Struggling toward the Light, we fought against Belief. Then came Death & His Riders savouring their own stench; We had No Choice but to embrace The Ones Who rode along unseen. His Bride, His Mother, She Who Would Not Be Harnessed & Seven stinking child demigods, each uttering but one Word, tumbling along with a Terrible Wind, quarrelling heartily, slashing at each other with every weapon imaginable, from long talons and razor sharp teeth to blades of light and the Fires of Time itself.
They cleaved themselves Again & Yet Again, onward in a Rain of Blood, first dividing in two, foolishly forgetting Time flows neither like water nor emanates like the air but burns in the eye and heart of every-thing. Thus they saw only a Red River, and they drank and belched, thinking they propelled The Master toward where I stood empty handed. Yet I was not alone. They had their millions but I had billions and billions, and the secret of Alchemy.
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.
Think of privilege as power. You have power, and the ethics of power are: give it away, let it flow.
Empowerment of course. One can easily think, when others have so much more or appear to have so much more, “I am weak.” A man who lost so much, through no fault but fate, might subliminally resist full acceptance of the fact that in some contexts fate favours him. Fate though, is not cruel, nor a person at all.
Privilege is the power to do with greater freedom. What a dull relationship where we only look for what we have in common. Who would grow? Vive la difference.
How conscious the clothes? Unzippable. Bait, eventually, gets boring, though. I’m honest about what I want and who I am, I think. You seem to be genuine. This all seems organic. But then the man said “Tits and Socialism” and the piece was created.
So much positive but how can I, erratic, know we are at least on the same page?
New brooms scrub where others might not be able to penetrate. We are/are not talking about stone, and so there will be soreness, rawness exposed. I find these days I face myself, male, what misogyny remains, and the changes seem to be for the better. There are, though, no guarantees.
A young man from outside the golden gates of the Shining City stole a purse. His people refused to give him up.
“You want him so you can dispense your justice. We will be happy to give him to you when you return all that has been stolen from us.” said an Elder.
“Two wrongs don’t make a right.” said an angry man with a flushed face, wagging his finger.
“Two!” replied the Elder. He turned to look at the lands beyond the gates. “Can you return the dead to life?”
“Of course not!” said the angry man. “We are addressing your concerns.” His face relaxed. “You understand there is a lot of paperwork to be done.”
“When justice is understood, we all shall have it.” said the Elder, walking away.
We all know what happened next.
Does anyone know what justice is? It surely isn’t blame. Punishment based on individual responsibility for individual actions is injustice, denying history and science. Yet if we could untangle all the forces responsible for an action we would surely end up at the big bang.
Do we have a deep need for punitive reparative justice that cannot be unseated? Do we need lies about justice to live and if so is this sustainable in the future? Is it not an infinite injustice to deprive anyone of liberty? Can suffering be audited?
I desire to understand justice. I have witnessed the depths of depravity and communed with gods. I have thrown inhabited planets into stars. I have set loved ones on fire and marvelled at the beauty. Guilt has eaten away at my flesh.
I especially want to know because my ego was in that purse.
The discussion on free will is a fiendish labyrinth. Spend enough time in a labyrinth without monsters, all you feel is great boredom and impatience. The social importance of personal responsibility has no doubt generated a lot of fertiliser.
Cutting through the thickets, I propose that the placebo effect applies to responsibility itself. No-one can conquer the environment. There is little serious disagreement, I think, with the statement that human reasoning is flawed, an imperfect tool for modelling reality. Transcendence seems to me to be artful fiction. The insistent functions of the body only cease in death.
We know that there are things such as temperature, status, healthy relationships, a sense of security that contribute to concentrated mental states. You can influence even the greatest master with a stick. Or by throwing her into the sun.
The measure of freedom we have to make a choice is dependent on many factors the individual cannot control and did not ask for. Anyone who laughs at the teenager who didn’t ask to be born is not doing so because they disagree.
If collectively, according to our power, we create the conditions by which people feel they are able to make considered decisions, they will make considered decisions. If someone has power and they help create conditions that encourage poor health or misinformation, there are two possible reasons. Either they score too highly for dark triad traits to be a good leader for the people or they are not as free as they think they are. For example, the aversion to any perceived loss of status is a powerful motivator of poor decision making. This human fiction of status is treated as an eternal truth to be imposed upon reality and every human suffers.
Personal responsibility is an ideal. Self mastery is an ideal. It isn’t harmful to know this. The placebo effect still works. Making this common knowledge and the basis for policy is not what will end civilisation. A failure to recognise and help each other with our strengths and weaknesses, which is a collective responsibility, is what will end civilisation.