I am an uncomfortable bystander to the Culture Wars that have been raging across the blasted wastelands of cyberspace over the last decade. I occasionally lob a half-hearted stone from the sidelines with a quiet cheer so that nobody notices, but generally I keep my head beneath the parapet.
At best you might think that this demonstrates indifference to the unfolding course of history at what seems like a critical time. At worst you might think it makes me complicit in some greater evil to come. I should use my privilege as a white man to amplify this or that or do this or that thing to advance a particular cause.
And I sometimes feel a bit like that too. Maybe I should be planting a flag in the ground and manning the virtual barricades. And yet neither do it, nor will I.
1: It’s a scary place out there. A man could get hurt.
I feel that particularly because I consciously do not (and do not want to) live in a partisan bubble. Which means that I count among my friends people who fiercely and loudly believe in radically different perspectives of the world. To back either side would be to invite scorn, ridicule and disbarment from a bunch of people who I would consider, in some way, to be friends.
Consequently few people in the online world would know my views on climate change, gender/sex, Brexit, crime, race, Covid-19 or anything else. Simply because I don’t want the arsehole of someone I like deciding on the spot that I am actually, in fact, a cunt.
It hurts. And I don’t particularly like being hurt. You can call it cowardice or dishonesty, and you may well be right. But you know: I’ve got my life to lead. Every day brings me close to Death’s sweet release, and the time I have allocated to a vicious internet catfight over an ill-judged tweet or a half-formed opinion is close to zero.
I’m not a thought leader, have no pretension to be so, and don’t believe (ultimately) that loudly and declaritively opining over the airwaves is going to change the minds of anyone who disagrees with me, or much improve anyone’s perspective of me.
So while I will talk to anyone – friend or foe – over a pint in a pub, and good-naturedly challenge them where I think they’re wrong (with a mixed success rate) I have absolutely zero as in no interest in doing so in the chaotic, infantile, and egotistical idiot chamber that is social media.
2: I reserve the right to change my mind.
A direct personal example. In my 30s I had a flirtation with libertarianism. In fact, for a little while I was a pretty prodigious blogger in those circles.
I could adequately explain to you why most governments are bad, and do bad things, and waste taxpayers’ money, and squander the goodwill of the people they govern, because they inevitably become consumed by ideology that overrides practical sense.
The solution (speaking with my libertarian hat on) is to simply limit the role that government plays in people’s lives. Instead of grand national projects attached to ministerial vanity, government should be small and local. If councils had more power and freedom, we’d be more invested in our governance because we could make change happen where we can see it by voting in new people. As it is, government seems distant, reducing us all to bit players in our national story, many of us living in the euphemistic land of Left Behind.
(As you might be able to tell, part of me still believes this).
But, mixing in those circles, I found myself rubbing shoulders with people who believed that people should be allowed to carry guns. Or that all roads should be privately owned and paid through tolls. And that people should be allowed to not hire someone if they don’t like their religion or race. In short, I was not ideologically pure.
And so, slowly, I found myself backing away from my idealism towards something more nuanced. I still generally believe that national government should be cut in size and power – in some ways quite drastically – and that power should become as localised as possible so I can see the people who govern me and influence them directly. But I also think you need an overriding set of national policies and strong centre so that South Yorkshire can’t declare itself a Communist Republic and begin a cull of the Intelligensia.
And I’ve been bitten by this type of experience many times in my life. I’ve see-sawed on matters such Brexit and climate change, and currently find myself adrift in a canoe on the choppy waters of gender recognition and the pulling down of public statues.
So, issuing a Declaration Of Intent on every matter feels like it will always be premature. My opinions are always Awaiting Further Information. My beliefs are contigent on what I know now, and to quote Donald Rumsfeld: I don’t know what I don’t know.
I can stand being made a fool of by other people who know more than I do, but I also don’t want future me to be boxed in by past me. I used to passionately hate bagels, and yet I’ve bought bagels 3 times in the last year and eaten them voluntarily.
A microcosm, in fact, of the third reason.
3. Everybody’s probably wrong
As I sort of hinted in the last reason, I suspect I’m wrong on certain subjects. Maybe most or all of them, in fact. But a cursory history of thought shows that I’m probably no more wrong than everyone else is.
In my mid teens, I was deeply struck by a saying of Charles Fort, a 19th collector of what he called “damned data” – findings or events reporting by individuals or institutions that defied (and sometimes still do) what is commonly accepted as ‘fact’. He was most amused by reports of rains of fishes, strange lights seen on the surface of the moon, ghosts and so on, but underpinning it all was a core philosophy:
“I conceive of nothing, in religion, science, or philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while”Charles Fort. Wild Talents (1932)
By this he accurately summarised that what is accepted as fact in one era is considered hokum by the next.
Victorian criminologists devoted decades to studying the skulls of criminals in the belief – known as phrenology – that knowledge a person’s character could be derived from, and was informed by, the shape of their head. Learned tomes were published, police forces sat through training courses, and newspapers were full of this modern learning.
In fact, while the science of phrenology has become a bullet point in a Six Crazy Things The Victorians Actually Believed list, the legacy of phrenology is still with us today.
The character of people in literature is often established firstly through physical characterisation before their morals are revealed by actions. So criminals are “thick set” or “burly” with “narrow eyes”, whereas the good guys are “noble bearing” with “a clear face” and “clear eyes.”
Who hasn’t looked at the mugshot of some poor pickpocketing dupe, pockmarked skin born of bad diet and little sunshine, squinting at a camera (a picture taken at 5:30 in the morning when he has been rousted from his bed, hustled into a van and driven to a concrete bunker by armed police) and thought: “Well. He looks the type!”
Bigger examples are not hard to find. Alfred Wegener first proposed the idea that the continents are basically floating about in 1912. And then spent the remainder of his life essentially being laughed at by geographers and the scientific for his silliness. Until, a couple of decades after his death, the scientific establishment collectively clapped their foreheads and said “of course! The continents drift!” (an anecdote: at my primary school in the early 80s there was still a textbook hidden away in the school library from the 50s/60s which propounded the theory that the earth’s crust was in fact shaped as it cooled – somewhat like a baked apple).
The Mystery Of What Happened To The Dinosaurs was a popular subject of debate. Well into the 80s, venerated paleontologists were arguing about where they’d gone – and I have the popular science books to prove it (one argument being that basically mice got really clever and a bit bigger and started to eat dinosaur eggs faster than they could be laid).
Everywhere you look – pace Fort – you see the same story. Protectionism was an obvious tenet of global trade until it wasn’t. Free trade and small government was once the obvious thing in politics, until it suddenly wasn’t. Empire was normal until it was abhorrent. Slavery was natural until it wasn’t – and except in the places where it still is. Government deficits didn’t matter until they did and then they didn’t again. Gay marriage was unconscionable until it was natural. The Greeks – who gifted us language and the instruments of art, science and philosophy, buggered small boys on an industrial scale until they stopped. Girls got married at 12 and were considered adults for much of history until they weren’t. Racial prejudice was rooted in science understanding until it wasn’t.
Which of today’s shibboleths will still be commonly held two decades from now – let alone two centuries? An apocryphal tale is told of the French historian in the who was asked in the 1950s what the legacy of the French Revolution was and, with a shrug, answered: “it’s too early to tell.”
Knowledge and understanding changes constantly. You can’t be blind to that. What is true today will be false tomorrow. The best you can hope to be is… decent. Don’t buy into any kind of groupthink. Don’t blindly accept what you are told – even if it comes from sources and people you naturally agree with.
In short: don’t throw stones – because half of the time you’re in a glasshouse and don’t even know it.
There is a kind of vanity, I think, in having a strongly held opinion. Most of us are naturally prone to confirmation bias and the Dunning-Kruger effect. In short, we choose evidence that supports what we already believe, and we also assume that we’re smarter than the average person. Put those together with the type of informational bubbles we make for ourselves and it makes for a heady cocktail of ego.
And ego is the wellspring of the sort of hectoring, bully-pulpit behaviour you see on social media a lot. People who you otherwise like and respect will suddenly become shrill and insistent on some subject of other until you can’t stand reading their tweets. Sometimes because you think they’re wrong, and sometimes it will feel like you specifically are being targeted because what they are saying seems so specific an affront to your own beliefs – no matter how lightly held they are.
I don’t like it in other people, and don’t want to do it myself. So I’ll keep my own counsel. (In doing so, you quickly find that most people assume you believe the same things as you do, which in itself is a small instruction.)
4. I’m an absurdist
A couple of years ago, my boss at the time asked, while we were stuck in traffic in his car: “what do you think the meaning of life is?” I thought for a moment and answered along the lines of: “there isn’t one. Each of us only mean something to a small number of people and then we’re gone and quickly forgotten.”
He took quite a lot of exception to this and said that I was an absurdist as if it were some kind of character flaw. Now, I wasn’t fully cognizant of the concept in philosophy, but even the word “absurd” appealed to me greatly and I now think that’s probably what I am.
To me, human knowledge and behaviour is in a constant state of flux – the overarching theme of this bit of outpouring. To be beholden to any particular creed or political allegiance is to be ultimately be made a fool of. Be in no doubt, there is madness in the politics of the left and the right alike. Even centrism (such as it exists at all) is riddled with its own insanities and contradictions.
And this plays out into the fringes of the broader culture war. I’ll pick one aspect where I think there is an element of insanity. In my heart of hearts I don’t believe there are 58 genders. Immediately some of you (not that anyone reads this blog, thankfully!) will be furious with me. But I think we’re at a weird crux in history where relativism has crossed some sort of intellectual Rubicon. Like medieval prelates who would argue about the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin, they are caught in a weird, solipsistic arms race to salami slice the human experience into ever-smaller categories so they can fulfill some impulse to offer everyone a definitive category of existence that confers meaning.
In my view, the not doesn’t operate like that but never will. You’re entirely free to tell people you are whatever you think you are, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Like being a member of one of the many hundreds of obscure sects of Christianity you have to recognise it can simultaneously be confirming and enriching to you as an individual in your relationship with the world whilst also being entrely irrelevant to how that world actually works or people’s perception of you.
Thus the difference between being Neutrois and Agender is to almost everyone exactly akin to the difference as to whether you’re in the membership of the Apostolic Assemblies of Christ as opposed to Apostolic Assembly of the Faith in Christ Jesus.
The debate over this has gotten real weird and shrill and ignores the basic human commonality we share: for we all contain multitudes. You can be a gay Conservative. A racist human rights icon. You can even be a Indian Sikh Nazi.
You can, I read, be a lesbian – even if you have a dick.
It may demonstrate some atavistic thinking on my part, but that made me laugh. A lesbian with a penis flies in the face of what seems to be common sense. What little I know of lesbians is that they have fannies. So with no malice, I laugh.
In fact, a tenet of absurdism is that, confronted with madness, the only sane thing to do is laugh. Now, it could well be that laughter betrays intolerance – as if finding absurdity in a situation is to deny that the situation is real or to downplay its seriousness. And there could be truth in that.
But equally, it presupposes that the situation is actually serious and real. And often… they aren’t. The splenetic, white hot fury of a lady putting a cat in a bin lit everyone’s synapses up for a couple of weeks and yet ultimately meant nothing. Even had the cat died, it would have offered us no greater instruction as to the nature of the world. It was just A Thing That Happened.
And yet people used it as a thread to pull on the fabric of the world. Cat Bin Lady showed that Britain’s ideal of itself as a Nation Of Animal Lovers was nonsense. Or that our fury showed that we were a nation of animal lovers. Or that we are living in an Orwellian surveillance state. Or that we should have more cameras to capture more misdeeds.
Much of the noise of social media is people sifting through the entrails of A Thing trying to infer meaning where none exists.
So as an absurdist, I try to avoid the idea of Grand Narratives. It’s the sort of thing that informs bad history as you will choose a bunch of things that agree with your premise and present it accordingly.
But Joe Pesci knew the truth.
In short, I choose laughter. Sometimes laughter is based in lies and sometimes in truth. It can reveal as much as it can hide.
And in an absurd world, is taking refuge in absurdity really so absurd?