The (lost?) art of conversation

I have recently finished reading The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen – inspired by reading The Undivided Past by David Cannadine which was in turn inspired by hearing him on A Point of View.  Isn’t life path-dependent?  (Especially if that appeals to you and so you somewhat encourage it).

I would not claim to fully understand the book, despite considerable background reading in philosophy and economics over the years (and help from several episodes of In Our Time), but nevertheless I shall try and summarise a couple of his key thoughts.

Firstly, he is not a big fan of transcendental solutions while recognising the debt that he and others owe to earlier philosophers who used such ideas.  He would say that justice is not well served when someone tries to find a perfect solution to all of the issues and then seeks to implement it.  I’d certainly be inclined to go along with this: for a start, humans seem to struggle to implement something as simple as a largish IT project without making a complete (and very expensive) mess so solving the wider problems in society and the world does not seem likely.  I would also strongly suspect that people will not agree on a single “final solution” (a phrase with a very unpleasant history) – though many may be able to agree on smaller steps to take towards a better solution than the one we have today.

This brings us to his second big idea which is that to find these smaller steps we need to have reasoned public discussion.  This discussion needs to include voices from outside the local polity (whatever that may be) to avoid becoming trapped by parochial thinking.  In this way, Mr Sen hopes that we can identify and move towards a more just world – even when we don’t all agree about everything.  We can even do this with out unduly harming those who remain in reasonable disagreement.

Last night I had the pleasure of listening to the philosopher Angie Hobbs on Desert Island Discs.  Rather a fine choice of discs (which means her musical taste is not too dissimilar from mine), but more importantly some interesting thoughts on the importance of teaching philosophy to the young.  I have come to be fascinated by philosophy rather late in life, but Angie made the excellent point that it can help to foster critical thinking from a young age.  She (and I) wonder if young people equipped with such an ability would be in a stronger position to make better choices about their lives.  The young are not stupid, merely lack experience, but this does mean they can be relatively easily manipulated.  If our society appears to offer little to the young, I doubt knowledge of the 6 times table or the dates of the reign of Henry II offer much of a bulwark against those proposing an alternative to society – even if that alternative later leads to performing despicable acts in a local gang or a foreign war.

The media in all of its myriad modern forms could be front-and-centre in providing forums (or fora for any Ancient Romans reading) to host the reasoned discussion that seems so important to me.  However, what we find instead is the media playing host to incredibly narrow views which are defended against all comers with unreasoned venom.  Indeed, the need for “balance” seems to be used to actively promote this sort of this thought-free verbal conflict.  The current obsession of all political parties that every statement or thought must be on-message makes this even worse – narrowing the range of views that are visible still further and heaping abuse and opprobrium any who dare to move away from the rigidly enforced orthodoxy.  This means no-one in politics (and increasingly public life more broadly) intentionally says anything of any value.  Is it any wonder that people are disaffected with politics and are drawn towards the comforting fantasies offered by UKIP or the Greens?

The recent news – which despite my best attempts to avoid it seems to creep in through the interstices of life – has been particularly depressing in this regard.  The number of party leaders who stand around and “debate” seems far more important that what they debate or whether we will learn anything other than which of them are better at public speaking or remembering the details of their brief.  I have a pretty good memory and, as we have established, am more than willing to harangue a crowd: does this mean I should be running the country?  (Whilst there is usually no right answer in these situations, here I am willing to say that the correct answer is a resounding: NO).  I’m quite happy to have an absent-minded, bearded mumbler in charge if he (or she) were actually competent.  Sadly, our political system does seem to be stacked against a leader having any of these qualities: especially the last.

This week the news has been obsessed by a very expensive, but rather ineffective watch – really a watch that only lasts 18 hours under optimal conditions does seem rather a backward step for mankind even if it does save you from the intolerable burden of taking your phone out of your pocket.  Did the Calvinist Swiss strive in vain?

Today the obsession is with a man who may (or may not) have hit another man.  I hate to break it to the media, but men have been hitting other men since before we were men.  If we reported every such occurrence the entire available media bandwidth would be needed 24 hours a day.  I would agree men really shouldn’t hit each other – and that if they do, then some sort of response to such naughtiness is probably required.  However, if an accounts clerk hit a colleague it really wouldn’t be the lead story on the national news nor would all the accounts he had recently “clerked” by thrown away: he would be subject to some standard disciplinary action and the world would continue on its axis.  I also doubt that lines would be drawn in the sand with tens of thousands insisting on his right to deck his colleagues or insisting that he should be hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.  Really, if every time a buffoon who enjoys being a bit controversial (and don’t we all, especially if it generates a laugh without harming anyone else) loses his temper briefly and does something foolish the whole world and her spouse then project all of their frustrations into vitriolic attacks on each other it may be time to give another species the keys to the planet.  Even if the red squirrels or sea otters make a terrible mess of it, at least they will look cute while doing it!

OK, I’m painting things as rather more black than they actually are: a very dark shade of charcoal.  There are little pockets of reasoned debate where the determined member of the public can catch little glimpses of new ways of thinking about and understanding the important issues of the day.  I try and seek them out, but it is hard and time-consuming work: if only there were some way one could support these pockets and see them grow.  There are a few writers and philosophers who regularly add to the rather thin gruel of public debate – I don’t always agree with them (at least on first hearing), but am very grateful to have their input.  Having stumbled upon them, I try and listen to their work, buy their books etc but rather fear this is not enough in these austere times.  Would that one could sponsor an intellectual or have a Spotify for thought: perhaps having seen the lack, it is down to me to fix it: arghh!

My weakness

The title should not lead you to believe that the author imagines he has but a single weakness.  For a start, I have no reason to believe that I am any more immune to gunfire, “fire” fire or ionising radiation than the next mammal.  No, the title focuses on a single weakness in a vain attempt to keep this post to a manageable length.

The weakness in question is books.  For as long as I can remember, I have had a lot of books and a strong desire to have more.  While other crazes have come and gone, the near infinite variety of books has retained my interest for more than 40 years.  It is rare that I travel more than a mile from home without at least one book – indeed, I am far more likely to have a book than my mobile phone (which may say more about my age than my passion for literature).  With a book, you always have a friend and a source of entertainment at hand – and a bulwark against the howling void of your own undirected thoughts.  Never underestimate the importance of divertissement to the avoidance of a one-way trip to La Suisse.

The recent arrival of a branch of Foyles at Waterloo station is a dangerous development as any free time waiting for a train can (all too easily) result in a new book (or books) being acquired.  The latest such entry to my library was Into the Woods by John Yorke.  This explains how and why stories work and so may prove beneficial to this blog in due course.  It also invaded my life (as books so often do), firstly when watching The Code (a recent and excellent) Australian drama on BBC4) when I found myself analysing how much worse things had yet to become for our heroes.  This was relatively harmless, but I have also caught myself trying to apply its principles to my own life, e.g. trying to precipitate an inciting incident in order to launch the hero (i.e. me) on a new journey.

As I drew to the end of that book, I wandered to Waterstones in Southampton, seeking books – but with no particular targets in mind (not even a choice as to whether they would be fiction or non).  I came away with four books – and iron self-control was needed to keep it down to four!  All have proved to be excellent, and less than half of the fourth remains to be read.  They have all been informative and entertaining, but have also made my look anew at my life.

The Blind Giant by Nick Harkaway was picked as I had read and enjoyed his fiction.  A very interesting and well thought-out take on the digital world and our place in it.  My interactions with the digital world may shift in future – but don’t worry, GofaDM is going nowhere!

Deep Sea and Foreign Going by Rose George was chosen following last year’s winner of the Thinking Allowed prize for ethnography (about shipping) and given the fact that I now live in a container port.  A very interesting introduction into modern shipping and the container business.  When did any of us last think about the ships – and the (mostly) men that crew them – that bring most of the stuff we use?

Justice by Michael Sandel has already been mentioned in this blog.  I’d previously read his book on markets and have downloaded (but not yet listened to) his Reith Lectures from a few years back.  He really makes a chap think – and the book is also an excellent introduction to philosophy.

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos is a book about translation which sounded like an interesting topic.  So indeed it was, I now have rather more respect for the poor souls who have to subtitle films and TV shows – I will perhaps mock their efforts less in the future.

Sadly, there is only a little fish left in my ear and so more books have had to be sought (and indeed bought).  I have just started on The Undivided Past by David Cannadine, a chap introduced to me by A Point of View or BBC Radio 4.  It had started very strongly, so my hopes are high.  aPoV has also prompted me to download Adam Gopnik’s memoir of his time in Paris – a few eBooks are useful when travelling abroad with only hand luggage, though for me they aren’t going to replace the real thing any time soon.  A book needs no battery and its use during take-off and landing (the most important times to be distracted) is entirely unlimited.

It remains astounding to me that some pressed vegetable fibres covered in dark marks can take you to a different world and return you safely to this one.  However, you are often returned a changed man with new ideas, different ways of looking at the world and even a desire to change your life (hopefully for the better).  So, I plan on hanging on to this weakness for as long as I can – and to Hades with the storage issues!  Hooray for books!  (If only it were National Book Week – but I’m only a month or so late).

At last, an actual juxtaposition

It’s the moment for which we have all been waiting!  Without the aid of a safety net (ooh, aah), I will now introduce a real (and rather jarring) juxtaposition which just occurred to me.

Anyone who has been bored at an airport (which I presume is close to 100% of the airport-using population of the planet) will have wandered into an airport bookshop.  These usually offer a large display of books aimed at the businessman (or woman, but I suspect mostly man) with attention-grabbing titles.  All seem to promise rapid advancement in your chosen career (or to help you attain another one and then advance in that) by taking control of your own destiny.  This control is seized by taking the lessons extracted from previously successful business-folk and, if at all possible, linking these to some ancient oriental wisdom or military leader (or, ideally, both).  I always feel that the purchasers of such books are doomed to disappointment on two fairly obvious grounds.  Firstly, if anyone can learn these tricks for a mere £19.99 (or similar), then they are going to be pretty widely known and there is only so much room at the top of the greasy pole we are all supposed to be so assiduously ascending.  Secondly, the successful are often seduced by the idea that they are the author’s of their own success – rather than that they have risen (mostly) due to the operation of blind chance.  It is never wise to disrespect Fate – even at second hand – as she is known for her fondness for retribution.  As a result, I own no books purporting to tell me how to succeed in business – which may explain my lack of success or merely be an entirely unrelated fact (you, as they say, decide).  I may also have been somewhat inoculated against such works having once been employed by a much lauded company which subsequently went quite spectacularly bankrupt.  However, today the poverty of business thinking was brought rather forcibly to my attention.

This week, it would appear, “the man” has decided is Safety Week!  Luckily, I have made it unscathed through the last 51 danger weeks – and so could participate (via phone and screen) with the knuckle-biting launch event.  For this, some poor sap from HR felt it necessary to explain safety – something covered much better by my very first employer way back in 1987.  Apparently (and you will never have guessed this), but having zero accidents is a “good thing”.  It is also achievable: something which the Kent Constabulary gave the lie to while I was still at school.  When trying to teach we kids (yes, even I was once one) about road safety, they informed us that there had been one, real accident on the roads of Kent that year – in which a deer leapt out of a wood and directly into a car, sadly immolating both itself and the unfortunate driver.  It is hard to see any safety “culture” preventing this, without either exterminating all deer, raising all woods to the ground or banning the use of motor vehicles (or all three) – none of which are probably all that practical or desirable.  It is appalling hubris for any human endeavour to claim that it can eliminate all chance from existence (and I refer you to my previous thoughts on the dangers of tempting Fate).

Anyway, having established what safety is, the poor, benighted HR soul then tried to explain why we should value safety.  This seemed to include a muddled call on human rights, a nod to utilitarianism and quite a lot of vague waffle about economics.  In a normal day, this would only have been mildly irritating – but it came directly after reading Michel Sandel’s excellent book Justice.  Having covered the work of Aristotle, Bentham, Mill et al I had just finished a long chapter on the work of Immanuel Kant.  He put in a lot of the groundwork (which is a brilliant pun, but almost no-one will know why) to our ideas about universal human rights.  His work (at least as I have understood it) provides a very serious underpinning to how safety in the workplace is part of a moral life, but also why the approach taken by “the man” destroys this moral dimension by the introduction of heteronomy and the mandating of hypothetical imperatives.  The juxtaposition of the intellectual rigour of Kant and Sandel, and the neo-liberal hippyness from HR was particularly jarring and made the whole presentation unusually hard to bear (or take seriously).

I’m quite taken with Kant at the moment, but I’m about to move on to Rawls and all that could change.  This book is causing my opinions to shift on an almost page-by-page basis and is exposing the dreadfully muddled thinking (if any) that underlies most of my opinions.  Coupled with Melvin Bragg’s Theory of Ideas and the positive and negative freedoms of Isaiah Berlin (of which I had previously read), the philosophical parts of my mind are getting quite the work-out at the moment.  My opinions and views on almost all topics are thus in a state of terrible ferment or flux at present.  Hopefully, in another 120 pages or so they should start to settle down again, but I have no idea in what configuration this might be – which is rather exciting, but probably makes me ill-suited to a career in politics as it is currently practised.  Then again, we do seem to live in a society where certainty is significantly over-valued, so perhaps now is the time for me to make my move!

Nothing for a pair

…not in this game.  Where would the world of the catchphrase be without Brucie?  Do I have a catchphrase?  I suspect there are phrases that are heavily over-used in these posts, but I’m too much of a coward to check: unless anyone would care to notify me…

As some may have guessed, this is the post that no-one wants to see but I create as a way of (dolly) dealing with my sense of astonishment.  I have just received back my marked assignment on the art of Benin and my heart-rate has yet to return to normal.  This huge increase in heart rate occurs whenever an email arrives revealing my assignment has returned, marked – and then tends to become worse when I discover that I have once again fooled the Open University with a semblance of competence.  I don’t ever recall this happening at school or university – is this perhaps a normal feature of middle-age?  OK, just me then.  With each essay I grow less confident either that I am producing what is required or that I know what I’m doing.  I also become more frustrated that there is insufficient depth in the teaching materials provided to support my ambitious plans for my latest prose work.  It is often said that you learn through your mistakes and I am now becoming paranoid that I am making too few mistakes: I feel like I am fluking the entire course.  I realise that no-one else cares about my insecurity: the successful, like the thin (another camp into which I fall), receive very little sympathy for their plight.

Anyway, as the title implies (or, at least, will have led the better students to infer), my latest opus once again received 95 marks and some extremely kind comments from my tutor.  It would seem I have some future in art history (should I want it) and can construct a decent argument.  I suspect the remark about my tendency to use “elevated language” will strike a familiar chord in the hearts of readers of this blog, and may only partly be intended as a compliment.

This must all be very frustrating for you poor blog sufferers – to know that I can write half-decent prose, but never to see any examples.  Sadly, the rules of the OU prevent me: I already worry that students more generally are plagiarising this blog for their homework and failing courses as a result (and I really don’t have the mental capacity to process any more sources of guilt).  It is also quite frustrating for a chap trying to decide where to take his Arts foundation course next.  I had been leaning strongly towards philosophy, but now I’m wondering about including a bit of art and I’ve always been tempted by literature and classics.  The only issue about art or literature is that I’m (currently) a bit picky about the sort I’d like to study: basically the stuff in which I have an existing interest, but I suspect higher education doesn’t work quite like that.

I think, for the sake of variety, my next essay will be on the transmission of medical knowledge from the Islamic world to Western Europe.  Unusually, I am already full of ideas for this – which probably means it will be a disaster.  Quick doctor, bring me a leech…