BOOK REVIEW: Peter Brook on meaning and language

‘What we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence,’ Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in the conclusion to his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. That line would spark off logical positivism, a kind of scientific fundamentalism about language, claiming that if the phrase has no real-world correspondence, and that correspondence cannot be demonstrated, the phrase is meaningless.

Wittgenstein himself would go on to show the folly of this thinking and repudiate any of his own philosophy that contributed to this narrow, and rather stifled view of language. Peter Brook’s Tip of the Tongue: Reflections on Language and Meaning, makes no great philosophical or academic claims for itself, but it does drive home the futility of reducing language and communication to a fixed system.

In some of his earliest ‘reflections’ in the book, Brook examines the granular nature of each word in English. Like atoms, they may deceive us into thinking they are the smallest unit of meaning, but words themselves have multivalent resonances. Each word contains its own universe, potential pent tight and which can only be released in active use.

The concepts of ‘better’ and ‘worse’ are intrinsic to human life, says Brook, and they are also intrinsic to human language. Language emerged out of a need to communicate what actions were ‘good’ and what were ‘bad’ and eventually the gradients in between. Levels, the idea of being better or worse, exist within words too. There are better words and worse words for communicating a given thing, and there are levels of meaning. As Brook puts it: ‘… an endless scale of finer or coarser vibration, of finer or coarser meanings.’

Brook’s book reads like a conversational diary entry, or perhaps extended programme notes to a theatre production. There is no real thesis. These are ‘reflections’ after all, they are not meant to constitute a literary or academic theory. Some readers may find this baffling, a kind of directionless meandering thoughtfulness.

However, there’s some advantage in Brook’s relaxed, meditative tone. We are not being led towards some promise of resolution, as there is no question being asked, no demand being made upon the reader. We are simply allowed to join Brook in relishing the bewildering beauty of language, the subtlety of the very idea of meaning itself.

Brook’s work in both French and English informs this book throughout. He describes a flash of enlightenment when teaching actors performing in French how to ‘do’ Shakespeare the English way. The French actors appeared to be rushing the lines, and Brook instructed them to slow down the delivery, to relish each utterance the way Gielgud might have done. But this didn’t work, because – Eureka! – as a language French works completely different from English.  ‘I had failed to recognise that, if in English we speak in words, the french speak in thoughts.’ That is, French sentences contain a complete and ‘rapier sharp’ rendition of a lightning fast thought, and thoughts are essentially complete and too quick to capture in words. The ordinary Frenchman, speaks his words the way we might recite proverbs. The idea is formed perfectly in the mind, complete, before it is uttered. In English, contrastingly, and most notably in Shakespeare, we feel our way to the end of the sentence, we improvise as we go.

An actor’s task is obviously not to improvise his words as he goes, but the effect of the language is to convey the impression that that is what is happening. Shakespeare’s characters are so real to us because they speak in the same intuitive process as we do. Brook says the sense of the unexpected must exist in the actor’s mind, a sense of the meaning being open and alive.

Carrying on his meditations on the difference between French and English, Brook points to a common occurrence between speakers in each language – the speaker comes against a block and says ‘how do you say?’ What’s amusing about this, says Brook, is that the words are very often the same. However, certain words and phrases may share the same meaning, but as spoken in practice they carry very different undertones. The sense is the same, but the practical nuance of meaning is not exactly the same as their correspondence in each language.

The English phrase ‘I’m out of sorts’ corresponds to the French saying ‘I’m not on my plate’. They both have a similar meaning, but they carry with them different cultural resonances. He also uses the example of ‘Why’ vs ‘Pourquoi’. They are both the same in a practical sense but the French subtext is one of interrogation, an answer is expected. In the English usage, the dominant ‘y’ is left hanging, as if the question is by nature open.

To Brook’s delight, English is brilliantly anarchic, and can subsume Americanism and street slang and we are used to the idea that it is constantly changing. Brook says that the language of Villon and Rabelais shared this ramshackle nature with English, but during the Age of Reason, the Academie Francaise developed a rigorous system of curation, whereby new words are accepted or rejected, effectively by committee. In French, a word, any word, is the mot juste – self-contained and needing nothing other than itself to coney meaning. In English things are never so simple.

 

Another theme of the book is what theatre can teach us about human nature. For Brook, the ideal theatrical moment is one of a subtle, heart-stopping revelation, where the audience and actors are brought into one common experience. However, there are more instructive lessons that Brook garners from his lifetime in theatre.

Brook tells the story of a ‘68 theatre group, who, desperate to maintain the energy of change and renewal of that year’s dramatic social revolutions, moved to Geneva en masse and started their own company, one that would break away from the traditions of theatrical space, one which would create a moveable home.

The group designs a dome, a collapsable and flexible theatre, which can travel with them and which can give them the freedom to create their own boundaries of performance space. Brook recounts meeting these young revolutionaries, helping them put the finishing touches to their craftsmanship. After two years of fledgling work, the group had become close and creatively single-minded, having faced the challenges of their own limitations and the pressures of the new and unknown, together.

This group was the idealist, socialist collective, the same that was dreamed of by George Orwell, William Morris or Oscar Wilde. However, Brook asked them, now that they had built their flexible space, what do they plan to perform? The group were silenced by his inquiry. They had no clue. When Brook bumped into the leader of the group shortly after, he spoke of sad news. The initial challenge being overcome, the theatre group had splintered, and the dream was over.

The theatre troupe had put form before content, says Brook. They had become so engrossed in the practicalities of form, that they had neglected the very meaning of theatre itself, the art of storytelling. The story is a cautionary one, for revolutionaries, or for anyone wishing to create change and affect the culture. It’s not enough to innovate new forms or vernacular, or to solve practical challenges. You have to have a sense of meaning, a kind of spiritual purpose, to drive your action and to make it lasting and worthwhile.

This touches on something very prescient. Today we live with the innovations and political fall out from the 1960s. For decades now, children have grown up being taught to worship the glorious revolution, to aspire to be revolutionaries and to themselves make a stand for something. The problem is that ‘taking a stand’ has become an end in itself. Being a ‘changemaker’ is a sort of identity, rather than means to an end. No one thinks to ask what you are rebelling against and what you propose as an alternative. Style has usurped content. Today, all that matters is that you are ‘counter’; culture, in its highest and most humanist sense, doesn’t seem to matter.

 

The theatrical innovation for which Brook is known is now a kind of orthodoxy. Regarding the concept of the ‘empty space’, he says:

‘Emptiness is a starting point, not for its own sake, but to help discover each time what was really essential to support the richness of the actor’s words and presence.’

He acknowledges that today, the ‘battle has largely been won’, but he seems to be saying that preserving this empty space is getting harder and harder, regardless of how cluttered the stage is, or is not. Beckett, Chekhov and Shakespeare, says Brook, all built silence into their scripts; what was in between the lines was always more important than the words, which were merely stage directions for the accomplished actor. ‘Theatre exists,’ says Brook, ‘so that the unsaid can breathe and a quality of life can be sensed which gives a motive to the endless struggle.’ In other words, what makes it all fall together is what is not obvious, it can’t be found on the page, but it is found through the actor’s connection with the poetry.

Emptiness and silence are theatre’s greatest weapon, according to Brook, when a peculiar hush comes over the actor and the audience at once, something special and truly human occurs. Brook is somewhat mysterious here, but he seems to be suggesting that this capacity for creating space, emptiness and silence, is what can make theatre a genuinely unifying art.

Brook also addresses something very important for the modern artist in any arena – the challenge of being both relevant and truly rebellious at the same time. Artists do battle with their times, but in the same breath they must also embody their times and the traditions which have formed it.

Today we live in a paradoxical age where rebellion has become the orthodox. To ‘swim against the tide’ is in some sense to actually give in to the overwhelming currents of the age. Shock tactics, conceptual befuddlement and angry protest are simply what is expected. Craft is not what will get you recognised, but adopting an arch attitude will, and it will do so because it is now the familiar, it is what the audience knows. The challenge then, says Brook, is for the artist to truly understand the nature of his times, before he can begin to go against them and confront them.

Ours is an era of consumerism, technological bombardment and perpetual innovation. And yet, many artists seem to think that the prevailing status quo is characterised the bowler-hatted, pin-striped establishment bureaucrat. Much of the art that is considered rebellious, is really rebelling against an ancien regime that is long gone. For an artist to be truly challenging, they would have to confront not the old empire or the stuffy, grey-haired bourgeoisie of the 1950s cliche; they would have to take on the glossy, trendy technocrat, who has a large hip hop record collection and owns shares in multiple tech companies.

Protest has become naive, outrage has become glib, according to Brook. What was shocking and groundbreaking in 1967 is now banal and unsurprising. To be truly swimming against the tide, would be to offer solutions, to offer a world-view, to give people something positive and life-affirming when they leave the darkness of the theatre and enter the glare of the modern world. To do so, however, is to have oneself regarded with suspicion. The trend for deconstruction and anger is still in mid-stream, even as the traditions and customs that caused that trend have long been swept away.

‘A shock that awakens our indignation is cosy, and is quickly forgotten. A shock that opens us to the unknown is something else and makes us feeling stronger as we leave.’

For Brook, the mainstream must not be despised, even as the artist seeks to challenge it. As artists we emerge from a tradition, we don’t come out of nothing, no matter how unique we think we are. The challenge then, is to ‘find the vital currents’ even as we live in gratitude for all that has come before us. Only then can we avoid a merely adolescent rejection of the past and a unthinking worship of the new.

 

Brook says that Shakespeare’s genius was in combining the ‘esoteric’ with the ‘profane’. That is, for every moment of poetic grace and breathless insight into the human condition, there is an all too accurate expression of the every-day which brings us back to earth. For every moment of noble rhetoric, there is a crude joke. To emphasise one over the other is to lose the intrinsic significance and genius of the Bard. To play Shakespeare with only a perfect Queen’s English is overly-reverent; but to play him with only a modern swagger and vernacular is a ‘journalistic vulgarity.’

Brook says that contemporary audiences are right to pull back from anything that sounds too high-minded, too spiritual. However, to get caught up in only the earthly, materialistic struggles of human lives means one’s art will lack any of Shakespeare’s moments of lasting power.

Brook’s book is deceptively accessible. It is short, and it is not weighed down with citations, footnotes and references. It’s not an academic masterwork. It is however, deeply philosophical, in the sense of imparting wisdom, and rich with insight. You can dip into this book, and let the ideas and questions seep into your mind as you go for a long walk.

Someone who measures truth according to the level of new and surprising facts they are presented with, may well be disappointed by this book. However, for the jobbing artist, and in particular, anyone who is a performer, Brook’s writing here will be of invaluable, practical use.

Truth in the sense of literary and poetic truth, cannot be hit on the nose with specific words and precise descriptions. For the artist, truth is whatever falls through the cracks, whatever is implied, rather than what is said or pointed to directly. It cannot be any other way, because the great truths of the human condition transcend any one person or group’s experience, they are beyond the faculty of language in its evolutionary sense. If the reader is willing to abandon the idea that language should be a science, they may find themselves sharing in the same delight and wonder that Peter Brook has for the mystery of meaning.

Tip of the Tongue: Reflections on Language and Meaning is available on Amazon. You can order a copy here

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The REAL reason Jordan Peterson is so dangerous

David Foster Wallace in his 1990 essay E unibus pluram: television and US fiction, wrote that postmodern irony serves as a way of making us more at ease with our slavish attachments to the predictable cliches of visual culture, rather than helping us detach from it. As a result, a snotty, cynical attitude becomes a necessary part of the mass media culture, a way of feeling above the crowd, when we are merely absorbed by it.

Irony becomes an intellectual crutch, an end in itself, and culture comes to standstill. Foster Wallace admits that it was necessary for popular culture to break from the stifled past of precious and deceitful idealism. However, the same irony that deconstructed the suffocating lies of bourgeois conservatism, is now incapable of helping us create an alternative.

He said: ‘… irony, entertaining as it is, serves an exclusively negative function. It is critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.’

Foster Wallace goes on to say: ‘Anyone who has the gall to ask an ironist what he actually stand for ends up looking like a hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalised irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its content is tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.’

Some might contest that not all irony is destructive, that it can actually be a very positive and progressive force. They would be right, of course. But even Christopher Hitchens, that fiery apostle of irony, noted the difference between his preferred, nuanced and contemplative irony, and the hip, nihilistic sneering of the current age. In the opening words of his Letters to a Young Contrarian, Hitchens wrote that there are many ways that the independent mind is patronised and misrepresented out of existence and one of them is to be given the title of ‘contrarian’. However, there is a more subtle form of attack:

‘To be called “satirical” or “ironic” is now to be patronised in a different way. The satirist is the fast-talking cynic and the ironist merely sarcastic or self-conscious and wised-up. When a precious and irreplaceable word like “irony” has become a lazy synonym for anomie, there is scant room for originality.’

The ubiquity of the jibe and the desire to tear down, to lash out at any form of enthusiasm and deeply held values, with a cocksure tone of superiority, then, is not only damaging to the culture. It also gives ammunition to the philistines, to those who are already suspicious of culture and the arts. The result is an unholy alliance of the hipster nihilist and the overly-proud Trumpian ignoramus.

And most worryingly, the only thing held to be of any sacred importance, is the conviction that nothing is sacred or important at all, and to reach for a positive value system is to be hopelessly childish, or worse, reactionary and nostalgic for an age of unified cultural hegemony.

Douglas Murray stumbled upon this in his 2016 book The Strange Death Of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, when diagnosing European intellectuals’ fevered reluctance to cultivate positive values in the face of an academic critique. Reflecting on his attendance at a fruitless and arcane philosophy conference, Murray wrote:

‘If there remains any overriding idea, it is that ideas are a problem. If there is any remaining commonly held value judgement, it is that value judgements are wrong. If there remains any remaining certainty it is a distrust of certainty. And if this does not add up to a philosophy, it certainly adds up to an attitude: shallow, unlikely to survive any sustained onslaught, but easy enough to adopt.’

Even before the television age, this broken, suspicious and contemptuous superiority can be traced as far back as the early 20th century, when the poetic guns of Ezra Pound were turned on the cosseted cynicism of his peers:

‘O generation of the thoroughly smug
/and thoroughly uncomfortable,
/I have seen fishermen picnicking in the sun,
/I have seen them with untidy families,
/I have seen their smiles full of teeth/
and heard ungainly laughter.
/And I am happier than you are,
/And they were happier than I am;
/And the fish swim in the lake
/and do not even own clothing.’

Industrialisation had already disconnected Pound’s generation from the simple truth of crooked smiles and picnics in the sun. The pure dharma of a fish inhabiting his sea is lost on us, a generation of people born addicted to technology and convenience, sceptical of anything that reminds us of innocence and vulnerability.

This inherent distrust of meaning may be prevalent, essential even, in an age of mass communication, but it seems that Jordan Peterson, the now ubiquitous Jungian professor who for the last eighteen months has been telling us all to ‘tidy our rooms’ and ‘grow the hell up’, may have the escape route from this cycle of obedience and bafflement.

His new book 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos is at once merciless in its account of human frailty, and Romantically optimistic in its argument for living a wholesome, meaningful and dutiful life.

The foundation of Peterson’s synthesis of Jungian myth-reading and statistical psychology is his commitment to the idea that hierarchies are essential to life. Not only are they fundamental to our natural environment, but also our nervous systems are hard-wired to systems of dominance.

His use of the example of the lobster is much satirised but it comes from a hard science world-view, demonstrating that our neurological reward systems are evolutionarily linked to survival within dominance hierarchies. Lobsters, like humans, respond to status, and their brains release serotonin in a similar way to our own brains. When a lobster wins a fight, he becomes more brazen in his challenges of other lobsters. If he loses a fight, he becomes less prone to risking conflict. The difference is in serotonin levels.

The chemical induces a response, whereby the lobster becomes more erect, more courageous in exposing his vulnerabilities. Serotonin makes the lobster’s nervous system begin to predict success, rather than avoid failure. Peterson’s point is that a chemical used in modern anti-depression treatment, has the exact same effect on creatures from whom we departed evolutionarily over three million years ago. And just like humans recovering from depression, the lobster’s nervous system on serotonin creates a feedback loop for success.

This connection between humans and lobsters has profound implications for the way we see depression. Peterson shows that depression, rather than being a disease, like cancer or tuberculosis, is more like a psychological trap. The experience of failure, disposes us to expect more failure, and the experience of disappointment and fear means we fall quickly down the dominance hierarchy. Like the lobster, we start to slouch, and we begin to see hiding away from conflict as a guarantee of survival, as opposed to adopting a stance of readiness to fight, like the lobster whose serotonin disposes him to expect victory over his peers.

So not only are dominance hierarchies a fact of life, they are intimately linked to our experience of happiness and success. We will be happier the more status we enjoy. We can adapt ourselves to greater chances of fulfilment and success, if we reverse the negative psychological loops that drag us down into depressive thinking and the expectation of failure. Lobsters who have placed themselves lower down the dominance hierarchy can be made to act like dominant creatures when artificially given doses of serotonin. They become more erect, displaying the stance of dominance to their peers, and thus creating more of a chance of beating challengers.

Peterson’s critics accuse him of trying to use science to argue for a fatalistic view of injustice. However, Peterson is a scientist, and he demonstrates a nuanced understanding of evolution, as opposed to a ‘might-is right’, Victorian social-Darwinist view of human life. Nature, says Peterson, is neither romantic nor definitively cruel. It is both beautiful and destructive, and inequalities and suffering are as much a part of life as stunning sunsets or the mystery of childbirth.

Environments are not static. They too change, and some aspects of nature evolve more dynamically than others. The basic morphology of arms and hands stays the same but the actual length and shape of bones may change faster. Weather may change but climate stays the same. Evolution, says Peterson, ‘is chaos, within order, within chaos, within higher order.’ The old Victorian ideal of there being some clean, identifiable type of organism that will always survive, whose attributes lead to ever-increasing fitness to environment, is a myth. There is no template specified by the world, to which we are always moving towards. The templates themselves always change. All creatures are in a dance with nature. No one standing still will survive.

The way we have evolved to handle this flux between chaos and order is through the development of ‘culture’. Again, this is where Peterson comes up against his critics. Culture is not opposed to nature, he insists, but part of it.

‘There is little more natural than culture,’ write Peterson. ‘Dominance hierarchies are older than trees.’

This is important because many of the claims of modern activism and post-modernism are grounded in the idea that power is held unjustly as a product of oppression – whether it is the patriarchy, capitalism or some other conspiracy. For Peterson, dominance hierarchies are what create inequalities, and if we are to contend with them, we must first accept them as part of life.

He is not, as some have claimed, saying we should capitulate to existing hierarchies, or accept inequality as a given in all instances. Rather, that trying to fix cultural and biological problems through heavy-handed political solutions and ideological projects, is at best doomed, and at worst a highway to hell.

So rather than being some apologist for oppression, Peterson is at pains to insist that the only way to avoid the negative low-status loops of depression, and to avoid draining our our nervous systems of serotonin, is to reverse the chemical chain reaction. It is not the existence of hierarchies that is the problem, but our inability to face up to the facts of life, which causes depression. Just as negative loops are created by small events which lead to a cumulative experience of failure and low-self-esteem, so too can small, positive actions create positive feedback loops.

To be on the bottom of the dominance hierarchy, is to be in a constant state of reactivity. There are more threats, therefore serotonin is not very desirable. It is safer to hide, rather than be brave. 

Things can malfunction. Even when someone is relatively high in the hierarchy, the natural counters to chaos can go off, if certain key things are out of whack. This is why routine is so important. Without it, we live in a constant state of stress. Peterson says that when treating clients for depression, the first two things he asks about are sleep and eating. Without taking these into consideration first, depression, he says, is almost untreatable. The point is to manage mental healing, according to the way our nervous system actually works. Small steps like mastering sleep patterns and eating nutritional meals won’t make anxiety and depression disappear, but they can kick-start the nervous system into adapting itself for success. But we can’t do that if we are constantly blaming others, or raging against society as if it were a ‘rigged system’.

Peterson talks about agoraphobics, alcoholics and depressives as examples of people caught in a ‘positive feedback loop’ related to the parts of the brain associated with dominance and status. Alcohol may act as a counter to the negativity associated with low serotonin and low status, but the withdrawls become increasingly worse, meaning the alcoholic is caught in a loop of dependency to get that hit that counters to the feelings of low status. 

People who experience acute fear, may experience bursts of anxiety. This can then be triggered by the same situations where that fear was first experienced. The association then becomes more ingrained, so that eventually any instance of uncertainty can cause acute panic. The anxiety feeds on itself, so that the self shrinks and the dangerous world becomes ever larger. This is agoraphobia. Our anxiety systems tell us that anything we previously ran from must be dangerous. Anxiety creates more anxiety. Breathing becomes faster and shallower, and this leads to more fear, which just creates more anxiety. 

Depression makes us isolated and separated from friends and family. This makes us more useless and robs them of confidence, and then they become even more isolated and divorced from loved ones. It’s a vicious cycle. 

This is also the case with people who are bullied. They become more slouched and make less eye contact, meaning they become more likely to be bullied. The slide down the dominance hierarchy is fast and slick, once the positive feedback loop has been initiated. 

People who have gone through some experience that makes them wary of aggression may find it hard to release such emotions. This can make them more susceptible to bullying and tyrannical behaviour. Peterson says, ironically, that demonstrating a capacity for aggression makes it increasingly unlikely that you will have to use it. Failing to do so, makes you more likely to become a victim of it. 

Peterson says that in treating clients who believe that being harmless is the best way to survive, he invites them to see the link between their harmlessness and their resentments. It is only by admitting to and looking at their resentments that they are able to see what needs to be done to redress imbalances in their lives. Peterson also translates this to society-wide problems. Bureaucracies and tyrannies feed off people’s submission, the act of going along to get along. This creates festering resentment which can often become cruel and pathological. For Peterson, the only way to avoid this is for the individual to confront their resentments and stand up for themselves, and not allow such resentments to embed themselves. 

It is therefore necessary that we stand up for ourselves, show our teeth, and maintain strong boundaries. If we do not, we sink into a personal hell, but we are also contributing to the hell of those around us.

As much as all of this relates to Peterson’s clinical practice, it also helps us understand his politics. If we allow ourselves to fall into negative, reactive loops, then of course culture is going to appear to us oppressive, and our experiences will continue to confirm this. It is essential, according to Peterson, that we break this loop; not just for our own psychological health, but the for the health of culture and society as a whole. His admonitions about ‘taking responsibility’ or ‘tidying your room’, despite becoming memes and cliches in their own right, are actually grounded in a pragmatic view of how a healthy individual can build his or her relationship with their environment, with society, and with ‘Being’ itself.

Peterson can come off overly traditional. The sceptical mind may see the sense in what he is saying, but still feel resistant to the idea of ‘sucking it up’ and buying the apparent proposition that only conformism and traditional virtues are the key to a fulfilled life. However, beneath the apparent conformist orientation of Peterson’s idea of psychological health and society, there is something thrillingly subversive. We don’t ‘stand up straight with our shoulders back’ because he is telling us to. We do so because it empowers us, it puts us back in the existential cockpit. The message of responsibility that is much talked about in explaining Peterson’s appeal, is also a message of liberation.

We don’t eat good food because lifestyle columnists tell us to. We don’t stick to daily routines because we get brownie points from our elders or our peers. We do these things because they actually free us from being at the mercy of external forces, whether they are cultural, psychological or political.

That status and human happiness are intimately linked throws light on the high levels of depression in our consumerist culture. Feelings of despair and meaninglessness seem to be exacerbated by the dominant values of the contemporary economy, which encourages an almost pathological obsession with material success, gossip and self-esteem based on constant social comparison. 

A further offshoot from Peterson’s understanding of dominance hierarchies and the way serotonin creates feedback loops around failure and victory, is his insistence that we can only develop ourselves if we compare ourselves to who were in the past, rather than everyone else around us. We need our internal critic, because we need some standards in order to live a meaningful life. We need to be able to tell ourselves that some behaviours are preferable to others. However, as a clinical psychologist, Peterson recognises the dangers of this voice, and the role it can play in maintaining negative spirals towards nihilism and depression.

Comparing ourselves to unrealistic templates of success, or to peers whose lives bear no resemblance to the challenges of our own, can only make matters worse. This critical comparison is a recipe for serotonin drainage. However, realistic and nuanced comparisons are healthy, and can be motivating. It is this subtle difference between realistic and unrealistic standards of success and fulfilment, that seems to underpin Peterson’s concept of psychological health.

The effect of internet connectivity and mass media on our dominance hierarchy is extensive. Peterson notes that in the past a decent amount of talent might have propelled someone to the top of their local dominance hierarchy, and the path to further elevation for other competitors would have been relative clear. Today however, Peterson says, ‘our hierarchies of accomplishment are now dizzyingly vertical.’ Meaning, the competition for top dog in any sphere is now almost impossible to penetrate.

A good example of this can be found in the music industry. The best guitar player in a provincial city may be the biggest fish in a small pond, but this exceptional talent is no guarantee of industry success. Not even close. There is simply too much competition, to the point where talent becomes almost irrelevant. A traditional idea of success in the music industry can no longer be a sustainable ideal for anyone choosing to live this life. The rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of limos and large hotel suites and long world tours filled with sex and luxurious decadence, just doesn’t happen anymore. The market is saturated and the demand is lower. The same is true for many other models of success across various industries.

The upshot of this is that most of us are destined to live near the very bottom of our dominance hierarchies, unless we alter our concept of what success is, and we start to judge success according to alternative metrics. One way of dealing with this, would be to adopt a cynical defensiveness, to subject the culture as a whole to a resentful and withering critique, and thus to sustain one’s psychological integrity through a manageable nihilism. This is close to what David Foster Wallace was warning us about in 1990. Sarcasm, paranoia and treating human relationships as if they are nothing but power plays, is the mark of this world view, and it appears to be the dominant tone of popular culture.

Another way of dealing with this challenge, one which has also gained a lot of sway in the prevailing culture, is the simplistic ‘positive thinking’ of new age spirituality. Peterson notes that delusional thinking was actually recommended for a time by professional social psychologists, given the fact that dominance hierarchies were becoming ever more vertical and difficult to ascend.

Peterson’s view is that we must reject the delusional wish-fulfilment of the new agers, as it means living our lives under a fog of lies. This can only lead to even greater levels of disillusionment and despair, and as a result is dangerous to society as a whole. However, being cynical about the very possibility of living a meaningful life, is no better, and no closer to truth. Peterson says, ‘Talking yourself into irrelevance is not a profound critique of Being. It’s a cheap trick of the rational mind.’

Neither of these half-baked solutions actually protects us from the downward spirals of negative feedback loops and depression. Peterson’s view is that we should actively embrace suffering. We must be mercilessly realistic with ourselves, before we can carve out a meaningful life. We must acknowledge the fact that life is often miserable and terrifying, and that we ourselves are prone to laziness and self-deception. Given these brutal facts of life, we can actually start to make a progress of sorts, we can see that small improvements, rather than perfectionist accomplishments, are more sustainable.

Peterson can often come off as deeply grim and pessimistic. However, his insistence that we face the suffering of human life is actually inspiring. Seeing the world this way frees us from black and white thinking about success and failure, and leaves us free to define our own ideal of success, and therefore to be in charge of what makes our lives meaningful. Instead of getting lost in outdated ideas of success and comparing ourselves to others, Peterson urges us to:

‘Dare, instead, to be dangerous. Dare to be truthful. Dare to articulate yourself, and express (or at least become aware of) what would really justify your life.’

Peterson takes this insight much further than success advice, however. He believes this  critical distinction between realistic and perfectionist ideas of success, is at the heart of difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. The Old Testament God is a wide abstraction from the experience of dominance hierarchies. He is a terrifying judge, and he dishes out cosmic punishments and rewards. The New Testament God, however, as embodied in the ideal of Christ, is an abstraction of every individual’s choice to ‘live voluntarily.’

According to Peterson, this is the spirit of the West; a movement from top down commandments, towards nurturing the desire to do good because it is the most likely way of creating happiness on earth. The ideal found in Christ is a positive vision of the individual, someone who is not merely obedient, but who chooses good actively, because they have the breadth of vision to know it is the right thing in the long run, even in the light their own selfishness and moral limitations.

Peterson’s genius here is in uniting a knowledge of biological dominance hierarchies and Christian ethics. Even better, the resulting synthesis is supremely pragmatic and manages to be both scarily realist in its view of human nature, while also being life-affirming. We do not shy away from the inner critic, the voice which connects us to our evolutionary hierarchies. However, neither do we frame our lives as zero-sum games. We see our daily job as one of careful progress, rather than wholesale dominance, and thus we learn to find a deep meaning and self-respect in the small incremental victories we gain over the inevitable hardships of our lives. We can become resilient in the face of disaster, and competent when faced with chaos. Even death itself, viewed from this perspective, can bring a heightened sense of the beauty of our tiny lives.

xxx

The notion of sacrifice is intrinsic to Peterson’s view of personal development. The myths of Abraham and Christ, for Peterson, have deep evolutionary significance. The idea of sacrifice is intimately linked to the ‘discovery of the future’. That is, delaying sensual gratification in the present for survival in the future, is something that distinguishes humans, and allows us to main dominance in the evolutionary chain. On a tribal level too, delayed gratification is the necessary in the formation of what we now call ‘society’.

Biblical myths of sacrifice, for Peterson, demonstrate a cultural evolution in the understanding that I might delay my own needs being satisfied in the immediate present, so that my family, my tribe, and my nation, might survive in the long terms. The Adam and Eve story, Abraham’s call to kill his own son, and the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ of God’s son going to the cross, are all ways of dramatically articulating the importance of delayed gratification in the cultural evolution of humanity.

However, understanding sacrifice as merely bargaining with God would be too reductionist. Peterson is at his most insightful and penetrating in the discussion of the myth of Cain and Abel. Both these biblical brothers offer sincere sacrifices to God, but only one is favoured: Abel. Cain becomes resentful, enraged at not being given his due, and murderous of his own hero, Abel, who for an unknown reason is the object of God’s love.

It is better to please God, to offer sacrifice, rather than to indulge ourselves. For Peterson this is the pre-conceptual, emerging awareness that satisfaction of the sense is not always the best option, that it is worth the pay-off to take a hit now, for survival and happiness in the years to come. Some may argue, as Sam Harris does, that such interpretations of otherwise very brutal and primitive stories is too convenient. That there is no real method of measuring the veracity of such speculations, other than that they sound good.

However, there is evolutionary insight here. It is better to delay gratification, but as with the Cain and Abel story, this is no guarantee of utopian deliverance. God may always disappoint us. And thus we easily descend into war and bitterness, jealousy and rage. And for Peterson, it is this psychological insight, though played out in extreme and violent stories, that is important. Cain does everything right. He loves his brother, his hero, and he loves God. But when he doesn’t get what he feels he deserves, when he feels that the very real sacrifices he made are being punished, rather than rewarded, he murders his brother, tearing down his highest ideal, as a way of getting revenge on God.

Peterson points to the writings of school shooters and well-known psychopaths, to drive home his point. He quotes Eric Harris, the Columbine killer, whose last entries in his diary were curiously human, chillingly familiar in the contemplation of his own fragility, and in the one-pointed obsession with revenge. What’s common among these bloodthirsty killers is a distaste for Being itself, a desire to inflict punishment on the innocent, merely for existing. Such evil manifests, in Peterson’s words, ‘to protest the intolerable vagaries of Being.’ It’s one thing to undergo suffering, but to be subject of conscious, determined cruelty and malevolence can damage people for life. It was the sense that Cain was punished for his virtues that drove him to murderous rage.

Peterson’s claims about this phenomenon may not be decisive. His wisdom is built on experience as a clinician, but not a complete scientific proof. Nevertheless, if we are honest with ourselves there is something terrifyingly resonant with this account of human evil. We claim not to be able to understand psychotic killers, school shooters and fanatical terrorists, but we understand them perfectly at the deepest level. We know the rage and fury that arises from the punishment of our virtues, from the arbitrariness of tragedy in the face of our most well-meaning and sincere sacrifices. When the best part of ourselves is met with contempt, ridicule or worse, indifference, we become mad. And if we undergo deliberate abuse by a loved one, it does not take much for us let go of our moral sense, and unleash a desire for revenge on God, or existence itself.

Peterson quotes Jung in saying that, ‘No tree can grow to heaven, unless its roots reach down to hell.’ Only when we explore the depths of our own malice, rage, resentment and capacity for evil, can we really make a sacrifice deep enough and large enough to counteract the suffering brought about by human evil. And it is this understanding of psychological development, that undergirds Peterson’s fascinating analysis of the story of Jesus Christ.

Unlike Cain, Jesus did not give into the temptations of the Devil. Peterson gives a psychological exposition of the ‘forty days and forty nights’ Christ spent in the desert. First the Lord is tempted to use his power to turn rocks into bread. Secondly, Satan urges him to throw himself off a cliff, and if he is the son of God, surely he will be saved by his divine father? Thirdly, Satan shows him the nations of the earth, which could be subject to Christ’s own supreme power, if only he chose to wield it. All of these sacrifices show Christ choosing to live well, to adopt a correct mentality towards life, rather than seeking immediate gratification.

Cain is contrasted with Christ. Cain descends into the wilderness of the soul. He feels exploited and oppressed. He gives into the temptations of the Devil and nurses a malice and rage against life itself, and plots revenge on God. Christ, on the other hand, goes into the desert for real, willingly, for 40 days and nights. Enough to really know the truth of himself and his fragility as a man. Jesus confronted his own gluttony, selfishness and desire for power, and only in doing so was he able to understand humanity’s capacity for sin.

It is only in our confrontation with evil, in owning our own ability to be jealous, greedy and lustful of earthly power, that we can hope to live well. Once we realise that we too have the same potential for evil as an Auschwitz guard or a school shooter, can we have the knowledge necessary to rise above the cycles of revenge and Machiavellian struggle that hold human beings in bondage and lead them into the depths of psychological hell.

For Peterson, Christ’s death on the cross is a symbol of a massive shift in cultural consciousness, an actual leap in evolution for humanity. It is the pre-conceptual understanding that it is better to live well, than to merely satisfy our desires in the present; and at the same time, that this right attitude, must be maintained in the face of the worst suffering. A failure to demonstrate this resilience in the face of despair and the temptations of power, leads us down the path of Cain, of resentment and rage.

What’s important here, is that Peterson is offering an unflinching view of intrinsic human evil, while rehabilitating our once commonly held belief in our own ability to transcend this ‘original sin’. There are some extremely learned and detailed digressions in Peterson’s book, on the critique of modernity by both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. Both authors knew that the scientific refutation of Christianity’s metaphysical claims to fact, were bound to leave a vacuum in human civilisation. For Peterson, the great anxiety of our time is that in losing this framework for God, we lose the very thing that gave rise to scientific knowledge and human progress in the first place: the obligation to live for the the future, by sacrificing the now.

Peterson defines living meaningfully as ‘the development of character in the face of suffering.’ He says:

‘Expedience is the following of blind impulse. It’s short-term gain. It’s narrow, and selfish. It lies to get its way. It takes nothing into account. It’s immature and irresponsible. Meaning is its mature replacement. Meaning emerges when impulses are regulated, organised and unified. Meaning emerges between the interplay of the possibilities of the world and the value structure operating within that world. If the value structure is aimed at the betterment of Being, the meaning revealed will be life-sustaining. It will provide the antidote for chaos and suffering. It will make everything matter. It will make everything better.’

Many of the atheistic bent will remain determined to dismiss Peterson’s expositions of the gospels and mythical tradition, as unfalsifiable and arbitrary. However, Peterson is not just resuscitating the ideals of sacrifice and religious ethics, merely to make YouTube videos that make people feel better about themselves. If anything, his videos and interviews can be quite brutal in their insistence on the pervasiveness of human evil. He offers, however, both a connection to the past, and a way forward for people to maintain their own psychological integrity in the face of their own bitterness and resentment.

To adopt a new-age view of our own potential, or to fall into political ideology, is to be utopian and disingenuous about the human condition. However, to fall back on the crutch of hopelessness and cynicism about life and our place within it, is to open ourselves up to equally dangerous totalitarianisms. Peterson’s middle path is one of careful, realistic psychological progress in the face of undeniable suffering and the often arbitrary nature of tragedy. Cleaning our rooms, maintaining a schedule, living life in the service of a higher purpose that transcends sensual pleasure, these are the tiny rituals that stand between human fragility and violent hell. In a word, it is the act of giving life meaning, that saves us from turning descendinging into self-destruction.

xxx

 

David Foster Wallace saw no relief in the digitalisation of culture, from the captive passivity of image obsession, and the corresponding irony and sneering superiority that comes with it. We cling to postmodernism, to the fracturing of truth, because it serves a purpose, it helps us to feel aloof and detached, while we subconsciously give ourselves over to enraptured attention. Nothing about social media would have surprised Foster Wallace.

He speculated that the writers of the future might return to sincerity and reverence, away from nihilistic posturing, towards a sentimental naivety, open to accusations of anachronism and conservatism. Such accusations could be, and increasingly are, thrown at Peterson by postmodernists and atheist reductionists alike. For someone whose career is firmly based on the YouTube platform, his message is very much the antithesis of the values that dominate visual culture.

There’s something thrilling about Peterson’s call to ‘be dangerous’. It is not his wars against political correctness that make him a threat. Nor his merciless emphasis on humanity’s capacity for evil. Both of these are inconvenient to the wider agendas of the mass media. Peterson’s often surly and barbed pessimism is never going to sell Pepsi or beauty products. However, it is not these battles that make him such a threat to the dominant narratives of our time. It is, rather, his single-handed rehabilitation of meaning.

Peterson is often asked why he is popular. Why has this dry, rambling and frequently grave professor struck a chord with the young, and particularly young men? His answer is usually to say that young people secretly crave responsibility, because responsibility makes life meaningful, and gives them a reason to get up in the morning.

This is true, but perhaps it is not the whole story. Maybe the reason is that his revitalised conception of a meaningful life offers us an alternative to the nihilistic sarcasm and naive suggestibility that go hand in hand with popular culture. The person who lives meaningfully, who has chosen to take responsibility for their own capacity for evil and to live well in the face of such a terrifying fact, is almost immune to ideological suggestion and psychic manipulation.

For a long time, the most expedient way of guaranteeing one’s own resilience in the face of propaganda or consumer agendas, was cynicism. This explains the seductiveness of postmodernism. Now that this very cynicism and fracturing of truth threatens to become a kind of tyranny in itself, Peterson is offering a remarkably strong and simple alternative way of maintaining personal integrity.

Living meaningfully is to be truly self-dependent. We ‘volunteer’ our own suffering, we become the source of our own inspired purpose. Peterson puts great stock in the hero myth, whether it is Christ, Horus or Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The hero descends into darkness and discovers truth. The truth reinvigorates the nation state, replenishes the land. Unlike Joseph Campbell, however, there’s no easy fix for self-esteem here, no reassuring slogan such as ‘follow your bliss’. Rather, we make ourselves heros by resolving to make small, incremental steps towards the best possible scenario we can envision for our lives, and we do it knowing that tragedy and despair are inevitable and in fact part of the deal.

Peterson’s message puts us in mind of Blake’s Jerusalem:

‘Bring me my Bow of burning gold;

Bring me my Arrows of desire:

Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
\

Bring me my Chariot of fire!

 

I will not cease from Mental Fight,

Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:

Till we have built Jerusalem,

In Englands green & pleasant Land.’

An individual who resolves to become the source of their own sense of purpose and meaning, secured by discipline and honesty with his or herself, becomes impervious to suggestion, whether it is ideological manipulation, political demagoguery or consumer advertising. In a culture that is contemptuous of human will, and which equates freedom with self-indulgence, no message could be more thrillingly dangerous.

Kazuo Ishiguro and Bob Dylan: Two Nobel traditions

Kazuo Ishiguro’s debut novel Artist In The Floating World is a beautifully crafted story of Japanese culture immediately after World War Two. It tells the story of an ageing painter whose own suspect memory has blinded him to his own forgotten war crimes. The novel explores the limits of personal memory, and shows the dangerous flaws in the way we construct our own self-image.

When it was announced that Ishiguro was the new Nobel Prize winner for literature, it was tempting for me to unleash a critique. Still smarting from the ruthless and ignorant anti-Dylan responses to the songwriter’s prize last year, I wanted to fight back.

I wanted to fight back against the the repressed writers and Faber customers who themselves felt affronted by Dylan getting the prize.

Ishiguro’s prize marks a return to consensus, a return to the safe, clipped and codified view of literature. Artist In The Floating World has much to say about our own lack of objectivity about ourselves, as well as a culture’s view of itself. It is indeed the debut novel of a brilliant craftsman, a writer fully deserving of a Nobel Prize.

However, this same questioning of objectivity in the novel represents a subtext of arrogance, a novelistic delusion about what can be deemed certain and uncertain. It is the same arrogance that is found in broadsheet newspapers or BBC interviewers. It is the same self-aggrandisement that exists in the editorial pages of the New York Times.

By giving Ishiguro the Nobel prize, the Swedish Academy is re-narrowing the frame of the Overton Window, eliminating the subjective, eliminating the imagination, and salvaging a quasi-Newtonian pseudo-objectivity that is the only security blanket of the academic class.

Ishiguro’s first novel characterises this world view. By a calm and ironic dismantling of subjectivity, it is effectively affirming the post-modern cynicism of the age. The crimes of the twentieth century, we are being told, are the product of inflated self-image, of histrionic grandeur. Far better to return to an artistic palette of positivist blandness, lest we veer into superstitious folk-Romanticism.

The reaction to Dylan’s Nobel Prize revived a centuries-old disagreement about the nature of literature; between what Robert Graves called the ‘Bardic tradition’ and the ‘folk tradition.’

For all their sophisticated meters and systems of prosody, the Bardic poets were always propagandists. Not just for immediate campaigns and wars, but also for the overall world-view of the moment. The court poet’s job is to crystallise and entrench the king’s worldview into the cultural norm.

The folk poets by their nature were less refined in forms and meters, and they were outright dangerous to the political consensus. It was for this reason that Elizabeth I outlawed unlicensed ballad singing. After printing presses started to dominate the folk tradition, oral transmission became even more of a threat, as centralised printers could now distinguish between the ‘real’ versions of songs, the ‘wrong’, or oral versions of ballads.

This propagandist’s distinction existed for the fledgling newspaper industry as much as it did for the established art of ballad-mongering.

Dylan’s art emerges out of the latter tradition. As a result it has more in common with the idea of literature in the Romantics, the Beats, Blake and the many unknown, unofficial geniuses of the ballad tradition.
The crucial line of distinction between official and unofficial runs down this divide between those who see the subjective as valid, and those who do not.

The Faber&Faber, puritan positivism of the pro-Ishiguro, anti-Dylan camp, is the view of those who attack subjective superstitions, in order to salvage a reassuring objectivity. This objectivity, it must be said, doesn’t even exist in the most rigorous of scientific laboratories. However, it has become the refuge of educated elites, who wish to bolster their own status with claims to special insight.

The art of the subjective, beautifully exemplified in the work of Bob Dylan, has no need for this reassurance. As the poet says, ‘when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.’ There is no investment in objectivity, in consensus, in a fixed frame of cultural reference.

An artist like Dylan is far more interested in a man’s flawed recollection of events, than the objective truth about those events. In fact, the very term ‘flawed recollection’ is meaningless. It doesn’t matter if it’s the product of a misremembered mistake of perception or not. What matters is the virtue and quality of the story, the positive drive of the narrative and the emotive response it evokes. The notion of objectivity, which is a kind of obsession for the Faber&Faber types, is merely a distraction for the Romantic poet.

This commitment to the primacy of imagination over objective fact, is often dismissed as a kind of primitive laziness. It’s not ‘real literature’ because it does not affirm the God-like authority of a world of facts. A post-modern deconstruction of the imaginative subjective, amounts to nothing more than the inverse of this lust for authority. Behind both the post-modernist and the Bardic authoritarian, lies a desire for the cosmic daddy-figure.

The folk tradition doesn’t recognise either. That is why far more is said about perception, recollection and flawed memory in Dylan’s Tangled Up In Blue, than is ever said in Artist In The Floating World. The latter is a guilty, cynical examination of the idea of cultural authority and personal objectivity. The former is joyful, Dante-like journey into the mysteries of memory, shared experiences and the mysteries of the imagination.

The many praise-filled opinion pieces about Dylan’s Nobel Prize should not fool us into thinking that his art has indeed been welcomed into the realm of ‘proper’ literature. The gatekeepers of the Bardic elite have manifested their backlash in Ishiguro’s award.

 

 

Why ideas matter in a mechanised culture

An idea is the opposite of automatic thinking.

Human beings are clearly more than just higher order apes, and it is our capacity for ideas that helps us rise above the purely instinctual. Ideas are the opposite of inevitability.

The easiest place to see this is in our sexuality. Human sexuality has become so much more sophisticated than procreative instinct. It certainly emerges out of whatever imperatives exist in our biology, but the diversity and confusion, the whole range of sub-cultures from fashion photography to the nudes of Rubens, all the way up to the decadence of Oscar Wilde through to modern transsexuality, reveal that much more is going on than just a quest for survival.

There is something essential about being human that doesn’t fit into a simple reduction to the procreative instinct. There is something unique and beautiful about human beings that marks us out from the instinctual world completely.

Ideas are what create the space between our instinctual imperatives, and our free choices in the world. To create this space, an idea doesn’t need to be philosophical, or literary, or even conceived in language at all. An idea is simply that which stops us being prisoners of inevitability.

Great works of beauty, sweet melodies and even the heartfelt intimacy of a truly loving kiss, all these are forms of ideas, because they convey something to us that stops our instincts in their tracks.

Ideas don’t matter because they perform a function. They are not practical or utilitarian. Ideas matter because they take us out of the trap of automatic, reactive thinking, out of our programming.

To do this, an idea doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. It doesn’t need to be new, it just needs to be fresh, to create that space between you and your instincts. There is no way of preconceiving what such a thing might look like. The only way you can tell a powerful idea from a bad one, or from a lack of ideas completely, is whether or not it frees you from automatic thinking.

When George Orwell wrote Politics and the English Language, warning of the way political language degrades public dialogue and therefore human potential, he was not being a grammar nazi. Neither was he, as some have mistakenly thought, asking for constant originality in language. All language is a product of other language, just as all culture is a product of yet more culture.

Orwell’s concern in avoiding cliche was not about avoiding what had already been done, so much as avoiding anything that narrowed the scope of human thought, that trained the human mind to reduce the possibilities of individual potential.

Orwell’s project was to encourage fresh thinking, a way of using language that was the opposite of propaganda, or reactive, ideological behaviour.

Advertisers and PR managers and political spin doctors are heavily invested in automatic thinking. Orwell could see the dangers posed in an industrialised society, to language use, critical thinking and private agency – all the things he presumably thought democracy and egalitarianism were supposed to promote.

Today, Orwell’s fears are playing out for us, but not in the fascist nightmare of 1984. Rather, they are being manifest in the erosion of private reason, narrowing the space between our sense of who we are, and our instinctual and automatic biological programming.

Some may respond by saying, ‘of course ideas matter, you are not saying anything new’. But most probably what they mean by ‘ideas’ is just ‘clever solutions’. Ideas have been reduced to problem solving. What is generally meant by a ‘good idea’ in this sense is something like the Iphone, or the Uber taxi app or Elon Musk’s Tesla cars.

These are indeed the products and examples of good ideas, but they don’t embody the whole of what a good idea can be.

Far more powerful examples of ‘good ideas’ are Magna Carta, democratic sovereignty, or the truths conveyed in the famous soliloquy of Hamlet.

These are not necessarily ‘solutions’ in the local, technical sense of helping one get from A to B while overcoming an obstacle. They don’t necessarily offer mind-blowing answers, either.

Magna Carta was a revolutionary idea because it conceived of the state and justice system as more than the mere limbs of sovereign power. In Magna Carta we have the first instance of a state’s power being there to protect the people from the whims of a king, rather than just consolidating the entitlements of that office. This puts a space between the society, and its leader’s personal ambition.

Human instincts and biological programming seem to suggest hierarchies will always be the product of human relationship. Magna Carta marked a shift in human society by freeing us from that inevitability. Human civilisation stopped being the product of instinct, and became a way of distancing ourselves from it.

The dangers of a technologically driven society are that automation becomes not just function the culture, but the desirable end of it. Technology helps us satisfy our basic needs in constantly revolutionary ways. However, we forget that a great part of human progress is not just the fulfilment of our desires, but our ability to be free from them.

Ideas are not a form of technology. They are ways in which we create space between our evolutionary needs and our higher-order culture. If human life was about survival only, we would not have created religious culture, democratic societies and any heritage of beauty and art. We would not be obsessed with making a meaningful life, only a long one.

The dogma of the day is that humans are merely sophisticated apes, and our programming is so strong that we are bound to destroy ourselves; the cruel irony of our survival instincts being that they conflict with each other, and our desire for survival leads to a desire for power, which leads to a desire to destroy.

This view of human nature fits conveniently into the ideology of technology, because it means that a culture of automation is not foreign to us, it’s not troubling or dangerous, because our whole instinct is towards automation and complex problem solving. Technology is just the advancement of our instincts by other means.

Viewing ideas and civilisation in the way being laid out here, however, disturbs the convenience and comfort of this modern ideology.

The aim of human life is not to fulfil our animal needs, but to rise above them. Instinct and survival programming are strong, but this is not the complete picture of what humanity is, or is capable of.

Consumerism, technological thinking, marketing, Public Relations and political propaganda, are all mechanisms of automatic thinking. They are the enemies of ideas. So it follows that much of what we call modern culture is also the enemy of ideas. Much of what we see in the public sphere, from textureless glass-box buildings to monotonous popular music and simplistic debate in online media, reflect this anti-idea culture.

The way to fight this, is to insists on creative thinking, in constantly refreshing our capacity for ideas, clearing a space between our instinctual programming and our dreams for ourselves and each other. Technology is great, only if it is matched with equally strident experimentation and advancement in ideas.

If technology advances faster than our capacity for ideas, or worse, if it actively erodes our ability to develop them, then the Darwinist nihilists will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. We fight this by resisting automation, inevitability and capitulation to instinct. This resistance is the secret behind the achievements of Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Steve Jobs. It’s also the secret to becoming a truly free human.

 

Sovereignty and the EU: Some thoughts on constitutional values

Sovereignty is about more than just power. It is the agency and moral purpose of a culture.

Just as a human being needs a sense of meaning to survive, nations and societies need a sense of sovereignty to survive. And if we are to feel safe and flourish within a stable community, we all need to be part of a nation or a society.

Some associate the word ‘sovereignty’ with the ‘divine right of kings’, or with tyrannical rule, or they look at society and say that any idea of a common purpose must be a myth, a propaganda tool for the many vested interests that exploit the needs and desires of the common people.

There is no doubt that sovereignty has been used for these purposes throughout the centuries, and vested interests continue to make a mockery of the idea of a common social purpose and meaning. But the existence of transgressions against an ideal does not render that ideal empty and immoral.

Part of the reason we know that the Iraq war was wrong, or that the 2008 crash was a violation of social values, is because these things failed to live up to a sense of common duty about what our society means and should be aspiring to.

Though history is full of examples of abuse of authority, this does not mean that the office of authority is inherently corrupt. Part of the heritage of British constitutional development, for example, is the way that competing interests have amended public government over centuries to ensure that the various parts of society are represented.

From Magna Carta down through the reform acts and the women’s suffrage movement, society has evolved so that the constitution and the office of sovereignty is both broad enough to represent the diversity of citizens, and specific enough to ensure that certain tangible rights exist for everyone regardless of identity.

To say that the British constitution is a product of imperialism is simply ignorant. In fact, one of the tensions that brought an end to imperialism was the grassroots movement on home soil against what was clearly a form of hypocrisy about democracy and the rule of law. At home, every citizen had the same rights in terms of right to trial and a right to vote. However, in the colonies, the model government was tyrannical and in most cases proudly undemocratic.

As citizens at home started to claim their rights, expanding suffrage and ensuring access to health and education, the disparity of citizenship between colonial subjects and native Brits became untenable. It started to make a mockery citizenship itself.

Though the collapse of the British empire was complex and involved the domestic politics of subjected nations across the world, one thing that helped us to dismantle it, was the knowledge that claiming democratic rights at home while disregarding them abroad was devaluing the very moral value of society, and the authority that kept our justice system alive.

Sovereignty is the common purpose which binds the largest possible group of people together. When is a heap a heap? When is a society a society? There is no scientific answer.

There is however, a spiritual one. The office of sovereignty creates a symbolic representation of national values. This is something that has been degraded and scoffed at since the end of the Second World War. People blame the very idea of sovereignty and nationhood for the abuses of power that existed in Hitler and Stalin, and for the exploitative abuses at the hands of imperial ambition.

However, we cannot make the worst case scenario the test of nationhood. The practical truth of the matter is that we must live in community with each other, and there is a point at which a community becomes too big, or too inclusive to have a sense of common purpose and meaning.

Society has shown us that sovereignty can be expanded, that we need not depend on the tyrannical will of one man. However, history also shows that sovereignty has its limits. It needs boundaries to exist.

It is this tension between limits and inclusiveness that characterise democratic nations.

The most concrete example of this broad but well defined common national purpose can be seen in the American constitution. The very existence of it, regardless of what can be debated over its amendments, is a demonstration of common purpose.

The idea of a constitution is the idea that government should be limited, that the society exists for the flourishing of the individual. America’s Bill of Rights, states that all men are equal, and that citizenship exists in ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.
This is a notion that goes back to Aristotle, who believed that the health of the state is intimately related to the health and privileges of the citizen.

Though Aristotle would not have put a primacy on individual rights, and his concept of citizenship was infamously limited to a select group of wealthy men, the birth of an ideal exists that far back. The ideal being that citizenship is the means by which humans become truly human, and that citizenship must allow the flourishing of the individual if the existence of the state is to fully justify itself.

Sovereignty, then, does not represent mere power. It represents the ideals of citizenship, and the authority by which that citizenship is granted. The Queen’s recent visit to Manchester to visit the survivors of the bomb attack, and to commend the men and women who cared for those victims, is a perfect example of the spiritual values of sovereignty in action.

The Queen understood that these people had embodied the very best of what she exists to represent herself. Courage, love of fellow man, sacrifice and above all, endurance, the sustaining of human life through correct action.

In short, sovereignty is a matter of collective experience, cultural heritage and common values, all thrown into one. Sovereignty is strongest when it emerges over time, through the constitutional adaptation over time.

Critics might point to the rather top-down nature of the nature of American constitutional values, that the country was birthed by a document written by a select group of ‘white men’ and that it did not emerge from centuries of cultivation.

Perhaps that is true, but American independence could not be said to be ‘nation-building’ in the sense of the European Union, or the many neo-conservative failures in recent decades. What came first were the values, and the American constitution was created so that amendments and adaptations could be made, and they are in fact encouraged, by the inherent structure of it. The values are secure, but the way those values can be embodied is always open to dialogue and dispute.

Sovereignty is the authority of the ages. It is the legitimacy of power, as well just the mechanism of power.

The American constitution gets its legitimacy because it offers the most basic human needs as its fundamental value system. Its failure to live up to those values might erode the faith people have that the system has their best interests at heart, but it does not erode the legitimacy of those values themselves. That was what the Civil Rights Movement was all about. Salvaging the values of the constitution, from those who abuse it.

What’s wrong with the EU

In both the American constitution, and the British constitution, it is important to notice that economics did not create the country, however much economic interests powered the energy of change that helped those constitutions to emerge. Rather, the values, and the desire for the largest amount of peace for the largest amount people, were the main drivers in creating sovereign societies.

The core problem with the European Union is that it seeks to create a state, a very large, and comparatively centralised one, out of nothing but trade deals. It is nation-building at the hands of economists.

As opposed to the ideal embodied in Magna Carta, the 1688 Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Arbroath, and the American constitution, the European Union is a state built on economic ideology, rather than commonly held values.

You could argue that the European Human Rights Declaration acts a document of commonly held values. However, that document is the not the chief constitutional document. It exists separately from the EU. And as the disputes over the Lisbon Treaty proved, the apparatus of state legitimacy is an ongoing post-hoc activity. First came trade deals, second came the values of statehood.

Why is this a problem? Because the citizen is of secondary importance at best, to the economic ideology that happens to govern the foundational trade agreements. If a society exists for trade agreements first and citizens second, how can you say that there is a binding set of values and common interests?

What we saw with Greece, was the imposition of economic interests, and financial ideologies, over and above the needs to citizenship. For those who wish to the defend the legitimacy of the EU, they will have to accept that citizenship is not the chief concern, but trade.

If they admit to that, and they really must, then they cannot claim that the EU places a fundamental value in human life, but only in wealth creation.

 

One of the chief problems in putting this criticism forward is that most people regard harping on about citizenship and sovereignty as archaic, unrealistic, anachronistic even. Economics, says the over-educated mob, has always been the driving force of society. Citizenship and constitutions, we are told, have always been the propaganda of the bourgeois.

Even conservatives will use this kind of line of argument, not realising that they are simply regurgitating oversimplified Marxism and class conflict theory.
Perhaps it is time for a refreshed idea of what a society really is, and the mechanism that keeps it together. It is time to see economics as part of a wider evolution of social values, not the other way round.

Some thoughts on the #FreePress

 

The idea of the free press emerges out of the belief that government should have no official say on what gets published. The free press cannot exist if certain ideas and writers are prohibited from their independent voice.

The dominant publishing industry, the mainstream press and now the corporate nexus of social media giants, are all in contravention of the fundamental ideal of a free press.

Free speech matters only in conjunction with a free press. One of the most common arguments against complete, unlicensed free speech, is that some speech does more harm than others. Debate is fine, but only if it doesn’t give a platform to ‘hate’, and the definition of this special form of speech varies from discussion to discussion.

This is a weak argument, but it continues to be the central strategy of those who think they know best when it comes to speech. The reason for this is because the notion of the free press has been discredited for decades.

This process of discrediting is in no small way the fault of individual journalists, who have betrayed their readers by breaking the law and taking no interest in the quality of public life in the west.

However, these individuals are given license by a culture that emerges out of the monopolised press, whereby a kind of mafia control of news raises them and their employees above the law.

We saw this during the Leveson Inquiry depositions in the UK. Private Eye editor Ian Hislop said in his own deposition that the phone hacking scandal at The News Of World occurred not because of a lack of legal control, but because huge press companies were so close to government that they were able to act above the law.

We already have laws that protect citizens from invasions of privacy and harassment. Good laws, in fact, that allow for the context of the crime to determine the nature of the charge.

Press companies like Associated News and News International, are able to get away with degrading our public space and turning the news business into a showbiz, lowest-common-denominator freakshow, not because the laws and protection don’t exist to challenge them, but because those in power jealously seek the favour of these press barons.

Free speech must be total, because the free press must be total. A brief course in the history of printing and publishing will drive that home sufficiently.

The idea of the free press emerges from the confluence of rights around speech and religion, ensuring that no one idea dominates the market of thought, and that the state is limited from imposing one idea on the country at large.

Monopolies are a violation of this, and they allow press barons to behave as if they are above the law, just as kings and Popes did prior to the Reformation.

Hateful or destructive ideas can indeed damage people. Words have the power to ignite wars, to rob individuals of their dignity. A passing knowledge of psychology and history tells us this is true.

However, whether we are talking about the rise of Hitler or emotional abuse of small children, the answer is not to sanction the use of words. The answer is always to widen the market of ideas and words available to the victims.

Totalitarian propaganda requires the control of the media to work. Emotional abuse uses gaslighting tactics to disarm the critical abilities of the victim.

Controlling words in order to protect people from these assaults only serves to centralise the very powers that can do the most damage.

The value of the free press is that it is essentially the anti-centralisation of power. It ensures that citizens determine what enters their minds on the basis of their own critical, independent thought only, as opposed to the careful sanctions of higher-ups, however benevolent these higher-ups claim to be.

In the late nineties, the great promise of the internet was that it was going to fully realise the democratic idea of the free press. And there is an argument to say that it has. Each of us can run a media company, each of us is a reporter. None of us is forced to fall back on mainstream sources of knowledge.

However, in the last ten years, the centralisation of power in the hands of Google, Apple and Facebook, presents the same challenge as that of the hegemony of UK press barons.

A centralised press is never free, and the current state of the internet means that all the gains of independent publishing add up to a negative for independent thought. If anything, we are more hungry than ever for a mainstream, for a central authority to help us navigate the uncritical online space.

The great irony of our age is that total democratisation silences real dissent better than any totalitarian regime. A challenging voice is robbed of its danger if it is just one voice in a cacophony of 80 million other voices. The mainstream consolidates itself as the gaggle of commentary grows on the internet.

A voice can only truly be dissenting if it actually impacts the mainstream.

This may leave us feeling depressed. But the real challenge to the free press is not cultural overload. The facts of life in a social media world only make dissent impossible if we cave in to apathy and frustration.

What we often forget is that the free press is part of individual rights. It guarantees us a right to not only say what we want, but to have our voices heard – if we are prepared to do the work.

A free press requires us to take the risk of failure. It means a long-term battle, a war of attrition with the centralised status quo. In that sense, the state of the free press is as it was in Milton’s time, a dangerous, arduous fight with no guarantee of victory.

All that is different in our age is that we apply social media values of instantaneity and popular trend to measure our impact. None of these have anything to do with the free press.

If the free press is under threat, we only have ourselves to blame. We must be aggressive, disruptive, unapologetic, dissenting and above all things LOUD. We must not let the internet fool us into the current, yuppy version of dissent and cultural disparateness that results from the overpraised democratisation of the media.

Yes, write your blog. Yes, start a YouTube company. But the mere existence of your independent voice doth not a free press make. Like all rights, the free press must be active, we must insist on being heard.

#OffendEveryoneIn4Words is sinister PC propaganda

The trending hashtag #OffendEveryoneIn4Words is a sinister campaign of consensus masquerading as a liberation of dissent. It is a perfect example of how social media culture entrenches consensus, while posing as a vehicle for counter-culture.

The purpose of being offensive, is exactly not to offend everyone. Things are only offensive because they appeal to some and not to others. To set out to offend everyone, is to set out to say nothing at all of substance.

Of course that is exactly what these Twitter hashtags are all about. It’s a way of making Twitter look like it is libertarian, while in fact behaving in the most PC way possible.

No one has a problem with decency, unless they are pathological. Political correctness is dangerous because it seeks to make all speech innocuous. The problem arises when we realise that there is no such thing as a substantive, valuable sentence, that will never offend someone.

Defenders of political correctness make the arrogant assumption that their views and opinions are the ones that are devoid of offence, that are the paragons of decency and goodness. However, a sentence that can never, under any circumstance, offend someone, is a meaningless one.

This is especially true in the public forum, where a dialogue of interpretations is what underlies the stability of a civilised constitution.

The subtext of this apparently jovial hashtag campaign, is that offensive speech is something fixed, something identifiable and reducible to a set of core words and views.

While pretending to make a mockery of PC culture, the hashtag is actually entrenching the underlying assumptions of political correctness – that we can police language for damaging speech by identifying singular words and ideas, just like we would identify repeat offenders in a criminal case.

The truth about offensive speech is that it changes, like all language changes. Words that are deemed damaging in one generation are innocuous in a later one, and words that were acceptable parlance in the past, are viewed as dangerous today.

Similarly, words that some people find offensive, are actually brilliantly expressive for another group. Much of what passes for identity politics is not just objectionable to me, it’s offensive. But for a vast majority of people it’s a perfect description of their own painful struggle.

I find the language of identity politics offensive because it cuts to the core of what I believe makes human life worth living – that morality is based on common humanity, not identity. Identity is a hugely significant part of what it means to be human, but the paradox is that what makes identity important is how much common humanity is at the foundation of all difference in identity.

This beautiful fact – that we are hugely diverse but fundamentally the same – gets glossed over in the persistent rhetoric of identity politics. This is offensive because I actually see it as a distortion of the full complexity and genius of human nature, and as a result, it is a distortion of the ethical subtlety of what it means to be one’s brother’s keeper.

So when I hear words like ‘privilege’ or ‘white genocide’ or ‘cultural appropriation’, I don’t just roll my eyes in some reactionary distasteful way. I feel a jolt in my gut, the same kind of jolt I would feel if I heard a racial slur, or witnessed someone being blatantly sexist on the street.

The things that offend me, are exactly the views that people think are free from being offensive. In fact, there really is nothing more offensive to the human imagination than the proposition that we can create language that never does any damage, that never annoys, hurts or disgruntles anyone.

The people that seek to establish this kind of policing of common utterance, are the same people that will lecture everyone else about ‘diversity’. Yet, what exactly is diverse about the idea of offending no one?

This complacent little hashtag is simply a reverse of the conceited logic of political correctness and identity politics. It’s sort of like a parental amnesty, with Twitter saying, ‘okay children, you want to be offensive, then today you get to say it all, and you can get it all off your chest.’ As if what counts as offensive was reducible to an agreed list of unsayable things.

What’s more, it is hashtags like this, paying only lip service to the idea of dissent, that are the real force of consensus. The very idea that it is possible to ‘offend everyone’ assumes that we all agree about what is offensive.

This is actually a corrosive and deeply worrying hashtag campaign, acting as a propaganda effort for the Twitter guardians.

It also assumes that being offensive is some kind of glib, contrarian outburst, rather than a necessary and welcome part of human dialogue.

As frustrating as this silly campaign is, it reveals the stupidity of political correctness in a very clear way. It is a gross misunderstanding of language and public life, and shows that the consensus on correctitude is grounded in a smug, convenient ignorance that celebrates a simplistic view of human nature, and an impoverished understanding of language.