Monday, January 28, 2019

Hypnotic States of Hibernia

Have you ever been to a hypnotist? Usually at the beginning of the show, the hypnotist finds out who in the audience is most easily hypnotised by, say, getting everybody to clasp their fingers and hands tight together.  Then he tells you to release them, and if you can't then you're invited on to the stage. All good, clean fun.

But here's what I've noticed lately, we're all hypnotised more and more of the time.  If an audience was made up of countries, Ireland would be on the stage every night. That's not so good.

I've been learning about the work of Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell, founders of the Human Givens school of psychotherapy.  There work is the most insightful and useful analyses of the human condition and human psychology that I have come across in decades. Joe Griffin has actually solved the millennia old question which asks 'why do we dream'?  If there was any justice he would get the Nobel Prize for Science - his work is that original and pregnant with potential for the future.

But one of the most interesting aspects of Joe's work with Ivan Tyrrell is how they apply their insights to the wider world.  Because it turns out that dreaming and hypnosis are variations on the same thing: both are triggered by the activation of REM activities in the brain, only one happens while you're asleep and the other while you're awake.

What is the trigger? The answer is: trance. As explained in 'Why We Dream':
"A trance is a focused state of attention, a state of utter absorption. Ad the most absorbing type of trance state we ever enter is a dream. Most people do not realise that when their attention is completely held, for instance by a riveting speaker or by a problem that they are focused on solving, or by an activity that requires exact precision (such as archery), the are in a trance state."
Hypnosis is simply any artificial means of accessing the REM/trance state whilst awake: and it takes very little (from a swinging fob watch to the ping of a message on your mobile) to enter that state.

So what's the harm?  In the case of a stage show there isn't any.  Okay, maybe if you're the hapless chap on the stage who ate the onion convinced it was an apple then not so good. But no big deal.  Indeed, Human Givens therapists use hypnosis to tackle a host of problems such as depression, PTSD etc.

What the Human Givens framework tells us is that the REM/trance state (asleep or awake) is how we learn. We start dreaming from the age of 7 weeks in the womb, and we don't stop even in very old age. In the REM state our brain lays down 'patterns' that are our guides to how we should navigate life and the world around us. This is mostly done through metaphors and stories that match innate patterns to lived experience - providing the greatest flexibility when it comes to the uncertainties we face in life.  Therefore all new learning occurs through pattern matching, and our brains are effectively programmed by nature "to take part in an endless quest for metaphor... recognising how something is 'like' something else is how the brain, moment by moment, tries to predict its best course of action".

Where all this becomes a matter of some concern is when an entire society is in trance for a growing part of the day, every day.  The defining characteristic of a trance state is a massive increase in susceptibility to suggestion, because your attention is focused and all wider environmental stimuli are ignored. Both Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell worry about the adverse ways in which trance/hypnosis can be used:
Anyone who can focus their attention, who has a good imagination or who can become emotionally aroused, will, at many points in time, enter trance. We are in a self-induced trance whenever we are highly emotionally aroused in what is usually thought of as a negative way: anger, fury, hatred, fear, anxiety, worrying, depression, envy, greed, selfishness – all such emotions cut us off from our thinking brains and give us a locked-in, limited view of reality. The same is true when we are in thrall to conditioned belief systems that we cannot see beyond, whether those of religions, cults or politics.
Anyone who thinks hypnosis is harmless might do well to remember that Hitler studied it after being cured by a hypnotist of the hysterical blindness that he suffered at the end of the First World War. His personality changed at that point as the result of a strong suggestion given in trance by a psychologist who told him that he was special and that he had great personal powers and that, with these great powers, he could cure himself of the blindness. This acted as a post hypnotic suggestion and Hitler went on to induce receptive trance states in vast crowds at rallies, bombarding them with emotionally arousing nominalisations. He even adopted a stylised form of arm levitation as the Nazi salute.
What happens to a society - to a democracy - when a growing number of its citizens are spending more and more time in a self-induced trance?  Like 31 hours a 'day' (thanks to multitasking and dual-screen media consumption)?

I noticed something recently: twice in one day, as I was driving through Dublin and stopped at the traffic lines, the 'green man' said it was okay for pedestrians to cross, but several of the younger ones just stood there.  They were staring at the 'black mirrors' in their hands, completely unaware of the change in the lights. Meet the Entranced Generation.  Though it isn't just the young ones.

Of course we all daydream, and most of us experience 'the common everyday trance' which occurs about every ninety minutes and lasts for about twenty minutes.  It's a great time for seeing the bigger picture, creative problem solving and composing works of art... or doing what more and more of us do more and more of the time: checking our email, Facebook, Instagram, news apps, and the myriad other 'distractions' we cram into our multi-screen days.  Distraction doesn't mean unfocused, by the way.

Still it begs the question: what's the harm? According to Griffin and Tyrrell, the pattern-matching, metaphor-making drive that makes us human - able to live in any society we're born into and to speak any language - can be put to more negative uses:
As well as being taught or programmed with socially and personally useful ideas and behaviours, we can just as easily be programmed with destructive ideas and thus create a sick society. If we misuse our daydream faculty - our imagination - we can condition ourselves into horrendous, neurotic reaction patterns... the misuse of our imagination is fundamentally involved in the generation of clinical depression, anxiety disorders, anger problems, psychosis, greed, cruelty and addiction.
Could this be why the level of political discourse in more and more countries is becoming more polarised and more extreme? Instead of the daily news we get the 'daily trance', one that lasts all day. Remember one of the things that triggers the trance state: strong emotions, especially negative ones ('anger makes you stupid' and all that).  Don't believe me? Two words: Donald Trump.  In our irrational 'emocracy' we are entrancing ourselves into a state of fury, of 'us and them', of sacrifice and scapegoats.

Here in Ireland we've been spared much of the political rancour and dissension that seems to be gripping a growing number of countries around the world. But could that be because we're the ones on the stage, fingers stuck together, ready to eat the onion?  Europe's most pliable people? Your eyelids are getting heavy...

Could this also be why more and more societies are experiencing epidemic levels of depression, anxiety, sleep disorders and even psychosis? One of the insights from Human Givens is that 'too much' REM sleep leaves you exhausted as you don't have enough time during the night to experience the deep, restorative sleep between dreams that boosts your immune systems and energy stores.  We are depleting our 'attention resources' to our own and to society's detriment.  Lack of sleep makes you stupid (and angry and unreasonable) too.

Where will our collective entrancement end? Some worry about the age of surveillance capitalism. Certainly we are experiencing something unprecedented as a species: the speed and scale of adoption of smart phones and all that goes with them leaves us without either 'patterns' or 'metaphors' to navigate the times we live in.  Cal Newport suggest, future generations may look back at smartphones the way we look back at cigarettes: amazed at all those people in the old movies smoking way too much. Of course, the recognition of the harm done by smoking came too late for many millions of former users. Will we recognise the harm being done by our collective entrancement before it's too late?

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Anger and Hope

Not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart. Toqueville

People rarely answer the question they are asked in a referendum. They prefer to answer a different question. The most recent referendum was no different.

Most people agree that abortion is a necessary evil. Some only approve of abortion in order to save the life of a woman who will otherwise die (with her baby) if the pregnancy continues. Others go further and approve abortion when a pregnancy involves rape, fatal foetal abnormality or suicide. Some go further still and approve abortion whenever women want it (though usually within certain limits).

Yet nearly all those approving abortion in these different circumstances will acknowledge that the act of abortion itself is regrettable as it terminates the life of another human being (or potential human being, depending on your point of view). Certainly that has been my experience from numerous conversations with people holding different views on the matter around the country in recent months. Few have any enthusiasm for abortion, even if they reluctantly support its provision.

So why the obvious jubilation and celebration as the results were announced? That takes us back to the 'question' people answered. For many older voters (and older journalists) it perhaps had something to do with finally throwing off the last vestiges of Catholic 'suppression'. And just as our neighbours across the water exhibit an unhealthy obsession with 'The Battle of Britain' and 'the SS' long after most of the participants in the actual events have died, so some here in Ireland have a similar obsession with 'The Magdalene Laundries' and 'the Christian Brothers' long after the original events occurred (with RTE standing in for the BBC as the obsessive curator of a past most never experienced). Just as most Britons under 50 could care less about 'their finest hour', so most Irish under 30 have never experience the 'belt and crozier' thing that so terrified (and seemingly still terrifies) their elders.

So back to the emotional outburst that accompanied the result. Were Yes voters simply tricked and misled by media bias, political evasion and clever campaigning? Hardly. If anything the No campaign appeared more pervasive (bar a few issues with Google and Facebook) than the Yes campaign, certainly outside of Dublin. No, everyone who voted Yes on May 25th did so in full knowledge of the consequences of their vote, without any duress or coercion. If anything, the only 'shy voters' were those voting Yes rather than those voting No.

Still, none of this provides a sufficient explanation for the reaction to the Yes win. Certainly nobody was celebrating a decision to abort babies in Ireland. Evil is still evil, even when it's necessary. No, clearly there was a 'good' worth celebrating in the win, regardless of the more unfortunate consequences. For a small minority it was their VE Day (or VC Day?): 'Gilead has fallen, the handmaids are free' and other fictions for women and men of a certain age.

But for younger voters the 'good' boils down to one simple word: 'choice'. Why such a focus on choice? It's partly captured by Tocqueville, quoted above, describing (or perhaps extrapolating) from what he saw in 19th century America and its implications for Europe and the rest of the world. We live in a world in which 'autonomy' is sacrosanct (indeed, the highest virtue in most western societies), and any restriction on that autonomy is simply intolerable: including the requirement to see a pregnancy through to birth when a woman does not want to. In a world in which a pregnant woman ends up 'alone and confined entirely within the solitude of her own heart' it is no wonder that so many Irish women favour abortion. A pregnant woman is a very vulnerable human being - perhaps the most vulnerable - and in a world of no fault divorce, single parenthood, cohabitation, Tinder and hook up culture then a woman cannot rely on men or even other women to have their back during and after pregnancy. This is what Bernadette Waterman Ward observes:
Since abortion seems to offer escape from the costs of having a female body, legal challenges to abortion provoke aggressive condemnation as a "backlash" and a "war against women."
It also explains much of the anger - especially among young women - on display during the Irish referendum. If 'anger is fear in disguise' then the source of so much anger and fear is obvious: feeling alone, vulnerable and without support. It's the shadow side of individual autonomy: freedom to choose means that you might make the wrong choice and have to face the consequences on your own. No wonder there were calls early in the campaign that men 'should not have a vote' on the issue.  It also explains the success of the Yes campaign with its focus on compassion: channelling an 'other-directed' emotion in support of a 'self-directed' choice for those portrayed as having no choice - with obvious effectiveness.

Of course, the theme of choice and autonomy is not specific to the issue of abortion. The West - including Ireland - is living through the consequences of modernity's turn away from truth as something that is objective to truth as whatever you believe yourself. The Catholic Church in Ireland has been clearly blindsided by this turn (as it has been in other countries).  The fact that most 'Irish Catholics' voted Yes would suggest that 'Catholic Ireland' took flight with the last Spitfire some time ago. Despite its alleged influence over the Irish education system, it is fair to say that the Church's failure to educate successive generations of Irish Catholics in their faith has been surpassed only by the State's failure to educate successive generations of Irish speakers. In both instances, the well worn policy of 'keep on doing the same thing hoping something different will result' is still being pursued with relentless vigour. Perhaps it's time to stop (both).

So what happens next? It's a bigger question than legislating for abortion. The sexual revolution will continue to reverberate in Ireland and further afield, with dismally predictable results. But beyond the contested issue of abortion (now swinging back to the pro-life side in the United States), Ireland will likely see autonomy through to its 'logical' conclusion, including euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide. Though even these are 'side issues' in the context of the bigger changes unfolding in Irish society. A 'right liberalism' that reduces humans to consumers and workers uprooted from families and communities, is working with a 'left liberalism' that reduces humans to autonomous individuals stripped of collective and cultural identity right across Europe.

Nevertheless, these are - and will be - ripe circumstances for organisations like the Catholic Church (and other faith and tradition based organisations) to preach a different creed and philosophy. One based on dignity, continuity and responsibility for one another, including future generations - especially those carried in the wombs of this generation. It will take time, but just as anger is fear in disguise, so patience is hope in action. I'm hopeful.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Crossing the Jordan

Jordan B Peterson is a latter day Martin Luther - or Savonarola, depending on your point of view.  He speaks truth to power, which makes him very brave and very unpopular with the powerful. I first came across him in November 2016 when he appeared on the Joe Rogan podcast (he's been back a few times since).

He has recently finished an epic, 14-part lecture series on the Book of Genesis (not quite the version I learned at St Patrick's Academy). Peterson sees himself as a 'Truth Warrior', standing up to the bullying Social Justice Warriors who would prefer he shut up and go away (as they do everyone who disagrees with them).

Though given his ability to speak passionately and engagingly for 2-3 hours at a stretch without so much as an 'em' or an 'um' then he isn't going to shut up or go away any time soon I reckon.

Tom Bartlett has penned one of the fairer introductions to Peterson the man. Meanwhile David Fuller has set out an excellent introduction to the breadth of Peterson's ideas.

Jordan Peterson - like Joe Rogan - has made YouTube his medium of choice, reaching millions through his talks and interviews far beyond the numbers who might read his books or catch him on TV. Like Luther 500 years before, Peterson is using new communications technology to get around the powers that be, i.e.: the Cultural Marxist thought police now in charge of the established, secular church in every English speaking country, including Ireland.

Jordan is very quotable. Here's one of my favourite quotes from one of his earlier podcasts:

"The purpose of life is to find a mode of being that is so meaningful that the fact that life is suffering is no longer relevant, or maybe that it's even acceptable".

And if that intrigues you then there's lots (lots) more where that came from.

Post script: Tyler Cowen reckons Peterson is one of the five most influential public intellectuals today. A 'Conversations with Tyler' featuring Jordan Peterson would be worth the two dialogue...

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Peace Beyond Understanding

“The angels said, ‘O Mary! Allâh gives you good tidings through a word from Him. His name is the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary. He shall be worthy of regard in this world and in the hereafter… ‘And he will speak to the people when in the cradle and when of old age, and shall be of the righteous.’ Mary said, ‘My Lord, how can I have a child when no man has yet touched me?’ He said, ‘In this way: Allâh creates what He will. When He decides something He simply says “be” and it is.'” Qur’an, Sura III

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When, with the ever-circling years,
Shall come the Age of Gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And all the world give back the song
Which now the angels sing..

Happy Christmas.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Leinster (Still) Says No

Will Brexit lead to a United Ireland? There has certainly been lots of speculation about such a prospect, though mostly south of the border. My company's poll for RTE Claire Byrne Live shows that more people in the Republic of Ireland want a United Ireland than don't - though not quite a majority.

More problematic - for those saying yes - isn't that Ulster says no so much as Leinster says no.  Just as it did when I first wrote about the 'Leinster Problem' back in 2010.  Not a lot has changed: the people of Dublin remain among the most hostile to the idea of a United Ireland, while those closer to the border are more positive.

Of course, the question 'do you want a United Ireland?' is a bit simplistic.  A more pertinent question might be 'are you willing to pay considerably higher taxes for a United Ireland?' (enough to fill the €11.5 billion gap should the British cut the north loose). That probably reflects some of Dublin's antipathy to the idea (after all, Dublin generates nearly half the Gross Value Added of the whole of Ireland, and pays a higher share of taxes): so Dublin would foot most of the bill for United Ireland as well.

Though it's not (just) about taxes: it's also about identity.  And let's be honest, most people in the Republic of Ireland don't identify with most people in Northern Ireland. The two parts of the island have grown apart, economically, politically, culturally and demographically in the past 100 years. The Republic of Ireland now exports more to Japan than to Northern Ireland, and twice as much to China as to the north.

But I'm not talking North/South Korean differences but a deeper, values-based set of differences. Something closer to David Goodhart's distinction between the Somewheres and the Anywheres.  Northern Ireland is still a place where place, history and flags still matter a great deal: making them a population of Somewheres (even though a majority voted against Brexit!)  The Republic of Ireland is increasingly a place of Anywheres: cosmopolitan in outlook, shaped by an open, globalised economy,  and by patterns of trade and migration.

Uniting such divergent cultural forces is a challenge for the UK right now in Goodhart's analysis, and it will certainly be one for Ireland if/when the two parts of the island come together. As someone who travels to and through Northern Ireland quite regularly, I certainly hope this week's events will mean that we keep a border that is - for all practical purposes - invisible. But the impractical distinctions of values and culture will continue to keep north and south apart for a very long time to come.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Muslim Scenarios

The latest report on Europe from the Pew Research Center takes a fascinating look at scenarios for Muslim population numbers in Europe in 2050. Their distinction between migrants and refugees - and the different profiles and patterns that go with it - is a valuable addition to the migration debate. I've blogged about Pew's religious research and forecasts before, and generally I find their analyses to be both reasonable and fair.

What makes their most recent report interesting is that it includes forecasts for Ireland. Under different scenarios for Muslim migration into Europe they show Ireland's Muslim population rising from 70,000 in 2016 to 200,000 in 2050 in the highest migration scenario.  Though of course not all the growth will be from migration (Irish Muslims will add to population growth themselves), and not all migrants to Europe will be Muslim.  And the overall population will grow too, hence the relatively low share of Muslims in the Irish population (4.4% in 2050) even in the high migration scenario.

Pew's starting point is actually a little high. The 2016 Census report on religion showed that there were in fact 62,000 Muslims in Ireland. Though over a 34 year horizon it probably wouldn't make that much difference.  The census doesn't differentiate between different Muslim traditions (Sunni, Shia, Sufi etc), though most likely the vast majority of Muslims in Ireland are Sunni (as they make up  approximately 85% of the global Muslim population). The census does however distinguish Muslims in Ireland by nationality: it turns out more than half of Muslims in Ireland are Irish nationals.  Half of the rest are defined as 'Other Asian', which is most likely Pakistan (for historic, cultural and family reasons). One of the biggest cultural (and family) connections is via the UK. Indeed, a recent BBC report highlighted the fact that over 40% of mosques in the UK are run by a specific traditional group from Pakistan called The Deobandis. I can only presume a similar presence in Ireland.

Which makes for another scenario not considered by Pew: one involving Brexit. In the event of a hard Brexit I wouldn't be surprised if a large number of Muslim migrants to the UK - and a much larger number of non-Muslim migrants - will look to Ireland as a better location for business, cultural and family reasons.

But perhaps the more interesting speculation is the impact on European culture, values and polities from some of the scenarios painted by Pew.  Ireland - like central and Eastern Europe - will be relatively unaffected by Muslim migration (and refugees) in any of the scenarios.  But France, Germany, Sweden and so on will undergo a much stronger impact. It doesn't have to lead to the type of seismic shifts envisaged by Michel Houellebecq, but it undoubtedly will lead to significant changes in the prevailing zeitgeist in Western Europe in particular.

As Nassim Taleb reminds us, it is 'intolerant' minorities (i.e.: those with 'stronger' values than the wider population) who get to shape the wider cultural milieu for the total population. One reason, he explains, why Coca-Cola is kosher (and therefore acceptable to Jews, Christians and Muslims).

But remember, scenarios are not forecasts: they are stories about what might come to pass, and therefore an invitation to ask ourselves how might we fare and respond in just such scenarios. I suspect we'll see a great many more such stories about the future in the years and decades to come.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Rebellion, Revolution, Reformation

Xavier Marquez makes an interesting point in relation to the Russian Revolution 100 years ago this month, namely that:
"...great revolutions have a “fractal” quality, where “social order breaks down on multiple scales simultaneously,” from the family to the town to the city to the national government and across many social institutions. I’ve always found this idea quite useful for thinking about what distinguishes a simple revolt (where a normative breakdown is restricted to say, the national government institutions) from a big revolutionary upheaval. It certainly applied to the Russian revolution, where everything – family norms, clothing, architecture and arts, cities and town planning, public monuments, religion – seemed to be up for negotiation simultaneously."
In contrast our own Easter Rising, the centenary of which we commemorated last year, was more of a rebellion than a revolution: the rulers changed - the rules not so much.

Which brings us to the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago today when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg (apparently he didn't, but it's a memorable image, though nowadays his theses would be the perfect length for twitter...).  The Reformation was neither a rebellion nor a revolution, but arguably its consequences over the long run evolved from those of rebellion to those of a revolution. The Reformation's contemporary champions argue that the world we live in today is very much a consequence of the Reformation's reforms; while its critics likewise argue that the world we live in today is very much the unintended consequence of the same Reformation!

One measure of the Reformation's consequences (intended or otherwise) is the parlous state of Catholicism in Europe today. The 2016 results from the European Social Survey (ESS 8) have been published today and they paint a fascinating picture of religiosity in Europe some 500 years after there Reformation (n.b.: for the sake of transparency, my own company conducts the fieldwork for ESS in Ireland).

Based on preliminary findings for 16 countries (mainly Europe, but also including Israel and Russia, with findings for 6 more countries to be published next year), we find that just one in four European adults describes themselves as belonging to the Catholic Church. In Germany, where it all started, the percentage of adults belonging to the Catholic Church is a little higher at 30%. However, Protestantism hasn't done so well in the intervening period either. Again among the 16 countries in the first results for 2016, only 14% of adults identify as belonging to a Protestant denomination.  Though a somewhat healthier 28% of Germans belong to a Protestant denomination.

But the big trend is not in the share of the different Christian and non-Christian religions, rather it is the growth in the share of those who don't belong to any religion or denomination: 43% of all adults in the 2016 results compared to 38% in 2006 (albeit for a larger number of countries).

Here in Ireland, 500 years on, we still remain predominantly Catholic (73% of all adults in 2016, not much changed from 75% in ESS 2006) - though the percentage not belonging to any religion or denomination has also grown (from 20% in 2006 to 26% ten years later). Ireland's rebellion is in the past, while we continue to be buffeted by various revolutions elsewhere (political, sexual, cultural and technological).

Most Catholics nowadays recognise the legitimacy of many of the complaints levelled by Luther 500 years ago (he was, after all, a Catholic priest belonging to the Augustinian order, so he knew a thing or two about the issues that drew his ire).  Indeed, a growing number think we need another Reformation if Christianity is to have a future in Europe (and beyond).

My guess, for what it's worth, is that the next 50 years will see a 'fourth R' - Reaction - make itself felt due to the unprecedented ageing of Europe's population and the unsustainable economic, environmental and cultural consequences that will follow.  Ripe conditions for rebellion and revolution as well of course, and maybe even further reformation.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Basically Wrong

Those of a Lutheran or Catholic persuasion were treated today to the parable of the generous vineyard owner (Matthew 20:1-16), the one in which the owner pays the same wage to those who worked for an hour in his vineyard as those who worked all day.  The parable isn't about wages and incentives per se (the Girardian Lectionary explains the bigger picture, as usual); however, as an employer, I can't help thinking 'good luck getting anyone to show up for work in the vineyard tomorrow morning' every time I read the passage.

The same goes for the vogue idea of a Universal Basic Income. The idea has lots of support internationally across the political spectrum, and has been consistently championed here by Social Justice Ireland, with even Mark Zuckerberg coming out in favour of it.  Depending on which flavour you go for, UBI or BIG (Basic Income Guarantee) entails giving a regular amount of money unconditionally to every adult, paid for (possibly/maybe) by replacing existing social welfare payments and (possibly/maybe) means testing those with incomes from, well, jobs.  Plus a tax on robots, of course.

Much of the contemporary appeal is in response to the AI Apocalypse: if there are going to be fewer and fewer jobs in the future then the only way to sustain a consumer-spending based, capitalist economy will be to give the spending power directly to consumers.

The economic case for and against UBI continues to be debated: and will be for some time to come as a number of trial experiments in some countries and regions run their course.  I suspect something like it will be scaled in one or two countries in the next ten years or so, though even then there will remain considerable uncertainty about the economic, political and social impact for any country that embraces it fully.

Of course, you could argue that we've run a variation of this experiment in Ireland already: we have one of the lowest levels of labour force participation and highest ratios of households without incomes from employment in Europe. The negative impact of prolonged absence from the workforce on the psychological and even physical wellbeing of the long-term unemployed should give everyone pause for thought about 'expanding' that particular experiment.

But perhaps the biggest objection UBI as a solution to the problem of technological unemployment and even rising income inequality is that there are plenty of simpler, well proven alternative policies that would be less 'risky' to implement. Take job creation, for example. As Charles Hugh-Smith observes, we all want to live in a prosperous society and the best way to achieve that is to create conditions of abundant work and a low cost of living:
For work to be abundant:
It must be easy to start a business.
It must be easy to operate the new business.
It must be easy to make a profit so the business can survive the first few years and,
It must be easy to hire employees.
All of these things are getting harder, not easier in Ireland. As for a low cost of living, that isn't going to happen while Ireland (and most other nations it would seem) is gripped by The Cost Disease. Rising costs of housing, education, health and public services appears to be rampant across the developed world through an unholy combination of bureaucracy, lobbying, over-regulation, financialisation and all the other things that happen when powerful groups use their power to the detriment of the common good.

So making it easier to create jobs, and more affordable to take them, seems to me a fairly basic step to take before going down the Basic Income route. Nor is it just about business and job creation.  There's another solution to poverty and inequality that could do with a little more support: marriage.  Some have called it The Sequence, and it reflects the common sense observation that those families comprising parents who got employed before getting married before having children are significantly less likely to experience the problems of poverty, educational under-achievement and other social and economic ills.  It's not a panacea of course (nor is UBI for that matter), but it has just a little more in the way of a proven track record in modern societies than 'free money'.

Maybe there is a Catholic (and Lutheran) angle to all this after all. Pope Francis observed in his encyclical Laudato Si:
We were created with a vocation to work. The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfilment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work. 
The real challenge of the future will not be how to pay for a post-human economy, rather it will be how to create meaningful sources of work that enable us all to be fully human. Perhaps a future in which we all own our own vineyard.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Point And Screech

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. Alexis de Tocqueville
Does anybody know a good medium? I'd like to let Alexis know I've found another country: our own little sceptic isle, of course.   Poor old George Hook, he was finished as soon as he apologised. George belongs to a generation who believe in the court of public opinion. Unfortunately for him, we now have a kangaroo court of public emoting, and there's no attorney for the defence.  Our democracy of opinion has, according to James Poulos channeling Paul Virilio, been replaced by a 'democracy of emotion'.  So to apologise to the kangaroo court is to plead guilty, and there is no reduction of sentence for plea bargaining.

Nowadays there appear to be two types of response to 'unacceptable' opinions: the first is 'point and sneer', the other is 'point and screech'.  Neither is particularly edifying (think Donal Sutherland in Invasion of the Body Snatchers), but both responses are quite effective at shutting people up: which is the whole point of course. 'Independence of mind and real freedom of discussion' don't come into it.

When even our Taoiseach manages to take a break from fixing the health crisis, the housing crisis and the Garda crisis to join in the chorus of opprobrium against George then clearly something is happening to the nature of public discourse in this country (and in others). The best contemporary guide to the new democracy of emotions is Byung-Chul Han, a Korean born German philosopher.  Han refers - very unphilosophically - to the 'shitstorm' as a description of what George is going through, namely the swarming of 'point and screech' hatred via digital and social media:
The individual acts of virtual outrage composing the shitstorm — the carping message board comment, the nasty tweet, or the backbiting post on Facebook — are not a prelude to engagement, but instead an occasion of “immediate affective discharge” in an environment that “favors symmetrical communication.” This means, in essence, that online condemnation responds less to the dialogic criteria of suasion than to the base pleasure of dealing a cheap shot — in many cases, under cover of anonymity — with no concern for whether the target is a stranger, a celebrity author, or the president of the United States.
But the problem with the shitstorm - certainly when it comes to bigger issues like, say, the health crisis, the housing crisis and the Garda crisis - is that it changes nothing:
Outrage... draws attention efficiently but lacks the stability and constancy required for successful intervention in the public sphere. Masses marshaled to the purpose of public shaming lack a commitment to a course of shared action. Outrage is an end in itself, and its targets are inevitably granular, so that the power relations that structure individual grievances at their core persist through the shitstorm unaltered.
What George Hook said was a clumsy, fatherly attempt at the 'stranger danger' talk many parents have given their young daughters, basically: 'avoid the scumbags' (his own word for the rapists in the news item he was discussing). But the shitstorm wasn't about scumbags, it was about George apparently blaming the victim, which he didn't. Which highlights something else about the moral panics that seize the media with increasing frequency, namely that: the issue is never the issue.  In other words, the furore over what Hook said or didn't said isn't about the crime of rape, rather it is about shutting up another 'right winger' with unacceptable views on same-sex marriage, immigration and a host of other, 'polygraph tests' for thoughtcrimes these days.

There were 2,549 sexual offences last year in Ireland according to, ahem, Garda statistics. An increase of 8.6% on the previous year. Did any of Hook's critics have anything to say about the dangers this highlights for women in Ireland in 2017? I didn't hear or see it. Instead, we were told that Hook's point of view was harmful to women on the grounds that it might discourage some women from reporting rapes. That's a point worth discussing (really discussing, not name-calling): but what's even more important to discuss is the harm done to women by rape - shouldn't that be the main issue? Specifically how to ensure that women are empowered to minimise the risks they face in a society in which sexual offences are on the increase?

Women (and men) would be better advised to listen to the advice of personal safety experts like Gavin de Becker - describing in life-saving detail what women should do to get out of dangerous situations in conversation with Sam Harris - than the 'point and screech' ad hominem attacks of the Irish commentariat caught up in the latest shitstorm.  But then if we did that, 'the power relations' might actually change, and who really wants that?

PS: transcript of what Hook said (ht Dave Cullen)

Monday, September 4, 2017


"If I were another person observing myself and the course of my life, I should be compelled to say that it must all end unavailingly, be consumed in incessant doubt, creative only in its self torment. But, an interested party, I go on hoping." Franz Kafka

It's ten years since I started the Turbulence Ahead blog.  I haven't had as much time in the past year or two to keep posting (did someone mention a recovery?), which has been a source of some frustration.  Not least because over the years the blog has become a handy 'archive' of my own thoughts, insights and ideas as they have evolved, informed by those I read and respect.  And maybe it has even provided the occasional contribution to debates that matter to me and to Ireland.

So I'll keep on posting from time to time, and go on hoping.
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