Schrödinger awoke, feeling somewhat precarious, an unease emanating from deep within, radiating skittishly through his body, registering as a trembling of his limbs. Somehow he had become entangled with the cat. It stretched out inside him, its forelimbs and claws an elusive but real presence inside the canals of his arms. Man and feline were not harmonically resonant. A tuneless, wary, nervous wail. A caterwaul. A hell of a hangover. A katzenjammer. Just thinking of the word made him-
He stretched his body over the warm naked back and rump of his lover, who made a small noise of protest, his head over the side, reaching underneath, crossing the channel in truculent weather to meet her in England, waves meeting waves, and threw up into the bedpan.
If you’ve ever played poker at a pace a bit slower than the breakneck speed of online rooms, you’ll know, I hope, that a flatterer isn’t necessarily your friend. Hold onto this knowledge, it may come in handy as you read the article.
Dodgy politicians and other professional bullshitters take advantage of the fact anyone can put together words in a sentence and the sentence can seem okay at first but colourless green ideas sleep furiously.
“Colourless green ideas sleep furiously” is Noam Chomsky’s classic example of a sentence that is grammatically correct but meaningless. Okay, so Dr Chomsky may not have the soul of a poet, but it’s obvious that colourless green things don’t exist. Certainly not in the same way that rocks and water and trees exist. Not even in the same way that feelings exist. We can’t even picture a thing that is both green and colourless. If something is green then of course it has colour. Unlike feelings, colourless green ideas sleeping furiously cannot be seen or felt or heard or in any other way directly experienced. Nor can they be measured, for that matter.
We could make the words of Chomsky’s sentence mean something, write some kind of essay about metaphors and similes to impress an English teacher, but we know that we would be doing a clever job with nonsense.
Green furiously quickly ideas Rolls Royce
is even worse. It’s obvious bullshit. If you are like me, it probably hurts a little to read. Unfortunately, professional bullshitters put the nouns and verbs and what have you in the right places. You’re too clever to be fooled by someone who can’t put together a sentence proper.
Bullshitters make it harder by often giving us sentences that have no information in them but are not gibberish. We call them ‘tautologies’ . Here is a tautology:
A rabbit is a rabbit.
An entry from the world’s worst dictionary, I’m sure you’ll agree. “A rabbit is a rabbit” is hard to argue with, and it sounds as if the person saying it is quite sure what a rabbit is and they aren’t going to listen to any nonsense about a rabbit being a furious colourless idea. This person knows their rabbits, doesn’t compromise when it comes to rabbits, and probably if you asked them to get you a rabbit, you might think, they would give you a rabbit, by God, and not some French lapin or German hasebunny. (It helps the bullshitter if you don’t know much about rabbits).
You might see where I am going with this. You may or may not even be sharpening furious ideas.
I’m certainly not going to say that Brexit is bullshit. Or even that it is the wrong decision. What I am going to say, which I hope everyone can be united on, is that “Brexit means Brexit” tells us nothing about what Brexit means. It does tell us something about Theresa May however. No-one of any hue should be surprised by the revelation that Theresa May, a politician, and by most accounts some description of human being, is not immune to bullshit.
When the PM said “Brexit means Brexit”, she was declaring herself an authority on Brexit, and someone who is going to take no nonsense. She is telling us that she intends to make sure that Brexit happens. That’s all the information she has given. The rest, as you probably already know, is bullshit.
All well and good, and leaver and remoaner alike should be able to agree on the following sentences. No-one knows exactly what Brexit means because it hasn’t happened yet. No-one knows what a Brexit even looks like because no-one has ever seen one of the major countries exit the European Union. Greenland is rather smaller, and got out earlyish, but we can confirm that Greenland still exists and hasn’t yet started World War III.
We might know what Brexit doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean an end to free movement and yet somehow keeping free trade. The reason we know this is much the same as we would know a rabbit can’t be both green and colourless, even if we had no idea what a rabbit is.
Leaving the choppy waters of Brexit behind us, what can we do to help us spot bullshit and avoid being taken in by it? It’s simple, but part of it goes against the grain of what makes us comfortable:
Don’t trust politicians and other professional bullshitters who say things that you agree with and make you feel good. It’s funny, but it’s the same advice for avoiding being taken in by a con artist, isn’t it?
We are all better at spotting the flaws of those who we think are not on our side. So here is a simple tip to help avoid being the patsy in the room:
Question your friends as you do your enemies.
Oh, and a lot of what I said in this article is not strictly true. You have to bullshit a little to prepare for the next level. But you’re a worldly person, you already knew that. Potato chip?
It was the tail end of summer. I was wearing my half and half black & white acid wash T-shirt and black jeans. Walking the city, I eventually found myself looking at the ornate filigree of the Palace of Westminster and the looming tower of St Stephen, and, in a state of content acceptance, I crossed the road for Parliament Square. Fundamentally, acceptance of the terror of the world requires acceptance of self. I knew myself, black and white, capable of great love and great harm, a human animal with drives that can be destructive and a strong moral sense that can heal, and so I had discovered an equanimity deeper than any I had known before. I located the centre point of the green and sat, back upright, legs crossed, hands resting on my thighs, palms upturned but half closed. Simply comfortable. I saw the crowds of people going to and fro on all sides, past the Abbey, past Parliament, past the Thames, between the cars on the black tarmac running North to South and disappearing in a shimmering haze to the West. I saw everything and everyone coming apart, turning to ash. This is inevitable. The people were burning. The buildings, burning. The statues and cars, burning. I felt compassion as the crowds rushed here and there and, at the same time, saw that there would be a lasting peace for all.
I cultivated these sensations until I fell into a quiet doze. My oblivion may have lasted seconds or many minutes. Whatever, I was refreshed when I awoke. I got up and walked towards the bridge. As I crossed, a passing oriental monk in dark orange robes and sandals acknowledged me with a smile.
I was aware that this equanimity would not last. It was a glimpse, gathered on a warm sunny day when some problems had been resolved and there were few demands on me. The sun would fade, winter would come, and my peace would be disrupted. This benign resignation lasted a couple of weeks. It was physically healthy, no doubt, but I do not miss it. The remote view is only one perspective, lacking in the passion and anger that drives desire for justice and social change. Physics cannot be conquered, but each state is just one thread from the past to the present, and this was no better than any other. Morally, it may even be unforgiveable. Did I see the violence of Cromwell, the cruelty of Christian ancestors, swords hacking flesh, bullets shattering bone, rivers carrying corpses, hospitals bombed, mass graves filled with the skulls of dissidents? I did not. My vision was no more complete than a newly bought colouring book. We have equations that describe, well enough, the evolution of the universe, and to trust in the holiness of my vision would be no less a folly than to mistake an equation for history, or even to love a flag.
The greatest advantage of this state of encompassing benevolent pity is perhaps that it allows greater charity towards the words and actions of others. Bear in mind, however, that I am starting from an illusory state. It is not Amor Fati, the embrace of each moment of one’s life. It is a detachment, an overview from almost nowhere. Furthermore, of how much use is it? The world is complex, not all actions are benign (and certainly not all actors) and charity can dull the reactions. Here then is the conundrum. The most charitable are just as blind as the meaner vessels of hate. The higher mind and the narrow mind intersect.
It is true that the world doesn’t have enough charity, in the sense of which I speak of it. Yet charity is also a luxury. If I will exercise charity it will be towards those who are in most need of it. The powerless. The blithe, polite, and comfortable who carelessly reinforce ‘the order of things’ in a world short on justice are not just. Power and its preservation are often unconscious.
The sadness I have is that they who require the most charitable interpretation of their actions are not always able to reciprocate, and – oppressed and fighting for rights and acceptance, in great want of charity towards myself – I do not have the resources to fight them too.
Interpreting with charity is not simply a matter of intention. This is another sense in which my visionary state was an illusion. Goodheartedness is meaningless without acuity. A simple example should suffice: If I were to say “I will be leaving the house in five to ten minutes but I will phone you from the train station.”, a socially perceptive interpretation might be that no assumptions should be made about which train I am getting until I call from the station. The second piece of information overrides the first, pointing to it as a form of polite reassurance, probably an underestimate. Especially if you already know that it generally takes a little longer for me to leave the house than I estimate. In that most polite (and deferent) of societies, that of Japan, to be told that you will have to wait ten minutes can be meaningless. They do not wish to tell you that you will have to wait longer. Of course, one should be careful to be neither too polite nor vague. The world is hard enough to navigate. Good intentions can thus backfire.
In an unjust world, who deserves charity? A Marxist might develop their thought along class lines, and there is something in this. Yet social class is a fine grained thing, in practice, and class alone is insufficient to encompass the nuances of the injustices of the world.
It is sadly often the case that certain people cannot negotiate through the minefield of social interactions. There are just too many mistakes, too much history, perhaps cultural differences, and not enough resources of charity between them. This is just one reason the people en masse fail to align their interests in bringing about revolutionary change.
I think I would wish to be mindful of my compassionate revelation, to accept my mistakes, to forgive everyone, even as there are some who must be overcome or diminished. We are frequently unjust to one another, but being the most charitable in our reaction is not always for the best if we do not have the advantage. If we have the advantage, then perhaps altruism demands the greatest charity in order to redress the balance. That rather depends on one’s ego not being dependent on having the advantage, and that is much rarer than almost everyone thinks.
The sociality of Homo Sapiens Sapiens can provoke a tension between the desires of the individual and the cohesion of the community. This is resolved by the love of the individual for others, a compassionate steering away from the normalising hisses of conformity, towards friends who allow the individual to express that “I”, those who love the individual for their humanity.
The individual expresses themselves artistically, through language, physically, as an integrated being who IS us, who then IS art, the bond between me and you, in nurturing social environments, amongst those who embrace diversity, understand the mind forged manacles, are brave enough to face the reality of an overarching social system which has relegated the individual to a consumer and product. Which is to say, radical Socialists are my friends.
Compassion for others in the context of late Capitalism is not stillness or meek acceptance of the normalising instinct. If my anger offends you, may it rouse you from slumber. If my fury intimidates you, understand my frustration at those who would exhort me to wear The Emperor’s New Chains.
Where I encroach on your physical space, please do not hesitate to rebuke me. Where I have abused your physical autonomy, call me to account. Never ever tell me: GET BACK IN YOUR BOX. Never force anyone into a box or advocate such tyranny. We have the technology and numbers to steer the aggressive away from violent encroachment. Exclusion must be a last resort and we must provide inclusive, nurturing, recovery-optimised spaces for those who have been most poisoned by a system which crushes diversity and repackages individuals as easily labelled commercial units. Few are unresponsive to love.
Fear of real history – the cohesive, evidence based stories that inform our destiny – is a weakness that must be challenged, and we must tear down the sickly conformity of nostalgia, a group delusion, wherever we encounter it. It would be inexcusable cruelty to let humans suck on the thin gruel of Soma where we live in such a villainous authoritarian state.
Change will come. As will I. With love and a little patience, I will cause you no harm. I come for you because you are the reality of my history and I come with love, a terrible love, that will turn us 180 degrees, where with bravery we face a giant. We cannot allow him to set the rules.
The language used within families is often rich and idiosyncratic, and mine no exception. I’m just going to give a snapshot here of the mixture of cockney slang, Yiddish words, and invention on one side of the family.
Schmendrick was my Dad’s favourite Yiddish word. When my brother or I complained the reply was often “Don’t be a schmendrick.”
He would call us, with affection and humour, Schmendrick One and Schmendrick Two. He invented the adjective “Schmendracious” and the noun “Schmendracity”. Girls were “Schmeryls”. When I brought his granddaughter round, a toddler, she was “Schmendrelina”.
The time a friend and I were watching the John Lennon documentary Imagine, my Dad and Mum came in and stood watching a little of it. Dad referred to the pre-bag period as “before he went schmendrick.”
Everything was kettles and plates and Saint Louis Blues and the “lovely currant”. They enjoyed language, playing with it, the sounds… They swam and splashed in it, drank it in and spat it out. They were greatly amused by my Grandad’s accidental American state, OH-HEE-HO. Dad turned “skewiff” into the more expansive “skaywohwf”.
Dad would generally only use long words in speech if he thought the sound was expressive. The only one I remember him using repeatedly was for two singers he didn’t like, “lugubrious”. I can understand why he didn’t like my wayward croons.
My Dad and my Grandad used relatively, and I emphasize relatively, more “O” sounds than “AAAAAAHH”s and the harsh back of the throat sounds. My uncle uses more dissonance. His favourite swear word is “bleatin’ “, d transformed to t. His voice is more like me Nan’s, although hers was generally quieter.
Regional lexicons and accents, with the exception of those more closely associated with the monarchy, are still regarded as somehow “lesser” albeit they make up most of our speech. Standardisation has its place but too often it has been used to curb working class and outsider modes of expression and to reinforce discrimination. A child is a linguistic genius in comparison to us idiot learner adults. There ain’t good reason to discourage any poor soul from idiomatic expression in the appropriate contexts, especially creative writing. Dodgy policing of this kind is something I’m going to try to be more savvy about, learn better when to keep schtum. Be less schmendrick.