Empathy in the year 2018

Just a few weeks ago, I read the provocatively-titled ‘Against Empathy’ by neuroscientist Paul Bloom. The book posits that empathising with others often leads to moral folly. Empathy, Bloom argues, is like a spotlight. It has a narrow focus. Everything caught in its beam is exaggerated; everything outside it is diminished.

The theory struck me as self-evident, for reasons that the internet illustrated yesterday, by foisting upon me some rather disturbing footage. It depicted a modern-day Biff Tannen pursuing some hapless Syrian refugee child across a field. The bully pinned his victim to the ground and, Guantanamo-style, poured bottled water into his mouth. I won’t share the footage, nor the names of those involved, but you don’t have to look very hard to find either.

Now, for as long as anyone cares to remember, children have been behaving dreadfully toward one another. But it’s only recently that they’ve acquired a means of sharing their barbarous exploits for the world to see. I, like most viewers, found the episode disturbing (and not-altogether unfamiliar). I felt sympathy for the victim, anger at the onlookers, and a desire to intervene by smothering the attacker’s eyes in strawberry jam and dropping a nest of angry wasps onto his head.

This video went mega-viral. Condemnation of the bully was universal, as was empathy with the stricken victim. Like the burning of the Grenfell effigy a few weeks earlier, this provided the prophets of Twitter with a chance to pontificate.

Big-name celebrities and journalists from across the political spectrum chipped in. Andrew Neil tweeted that the episode ‘shames the country’. Jeremy Vine invited his followers to give enough to the JustGiving fund to put the kid through university, open up a big company, and employ his bully to look after the car park.

I can see why this sort of convoluted revenge fantasy might appeal. Inarguably, it has a certain poetry to it. But I doubt that Vine has quite thought through that this might be possibly the most grotesque misallocation of resources imaginable.

And it’s this thought that brought to mind Bloom’s book. The problem with this empathic outpouring is that children whose beatings aren’t televised don’t have access to this level of public support. This is hardly the first video of a bullying incident to be published onto the internet. I saw another one just a few weeks ago, in which one kid punches another in the face. There was some minor online blustering, but not what you’d call a twitterstorm.

Of course, this more recent video is different. The level of violence on display, for a starters. Then there’s the racial dimension, for the victim is a brown-skinned immigrant and the bully in question is the epitome of knuckle-dragging white racism. And there’s the fact that this particular victim has had to flee a warzone only to be tormented by some tosser in Huddersfield.

Thus, this footage can form part of a narrative. It can confirm what you’ve always known about the Daily Mail, Nigel Farage, and Boris Johnson. And it’s proof, if proof is what you’re after, that without the civilising influence of Brussels, the British will surely revert to their natural savagery. There’s something about the way this all gets self-servingly spun into a political yarn that I really find quite revolting, but that’s the modern internet.

But at the same time, you can’t blame activists for trying to play with our empathy. Presented with a series of line graphs and tables demonstrating that the rainforests are indeed shrinking, most people will shrug. But a short animated film about an orangutan can spur millions to give up palm oil. All the correspondence I receive from charities reflects this: I don’t get homelessness statistics, but rather the personal story of a chap named Clive who’s been forced to sleep in his car for months on end.

If you want an idea of the specifics of the case, you can read them here. Pretty sobering reading. Now, however ardent our sympathy toward the victim(s), you’d be hard pressed to say that this is the most ethically sound way to spend £130,000. There is an opportunity cost to doing this, because every penny flung in his direction will be one that’s denied to some other worthy cause – namely providing less glamorous support for less photogenic suffering.

Advertisements

Why I’m voting to Leave the EU

Greetings, fellow humans!  I haven’t blogged in a while, but I’ve something to get off my chest.  What follows is the result of some considerable pondering.  I’ll try and be succinct.

I’m an internationalist.  Or at least, I’ve always thought of myself as one.  It’s my opinion that humans are at their best when they’re working together to achieve some mutually pleasing end – whether it’s trade, collaboration, or simply resisting the urge to maim one another.

I’m also a democrat.  Democracies are superior to autocracies.  They’re morally superior, for the simple reason that power is better than powerlessness.  But they also produce favourable results.  They’re more prosperous.  Their citizens are happier.  They don’t war with one another – though quite a few wars have been fought in order to establish and defend them.

In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a referendum approaching on our membership of the European Union.  I thought I’d make a point of researching the topic a little before deciding how to cast my vote.  I don’t expend much thought towards the EU, really.  It’s not something I’m often consulted on.

And that, it turns out, is precisely the point. This fledgling superstate is structured in order to minimise democracy.  Its mechanisms are as shielded from public scrutiny as it’s possible to be.  Look at this Wikipedia article on the European Commission and ask yourself whether you seriously think this is a good way of doing things.  The twenty-eight heads of state vote for a president.  This president helps to select a commission (usually comprising a handful of politicians who are tired of having to appease voters, and happy to appease other politicians).  This commission then wields legislative and executive power over five-hundred million people.

I’ve read Dan Hannan’s book, ‘Why Vote Leave’ recently, which makes this case far more eloquently, and in far greater detail than I ever could.  I also read Hugo Dixon’s ‘The In/Out Question’, which makes the case for a reformed EU, and, as you might have gathered, wasn’t anywhere near as persuasive.  At first my suspicion was that Hannan is simply a better writer than Dixon – but really he had the easier job.  The case isn’t a difficult one to make.  It’s not a left/right issue.  It doesn’t matter where you sit on the political spectrum.  Democracy is good; the EU is not designed with democracy in mind.

At the rear of Hannan’s book is a collection of quotes from prominent Eurocrats.  And this section is revealing indeed.  Anyone who thinks this organisation is about mutual co-operation between like-minded nations and not empire-building should examine the sort of people it promotes to high office.

“What is driving us is not to be re-elected,” reveals Dimitris Avramopoulos, the commissioner in charge of fucking up the migrant crisis and creating an enormous fucking mess.  “That’s why for us the political cost means nothing.”

Well, good for you, Dimitris.  Or should I say Emperor Palpatine.  “We need a political federation with the Commission as government,” says Vivianne Reding, another high-ranking sith. Well, maybe you should make that case to your electorate, Vivianne.

Are these the sorts of people we’d like to represent the interests of the continent? Darth Junker puts it in the plainest possible terms, “when it becomes serious you have to lie.”

Right you are then.  You might think that, in context, these quotes (and there are a lot of them) aren’t so bad.  You’re wrong.  They’re worse.  But they’re not a source of outrage for some.  Bizarrely, the sorts people who regard Westminster with hawkish suspicion seem to regard Brussels (and Strasbourg) with a sort of passive acceptance – or even reverence.  Lord knows why this is – perhaps it’s a sort of masochism which assumes that everything foreign must be benevolent.  Perhaps its idealism.  Or perhaps it’s because they perceive the Brussels to be more closely in tune with their personal politics than the current elected government in Westminster, and therefore likely to take the edge off the latter.

If you’re the sort of person who gets angry at the thought of the House of Lords being appointed, or who can’t contemplate the unfairness of a FPTP voting system without seeing spots, then I can’t imagine the moral and logical contortions you’d have to perform in order to defend this unholy freak show.  Even the most cursory examination reveals that it is predicated upon a contempt for democratic process.  Necessarily so, really; if the EU paused for a moment to consider what the people of Europe thought of it, it would probably collapse like a manatee stricken by existential doubt.  This organisation is immune to popular opinion, and is accountable to no-one.  Is it any real surprise that it behaves as it does?

In this interview, Yannis Varafakis describes the loan agreement he wouldn’t sign, which obliged the elected Greek government to agree to whatever the EU might in future impose upon it, and forbade them from passing any legislation without the EU’s permission.  I suppose I should take Greek willingness to remain within the EU as evidence of Stockholm syndrome.

Anyway, the campaign’s officially underway now.  So we can look forward to the procession of career politicians and EU-funded NGOs, all offering their entirely impartial endorsement of the EU. Soon even the President of the United States will pay these shores a visit, and – doubtless without a hint of irony – warn against any future declaration of independence.

That’s my best guess, anyway.  Don’t forget to vote.

WHILE YOU CAN.

Thoughts on Paris

Short one, because other, far more qualified and clever people have penned far more exhaustive and worthwhile comment on this subject than I ever could.  That said, you’re here now, so you might as well read what I have to say.

Even if you’re not in the habit of critiquing the world’s most peaceful monotheism, or of drawing images of its prophet, I should think that it’s no longer possible to believe that you’re safe from being targeted by its most bloody-minded practitioners. But then there have been hundreds of occasions over the past fifteen years where this epiphany should have been reached, and so if you’re not convinced by now, you probably never will be.

Something about Friday night’s appalling events did feel somehow different to those that have come before. The intended targets of this attack were not just fans of football, French cuisine and the Eagles of Death Metal. If you’ve ever been to a sports event, concert, or restaurant then you were among the intended targets of Friday’s display of insanity. Any of the people reading this could have been among those lined up and slaughtered like cattle. I read several status updates on Friday night that began: “Just got back from the gig and seen what happened…”

It just so happened that these people were attending a different venue to the one where the massacre took place. This time.

A terrifying thought. I suppose that’s the point of terrorism. So terrifying that many of us might now choose to avoid live music, restaurants and football matches in future, just as we’ve agreed to avoid drawing forbidden pictures and expressing forbidden thoughts about you-know-what. If our current trajectory plays out, perhaps in the future we’ll be so terrified that we avoid breathing, sleeping, and moving.

This terror manifests itself in other ways. Intellectual and moral cowardice are, as they always are after an atrocity like this one, in abundant evidence. This cowardice has many symptoms. You might have seen people approvingly (and selectively) quote 5:32 as proof of the benignity of Islamic teaching, but few such people then proceed to quote 5:33. Suffice to say, dishonesty about the tenets of the faith, or outright unabashed ignorance of them, is unlikely to help anyone. Least of all Muslims.

Others might prefer to pontificate about the inherent racism of border control, or of criticising scriptural barbarism, or of western foreign policy, or of stringed musical instruments. This preference, it seems to me, is driven almost entirely by cowardice. It’s easy to condemn racism. It’s easy to feel good about it. It’s easy to change your profile picture on Facebook, tweet a hashtag and sign an e-petition. This is not to say that easy things are not worthwhile, but they should not become a substitute for substantive soul-searching and discussion of the problem.

A whole barrel-load of questions must be pondered frankly and openly, without mudslinging, smears or silencing tactics. Among these are: Is ISIS’s interpretation of Islamic scripture a plausible one? What is it that draws people to join this anti-human, anti-fun organisation? Might allowing vast swathes of people carte-blanche entry into the Schengen area result in a few of them turning out to be religious terrorists – and do we have any way of distinguishing genuine refugees, economic migrants and undercover jihadists apart from one another?

These are not popular questions. They are unpopular because they are difficult. They require nuance, admissions of uncertainty, and expertise. They also are inherently likely to be divisive – which in one sense is precisely the opposite of what’s now required.

There are other questions which are less difficult, and yet still seem to be avoided anyway. For example: should people be allowed to say, think, draw, watch, eat and listen to whatever the fuck they want? I would suggest the answer is yes, and that this affirmation needs to be made far more widely and unapologetically.

My grandmother’s generation, having been on the receiving end of the Luftwaffe, understood the importance of solidarity in the face of enemy attack. And we must now reach the same understanding. To put it briefly: we need to stand up for our fucking values, and affirm our right to live freely, and not beneath the fascist boot of an insane theocracy. No-one else will do it for us.

Right, now it’s time to get on with actual work. Ciao.

Doubts about the time of contempt

The present state of politics gives me reason to be worried. Let me share with you all my doubts.

I write this at a time when a significant chunk of the political left seems to have adopted a form of Manicheanism.  Its adherents are defined by their fervent loathing of all things Tory. In such circles, conservatism has been branded a sort of disease, whose practitioners are worthy of ostracism and revulsion.

Disgust is a feeling which craves re-enforcement, which is why the disgusted seek out collaborators. This force will manifest later today in the centre of Manchester, as like-minded folk congregate to cheer denunciations of austerity.

Outliers of this process have used their time constructively, bellowing slogans like ‘tory scum’, holding aloft placards declaring ‘kill the rich’, and indiscriminately throwing eggs and spitting and conservative party delegates – whether they be journalists, Labour party members or even Labour party councillors. A man wearing an expensive crevette is worthy of an egg in the face, and a female attendee of any sort is worthy of the label ‘Tory whore’ (the fact that the woman in question here was there to defend women’s reproductive rights is by the by). And of course, there’s always a bit of rape-threatening.

Some will retort that, while these are all objectionable behaviours, they’re not quite as objectionable as the policies of the Conservative party. Which is a bit like me justifying my flatulence on the grounds that it isn’t as bad as sectarian violence – the former, for all its abundance, has yet to diminish the latter. And what about all the people who didn’t spit on anyone? Aren’t they deserving of a pat on the back?

One such idiot is the reliable Laurie Penny, who earlier in the year defended another idiot’s decision to bravely scrawl the words ‘fuck Tory scum’ across a war memorial. Penny’s attitude is typical: provided that the target is a Tory, all bets are off.

By the way, I can’t abide by such wonton use of the word ‘scum’. Scum is, by definition, disgusting. It’s a mass noun, like gravel, vermin, garbage, and faeces, which can’t be described according to its constituent individual parts. There is no individual Tory scum, there is only a gelatinous, malevolent whole – to be wiped away, lest it befoul the nation.

Whilst it’s true that every party has its fringe lunatics, I don’t recall any of this sort of thing being perpetrated by Tory activists in the build-up to Labour’s conference last week. You might think that the shrill whining of a few maladjusted pillocks is nothing to get agitated about. They’ll eventually get jobs working in a local branch of Lloyds TSB, start paying income tax and start voting Conservative. And yet still I worry.

Now, I voted Conservative last time. What can I say, I just despise disabled people and adore social stratification. The Labour party has yet to make a real attempt to dissuade me of these views. Indeed, they’ve seemed reticent to even make the attempt. Perhaps I, too, am irredeemable scum.

The Labour party has a problem reaching out. Let’s consider immigration. If vast swathes of the populace count immigration as one of their most pressing concerns, then a pressing concern it must be for any party that seeks to become elected. But no. The topic is a little bit too icky. Better instead to brand those concerned about immigration as somehow morally compromised. The sanctity of their minds has been cruelly impinged upon by the bigoted right-wing press (who must be regulated). Mention of the word ‘immigration’ in any sense but that of an economic and cultural boon has therefore been expunged from party rhetoric. UKIP, being the chief beneficiaries of this approach, are surely delighted.

Meanwhile George Osbourne used his speech to appeal to people who voted Labour last time. Osbourne is undoubtedly full of shit, but at least he’s attempting to appeal to people who don’t agree with him.

Just take a look at this:

“Do you know what the supporters of the new Labour leadership now call anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy, and the country living within its means?

“They call them Tories. Well, it’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right.”

As the NS’s George Eaton notes, this should terrify the living shit out of the Labour faithful – and the fact that it doesn’t speaks volumes.

Corbyn himself seems especially not-terrified. He’s taken a privately-financed train up to Manchester, where he’ll attend a meeting full of people who already agree with him. Which is a hobby of his. Frankie Boyle and Billy Brag will probably be there, spouting inane pieties to the converted, and revelling in their shared disgust at the Conservative party message.

Disgust can be a powerful moral intuition. And a quite useful one, too. It’s perfectly natural, for example, to be disgusted by an ever-expanding gulf between rich and poor – or with an economic policy which immiserates thousands. But it’s also perfectly natural to be disgusted by skin colour, sexual wantonness, or a disinclination to sing the national anthem. Clearly, disgust alone provides a pretty unreliable moral guideline.  Which is why any political movement which is wholly and unapologetically driven by moralised disgust is a very dangerous thing indeed.

The problem is that disgust feels good.  Disgust normally takes the form of a surge of righteous adrenalin. Perhaps you’ll slam your fist against the table as you bellow out a denunciation. It might not win hearts and minds, but dammit, being disgusted feels fucking fantastic. Of course, when the rant doesn’t persuade the disgusting people of their error, then, well – that’s just further proof of their despicableness.

There is one slight sliver of hope, here; I expect this whole movement to devour itself sometime before we’re all lined against a wall and shot in the head. Perhaps by then the Conservative party will find it in their hearts not to veer off to the right and establish the sort of Randian dystopia that the Labour party faithful imagine to already be in place. We can but hope.

Until next time

Fuck these stupid images

I’m getting a little bit pissed off with these wanky little images which currently infest social media. You know the sort. Here’s an example, courtesy of popular Facebook page The Anti-Media:

This one is typical in that it doesn’t bother with full sentences. I can see why. To write an idea down fully is to expose it to scrutiny. The sort which might reveal these particular ideas to be at best trivial and at worst ball-bustingly cretinous. The description attached to this image is even more concise.  It simply declares: ‘Hypocrisy.’

Look, I’m all for economy of words – but only in order to heighten clarity, not to reduce it. You’ll notice that in this case the subject has been omitted:

x colonises the whole world

x complains about immigrants

Solve for x (20 marks)

The reader can supply whatever ‘x’ they like, but I’m guessing we’re supposed to be clued-in by the Union Jack and a map of the world describing the historical extent of the British Empire. By writing in this way, everyone can be an erudite political thinker, with whom right-thinking people overwhelmingly agree. After all, if we just leave out the parts of an equivalence which prove it to be false, then there’s no reason to suppose it isn’t true. This is the internet equivalent of saying “women, eh?” and sipping your pale ale with an air of affected sagacity.

Who or what, pray, is guilty of both colonising half the world and complaining about immigrants? Is it “Britain”? Is it “The British Empire”? Is it “the British people”? Is it Dave Smith, a 34-year old plumber from High Wycombe, who thinks that immigration levels are just too damn high? How exactly do you square that with the time you partitioned India, Dave, you callous bastard?

What troubles me is the way this image invites us to lump vast swathes of people into one indivisible block. A human temptation, and an idiotic one. If you’d like an example of exactly why it’s idiotic, then you might consider the matter of trifle. Some British people like trifle; others detest it. Does that make British people guilty of hypocrisy on the matter of trifle? Do we like fucking trifle or don’t we?

My knowledge of history isn’t spectacular, but I see that this map was drawn prior to the American war for independence in the late eighteenth century. So not only are we supposed to reach concordance with one another, but with ancestors who have been dead for more than two-hundred years. Presumably this also makes us all giant hypocrites on the matter of slavery, gladiatorial combat and the shape of the fucking planet Earth.

I can think of one people who might be able to reach such a consensus, by the way – the fucking Borg. Say what you like about them – they aren’t hypocrites.

Until the next time,

Beef

Some thoughts on big gay cakes and #Ashers

The cake design

If you were to ask me what my two favourite things in the world are, I’d probably say freedom of expression, and delicious cake. This story brings the two subjects together so scrumptiously that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to yammer on about it.

First, some background. Some gay bloke approached a baker in Northern Ireland and asked him whether he’d bake a cake, bearing a picture of Bert and Ernie, along with a slogan promoting gay marriage.

The baker agreed, only – after some consideration, to change his mind. He said that it was against his religion, or some bullshit. Who cares why? All that matters is that he said he wasn’t going to bake the cake. Today, a judge in Northern Ireland decreed his decision to be unlawful.

Let’s leave the legal wrangling to those better qualified to wrangle about legalities, and concern ourselves with whether this decision was right or wrong. I think it’s wrong. Here’s why.

Let me first pin my colours to the mast. As most of you are doubtless aware, I am an atheist, and one who believes that gays should be allowed to marry one another. Moreover, I believe that Christianity is very silly indeed, and worthy of ridicule. Like every religion.

However.

However fervently I might support gay marriage, I am not about to impose this belief on anyone else. Least of all some baker in Northern Ireland. That would be somewhat illiberal of me, I think.

Here are a few sentences containing the word ‘should’.

People should be able to write, draw and say whatever they like. Conversely, they should also be free to not write, draw and say whatever they like. They should be able to do so in whatever medium they choose – including delightful frosted icing.

I have seen this controversy framed as one in which we liberals must make a compromise between the rights of the individual to free expression, and protecting minority groups from discrimination.

I fail to see any evidence that discrimination has occurred, here. No-one’s rights have been infringed. There is no such thing as the right to have a cake baked for you. If there is any party has been discriminated against, it is the bakery.

Of course, if the message on the cake had been slightly different, then this conversation would be different.* For example:

Now, it seems to me that there are some political messages so controversial that a baker should be entitled not to bake them onto a cake. Which poses a question.  Exactly who should arbitrate what constitutes a controversial political message? Is there anyone worthier of this job than the person baking the cake?

We can all think of political messages which we do not agree with. We can all – I would hope – think of some which we disagree with so strongly that we would never bake them into a cake. If someone were to ask me to write an article arguing that gay people should not be allowed to marry, I’d refuse (unless the money was really, really good). That such a decision should result in a lawsuit is laughable.  And terrifying.

Here’s the thing.  No-one is going to be persuaded of the merits of gay marriage using this sort of authoritarian bullying tactic. Simply decreeing certain opinions to be outside of some greater moral good, and therefore worthy of punishment, sounds quite like the worst sort of religious ‘persuasion’ to me.

*I am obviously not comparing gay marriage with Nazism or the Islamic State. I use them only to illustrate that there are things which most of us would refuse to bake into a cake – even if we had previously agreed to do so.

A few super-quick thoughts on the election

Okay, right, a few quick thoughts. The first being: that was a bit fucking brutal. I suppose the Labour Party now know how Brazil’s national football team felt last summer.  Actually, it was more like that bit in Game of Thrones where a viper violently disagrees with a mountain.

According to many leftists, the appropriate reaction to this incredible failure is for Labour to be more left wing. That seems quite insane, at least by Einstein’s definition. Of course, the mark of the true zealot is to have a worldview so entrenched that confounding evidence only re-enforces it. Aspiring Guardian columnists are already penning a million wanky columns explaining how best to win over the 2020 electorate – basically it involves not listening to a word they have to say.

When the electorate delivers the wrong result, the first instinct is to blame them for it. If only we could just remove them from the equation, our democracy would be a lot more sensible.  And if there’s another thing worse than the electorate, it’s the right-wing press. If only we could just bring THEM under control, eh?  If only.

Can I just pre-empt the inevitable moaning about Murdoch et al’s influence? That a crappy newspaper puts forward terrible reasons to support a particular party is not an argument against that party. It’s an argument against buying crappy newspapers. That Rupert Murdoch prefers one party over another does not necessarily follow that it is the wrong one. If Rupert Murdoch were to express a liking for strawberry ice cream, would you automatically stop eating strawberry ice cream? Of course not.   Strawberry is the best fucking flavor.

Most of the people who hoped, like me, for electoral reform, will end up disappointed. That won’t stop them from laughing at UKIP, though – who, despite having the third-highest share of the vote, have ended up with only one seat. But that’s alright, because they’re UKIP – a fringe party whose concerns can be glibly dismissed, because they’re all just so horrible.

Attempting to paint your political opponents as monsters – when they quite manifestly are not – wins no-one over. You will instead find them changing the subject. And then later voting Tory. Because people who vote Tory tend not to come out and pontificate about it. Especially, it seems, not to pollsters.