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.