Stewart Hotston

Hope, Anger and Writing



Allies and quick wins

I don’t like football. I never have. I would rather participate in my sports and I’ve never felt like I found a way to access the tribes of sport which seems to come so naturally to just about all of my friends (whether it’s rugby or football or tennis or cricket or whatever). That’s kind of on me but even I’m aware of the racist backlash against the young Black footballers in the English football team.

Like a middle aged dad I’m aware of Marcus (feed the kids) Rashford because he’s been pretty remarkable as a man and role model and, frankly, together with the rest of the English football team have left me feeling entirely and unexpectedly wholesome about a group of young men in a way I haven’t in a long time.

Having seen the abuse and heard tales of it and seen the ridiculous posturing from the government front benches whose dog whistles have gone in their pockets while they’re busy wringing their hands over how awful it all is I also wanted to say something about allies.

Look, I love you all but your allyship is a bit shit. (Yes, I know it’s not fair and that you do care and many of you reading this are not shit allies but bear with me because I have a point to make and it’s easier if I’m just a little bit polemical, m’kay?)

It’s fine to be performative and say the right things on facebook and twitter and wherever else you’re present. I love that and I like filters which make gammons choke on their stella. It also serves to move the overton window to a small extent and that’s a good thing too – demanding the boundaries of acceptable political and policy making reflect what we want and not what proto-fascists want. I’m all for that.

It’s also easy to feel like you’ve achieved something. (And hey, at this point I’m talking to myself as much as you where I am an ally of my LGBTQIA+ friends and family and my female presenting friends who face their own challenges every freaking day – no one gets off this challenge – not me, not you).

Look, as an ally it’s nice to say we’ve done something and it’s even nicer to feel like we’ve had a win – especially if that’s a quick win.

However. That is to miss the point of allyship. Or at least it’s to be, if you’ll bear with me, a poor ally.

As an ally, settling for a quick win and abandoning jobs which might feel more challenging or doomed to going nowhere (like writing to a brexit supporting, dog whistling home secretary) isn’t worth doing is not great. The problem with this attitude is it can too often come from the perspective of someone who’s not actually affected by the issues you’re being an ally on.

Racism sent towards footballers? I’ll post a filter on facebook but I won’t write to my MP because they’ll ignore me.

Please – the action should be the other way around, like 10 times out of 10. Why? Because your MP might ignore you but they actually make a difference to the world your filter won’t. Yeah, sure, you’re being ignored and I guess that sucks but welcome to my world where if I complain about racism, white folk look at my skin colour and say ‘you would say that wouldn’t you,’ before moving on to have their dinner.

So solidarity, yeah? We both get ignored. The point though is that you speaking up on my behalf (or on anyone’s behalf) does a huge number of ancillary things which remaining silent doesn’t just not do, but actively harms.

The first is that it moves the Overton window. It might do it be a terribly small almost unmeasurable amount but it still moves it. As a friend of mine said today, chipping away is big and clever.

Second – it gives you a momentary insight into what it is like far too often for those people you’re being an ally towards.

Third – lots of people saying what you’re saying, all of you voters? That really does move the dial and gets policies changed. The backlash against racism in the last couple of days? Huge. Tory MPs actually saying the party has it wrong. This kind of pressure can be sustained and can make a difference no amount of facebook filters can achieve.

Finally, when bullies are surrounded by a crowd? They tend to shut up and slink away because they only thrive when they perceive they have the upper hand. You talked to that person being abused in public? That moves the dial. It doesn’t make the experience any less dramatic but it makes it less likely to happen again.

When you look at this kind of action and avoid it because it feels pointless or thankless or useless or frightening it’s really about your own privilege at work. For those of us who wrestle with these disparities because we woke up this morning and got out of bed, there is no choice. It’s part of what living each day requires. You can walk away from that pressure literally because you’re privileged, because it doesn’t impact you. To do so is to be a poor ally because what you’re telling me is that you’ll support me if you can feel good about it, if you can achieve a tangible (and preferably quick) win.

I don’t have much more of a point to say – please be my ally. Please be help me be a good ally. Please do the boring, thankless, invisible thing because it’s that which changes our lives. I might not see your action but the lack of public performance doesn’t make it less powerful.

Why you should stop watching the West Wing

I have a thesis. You might not like it. Back in the day I watched the West Wing. It was phenomenal television – pertinent, often issues driven and, perhaps most importantly, cuddly. It made people like me feel like the world could make sense and we were making progress. Sure, it had it’s issues (lack of representation being a BIG one) but it was fundamentally a show without cynicism that loved people and, most importantly, believed in them and their power to do good.

The thing is it also peddled a myth which, with the election of Barack Obama, many of us swallowed wholesale. The myth of progress, of a people united by rationality and their love for others whose only real differences were not in temperament but in the policies to reach the same progressive ends. Collaboration, cooperation and compromise were the hallmarks of successful episodes where solutions to, what in the real world were frequently intractable, problems could be reached in the space of 40 minutes.

I am all for these things being the mark of mature and good humanity. The problem is hard to explain so bear with me. The issue is with the myth the West Wing sells us. It tells us people are fundamentally on the same side, that we all want the same things and that, with enough discussion we can arrive at mutually beneficial outcomes.

I’d really love for this to be true and, in many cases it is. I spend my working life negotiating among disparate businesses, often with multiple parties in play at any one time, all of whom have their own agendas. Even here, especially here, that truth is the one which brings people back to the negotiating table until deals get done (or not).

The problem is that examples like the above elide a fundamental truth – a truth so obvious it remains invisible to us – that we are talking the same language and want the same thing. It is the myth at the heart of the West Wing and it’s poisoned liberals and progressives into believing there’s only really one culture out there and all of us are kind of a part of it.

The problem with this myth – that we all want the same thing – is that when we imbibe it we stop being able to believe or understand how others might want something different to us. Not different in that they choose ramen when we choose steak but different at its very heart.

Our inability to see that, even though we’re the same biological species, we might live in entirely different worlds leaves us unable to process the political reality we’re facing today. It leads to people like Corbyn saying with a straight face ‘we won the argument but lost the election’ which is the most egregious example I can think of where someone has internalised this myth and literally cannot understand how being reasonable (in their own minds) hasn’t led to the logical outcome of the world aligning itself their way. (I’ve been married a long time and one of my main lessons? Winning the argument and losing the person is the very definition of catastrophic failure).

In other words we’ve forgotten how to accept there are different weltanschauung out there

First of all, even though I subscribe to this world view in terms of my woke/anti-racist politics, it’s simply not the only coherent world view out there. It’s where we fall down and fall down badly because it leaves us entirely unprepared to truly engage with those who see the world different to us.

It leads to us thinking people who don’t agree are wrong headed – not in that they see the world differently, but that they haven’t thought it through properly and if only they would they’d come around to our point of view. All the evidence tells us that’s not true. Sure, some people change their minds based on evidence and thank the world for them, but most of us including everyone reading this, is predisposed to agree with the news that supports what we already think. There are entire medical disciplines dedicated to exploring these biases in human cognitive architecture.

So we tend to see people who are on the other side to us as evil and their motivations as non-explainable by ‘rational’ people. The former may well be true from our perspective but the latter most definitely isn’t. The thing we forget is that with the exception of a small slice of people whose brains are properly different to the rest of us, most people believe they’re doing the right thing most of the time and won’t willingly do something they consider morally wrong without great justification.

Remember that slave owners looked to the bible for their justifications, looked to science and that those sympathetic to their beliefs still do. The news this week that the Southern Baptist elections were essentially captured not by a Christianity which is focussed on helping the poor and seeing the truth that there are no slave nor free, jew nor greek, but instead is the captive of right wing conspiracy theories worried about the attack on white wealth and supremacy. Southern Baptists were more worried about anti-racist movements than Qanon’s grip on their members. I mean, sure, the entire denomination was set up because Northern Baptists were too much in favour of people being equal and emancipation but, as an example of people believing they’re right? Here’s a doozy.

You might dismiss them as loonies or extremist but that’s a mistake made by following after the world mythologised in the West Wing where words can only mean one thing and the world can only be seen one way by reasonable people.

Mary Douglas’ works, inter alia, Purity and Danger, and her essay on Taboos remind us that we are all products of our cultural environments and our ideas of risk, taboo and purity are culturally constructed, that our identities fit into that sense of community and the reflexive feedback involved in defining our own sense of self and how it fits into the multiple communities we are a part of is both something constantly in flux but also, crucially, a process which is almost entirely invisible to us.

The myth of the West Wing is that there is no process and our preferences and fears are objectively the right ones.

Sorry, I’m risking getting all technical. (Read Mary Douglas though).

My point here is that the kind of myth promulgated by the West Wing is one which damages our ability to be political actors because it plays into an idea that there isn’t really politics anymore, there is only technocratic processes by which we can all, eventually, arrive at the same place.

We can’t.

There is a culture war and there are more than two sides but those of us on the ‘woke’ side (and yes, it’s a fucking badge of honour for me) have made a massive error in our approach to those on the other sides. We have assumed far too often that our opponents know the truth of what we want and are either extremists or imbeciles.

the truth is both more mundane and decidedly more challenging. Our opponents exist in a different weltanschauung. The world us fundamentally different from the place where they stand. yes, we might be able to say, ‘they feel threatened about having to give up privilege’ and be right. But to diagnose the difference like this is to miss the point – what drives the underlying view of the world in which holding onto that power is seen as morally right? What are the structures which are in play that support such kinds of thinking?

So much nonsense has been written about the culture war between the ‘West’ and ‘Islam’ that we should have spotted this earlier. Because dismissing these theses, nonsense to someone like me who sees the crass simplifications, caricatures and othering inherent in these arguments misses the crucial point. Those writing these kinds of polemic have actually performed a really helpful act of self diagnosis which we’ve ignored. We’ve then ignored the fact that for people for whom these kinds of texts are serious also see us as a ‘culture’ to be made war upon.

The entire framing of ‘anti-anti-racism’, of deriding BLM as ‘marxist’, as passing laws to ban Critical Race Theory, an academic discipline arising out of legal studies as somehow un-American are not symptoms of madness in their own context but logical steps for a culture which believes it is at war. Someone can say they’re ‘anti-anti-racist’ with a straight face not because they’re racist (although, you know) but because they see anti-racism as an element of a culture which is trying to extinguish them.

Our memetics are in conflict and we progressives haven’t yet recognised it. We cling to the idea that if we’re reasonable, that if we behave a certain way, then others will come around. They won’t because they see us as part of an alien culture trying to conquer them.

To be sure this is an extreme reading of the situation – but I’m trying to make a point – that coddling ourselves with re-runs of the West Wing is to engage in the childish act of insulating ourselves from the reality of the situation, which is our enemy has seen us more more clearly than we have seen them and if they are running legislative and policy rings around us it is because they have, somehow, understood this is the way to maintain their pre-eminence. Because don’t misunderstand, White Supremacy as a fundamental guiding world view remains pre-eminent in law, policy, politics and entertainment.

Do I have any policy ideas? Not really but I think we need to be plainer in our language for those on the other side. We should cut through with how we see it – Anti-anti-racism is racism. Full stop. Being against CRT is to take the side of White Supremacy. Why? Because for many they don’t see it that way and it just might provoke a conversation and if they’re deeply offended or dismissive? Well they’ve told on themselves. It should be disgusting to be racist and transphobic but it isn’t in far too many places. We have to guard our spaces more carefully – not with ideological purity (because ugh) but with a clear idea of what we believe and why that is important.

For those who are bewildered in the middle we owe them clarity with compassion because for many they simply don’t understand the fuss – they too have internalised the myth of the West Wing and can’t see the conflict for what it is. Too often their confusion is fertile ground for those with clear ideas – and that, right now, is the right racist, white supremacists, not us.

I love the West Wing but it is bad for our health. Watch The Underground Railroad instead.

Coconut or P*ki – neither one thing nor another

I’ve deliberated about this post for a while. Partly because it’s about my identity as a person but also because there’s a lot I want to say which is nuanced and hard to articulate in the current landscape without inevitably coming up against gatekeepers and people who think they have the right to adjudicate the idea of belonging.

I write (a lot) about identity. I tend to focus on those places where I intersect with attitudes and opinions which would diminish me or seek to flat out ignore me. Often I’ve tried to talk about a lack of understanding which can lead to marginalisation for no other reason than a lack of language with which to engage. In my work for various literary prizes, through involvement with inclusion discussions at work and elsewhere I’ve become aware of something I think is worth talking about; the idea of majority vs. minority voices.

Much of the debate about race and identity at the moment appears centred around Whiteness. When I talk about that I mean it is about Whiteness vs, everyone else. As a necessary corrective here in the West (and wherever Whiteness is seen as some kind of innate virtue) it is also the gateway through which other identities are forged.

The problem is that in an effort to represent those other identities a lens of nationhood is used and the same kind of purity language is deployed by people on all sides as to what it means to be ‘X’.

I’m not Indian, nor White British/Irish/French, nor Ukrainian or Egyptian (the main identifiable nationalities of my grandparents) The rather provocative title above is meant to reflect how I feel so often among my peers. Among my South Asian friends I’m not really Indian – I don’t speak urdu, hindi and I don’t identify as Hindu or Muslim. I don’t have immediate family on the continent either, so my roots there are effectively non-existent.

Nor are we in contact with my father’s family for a host of reasons but it also means I have effectively nothing deeper than my parents. Yet I can’t easily look to my Britishness because I’m not White. I say Britishness as so many BIPOC do when referring to the UK because we long for the unity and togetherness the idea of the Union brings rather than the terrifying tribalism of English/Welsh/Scottish – a form of identification which seems a torn flag away from excluding us forever. White people ask me to talk about race, they ask me about Indian food (and hey, I’m a foodie so I can at least oblige) and they expect me to understand their awkwardness when it comes to talking about the colour of my skin – because it’s an ever present subject for them. On the one hand I’m not authentically brown enough for my Indian friends (and the word coconut is pretty pejorative, let’s be clear) but at school and in the street I’m just another Paki.

I write about this because I see a blindness occurring among allies which I want us to be aware of because it goes to the heart of who I am and how I engage with the world. As someone of mixed heritage I’m a liminal person. I don’t fit in with nationalistic or stereotypical ideas of identity. And people who do think of mixed heritage too often fall into the openly hostile or gatekeeping variety, demanding I align myself to one or other. ‘Why don’t you speak Urdu, man?’, or ‘I don’t think of you as coloured,’ being two of my least favourite.

Yet this is only half the story. As a friend of mine once astutely remarked – with my background there’s not a place in the world I could go where someone won’t hate me. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not all sad and depressed about this and I’m not asking for sympathy. I’m 45 – I’ve had plenty of time to get to grips with this state of affairs.

What I am concerned about is the conflating of majority non-White populations with anyone who’s not White. You see it in discussions about representation all over and about who is allowed to write what. Am I allowed to write about Indian characters because I’m a second generation immigrant who was brought up centred in White cultural norms? It’s a serious question I’ve asked myself.

People like me, people with mixed heritage OR who are second/third/Xth generation immigrants should not be mixed up with majority populations elsewhere. The fact that bestsellers in their own contexts like Cixin Liu’s books are being translated in English is fantastic. The fact I can read Nigerian SFF and watch Egyptian TV series about the paranormal are both amazing. Yet they are NOT representation in the ways allies tend to think. They are the voices of other majority populations, embodying their cultural values and their ideas about the world – and you’ll find no judgement from me in the arrival of those voices. I love it even if I think we consumers are too uncritical of those voices right now.

The problem I have is we let them stand in for proper representation, use them to substitute for doing the proper work of creating an inclusive society. It’s easy to commission the translation of an already best selling TV show or novel and we can pat ourselves on the back for bringing alternative voices to market. Except what we’re doing is again privileging majority voices. Because in each case there are more people with Chinese (c.1.4bn) and Indian (c.1.4bn) and Pakistani (c.230m) and Nigerian (c.200m) ID papers than British (c.70m) and the majority populations in each of those nations are engaged in their own battles about representation and what it means to be them with minority voices battling to be heard.

Giving voice to other majority populations is not the same as representation. It’s still a VERY GOOD thing for an open society but it is also too easy to use that to erase the need for voices from people who live among us, who live in our culture and are a part of our daily lives.

This last year I’ve become increasingly concerned that the focus on White supremacy is, while incredibly and persistently necessary, also creating a situation in which we simply lump everyone who’s not a White Supremacist into the same smoothed out bucket. It’s also making it that bit harder for criticism to be levelled against other majority populations in the business of suppressing and erasing their own minority voices.

Like I say, this is a difficult subject to write about because there are so many groups who can read what I’ve written and take offence (or even take comfort that they’re not the bad actors when they really are). The real world of representation is working with and serving those minority voices in our midst, not importing majority voices which are distinct from our own. The former is doing the labour, the latter is simply being an open society. I realise both are being challenged right now but honestly, the former is the more important because without it, and the cultural inoculation it provides, the latter will be used to power the machines of stereotype and to pedal soft power.

Back to front

There’s a lot of discussion about algorithms at the moment. Algorithms are nothing more than recipes. If people say ‘algorithm’ they normally mean the recipe for whatever they’re talking about. A mathematical algorithm for finding a solution? Think the recipe for finding the solution.

Why do I care about algorithms and whether we should really call them recipes (the analogy isn’t perfect, don’t @me, I’m quite aware)? Mainly because the discussion about algorithms in the public sphere relates almost exclusively to social media and how these processing recipes lead users to ever more extreme and unpleasant content.

I’ve been quite concerned with this book over the last few days. Reminded as I was by a lecture by the author in which they said something I had entirely missed in my general thinking about the kind of content we’re shown online. I am almost embarrassed to admit it as well – because I like to think I ruminate on economics quite a lot.

As a reminder, the book is called: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power and is written by Shoshana Zuboff. Zuboff has written a lot about this subject but this book is (despite the cover being uninspiring) a very good piece of work.

I don’t want to talk too much about the book except I want to draw out one key idea because it should turn your world upside down a bit.

First though. We have been told all over the place by tech-bros, concerned citizens (I’m in this category), opinion piece writers and others that the algorithms which we look at blaming for the slow radicalisation of people as bland and formerly innocent as our grandmothers, our friends and our children are i) in need of fixing and ii) often beyond understandding.

We’re told that these algorithms are often the product of unconscious bias (such as when facial recognition software didn’t recognise PoC as human or when Google associated PoC with gorillas in image search software). We’re told it’s a side effect but one which makes them money and so they’re loathe to change their ways. We’re told it’s the tail wagging the dog – unfortunate but fixable.

Zuboff dismisses this idea and reminds us these companies have made their fortunes by learning about us. So far so not surprising. Yet Zuboff then reminds the economically literate among us what that learning is good for. It’s not good for knowing what we did in the past because we can’t make money from that. Nor is it good for knowing what we’re doing now – again, I can make money on what you’re interested in NOW but it’s not the prize. The real prize from this learning is to know what you’re trending towards tomorrow – because then I can make real money from knowing your future tastes and preferences.

Zuboff then reminds us about the point of advertising – not simply to let us know a product is available, but to create a felt need we didn’t know we had and then sell us the solution for that sudden new found desire.

In short, these algorithms are designed to do two things.

  1. They’re designed to predict what we’ll want to buy tomorrow
  2. They’re designed to push us into buying products we don’t know we needed today.

Algorithmic drift into showing you more extremist material such as racist content, anti-vax nonsense, anti-elite conspiracies serve the two goals above. Why? Because these drifts don’t exist in a vacuum – social media companies (and let’s be honest, we’re only really talking Google and FB in liberal societies) are selling these predictions to companies – telling them they can guarantee purchases and eyeballs on adverts. Deliberate drift to extreme material is proven to guarantee both of those things.

Furthermore, there is an argument which goes like this: SM companies could see extremist material was both attractive to many people and a direction society was moving in, in part because of their exposure via SM companies’ activities, and they had a choice:

i) do they change their business model to avoid these excesses, or

ii) do they lean into extremism knowing their activity will appreciably shift society that way and thereby increase their revenue

Zuboff, among others, suggest only the second of those two options can be true without regulation.

So in the discussion around free speech this week (and possibly next?) you’ll see lots of back and forth over whether private companies have the right yadda yadda yadda. What you won’t see (yet) is much on whether these companies deliberately created these environments exactly with the intent of fostering extreme content to increase revenues.

My proposition is this: the tail never wagged the dog. The algorithms we’ve seen were designed explicitly to monetise user data by predicting their behaviour and nudging them towards it in order to create opportunities for companies they were pitching their services to. This has always been the dog wagging its tail.

Over the next few months as regulation becomes a more central concern of liberal governments (with the possible exception of the current far right UK conservative government) one key plank of companies’ defence will be it wasn’t their fault – they were, at worst, as surprised as us by the outcomes. Do not believe them. This isn’t about free speech – that is a distraction – and a different argument. This is about whether companies with our personal lives stored on their servers should be required to treat that data not as if it’s their never ending gold mine but as if it’s something to which privacy and political standards around propaganda and manipulation should be applied.

Memetic Defences (part 2)

Or how to tell a different story to build the world you want

Important point – if you’re interested in the strategies for making the world a better place, skip down to Article one and read from there.

Part one of this pair of essays was essentially the groundwork – laying out my thinking on memetic defences (and I swear that’s the last time I’ll use that phrase). I wanted to explore some of what we think we mean when we talk about open societies vs. closed and whether open societies are really as weak to malign influences as we can sometimes assume. The short answer is that we’re not and the virulent policing done by closed societies is really just a sign of how weak they are compared to open societies. It’s the difference between consent driven policing and marshal law.

This second part is concerned with taking our thinking forward and asking (and partially answering) one big question – how do we actively defend the features of open societies we are generally fond of? Not least, the openness, the honesty and the reflection I discussed in part 1?

I would like to say it’s all story – and if you know me in meatspace you’ve probably heard me say this a few times. Except I want to step away from that because I no longer believe it’s entirely true.

There are two enemies of the open society – the internal and the external. For example, we can easily identify Russia as an external existential threat to the European/Anglo-Saxon project of open societies. They have been busy poisoning and murdering their enemies in our territories and funding misinformation, lies and political operators driven only by their own benefit. And it works because the internal enemies of the open society are those who i) wish to make themselves invulnerable to the accountability built into open societies while ii) reaping their benefits. We can and should also identify other specific external national voices as opponents (rather than enemies) of the open society and they are inter alia China and certain theocracies in the Middle East. China is not an opponent in the same sense as Russia because their opposition comes from their own view of how the world should be constituted – which is deeply nationalistic and centred on the benefits of a close society – which is, by definition, against the promotion of open societies. Could they become antagonistic rather than expansionary? Of course, but we’re little different and hence I don’t see that as the same problem right now as I do the internal enemies of open societies we have here in the UK and the USA.

Our real enemies here are internal. I’d love it to be otherwise but I can’t see anyone really being as threatening to the idea of equality, openness, honesty and reflection as those who oppose from within the remit of the societies we live within.

What is my reasoning for this? We start with a government who is aping the populist, truth independent and deeply corrupt practices of self enrichment at the cost of all else we have seen promoted by the republican administration in the US. The Goodlaw Project’s identification of the misuse of public funds during COVID has been exhaustive and thorough and has revealed with startling clarity that a certain class of already very rich white publicly educated upper class English people has simply used a national crisis as an opportunity to make out like bandits and rob their constituents without even bothering to deny their actions. Furthermore we have literally seen (with the Priti Patel and Dominic Cummings fiascos) bald statements from senior government officials that the law only applies to others and exceptions should be made for them. This isn’t just an attack on truth, openness and reflection by stymieing its operation, it is a stab to its heart by simply ignoring it as something important.

Now, the point of this post was to talk about ways forward, not to lay out the crimes of dipshits who care nothing for their constituents but only for the people they serve.

So what do we do about this?

Well, it does start with story but it doesn’t end there. Everything is about the stories we tell ourselves. The stories we tell one another. A fantastic example is from Mark Carney’s Reith lectures this year where he reiterates research done by Michael Sandel and others around the effectiveness of penalties on bad behaviour. What they showed was what penalties act for some, particularly those with resources, not as a social stigma but as a form of permission to act badly. The most famous of these studies was one where a nursery found parents were coming late to pick up their children. They instituted a fine system but found MORE parents were coming late rather than fewer. It turned out the fines let parents feel ok about coming late because it acted not as a penalty but as a fee. Poor parents were penalised, rich parents felt they were getting an additional service.

It was better when people were told off and asked not to do it, when people were encouraged when they did the right thing and, most importantly, when other parents told latecomers they were in the wrong. I have seen this first hand and it guides certain small activities I always engage in. For instance, I always says thank you to people who are serving me in a shop. I always ask how they are and I have taken every opportunity to intervene when I see them being mistreated.

I always say thank you to people who stop for me as a pedestrian at a pelican crossing because I have seen enough instances of people not stopping to mean I want those who do stop to know it’s a good thing they’ve done (even if they’re just obeying the law).

I try, in my normal life, to normalise praise and encouragement for people who do what they should do (even if doing it is mandatory). Why? Because I want them to have the story that doing the right thing is praiseworthy.

Article one: we do not praise people enough. And we certainly don’t praise people enough for doing what they should be doing anyway. I have little evidence to say it works except, for instance, this: I run a lot. I say hello to everyone I meet. And now, people I pass on my regular runs say hello to me first. It’s a change of atmosphere. It is the same with walking the dog – my wife always says hello and we have discovered some lonely people who now stop to talk to us every time. This is simple community building but it’s much deeper than that. So. Normalise praising one another and praise one another for doing the right thing. If they say ‘I’m only doing what I should,’ then amazing, social norm achieved!

Article two: give air time to those who tell stories of the world the way you want it to be. Tell those stories yourself. Retell them to others. We give too much airtime to people who upset us – be they politicians, racists, TERFs or others. STOP IT. We should be aware of them but we should NOT be giving them airtime. We should, instead, be telling the stories of the good we see in the world, of the wonderful things we’ve seen happen and how we came across them. The more we nurture these good things the more they will grow and fill the airwaves. Sometimes, sure, we have to directly oppose those who would do us harm and I’m all for that, but that’s an endgame. For as much as possible we should be telling stories of blessing and encouragement to those around us. Ok, so here’s two examples. I’m a MASSIVE fan of both the new series of She Ra and of Star Trek Discovery. I’m a fan both because they’re brilliant pieces of fiction but also because they tell stories about a world which exemplifies the kind of values I want to see normalised where I live. It’s also an important strategy for ensuring the Overton window moves in the direction we want it to. Every time we highlight something bad rather than tell the story of something good we are actually doing the work of those who hate for them because exposure normalises.

Article three: there is no ‘winning’, there is only constant recreation of the culture we want to live in. Too often I grow tired of seeing ‘nothing change’ but the truth of the matter is, if I stop talking about the world I want to see, stop talking about the way I want it to be and stop acting to make it so, then it will change and not for the better because others are every bit as invested as I am in remaking the world in a way that suits them. The problem is they’re White supremacists, Indian Nationalists, German Fascists, TERFS, whatever. And this really comes to a deeper point – we need to normalise being politically active. I don’t just mean being a member of a political party – I mean being active in your community, being active in making your voice heard – whether that’s writing to your MP, joining committees at work, creating silly things like running clubs of movie nights or whatever it might be. We have seen in the post war dividend and the rise of corporate globalisation the downside that we’ve been alienated from our political lives. We have them but it works best for certain powerful vested interested if you and I don’t actually act as political beings – because it then leaves others unopposed. These days we tend to regard being political as a thing which we add on to who we are. Instead we should normalise the fact that all humans, all stories, all activity, is political in nature and act accordingly. It might seem tiring but it’s really only tiring when we try to add it on rather than letting it be part of who we are. If you have children and want them to have the best world possible? Then you need to be political and you need to help them understand that homo sapiens is a political animal, not a happiness seeking one.

Finally – Article four: Protect the stories you want to see triumph. Too often in my life I’ve seen ‘allies’ expect me to do the work, to fight the fight and allow them the space to say they’re on my side. That’s not enough. Not for me and certainly not to build a society which is open. Allies need to see themselves as more than people who are alongside those under fire. The apostle Paul writes something along the lines of ‘if you succeed I celebrate with you but if you fall I suffer with you.’ Excuse my paraphrasing for my own benefit. The point is this: we are all potentially allies to someone in need of our support and we need to normalise acting as if it was us being attacked directly. I’ve often seen the counter attack ‘I don’t see any X people saying this is a problem’ by racists, sexists, whatever. This is because they’re probably too tired, depressed or frightened to speak up. The fact Allies are fighting for them is exactly what these scum bags are afraid of. We need to normalise stepping in. We need to normalise making it a social problem when racists and sexists et al express their horrendous opinions. We should have zero tolerance. We are the good samaritan. I sometimes think people get tired of it but I’ve found a way to bypass that issue. When I see these events occur? I have nurtured a sense of ‘this is my space you’ve come to shit all over and I won’t have it.’ Righteous anger is a good thing where it’s put in the service of other people’s dignity.

I hope these ideas are of some use to you. I hope you see there is always hope even when our own governments are trying to strategise against us. Thank you for reading this and see you all soon.

Following this I think there’ll be a final essay on how we engage with those who differ from us – not on social media because there’s absolutely not point with the way it’s structured and with the incentives it provides – but in the flesh. Additionally, there’s no getting away from the fact that social inequality breeds social division and unravels social cohesion. There’s definitely more to say on this too because no matter how good a story is, if it’s moving in the opposite direction to people’s experience it runs the danger of losing its power to change the world.

Memetic Defences (part 1)

I owe this post directly to ideas raised in Rian Hughes’ amazing novel XX. Basically you need to gird your loins, find a comfortable reading chair and dive in – because it’s worth your time in ideas alone.

Gushing praise aside. Are you a believer in memes? I don’t mean this in the sense of this kind of thing. I mean in the Dawkins sense of the phrase. Indeed, as much as I think Dawkins is a loathsome man, the idea of memes as cultural genes looking to reproduce and drive meaning through a substrate which can support them (i.e. brains) is one which is very popular among a certain section of popular thinking.

I’m not a meme true believer. I think the very idea is pretty easily rebutted unless you broaden out the idea of ‘the survival of the fittest’ to such huge landscapes it effectively becomes a meaningless self-congratulatory platitude.

However. Ideas are interesting things. Philosophically, if we can avoid the onanism which tends to accompany debates around subject such as ideas by people who get paid to think about ideas for a living then there’s some rich and insightful ideas there for us to luxuriate in.

The question for me today is pretty narrow though – can an open society develop protective measures against ideas and trends which would harm it (even potentially leading to its downfall)?

To answer this question we have to make a number of assumptions – the first of which, and easily the most important, is that ideas can exist independently of people. You might say this is obviously true – books being the most easily raised example. I would suggest that’s kind of like asking if a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound? If there are not people to define what a sound is then the answer is no – there is no sound, because no creature who does experience the waveforms we might call sound would articulate they heard anything. If a book exists and no one’s reading it, do the ideas in that book cease to exist?

Let’s assume they continue to exist.

The second assumption here is ideas compete with one another for supremacy. I think this one is even more tenuous. Is there such a thing as a stand alone idea? Gravity you might say, or being alive, or the taste of chocolate or wanting to avoid pain or looking after our children. Each of the preceding statements is easy to express but they are hardly self contained concepts. Gravity requires an entire education in maths and physics to grasp. Wanting to avoid pain – a common enough motivation (is it an idea?) is one which needs to be learned, needs to be communicated and then factored into a much larger social construct which says some people like some kinds of pain, some people are prepared to experience pain for others’ good and on and on. Basically, no idea arrives in the world all alone and ready to ‘compete’, it is always part of a larger structure of cultural ideas into which it fits, its edges exceptionally blurry. (I shall avoid quoting Wittgenstein here because this isn’t a postgraduate thesis).

But again, let’s assume that at some level ideas can compete, or at least overwhelm others and push them out, for instance the idea that there’s an Aether or that the British Empire existed to ‘civilise’ its inhabitants.

Why? Because when I look at censorship, particularly in places like China you could, if you were so minded, called their strategy one of memetic defence – an active strategy of promoting memes which agree with the CCP’s view of the world and actively suppressing those which don’t. Some of this is done via explicit censorship but the rest is done via the fruits of the first. The more successful you are building a wall around which ideas are acceptable and which aren’t the more the culture engaged in those ‘acceptable’ ideas will, of its own accord, defend that space. That defence will be internal, rooting out bad actors within but also outward looking by attacking those who express contrary ideas or who, gasp, attack the memetic defence itself. You could read the brigading of media companies who create content critical of China as exactly this strategy in execution. They successfully have those outside their memetic space change their behaviour, both increasing the influence of their cadre of successful ideas but also pushing back on ideas which might challenge their view of the world. It is political warfare, plain and simple and a fantastic example of ‘soft power’.

I’m not saying anything here about the exceptionally complex relationship of different political and cultural ideologies colliding – I’m make no judgements in this piece, just stating an idea using specific examples which from my (obviously politically charged position) seem like clearly demonstrating what I’m trying to say.

The question is, do liberal societies have similar defence mechanisms?

And, of course, the answer is yes. However, they might not be ones we’re all to impressed by when we start to understand what they are and how they function. So the secondary question is, are there mechanisms which we think we can deploy/develop to protect that we cherish in liberal/open societies?

The most obvious answers to the initial question is yes. History and the story of our cultural legacies act as a huge break/inertial dampener on new ideas, especially ones which don’t necessarily fit with our ideas of where we come from and what makes our culture distinct. These are also expressed in education, through the press, content generation in the media and via Government policy.

The key difference for an open society is how its openness operates. I would probably use a scale/grid where open societies value two things – honesty and reflection. The first (as we see in the current British government which lies first and denies second) is critical to continued openness because it allows the cultivation of an intellectual space where all voices matter because it’s what they have to say which is important, not who’s saying it and how closely they cleave to the way the powerful dream of the world being.

The second is also critical because open societies are characterised by their ability to integrate new ways of thinking and allow failure of policy to be addressed and learned from. High honesty and high habits of reflection are the watermarks of truly open societies.

Now. Openness and reflexiveness are two human traits which it is horribly easy to suppress. Honesty can see the messenger shot or can be actively discouraged because it shows others in bad ways. Effectively, these two habits/ideas are ones which require constant reinforcement in the sinews of the culture in which they’re being cultivated and as such, even the act of doing nothing, of staying silent around them, can lead to their weakening as desired virtues. Indeed, they’re also hard and can often be found to threaten vested interests, so political pressures can also lead to them being suppressed.

Finally, honesty and reflection do not provide easy fixes or people onto whom we can shift the blame (because they deny us the right to delude ourselves for a start) and so we see a third pressure to suppress them.

This isn’t to say they’re doomed to being crushed, it’s to say that those of us who encounter these ideas and like open societies have to always be armed to defend these traits.

I would posit that in the last twenty years we have seen a concerted attempt in Western Open societies to shift what people call the Overton Window towards a less open, less critical more deferential culture. It’s been painted as one of individualism but it’s really just a way of deconstructing social cohesion rather than proper libertarianism (even if libertarianism has grown as a result). If the Overton Window is the box which at any particular moment defines acceptable ideas, the growth of anti-intellectualism and the resurgence of fascist strands of thinking within that window are deeply worrying not just existentially but for the kinds of open society I grew up in and have been promoting throughout my life.

In some ways all I’m saying is we now have a society in which brexit and Trump’s brand of narcissistic white supremacism are not simply acceptable regardless of the clear and factual damage they do even to their adherents but are considered fundamentally centrist enough for millions of people to vote for them.

We have defence mechanisms but they appear to have failed. I’m going to stop here in this post but will come back for a second post shortly in which i discuss why they’ve failed and what we *might* be able to do about it if we’re interested in actively defending the idea of open societies, firstly internally and secondly externally.

The financial impact of Covid 19

I’ve just read and watched the unprecedented statement from the British Chancellor of the Exchequer. Shortly after him, within a matter of hours or days the US Congress will come to a similar place – with their own twist on it of course.

Someone asked me just what this money is. Where does it come from and what is it really – a loan, a repo or something else, maybe money printing.
The answer is, qualitatively the same for all people putting in place fiscal stimulus right now.

It’s based on several things but probably the best analogue are the warbonds which had no maturity but would be called at the appropriate time (the last of which weren’t called until last decade). It is unprecedented. It’s also impossible to foresee the long term consequences of this. I’m sure people are thinking about them. Ironically perhaps – this is how you get inflation because supply side is going to become more and more strained the longer borders are closed and people can’t work. Prices can and will go up because of that – not because we’ve got more money. However, this will clearly be offset by people not actually having money. It’s a hugely risky strategy – but clearly the risks of doing nothing will be worse. Rishi Sunak has just promised to cover 80% of salary up to 2500 per month indefinitely. This is astonishing and tremendously welcome but tells you just how scared everyone is by the economic impact of this. If you’re not taking this seriously right now then you are, simply, a fool. A government composed of right wing nationalists and fiscal conservatives for whom Hayek and the Chicago school remain idols have just announced Universal Basic Income and an effective socialisation of salary and all of society’s risks. This is the tiger making dinner for the rabbit, it’s the coyote apologising to Roadrunner. (and for those in the know…don’t be Peck.) The term unprecedented here is both correct and far too small to underscore what’s going on.

Back to the question of ‘how do we pay for this?’

Well I mentioned warbonds earlier. Specifically those from WWI and II. They didn’t think about how they would repay – the nation was supposed to be facing an existential crisis. So they borrowed from a future they hoped was there to be borrowed from. The sense of desperation here is the same. We fail and it’s a generational depression to make the financial crisis look like losing your lunch money vs. losing your house and being forced to live on the street.

If we successfully meet this challenge? Well then we’ll worry about the implications then. What’s clear is no western country, especially the UK, will be the same after this. The US still has a journey to go on but they too will be no less different after this is over and, perhaps a silver lining, but this will be a real insulation against partisan politics and especially popularists because the virus respects nobody. It’s not an innoculation but like a large volcanic eruption can stall climate change, this can stall the growth of populism if only for a time.

I’m not sure there’s anything further to say – beyond this point everything is speculation. There are precious few voices I’m interested in listening to on this right now – I’m kind of absorbing lots and filtering 95% of it as the noise people make when they’re scared – it’s all shouting and fear and fastening onto any details which people see that appear new.

Yet the above is relevant. The government is doing something beyond the wildest fantasies of any serious economist I know – including me. You may criticise them all you like but I’ll have less respect for you if you do (see my reference to Peck). I guarantee you, you don’t know better and you wouldn’t do better. The choices made today by Sunak and by other European countries ahead of him this week and by the US over the weekend are literally undreamt of – not simply because the world economy was never structured to allow it (and there’ll be a lot of previously important influencers in the system who will now either fall into line or disappear into irrelevance) but because fundamentally literally no one could imagine this situation and moreover, no one can foresee the consequences of this in a month, a year or a decade.

Stories and Uncertainty

Humans are story telling creatures. We are adapted to look for patterns and this can play out in our stories about ourselves and how we see the world. There’s no evidence to suggest our propensity to see patterns in randomness is the grounding for our being creatures who search for meaning but what is meaning except a pattern which we can articulate and whose framework we can place ourselves within.

The last few weeks at work have seen many, many high level discussions about the future. Or THE FUTURE if you prefer. Which isn’t that different to normal. When we do deals, when we’re planning strategy across the UK, Europe, APAC and the US we spend a lot of time on these questions.

However, right now there is no narrative we can construct which makes sense. Everything is fraught with problems. Every strategy governments and (more relevant for me, companies) come up with can be picked apart.

We invest on the basis of stories which make sense when picked apart. There will be maths, rigour etc. But in the end they serve to tell a coherent narrative upon which we will make decisions.

Where our stories fail we experience crisis. At least in my experience. Where our stories won’t explain we flail. Sometimes we look for new stories but what I observe most often is fragmentation. We look for elements and fractions which confirm the interpretation of the world we want to be true. It is not a moral failing even if it is a failing of mindful discipline. We all struggle with this. Here’s my own case – when CV-19 first hit in Jan, I didn’t believe it would strike us as it has done. H1N1, the last global pandemic hit 100m infections and about 1m dead. It hadn’t seen anything like the kind of response we’re talking about now. We’re at 200,000 infections globally right now…compared to 100,000,000 for H1N1. So I just couldn’t see how the two had any kind of equivalence. And I said so quite loudly – partly, especially into Feb, there was a decent amount of hysteria already festering around the edges of the markets.

However, my story was wrong. I was wrong. I was wrong a second time – which is I couldn’t conceive of us shutting ourselves away for what is (people are saying) likely to be months not weeks. Certainly we have been given no end date.

Yet all of this hasn’t stopped people from all walks complaining bitterly and loudly that those trying to grapple with these decisions have got it wrong every step of the way. There may well be some element of that criticism that’s correct. Yet correct in what sense? Do we want to minimise deaths? Of course! Do we want to make sure we don’t cripple the economy? Of course! Do we want to ensure we come through this outbreak more resilient should it resurge? Of course! Can we do all three? Nobody knows. And no one has a mandate to say which combination of those three priorities is the preferred one and the one we’re going to aim for. There is no story here which is nuanced enough to allow for the deeply complex uncertainties to be expressed in a simple linear narrative. Hence we struggle to articulate both the issues and our fears. You could even argue that our inability to articulate the issues exacerbates our sense of anxiety. It’s certainly led to me reading more about the subject (even if much of that material turns out to be complete guff).

Then there are those who deliberately peddle nonsense like the fake cases of people taking ibuprofen on Cork who died from complications with CV-19. Or whatever version you came across. A set of falsehoods so egregious even the BBC was moved to write an article discussing the case.

Some smart arse will reply ‘but the chief medical officer said…’. Yes they said ‘don’t use it if it’s dangerous for you. Which is freaking common sense and, perhaps surprisingly, applied before CV-19. So don’t @ me with your counterfactuals.

(ed: he’s taken his pills, rant over)

What’s the point of this post? A couple of things drove me to write it.

First – we are in a time when stories about the way the world works are not going to serve us. Venal corporations vs. valiant individuals will not help. Corrupt government vs. the populace won’t help. Callous youth against vulnerable boomers won’t help. We have to do better.

We have to tell a different story – one where we don’t know the end, where we don’t know the rules of the story and are actual participants rather than the writers of it, rather than observers who’ve divined how it’s going to end and are on the ‘right side’.

I believe this can make us kinder – because to exist in this kind of story is to admit we don’t know and if we don’t know, the kind of empathy we’d like to have expressed towards us should also allow us to express empathy to others. Because we’re all in the same boat.

Second. We have to accept (if not embrace) the uncertainty inherent in our situation. We have to be wary of any stories right now which purport to tell us how the world is, how it’s working and how it’s going to turn out. I’m not proposing ignoring well researched evidence and science. What I’m saying is we have to simply gather than information and refuse to draw conclusions because the period of time in which the dataset’s being written is weeks and months, not the 24 hour news cycle. I recognise how stressful this is.

There’s an old maxim for people floating on the stock exchange – don’t look at the prices. Buffet said the same to investors – don’t second guess, don’t even check. Just invest and go away until such time as you need the money.

It applies here – constant reviewing of the information won’t yield insight. Especially when we’re dealing with radical uncertainty. Imagine one of those old war games on consoles/PCs such as Command & Conquer. Right now we’re effectively still in the home base and the fog of war covers the whole map – looking again and again at the map won’t help us because we can’t see the critical information needed to arrive at meaningful conclusions. We have no choice but to accept we are living with uncertainty. We still have to make decisions. Which is a right pain – but you know what? It’s highly unlikely we’ll make them any less badly than normal – because most of us are bad at making decisions anyway – factoring in the wrong considerations, biases and emotions as a matter of course.

All of this is a long way of saying – there are a lot of pressures out there right now which can be interpreted as telling us to act selfishly, to see others as ripe for ridicule and disdain and constant criticism. However, this is the perfect time to remind ourselves we live in stories of the everyday where none of us can be certain and hence all of us can be kind.

The problem with winning power

There’s a saying – ‘No one ever changed the world by being nice’. I don’t know how true it is, but I believe it about 60%. Certainly peaceful protest has succeeded in moving the chairs around but I’m not sure whether it’s only when peaceful protest and violent resistance meet that societies really change. You could say I’m really, truly hoping Greta Thunberg manages to inspire us Gen Xers and Millennials fulfil out duty to future generations and change the world before it gets overwhelmingly violent.

However, the above is really only by way of starting this short essay.

I’ve been pondering why it is so many of us here in the UK (and also our friends across the pond) find it hard to occupy the middle ground now.

One obvious argument from my side of the debate is that it’s fine to not discuss my future with nazis and fascists. It’s a pretty strong argument. And I also think, when faced with such extremism it’s valid to argue the call to moderation is one I should set on fire because it too is my enemy for giving space to those who won’t be satisfied until I’m no longer part of the world we currently share.

However. This doesn’t satisfy me. It might be right and it is definitely a simple argument to grasp.

yet it can’t be the whole story. Why not? Because I think we can only unravel the mess we appear to be in (or the period of enhanced and lively political engagement depending on your point of view) by understanding a little of what really constitutes it.

I know it’s trite and probably cliched to say this, but really we’re talking about power. But I don’t think what I’m about to say isn’t your normal discussion about power.

Those of you who are friends of mine on facebook will have seen me mention the work of Mary Douglas this past week. In particular books such as Natural Symbols and Purity and Danger. Much of what I want to think through here will be (inelegantly) crabbed from her thinking, so really, do yourself a favour and go read them instead of me!

Assuming you’re still here I want to think about power not in its exercise, but in what it means for communities. Power is, in most meaningful senses, about agency. It is about being able to act as one wishes. This is additionally so for communities. The big difference is that communities are made up of many people and so have sets of rules by which those people know they are a part and know they are outside. Rules of taboo, punishment, transgression etc. are all about saying who belongs and who is outside. To use the technical term, they are what defines the sectarian nature of any community.

Part of a community exercising its agency is to say ‘you are not a part of us’ or indeed to say ‘you belong here’. The interplay of the individuals own agency and that of their community is important and communities can crush those within (and without) through the means of enforcing their shared understanding of belonging. In a very real sense, to break the law (whether it’s to each coffee cremes when everyone agrees they’re an abomination or to engage in cannibalism) is to set oneself against the community.

So far so dry.

I want to briefly tie this into the superhero narrative we have and which modern western culture appears to find so appealing in the mainstream now. (and I’m a massive geek, so @ me here because I’m a big consumer/lover of this content) There’s a very common narrative that superheroes are really crypto-fascists. It’s a strong reading and one I basically support but it’s not deep enough. The problem with superheroes is that they’re basically representative in a large way of how we wish the world worked. Simplistically we wish we could, as individuals, go off and, with magical powers, fix all that’s wrong. Additionally, we tend to wish those problems could be personified and dealt with in a single struggle where it was clear what was right and what was wrong.

Apologies – I’m being overly simplistic. Yet I believe the above cod-psychology holds if we think about how communities address their concerns – and that’s through stories. We tell one another stories of how bad our enemies are, of how they’re lying, evil and happy to commit unforgivable sins. Not because we wish them ill as a primary motive but because it helps us defend our own values and helps mark them out as being separate to us, as being outside us.

For highly sectarian communities (and this is definitely a feature of the extremist politics we experience now) the barriers between being in and out are very sharp. For more moderate communities you see fuzziness, tolerance, a gradient which provides a lot of wiggle room. I think we’ll all recognise that right now, we experience both on our side and that of the other a very sharp divide. You’re either with us or against us. I’m being descriptive here rather than explicative so a little bit of the latter.

Sectarian communities are effectively defensive in nature. Their world view is one filled with insecurity and fear – fear of being corrupted, of the community failing. It can fail because of only one thing – that the outsider somehow corrupts us, that we weren’t pure enough. You’ll see this played out wherever you see ideological drives for purity – such as Momentum trying to oust the deputy leader of the Labour party or the withdrawing of the whip from 21 Tory MPs for daring to dissent. Game theory tells us those are disastrous moves BUT that’s not the rationality in play. The rationality in play behind these kinds of actions are ones designed to maintain purity, to identify and keep the corrupted outside of the community lest they corrupt us to. This drive to stave off the end of the community is built from three elements. One is agency – the community has values it wishes to actualise. The second is it feels threatened, it feels like if it loses it might disappear and this drives the third element – it believes in the story which makes it a community. These elements combine to create a set of motivations that are not those of trading power and achieving progress but of defence and survival.

People who are looking to survive will act as they deem necessary – if you believe losing the argument represents an existential threat, it becomes possible to justify any action as reasonable because to fail to take it could lead to having no life to regret sticking to ones values over. See this article in Time Magazine for a great example of a value driven community (US Evangelicalism) which has fallen into the sectarian trap of believing it’s under siege and acting defensively as a result.

This brings me to the main point of this post. Why votes and ‘opinions’ appear to have become the pivot points around which we’re building our mutual sectarianism. Led by the hard right, which is a community under deep existential threat in the West (at least), they’re acting as defensive communities – a vote like the referendum becomes not about facts but about the power it will give them to establish borders around their values. These values are shifting because they’re not that important – it’s the exercise of power in the name of survival which is important here. The actual values can be fleshed out later – do we mean full on fascism – well maybe, if that’s what served to protect ‘our way of life’. It’s also why a second referendum on Europe for the UK is irrelevant (even if legally vital) because those who won the first time around see that as the boundary which protects them. Anything to the contrary is simply another attack on them. You cannot overstate the insecurity this community feels across a whole range of social issues which crystallise around the idea of those who are outside and the pollution they bring when they are invited inside. As an aside – we can then see that many of these people aren’t ‘racist’ in the old fashioned NF/BNP/KKK sense. But they are racist because they see their identity centrally as white english speakers and the ‘other’ as outside of that. They’re just as prejudiced towards Polish people as they are Indians and Chinese.

When people get on the news and say ‘there’ll be riots if you betray 17.2 million people’ they’re not talking rationally as we understand it. They are, however, talking rationally from their point of view. THey’re expressing that their boundaries are being crossed and they will act to protect their definition of who is inside and who belongs outside. They will purify those inside who are ‘not true believers’ and they will guard the gates to stop anyone from coming inside. They’re not saying there will be riots (although there may be) – they’re saying ‘this is THIS important to me’.

I don’t know if this is particularly enlightening. I hope it is. I’m trying to say why the facts as people in my community find so important are so irrelevant to these types of community. I’m trying to say why they can’t see the legal frameworks, the four estates and our cherished checks and balances are vital to restricting magical untamed power from wrecking havoc. Why? Because, right now, they want power (their power) to wreck untamed damage on those outside their community who they perceive to be at their borders massing for invasion. To be clear I don’t mean actual invasion, I mean psychological invasion, an invasion where their myths are cast down, their narratives about how the world is and should be are shattered and replaced with new ones.

How can we talk to these people? Should we? We have to remember they have set a specific set of values as matters of purity and taboo. For many of us those items are too extreme or basic for us to often know how to tackle.

I would say this – these values bring them comfort. Othering those not like them (Remainers, poc, women with agency, foreigners, experts etc.) provide them comfort when they can actively exclude them. They already feel defensive and this act helps them feel as if their walls are impregnable. It gives them agency. Helping people exit from cults is very difficult and there’s a good JSTOR paper on how the exit process can cause more damage than healing.

If we are to tackle this, we must continue to propose our own myths, to dismantle their taboos. We don’t dismantle taboos with facts alone. It can’t be done. We can only dismantle taboos and ideas about purity by establishing our own forms of these values. This runs the risk of direct conflict as different mythic ideas clash. I think if we’re interested in establishing that racism is NOT ok then we have to accept that potential outcome.

So…to conclude. Like properly.

  • we should give up the notion that facts will convince people who are defending values
  • We MUST develop our own positive myths around why the society we want to live in is a good one and we must be prepared to defend it. i.e. we have to fight them a little on their own ground
  • We must remember that constitutional, legal and social niceties, conventions and norms are seen as contemptuous if they serve the ‘other’ for communities under siege
  • We must continue to defend the above for all the obvious reasons as well as the fact they protect us from ourselves
  • We cannot be neutral but we can also call people in these communities to their positive values – to their better natures. Almost no member of those communities sees themselves as bad people and we can use our own myths and narratives to call out those positives.
  • Attacking them, belittling them and humiliating people who feel defensive will only make them more defensive. However, when their ideas clash with mine, I must call them out but as one peer to another. We should always treat them, not necessarily with respect of their ideas but with the knowledge that their values are significant for them and we should therefore take them seriously. Seriously enough to oppose them.
  • Finally – narratives among the community of outrage are explicitly designed to build those values and to ensure emotional engagement remains high. As I’ve said elsewhere, we must develop our own myths and stories if we are going to counter these kinds of arguments. But how we build positive myths is for another day.

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