Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Risky Flights Should Be Your Choice

Having seen all the disruption to air travel that has been caused by the inclement weather over Christmas, I look forward to the day when planes undertake commercial fights without the need for any staff (it will happen, as technology increase becomes swifter and exponentiation sees that the present innovations will be eclipsed by the future). Here's why. I find it unsettling that decisions are made to cancel trips irrespective of the wishes of the passengers - and I anticipate the day when the decision to fly in bad weather or stay at home is made only by the people doing the flying.

There will be many for whom the increased weather threat diminishes their willingness to board a plane, but equally there will be many for whom the increased risk is dwarfed by the pleasures and benefits of taking the trip. Consider Tom who is travelling to New York to be at his daughter's wedding and give her away; Dick who is boarding the plane for that career-changing job interview; and Harry who is crossing the Atlantic for the first time to meet his prospective beloved with whom he's been conversing online for the past six months - those people, and many like them, are being denied the opportunity to take a risk they may well feel is worth taking. 

When announcements are made that flights have been cancelled, all travellers are inconvenienced, but the second, less circumspect, group of people (the Toms, Dicks and Harrys of this world) are inconvenienced more than the first group, because they are the ones who would have still taken the risk had they have been given the choice. It's true that bad weather increases a passenger's chances of not making the trip safely, but for those who consider the risk worth taking, a commercial flight that affords those that want to travel the chance to do so and those that don't the chance to stay at home can only be a good thing.

* Photo courtesy of bbc.co.uk

Sunday, 29 December 2013

How Mild Preferences Can Lead To All-Out Segregation

I once wrote a Blog post on how riots actually start. Today I want to turn to someone else who has found the answer to a similar issue: Why do we have major racial/sexual/religious segregation when at an individual micro level the motives and prejudices are much less distinguishable than at the macro level?

Nobel Prize winning economist Thomas Schelling found out why; he showed that even a tiny amount of discrimination can lead to an almost total segregation. Schelling used coins on graph paper (or, if you prefer, pieces on a chess board for simplicity) to exhibit this phenomenon; he placed pennies and nickels in different patterns on the board to represent black people and white people. He showed that if you remove 20 random coins and add 5 random coins back again you have a situation ripe for racial segregation (see figure (a) above).

Suppose that each coin had a rule - it no longer wished to be positioned in a place on the graph in which it was outnumbered by other non-similar coins by more than 2 to 1. Schelling showed that by moving each coin away, consistent with that desired rule, that even from such mild preferences it creates a major segregation (see figure (b) above).

Rather like when Charles Booth's infamous poverty map showed how London's once poor estates are largely the ones that have remained poor, Thomas Schelling put in a lot of mathematical groundwork to show that, just like the coin model, tension-filled segregation does not have to be incubated by, or even gestated by, extreme prejudice and ill-feeling - even mild prejudices do often eventuate in all-out segregation.

Of course, Schelling's model was very much centred on actual neighbourhoods with geographical proximity. But nowadays, with online global connectivity, I suspect those tensions are not confined to the neighbourhood or local estate - they are very much part of a wider dynamical tension that stratifies into tribal groups comprising many people who've never even met each other.

* Photo courtesy of jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk 

Friday, 27 December 2013

A Fun Game To Show When You're Not In Control

I don't usually feel the need to Blog-share my conversations in philosophy forums, but this one from just before Christmas is worth re-printing because it provides an excellent example of how people are under the illusion that they can control things over which they actually have no control.

Here was my opening question (based on a similar problem by MIT's Richard Stanley):

You meet a billionaire with a well shuffled pack of cards. There are 52 cards in total - 26 have a £ on them and 26 have a zero on them. The billionaire is going to slowly turn the cards face up, one by one. You can raise your hand at any point — either just before he turns over the 1st card, or the 2nd, or the 3rd, etc, - and the moment you raise your hand, you win £1 million pounds if the next card he turns over has a £ on it, and you win nothing if the next card he turns over has a zero on it.

Prior to the game starting, what’s your best strategy for maximising your chances of winning £1 million pounds?

There were quite a few profferings of strategies, such as "wait until 51 cards have been flipped", and "wait until you've had more zeros than £s", and then I gave the answer:

James Knight
The answer is, prior to the game starting, your strategy is inconsequential - you have a 50% chance whatever you decide. You can plan to raise your hand the first time you’ve seen more zeros than £s, or the first time you’ve seen 1, 2, 3, 20 or whatever zeros, but your chance to win will still be 50%.

Some people were not convinced - they insisted that they had control over the probability. Here's how the conversation ensued:

Alex Schamenek
James, if what you say is true then card counting wouldn't work. It does. You are wrong.

James Knight
Alex, I used to be a professional gambler. Card counting does work by increasing the probability, but my OP challenge is not the same as card counting. What you've argued is essentially the same as arguing that because you can't run a car on orange juice you can't enjoy it as a health drink!

Louis le Hutin
James, I am interested in the proof of your statement. It is trivially clear for the first round, but it is not so clear in the next ones.

Johnny Coroama
The best strategy is to -Assign the deck values of +1 or -1 (+1 for each 0, and -1 for each £) - after a running count of +1 or -1 - wait for a statistical disparity -and choose the opposite of the count, if the deck was truly shuffled the higher the deck count is in either direction the greater the chance that the next card will be the opposite, this obviously doesn't work in large models, but its perfect for smaller models of guessing.

James Knight
Louis, the strategy must be decided prior to beginning, which means any strategy you decide prior to starting is not going to increase your chances one jot. After play has begun things change, but they can equally change in your favour or against you, and you won't know which beforehand.

Louis le Hutin
Johnny, I agree... to a degree. It might be a better strategy to wait until the difference is significant (let's say, 60-40),

James Knight
Louis, you can't say 'it might be better to wait' - it's a 50:50 whether it's better to wait, which is why I asked what’s your best strategy for maximising your chances - there is no strategy for maximising your chances.

Johnny Coroama
Your count will give you a good indication, I'd say around +6 or -6, your looking at .60 percent chance the next card is the opposite, if indeed the deck was shuffled

James Knight
Johnny - see my last post.

Johnny Coroama
Picking toward the beginning is bad, picking toward the end is bad

James Knight
It makes no difference Johnny.

Johnny Coroama
If you want a statistical advantage it sure does

Louis le Hutin
James, I agree, if you are talking about the FIRST move. Things change once you get past the first move.

James Knight
Louis, Johnny - there are no advantages because the odds of having an advantage at any one point are the same - 50:50 each game. In other words, you don't have any idea whether the game in which you partake is going to facilitate the run you want or not - it's 50-50.

Johnny Coroama
You are dealing with 52 cards, if the first 26 cards are 0's you don't think you have an advantage guessing what the last 26 are going to be ?

Louis le Hutin
I disagree, James, perhaps because I am a Bayesian. Past information DOES give you an advantage. Come on, if the 26 0 cards have appeared you have a sure bet.

James Knight
Yup guys. And if you choose the winning lottery number, you have a 100% chance of winning the jackpot. Do you want to conclude that you’ll win the jackpot 100% of the time?

You're both confused.

Johnny Coroama
Exactly, so deduce from the sure bet, statistical disparity, look for the disparity by assigning values, and then act when the disparity increases the odds of your guess

James Knight
Your 26 card point is irrelevant to strategy - it would be a run that bore no correlation to strategy. The odds of the first 26 cards being £ is the same as the odds of the first 26 cards being zero. But in one case after the 26 cards are shown you have a 100% of winning and in the other case after the 26 cards are shown you have a 0% chance of winning. The average of 0 and 100 is 50, so it's still a 50:50, even if you could guarantee that you had a 1/2 shot at your desired run.

James Knight
Johnny >>Exactly, so deduce from the sure bet, statistical disparity,

look for the disparity by assigning values, and then act when the disparity

increases the odds of your guess<<

This won't work for exactly the same reason that planning to go and pick the winning lottery numbers at the weekend won't work.

Johnny Coroama
Lol no James, you are wrong. The number of cards remaining is not 50:50. not in small models - pointless to argue with you any further - its a rather simple concept

James Knight
Johnny you just don't understand - anyone knows that if you reduce the number of zeros then you have a better chance of winning. But everyone also ought to know that there is no strategy for reducing the number of zeros!!

Johnny Coroama
James you are confusing conditional probability / Heads and Tales - with propositional logic

James Knight
I'm not, I'm really not!

Johnny Coroama
Since your scenario deals with the proposition that 52 cards are in a deck, half of which are 0's and the other half £ - statistical disparity gives someone better then 50:50 chance

James Knight
You're wrong. After the hand is raised, you might as well just pull the last card of the deck as these events are statistically identical. I think you'll have no trouble seeing that one cannot get better odds than 50-50 on the last card, so one cannot get better odds with any strategy.

Louis le Hutin
Indeed, if you can stay your hand until you have a good chance of winning, and you have no adverse consequences if you stay your hand, I don't see how not staying your hand until you have good odds is a losing strategy

James Knight
Because, Louis, the odds of your game being favourable or non-favourable are 50:50, so there is no strategy to aid you in this.

There were no further replies to my final post, which hopefully means that Louis and Johnny came to realise the error in their thinking. As it happens, here is an illustration that I wrote but ended up not needing to share in the philosophy forum - one which gives even clearer exhibition to how there is no prior strategy better than the 50:50 probability. 

Suppose we are now going to start one game, with two players - Louis and Johnny - each trying to win £1 million pounds from the billionaire, who will give them £1 million each if they both get a £ result. Louis's strategy is to take the last card (which is the same as taking the first card). The odds of Louis winning are 50/50. Johnny thinks he's cuter - his strategy is to wait for a favourable situation where there are more £ cards left than zero cards. Then he pounces!

Suppose Johnny gets his good run (which is itself a 50:50, as if there were a second game he has 50% chance of not getting a favourable run). When Johnny raises his hand, the probability of the next card being a winner is the same as the last card being a winner, because the deck is shuffled, so it's still the same odds for Louis and Johnny at any stage of the game. Johnny, despite all his plotting, will never be better off than Louis, who agreed from the very beginning to take the last card with 50/50 odds.

Johnny thinks he has an advantage because he thinks that he might get a favourable run of cards that increases his chance of winning above 50%. This is true, but if that were to happen, Louis's chances have increased by the exact same amount too, proving that Johnny's strategy confers no advantage over Louis.  

This shows beyond any doubt that there is no possible prior strategy that you can use to increase your chances of winning.

* Photo courtesy of zazzle.com

Saturday, 21 December 2013

How to save yourself time and still give everyone a better Christmas card!

Just an idea off the top of my head; it may not be to your preference - but if you are one of the many people who sends loads of Christmas cards and takes the time to compose something worthwhile in each of them, you might like to take a bit of time to write one brilliant message and encourage everyone you know to do the same. That way, you capitalise on economies of scale by producing one excellent card and then copying it for all your friends and colleagues, and you greatly reduce the average resources consumed per card, while still increasing the average quality of card you give to each person. If everyone else signs up too then you greatly increase the quality of cards you receive too because each one given to you will have the best message the sender could come up with.
* Photo courtesy of Lisa Osbourne flickr.com

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Yay For Big Cities!

Not exactly big hitters here, but a couple of amusing things caught my eye today - both to do with Green politics. Firstly, this social commentator in Australia causing a stir with his above placard.

This fellow makes no sense in his provocative placard-graph. If the distance from the black line to the red line is supposed to represent tax revenue (the vertical line segment that descends from B), and the longer vertical line segment extending to the red line is supposed to represent financial restitution paid by the government - then all the placard is conveying is that if you pay x in carbon taxes and return x + y from the government you'll be better off.

Well, no kidding Sherlock - this guy's a genius at stating the obvious. What he doesn't state - the thing which actually is supposed to be an argument for higher carbon taxes - is why that makes increased carbon taxes a good thing.  Swap 'carbon taxes' with anything - food, alcohol, cigarettes, petrol, cosmetics - and the same still applies - if you pay x in food, alcohol, cigarettes, petrol or cosmetics taxes and return x + y from the government then that tax is deemed to be good for the consumer.
This fails to account for the fact that what's good for the consumer has to be offset by a cost to the provider - but we'll overlook that. The real trouble is, as anyone who has even a basic understanding of GCSE maths can tell you, such a working system requires us to suspend the laws of arithmetic in order to make it fly, because the government cannot create wealth, it can only transfer resources from one place to another.

The other vital thing he overlooks is that carbon is, quite obviously, a source of many benefits (they're called 'positive externalities'). All grounds for sensible taxation are based on negative externalities (which are vastly overstated - as I explain here in this Blog), but since neither positive nor negative externalities appear on his placard, and not the hint of a net cost-benefit analysis, the best I can say about it is that it makes no coherent arguments for increased carbon taxation.
It's the kind of graph that would only be a good case for increased carbon taxes if it replaced reality with fantasy and had completely different information mapped onto it. Which is like saying that if you interpret 'Natalie Bennett' to mean 'Clint Eastwood' and 'Russian ballet dancer' to mean 'Hollywood actor' then Natalie Bennett is a Russian ballet dancer.

The other issue today that I've seen is one raised by a couple of MEPs bemoaning big cities, and how they are the main causes of over-pollution. Their focal point is along the lines of "per square mile big cities are the most environmentally damaging areas in the world". That's true, but to use that as a criticism of cities is about as ill-conceived as criticising big hospitals over smaller ones because they have more ill people in them. It is pointless trying to measure environmental efficiency on a square mile bases - it has to be measured on a 'per person' basis.

When this is done you'll find that on a 'per person' basis, big cities are, in fact, much more environmentally efficient than rural areas. Cities like New York, London, Tokyo, and so on are more densely populated; they have more people walking or cycling; more people living closer to work, the shops, and restaurants; more people using public transport, a more environmentally friendly infrastructure, and more compact accommodation (which means on average they own fewer items).

A simple thought experiment will prove the point; count the exact population of London and find the equivalent number of people in rural areas, and see if you can fit all the rural people's property, land and possessions into an area as small as the area in London that houses its inhabitants (you won't be able to). And while you're onto it, compare the average weekly petrol, gas, coal and wood consumption of a family in rural Suffolk with a family who live in Westminster or Manhattan (you know which one will be highest on average).

Far from being the environmentally damaging leviathans that is too often claimed, cities are the most environmentally efficient habitats on earth. And that's to say nothing of the other numerous benefits to cities - benefits that make millions of people want to live in them, and benefits that make the price of property in them skyrocket.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Tests Don't Reveal Half As Much As They Claim

The recent furore about the so-called under-performing UK children at school (the Pisa tests reports) may be an accurate indictment of British children compared with their so-called academically superior Asian counterparts, or it may be a drastically exiguous and ineffectual appraisal of the state of our young. Whichever it is, you won't find it in the report because it omits the most important part of the enquiry.

Now I'm all for our pupils attaining the highest scholastic achievements possible, but what fails this report is the absence of two important questions that those involved either forgot to ask, or deliberately omitted because they knew they couldn't answer.

Here's what they should have asked as the fulcrum of their enquiry:

1) What is the optimum scholastic level for a child in complementarity with other non-scholastic skills and abilities within the context of their country?

2) Are the UK children anomalously under that optimum, or are top-performing Asian pupils anomalously over that optimum?

Factored into the answers to those two questions are the signposts to every other important question about the state of the world's youth - parental love, emotional intelligence, emotional well-being, not being over-pressured to attain high academic achievement, standard of living, freedom of thought, levels of repression, contentment, happiness, perspective, social ability, friendships, creative abilities, enjoyment of youth, ratio of jobs to skills, and ability to develop in the most psychologically fruitful way.

Without asking the two important questions above - there is no prelude to considering the other things that matter. No one is denying the importance of reading, writing and arithmetic - but it's a shame all of these other highly important factors above were missed in an attempt to focus only on test scores.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

No One Should Be Entitled To Their Opinions

When I was a young boy my parents tried to instil some wisdom in me by telling me that while I might not agree with everything I hear or read, everyone is still entitled to their opinion. When I got a bit older and found out some of the absurd and preposterous things many people believe - young earth creationism, scientology, homeopathy, astrology, and most religions, to name but a few, I soon saw that my parents were wrong; not everyone is entitled to their opinion - in fact, no one is, and it is actually better for people if they have no sense of entitlement towards any opinions.

Here's why. Regarding our beliefs, there are two kinds of legitimate entitlements, which we'll call 'rights' - and by ‘our beliefs’ I mean propositions related to facts about how the world is, not, of course, personal tastes like food, music and books (of which more in a later Blog).The two kinds of legitimate entitlements are; the right to something binding, and the right to not be restricted to hold beliefs and express them. Naturally there are grey areas in both of those entitlements, but for simplicity's sake; in the case of binding rights, we'd say that if Jack fills up a trolley full of goods in Sainsbury's with the intention of taking them home then Sainsbury's is entitled to receive payment for those goods. And in the case of the right to not be restricted, we'd say that however absurd or untypical Jack's view is, he has the right to not be restricted in being able to hold that view - but that that right comes with the understanding that others have the right to challenge that view.

What underwrites this point is that we do not choose our beliefs, nor do we choose the force behind what those beliefs are. Opinions are based on beliefs, but beliefs come involuntarily from other people, and from personal experience of the world, so our opinions are, to the greatest extent, beyond our control and cannot be changed artificially. If I point a gun to your head and tell you that I will shoot you if you don't believe that Australia borders Mexico, you still would not be able to arrive at the belief that Australia borders Mexico, however hard you tried, because it is not factual, and we can't trick ourselves into holding views we don't honestly hold. You may lie in the hope that you don't get shot, but that's not the same as actually believing it.

When you change your mind or learn something new, it is because you have been given fresh information that, in your view, yields to reason, compelling argument and evidence-based rationale. In other words, all opinions are held because they are thought to be consistent with evidence and facts about the real world. It is precisely for this reason that no one should be entitled to their opinions, because a claim of entitlement to hold an opinion is, in fact, only a claim to retain an opinion and not have it shown to be wrong - which basically means it's an entitlement to retain opinions contrary to reason, compelling argument and evidence-based rationale .

If you really were entitled to your opinion you would be restricting others from improving that opinion by reasoned argument and evidence-based demonstrations - you would be like a man who has decided to imprison himself in his own home, turn off his electricity, and live a life of self-sufficiency, not allowing himself to even 'hear' of the alternatives. By not stepping outside his front door he doesn't just consign himself to eat, drink and wear only what currently resides in his house, he denies others the ability to bring competition to his ideas by offering new potential considerations and alternative perspectives. Of course, everyone is free to reject any idea if it doesn't make sense to them, but by staying at home and being self-sufficient they only deny themselves the opportunity to hear new ideas and opinions.

If you look at the two kinds of rights I mentioned a moment ago, you'll see that neither applies to entitlement to hold an opinion. You have no binding contract with anyone that disallows them from offering arguments against your views, and you have no business claiming a restriction on others by imposing a duty on them to let you retain your views. The idea that a person is entitled to their opinion is a bit like a self-sufficient hermit being entitled to have no competition for better goods. While we wouldn't want to restrict his ability to be a self-sufficient hermit, we'd be foolish to argue that to protect this man from new ideas and fresh options is best thing for him.

Remember, this is not an insistence that he should take advantage of these options offered to him - that would be as bad as restricting him from his choices - it is simply a claim that this man is no better for having closed himself off from the options. In fact, vindication for his self-sufficiency rests on, and is enhanced by, his having knowledge of the things he chose to reject in favour of his preferred choices. Similarly, beliefs, views and opinions are not stronger by being held from behind a wall that seeks to block out intellectual and epistemological expansion, they are made stronger when they have ran the gauntlet of rigour along with all competing beliefs, views and opinions and still come out on top. For those reasons, no one is entitled to a belief, anymore than a monopoly power is entitled to operate without any competition. If beliefs are held with a sense of entitlement they are held that way to put up a wall against competing ideas, just as a monopoly power operates to eliminate the competition, and thus denies people alternative choices.

Those who want to exclaim that everyone is entitled to their opinion don't actually mean that at all - they merely mean everyone is entitled to not be forced to depart from an opinion. Those who declare that they want to be entitled to hold an opinion are pretty much always those who hold opinions that are contrary to reason, compelling argument and evidence-based rationale - hence they are the people asking to be precluded from intellectual and epistemological expansion, which is no human entitlement or right at all. As I said earlier, just like a monopoly power trying to subjugate competition, in retaining the right to not be forced to depart from an opinion, they are claiming the right to protect their opinions from reason, compelling argument and evidence-based rationale, which, for the good of the human race is something we ought to resist. Given the extent to which people with absurd and preposterous views try to pass on those views by manipulation, distortion of facts, and suppression of contra-considerations, I would argue that the right to an open and honest enquiry is much more of a human entitlement than the right to believe nonsensical things that mislead people and cause pockets of human progression to atrophy.

Far from being a vehicle of merit, the notion that everyone is entitled to their own opinions is, to me, quite socially noxious, because it is an incubator for preposterous, repressive and manifestly false beliefs to survive with less of a challenge than is required. What this notion fosters is a pseudo-politeness whereby people believe that in the spirit of good manners it is favourable to build gilded cages into which people can keep their beliefs sacred, and not have those beliefs subjected to proper scrutiny. Just about all false and stultifying beliefs retain their endurance only because of the way their most influential exponents shield off the majority of adherents from an honest and open enquiry - be they cults, marginalised organisations or religio-political groups in developing countries that are able to repress and dominate their people.

Due to this general outward pseudo-politeness this means someone can live in another country for years, even doing a university degree, without having his or her often absurd beliefs challenged (I say 'outward' because inwardly those beliefs are often felt to be ridiculous, which only foments dishonesty). If there were a greater selection pressure on beliefs that are thought to be absurd it wouldn't be an outrage on the people believing ridiculous things - it would be a helpful, sometimes life-enhancing liberation, just as saving a drowning person or rescuing someone trapped in a mine is life-enhancing. The sooner we develop a much more naturally comfortable (and socially acceptable) way of entitlement to question and enquire rather than perpetuating this entitlement to belief we’ll find increased selection pressure on the more preposterous beliefs, views and onions in the world, and the potential liberation of those who adhere to them, and by extension, the human race.


* Photo courtesy of teenmentalhealth.org

Sunday, 8 December 2013

The Light of Greatness Is Always Refracted Through A Prism Of Flaws, Imperfections and Weaknesses

In response to the positive tributes associated with Nelson Mandela's passing, quite a few people have retorted with "Ah, but don't forget, Mandela wasn't all great, he was a terrorist responsible for quite a few deaths too". Their complaint seems to be along the lines of:

Don’t just focus on the good that people do, consider the bad too, and have a balanced view.

Indeed, having a balanced view of every situation is a wise thing to have. The trouble is, in the above case, what seems like an attempt at balancing is actually a case of toppling over by leaning too far in a direction of misjudgement. What you're seeing when people heap praise on, and confer generous tributes towards, icons like Nelson Mandela is the human propensity to focus on the most arrestive and legacy-inducing parts of public personalities - the things for which they are most famous or infamous.

What we usually see is that the more prominent the arrestive parts, the less attention we see given to the parts that don't fit in with that picture. Few people have read DH Lawrence's The White Peacock, or George Eliot's Romola or Charlotte Bronte's Shirley, but almost everyone has read, or at least knows a bit about, Sons and Lovers, The Mill on the Floss and Jane Eyre respectively. Some people's arrestive moments are in the beginning of their career, some in the latter part, and some are scattered about from start to finish. Everyone remembers Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, Touch Of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons and The Lady From Shanghai, but few people ever mention those awful 1970s movies he made when he was, by his own admission, simply taking any film role in trying to earn a living.

In fact, Orson Welles' career illustrates the point of selectiveness very well. Suppose Welles' pre-1970s work was airbrushed out of history - he'd only be thought of as an overweight, ham actor who hangs around in low-budget, second rate films. Everyone who hadn't seen his great works would be left with a skewed impression. Equally those who only remembered his great works might heap praise on him that was too selective.

Most people with a balanced view tend to realise that actors, musicians, writers, historical figures and political leaders are, just like all humans, a varied blend of qualities and faults. Selectiveness is a tool with which to shape the kind of impression we want to have. In the case of major extremes, like Hitler or Pol Pot or Stalin, their bad legacy is so prominent that most people hardly even attempt to find praiseworthy things. Similarly, in the case of Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela most people (certainly in the last couple of decades) confer only praise and admiration. 

Public figures that are put forward as epoch-making paragons of virtue are a complex consideration, because I don't think pedestals are where men and women belong, and people just can't be expected to live up to being saints or heroes, unless one wishes to be imprudently selective. Look at some of the names aside from King and Mandela that regularly appear on 'Heroes of the 20th Century' lists - Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi,  Dalai Lama, Charles De Gaulle, Che Guevara, FD Roosevelt - one would have to be pretty ahistorical to miss all the flaws in them.

Nelson Mandela cited Gandhi as being a big influence in his changing from violent politics to peaceful politics. But it is sloppy thinking to simply heap praise on Gandhi as a paragon of peace without understanding what's beneath the surface too. Gandhi's outward endorsements of peaceable solution masked an inward Hindi-secular extremism that facilitated the wedge-driving between Indian Hindus and Indian Muslims.  The insanely hurried separation of India and Pakistan and the outrageously bad timing (for which Churchill must take blame too) led to nigh-on one million deaths in the Hindu and Muslim factions**.

This shows two things; firstly, it shows the calamitous effects in trying to attain an increase in order without factoring in the spectre of disorder that bridges one's aims and ultimate fruition of those aims; and secondly, and most crucially in light of Nelson Mandela's passing, it shows that even the so-called brightest lights in history are flawed, imperfect, inconsiderate, parochial, and prone to mistakes.

My personal view - which is built upon a personal interpretation - is that Nelson Mandela is one of the greatest people in modern history - and I say that in spite of the fact that he was part of one of the more extreme factions of the ANC, and even in spite of the fact that he became embroiled in terrorist activities that brought about the deaths of innocent civilians. I think for our own good, terms like 'greatness' should be conferred sparingly, and it is clear that humans have a tendency to over-inflate people. By that measure, all heroic figures are going to be overrated. But equally, if conferred greatness comes with the expectation that the person has no stains or blemishes then it is pure moonshine.

Greatness to me is having the courage to wrestle yourself out of the often tragic clutches of being human and rise above your circumstances to see the world through a new pair of eyes. In choosing to combat the National Party's oppressive and ultra-violent racial segregation with quid pro quo violence, Nelson Mandela was, I suspect, doing what most of us would do if we'd been brought up with his background and found ourselves under that kind of dehumanising oppression. In finding the courage to forgive his enemies, not seeking revenge, responding to hate with love and grace, and using his post-incarceration Presidential power as a vehicle for good (even that journey was a work in progress), Nelson Mandela took a path that, in my experience, few people have the courage to take.

As the quote on the above photo shows, Nelson Mandela came from a background in which he was taught to hate. It is easy to hate when you've been taught only to hate. It is much harder to love when you've been taught only to hate. Many people who've been taught to love can't even love. To learn to love when you've been taught mostly hate is something I fancy that most of us would (and do) fail at repeatedly.

If anything is the defining factor in 'heroism' or 'greatness', it is, for me, the fact that those who find the courage to forgive enemies, and employ love and grace and kindness, are notable by their scarcity. Nelson Mandela was one of those people - he was flawed, irresponsible, misjudged and reactionary, just like every one of us - but in having the courage and wisdom to supplant one kind of life-ethos for a much better one, and offer that better alternative up as a light for the world to see, he showed that he is a good candidate for being called a 'great' person.

That's why I think those who have responded to the reverence, approbation and encomiums with "Ah, but don't forget, Mandela wasn't all great, he was a terrorist" have misjudged why many of us hold him in such high esteem. I consider him great for his tenacity in wrestling himself out of the often tragic clutches of being human and having the courage to learn from his mistakes and pursue goodness - not due to any human propensity towards faux-lionisation, because we know that really great people are the ones that know they are not worthy of the pedestals onto which overly-tendentious people try to place them.

That's also why those often overly-inflated celebrity figures who've lined up to eulogise with references to their own memories of Mandela, their joining his cause, and the pride they had in calling him their friend, are a mixed bag really. That's not what greatness means to me; it is not a flame from which we can be also made great by its glow - it is more like a mirror into which we cast our gaze and see a repertoire of goodness and badness, and see that the goodness reflects back more prominently because of the mirror's courageous attempt to exhibit it.

* Photo courtesy of quotespick.com

** Many of Gandhi's intentions seemed noble, but at the same time he did seem to think of Indian Muslims as second class citizens, and he was hugely irresponsible to the tune of mass slaughter, because it was obvious what cantonisation would bring about, given how the populations were spread, and the extant violence between communal groups (many provoked by Jinnah).  Gandhi was very committed to the course of non-violence in overturning British Rule, and that rubbed off on Nelson Mandela, as were many of the British Cabinet (for self-serving reasons), but the Indian Independence Act of 1947 led to the carving up of a nation that was so manifestly going to lead to bloodshed, because since at least the end of the 19th century there had been extreme, far-right and sectarian Hindu and Muslim political groups that were hell bent on destroying the opposing groups.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Apocalyptic Chickens Coming Home To Roost

Last weekend I was in a car that could be programmed to park itself - a feat that would have been unimaginable a century ago. Of course, the irony is, 'unimaginable' is precisely the wrong word because by 'unimaginable' I actually mean something like: 'only imaginable because of our ability to conflate science and fiction to create science fiction'. As technology continues to enhance our lives, it's evident that science fiction and empirical science are interesting bedfellows, engaged in an on-off love affair.

Sometimes science fiction becomes scientific reality, as in the case of self-driving cars, which would have been purely fictional in previous decades (other things that spring to mind are robot limbs, invisibility, space-travel, cloning and shape-shifting, to name a few). And sometimes scientific discovery fuels the imagination for science fiction, as in the case of special relativity, quantum physics, electromagnetism, genetic viruses and evolution by natural selection.

Some people, though, take their considerations too far. Influenced by a few blockbuster sci-fi films (Terminator 3 springs to mind, although I'm sure there are others) some people express concern that our robot creations will one day take on a life of their own and develop or evolve a level of sinister malevolence that will engender world domination and bring ultimate doom on mankind.

The people worried about this are confusing fiction with reality. It makes no sense to talk of human-created machines being more sinister than humans, in the same way that it makes no sense to talk of a beaver dam being more proficient than the capabilities of beavers, or a Thomas Hardy novel that's more romantically tragic than the author could produce with his own creative mind.

When it comes to the man-machine matrix, the worst we could create in machine-form is limited to the worst that is in us - there is no possibility of computers doing anything more sinister or destructive than humans could construct themselves. So when people worry about future robot creations precipitating our doom, they are really worried about other humans precipitating our doom - which, if history is anything to go by, isn't an entirely unrealistic fear.

* Photo courtesy of digitalafro.com

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The Moral Limit: Are We Really Capable Of Anything?

In my last Blog I looked at some of the atrocious acts humans commit - violence, rape, murder and paedophilia, to name but a few - and I asked whether we humans are capable of committing those unspeakable crimes for which we vilify others. The answer to the question is, of course we are. Here's how we can know.

The best way to tackle such a question philosophically is start with an extreme case that evinces the point you want to make, and then lessen the extremity until your argument is demonstrated at a more reasonable level.

Let's start with the following extreme situation to show that all humans are potential child-abusers. If you were compelled under duress to choose between A) Abusing a child yourself for 10 minutes or B) Witnessing a million people abuse a million children for 30 minutes then torturing them with red hot pokers and killing them, I'm pretty sure under those conditions that just about everyone would increase their chances of choosing to abuse a child for 10 minutes.

That extreme scenario demonstrates that everyone 'could' be a child-abuser under 'some' conditions. But clearly that situation is not an ordinary circumstance - and mostly we like to consider only what we feel to be in the realms of the norm and the realistic. This is fair enough, except for one potential problem; life is full of vagaries, and there are plenty of potential emotional tipping points dotted about, not just in extreme scenarios, but in everyday life too, making it very hard to say what is realistic in any ‘one size fits all’ model. The problem is, when asking what we humans are capable of, we find the question is the wrong question to ask if it is left in isolation from context-dependent behaviour-altering scenarios. Even the mildest humans can be incited to lose their temper or become violent when pushed too far - like, say, if they felt threatened, or saw harm being done to their family (we've all seen how people change beyond recognition when confronted with a burglar in their house) - and similarly, if any of us found ourselves fighting for our lives in a Middle Eastern civil war or an African genocide, then I don't think it's unreasonable to say that all humans are capable of murder, despite all having different tipping points.

Moral capability leads to circularity
Yet although this paints a clear picture of how life can get its teeth into our varying psychological and emotional states with the slings and arrows of human experience, the importance of the discussion is usually based on the challenge of having it framed in terms of what is realistic, and what is probable for the majority of people under fairly standard day-to-day conditions. The trouble is, that tends to lead us into circular reasoning. Circular reasoning says that A is true because B is true; and B is true because A is true. When trying to assess what is probable for the majority of people, we find that most humans are not realistically capable of unspeakable acts, but what belongs within the realms of the realistic is contingent on the varying duress and psychological pressures that life throws up, which immediately changes what is realistic. In the above consideration we are seeing that John is capable of duress-induced murder only because duress induced him to murder. That is the circularity - most of us are not capable of unspeakable acts so long as we do not find ourselves in conditions that engender the need for unspeakable acts, which doesn’t really tell us much other than that humans are capable of what humans are capable of.

Moreover, even without the above circularity it is hard to pin down moral feelings and moral behaviour to simple considerations, because there are two ways that these things are changing all the time. One is that a perceived immoral act can be committed due to a change in feeling about whether that act is moral or not; and the other is that a perceived immoral act can be committed due to a change in the person committing the act. In early Roman times a young man might not have felt much guilt about wanting to marry and have sex with a 12 year old girl, whereas nowadays he'd be accused of being a sex-fiend. That's a change of perception about the act itself - it was once widely permissible, it no longer is. On the other hand, a young mother (let's call her Jenny) might be a long way from killing her boyfriend in the general day to day sense, but one day if she caught him trying to rape her daughter she might bludgeon him to death with a rolling pin. In this case that's a change in the person's state of psychological duress with regard to her capability of committing murder or manslaughter, not a change of view in the permissibility of murder with a rolling pin. We might have more sympathy with a mother who killed her daughter's attacker with a rolling pin than someone who did it for fun, but that's an issue of mitigation and leniency; it is not a change of view about death-by-rolling pin. 

What we're saying here is that if one day in the distant future humans evolve a culture in which murdering sexual offenders is endorsed then feelings about the wrongness of murdering a would-be rapist with a rolling pin would diminish (that is, change in feeling about whether an act is moral or not). We are also saying that Jenny is a potential murderer, but that potentiality only turns to actuality when she is pushed beyond a limit far in excess of her ordinary day to day life (that is, change in the person committing the act).

John Milton, in his Areopagitica, brilliantly sums up the notion that we are all potential murderers, thieves and violent people waiting to happen, whereby we could all find ourselves in situations that test us or change us beyond what we can imagine. He says:

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for.”

You may be more familiar with this wisdom in its other appearance as the maxim 'Virtue untested is no virtue at all'.  What is being implied by Milton is something quite acutely perceptive – it is fairly easy for most people to behave quite decently when they are under no pressure, or when fear of the law curbs their instincts for misbehaving – but it is much harder, and much more commendable, when a man or woman faces the toughest challenges yet still comes away exhibiting goodness and kindness. I'm with Milton here; without the illusion that we are really quite decent, without the thin 'social contract' fibril keeping us just about united in our aims, and without ever being subjected to external pressures strong enough to significantly change our behaviour for the worst, I think we would be doing many more bad things than we currently do. Moreover, we know from the psychological experiments of Zimbardo and Millgram how reprehensible people can be when put in conditions that allow them freedom to treat others beyond what they would do in normal society. 

And taking it even further, when things are highly extreme they can end up changing history forever. For example, Adolf Hitler, who, by comparison to any decent standard, was stupid in extremity, and highly unmindful of the qualities that knit humanity together, was able to dominate a great intelligent nation like the Germans. The main influence he seemed to wield as a control mechanism was that of absolute certainty (manifested with the likes of Himmler, Goering and Goebbels in things like Lebensborn, National Socialism and the SS temples). Absolutism combined with power brought a sense of pseudo-Wagnerian Germanic certainty that had the power to predominate a generation of people, who, in many cases probably would have been ordinary citizens in another life.

Even Martin Heidegger - one of the best philosophers of the 20th century - was a supporter of Adolf Hitler, which goes to show what the thrall of authority and disconsolation can do even to highly intelligent minds. Heidegger had plenty to say about original freedom with regard to the extreme opposites of chaos and law, and the subjection of chaos to a form to a particular "mastery which enables the primal wilderness of chaos and the primordiality of law to advance under the same yoke" - which, as we now know with hindsight was a very virulent National Socialism under Hitler to which he was attracted for a time. Nazi Germany proved to be, among many things, a nasty national social experiment that produced an animalistic brutality, cruelty, and eradication of human life - a kind of nationwide Millgram test where obedience took primacy over human rights and moral accountability.

Nazi Germany may be an anomalous example, but it shows us the kind of extremes we're talking about when situations take a dramatic turn - be they in war, religious groups or extreme politics. As much as it upsets the sensibilities of those who like the extreme moral propositions of good and evil as polar opposites, and those who view people as off-the-peg typology fodder that sit rigidly on that spectrum, these binary simplicities merely portray a skewed interpretation of what humankind is capable of when she "sallies out and sees her adversary". There were officers in Nazi concentration camps who were good husbands, fathers, and friends - and nobody who knew them under those conditions could have conceived of what they got up to as a result of obedience to authority. Similarly, there have been many seemingly dedicated, kind, committed husbands, wives, boyfriends and girlfriends who have shocked those around them (and themselves) by acting in ways they wouldn’t have thought possible had they not sallied out and seen their adversaries in the shape of temptation and external pressures.

We see occurrences of this character variance in everyday life too. I know a man who, for most of the week, is a placid and inoffensive kind of chap, but who on match day puts on his tribal outfit (otherwise known as a football shirt) and turns into (by his own admission) an abuse-chanting, sanguinary gang member. He tells me that on match day he is "fuelled by hatred and aggression - which feels great, and is a real adrenaline rush".

I notice too how this effect occurs in the difference between being a pedestrian on the street and being a driver in the car. Most drivers know this too. When you accidently step in someone's way in the street or in a shopping mall (or they you), usually you are both apologetic as you try to be as unobtrusive as possible. But when someone cuts you up in a car (which in most cases is accidental, or due to low confidence behind the wheel or poor concentration) our adrenaline levels rise and we become agitated, and, in the case of some, the horn is beeped aggressively.

These are less extreme versions of our application of Milton's quote to murder, etc - but let's not forget, even road rage can lead to murder. I think the commonality between examples like road rage and football tribalism is the impersonal nature of the acts - we are at our worst when dehumanisation occurs, and we can strip people of their individuality and not have to consider them as people with feelings, weaknesses, insecurities and limitations (Nazi Germany is a wider example of this). When someone cuts you up on the road you rarely get to see the psychology of the person behind the wheel; when football fans are chanting vitriolic abuse at a sea of rival supporters they rarely get to engage with the individuals in their normal weekly life - people with whom they'd have much in common, and in terms of human emotions, people with whom they'd have just about everything in common.

So I would say the extent to which we are capable of gross and heinous things depends on a few factors - the psychological duress, the emotional instability, the fear, the vulnerability, the extremities of the situation, the ability to control a desire, the power afforded to us, our perception of what we can get away with, and maybe even the extent to which we are readily able to dehumanise others.

Important: the question in reverse
Here's another thing to consider. We ask whether we are all capable of those heinous crimes for which we love to vilify others - but the question should also be asked in reverse; could those 'despicable' people that we love to vilify actually have been ordinary, morally decent citizens if they'd have been born under different circumstances? I think the answer is yes, they could. I remember seeing a documentary about notorious child killer Myra Hindley's background prior to her meeting fellow killer Ian Brady. The psychologist who looked extensively at her upbringing, and the life choices she made, said (quite rightly in my view) that regarding many other alternative conditions under which she didn't meet Ian Brady she would have led a fairly normal, uncontroversial life. I feel pretty sure that the same can be said for the 20th century monsters often proffered as the epitome of evil - Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot - if they had been taken from the cot when they were babies and given to loving parents in rural Staffordshire they probably would have grown up to be pretty decent fellows, leading fairly ordinary lives. Equally, there are, no doubt, many people living in the UK right now who would have caused a death toll as high as Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot had they have had any dictatorial power in a country full of people able to be exploited and dehumanised.

As much as all the above is true, I would suggest that in spite our evolutionary legacy, and the fact that we are all potential unspeakable criminals given the wrong circumstances, I think in all probability we are 'not' all realistically (and I do stress 'realistically') capable of unspeakable crimes, where 'realistic' means having a reasonable probability of avoiding the kind of situations in which these things become conducive. That is to say, most of us do have the ability to resist wickedness and depravity, even though I think it lurks dormantly in us all. The big challenge for those who can resist doing despicable things is, as ever, in facing up to how they react to people who haven't been able to. I suppose given the acknowledgement that any of us could be involved in despicable things in the wrong kind of circumstances, we have seen ample reason to prefer kindness, understanding, mercy, love and grace, and not choose to dehumanise those who are not in the same boat as us.

Internal moral inconsistency
The other thing to consider is that humans are morally inconsistent. I remember hearing about a local traveller in my area who frequently beat his wife and had several affairs too. One day when his son smoked some dope he went mad and accused him of putting a slur on the family name. To most people, the wife-beating and the infidelity constitute worse immoralities than smoking a bit of dope - but clearly not in this man's case. I think we see this frequently in human beings - due to upbringing, mental ability and experiences, we find that just about everyone has a sense of right and good over wrong and bad, but they often differ in the particular values they hold dear or the strength of feeling regarding varying matters. We find people who strike us as generally unkind and uncaring, but who adopt a work ethic we find admirable. There are men who make wholly honest shopkeepers but wholly dishonest husbands. Even bloodthirsty tyrants will scoff at discourtesy or bad manners when in formal capacities, or get sentimental about twee things that would have no effect on us.

Our values and ethics seem to be dependent on upbringing and personal experiences, and given that these things differ from person to person, it is not surprising that values and ethics differ too. Consider too that humans are idiosyncratic, and that history is full of things that were considered morally good at the time that we now consider to be morally bad. There are principally two ways that a human will differ from you in values and ethics - one is that they come from another culture, and the other is that they come from another era. A woman from England in 1066 might be as culturally and ethically different from a present day Englishman as a present day woman from Tanzania or Sri Lanka.

Of all the people who have ever lived, each one has a particular vision of how our world 'ought' to work, and many others both from different cultures and different historical eras find those 'oughts' quite absurd or inconsistent. But here's the real shocker; given the gross acts we've seen in history, it's a perturbing thought that just about everyone is striving for some kind of goodness or template or ideal concerning how they think things would be best. It seems to me that very few people actually do bad for bad's sake - even the twisted visions like Hitler's ideas about Aryan white supremacy and Mao Zedong's 'leap' towards modernisation and industrialisation amount to a deranged goal for their version of a better kind of world, with scant regard to the lives considered expendable. No doubt in cases like Stalin's quasi-Marxist/Leninist ideology and Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist methods for controlling Iraq, their tyranny is more about taking advantage of power and being corrupted by it - but I think if we focus on the general man on the street, I would say most are striving for some kind of goodness, it's just the case that personal circumstances condition the success or failure of that goal. Everyone has an idea about justice - but views differ on what justice is in the cases of the particular.

I think this is the interesting distinction that puts human progression on a knife edge; on the one hand we have a shared desire for progression, but one that contains differences of opinion regarding the particulars. And yet on the other hand people's life circumstances really are unpredictable, which means that we cannot be complacent in forming pictures of people. Are most of us capable of atrocious things? You bet we are - it's just that thankfully most people never find themselves in the kind of situations in which they could do their worst.

* Photo courtesy of www.harunyahya.com

Sunday, 1 December 2013

This Really Will Get You Thinking.....

Here's a good one for debate - this is a very interesting issue that I posed a few days ago in the following way:

I've never had any interest in the Lostprophets, nor any familiarity with their music, but after seeing on BBC News yesterday that the Lostprophets' frontman Ian Watkins has pled guilty to child sex offences, I was wondering what effect would it have on your perception/enjoyment of the music if you learned that your favourite band/artist had committed some of the worst child-sex crimes on record?

Technically it wouldn't change the quality of the music they'd produced (although one might read the lyrics with a new darkness), but how do you think you'd react to, say, Radiohead's albums if it turned out to be Thom Yorke, or David Bowie's albums if it turned out to be him, or Pink Floyd's if it turned out to be Roger Waters and Dave Gilmour, or The Beatles if it turned out to be Paul McCartney? (replace any of those with *your* favourites). Would it ruin the albums for you, or could you find a way to conceptually separate the quality of the music you've always loved from the horrible sex offences of the person writing the songs?

I submitted this question in my Mensa group, in a science-theology group, in a music group, in two philosophy groups, and on a debating café-style forum. This response was my favourite - from a lady called Daphne Richards:

"A human being doesn't stop or start being a human being, no matter what they do. A piece of music is, at best, an expression of something the artist was feeling at the time; not an accurate representation of their whole character and life. Can a rapist not fall in love? And write a beautiful song about it? Sure they can."

Yes, there's a profoundly accurate observation there - just as a piece of music is an expression of something the artist was feeling at the time, and not an accurate representation of their whole character and life - it is also the case that our sins are predominantly a product of what we were feeling at the time, with many underlying causes, and they too are not the whole representation of what it means to be human. It is important to note that in all likelihood we are all capable of reprehensible acts as well as very noble deeds - and in being human we all are tapping into something deep, mysterious, and far grander than ourselves.

Whether such sex offences ought to cause one to sever any emotional and artistic ties to their favourite musicians I cannot say, that's up to you (the responses to this were mixed). But I find it a frightfully good question, because it causes one to ponder all sorts of other uncomfortable questions about ourselves;

What is our cut-off point for sins of the artist that no longer remain palatable?

How easily can we conceptually and emotionally separate the wrongs of the artist from the things they produce?

Is beauty or brilliance diminished by the sins of the composer?

Are we all capable of the very worst indictments to which we subject others so objectively?

Do we find it too easy to forgive ourselves and too hard to forgive others?

Yes, frightfully good questions indeed. My own personal feeling is that finding out our favourite artist committed some of the worst child-sex crimes on record couldn't help but cause us to feel differently about those albums we've loved for so long. I can't deny that I probably would never listen to Dark Side Of The Moon, Highway 61 Revisited or Astral Weeks with the same feelings ever again if the above indictments crawled out of the woodwork onto any of those artists - but then even in the past twenty five years I don't suppose I've ever listened to those albums (or any for that matter) with the same feelings on consecutive occasions.

Feeling differently about the albums need not mean eradicating them from future consideration, or removing them from our record collection - but equally there is enough decent music out there still to choose from if we did decide that we no longer wanted to listen to them in light of what we'd found out (or put money in the pockets of the artists through further CD sales).

I could, I think, continue to appreciate those great works for the qualities they imbue, but I would hope that rather than looking to dismissively excoriate the artist, I would be moved to look even more deeply into a human condition that places my favourite artists alongside those we so easily dismiss as reprehensible fiends that seem beyond the pale. I would also (I hope) be moved to recognise that human beings - those we like, those we hate, and those in between - are a medley of complex components, each demonstrating a patchwork of good and bad qualities - with some of those components very disturbing and some very stupendous, all going on in individual human minds.

A friend called Jacqui in the café-style forum raised a good point about people like Jerry Lee Lewis marrying his 13 year old cousin - because it must be remembered that people's attitudes to it then were a lot different than they are now. Many fewer people would have had such a problem with it back in the 1950s (although even then there was uproar) - much less so in, say, 7th century Arabia or in early Roman times when 12-14 was thought to be a good age for marriage for a girl as they took menstruation to be a sign that they were ripe for fertility.

Attitudes to paedophilia are changing all the time - and I wonder if in becoming much more mindful of tackling paedophilia we are actually in danger of going too far the other way. While I'm sure no one will want to resist the goal of doing all we can to expose paedophilia, protect victims and potential future victims, bring the culprits to justice, and put every measure in place to see an end to it, it is evident to me that there's a heavy price to pay too.

As a result of this increased effort to tackle paedophilia we've created a fear culture that robs us of something special - our ability to feel comfortable around children. I've heard countless stories of men being very anxious about having their photo taken with young nieces or nephews at family parties for fear that someone will think one of the child's hands looks to be deceptively near his crotch; I've heard that many teachers are terrified of getting too close or involved with their pupils and being accused of over-stepping the boundaries (even a hug is out of the question now); I've heard that department stores are finding it harder than ever to get volunteers for a Santa Clause in their shop at Christmas because they fear the ramifications of having children on their knee.

People are afraid; afraid of being photographed in the wrong way, afraid of seeing images of children, afraid of sharing pictures of their children on to friends on social networking sites, afraid of tactility, afraid of getting too close, afraid of being caught looking at children or young teenagers in the wrong way, and probably in many cases afraid of the obsession with these things.

Have we gone too far the other way in creating a fear culture that makes us uncomfortable around children because we're always wondering what people think or what's going to appear online the next way? Or has our increased mindfulness been a case of the right balance being struck, and a necessary correlative of the human desire to come down hard on the association between sex and children?

I suppose my intuitive feeling is that in a world in which too may sex crimes have for centuries gone unchallenged, unpunished and often unreported, it is good that people are galvanised towards seeing that change. But in the process we are going to become (and are already becoming) more dystopian as we surveil, scrutinise, monitor and record with the kind of nanny-statism once predicted in the likes of Nineteen Eighty Four. If our more prescient twentieth century writers (like Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and Anthony Burgess) foresaw one key thing, it was that we shouldn’t enforce moral probity from the top down - it has to come from the bottom up. That is to say, real moral progress is laissez faire progress where humans feel value, self-worth and kinship, rather than a command economy top-down progress that looks to catalyse change by relying on a totalitarian hegemony.

Moreover, we've seen with in the works of Huxley, Orwell and Burgess (and others) that a State hegemony exercised solely for the good of its citizens may be the most repressive and reprehensible of all, because fallen men and women can never hope to rule as if they are gods. As history has so often shown, a tyranny that attempts to rule as though it is Divine in stature will often turn out to be more reprehensible than the 'fiends' it hopes to make good.  Those great works like Nineteen Eighty Four, Brave New World and A Clockwork Orange show (among other things) that our peregrinations can become nightmares if journeys are unhealthily conflated with destinations. Thus, it helps, I think, to develop a studied detachment from this world’s obsessively vaunted goals and try to embody as much human grace and kindness in our pursuits.

Here's why. I wonder if people's biggest fear, regarding the really unspeakable crimes, is, perhaps like all crimes (violence, theft, murder), that just about everyone is capable of them under certain circumstances. Could that be true, or is it a supposition that goes too far, I wonder? We outwardly repudiate what we fear, and we condemn those who do things we outwardly repudiate, which may mean we are only condemning what we fear about ourselves when we look deep within the self. Consequently, is our big collective fear and condemnation not actually just a vilification of others, but in fact a mirror that reflects back our own spectre of darkness and immoral capabilities? And do most of us even have the courage to ask such a question of ourselves?

Perhaps it also must be considered that humans are very good at hating - we humans have always had people to hate - rival tribes, adherents of other religions, people of a lower classes, people we can exploit, people with different colour skin, people with a different nationality, people out of work, people of a different sexual persuasion - the list goes on. What's clear now as we in the West become ever-more civilised, is that we are running out of people to hate, condemn, vilify and dehumanise - and sex offenders have become the easiest left to direct those feelings towards.

Let's not pretend that sex-crimes are not abhorrent - of course they are - and we should do all we can to stop them. But let's at least open ourselves up to the consideration that if we find ourselves too easily looking to hate, condemn, vilify and dehumanise people, and that those expressions might be because of our own fears about what we might be capable of when pushed to limits beyond what we are used to, then these expressions and feelings will do us no good in the end. If we are to confront the things talked about above while paying ample regard to what it actually means to be human, I think we are going to have to say that most of us are capable of great things and terrible things - and that it is only in realising this fact that we can see the potential 'unspeakable criminal' in ourselves and see the vulnerable, flawed, insecure human being that lurks beneath the exterior of the 'unspeakable criminal'. If we accomplish this, we have the best chance allowing kindness, grace, love, mercy and compassion to be a prevailing force in our treatment of others.

That's about as much as I want to say on the issues raised above - excepting one issue. A moment ago I asked whether we humans are capable of those unspeakable crimes for which we vilify others. In my next Blog I'm going to give more extensive consideration to that question.

* Picture courtesy of bbc.co.uk