Tag Archives: chaos

Now I am ashamed to be British

My world view is broken, as finally and completely as the mirror I dropped that shattered into a thousand fragments each of which reflected back a splintered version of my shocked face as I gingerly attempted to gather them up without slicing the skin of my fingers.

I grew up believing that for all its faults (and it has many not least the blood drenched imperial past so beloved of the right wing) Britain had in the second half of the twentieth century come to stand as for a liberal, tolerant world view that was outward looking and inclusive. That it really did strive to ensure equality, fairness and justice for all. That vision of my country has been ripped up, trampled and spat on. Mirrors once broken, even if repaired, remain cracked and reflect a distorted view. In the eyes of the world and many of its bemused, dismayed and shocked citizens Britain is now broken as comprehensively as that mirror.

Birmingham this week has been brutal. Racist, xenophobic and disgusting speeches largely unchallenged by a supine, subservient and self-serving media. I remember Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968. Interestingly also delivered in Birmingham. It caused howls of outrage and his instant dismissal from the shadow cabinet. The conservative party leader at the time, Edward Heath stated “I dismissed Mr Powell because I believed his speech was inflammatory and liable to damage race relations. I am determined to do everything I can to prevent racial problems developing into civil strife… I don’t believe the great majority of the British people share Mr Powell’s way of putting his views in his speech.”

The Times newspaper declared it “an evil speech”, stating “This is the first time that a serious British politician has appealed to racial hatred in this direct way in our post war history.”
The Times response to equally nasty, if more subtle, incitement to hatred 48 years later is the feeble “May Takes Centre Stage in Appeal to Labour Voters”. Really? When did racist, xenophobic rhetoric become the centre ground of British Politics? I dare say if Edward Heath was alive today he’d be considered as unelectable as Jeremy Corbyn.

Powell’s speech was a more overt incitement to hatred but the vileness of the stuff Theresa May and Amber Rudd have been spouting is no less fascist, dangerous and incendiary. What happened to the 48% of people who voted remain? How can a 4% majority be overwhelming endorsement? A fair number (certainly more than 4%) of the Brexit camp was in favour of retaining membership of the EEC (the so called Norway option) and the concomitant commitment to freedom of movement. They, like the Remainers, have been airbrushed out. It was apparently always a  referendum on immigration and the people have spoken.  The hope that this is some kind of negotiating ploy for Brexit is rapidly receding over the horizon and we need to face the fact that Britain seems to have suffered a fascist coup. Not surprisingly the speech was applauded by Marine le Penn who is the current leader of the National Front in France.

Socrates (someone who knew a thing or two about Democracy) said “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.” Theresa May said “A citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere” – right now that sounds better than being British.

Words and what they mean

shep quote copy

Shep quoting Lao Tsu and Sartre

It is an interesting hypothesis that once all humans spoke the same language.  Or that at least all languages derived from one prehistoric mother tongue.

Noam Chomsky’s theory is that language is so unique to humans that it must have arisen suddenly as the result of a single chance mutation occurred in one individual on the order of 100,000 years ago, instantaneously installing the language faculty.  Nice idea but I’m sure it is wrong.  It is not impossible that some individuals were ahead of the game in inventing language (as Leonardo was with submarines and helicopters) but there’s a lot of truth in the phrase ‘an idea whose time has come’.   Noam Chomsky I feel overlooked a fundamental fact about human nature and we haven’t really changed that much in the last hundred thousand years which after all is a mere blink of the eye in evolutionary terms.   I’m sure that if one evening round the fire an individual had suddenly announced ‘Hey listen up people I’ve invented this amazing thing called spoken language’ covert glances would have been exchanged, temples touched and he or she would have found themselves the recipient of the Palaeolithic  equivalent of care in the community.

Language emerged so far back in human prehistory that the relevant developments have left no direct historical traces but I tend to think it probably evolved in response to changes in our social structures.  Writing arose from symbols and I suspect language arose from signs and sounds in some way.  Plato believed that language developed out of sheer practical necessity and like a lot of his ideas it has some merit!  The theory I like best is what is called the lying hypothesis.  E. H. Sturtevant argued that, since all real intentions or emotions get involuntarily expressed by gesture, look or sound, voluntary communication must have been invented for the purpose of lying or deceiving.  He proposed that the need to deceive and lie–to use language in contrast to reality for selfish ends– was the social prompting that got language started.  It also very neatly explains why human communication is so fundamentally different from that of other species.  Bees don’t tend to lie about where the pollen is then piss themselves laughing as half the hive shoots of in the wrong direction.

Our language centre sits in the left hemisphere of the brain, the one that categorises and orders and language also creates false separations and objectifications through its symbolizing power.   Modern languages, for example, employ the word “mind” to describe a thing dwelling independently in our bodies, as compared with the Sanskrit word, which means “working within,” involving an active embrace of sensation, perception, and cognition.  Words and the way we use them subtly shape our entire way of life, including the way we think.   The language we speak limits us to the modes of perception already inherent in that language.  The fact that language is only form and yet moulds everything goes to the core of what ideology is.  The use of words to shift perceptions, to induce a change of attitude has been exploited by politicians and advertisers probably since the Neolithic because it works on our dependence on language.  Once the door to language opened it became impossible to imagine what we were like without it.

I come back to the subject of chaos thinking and the fundamental difference between knowledge by description not knowledge by acquaintance.  The former is a function of our left brain, knowledge that is mediated, inferential and categorised, the latter a function of direct unmediated experience of the world.  This direct unmediated knowledge is an important part of our ability to question and to innovate both as individuals and as a species.

The knowledge sponge – chaos and order and why does a banana have two ends?

For me, one of the best things about being human is having an enquiring mind.   I have the sort of brain that reacts to knowledge as a sponge does to water, that is to say it sucks it up with enthusiasm. Of course to get at it you need an extraction system and the brain doesn’t necessarily take kindly to being wrung out over a bucket.   I imagine the inside of my head as an infinite library system in which is stored all the knowledge I’ve come across in my lifetime (and maybe in several previous ones for all I know – consciousness as a quantum state?).  When I want to remember something I picture the librarian dispatching a functionary on roller skates into the labyrinthine caves of racked information to find the bit I want and bring it back.  It works for me!   I learnt about the central nervous system at school and the names of the two types of receptors stuck – nicotinic and muscarinic – classified by me as the tobacco and wine responses, at the time I learnt this stuff at school my extracurricular activities were focussed around experimenting with these particular substances (I told you it works for me I didn’t say it works normally).

So my brain is a complex dynamics system within which small perturbations (thoughts, ideas, experiences) cause changes in the sequence of iterated functions (firing up of neurons) resulting in a state of chaos resulting in unlikely connections being made.   We’re back looking through the other side of the eye of the needle.

I believe we need to cultivate this chaos, however, we also need to control and categorise the results in order to make sense of them; to reduce them to something useful.  No good leaping out of the bath shouting ‘Eureka’ if by the time you’ve got to your desk you’ve forgotten what it was that was so brilliant.   I once woke up in the night with the realisation that I had had the most profound insight and quickly scribbled a few words so that I would not forget it.  In the morning I picked up my notepad and read ‘a banana has two ends’.   I raised this with my friend as we cycled to work and he gave me the sort of look that is the preserve of those who have known you a very long time and still like you and simply said ‘what were you smoking last night?’  That was the point in my life when I realised I was not Nobel Prize material, more Cheech and Chong than Einstein or Archimedes, they’d have written it down and it would still have been brilliant at breakfast time (actually that also goes for Cheech and Chong it would just have been a different kind of brilliant).

Any way the perturbation that sparked off this random scribbling was reading an insightful blog by Frausto about being labelled as a ‘Latino’ how that label is used to define him and at the same time limit him.    It struck me that this sad and limiting not only for the person being labelled but also for those doing the labelling.  We all do it to some degree and it must arise from the function of the left hemisphere of our brain to categorise the world.  Now that is a necessary part of being human and if it doesn’t get in the way of the bigger picture it does no harm and potentially quite a lot of good.  Categorising is an essential part of understanding the world.  What is wrong here is that the labelling has got in the way of the bigger picture.

I worry that this seems to be an increasing phenomenon not only in respect of the idiocy of defining people simply by their ethnic origin (if it’s even that rational) but also by an increasing dominance of classification as the driver of our civilisation.  We are making the component bits more important than the whole; Latino or Anglo more important than human.   This has profound implications for all of us; already the acquisition of knowledge by experience is being downgraded in value in favour of knowledge by description.  Skills are broken down into a series of tasks and systems replace judgment, people are regarded as resources and society becomes more fragmented, social mobility slows and reverses and the gap between rich and poor steadily widens.  Somehow we are becoming unable to embrace the bigger picture.  To reduce the world to mere order is to lose something essential that makes us fully human.  A society where there is no room for chaos thinking or appreciation of the bigger picture will not help humanity.

So equip your Glia’s with roller skates and get them busy in your brain there’s at least a 1,000 terabytes of data storage in there (the US library of Congress has about 10 terabytes) – make random connections and don’t accept the world is anything other than a place of unlimited possibilities.  It doesn’t matter what the box is labelled, look inside – you don’t know what you might find.

Also why does a banana have two ends?