Thursday, 24 December 2009

Searching for the Crucible

Sifting through job applications today I was eating literally giga-bytes of corperate mantra, my eyes quickly becoming soiled with a thousand pages of motivational Amercanisms, catchy slogans and bastard philosophy skillfully adapted for the free market. Then one item caught my eye, A career path little with was elegantly described as filled with 'Crucible moments' where an individual is remade in the paradigm image of Accenture, Pzier, SBR or whatever company it was. I found this idea quite attractive, had I undergone crucible moments? Certainly I may only be 24, but I've hardly wasted my time here and yet my head was empty- I could never pin down my 'defining moments'

So I naturally did what many of us do when we are lost for answers- I googled it. Unfortunately unless I want to work in Emergic Ecosystems, or buy the book for guaranteed career success and I still was at a loss. So plan B was hatched, a nice long walk alone trips to potential crucibles, perhaps jarring some joy or selling some sorrow but no doubt stirring activity from the graveyard of memory. Remembering my young self was particularly strange, it's weird one can be so curious and yet make little, if any, decisions for myself, in an inexplicable ball of energy with no focus but so much enthusiasm for relative mundanity.

Nietzche sprang to mind as he sometimes does

“I have done that," says my memory. "I cannot have done that" -- says my pride, and remains adamant. At last -- memory yields.

I was unsure weather to be jealous of the young me, happiness was easy for him, albeit empty by my current standards. Perhaps the hallmark of maturity is when we make happiness harder for ourselves.

Then I laughed that person is me or was me, I got really perplexed at how one could be envious of oneself, but decided to leave that behind and get to the task at hand. I could see no crucible in this empty, icy playground but I had this vision of the person I used to be, I had not ceased to exist, but now had chosen to exist differently. That must have a path, one of choice, development, success and regret. I had some idea of what a crucible might look like but still had fill it, and yet I could not.

I remembered that my dad had made me sing the songs he would buy for me to bolster the confidence that is deficient in probably every 8 year-old overweight ginger boy. That stirred mixed emotions firstly came from a very unique form of private shame followed by a realisation that maybe that was a 'crucible moment' One thing that struck me is that if it was, why was it so hard to remember? Why are such crucial developmental breakthroughs so elusive to us?

I figured once again we were still the same society that thinks self analysis is only for the sick, philosophy for the unemployed and mental crucibles something only discussed in IBM's motivational workshops. Maybe it's because we're in a habit of normalising everything we do, which makes life easier to deal with, but comes at the cost of self awareness. I settled on something Carl Jung danced with but never explicitly said- perspectives of importance are relatively transient things- There are linchpins, family, friends and the other usuals but by in large what was important to me to 2 years ago isn't important to me any more and if I go back more than five years I see such a foreign set of needs and desires that I almost think my memory-ego is a different person entirely.

“All the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insolvable... they can never be solved, but only outgrown. This 'outgrowth' proved on further investigation to require a new level of consciousness. Some higher or wider interest appeared on the person's horizon, and through this broadening of his or her outlook the unsolvable problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge.”

I like this Jung quote, at first it seemed depressing, forcing us to the doom of failing to 'solve' life's problems. Growth and development are matters of perspective and probably misguided allocations at best. The empowerment to create a world in which problems are perspectives and not physical obstructions is a intriguing if a little optimistic concept. I would be daring enough to say it does have some practical application, certainly I would say one of the the biggest problems of our age is unrealised potential, just another self-problem built on perspective.

I think memory can play horrible tricks on us, joy, I would say is perhaps the worst way to learn anything, in attempting to piece together my crucible I could not think of one experience wrought through happiness I had really learnt from, apart from, that it made me happy. Happiness never changes anything, in fact it's truly abhorrent trait is that it encourages us all to stay the same. Maybe man's true cross to bear is that development can only come from misery, pain and regret, expediency of the mind to end such anguish is remarkable and the fruits of such are lifelong. Persistence of memory makes me hate regret, such a terrible trick of the mind to label the crucible that forged me with such an illogical emotional impunity.

All to often we know those defeated by their past, defined beyond all doubt as worthless and incapable by the ghost of their memory-egos. It's seem a weird fact that people can become ruled by someone they used to be, but is likely a sign of a weakness and a failure to grow beyond our problems. More than anything these individuals have stopped valuing their problems, become dependant on their memory-ego as a ruler and refused to be a dynamic actor in their own lives. I think much of this modern depression is based on just that, not our eroded relationships with others but a damaged relationship with our past selves.

So I kept walking, I went to my old school, a park I used to play in, a place I used to eat. Many of past my selves appeared, I was envious of some, pitiful of others and one even suggested he knew I would come visit him. I asked them all what they had thought was important and the responses were mixed and still my crucibles were still vague. Largely they were happy with my present self, they were happy I still viewed them as important, they were my not my judges and spite my seemingly unending ability to recall regret, I had not regretted meeting them again.

I took to walking home having had tea with the past, my mind naturally wandered the future and a small glimpse of my future-ego appeared, I couldn't see him clearly yet but it didn't trouble me, I'd been vexing a lot about future recently but after the brief chat with the past I had realised I was developing in such a way that I was unlikely to be to be miserable. Though I had wondered about my sanity these days, long walks alone, talking to ghosts and being left to write the obituary of my two day old memory-ego gave me some cause for concern. Luckily Christmas won't give me much time to dwell on the sensibilities of such behaviours. Modern life is so full of distractions.

I hope you will make time for your memory-egos this Christmas but do so in the right capacity, not in the denial or worship of past selves, but a good friendship you can share a bottle of wine with over the festive season. I find my memory a treacherous thing often making me forget the wisdom of the past by focussing on present concerns, and treat them as a gateway to that oft forgotten knowledge.

My search for crucible moments was largely a fruitless one, but I found once again diving into my myself quickly became it's own reward. I worried less about the future and had made peace with my past. Anyway I'm being shouted at to get off the laptop, Christmas not being a season for the philosopher but will end with this festive message from Seneca

“That which is hard to bear is sweet to remember”

It's hard not to think of Christ's passion, isn't it? I hope you make time to remember some regret, search for your crucibles and have port with the past, I can assure you it's more christmassy than it sounds.

Merry Christmas everyone.

The power of discourse and the language of intent

You might say this work was pioneered by a little social experiment I decided to run recently- Those of you who know me well will know that I almost never watch TV. For about the last 5 years I find it nearly impossible to sit still long enough to digest a TV programme. Recently I'd decided to revoke that policy for about 3 hours a week, by watching for one hour every other day, a news channel from a different country. It was a silly little exercise to gain a little cultural insight into other countries needs, concerns and lifestyles.

Almost immediately I began to realise linguistic disparities- at first I thought this unimportant- nothing more than a different cultural take on language, but I began to see more on this, even though what they were describing was almost always the same, I began to realise how they were saying it was making me feel a different way. It made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, it felt like 'unbiased' news was still projecting an agenda onto me, but I couldn't put my finger on how- how could the same facts make me feel different things despite being presented in an objective manner?

Then I had bizarre moment, a collection of news stories in Afghanistan broke at the same time across three news channels CNN, BBC and Al-Jazeera.

The first story 'Terrorists plot Afghanistan election chaos'
Second story 'Insurgents threaten to disrupt elections'
Third story 'Neo-conservative Afghan rebels seek to end elections'

Now I'm no idiot, I'm aware that much of the media carries with inherently loaded language within it- but I would ask you this when have you heard Taliban fighters described as 'neo-conservative Afghan rebels?' This bothered me so much, because this in itself seemed the most objective 'label' for those Afghans involved in the conflict, essentially those who do not embrace democracy and support the opium dealers in Afghanistan.

Certainly a long way from bringing 'terror' these people just want to feed there families. When did the 'terrorists' (I E bringers of Terror) become guerilla fighters in other lands? It seems we've branded our enemies a people with no other objective than terror. Not only is this provably false, it over simplifies conflicts, and it shifts the justification away from us. We are the invaders, but they are the bringers of Terror?

I began to feel strange like I had been lied to, but the weird thing is I hadn't been lied too... Yet I felt deceived in meaning. So once again I took to the world of philosophy to find answers and found a political fellow by the name Michel Foucault, and politely informed me that I can be given an answer correctly in factual context but deceived in the emotional response of that factuality. The striking thing is he then said this is the basis for all authoritative discourse. Weirdly he had been talking about the soviet union, and yet I felt based on my silly little social experiment designed to give me insight into cultural values, it had all become relevant again.

Then I began the horrendous path of a crazed linguist, I began to question not only language, but the nature of the discourse that language had created. It seemed that discourse, across medias, that was always geared in one direction, How long will the recession last? It seems we missed out on a public discourse on how we might choose to end the recession, were bailouts the only option? Where did we borrow from? How much should we have borrowed? I don't know because nobody discussed these issues publicly. Our foreign affairs seems to be 'what will we do next?' not a 'Should we do anything next?' I find this subtle manipulative language style so dis-empowering. It seems with a little linguistic finesse it breeds with it a public consent can be wrought through a series of very tight avenues of extremely loaded questioning.

Orwell whom I mentioned before in a similiar capacity, I feel needs a greater mention here- his essay 'Politics and the English language' is a fascinating look at how phraseology can so subtly underpin an ideology without even openly advocating it.

“Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”

I felt the words 'Regime change' 'Global security' ringing so hard in my ears it was deafening. Where had war gone?

Do I think the media is controlled by networks seeking to advocate some neo-conservative agenda? No, of course I do not- but I do feel that language in the media is beginning to become not only less objective but less empathetic too. If language can corrupt thought, I would ask you to consider to what the objectives of the undemocratic (non-democratic anyone?) Illegitimate (by whose standards?) terrorists (Weren't the Taliban a theocratic governance?) might be. It seems that language may have ganged up on these fellows but would ask you not to join this club of language bullies. Nobody likes a bully...

Don't be satisfied with reassigning adjectives, but I hope you continue to de-construct language but use that skill to re-shape a discourse. It's is the nature of egotism to deceive, it grants a power we all crave- I would ask you to identify and isolate the language of intent to that end, so that we no longer become slaves to the words of others but only the discourse that we make for ourselves.

That is the very definition of a liberal media- but you probably didn't know that...

I would begin to ask yourself why that is the case...

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Remembering the victims of peace

The Afghan war is one which produces many mixed feelings in people; the recent surge of deaths in Helmand province has cast doubts on the likelihood of success in Afghanistan. Amid claims of election fraud, security issues and the Obama administrations policy of scaling back troop deployments, the future looks pretty grim for Afghans.

I think we need to be reminded why we deploy troops to foreign shores – many individuals seem to think that fighting for democracy abroad is some sort of Western cultural imperialism. I think that it’s highly racist to simply assume that democracy and the freedoms it brings are simply the desires of solely Western nations. People cannot seem to understand that we live a morally complex world where good things can come from bad actions. Most people would probably accept that vast majority of injustices occurring on a mass scale are a result of totalitarian regimes worldwide and yet an increasingly vocal minority are speaking out against taking action.

So the argument progresses – what’s so special about Afghanistan? The primary reason has to be heroin, which is at the heart of this conflict. Afghanistan produces 87% of the worlds heroin at a tremendous social cost to the West, but at an even bigger social cost to Afghans. In some regions where heroin is used as currency, addiction rates have sky-rocketed destroying families, creating health problems and ending lives. The problems don't just end there; this massively profitable business generates billions directly funding crime syndicates and international terror networks. Heroin’s addictive quality is often used to ensure loyalty to heroin growers. Whereas the Western aid agencies may come with food and blankets, Taliban fighters know at least they can get their next fix by staying loyal to their grower. Addiction creates a massive barrier for Western forces in getting Afghans to accept change, but it’s only part of the problem.

Most Afghans don’t fight for addiction, some misguided notion of the Jihad, and certainly not to maintain sovereignty. The majority of Afghans simply fight to put food in their bellies and money in their pockets. When coalition forces went in and simply steamrolled any poppy growers (largely ignored by the poorly developed Taliban state) they essentially created a new problem – they made many Afghans unemployed and at the same time angered a very rich and powerful section of Afghanistan. This gave birth to what is called the “5 dollar Talib”. An unemployed tender of a heroin field is given 5 dollars and AK 47 with three magazines. His job is to tend to the heroin field and to fight anyone who comes near it. Considering Heroin is Afghanistan’s single biggest industry this has now armed a significant portion of the population. Terror cells had already been operating in Afghanistan for over a decade so arming the population was fast and easy. If you want to understand the significance of this into the ongoing conflict I would invite you to look at Helmand – responsible for 80% of the Afghanistan’s heroin growth and the bloodiest region for British and coalition forces.

Thankfully, this is now being acknowledged as part of the problem. Organisations like USAID are funding farming programmes in which poppy growers are subsidised to grow other crops such as maize with the subsidy used to “top up” profits in order to make it as profitable as growing poppies. In a recent discussion I had with a sergeant who served two tours in Afghanistan, he said where these programmes had been a success Taliban insurgency is virtually zero. Furthermore public health and social cohesion was improved due to greater access to food supplies and reduction in addiction rates. In a recent interview General McCrystal has now accepted that 95% of Taliban fighters fall into the “5 dollar Talib” category and has shifted the objectives from targeting insurgency to appeasing the local populations, showing them there are viable alternatives to promoting heroin growth. I think a solid understanding of why Afghans fight is the key to breaking this conflict and making it winnable.

Pulling out now would be our biggest mistake. Elections will require security to run smoothly and a government will be required to maintain the state apparatus to keep any sort of peace in the future. Certainly collapsing into a power vacuum will create an even worse environment than the current conflict in the inevitable power struggle that will follow. In the meantime, the Middle East would be showered in heroin and Afghanistan would become another failed state and a hotbed for terrorism that would certainly affect countries like India and Pakistan for generations to come.

Pacifists irritate me because they suggest that nothing is worth fighting for. I'm not a champion of warfare but I see Afghanistan as an opportunity to foster positive change on a domestic level for Afghans, and an international level for ourselves and Afghanistan's neighbours. If you think there is currently no social cost in inaction for us, I'd like you to use this Remembrance Day not only to remember our servicemen, but to remind you why they fight.

I would invite you to remember the 336 deaths in 2008 resulting from heroin abuse in Scotland alone – more than the 208 British servicemen killed in 8 years in Afghanistan- and just a tiny fraction of the deaths that can be attributed to Afghan heroin worldwide.

Lastly I’d like you to remember my brother, Jai Dolan, who tragically died in December 1997 as a result of heroin abuse. I hope that in remembering him we can remind ourselves that success in Afghanistan can prevent senseless deaths like his.

We declare war when the price of peace has become too high, and would ask you not only to remember the servicemen who die in the tragedy that is war, but ask you to reflect on the often unspoken victims of peace that these men fight for.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Becoming the man of your memes

"Tread carefully for you tread on my memes" - Richard Dawkins

Evolution is fuelled entirely by the forces selection, previously in evolutionary history its entirely based upon how we interacted with our environment we grew arms, legs to fight, eat and build are way evolutionary success. We grew these to defend ourselves against the the forces of nature, previously the only way to evolve was physical, then the meme happened and that changed evolutionary history forever.

For those of you unaware of the term meme its a unit of cultural information that spread through a population under a similar, but not identical model of inheritance to genes. If you want an example of a meme I'm using the most successful meme in the world to communicate to you. There's no doubt in any biologists mind that the meme of language changed how we interacted with each other and therefore effected how we evolved. Next time you look look at larynx I would invite you to think think that nature designed this so we can physically be better meme-machines.

What we can take from this philosophically? Well it suggests that next stage of our evolution will be fostered on ability our to co-operate. Language evolved because created unparalleled way for us to work together, and it was so successful it spread to every part of the globe. I think its inspiring thought that success of our species will be built on a spirit of co-operation that is underpinned a natural mechanism that facilitates this process. Its an uplifting message that we're evolving to work better together.

Memes present a sense of transcendence to cultural thought, because although our own lives might be transient, our memes are long out live us. The society we live is built upon the collective memes that existed within since the dawn of language, each “meme pool” creating a collective cultural identity based upon individual experiences of millions of people throughout history. As each person dies, their memes are left behind in their friends, in their family and in their children to be tested for usefulness in a new generation, old, irrelevant ideas will be phased out superseded by the useful, the pleasant and successful ideas of the new generation. The world we live in is based on the collective successful memes passed down throughout history.

We can look at political history as an evolution of memes- from anarchy came tribal despotism then came the caste system that evolved into to a feudal monarchy that shifted toward nationalism, fascism then communism and now we have democracy. A facilitated selection of ideas based on societal need. Memetic evolution doesn't just happen by itself, the conditions need to be just right for selection pressure to be applied and primarily this happens by group scrutiny and collective action. Memetic evolution works in a telescopic manner, this means after long periods of inaction or very slow gradual change when the conditions fall into place the level of evolution is amplified massively.

Times of great memetic change are well logged by history- the renaissance overturned a 1,000 years of established political religion simply because people had new means to scrutinise (the resurgence of deductive science) and new ways to spread ideas (invention of the printing press). As a result exponential memetic adaptation and selection occurred, essentially in scientific terms this means it became a golden age of ideas.

I referred to this digital age as a “second renaissance” due to the onset of something scientists refer to as “punctuated equilibrium” which is the rapid evolution occurs to better adapt to a new environmental factors such as the new ability to communicate in word, picture, audio and video to a massive audience instantaneously. This evolution isn't physical its memetic and far from being the second renaissance I believe it can be considered the fifth renaissance to have taken place. The first took place on the onset of the photograph and had a limited but distinct effect because recording history suddenly became literal, wars no longer became glorious recollection of those who won it, but it became a history retold in the impartial images of suffering.

The third renaissance was one of audio suddenly which had a distinct impact on the second world war for it became a powerhouse of memetic transmission allowing Churchill to give his famous speeches to raise the moral of the British people that suffered so greatly under the blitz. The human voice over the word has such an emotive quality and hearing our leaders publicly allowed scrutinise their characters on mass basis for the first time. They no longer became distant policy makers but humans like ourselves. This personalisation of our leaders gave rise to two wonderful memes of meritocracy and egalitarianism- if he's like me, why can't I be like him?

This was furthered by the onset of the forth renaissance one of an audio-visual medium through television. This no doubt played a significant the evolution of the cultural meme of the civil rights movement because the suffering of African Americans was beamed into millions of homes world wide. When information becomes more accessible to individuals more people can get involved in the selection of memes, it becomes faster and more accurate. If I were take one unifying message on the evolution of memes it would be this- the defining feature of our memetic evolution is its search for unified truth and a war on injustice, a memes sole function is to reproduce but the successful memes that persist through out our history must meet one primary criteria, to make better world for us all. Suddenly evolution begins to offer us more than a reason for being what we are- it can offer us a philosophy of hope.

Why, oh why, does this fifth renaissance (far less punchy isn't it?) offer more than its previous efforts? To put it simply this is the first renaissance that belongs to us. Previously information networks belonged to other people, you might have a great idea, for example a sociological theory based on the selection of memes, but unless you knew someone who owned a printing press, worked at publishing firm or was some how involved with radio or TV it would be unlikely to go very far. Not only that, many ideas went unnoticed due the high cost in publishing anything through these mediums. For the first time in human history we have a huge access to the means of widespread meme production that's cheap, easy to use, accessible is through a medium that many of us already interact with on a daily basis. The excitement caused by the knowledge that everybody can contribute to the biggest “meme pool” in human history has led to a huge artistic surge because this is the first renaissance everybody can be a part of.

I've decided this is too much of an opportunity to miss and have pulled up my surfboard to ride memetic tidal waves of the information age in the form of desktop philosophy. Despite several tides of shit such as “kid with light saber” on Youtube but I'm already witnessing first sign of positive sociological change. The Junta of Myanmar republic attempted media lock down to hide slaughter of Burmese monks and one guy with a mobile phone uploaded his photos to the internet set several hundred people immediately to their blogs, word spread, the face book group had over a million members before the international pressure forced the Junta to stop the genocide. Memes once again exercised their seemingly innate ability to end injustice.

I hope this reflection has invited you consider the positive aspects of both physical and memetic evolution but will end with one further thought. We've never existed in a more connected age and this makes it most exciting time to be alive, as this is the first renaissance that encompasses greatest subsection of our planet to date. Our unrivalled capacity to communicate with one another will fuel a new age where truth becomes inescapable and injustice becomes more visible much easier to deal with collectively. The information age belongs to you but will be shaped not by its consumers but by its contributors. Wherever you are, whatever your doing, don't be bored.

The fact your reading this means you're already a part of this, but I would ask you to consider which part of this renaissance you want to belong to you.

Best of luck on your adventures.

Confessions of a science-killjoy- An introduction into a philosophical appreciation of evolution

I still don't know why it has taken quite so long to write this down, because recently for about the billionth time, I've had the famous “I hate evolution but I accept it” conversation. For those of you new to this particular discourse; it follows a familiar pattern. People often postulate that evolution is a depressing theory because it suggests the following things: Firstly, it suggests that we have have no free will as we are reduced to simple bags of chemicals acting out our biological destiny and secondly, that evolution favours the biggest, strongest and the meanest. Yet most of us will freely accept that we don't live in a society of evil, hulking, mindless, chemically driven drones and yet the persistence of these inaccuracies remain.

These two statements are provably false and any biologist with a decent understanding of the evolution of organisms by the process of natural selection will immediately refute them. I will offer my own brief rebuttal of these misrepresentations but I think far more importantly, I'd like to have a look at how a further understanding of evolution can enrich how we think about our lives. I would like to change the commonly held thinking that it is a depressing theory of fatalism but an uplifting theory of self-determination.

I think it's funny how science is often considered a “protestant killjoy” when my experience of science and particularly scientists, reveals a far grander worldview taught by some of the most colourful and humorous characters I've ever met. Everyone I know seems interested in people who study arts subjects- has any one really thought that a scientist might have a philosophy all of his own? Science is a constantly evolving art form all of its own, and I think should be examined as such.

No doubt that the arts affects science, the guiding hand of ethics, design and epistemology have contributed to how science works, but what about science affecting art? There I see the really exciting side of the modern age- the building of the world of information networks has triggered the biggest artistic movement in history, whether it is the millions of users of deviant art and its many digital canvas children, or the hundreds of millions of people who have decided to become movie stars for the first time on Youtube. It's a second renaissance fueled by a new digital printing press that isn't just limited to words, but includes sounds, videos and pictures instantly reproducible by anyone with a PC. You might say I'm just one of the new generation of desktop philosophers inspired solely by the fact that I can be read almost anywhere, by anyone at any time.

Given the almost completely indispensable inter-relation between the fields of art and science, I think it's probably about time that science gets the artistic appreciation it deserves, and where better to start than that cold, remorseless theory of evolution. I want to examine how it is in fact a theory that offers hopeful and relevant messages for coping in the modern age. I want to examine how an appreciation of the evolution of genetic memory can add an element of transcendence and responsibility to our existence. Lastly, I want to examine the way in which the new evolution of cultural memes can give an uplifting idea to how our minds are evolving currently.

Finding beauty in commonality

I wish we would embrace a little pragmatism sometimes, I respect that life-goals obviously need to be a little bit ambitious but making them unrealistic serves no one and one of the most painful things we can do is walk a path we are unsuited for. We need to be able to criticise ourselves effectively, to get what we want that involves analysing our strengths, weaknesses and make reasoned assumptions about what we can achieve and what we are likely to achieve. Not just what we want. How many of you have asked your friends what you think you should do? If you find what they say jarringly different from what you want its probably time to have a think about who you are. Never be quick to dismiss the opinions of others they always have reasons for having them. Never view your ambitions as absolute.

Now consider this for a moment, Robert Burns cottage attracts many tourists from across the globe. It is a boring place. A fairly ordinary cottage of no particular architectural or historical note in a fairly bland part of Ayrshire. There is nothing remarkable about the place. Yet tourist flock to see what he saw and yet they cannot. The bizarre contradiction is that Burns poetry takes the ordinary and makes it come alive with a poetic vision of the world. The importance is not what you see but rather how you choose to see it. He made the humble Louse, mice or Haggis items worthy of poetic idolatry. I think this is an idea that can be carried across into our personal lives and goals. When did the pleasure of an ordinary life get so eroded by the media's thinking on what we should be doing and how much we should be earning? I wish people would stop hating the ordinary, it forces the world to be such an ugly place.

Burns teaches that there is grandiosity in the most average of lives, a richness and depth that exists if only we would choose to see it. Everyday billions of people take a wry smile as they look at the clock and see five minutes to finishing time. A very ordinary experience but we keep smiling. I would invite you to keep smiling. Doesn’t commonality have its beauty too?

This doesn’t mean we should all focus on being mediocre, one of lovely things about being human is we have an unrivalled capacity to develop ourselves, it is very much the defining feature of our species. This level of investment does not have to be a chore at all, I for one love having hobbies and see it as far more critical in my personal development than my studies. I might even suggest to you, that making yourself a more rounded individual, one capable of greatness of any kind is probably easier than you imagine. Do you really know what you like doing? Do you spend two hours a week doing it? Even if you and your hobbies get lost to time, if you are 20 now and die at 65 you will have spent 4,680 hours doing something you loved doing. This can be anything from reading a good book, drinking a cup of tea or staring at a lap top screen hoping some words will appear on the page… Although the latter contains quite a tidal mixture of grief and happiness. Numerical value aside (and I do love numerical value) just investing time in oneself carries inherent value not only for ourselves but others too. A silly little Harvard professor called William Lyon Phelps thought similarly on the issue.

“The happiest people are those who think the most interesting thoughts. Those who decide to use leisure as a means of mental development, who love good music, good books, good pictures, good company, good conversation, are the happiest people in the world. And they are not only happy in themselves, they are the cause of happiness in others.”

Quite simple ambitions aren’t they? What this quote says to me is that what we do isn’t important, its what we love doing that is. It only makes sense that we might attempt to combine the two. When that’s not possible take solace in the fact you at least have another 4,000 or so hours to look forward too. Having a nice chat is precious. Treat it as such.

Finally as last time, I wish to finish on somewhat of a personal note. I want to concentrate on the “moral” aspect we often forget about ambition. I had originally planned to talk about Abraham Lincoln who to his merit had a lot of engaging things to say on developing moral ambition. Alas his was superseded by a far better candidate- my mummy. My mum like many mothers is quite unremarkable, half educated from a shitty part of Glasgow and a single mum and to this day is phenomenally poor. Yet in a very ordinary past time of reading to her child she at a very young age imparted the moral wisdom of Rudyard Kiplings “Just-So Stories” They are lovely tales I would recommend to anyone regardless of age. These memories to this day fill me with a great deal of happiness and influence my writing this. She only sought ambition of the moral kind and no other. Simply to love her son. This made her happy and is something 98% of mothers do. She taught me there is incredible beauty to be had in the living the ordinary life.

That knowledge makes me happy too.

Thanks mum.

Finding who we are and what we want, remembering Information does not equal wisdom

We live in an exciting time, never before has opportunity been easier to come by and social mobility in the UK even in a time of mass recession is at an all time high. But this opportunity creates a new era of personal responsibility for us all. In the 20s the only responsibility we had was to learn the trade of our fathers. Now in the age of subsidised university, funded apprenticeships and research grants just working out what we want to do is difficult. Arthur C .Clark, a famous Astronomer has this offer us to dealing with information overload in our tech heavy age

"The Information Age offers much to mankind, and I would like to think that we will rise to the challenges it presents. But it is vital to remember that information — in the sense of raw data — is not knowledge, that knowledge is not wisdom, and that wisdom is not foresight. But information is the first essential step to all of these."

So how do we navigate this minefield? I might suggest chasing some of this wisdom that Clark talks about. Firstly we need to re-evaluate what are idea of success is. Success is another word that strikes me that has taken on a rather strange meaning, when we say “David is a success” we refer almost entirely to David’s financial position or status in the community. Yet what we are saying is this person is a success at being a human, yet the attributes we see as humanitarian values, Honesty, Integrity and kindness don’t necessarily factor into the equation. Its quite easy to see why, and its where Clark's quote comes alive for me.

Information does not equal wisdom.

Think about that for a second. What information do we receive everyday albeit passively? It is of course the media which is obsessed with the “American Dream”. Almost every media outlet exclusively talks about those of money and status in our communities. Not a single American sitcom or drama isn’t about Doctors, Lawyers, Scientists or Politicians. We take these fictional dramas and are passively fed money and status and beauty is everything. Here the information doesn’t feed a higher wisdom it serves only to mislead. One of the pitfalls of the information age is the invention of passive media such as radio and TV. Previously many people would read books slowly and at their own pace and as such naturally have a critical eye to it. I've certainly never sat through a class that teaches me HOW to criticise the media that most people are exposed on a far greater basis than books.

Media now is so fast and over bearing we tend to accept what we're given simply because analysing the sheer volume we receive daily would take a lifetime. Passive media's negative impact is that many false premises go through unnoticed to mass audiences. One of these is that successful people have the most money. History seems quick to forget Gandhi, Mother Theresa, and Mozart. They all died penniless but they died knowing they had contributed something unique and something they loved doing. If ambition is designed to ensure our happiness through person-development refined by a moral lens then I think it can be said the media often sells us “False ambition”. Developing our sense of self-knowledge is the only true way of understanding our needs and therefore our ambitions. Be aware of what makes you happy.

When did we stop asking ourselves what we want and just accepted that success is those the media deems to be successful? Its an easy trap to fall into, discovering what we want is difficult and varies on mood, where we live and who we surround ourselves with. That doesn’t mean that ambition is meaningless it just involves facing some very disarming truths about ourselves. What am I good at? and perhaps the ugliest truth of all What am I bad at? Some of you may think the answer to that question is easy, but I know for a fact that many students have massive problems facing themselves.

The university systems biggest flaw is that it doesn't necessarily develop peoples innate talents it just ask us all to do the same things. As a result we begin to think are things we should be good at, before examining the things we are good at. Result- I've had at least a dozen friends who have wanted to be university professors who don't like reading. Some of them even hate their chosen subjects. Because they are students they strive to be the best student they can be which although admirable, doesn't have to be made into a career choice.

The sad truth is many maybe even most people I know don't even realise what they're good at, some people can't understand that if you have degree but love cooking you should probably be a chef and not an academic. That if your people skills are off the chart chances are you’ll prefer a job in PR or management than a lonely career as a writer. Science can be fascinating while the reality of working in a lab can be monotonous and far throw from the almost intoxicating depths of scientific theory.

What we study now does not define us or what we want. Its just a phase.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Introducing Ambition- Why we should strive for moral ambition

Ambition is a dirty word isn’t it? Its gotten a pretty bad press over the years, Shakespeare definitely portrayed ambition a destroyer of our moral compasses and seemed the defining theme in King Lear, Macbeth, Richard III, Hamlet and many more of his works. Some of the more colourful Christian traditions refer to ambition as “The mother of all Heresies”. I think this a little small minded as Shakespeare obviously had aspirations to become a great playwright and the Christian faith demands a great deal of spiritual ambition that they themselves admit is far beyond reach of most human beings. Yet in pursuing their goals they are neither immoral agents nor reaped immoral gain and yet garnered a great deal of happiness from what they achieved.

Ambition gets a rough ride because people assume that in order to get what we want we need to be selfish, or that goals themselves are inherently self-centered. I think for many people this might actually be the case, but if we deconstruct and bring in our old friend self-analysis maybe we can reach a consensus on how might be a little more Shakespeare and a little less Fred Goodwin.

Before I get into the problems facing the modern ambitious animal I think it important to separate ambition into two broad areas 1) What we want 2) How we get it. I think the key to unlocking a guide lays in understanding the Ethics behind what we want. Having immoral goals will not serve us unless we completely kill off our empathy for other human beings, Whereas having moral goals defeats their value if we pursue them through immoral means. A good example is someone who wants to be a doctor to be wealthy, but struggles against those who want to be a doctor for the love of the art of healing. When finally becoming a doctor he maybe wealthy but if hates being around sick people, or is unable to deal with people dying or just finds the job depressing then he may have achieved his ambitions but is unlikely to find happiness there. I think the ideal solution is in reconciling our ambitions with our ethics, to strive to be morally ambitious.

It might sound like lofty idea but if we feel good about what we want and how we choose to pursue it, the motivation we have for it will never be questioned and the results can carry a great emotional reward which is likely to outlive the lifespan of any transient financial success. I think before we get lost on the highway to self-knowledge some signposting will be required to prevent us getting lost along the way.

First I’d like to identify problems of the modern age and how with greater opportunities makes it more difficult to identify what it is we desire and sells us the idea of ‘false ambition’ at almost every turn. I want to look at something that is difficult for us all to accept and that a more pragmatic view of ourselves and our goals and how this is better way of understanding what we are capable of and what we are likely to achieve. This isn’t necessarily a depressing vision and would like to finish reflecting on what we are capable of isn’t static and how personal development increases our capacity to succeed and even don’t we don’t fulfil our ambitions, if we work on being better in what we love doing that in itself carries a great deal of worth.

Part three) Making peace with insecurity

To end this reflection on the importance of experience, if you’ll permit me I’d like to talk a little about myself for a moment. My attempts at writings for public consumption has been a difficult one for me. Initially I wanted to write about politics but felt massively insecure about everything I did. Every article that made it into my notebook eventually got binned because I felt too stupid to tackle the subject matter or felt it had been said before and said better. It wasn’t until I finished on language I really understood where benefits of having a creative outlet lay. We often get caught up, especially those of you currently being victimised by the university system, with an unhealthy obsession with being judged and graded with everything you produce.

My first article was poorly structured, riddled with grammatical errors and almost certainly has been said before and said better. Yet I got a tremendous buzz from writing it for several reasons. Firstly I wrestled and gained a greater understanding of a topic I knew little about, and also got people I know talking about a topic that was important to me. The real pleasure in being creative doesn’t come from what you produce but what changes and develops within yourself when you create it. Insecurity may seem like the obstacle but perhaps striving for security is what led me to bin those articles. Eve Ensler the worlds foremost activist in woman's rights has a very interesting take on insecurity.

“When security is paramount you can’t travel very far or venture too far outside a certain circle. You can’t allow too many conflicting ideas into your mind at one time, as they might confuse you or challenge you. You can’t open yourself to new experiences, new people, and new ways of doing things. They might take you off course.”

I’ve learned that anything worth doing will make me feel insecure, maybe the quest now is to keep writing while embracing insecurity. I never thought writing a simple article on language would make me re-evaluate my relationship with insecurity but here we are in article two talking about it. I now think if complete security was the greatest objective in our lives it would kill all artistic expression as we know it. So I think my experience of insecurity might actually be one worth relating to you. Don’t let doubt cripple your ability to create a record of your experience. Don’t let security be the goal in your life.

The time for this reflection is at its end, but I hope I’ve conveyed that a degree of personal examination will arm us for the uncertain times ahead. That the tools for allowing us to do this with finesse surrounds us in the form of art and that art is accessible to all people of all tastes. Finally I hope my personal experience will help inspire you to create, so that like me you can finally make peace with insecurity.

Part two) Art as an experience and an education

Now that Socrates has given us some advice on the advantages of self reflection, we must look how we might philosophise a little better. I think one way we might gain some insight into living better would be to look at other peoples records of how they choose to live or how they suggested we might live. Luckily we are surrounded by these records, they take the form of the very basis of art.

We all drink a little from the fountain of artistic knowledge, all of you will listen to some music, read some literature or even admire some paintings. We often put up artificial barriers between us and “high art” (a term I find disgusting, or at best inaccurate) believing somewhat naively, that these books are too hard for us to understand, paintings have too much depth or that philosophy is something only discussed by the intellectual elite. One thing we tend to lack is the motivation to engage with art considering it something that belongs to other people or something beyond our capacity to understand. I don’t know when we became so afraid of art or became so inadequate with ourselves but here we are many of us are in the height of the information age never observing or discussing art. Marcel Proust had this to say on the importance of art, unfortunately his Opus in search of lost time is 3,700 pages long and he didn’t care much for short sentences-

By art alone we are able to get outside ourselves, to know what another sees of this universe which for him is not ours, the landscapes of which would remain as unknown to us as those of the moon. Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world, our own, we see it multiplied and as many original artists as there are, so many worlds are at our disposal, differing more widely from each other than those which roll round the infinite and which, whether their name be Rembrandt or Ver Meer, send us their unique rays many centuries after the hearth from which they emanate is extinguished.

The quote is long but the message is simple- art helps us to see things in a different way. We should come to art with a simple objective to see art as a perspective and attempt use that information to inform our world view. As you read and digest the above statement isn’t interesting that art invites us to lead the examined life that Socrates talks about? Isn’t even more stunning that art gets us outside ourselves to find truer more objective truths in our own lives? I didn’t have to do a massive case study on Proust's childhood, artistic motivations or even attempt advanced criticisms of the text to make sense of his ideas. One of the marks of a great artist is that he makes his ideas blissfully simple to understand. I don’t want to take away from the field of academic investigations into art for their work is important in furthering our understanding of artists and artistic movements but it worth noting an artist almost never creates a piece purely for this purpose. They create because they make a record of the life they lived and offer something of that knowledge to us. We would be fools to let that go to waste.

Of course for different people there is different art. We all have preferences in styles or subject matter but would invite people to perhaps be a little more open minded to the different artistic forms. Our most popular art form by far is music but I often find that music is almost too good an art form to be a truly effective one because invites us to feel rather than think. Music’s emotive quality has one massive benefit, the ability to make us feel a certain way creates environment in which we gain a great commonality with the people we experience it with, and would speculate that might be why its been the great social lubricant since the dawn of time. Modern art is often considered so irrelevant and the Turner prize often the butt of many jokes but don’t use that as an excuse to doom 10,000 years of artistic expression to the intellectual graveyard. Search and find and develop an artistic palette, we’ve never existed in a more connected age so finding art that we can relate to has never been easier.

Our duty to art is to attempt to make it relevant to ourselves, we don’t need a university education to do that in the same way Socrates didn’t need a university degree to be philosopher he just reflected on what people had to say and we should experience art in the same capacity- simply as invitation to reflect on how another person has chosen to live their life. Its doesn’t take a genius to work out if their path was successful or not and with this added perspective we might be able to make better, more informed choices in how we choose to live our own lives.

Art can be the roadmap to leading a better life, I just wish we spent a little more time learning how to read the map and little less time trying to get to our destinations.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Part one) The benefits of a Socratic education

The image of Socrates is one that immediately paints an image in our minds of a wise, sagely character in flowing white robes lecturing in a Parthenon. This is an absolutely false portrait of the man, who never washed his clothes and used to wander aimlessly in the markets of Athens in the dirty rags of a crazed tramp. In his wanderings he would ask people the big questions “How can one be happy?” “How should we ascertain justice?” “What is our purpose in life?” He gained his education simply by asking others regardless of class, education or background or how they lived their lives.

This sort of attitude toward thinking carries with it with a great deal of maturity. Firstly he never judged that a beggar would have nothing to say about living the good life compared to, say, a rich merchant and he never assumed that to be a scholar one must only study scholars. Socrates recognised the commonality of human suffering, passion and happiness. That set him free to study life in its entirety and began setting about unifying his ideas so that he might condense them into universally applicable philosophies.

I was initially massively bored by his findings, he thought somewhat blandly “Happiness is important to people” but his genius lay in how he said we might go about the business of happiness. His approach, again, initially bored me as suffering from the usual suspects of happiness being friends, food, clothes but then he dropped this bombshell.

“The unexamined life isn’t worth living”

I immediately debunked this preposterous idea knowing many people, who reflect little, if at all, on the nature of their lives and themselves, and live incredibly happy lives free of any misery. Conversely and perhaps more strikingly is that I know many people who reflect regularly on the life they have lived and their lives are awash with despair. One such fellow remarked to me “To examine my life itself actually furthers my depression not lessens it.” So, I thought, using the basics of Socrates' falsification theory, I myself have disproved Socrates' thesis. Take that philosophy, I thought.

As you will have guessed my victory was somewhat short lived, it kept bugging me. How could there be truth in this statement? I think the answer is that there is some truth in what Socrates is trying to say. His task was a hard one given how different we are and different people have different needs so the path to happiness is a varied one. So when attempting to find out what makes us happy he looked at the far more universal attitude we take towards embracing happiness and avoiding hardship. The variables, that can effect our lives, are almost infinite but we can attempt to plan for them. The only way in which we can plan for these is the learning from our own life experience and learning the lessons others have to offer on the common themes of human existence. To get any clarity on these issues these we must ascertain the truth and relevance of any advice given to us. This obviously requires some thought.

I think this style of self-analysis is something we do already consciously or unconsciously, we all have career aspirations, ambitions for the future all of which requires some degree of self reflection. So Socrates was right! Well sort of, self reflection is not the key to happiness but an examined life certainly paves the way to a happier one because it allows us to better understand how to be happy. Unfortunately that unpredictable jester of chance may indeed conspire to doom us to misery or perhaps unmitigated joy but the examined life allow us to better deal with life’s sorrows and develop strategies to better guide us toward the shores of elation. Allow me to explain my little thesis using the awesome power of math.

Socrates' thought
Food + clothes + friends + examined life = Happiness
Dolan’s thought
Food + clothes + friends + examined life > happiness or happiness more likely
And conversely
Food + clothes+ friends- examined life < happiness or happiness less likely

If we already embrace self-reflection why is it a problem? I have two problems: firstly we don’t do it enough and secondly we often do it for the wrong reasons. Self reflection commonly takes off often around the onset of grief. Death is the awful wake-up call that makes us muse on the problems of our mortality. Self reflection doesn’t have to be the bastard child of tragedy.

If you will appreciate self analysis as a potential provider of happiness then I would invite you to give a greater importance to self reflection in your life so you might make more informed decisions on how you might be happier. I also hope that we will also embrace a more Socratic attitude toward education, remembering that everybody is an expert in being alive.

It's nothing more than the worst form of intellectual snobbery to assume that some people have nothing to offer us in leading better lives simply because they are a different race/class/religion/education than from ourselves and yet I see people doing it all the time. I laugh to myself a little now because in a roundabout way they are, in essence, denying themselves happiness. Almost Karmic, isn’t it?

Diminishing our ignorance, increasing our understanding of one another, giving ourselves a greater depth of self-knowledge and a better understanding of how we might become happier people are just a few of the benefits of a Socratic education.

Who said philosophy was useless?

An introduction to the inexperienced view of experience.

What you might ask would a 23 year old have to say on experience? Well before you jump to any obvious conclusions I think it might be a tad unfair to immediately victimise my youthfulness. Firstly it is a na├»ve assumption that a broadness of life experience carries a great deal more wisdom than a somewhat narrower one. This idea is often mirrored in the lives of many of our greatest thinkers. Friedrich Nietzsche was a syphilitic crazed shut-in in his later days, Proust bed-bound most of his adult life and Sartre somewhat wryly declared that “Hell is other people”.

These remarkable individuals despite a seeming deficiency in what I shall call “worldliness” had something to say about how we live our lives. The resonance of their works has arguably the greatest contribution of any intellectual endeavour- it has changed how we think about the world and painted a course on how we might live happier lives.

I’m not denouncing living a rich and varied life, there is fantastic joy to be garnered from both the most carnal desires to the most selfless acts. These people drew their value from the approach they took at examining their own meagre lives and simply by offering up their worldview, however small and however subjective, they gave something precious to us- an insight into the human condition.

One of our biggest failures as human beings is to declare these people as so very different from ourselves. When asked to mimic these individuals in attempting to answer to life’s big questions people will quickly protest their own incompetence “But they were more educated than myself”, “Their understanding of suffering is far better than my own”, “Their personal experience gave them insight I could never have”. I feel here, people are too quick to sell themselves short. When did we become so insecure that we felt what little wisdom we have is so worthless?

I’ve learnt valuable life lessons from the most unlikely of places, coked-up London socialites, strict Mormon fathers and the Television have given me accurate advice directly or indirectly on how I might live better. I think the key to unlocking their worth is in the attitude by which we choose to understand their lifestyle. I think perhaps the biggest tragedy here is that as valuable a source as these people might be for guidance, very little physical record is kept on the knowledge gained through their experiences. If only they all had blogs...

So then, I would feel somewhat hypocritical if I didn’t, at this point, reflect on the importance of our experiences and how we might go about shaping them into into a cohesive life-enriching philosophy. I will not recount my personal experiences directly here, but I would invite you to speculate on what exactly has affected me so personally as to make me want to reflect on the very nature of experience. As always the mazy subject of human experience will require some guidance to prevent us from getting bogged down in tangent or to wander aimlessly along the misty moors of knowledge.

As before my ideas will be split into three areas. Firstly I wish to talk on the importance of self reflection and how Socrates may teach us not only how to ascertain truth in our lives but also how we may use these ideas to make ourselves happier. Secondly I will suggest how increasing our appreciation of art might actually give us a more lucid insight into better ways of living our lives. Finally I will petition you not to let fear cripple your creative expression, for this is the most critical and perhaps the most effective way in which we can communicate the lessons of our existence to one another.

Being white, working class, young, single and atheist living in the UK means I should probably have little, if any genuinely unique life experience but then again I always did like a challenge...

Friday, 28 August 2009

Part three) Why I love Ian, Hate Kelsey, and Why Giles has so many friends

If you have no idea who these people are fear not, I shall explain. One my other pet-hates are the self proclaimed “language Nazis”. I love Ian and miss him dearly because his style of communication was original, flamboyant and unique and he injected variety and spice in every verb, noun and adjective he ever espoused from his lips and best of all he clearly took a genuine pleasure in language that lit up every room he ever frequented. Unfortunately he took issue with my careless use of a split infinitive and to my horror I had to claim ignorance of this grammatical convention.

So I looked it up- it turns out his syntax was wrong and I rebuked him.

It was then I realized I was dead inside. 

I had ceased to enjoy language, merely criticised its usage. I had become one of the self-proclaimed guardians of language that tries to burn away its rich tapestry. These sorts of characters would have killed the likes of Alexander pope, Shakespeare and Wilde who liked to play language games to create new and interesting concepts for us to wrestle with. It is people like Ian who stand in the way of languanges's ability to evolve.

Funnily enough I later found out two things about split infinitives: Firstly that they were invented in a very dubious and misguided attempt to make English more like Latin for completely arbitrary reasons. Secondly split infinitives can be quite beautiful at times, I hope Ian wouldn't have shot Captain Picard for insubordination because he decided "To boldly go" anywhere.

These language fiends with their vice-like attachment to convention, might even be killing our capacity to understand new concepts because they are killing off the language we need in order to understand them. These over-educated-oafs might actually be damaging our intellectual development in a very misguided effort to protect it.

Kelsey is another one for playing these mindless games, “Bath” is the same concept however you pronounce it and one is not better than the other, in the same way that the Queen's English is not better than utterances of a gutter tramp both are unique but equally well adapted forms of communication in the circumstances in which they are utilised. This kind of snobbery is pointless and only seeks to highlight a very illogical attachment to preferred style of speaking and robs us of the capacity to interject the variety of language from which we derive pleasure from and facilitate its evolution into something more precise, grander and more colourful than its previous incarnations.

Some of the sticklers for tradition may argue it is for the sake of clarity, I find this highly amusing, I doubt the journalism world is aflame with debacle created by the misuse of the split infinitive or the pronunciations of the word “Bath” and yet still they persist. Luckily there is hope for us and his name is Giles.

Giles is living testament to the power of language to amuse and entertain. To give you some idea who Giles is, he is basically Phileas Fogg (see how language and identity work both ways?) to the point that I half expect him to be in a top hat and waistcoat flying past my window in a hot air balloon at any moment shouting “Indubitably old chum!” at the top of his voice. Giles, like Ian expresses himself in a fun, interesting and original way, he brings laughter wherever he goes with just the way he approaches language. It's so refreshing and uplifting it makes him impossible not to be liked. Giles like Ian takes real pleasure in language.

It will be no surprise to you that Giles is incredibly popular and will no doubt continue to be so for the foreseeable future- his language skills make him quite the social magnet! Giles ties together all the things I love about language it’s unique yet positive and has variety to it. I think we are all to eager to denounce people who speak in an unconventional and sophisticated way as pretentious or elitist I can assure you Giles is none of these things and all who know him will testify to this. He simply takes pleasure in language.

“Kelsey’s bath is full of grout, But Giles’s style is what it’s all about!”
I love the musical nature of language. Its makes it so easy to remember.

So, I would invite you to cast off the negative incumbency present in the British language and embrace warmer attitude in how we express ourselves to one another. We all know and appreciate those who are great with language and would like to see more of you fall in love with how we communicate, because if that’s how we are, who we are then what better way to facilitate personal development? Most of all like Giles, Ian and myself please readers take pleasure in language.

Part two) The collective identity in language

This brings me unto a little problem I have with the approach to language the British take, at least those of us who practice the form of communication which is cynical and defeatist and depressing. Stephen Fry once said he loved the phrase “Only in America” as a wonderful insight into how Americans are often inspired by the remarkable events that happen in the states. It is a wonderful insight into not only how Americans view their country but also how they view themselves: as can-do people living in the land of opportunity. 

Unfortunately he also comments somewhat woefully, that the situations that would demand the phrase “Only in Britain” would be well, far less remarkable to say the least. I’ve noticed a very annoying habit in English Language that seems to automatically assume the worst in any situation.

“Not Again…” Why are all reoccurring scenarios depressing?
“That’s Typical” Why is something displeasing always considered the norm?
“Whatever!” Basically means something not worth bothering about, the irony is this pretty much can put into any sentence as it’s essentially a meaningless term.

Its very telling of a culture that essentially redefines words in a negative context, and this before we import or even invent new words to use in a negative way! Fop, dandy and the aesthete are practically extinct from common usage it has given away to the derogetory yob, the snob, the Ned, the townie, the dweeb, nerd and pointdexter. This focus in British Language to always dwell on the negative irritates me immensely. If like me, you feel language informs thought wouldn’t it make more sense to have a more positive attitude? Wouldn’t it be more pleasant if we talked to each other in a lighter, brighter tone that focuses on positive aspects of Britishness? I think defeatism begins in the mind, if we communicated in a more positive manner, who knows, maybe we might have more drive and motivation to do more with our lives. A depressing tone in our language sets a depressing tone for our lives- and who wants that?

Many Brits decry Americanisms as corruptions of language but at least they tend toward a more positive evolution of communication, the terms “Positive-empowerment” and “Self-actualization” prove that a new language can grow to create a more positive way of expressing ourselves. I think inventing new words which all basically mean "finding new ways to furfill your potential" is very telling of the American character and its cultural thought. The sheer thought of the number of languages that exist in the world and how they might inform various cultural thinking fills me with such awe, I wish I had several lifetimes to study them all.

The Americanism reminds me quite abruptly that language is in a constant state of flux and that it is a constantly evolving beast, that there are no moral absolutes within language and that means pretty much anything goes in language. Admittedly I wouldn’t be quite so flamboyant with language in a job interview or a church reading, but that’s a question of suitability- convention has never been a good way to judge the accuracy or even the acceptability of anything!

So we must accept that language is without form so we as linguistic creatures are free to sculpt the future of our language. I for one will hope we shall move away from this miserable tone in the British language. It’s unfair to tarnish all of Britain with this depressing brush, I love the fact that the Manchuanians are “Mad for it” as it is and that the Geordies are already “Whey aye”-ing well into the 21st century with equal enthusiasm. I hope we will listen to the merry tone in their dialects to guide us to a more uplifting way of expressing ourselves. I think we would do well to remember that this unique and fantastic regional diversity is one we can enjoy “Only in Britain” and only one part of our culture worth celebrating. 

Perhaps you might adjust your thinking next time you use the words "Only in Britain".

Monday, 17 August 2009

Part one) Language is our prison and our portrait...

What better place to start my reflection on language than in my home of Englandshire which is a veritable hotbed of language deviance, a rich tapestry of accents, dialects and slang. We can travel all the way from Geordieland, to the sunny vales of bumpkin Dorset, from the Manchurian drawl to the scouser swagger all the way from the surf happy corns to the ducking-and-diving-del-boys of the east end and discover a wonderful array of language styles and forms. Each individual and developing a persona each encompassing its own style, steeped in it own stereotype representing its own culture. The striking thing about language is its immediacy in representing all of these things, a subtle cocktail of accent, dialect, vocabulary and grammar which form such lasting ideas of ones character. Indeed, this can be before we have said anything about ourselves!

For example, if I were standing in a room speaking out loud to you, instantly you would be making assumptions about my gender, race, class, upbringing and hometown. The fact I am even writing this will probably invite you to make some guesses as to my education. Language is so wrapped up in who we are we cannot escape it in the same way we cannot escape our own reflection. We might attempt to imitate others but it is likely to be flawed imitation at best, and a laughable impersonation at worst. Certainly some of us are better deceivers than others but we are still exposed as liars in the end.

Now if we accept that language affects how we are perceived, however inaccurately, by others then we will have to accept that it will also affect how we view ourselves. So if we ride the very simple train of thought that suggests how we present ourselves affects how we are perceived it no doubt has an impact on how we then interact, language is now helping us develop an ‘attitude’ towards how we interact with others. This might be reliant on context say in an essay, a job interview or even how express ourselves toward a potential partner but success in these areas is completely dependant ability to express what we want in a clear, persuasive manner without coming across as false or sycophantic. Language may be our intellectual prison but it is one we build for ourselves and one we can improve, expand and develop anytime we please.

I found out to my horror, this was not a new idea I had stumbled upon, Stephen Pinker, Noam Chomsky and Wittgenstein have all mused on the idea that Language is father of all thought. I find this an increasingly convincing idea, for how can I know what to think before I can articulate it in my mind? How Can I discover the legitimacy of anything if I cannot discuss it with anyone? Without language ideas and concepts are eroded because there is no basis for a common understanding. A world without language would be a lonely one and are primary way of understanding truth is through consensus. Orwell once reflected that a totalitarian government would remove justice, freedom and liberty from our vocabularies therefore removing or at least eroding the concepts from our minds, it’s the basis of 1984s newspeak. He is suggesting here that language is the very basis for shaping our world view.

On a more personal level, many of my personal philosophies are derived from the very quotable great literary masters of language. Perhaps this is due to their capacity to condense language into the easily remembered poetic forms, and I simply defy you to forget Wilde's reflection

“Beauty is the greatest form of genius because it requires no explanation”

a reminder to us all of the very simple pleasure of enjoying beauty without having to justify it to yourself and still remains one of the best ways to garner enjoyment in this life. I like that someone with a genuine skill with language can be so influential in how we think.

I hope you'll agree language is our prison and our portrait, but one we make for ourselves- so lets make it as roomy and beautiful as possible. Why? I thought that required no explanation...

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Introducing Language- Why is Language important?

Dolansphere Volume 1

You might think language a peculiar topic to begin to write about- it certainly isn’t one that often penetrates our minds. Language is something so ordinary that we use everyday with everyone that it seems such bland topic for us to really give any thought to yet is so intrinsic to defining who we are.

You might think of me as a ‘half baked’ language professional of sorts, I’ve been a university debater for some seven years now; the university essentially pays me and my friends to develop the language skills of others, occasionally sending us travelling to pit our linguistic wits against other institutions all of which have a vested interested in showing off the best language showcase they can. They do this of course because it is universally recognised that good language skills allow us to create opportunities for ourselves, how can we get what we want unless we have the capacity to articulate our desires? Learning how, when and whom to do this with is valuable tool for everyone.

For those of us who aren’t debaters or actors, poets or novelists language doesn’t have to be a distant concept to us. Although you may not be a 'language professional' it still affects how we are perceived, how we think and eventually who we become as a result. Furthermore we are all appreciators of language whether it be use of allegory in a novel, using a metaphor to explain an example, or using a simple proverb to inform our thinking on a particular topic. Language in all its wonderful complexity has one element that really stands out: its capacity to unify ideas.

So it would seem apt to me to reflect briefly on the nature of language. I was meant to be giving a workshop today developing language skills. Alas that was not to be, and so I committed finger to keyboard and decided to not let my thoughts on language be condemned to the foggy ether of whence they came like so many of its promising brothers. This verbal amble will probably need a little bit of a pre-determined path to prevent us getting lost along the way so I will outline briefly what I wish to cover as I meander around the idea of language.

This article will be split into three areas. The first area will look at how language affects who we are, looking firstly at how it affects how people view us but more internally how exposure to language affects how we understand concepts. Secondly I wish to examine how language is a constantly evolving form of communication and how we might better sculpt a more positive, more effective means of relating to one another. Thirdly I want to briefly comment on trends in language and using my more colourful friends as examples of what I love and hate about language.

I hope you enjoy it.