Saturday, January 20, 2007


The Power of Political Correctness

The recent hoo-ha over allegations of racism in celebrity Big Brother, highlights that racism and bullying is endemic in British culture. Well, duh! Of course it is, and it would be difficult to imagine a scenario where it would be otherwise. People have always been singled out because of difference. There are many examples of this, not just in human social interactions, but in animals societies also. This is a fundamental aspect of our behaviour and, in a way, it is good that a programme like Celebrity Big Brother brings this to our attention. Because I am not for one moment condoning the behaviours of Jade Goody et al, or even excusing it, but pointing out that the first thing that needs to be done to address questions of racism and bullying is to recognise that we are all racists and bullies and only then can we think about bringing this aspect of our being into full consciousness and scrutiny.

However, another aspect of this story has not been explored so far in the British media and I find that surprising. The aspect I am talking about is political correctness. How often is it that you hear in the press that some scheme or policy is "political correctness gone mad," the accusation is such a favourite of right-wing publications that it almost approaches a vaudeville routine at times. However, despite the Jade Goody incident being, if we apply the criteria, an almost textbook case of 'political correctness gone mad,' not one Daily Mail headline or leader column has pointed this out. Not one. Why is this? Well to put simply, it is the power of political correctness. The issue of race today has assumed the status of something so untouchable and so policed that no one (except for fanaticists like the members of the British National Party) will consciously say anything that they think will be perceive as being racist. Think of the stigma the 'n' word now attracts. To think that even a few decades ago it could have been said on telelvision or film without a whisper of complaint. For example, check out the dog's name in the film The Dambusters (1954), if you can find an uncensored copy that it!

Is this a good thing?

Well yes and no. One thing it tends to confirm is that the rationale upon which political correctness is theoretically grounded is correct. That is to say, semiotics. Semiotics teaches us, rather than seeing the language representation as trivial and not reflecting the values of a culture, that a culture’s values are in fact determined by its language and its representations. Ferdinand de Saussure said in the Course of General Linguistics that things in the real world only take on their meaning after we have named them, because it is only in the naming that their differences from other things are fixed by language into the very qualities which make them conceptually distinct. Words therefore cannot represent ideas fixed in advance, when such ideas are themselves values emanating from a language system (and we can extend this to apply to other representational systems as well). This implies that a show like The Black and White Minstrel Show actually influences the racist values of its audience and the way UK culture chooses to see black people within in a very narrow and demeaning frame of representation. And it also implies that mainstream representations do contribute to a large extent to the way we stereotype these people. That is to say, restrict the way in which they do appear to us, in advance of the potentially limitless ways they could appear to us if there were no stereotypes in place).

Of course today, the Black and White Minstrel Show and other dreadful excuses for entertainment like Mind Your Language have been consigned to the dustbin of history, (they only live on ironically now in shows like Little Britain - ha ha!). But people of my generation watched those shows and, to an extent, it can be argued that they have left their mark on us. Externally, they are demonized of course, but internally their influence lives on, precisely because they have been demonised. The shows themselves have become scapegoats for our racism. They carry the burden of our racist guilt, so that we do not have to carry it ourselves. In other words, we can blame the shows, not ourselves, which is why the only way we are allowed to think about those shows today is as a terrible stain on our culture. Their true influences has remained largely unexamined - and persists because of this.

Which brings me to the issue of Jade Goody - scapegoat extraordinaire for all our negative views about race. Someone said to me today, “the trouble with Jade Goody is that she just doesn’t think,” implying that she opens her mouth and says the first thing that comes into her head. Now I think the issue here is not that Jade doesn't think, but rather than she is not reflexive enough to weigh up the consequences of her thoughts, and self-censor her opinions based on what other people think of her. This is why I think people love(d) Jade . She was, in a way, the big brother contestant least likely to have all the things she has now – several TV series under her belt, a residency in Heat magazine, even her own perfume. How has she achieved all this? Precisely by displaying that rare ability to be herself and say what she thinks. We love her, no doubt, because we do feel superior to her. She valorizes our inadequacies and, at the same, time makes it alright for us to be inadequate. Why? Because Jade has other, more positive qualities than her stupidity, like forthrightness, honesty and charisma, which makes up for what she lacks in brains and diplomacy. However, it is precisely for these qualities that people have decided to turn against her now. She is persona non grata because she expressed what we are all thinking, but are too calculating to express ourselves. Therefore she is castigated while we go unchallenged. We can still feel superiour to Jade, but in doing so were are guilty of the very things we are accusing her of. Jade's honesty reflects our culture and shames us all. Jade Goody is the bad consciousness of a nation.

What has been an undoubted strength of Big Brother is that it turns us all into psychologists. We can, for instance, see how easy it is to bully and how banal and trivial the actual act of bullying is. When a child hangs themselves over bullying at school, it seems extraordinary that no one could have spotted the signs. However, bullying is very much subjectivised by the victim of bullying. To the victim of bullying, an incident which looks from the outside to be very trivial and minor can be majorly traumatic. This is not to say that we should admonish the victims of bullying for making mountains out of mole hills, but rather understand that bullying is ordinary and something we are all capable of doing without really noticing it. In fact it is the very ordinariness of bulling that should alert everyone to the fact that each and every one of us is susceptibility to perpetuating it. The logic of alcoholics anonymous applies here. We must admit that we have a problem before we can deal with it. In fact the admission is the first step in dealing with it.

Admitting we have a problem because we are all bullies and racists means that there are inevitably things we are going to say or do that offend other people. This is not to say that in an ideal world these things wouldn't happen. For such a world could not actually exist with human beings in it. Rather, I would say that an ideal world is a place where we are able to tell the person who has made the ill judged, offensive remark why their remark was ill judged and why it was offensive. And tell them without fear of the crowd (for bullying always takes place in crowds) uniting against us and use our admission of hurt as more ammunition to berate or belittle us. I fear now, because of Celebrity Big Brother, this world is further away than it ever was. I fear now it will be harder for people to explain why they have been offended by a seemingly innocent remark. Because now everyone, no doubt, will get really defensive and will bluster and protest rather than take on board any criticism of their behaviour which they consider tantamount to racism or bullying. This is a shame. Imagine what would happen if we did take the seeming banality and triviality of bulling and racism seriously. The victims of bullying would no longer have to suffer in silence because they would not longer have to justify why a seemingly trivial remark and innocent looking behaviour had affected them so deeply. They could just say, I feel bullied. And the onus would be on the bully to change their behaviour. Now that would really be the power of political correctness gone sane. However, because of the hoo-ha of Big Brother, people bullying and racism will persist, while at the same becoming demonized all the more. I think in this negative way because of the reactions to Big Brother expressed so far by the media, see the BBC and the Guardian. These reports to my mind legitimate a culture where it is OK to believe that the majority (us) are not racists, while a small majority of (them), other people like Jade Goody are. And moreover the dominant opinion seems to be that these people should be removed from our screens and punished. I ask you, what kind of fascism is that?

Friday, January 05, 2007

[[ZEITGEIST]] There have been some interesting stories in the news of late. Here's a roundup…

Scientists find way to slash cost of drugs
Two UK-based academics have devised a way to invent new medicines and get them to market at a fraction of the cost charged by big drug companies, enabling millions in poor countries to be cured of infectious diseases and potentially slashing the NHS drugs bill. Link

Not Wilhelm Reich, nor Kate Bush I'm afraid but a story about a Californian farmers' has installed 24 cannons on his 1,200 acre farm. At the approach of a storm, his 20 ft cannons emit an electronic blast. As the sound waves travel up into the sky, they disrupt the water that is gathering to turn into hail, causing it to fall as mere rain. Link

Free Will Or Not? Not It Seems…
A bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control. As a result, physicists, neuroscientists and computer scientists have joined the heirs of Plato and Aristotle in arguing about what free will is, whether we have it, and if not, why we ever thought we did in the first place. Link

Thinking about the future
Brain scans have given US scientists a clue about how we create a mental image of our own future. When patients or volunteers are placed in the functional MRI scanner and asked to think or move in a particular way, specific areas of the brain 'light up' on the scan image, corresponding with increased electrical activity in those regions. The technique has developed to the extent that scientists can almost know what patients are thinking about simply by looking at the brain areas they are using. The latest project looked at one of the qualities thought to be unique to humans - the ability to create a mental picture of events that have not yet happened. The researchers placed 21 volunteers into the MRI machine, then contrasted the scan results when they were asked to imagine vividly future events and recollect past memories. Link
[[ZEITGEIST]] Stem cell research and the creation of chimeras

This from the BBC:

UK scientists planning to mix human and animal cells in order to research cures for degenerative diseases fear their work will be halted.... Opponents say this is tampering with nature and is unethical... Scientists accuse the body that grants licences for embryo research, the HFEA, of bowing to government pressure if it fails to consider their applications.

Here is a quote from Charles Sanders Peirce [CP 5.385] that I think throws some important light on this issue

"With the method of authority: the state may try to put down heresy by means which, from a scientific point of view, seem very ill-calculated to accomplish its purposes; but the only test on that method is what the state thinks; so that it cannot pursue the method wrongly. So with the a priori method. The very essence of it is to think as one is inclined to think. But with the scientific method the case is different. I may start with known and observed facts to proceed to the unknown; and yet the rules which I follow in doing so may not be such as investigation would approve. The test of whether I am truly following the method is not an immediate appeal to my feelings and purposes, but, on the contrary, itself involves the application of the method. Hence it is that bad reasoning as well as good reasoning is possible; and this fact is the foundation of the practical side of logic."

Good Science thrives in an environment were it is permitted to experiment freely. Since ethics are always contingent on the context of the good and bad being defended or attacked one cannot use ethical reasons alone to prohibit investigations. For those investigations, which in the short term are considered unethical, may in the long term yield results that appeal to a higher ethical order, for examples prohibitions against chimera research today on religious ground may prevent life saving applications tomorrow. Thus we can conclude that religion is against life, which seems fundamentally unethical. However, ethical considerations must within certain parameters be suspended in the investigation of new territories. A say certain parameters because some ethical issues obviously transcend this – the work of Dr Mengele for example. But the existence of an ethical scale is not the same thing as assuming that all the rungs on that scale are of equal importance and religious objections of some seem a very poor reason to halt research that may benefit the many.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The nature of nature

It's getting near twelve o'clock so here are some rambling thoughts on the nature of nature, which, thinking ahead, if they convince me of anything will probably convince me always to revise what I write before I push the 'publish post' button. Still, a nice picture from flickr.

Nature is both the natural world that surround us and an essential characteristic of things. The essential characteristic of things is also described as being natural. This word designates a whole host of ideologically motivated opinions. It's either perfectly natural to do or be 'x', or not natural. I wonder Do these concepts 'nature' and 'natural' exist independent of each other or is there a way of uniting them. What then is the nature of nature?

Nature when applied as a description of the natural world seems to rope together all phenomena that is not a product of human work of interference. There is a distinction for instance between natural and manufactured materials and natural and manufactured products. In the latter case this distinction seems oxymoronic. Who ever heard of a natural products? Although this is taken to extremes today, as 'natural' is an appellation applied to all sorts of dodgy foods and toxic shampoos so as to mean roughly its opposite.

But what is the idea of nature implied in this natural/artificial distinction? I think the answer to that question if that nature is considered to be something that exists beyond us and in spite of us (humans). Like Antarctica is considered to be the last natural wilderness left on earth because it is the only place not routinely occupied by humans (with the honourable exception of the citizens of McMurdo and other permanent bases on the ice of course).

If that is true, what then should we make of human nature? Is this something inside us that exists beyond us and in spite of us? Well perhaps. Jung certainly seemed to think so, he wrote in Man and His Symbols that we will never be able to triumph over nature because we would first have to triumph over our own human nature, which was impossible. Jung thus suggests that nature is the fundamental ground on which humanity stands, something unknown and unknowable and yet we cannot escape from it no matter how hard we may try. Of course other cultures do not share this dualistic view of human versus nature. The Japanese have no myths appointing them stewards of the Garden of Eden. In the west we are taught from an early age to consider ourselves, like Spiderman, hugely powerful, but weighted down by the guilt of the responsibility of that power. Whether this is hubris on an accurate description of events is open to question.

Human beings are driven by curiosity, dare I say, the desire to find out and to know and understand their nature is actually part of their nature. Therefore if nature is to be understood as what is not known, this means that the destiny of our nature is in some senses to destroy itself, or know itself, and thus transcend itself. And you can take that particular metaphor into all kinds of well worn territories. For example you can consider human beings to be the consciousness of Gaia. An then the desire to understand rather than conquer nature suggest a noble teleology for the race. But can nature completely disappear? And is it possible for the knower to know everything about themselves for surely a position of knowledge assumes a knower who is more knowledgeably than that which is known. Or do we in the final analysis adopt a similar view to Jung and conclude that nature itself cannot be transcended, precisely because it will always inhere in humans (this seems to be to be a particularly fixed and immutable view of nature but no matter). I suppose the answer to that question is logically the knower has to transcend the framing of his knowing and become a different kind of knower. Only then can the knower can look back on her old self and define it in terms of its limitations. Thus I conclude that the destiny of nature is to disappear into knowledge. Although, Shiva-like, human curiosity has a capacity to destroy its, knowledge of anything operates according to the rules of the dialectic and according to the principles of balance and equilibrium. Although all systems are susceptible to pressure and tolerances can only be pushed so far. Even when all things are known, there will still be things that are unknown, although the nature of these things will be quite different from the mysteries we can envisage now.