Category Archives: philosophy

Shorthand and (Stereo)typing

In the old days everything was simple.  Your social status was immediately obvious because your clothes, your accent, your demeanour, everything about you – all spoke of your position in society.  Though there was some level of social mobility, it would have been almost impossible to ‘pass’ as someone of a different social class, else there would have been no ‘Pygmalion’  – and even no ‘Educating Rita.’

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/pygmalion/summary.html

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0085478/plotsummary?ref_=tt_ov_pl

The advantage of this (if you want to see it so) was that it operated as a kind of shorthand.  You could tell at a glance who someone was and how you should treat them.  They could tell at a glance how to behave towards you; whether with deference or brusqueness, whether to give an order or hail you as a fellow.  It made life easier and more straightforward.  It also made it terrible.  It put people in strait-jackets; it consigned individuals to oblivion or slavery before they were born.

Even when I was growing up in the ‘sixties, three distinct social classes were still in operation.  It would not have been remotely funny for two Ronnies Corbett and one John Cleese to do the famous ‘I look up to him/I look down on him’ sketch if it had not expressed a visible truth.  (Women didn’t even figure in this scenario because they derived their social status from the men in their lives; any unmarried working women were either definitely working-class or else practically classless.)

But now we have thrown all this out in the name of equality.  I’m more than thankful for that, don’t get me wrong: the class system perpetuates privilege and injustice and ought to be abolished (insofar as it actually has been.)  But there’s a problem.  Because now that we have no shorthand telling us how to treat people, some of us are resorting to typing.  Stereotyping, that is.*  If you rely on appearances to judge the person in front of you, that’s called prejudice.  We seem as a society to be particularly bad at taking people as we find them.  We seem to need a kind of shorthand to help us with short-term encounters or first meetings.

*see what I did there?

Nowadays men know that they shouldn’t patronise women; white people are better-informed about how to treat ethnic minorities and I hope we are all much better at talking to people with disabilities.  This is not to say that prejudice doesn’t exist; of course it does, but we’re more clued up about it.  We have strategies – and in some contexts, laws – to deal with it.

The problem is that the progress towards equality has taken place – in this country at least – within the context of individualistic captalism.  We may all be equal, but we are all in competition with each other.  We live in a ‘me too!’ society where everyone wants to be at the top; and we deal with this by means of competitions.  Everything’s a competition now – just look at the TV schedules.

There must be a better way to do this.  I just don’t know what it is yet.

Kirk out

PS  Oh, and while I’m mentioning ‘Educating Rita’ I must recall a brief sojourn into the limelight by a friend.  He phoned into Dermot o’Leary’s show on radio 2 to protest at the amount of rap music he played, and was invited to come on the programme and choose one word to describe a song they had just played.  Words such as ‘bilge’, ‘offal’ and ‘dross’ received an outing: the item was called ‘Educating Peter’.

 

 

 

 

 

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What’s the Time, Mr Proust?

When I read Proust for the first time many years ago, after six volumes of incredibly lengthy sentences discussing ‘lost time’, the last two words of the work were so short that they hit me like a bullet between the eyes.  In time: these words seemed to sum up the entire work.  And having read it I don’t think we spend enough – er, time – thinking about time.

Time is a fascinating thing.  I don’t pretend to understand Einstein’s idea that there is no such thing as simultaneity: for one thing it’d make nonsense of songs such as ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix.’

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/By_the_Time_I_Get_to_Phoenix

The thing is, with ideas like Einstein’s I can get them on an abstract level, but I can’t translate it into my own experience.  What does it mean to say that by the time I get to Phoenix she won’t be rising; that the two events happen separately and are unconnected?  I can’t get my head around it.

Another phenomenon which I’m sure has a scientific explanation, is the way ideas fly away when you look directly at them.  For example.  I had many thoughts this morning of a stimulating (if not simultaneous) and inventive nature, but as soon as I came into the library with a fresh sheet of paper ready to work with them, they all flew away.  I think this is like Alice’s experience in the wool shop (if it was a wool shop) where the shelves seem crowded but as soon as she looks directly at one it’s empty, though all around they are as crowded as ever.

It was the wool shop:

The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things — but the oddest part of it all was that, whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite, empty, though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold.

This is surely familiar to anyone creative: you have a million ideas all crowding into your mind but as soon as you sit down with pen and paper and try to summon them up, they become terminally shy.  So it was with me this morning: I had several bright ideas and almost wrote them down; however they seemed to suggest that this would be premature, and that they needed to stew a little further, so I left them where they were.  And now that I’m in front of the computer, where are they?  Hiding, that’s where, and refusing to come out.  No doubt they will come out at the most inconvenient moment, say, three in the morning.

*sigh*

Another phenomenon I’ve observed (and I’m really not sure science has caught up with this one) is this.  You may be wrestling with any number of ailments or neuroses; and then you go away on holiday.  It’s as though this fact – the fact of your going away – takes the ailments by surprise; and for once you are able to shake them off and arrive at your holiday destination free and light-hearted.  This continues for a day or two; however, sooner or later the neuroses will wake up.  She’s gone! they say to each other, rousing themselves and packing their bags; then they set off, shading their eyes against the sun to see where you are.  You can spot them, black figures charging up the hill in ones and twos – but if you are on the watch you can pick them off one by one: or at least identify and store them to deal with at a later date.

Kirk out

 

 

 

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Trans Stuff

Yesterday being International Women’s Day, I went to a women’s event at Loughborough University.  It was quite a feat getting there as there was no signage at all: fortunately a couple of security guards who (though very politely) nearly ran me over, pointed me in the right direction.  The event was called ‘From Sex to Gender: a Biological and Cultural Journey’ and as usual with these things I was seeking some kind of enlightenment.  Or explanation.  Or whatever.

Did I get it?  Well, yes and no.  Any discussion, however waffly or fruitless, can move your thought-processes along if you let it – and this was unwaffly and sort of fruitful, if you think a tomato is a fruit.  OK I’m being abstruse.  Let’s get to it: there was a talk by a Professor (male), suggesting that gender is a spectrum and quoting a book called ‘The Five Sexes’ by Anne Fausto-Sterling:

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/j.2326-1951.1993.tb03081.x/abstract

The five are, apparently, ‘perfect’ male, ‘perfect’ female, ‘masculine female’ (me, probably) ‘feminine’ male (OH, in my view) and intersex.  Fine: I don’t have a problem with the idea that most people don’t fit entirely into neat boxes labelled ‘male’ and ‘female’.

So I don’t disagree that gender – ie what you are expected to be and do as a man or woman – is socially constructed.  So far so good.  But the second half of the event was a video by a trans woman claiming that sex is also socially constructed; in other words, that we can throw out biology – chromosomes, sexual organs, hormones, etc – as a determiner of sex.  Hmm.  She claims that transgender women are not biologically male; but I’m sceptical: in trans women (including her, incidentally) you can often see features which often occur only in males, such as a pronounced jawline or a tendency to put on weight round the middle rather than around the hips.  And that’s not even to touch on ethical issues such as trans women using the strength or power they had as a male to their advantage – retaining positions of power, winning cycle races – which is what Jenni Murray was getting at in her recent remarks:

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/mar/05/jenni-murray-transgender-not-real-women-sunday-times-magazine

While the video was long on what gender isn’t, it was very short on what gender actually is.  The idea seemed to be that you are what you say you are, or what you feel you are – and the rest can go hang.

I don’t buy it – and neither did some other people there – but when I tried to raise the issue of what gender actually is, it wasn’t dealt with.  And the problem I’m finding is not that some people have certain ideas, but that disagreement is difficult.  There’s an orthodoxy emerging: the facilitator of the discussion, though perfectly pleasant, was not open-minded; she had a view and seemed to be trying to convey that view as correct.  The idea seems to be that the rest of us should just accept unquestioningly what trans people say; and as a sceptic I’m not prepared to accept anything without question, no matter where it comes from or who says it.

The video was called ‘No, Transgender Women are not Biologically Male’ and you can find it here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWVRzGMVXbM

(unfortunately it’s one of those where all the pauses have been edited out, which I find makes it almost impossible to take in.)

In short, just because you can’t be precise about sex doesn’t mean we should just throw the whole thing out.  And debate ought never to be off the table.  We must have debate.

Kirk out

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A Plea for Respectful Debate

You may not recognise this guy, but you may have heard of Breitbart, a right-wing news site which he runs.  This guy is Milo Yiannopoulos, a Brit of Greek extraction who recently opined that trans people are a danger to women and children and a lot more besides.  My impression is that he is an immature self-publicist who says things mostly to shock; frankly I don’t want to give him any more time than I already have.  But it is an unfortunate fact that as far as trans people go, he and Germaine Greer are in the same camp, ie promoting disrespectful rather than respectful debate.  And I want to use this post as a plea for the latter; because we really need it.

There are things I decline to discuss.  I will not debate the question of whether women are equally intelligent to men; nor whether people have a right to be gay, nor whether people of other races are equal to ‘us’.  We’ve had these debates and come to a consensus; and if anyone hasn’t caught up, the arguments are all out there.  But the same cannot be said for transgender issues; and with the best will in the world, many people are genuinely baffled by this.  What does it mean to be transgender?  What are the options?  And crucially, where does it come from?  Is it, as some have suggested, a mental health problem or does the problem merely come from the prejudice of others?  If so, where does it come from?  We need to be free to ask these questions, else how can we come to an understanding?  It’s not good enough to say, as many have, that we just need to ‘accept it.’  I can’t accept something I don’t understand – at least, not fully.

What is clear to me is that previously you were defined at birth by your biology.  If you had female organs, you were female; if you had a penis, you were male.  End of – and any thoughts or feelings you might have to the contrary, had to just get into line.  Whereas now, it’s your thoughts and feelings that define you, and the body has to come into line, even if that means lopping bits of it off.

I’m not happy with either of these scenarios.  But I’m even more unhappy with the seeming impossibility of having any respectful debate on the subject, since I am often told that merely asking these questions is tantamount to denying the trans person’s right to exist.

Please comment.  But please comment respectfully.

Kirk out

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The Anti-Narnia

Far too much has been written about the over-commercialisation of Christmas.  People have been banging on about this ever since I can remember, but without success, for the phenomenon has now reached ridiculous lengths.  From the beginning of October I went through my Facebook news feed resolutely deleting everything that had a reference to Christmas and keeping it up until the actual beginning of Advent which this year fell on 30th November.  (Incidentally this reminds me of Nigel, the over-zealous curate in ‘Rev’ – can’t find the clip – who flounces into the office and announces ‘If I have to tell one more person it isn’t Christmas yet, it’s Advent, I shall go completely doo-lally!’)  I can’t remember exactly when the season of Christmas begins but I think it’s on Christmas Eve – and then it lasts, as the song says, twelve days after that.

But nowadays Christmas begins as soon as the summer holidays are over.  Barely is the harvest in; hardly have the children got their feet under a larger set of school desks, than the adverts begin.  You hear with dread the faint jingle of bells that announces the onset of yet another festive season; parents and teachers groan at the knowledge that they must deal with the children’s mounting excitement for another two and a half months before it can be discharged – and then the shopping begins.

Well – it seems to me that, with global warming, what we have here is the anti-Narnia.  The climate has changed so much; winters are now so much warmer than they were and Christmas so much longer, that we seem to be in a country that has fallen under the spell of some wicked wizard; a country where it’s Always Christmas and Never Winter.

I guess one advantage of not having money is that you can just ignore all the ads; the only offer I’ve been remotely tempted by is a subscription to Granta and sadly it’s too late to ask for that now.  Keep it simple is my philosophy: straightforward presents, not too many cards, and an easy Christmas meal without too many extras.  Enough food and wine to enjoy, presents under the tree and a few Xmas crackers – and I am content.

Would it were so easy to sort out global warming.  Then again, maybe it is: maybe if we apply the same criteria – cut out the extras, live more simply, have enough to enjoy and be content – we could find the answer.

Oh, and get me a subscription to Granta…

KO

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At Least You’ve Got An -ology!

Want to gain eternal life?  Want to live for billions of years and conquer the universe?  Want to understand the key to eternal verities?  Forget churches who just let you turn up and worship for free; forget the Bible and the Gita and all those other texts you can just read on the internet; forget meditation.  What you need to do is spend hundreds of thousands of pounds being ‘trained’, pummelled, bullied and harassed by a secretive organisation which will completely f*** your mind.  And then you’ll be so powerful, you can look in the camera with that intense and creepy expression Tom Cruise has, and everyone will just do whatever you want.

Yes, I have finally caught up with the latest Louis Theroux offering, ‘My Scientology Movie.’  Scientology is a ‘religion’ set up by sci-fi writer L Ron Hubbard and taken over, on his death, by David Miscavige.  Louis spent ten years trying to get Scientologists to talk to him and met a brick wall; so he turned to the only available source of information – lapsed, or perhaps we should rather say ‘escaped’, Scientologists.  And rather than just interviewing them, he came up with an ingenious method of trying to approximate what goes on on the organisation: he reconstructed it.  With the aid of Marty Rathbun, formerly one of David Miscavige’s top henchmen, he reconstructs a ‘training’ session where aspirants interview each other one-to-one and try to elicit an emotional response.  This response is measured by a lie-detector and the methods are brutal: the person interviewing Louis told him he was a rubbish film-maker whose wife didn’t love him and was probably having sex right now with someone else, maybe someone he thought was a friend.  Unsurprisingly this got an emotional response, leading to the increased heart-rate which is measured on the lie-detector.

In a horrible way you can almost see this working, like throwing someone in at the deep end might teach them to swim.  Then again, they might drown or suffer terrible trauma, especially as this ‘training’ continues until you no longer show a response, after which you go onto the next level (and pay more money).

The ideas of paying for enlightenment is, or ought to be, a red flag: anyone who makes a profit out of showing others ‘the way’ is not to be trusted.  Most yoga organisations charge for asana classes but not for meditation, and no church I’ve ever heard of would dream of charging people to attend (yes, I know a lot of them make a point of passing round the plate, but you can still walk out that door and give them nothing: salvation does not depend on donation.)

This was a dangerous film for Theroux to make: plenty of people warned him not to go there and while filming he was continually followed, harassed, filmed and at one point barred from driving down a public road which the Scientologists had illegally closed.  He also got a number of letters from their lawyers warning him to stop spreading ‘false information’ and his main witness, Marty Rathbun, backed out in the end after veiled threats to his foster-child.  Clearly these people will stop at very little to protect themselves; they are clever, rich and powerful; and unlike your typical gangster, they are subtle and intelligent.

It reminded me a little of something that happened to me way back in the ’80’s.  I was 24, recovering from a breakdown and quite vulnerable when I met a man called Barney.  He seemed pleasant enough, and besides was a member of CND so I had no reason to distrust him.  But we got chatting and he tried to get me to come to a meeting of something called EST where people were locked into a room and not allowed to go to the toilet, in order that they would overcome their inhibitions by urinating in front of other people.  This wikipedia article gives a fairly positive account of it but I didn’t want to know: however this guy would not give up.  I told him I couldn’t afford the training (I was on the dole and I think the sessions were about £50, a lot of money in the early ’80’s) thinking that would be a clinching argument.  Not a bit of it: he told me to borrow the money.  It’d be worth it, he said.  He kept on and on at me until in the end I got my parents to talk to him as I just couldn’t cope.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erhard_Seminars_Training

Here’s Louis talking about making the film:

and here is the film itself:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5111874/?ref_=nv_sr_1

Next on my list is ‘Going Clear,’ a film about Scientology with Tom Cruise.  Finally I understand that line of Cohen’s which so puzzled us as teenagers: ‘Did you ever go clear?’

(‘Famous Blue Raincoat’)

Kirk out

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Wrestling with LSE

Back in the days when my only outlet was my diary; before I had you, dear reader, I used to write a lot about how I was feeling.  It seemed self-obsessed but it was necessary; and as I now know it is necessary to all writers, to maintain that forensic examination of the inner world – at least those writers who write about the inner world as opposed to those, like Lee Child, who don’t.

It isn’t only our own inner world we obsess about.  We try to figure out what’s going on with others too, examining in minutest detail their every word and action and trying to figure out what’s behind it.  Before I understood these habits I tried to cure myself of them – and failed.  I tried because they took over my life, leaving me no time or energy to hold down a job or maintain any sort of normal life.  Nowadays, by contrast, I’ve given up the habit of normal life, resigned any attempt to fit in, and just tried to accept who I am.

It’s a process of coming out much like any other, I guess.  I know it doesn’t seem as risky as declaring your stoutness (sorry, gayness – a bit of ‘Not the Nine o’clock News’ got in there) because being a writer doesn’t carry the pariah status that homosexuality can.  But it feels like it.  When you’re used to hiding all your life because your real self has been ignored, criticised, shouted at, feared and hated, it feels like it.  Because people fear writers.  They fear you precisely because they don’t want you to see the things that you see.  And especially they don’t want you to write about the things that you see.

And this causes some problems.  Not being a bull-headed, egoistical, insensitive sort of soul, I am unable to do what some writers have and just drive a coach and horses through all the obstacles.  Instead I must pick my way through them like a wincing, barefoot bather picking her way across a stony beach.  Some of the stones are hard.  They pierce the skin and I bleed.

I’m not saying any of this because I want you to feel sorry for me.  I don’t, on the whole, feel sorry for myself: writing thrives on obstacles and if I hadn’t had this particular set of problems there would have been something else.  Plenty of people have it worse.  But what strikes me at the moment is the struggle with what, in my diaries, I used to call LSE.  I suffered from it so frequently that it was necessary to come up with an acronym for Low Self-Esteem – or ‘low self-steam’ as I put it in a recent poem.  I like both abbreviations.

So right now it seems to go like this; I get a good day and then a bad day.  On a bad day I wake up with inexplicable feelings of LSE.  On a bad night I wake up at four in the morning with inexplicable LSE.  It seems to come out of nowhere, and it won’t let me rest.  So I have to wrestle with it.

Kirk out

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