Homo sapiens is unwell
I often wonder what the first philosophical debate ever was about. I suspect the front-runners would be:
- “These crouchy folks up the hill with the big chins don’t c0ntribute a whole lot do they? I hear they taste pretty good. Should we eat them?”
- “It smells in here. Who thinks we should move the toilet further away?”
- “It’s the only language they understand. I think maybe they were born like that. Or maybe we should invent social workers….whaddya think?”
It’s the last of these that has most intrigued me during my life. By and large, conservatives tend towards the “take ‘em out and shoot ‘em” view, while progressives think it’s almost certainly not their fault and they need love. The Right thinks ‘they’ are to blame for pretty much everything, and the Left believes ‘they’ need the State to take on the responsibility of doing the thinking for them. The reactionaries are passionate believers in nature and individual will. The liberals think a dysfunctional nurture is to blame, and some folks just weren’t around when the willpower was being fitted.
Kop-out as it may seem, every one of these views will be right, and every one wrong, depending on the individual. Families, communities and societies are nothing much more than an aggregate of individuals, all of whom will be the product of natural wiring and environmental influences. This reality highlights the flaw in both the major democratic political views of the world: but whoever is in power, the deadly One Size Fits All inevitably results.
It explains why Cameron drivels on about his Big Society, why multinationals are convinced that big is better (and brainwash their employees into holding identical views), why Big EU can’t get beyond a decision about which socks to wear, and why for thirty years now, market researchers and social commentators like Peter York have been obsessed with big social groups: Yuppies, Sloanes, Dinkies, Sun Readers, Silver Surfers – you name it, and somebody wants to group it under yet another banal, easily digestible load of archetype tosh.
Unfortunately, the real world consists of 6 billion individuals whose thoughts and actions are driven by cerebral chemicals, physical build, societal influences and congenital inheritance. And even more unfortunately, there isn’t a Government Party in power anywhere on the planet that both recognises this, and/or plans socio-economic policy on the basis of it.
You cannot, of course, build a cohesive pack by (a la Life of Brian) yelling “We are all individuals!” Nor can you base taxation and welfare strategy on that iron truth. But it is time that, somewhere, somebody decided to stop treating electorates as 60 million people deserving of license to misbehave at one extreme, or as vote-fodder drones at the other.
Wherever we look – in political Parties, large corporate environments, sports, the media, car production, TV schedules, and above all education – the drive for uniformity is readily apparent. It is, literally, an overpowering force which, except for the odd maverick able to mull and wonder differently despite peer-group pressure, winds up frustrating innovators, creating gang cultures, but above all stifling independent thought.
What makes individuals content is, on the whole, membership of a pack within which they feel comfortable – and where an equal opportunity to realise personal potential seems to be on offer. The idea that something called The Big Society could accommodate that search for maximum realisation and individual excellence is preposterous. (I actually think, too, that the Prime Minister’s espousal of this oxymoronic idea has finally set him apart in the Conservative Party as somebody who, quite simply, isn’t a Conservative).
That introductory bit above is mainly throat clearing before getting into my central thesis for this essay: that Homo sapiens is unwell….perhaps even in six billion different ways.
It’s perfectly possible to argue that, ever since moving on from erectus to sapiens, we have been congenitally unwell; indeed, I would largely accept that idea…and point out, as the most specific problem, a species learning difficulty in some left brain areas, along with an overactive anxiety synapse somewhere in the right cortex. Nothing else could explain the behaviour of stock markets.
However, I also think (and I am talking primarily about the West as we know it here) that the decline in cultural values, the invasive power of the media, the miniaturisation of technological stuff, and the growth of big ‘social’ States worshipping material wellbeing, have all contributed to a qualitatively different nurture over the last sixty or more years. And this nurture has exacerbated all the original nature cockups that started in the species factory.
We are, almost all of us, showing signs of being unwell. We consume more anxiolytics and anti-depressants than ever before. We have created anti-societies in which one’s own room, pair of headphones, meTV, virtual worlds and social netw0rks have replaced a great deal of family life and normal social intercourse. As a female friend in France remarked to me recently, “I don’t know anyone under 30 who ever rings a friend up for a chat any more”.
And yet alongside this increasing retreat into the internal self, we see the growth of exhibitionism once the engorged ego finds form as outward expression. Talent shows like The X-Factor are a classic example of this – as is, let’s face it, blogging in its original definition. Email has lost out massively to Facebook and Twitter. But any and all forms of this bizarrely public private life are watched, noted and exploited by marketers, tax offices, welfare investigators, security agencies, employers and every form of dangerous criminal or con artist. Big Brother no longer needs to watch us: we’re yelling for his attention day and night.
Yes indeed, we are unwell. We drink too much, eat too much, shop too much, take offence too much, get involved in violence too easily, and, well, don’t think about anything much any more. We read piffle in the media, and fail to analyse, criticise, or even care. We do things and accept policies without so much as a moment’s thought being given to the ramifications and dangers. We ridicule those who point out the Emperor’s lack of clothes, and resent those whose far-sightedness has enabled them to escape the consequences of being brain-idle. We award ourselves the suffix ‘sapiens’, but blithely enjoy the sowing while denying the likelihood of reaping.
The word ‘consequences’ is absent from the lexicon of politicians and other senior public officials. They live only for the next meeting, soundbite, interview, split, blackmail, crisis and election they will have to face. The rest of us have learned from this, applying the same Live for Now strategy to our domestic economics, sexual behaviour, ethical decisions, pension arrangements and voting apathy.
We are unwell in a way that transcends the definitions ‘physical’ or ‘mental’; but broadly, it is a form of fear we tend to deal with through denial. It matters little whether this be the EU pretending it isn’t flat broke, Americans hailing more good times just around the corner, talent show contestants insisting they actually have talent, or security legislators appeasing Islam. Denial of the consequences is another way of saying Fear of the Future.
Somewhere along the line – perhaps from the welfare State, perhaps from medical advance against disease, perhaps from the lack of a major war for 66 years, perhaps even from the genetic malfunction that seems always to follow imperial decline – the British have lost the inquisitive ‘voyager gene’. It has been swapped for Health & Safety, and a media set crammed with half-baked, cod advice about how to live forever. There is little in the way of obvious courage anywhere today: foreign policy, health provision, economic diversification and genuine entrepreneurial risk have all fallen victim to the tinkering, directionless compromise of ‘new’ Labour and ‘Coalition’ Conservatism. Fear of the future is itself an alternative term for Fear of Failure.
We are unwell because the very fear that leaves us frozen in the face of emergency leads to aggression in the face of warnings. David Cameron became so angry about criticism of Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks in the end, he stopped listening to any of it. He did so because he feared the vengeance of Rupert Murdoch should he heed the advice. Sarkozy took the same attitude towards French bank stupidity in 2010, Obama towards Wall Street in 2009. Angela Merkel is in the process of ignoring sound judiciary and central banker advice as I write. Sarkozy again snarls at Cameron for no other reason than British doubts about the euro have been proved correct.
Much of the previous paragraph leads back to the frightened emotionalism of the right cerebral hemisphere, whose over-activity evokes first denial and then aggression. In other circumstances, however, there is the broad issue of why we are prepared to elect a macho Russian nutcase who never misses an opportunity to rip off his shirt, a sex-addict who can’t resist Lolitas, a third-rate movie actor with infantile economic ideas, or a vulgar dwarf with only an ego between his ears.
For myself, I put this down to a failure to evolve beyond admiration of muscled might, and widespread left-brain atrophy in the population at large. This atrophy in turn has occurred, I suspect, as a result of various factors – but has probably been led by an addiction to the effortless media of television and computer games, Friedmanite insistence on rapid ROI, and the liberal determination to enforce uniformity of thought in education. The contagion has spread first to action movies, and then to formulaic live theatre. It displays itself most commonly now in blog comment threads, where much of the time any ability to assemble an argument has been tossed aside in favour of starting an argument. Trashing the other side with a bombardment of insults has replaced civilised debate. The Nazis used this technique incessantly as a means of wearing down opposition in the Reichstag during the early 1930s. After that, Germany became unwell for some years too.
Perhaps most significantly of all, our species illness presents as a rejection of science, and a reversion to the mystic and the fluffy, polemic rigidity and religious superstition. Steve Jobs attraction to mumbo-jumbo health treatments killed him. I hear otherwise highly intelligent people all the time talking in awe of everything from crystals to aural wax treatments. Practically all of Harriet Harman’s feminist beliefs are based on a form of behaviourism proved empirically wrong nearly thirty years ago. Islam justifies the most appalling denigration of women (alongside a nice easy time for the blokes) based on interpretations of the Koran which are insane. A great deal of organic food, climate change and conservation theory is utter bollocks.
Sometimes, fearful denial works the other way round. Oddly enough, a remarkable confluence of thinking between neuroscience, Buddhism, cognitive behaviour therapy, meditation, homaeopathy and even nuclear physics does add up to some coincidences of conclusion so spooky that, unsurprisingly, GPs, therapists and counsellors have been meeting priests, neurosurgeons and sub-atomic theorists to try and arrive at some explanation as to why this might be.
There is little doubt in my mind that Time, the human brain, and its perceptions of the Universe are at the core of this mystifying phenomenon….but that’s the point: it is a phenomenon. Buddhist monks do slow down their heart-rates to 50 beats a minute and far less. Pets do respond measurably to some homaeopathic remedies. The human brain does dilate Time. Sub-atomic reactions do sometimes mirror bits of alternative medical thought. The irony is that, in this example, it is the scientific community itself that denies the existence of anything requiring explanation. A most, if I may say so, unscientific attitude….built on fear of the New.
The emergence of conspiracy theory to a level of mass worldwide fascination is another feature of our preference for the fantastic over the facts. Every experienced blogger knows that a new theory to explain the disappearance of Madeleine McCann is worth at least 10,000 hits – the size of hit count normally being inversely proportional to the credibility of the theory. The ridiculous idea that the Americans faked the entire space programme from 1965 to the present day is one of the global favourites. The existence of a Zionist plot to rule the world is another, the certain survival of Elvis another still. Despite the overwhelming DNA evidence that Anna Anderson was not Anastasia, thousands of books continue to be written about the possibility that she was. Millions of Islamics throughout the world deny the existence of Nazi extermination camps recorded on thousands of feet of Allied and captured SS film.
A handful of conspiracies throughout history have turned out to be true. Tests for arsenic in Napoleon’s hair showed fairly conclusively that he was poisoned to death. The long-denied Ekaterine massacre by the Soviets has now been proven beyond much doubt. There is disturbing evidence that, at some time during 2000-2001, rogues within the Blair Government did indeed discuss a deliberate policy of flooding Britain with vulnerable immigrants in order to create a permanent Labour majority. And like it or not, some of the circumstances surrounding the arrest and incarceration of Dominic Strauss-Kahn earlier this year do require some explanation.
But most are absolute nonsense, appealing only to those whose ability to extrapolate significance will stretch to any sequence of events, however banal and circumstantial. Which is a frightening thought really, because such fantasies engage and fascinate millions of apparently normal people throughout the world.
What is normal any more? Homosexuality is seen as normal, although statistically, by definition it isn’t. For a while in the 1970s, the madder end of Labour’s lunatic fringe considered paedophilia to be normal. Many parents today think it normal to sexualise their children from the age of six onwards, but use the same cerebral apparatus to conclude that paedophiles are everywhere, and anyone taking pictures 0f a junior soccer game should be disembowelled.
The British Establishment think it is quite normal to pass laws antithetical to equality of opportunity, allow tiny minorities to dictate certain legal procedures, have Courts hear evidence in camera on the basis of a threat that is non-existent, and continue to allow immigration levels based on the beliefs of a trading Group that 75% of the population wants to leave. I become hysterical (in all senses of the word) when I realise that it is normal for the State broadcaster to dismiss the wishes of most normal people as abnormal.
As Orwell posited in his novel 1984, sooner or later the State decides what is normal; and the abnormally controlling State insists that everyone show their loyalty to it by agreeing with every last aspect of the definition.
But then, everyone in charge of Airstrip One in Orwell’s seminal work was meant to be seen as….unwell. Muammar Gadhaffi is certainly dead, but before that he was unwell. And yet, he stayed in power for 42 years. I think Harriet Harman is unwell, and I’m absolutely certain that Rebekah Brooks and Rupert Murdoch are unwell. Mahmood Ahmadinnajhad is unwell, this diagnosis being based on the same study of symptoms applied to Adolf Hitler: flecks of foam, eyes like chapel hat-pegs, and derisory nonsense pouring forth from a yelling gob.
In short, put unwell people in positions of power, and pretty soon the abnormal will be seen as normal. This applies even to Tony Blair, whose lies on occasion were breathtaking – my favourite being his insistence that he saw Newcastle football hero Jackie Milburn play. The slight problem with this statement is that Milburn retired when Blair was eighteen months old. Gordon Brown was unwell in so many ways, he became cringe-making to watch. Louise Mensch’s grip on reality is disturbing too. John Bercow is the British Sarkozy.
Could it be, then, that we elect those who are unwell because – being unwell ourselves – we feel at ease knowing that somebody as potty as us is in the top job? That’s not entirely seriously meant, but I think that those who help ‘create’ the image of our leaders – the media – are chock full of folks who show many signs of being on the wrong side of the asylum fence.
Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail strikes me, whenever I see the bloke or hear him speak, as being bonkers in a scrupulously honest sort of way. Littlejohn just seems a screw loose in that repetitively loud way nutters on buses have. So too at times does Simon Heffer develop social theories in his columns that others might find bizarre. Alan Rusbridger has ideas that border on the delusional, and Polly Toynbee – while a very decent human being in many ways – is truly light years away from reality. On BBC News, Robert Peston – a member of Common Purpose, he – whines on about financial news as if it might be entirely normal to experience mass figment hysteria.
Power stretches well beyond politics and the media. I have felt for nearly a year now that Bob Diamond is mentally ill. I’m reasonably confident that Lloyd Blankfein is tonto as well. Northern Rock’s Adam Applegarth was obviously certifiable, as is Fred Goodwin.
We could go on like this all night, but it’s getting late already….and I insist on having my extra hour of sleep.
In summary, Homo sapiens is unwell above and beyond the genetic faults with which it started. The influences upon (and thus, I suppose, causes of ) this environmental condition seem to revolve around an inability to evolve much beyond the Ug approach to social arrangements.
Ug consists chiefly of an injudicious mixture of can’t be arsed, and admiration for decisiveness. This brings mad people into the picture, and they in turn develop – as you’d expect – a mad definition of normality. The most commonly expressed insanities are liberal social tolerance of everything dysfunctional, and conservative economic insistence that there is no alternative to clap-trap.
At any and every sign that citizens might go off-message on barminess, the mad folks discourage independent thought from kids, MPs and the media.
Down this road lies little beyond sefdom, with the truth being buried below ever-deeper layers of bonkers twaddle.
So the only question outstanding is whether there is any known cure. There is, but it falls into that group of cures known as Stop Doing It. More specifically – and, I hope, constructively – I think the key catalysts to reversal of this seemingly inexorable process are as follows:
1. Economic hardship restoring a sense of importance and perspective.
2. The encouragement of independent thought and a thirst for knowledge in education.
3. The demolition of the controlling oligarchy that is our existing Party system.
4. The encouragement of open minded and courageous leaders to replace what we have now – viz, the fear of all different ways of doing things in the Future.
5. In terms of governance, putting the social cart firmly back behind the economic horse. That is to say, turning genuinely entrepreneurial wealth creation into a thoroughbred racehorse pulling those prepared to make a real contribution to family, community and social contentment. What we have now is huge, faceless and corrupt corporate carthorses kicking a cart full of wasters, while complaining that, as it doesn’t move, we should ditch the cart and let the horses really get into into sixth gear.
6. The setting of clear ‘ideal’ goals based on reality, with a perpetual cycle of testing to ensure that those goals are still viable and desirable. Not the search for the guilty we have now, but rather the acknowledgement of mistakes as being the only way to learn…and this make things better and better for the social pack as a whole.
I apologise for the lengthy nature of this essay: it really should be in a book, not on a website. But I don’t apologise for an exercise in per adua ad astra. Radical realism, as I keep trying to define it, is essentially the application of empirical measurement techniques to worthy and realistic social aims….aims that recognise at long last how all onside for one goal is vastly preferable to one size fits all.