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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Modern Myths

1. The myth of meaning

People think words mean things and that they know what they mean. Both claims are often untrue. When the Government of the day talks of change, reform, choice, progress, the social contract, radical new initiatives, going forward, transparency, accountability and the like, they mean nothing. But people are expected not to realise that, and even cynics may not realise it fully. George Berkeley said: "I entreat the reader to reflect with himself, and see if it doth not often happen, either in hearing or reading a discourse, that the passions of fear, love, hatred, admiration, disdain, and the like, arise immediately in his mind upon the perception of certain words, without any ideas coming between." The whole art of politics, just as much as the art of management (qv), or of teaching subjects such as divinity or French theory, depends on this being true. But it is wrong and unkind to think that the people who use these words realise that they mean nothing. They are as much victims of the illusion as their audience. The test of whether someone is talking like this is whether you can imagine successful action based specifically on what they say. When we cannot, Berkeley's process is under way.

2. The myth of religious belief

This is delicate ground because lots of people believe themselves to have religious belief, and some can even get quite huffy about it. But David Hume, who was usually right about these things, said that nature "suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience. The usual course of men's conduct belies their words, and shows that their assent in these matters is some unaccountable operation of the mind between disbelief and conviction, but approaching much nearer to the former than to the latter."

People say they believe in life after death but still grieve when people die. Christians try to get rich and Muslims gamble. The state of mind here is unaccountable in the same way as that of the child who pretends that the tree stump is a bear and then becomes genuinely frightened of it, while knowing all the time that it is a tree stump. Like the child's game, the grown-up one deserves no special respect, but provided it keeps away from the serious side of life it can remain harmless enough. Unfortunately, it is apt to break out, giving bearded men in skirts an amplifier with which to spread one or another arbitrary set of attitudes and demands.

3. The myth of British values

This holds that there is a special system of British values, of 24-carat export quality. This often coincides with the myth of religious belief. Fair play is supposed to be an essentially British value, although our school bullying is the worst in any country with indoor plumbing. Of course, even the British have values in a fairly thin sense: our first toddle into the social world tells us that when people call us lazy, cowardly, indecisive, mean, bitter, foolish and dishonest they are not speaking well of us; conversely, we blush with pleasure to be described as kind, fair, open and generous.

Beyond that, talk of values is mainly a catalyst for becoming really, really angry and indignant, and is one of life's great pleasures. An absolutely unspeakable variant of this myth is talk of shared values, declaimed by politicians while they entertain dignitaries from, say, Saudi Arabia or Russia, China or Africa, and oddly supposed not to refer to obvious examples, such as a mutual liking for propaganda, deceit, power, war and bribery.

4. The myth of the scientist

This claims that there is an expertise, science, and that people who are good at it deserve a lot of attention. This is almost wholly false. There is no such thing as a scientist, and it is a shame that William Whewell, a rather patchy philosopher (although a Cambridge man), invented the term. There are only biologists, chemists, physicists, mathematicians and so on. These may be very bright people, but the moment one of them steps a millimetre or two outside their special area of expertise, they are no better than the rest of us.

Problems such as foot-and-mouth disease, global temperatures and badgers, to name but three, need different baskets of expertises, if indeed there are any to be had. A fortiori, there should be no such thing as The Government Scientist. A version of this myth is that something called science is a self-propelled self-governing activity of special virtue, dedicated solely to truth. This ignores the huge proportion of physical scientists who work for the misnamed Ministry of Defence, and the biological scientists who work for big pharma, trying to get around the patents on drugs that do little for the disease burden of the world but that can be sold to the rich. Scientists have one catch-all answer when confronted with such unfortunate facts, which is to claim that the critic must be some kind of relativist. This is a Berkeleian term: nobody knows what it means, but everybody knows it is bad.

5. The myth of management

This claims that people can be managed like warehouses and airports, and that some other people are especially good at it. This is entirely wrong, although it has spread over the UK like the grey goo that some fear nanotechnology would unleash (manotechnology, perhaps, and just as lethal). People can be persuaded, and ordered, given incentives and penalties, suppressed and killed, but not managed. Human affairs can be administered, but administration is not management. One administers to people and their needs. One tries to manage them by ignoring whichever of their needs is inconvenient and by treating them as a mere means to your own ends. But, mirabile dictu, people treated like that become irritable and subversive and quite quickly unmanageable.

Marxists and Hegelians would say that management thus contains its own contradiction, or deconstructs itself, although this is disguised by free use of the myth of meaning (qv). The usual response is to hire more managers to manage the mess, and more layers of managers to oversee the managers. The criminal justice system is a wholly ineffective attempt at managing people. An extreme kind of manager is called a consultant, whose claim to expertise is that he costs more. There are, however, three good reasons for employing consultants: it passes the buck; it is public money; and it is easy to justify such expenditure to auditors, who lunch with consultants and are interchangeable with them.

6. The myth of democracy

Politicians preaching democracy as a value forget the two things wrong with democracy: the "demos" bit and the "cracy" bit or, in other words, the people and the system whereby they are supposed to govern themselves. By and large, even in systems with advanced educational resources, the people cannot do better than take their news and opinions from the likes of Rupert Murdoch (and according to Nick Davies's Flat Earth News, the British Government employs some 1,500 press officers whose job it is to manipulate the people). This is when things are going well. When they are not going well people naturally suppose that disagreement deserves death. It is tempting to think that the only solution is the Hobbesian sovereign with his monopoly of power, but as John Locke said: "This is to think that men are so foolish that they take care to avoid what mischiefs may be done them by polecats or foxes, but are content, nay, think it safety, to be devoured by lions."

For Icelanders, Scandinavians and Europeans, with our long parliamentary traditions, democracy may be the least bad system of government, but it is a long way from being any use elsewhere.

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Posted by Ajay :: 6:08 PM :: 0 comments

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