: Common chimpanzee in the Leipzig Zoo, by Thomas Lersch)
Friday, August 26 2011
By Mark Vernon on Friday, August 26 2011, 11:22 - Religion
One final bleak thought from the religion and violence seminars - also something of a grim prediction.
James W Jones argued that it is wrong to think of suicide bombers as brainwashed. Neither has psychopathology been a good indicator of who is a risk, to date: psychopaths aren't good with groups and so will not join terrorist organisations. Those who deploy lethal violence have justified their actions with all manner of reasons and to understand their actions requires multiple causes.
However, there is an unhappy synchronicity that the spectacular events of 9/11 coincided, more or less, with the globalisation of the internet. The security response has been pretty successful at homing in on groups. But the internet means that disparate networks and individuals barely linked to organisations like al-Qaeda, though inspired by them, have thrived.
In other words, the future of terrorism is with individuals. Recent events in Norway may be a case in point. Moreover, and although the mental state of Anders Behring Breivik is moot, individual actors are more likely to show psychopathology as they perform such actions in an imitative way.
Thursday, August 25 2011
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, August 25 2011, 09:08 - General
A fascinating vignette from the Arab Spring in Egypt at the seminar on religion and violence:
We were supposed to have a session with Moez Masoud, one of the leaders of the revolution who is also studying in the religion and psychology group at Cambridge. He couldn't make it, due to last minute pressures in Cairo. However, Sara Savage, with whom Masoud works, told us of him one day calling her, just as he was about to address a crowd in Tahrir Square.
The mood was tense, the stakes high. Lives might depend on what was said. The great risk in such situations is that crowds adopt binary thinking. The group sees only good guys and bad guys, only friends or enemies. This Manichean world carries great emotion appeal to the human mind. It focuses energy and inspires moral outrage. It moves people. It sparks revolution. But it also sparks violence, commits atrocities. So the question, Masoud had, is how to stir the emotion and avoid provoking knee-jerk reactions that might later be regretted?
Sara had simple advice, though it sounds a bit technical. Use conjunctions in your speech, she said on the mobile phone, though not negations. Say 'both', 'and', 'also'. Avoid 'either/or', 'not', 'against'. And use your body, because when people feel things in their bodies they are capable of holding complexity. They can know the desire for justice and for compassion. They can sense what it is to believe in more than one moral value. So, hold up one fist and declare absolute commitment to freedom. Then hold up another fist and declare absolute commitment to avoiding a bloodbath. And keep both in the air.
I imagine the phone went dead, for we didn't hear how it went. But next time you're addressing a revolutionary crowd...
(Image: Celebrations in Tahrir Square by Jonathan Rashad)
Wednesday, August 24 2011
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, August 24 2011, 07:02 - Journalism
A week back, I posted about an article on Buddhism and Christianity I'd had published in Third Way. It is behind a pay wall, though I've now had permission to publish the entire piece here.
Tuesday, August 23 2011
By Mark Vernon on Tuesday, August 23 2011, 07:14 - Religion
Scott Atran was the speaker in the morning of day three of the religion and violence conference - the anthropologist who through his impressive face-to-face research into the values of terrorists has come to recognise that sacred not material concerns are primary in these conflicts. This has all sorts of consequences for the way you might conduct a 'war on terror'. Politicians must engage sacred values from the top, not treat them as mere colour, as the dominant political paradigms tend to, given their focus on strategic and economic interests. I've written about Atran's book Talking to the Enemy before, so here are some thoughts responding to his presentation.
Atran sets his work in an evolutionary context, arguing that religion is necessary to overcome the 'selfish gene' problems associated with forming large groups. Large collectives like societies have to buy into a notion of 'fictive kinship' to form, and a moral deity helps like nothing else. Belief in such an entity means that the individual sublimates their own interests to those of the group/god, and internalizes punishment for going against the group that the god represents. To put it another way, universal monotheism is a prerequisite for any kind of universal humanism, the attitude in which the group comes to include everyone.
The downside is that it makes war, or at least the possibility of war, an ever present threat for the reason that it is our moral passions that drive us, and nothing drives moral passions like conflict - who's in, who's out, who's threatening what's most dear, what's sacred to us. To put it another way again, war is not politics by other means, it is morality by other means. Hence the US fights for the idea of freedom; the Muslim radical for the values of jihad.
The double downside is that violent actions are irrational: they are not calculating, but the research shows that people engage in violence because they feel they ought to or have to. 'I cannot stand by whilst [insert sacred value] is offended.' Moreover, sacred values drive conflict with little regard to the prospect of success, and so as commitment to a cause matters more than access to superior weaponry, conflicts tend to perpetuate over generations, until the cause ceases.
So far, so fascinating and bleak. But listening to Atran also raised questions for me about such analysis.
For example, he notes that people with sacred values always sniff out the attempt to have their values manipulated, perhaps for the utilitarian ends of a more material calculus. It's a bit like being asked whether you would sell your child for a million, or two million, or three? The more that is offered the more offended you become, your child being sacred to you. But is not the whole project of evolutionary psychology, with its invisible hand of survival advantage, a story about the manipulation of values? How come, then, the invisible hand works?
A related point is that whilst Atran is at the forefront of those social scientists challenging the rational choice theory that dominates economics with mechanisms of irrationality, the aim of the challenge is still to develop economic models that would steer irrational people in rational directions. Again, is that not ultimately self-contradictory and so self-defeating?
I asked Atran about such high level critiques, and he acknowledged they pose open questions.
I suspect it is possible to challenge the evolutionary story about the value of a moral deity, too. Rather than seeing belief in a moral deity as what is referred to as a 'privileging of the absurd' - absurd beliefs generate evolutionary advantage and so stick - isn't it possible to interpret the emergence of sophisticated religions as the vehicle by which homo sapiens emerged from the black and white world of 'kill or be killed' into the morally complex world that characterises a rich humanity. Further, subtle religious systems that are resistant to being turned back into black and white beliefs should be nurtured, and importantly, for the sake of a rich religious life. This was a point picked up by our second speaker, Sara Savage, whose fascinating work I will be returning to for sure.
But whatever big evolutionary story you care to tell, there is a clear message: equipping those vulnerable to being so radicalised with the confidence and skills to embrace more sophisticated views of the world should be an imperative.
(Image: Choppers by John D. Kurtz IV)
Monday, August 22 2011
By Mark Vernon on Monday, August 22 2011, 08:18 - Religion
Day two of the seminar on religious violence was, to my mind, dominated by the immense courage of Feriha Peracha (above). She runs a deradicalisation school in the Swat valley, Pakistan. Her stories of trauma and violence amongst kids are as bleak as it is possible to imagine, and then some. An NPR piece here tells more, though Dr Peracha insisted ending on an optimistic note: kids can be re-integrated.
Listening to her was to be reminded that hidden by the horrors that emerge almost daily from Pakistan there work individuals of substantial bravery and compassion, a source of hope.
Next spoke Russell Razzaque, the London psychiatrist who has been very involved in advising on the Prevent strategy.
The potential for terrorism here is very different from the actuality in Pakistan. And, in fact, if there is one message coming out very clearly from the seminar it is that apparently similar activities, like suicide bombing, are really enormously disparate phenomena. Poverty may play a major role, or none at all. Education, religion and political ideology similarly.
The problem in the UK might, though, be summed up in a word: alienation. It seems to emerge particularly amongst second generation immigrant communities. Young Muslim men are exploited often at college or university, where radical groups offer them acceptance when before they had felt rejection, and purpose when before they had felt lost.
Of course, it is only a tiny fraction of lads who are radicalised. Most, like Dr Razzaque himself whilst training as a medic, become aware of the radicalisation groups and recognise their view of the world as ridiculous.
Some of Razzaque's aside comments struck me as not so frequently discussed. He thought that young Muslims with no religious education are particularly vulnerable as they have no knowledge against which to judge the extreme interpretations of the Koran taught by radicals. He also thought that British attitudes to alcohol might play a part in the problem the UK has seen. There is virtually no social activity that young people engage in that does not involve alcohol, often in quantity. This can cause great problems for Muslims, compounding feelings of exclusion.
Razzaque ended optimistically too, believing that the Arab spring undermines radical ideology. It shows Muslims around the Mediterranean rallying to national and democratic causes, the precise opposite of Al-Qaeda goals. Moreover, such groups have, so far, been notable by their absence. They seem irrelevant - though writing on the morning when Libya is falling to partly unknown groups, caution seems wise. More hangs on the outcomes of the Arab spring even than the future of the countries directly involved.
Sunday, August 21 2011
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, August 21 2011, 07:02 - Religion
One of the ideas that struck me as particularly illuminating, from the first day of the seminar on religious violence I'm attending, concerned fundamentalism*. Scott Appleby told of a Jewish writer who observed that the practice of his religion has shifted from being mimetic - learnt from his family with the air he breathed - to being performative, essentially a case of doing right by a rule book. The shift happens as a result of the dislocation and alienation people experience as they are buffeted by rising pluralism and increased mobility.
The change might be generalised to other faiths, the performative approach placing great store on specifics - in other contexts, I imagined the huge importance that wearing a veil or a crucifix comes to carry. More subtly, faith stops feeling like a way of life that holds you, and becomes a way of life you must hold onto. Not far on from that are feelings about being at odds with the world, and then that the world is at odds with you.
A similar pattern is seen with tokens, those moral issues - abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia - that are not about what you do, because the fundamentalist/conservative is not going to admit those themselves, but rather about what you believe. (Incidentally, it seemed pretty clear to me that scientistic conservatism has its own tokens too, in its loathing for beliefs like creationism. No doubt, there are 'liberalist' tokens as well - the absolutisation of rights, perhaps.)
Such tokens represent deep concerns that the believer has about the way things are in the world, what the Pope calls the culture of death, for example. At an existential level, they become so inflated because objection to them is also a way of saying 'you are not hearing me' or 'I fear for my place in the world'. Nothing less than the whole person feels under threat.
I also wondered whether tokens are a way of staving off how believers, probably unconsciously, themselves feel compromised by the way things are in the world, because they are implicated in it too. For example, it is often noted by pro-gay folks that injunctions against usury are far more widespread in the Bible, and yet Biblicists never seem that bothered by them: much more seems to stand or fall by the relatively rare ones against homosexuality. Here, the logic of the token issue of homosexuality also allows the individual to contain any sullied feelings arising from their own usurious practices - pension, mortgage, credit cards and the like - which is a fancy way of saying they blame it all on homosexuality!
Anyway, some such dynamics seem to be at play in the culture wars.
*Appleby also encouraged us to avoid using sweeping terms like fundamentalism; there is probably no such thing, but rather fundamentalisms. Sorry.
(Image: David Woroniecki, son of preacher Michael Woroniecki, with instructive sign for football fans on Michigan State's campus, by Saraware)
Saturday, August 20 2011
By Mark Vernon on Saturday, August 20 2011, 07:10 - Philosophers
'Platonic love', to Plato, does not mean friends breath a sigh of relief because they share no erotic entanglements. Friends, you fool yourselves, he believes. Rather, it means sublimating the erotic energy between two people to pursue not each other, but together, life itself.
This much is clear from, say, a read of the Phaedrus, and it is handy that Jay Kennedy's analysis of the musical patterns embedded in Plato's Symposium confirm that Plato was not against human love, as the view associated with the scholar Gregory Vlastos has it, but wished to channel it. (I see that Kennedy is still 'cracking the Plato code' and discovering 'hidden doctrines', which is good marketing, won lots of headlines last year, I hear secured a big book deal and Holywood interest because it is fun, in a Dan Brown way - and like Brown, wildly overplays the hand.)
'Plato divided each of his writings into 12 parts,' Kennedy explains, 'inserting a symbol marking a musical note at each twelfth. At harmonious notes he placed positive ideas such as love and goodness, while at dissonant notes he placed negative ideas such as rejection, quarrelling and evil.' In the Symposium, comments about trading sex for favour or advantage are placed at dissonant notes; expressions of erotic love's abiding desire for another's soul are placed at harmonious notes.
Platonic love is, in fact, a notion of relatively recent invention. Kennedy continues: 'At the beginning of the modern era, women cleverly used Plato’s reputation as a genius to get men to pay attention to their minds. Platonic love was an argument for not settling down and allowing women to participate in arts and culture in the royal court. When sex often meant an early death, Plato was a licence for having more fun.'
Which also goes to show that historic attitudes towards sex are more subtle and inventive than we moderns, so proud of our free attitudes towards love, can allow them to be. This came out in Will Self's review of Catherine Kakim's Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital. He notes that for Hakim 'Christian monogamy' is just a strategy to ensure that all men, who are more ugly on average, get a woman, who are more beautiful.
Except that, if anything, the Biblical imperative is not for monogamy but for not marrying at all. As Peter Brown shows in his brilliant The Body and Society, when Jesus discouraged marriage by example (sorry Dan) and Paul by teaching, they encouraged a practice that was liberating for women, for whom marriage - like medieval sex - often meant early death.
It was also socially disruptive, because women, on average, had to have quite a few children by quite a young age, just to preserve population levels.
(Image: Mosaïque de la muse Euterpe de la salle Rameau)
Friday, August 19 2011
By Mark Vernon on Friday, August 19 2011, 06:30 - In the news
Gordon Lynch has penned an excellent piece for Open Democracy on the riots and the habits of virtue. He adds the interesting dimension of the sacred, not so much a religious concept as those values which 'define the moral boundaries of human society' and so exert a powerful social force. He continues:
If broader, sacred values can also bind us into a deeper sense of shared moral community across society, we might also ask how these can be nurtured. Our society has distinguished itself in creating built environments that show the least signs of any sense of sacred meaning of any period in history. Our high streets are dominated by chain stores and global corporations who promise convenience but little meaning. New-build properties offer modernist-lite conceptions of style, devoid of any sense of modernism’s original moral purpose. The explosion of public art has left our towns and cities with works that are all too often vacuous and un-compelling. Policy makers are clearly aware of this gap and have tried to address it, usually through repeated and unsuccessful attempts to re-launch a sense of ‘British-ness’. But convincing moral visions for society cannot be created in ersatz fashion through short-term policy ideas. They are already at hand, woven through the moral significance that is variously given to the nation, nature and humanity in the stories that our society tells about itself. Learning to see where these sacred meanings still move us, as well as the shadow-side of sacred commitments, is another long task for a remoralising society.
By Mark Vernon on Friday, August 19 2011, 06:27 - General
The Guardian has a running feature, My favourite album. I was glad that Tom Ewing picked Introspective by The Pet Shop Boys, high on my own list, and made it sound relatively cool, with his description of its sweeping pop treatment of ideas and spaces.
I think it struck me for its clever pop lyrics too, as in I'm Not Scared, when Neil Tennant sings:
What have you got to hide,
who will it compromise,
where do we have to be
so I can laugh and you'll be free.
Thursday, August 18 2011
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, August 18 2011, 09:20 - General
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, August 18 2011, 07:26 - In the news
You may know about the Oxyrhynchus discovery, half a million fragments of papyri dug out of the Egyptian sands, showing texts from the Bible and Plato to private letters and land leases.
In the hundred-odd years since, only a small percentage of the material has been transcribed. So now the project has had the good idea of allowing you and I to assist in the mammoth task online. Go to Ancient Lives.
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, August 18 2011, 07:19 - Journalism
I've a piece on Western Buddhism in the September issue of the magazine Third Way, just out:
Buddhism is for everyone. It presents no doctrinal hurdles for the religiously wary because it is a path based upon a practice, not a creed. It demands no submission to authority, for it vests no pope or cleric with spiritual power. It is unburdened by the long history of war and atrocity that stains Christianity in Europe. Above all, it addresses modern everyday concerns – the desire for happiness, the anxieties of stress. Indeed, policy makers are growing increasingly interested in the ability of mindfulness meditation to achieve everything from reducing aggression to warding off aging.
It is a genius piece of spiritual positioning in a secular culture, like ours, that associates belief with half-forgotten myths, at best. Psychology, not theology, is trusted as a source of truth. The individual, not the divine, is what really draws our attention. And I have to admit, as someone who entirely understands what it is to be metaphysically agnostic, Buddhism drew me too, for a while.
But I’ve changed my mind. I’m inclined to think that Buddhism’s easy ride into western consciousness should be challenged. A moment for critique has arrived – a moment that, I suspect, serious Buddhists will, in fact, welcome. Conversely, Buddhism’s undoubted appeal raises questions that Christians would do well to reflect on too. So for what it’s worth, what changed for me?
A seminal moment came whilst on retreat. I’d been attending meditation classes for some time and had tasted the benefit. A regular habit of sitting and paying attention to my breath, or walking slowly and concentrating on the sensations in my feet, served well to anchor the day. The inner maelstrom did not cease. But becoming aware of it meant that I was, perhaps, not so automatically driven by its preoccupations. Deeper concerns had more of a chance to surface.
Now it was time to be exposed to a longer period of meditation. I selected a centre that was serious in its discipline and relatively free of esoteric clutter, and signed up. There are 24 hours a day. We were to dedicate 8 of them to meditation.
It was a good experience insofar as it went. But I became increasingly struck by how myself and my fellow retreatants placed one concern above all others: ourselves. We were there to attend to our own wellbeing. The practice was presented as a kind of self-administered therapy for the soul. There was an occasional ‘metta’ meditation, to develop an attitude of loving-kindness towards others. But the task was basically to observe yourself, and that set up a dynamic with which I grew increasingly uncomfortable – one of self-absorption and self-obsession.
It was very different from a Christian retreat. Long periods of silence will feature then too. But whereas a Buddhist retreat is focused on yourself, a Christian retreat is focused on the pursuit of God. Much to my surprise, I ended the hours in the mediation hall with a powerful sense that a focus on the divine might actually be more healthy. But then the obvious thought struck: how is that possible for the contemporary agnostic who has genuine concerns about whether such theism is true?
Oddly, this is less of a problem than might first be thought. What I mean received unexpected illustration when, a few weeks later, I was watching television. The programme was The Big Silence, a remarkable piece of reality TV. Five individuals were plunged into an alien experience, namely an 8-day silent retreat. The three-part series charted the ups and owns of this journey into their hinterlands. And the experience of one of the participants, John, stood out.
We meet him in episode one as not only not religious but really rather against religion, on account of it being the source of so many ills in the world. A few days into the retreat, during episode two, he has discovered the power of silence and a spiritual dimension that before he would have regarded as insane. Then, in episode three, he muses on his experience in a series of remarks that I found very moving. ‘At one point, to be honest with you, I thought I was going mad,’ he reflects. ‘That voice was in me. I was listening to something deep in me, but yet it wasn’t me. It was just remarkable. Absolutely remarkable. And I know I’ve gotta trust it, just got to trust it.’
Now, I may be doing John a disservice, but I don’t suppose he had read the Confessions of Saint Augustine. And yet, his description of ‘that voice’ seems directly to mirror how Augustine described what happens when he finally finds God. Augustine comes to realise that God was always within him, for all that his own introspection had not known it. But God is also not himself – ‘deep in me, but yet it wasn’t me,’ he writes.
John and Augustine embark on a journey inward that is also a journey outward. They become more present to themselves as an awareness of the divine presence grows. Augustine’s meditation is not just a monitoring of the ups and downs of his own singular psyche, though he did much of that: ‘I labour at hard material, Lord,’ he remarks, ‘And I am that material.’ Rather, his psychological exploration is also a theological discovery. ‘You made us tilted towards you, and our heart is unstable until stabilized in you,’ he writes in the Confessions (as Garry Wills translates it in his new book, Augustine’s Confessions: A Biography).
This stabilization was revealed to John too. The experience begins with an unsettling experience of the flux of interiority and then opens up, dramatically, onto the divine. This kind of meditation is simultaneously about the individual and God.
That it leads to a sense of stability discovered in relationship should not be so surprising, as it’s the essence of human relationships too. In friendship, for example, we recognise ourselves not just as participants in lives shared with others, but further, as recognising who we are in others. We are part of a life way bigger than our own. ‘We need each other in order to be anybody,’ wrote the philosopher Bernard Williams.
Coming back to my mindfulness experience, the Buddhist would say that concluding that meditation is an exercise in self-obsession is misplaced. What I’d missed is what Buddhism teaches. The instability of the self experienced in meditation is a reflection of the doctrine of anatta, or no-self. (There are doctrines, you see.)
No-self is a complex concept, variously read. Some Buddhists interpret it as saying that the notion that we have a self is a delusion because everything is dependent upon everything else and so is in a state of constant, transient flux. Others will say that the goal of meditation is an emptying of the self, a kind of ‘blowing out’, as a literal translation of the word ‘nirvana’ implies. No-self is sometimes expressed by likening being a person to being a cart. A cart is comprised of axles, wheels, a carriage, springs. So the cart, it is concluded, is just the assembly of those elements, nothing more in itself.
This kind of analysis of the self appears to gain support from neuroscience. I recently heard one neuroscientist using the analogy of a smart phone to deconstruct selfhood. Much as a smart phone contains applications that together make the phone smart, the argument went, the brain contains ‘evolution’s apps’ - an empathy app, a language app, a sex app. Together, they make a person, but personhood of itself is nothing more than the sum of those apps.
However both analogies are flawed because, I suspect, the psychology is flawed too. A smart phone is not smart by virtue of its applications. It’s smart because of the individuals who use it in smart ways. In fact, the analogy re-enforces the importance of selfhood. (It only works the other way if you forget that computers are, in fact, thoroughly stupid.) Similarly, the elements in a cart only add up to a cart because there are people to drive it. You actually need a concept of personhood to understand the concept of ‘cart’.
So something quite subtle has happened to the doctrine of no-self as it has appeared in the west. It substitutes one extreme for another: it replaces the self-sufficient, autonomous ego that has tended to dominate our conceptions of the self since the Enlightenment with an empty or deluded self. Then, in meditation, Buddhism offers a therapy that tackles the hyper-individualism of today by stressing the instability and dissolution of the self.
Only, it seems to me that is not true. Whilst it may be very hard to say what an ‘I’ is – and it is surely multiple and porous – it is foolish to rush to concluding there’s no ‘I’ at all. It is less reactionary, surely, to rest with the notion that we are something of a mystery to ourselves – a mystery deepened in meditative analysis, not dissolved in it. As Augustine put it: ‘Our mind cannot be understood, even by itself, because it is made in God’s image.’ Stability is found in God.
The growing appeal of western Buddhism highlights a massive issue for contemporary Christianity, at least in the UK. Theism has stopped speaking to many people. Christianity’s symbols and voice, its understanding of the divine and what it is to be human, have not been refuted, just increasingly ignored. It’s a predicament observed by Carl Jung, who died 50 years ago this year. Human individuals are in spiritual crisis today, he wrote, because they are in search of themselves and their soul. He also noted that psychology has emerged over precisely the same timeframe as Christianity has declined, for the reason that though religion has ceased to speak to people, those same people still need a means to understand themselves. That is why western Buddhism is clever when it presents itself as a practical psychology free of beliefs.
However, there is a critique to be made. Western Buddhism offers a model of the self that is, in fact, complicit with modern individualism. Christianity, though, can claim to be radically different. Its discovery is that we are who we are in relationship, with others and with God. To be human is to be the creature for whom our own existence is too small for us. That, it seems to me, is both true and avoids the narcissism and the nihilism with which western Buddhism flirts.
Wednesday, August 17 2011
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, August 17 2011, 07:52 - In the news
With a seminar on religious violence approaching at the weekend, I've been reading Mark Juergensmeyer. One of his big points about 9/11 was how the government response to the atrocity turned a terrorist attack into a cosmic war - a conflict that understands itself via the symbolism of the apocalypse. It allowed a rich eccentric extremist called bin Laden to present himself as winning against America. The conflict ramped up exponentially, and left the political sphere to become perpetual.
He contrasts that with how the government responded to Timothy McVeigh, which was to treat him as a terrorist, plain and simple, a strategy that starved his following of any oxygen. He also points to the success in Northern Ireland, where the British government learnt from its mistakes, reached a strategy that refused to escalate the violence, and so paved the way for a political solution. Religion could feed hope rather than rage.
Anyway, it was striking to read this as David Cameron was announcing an 'all-out war' on gangs. Paul Mason took to the streets and asked gang members what they made of it. There'll be 'big war' was one response, 'bigger war than already'. There's the logic. Never can they have felt so important, provoked, thrilled.
If Juergensmeyer is right, the metaphor of war is all wrong. Criminality is quite adequate.
(Image: Burnt out van, Hackney, Alasdair)
Tuesday, August 16 2011
By Mark Vernon on Tuesday, August 16 2011, 11:12 - Science
Be careful when watching science programmes on TV! Rhetoric threatens to overrun results at every turn.
I just caught up with Marcus du Sautoy's The Code, which in its last programme looked at how mathematics can describe seemingly chaotic systems. Take the flocking of starlings, he said. Computers can simulate these beautiful but seemingly random patterns by having dots/birds follow very simple rules, like 'avoid incoming predators'. That just about solves the mystery then. Except that none of the shots we saw of the handsome professor gazing at flocking starlings showed any sign of predators nearby at all. Surely the more interesting question to ask would be why the mathematics fails to describe these beautiful but seemingly random patterns, and what else might be at play?
Or there was the first in the new Horizon series, premised on the discovery that we all see colours differently. Cue Beau Lotto stating boldly that colour is one of nature's great delusions: they don't exist at all, as science can now reveal. Only, doesn't every art historian worth their salt already know that we see colours differently: alongside the artists, they devote years to understanding the subtleties. The surprise about the subjective nature of colour only comes to the scientist who had assumed that Newton's mechanical theory of light is the first and last word on the matter. A more interesting question might be whether there is something in Goethe's alternative? It was trashed by the Newtonians for paying direct attention to colour's effects on people. Mightn't the real story be science struggling to catch up?
Sunday, August 14 2011
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, August 14 2011, 11:55 - Personal observations
Before we were so rudely interrupted by riots, I had the French Musée national de Préhistoire on my mind, in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. If you're in the Dordogne, it's a must visit. And don't mind crowds: when we were there a couple of weeks back it was half empty.
Set in the cliffs above the Vézère valley, there are so many caves round about that you feel sure another major archeological discovery can only be a stone's throw away. The artefacts are laid out chronologically, in smart glass cases that take you back half a million years and bring you to the bronze age. You can walk over entire dig sites, protected under glass, and peer at the contents of graves displaying very beautiful 'hand art' depictions of bison and deer. For a Time Team fan, it's very satisfying. But it set me thinking too, not just about the ancestors but about the museum and the nature of the culture that has produced that 'artefact'.
The chronological layout is informative, except that when you go into deep prehistory, nothing much happens for tens of thousands of years - nothing much if flint and bone technology is your main interest. And technology is the main interest of the museum: archeology is a material science, and worked flints and bones comprise the bulk of what survives. But it poses a problem: what to do about the long, slow periods? The solution the curators deploy is to compress the 'empty' millennia and give more space to periods of speedier advance.
I suppose it's inevitable. You've got to keep historians and visitors alike interested. But the net result is that this is the history of humankind very clearly told from the perspective of modernity - a blip of time in the grand scheme of things. It's the story of Baconian progress, the struggle to control and exploit the environment.
As was pointed out to me the other day, Bacon's philosophy is the most successful of all time. Is there a single state on the planet today that is not organised according to its principles? But deployed in a museum, it offers a view of history that conceals as much as it reveals. Have most humans, for most of history, thought of the goal of life like that at all? Is the fact that technology remained static for tens of thousands of years a reflection not of inefficiency or near-failure, but simply of a different philosophy of life? What would that be?
That struck me as a fascinating question, and I wondered what a museum of prehistory that tried to portray the stone age from the perspective of the stone age would be like. Anyone know one?
Friday, August 12 2011
By Mark Vernon on Friday, August 12 2011, 07:18 - In the news
After venturing a little on virtue yesterday, I saw that the Archbishop of Canterbury did the same in the rather more important forum of the House of Lords debate on the riots. He put things rather well, focusing on seizing the moment to refocus on the need for an education system that teaches excellence not instrumentality, which 'takes seriously the task of educating citizens - not consumers or cogs in an economic system, but citizens'. Some other key points:
... character involves not only an awareness of the connection between cause and effect in my own acts but a deepened sense of empathy with others and a deepened sense of our involvement together in a social project in which we all have to participate.
What we have seen is a breakdown not of society as such, but the breakdown of a sense of civic identity - shared identity and shared responsibility.
Then, noting the 'generous, sacrificial and imaginative' way that affected people have responded to the riots, he concludes:
People have discovered why community matters. They have discovered why solidarity is important. They have begun to discover those civic virtues that we have talked about in the abstract. In other words, this is a moment that we must seize; a moment when there is sufficient anger at the breakdown of civic solidarity; sufficient awareness of the resources that people have in helping and supporting one another; sufficient hope - in spite of everything - of what can be achieved.
Thursday, August 11 2011
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, August 11 2011, 09:19 - In the news
So the post-riot ideological battle lines are almost fixed.
In the blue corner, for it's broadly on the right, we have the family breakdown argument. The looting and violence is the predictable outcome of a deep forgetting in our society of the fifth commandment: honour your father and mother. Authority begins in the home. Liberal forces, or experiments, have emasculated it.
In the red corner, for it's broadly on the left, we have the culture of greed argument. We live in a smash and grab society, which politicians and bankers have exploited too, so who can now blame them if aspirational gangs and street opportunists join in? The riots are the predictable outcome of deep divisions in society.
It's an inevitable war, and another sign of an impotent politics that can't really do anything about family breakdown or runaway markets anyway, should either option be thought desirable. Further, and to isolate a more specific concern, it seems to me that the divide draws too on largely redundant conceptions of ethics. The blues are broadly deontological: enforcing 'thou shalt not' is their solution. The reds are broadly utilitarian: the greatest happiness is not being brought to the greatest number, but to an elite few. Neither, I think, can get to the real issues.
I feel a bit scholastic suggesting it - as another siren screams past my window - but a virtue ethics approach might offer something different. The analysis might work better if it's considered that relatively poor parts of society have lost much hope of the good life, and relatively wealthy parts of society have little love of the common good. There is little motive in either, therefore, to work on the habits and character that instills the social virtues we called Citizen Ethics.
To be frank, our project stopped just as the trickiest issue was becoming clearer. If the telos of life is not hedonistic consumption, not radical individualism, not serving markets and capital, then what fundamentally is it to flourish as a human person? Answers below the fold.
Actually, I'm sure such questions can't directly be answered. As in one's own life, so in society: any renewed vision of how to live well must gather, emerge, unfold - and probably only in conjunction with breakdown and pain. That's part of what it is to be all too human too.
Wednesday, August 10 2011
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, August 10 2011, 09:47 - In the news
The moment is arriving to try to understand what has been happening on the streets. It is complex, of course. However, as I listen to what experts and punters are trading, one concept strikes me as particularly useful. It’s the psychological phenomenon of group conscience.
The modern world teaches us that we are individuals. Autonomy and rights are the moral ideals that shape our age. But at best, that's only half the story. We are social animals, as Aristotle observed, meaning not that we like to socialise, but that our identity is primarily collective. My family, my gang, my team, my nation are where I feel most fully myself and we will go to extraordinary lengths to maintain that sense of belonging.
This is what group conscience protects and enforces. It keeps you in, even if that means keeping others out.
It can be likened to the way birds wheel and swirl in the air. The science suggests that they obey just one or two rules. Head for the centre. Mimic your neighbour. They are the rules of the group. We humans are driven by similar compulsions, as the psychologist Bert Hellinger explains. We long to know our place.
What, then, of the rioters? There is a lot of outraged comment about why youths don’t know the difference between right and wrong. But I warm to those who point out that this is necessary but by itself also misses the point. Like the birds, the looters are not primarily acting as self-autonomous individuals. They are copycats – doing what their mates are doing; doing what other gangs are doing. This also explains why the violence spreads, and why that is so alarmingly hard to control.
As journalists interview rioters, this is what you hear them say. ‘It was fun.’ ‘We show we can do what we want to.’ ‘It’s time for payback.’ These are collective sentiments. The morality these guys obey is that of the group. And unsettlingly, it can be half good as well as bad. Some of their values, it seems, are driven by a sense of rage and injustice. Others are driven by the culture of greed that opportunistically puts its hand in the till – a value embodied in many other groups too, it should be said.
In fact, we are all the same. The difference is that our groups probably follow values that are mostly, thankfully, pro-social. Group conscience has been heart-warmingly demonstrated by #RiotCleanUp: ‘It's a movement’ declares Dan Thompson, the organiser of the broom army. It has also been on display amongst the vigilantes seeking to protect their property – though they must be careful to monitor the rules they obey.
Heading for the centre and mimicking your neighbour are powerful urges that can lead anyone astray.
Tuesday, August 9 2011
By Mark Vernon on Tuesday, August 9 2011, 08:12 - In the news
Many philosophers have argued that society is a structure for containing human desire, viciousness and aggression. Freud adds a novel twist. He argues that society doesn't hold the aggression in check. Rather it introjects it back into the individual. Destructive desires are internalised. Most of the time we 'put into action against the ego the same harsh aggressiveness that the ego would have liked to satisfy upon other extraneous individuals.'
But it's a fragile setup. It holds for much of the time. But when upset, pent up aggression overspills, violence follows fast, and the structures of society that had seemed so strong dissolve like salt.
As my part of London effectively went into curfew last night, and we scanned blogs and exchanged texts to see how far the looting and arson had spread, the city felt like a case in point.