Doing the rounds recently has been a study published last month in Psychological Science called “Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes: Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact” about the link between low intelligence and certain political stances, amusingly first pointed out by the Daily Mail, which lead to them thereby offending all of their readership who can actually read.

Ban this sick filth!

Next up was George Monbiot, wondering why, now that the ‘left wing’ finally had the holy grail of scientific evidence at their fingertips, more people other than him weren’t getting all up in people’s faces about it and being insufferable dickheads. Well, I don’t know George, maybe because they are using their mighty superior intellects to actually, y’know, read the damn study?

Let’s take a little peek at it ourselves, shall we?

It’s fairly hard to come to a definitive conclusion about the methodology used in the study since it is a little bit vague in describing it, but for the sake of argument let’s give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that the actual results that it gives us are all entirely correct and beyond reproach.  It’s the way that those results are presented which I’m more interested in discussing.  Specifically, the definition of what it refers to as “Right-Wing Ideology”, or rather, the lack of a definition for what it refers to as “Right-Wing Ideology”.  “Right-wing” is rather a broad canvas, who’s only real accepted definition is “Not The Left Wing”.  Because it’s so vague and because it is ever so slightly politically loaded, it’s not really the sort of language I’d normally expect to find in a scientific paper.

Some members of the Conservative Party

So let’s see what they actually mean.  The study talks mainly about three ideological areas, so let’s look at these in turn.  First up, prejudice – specifically towards other races and homosexuals.

OK, so far so good; definitely stupid and prejudice of this kind is often associated with a particular sub-set of ‘right-wing’ politics, although it would obviously be absurd to say that it is universal or even predominant in the ‘right-wing’ and certainly it has no clear link to any particular economic ideology.  The study makes no note of whether other forms of prejudice and group-hate (such as, for example, towards Bankers) were studied (so we will have to assume that they weren’t), but anyway I think we can count this as a point for the ‘left’.

Current score: Left: 1, Right:0

Next is authoritarianism.  Well, since I self-identify as a libertarian, it should come as no surprise that I absolutely agree that authoritarianism and those people who preach it are dumber than a box full of rubber mallets.

But hold on a minute – authoritarianism is certainly not limited to the ‘right wing’ – there are large portions of ‘left wing’ ideology that absolutely depend on the invocation of authority.  Indeed, we libertarians usually get clumped in with the ‘right wing’ simply because our whole anti-violence thing rather gets in the way of most breeds of socialism.

Given that there is authoritarianism on both ‘sides’ but that the chief objectors to authoritarianism on principle (as opposed to objecting to all-kinds-of-authority-except-the-one-we-want-to-impose) generally get dumped on the ‘right’, I’m actually going to award this one to the ‘right-wing’.

Current score: Left: 1, Right: 1

Any rich bourgeois fascists who wish to show their appreciation to libertarianism for this unexpected save are more than welcome to send me a cheque to say thankyou.

Finally, we have conservatism.  Also stupid, I agree.  But again this is a rather vague, heavily loaded and rather unscientific term that the paper’s authors completely fail to define. From their reference to the ‘status quo’ we can take it that they are using the historical sense of the word to mean something like ‘resistance to change’.

Historically, this is certainly something that is associated with the ‘right’.  But that’s just because the values that were being protected were, historically, ‘right-wing’ ones.  In more modern times, I’m not so sure that’s true anymore.  In Britain at least, we’ve had the welfare state knocking around since the 1940s and in the current economic situation it is more traditionally ‘left wing’ values that are coming under threat.  The current voice for the status quo is no longer trying to hang on to The Empire or foxhunting but public sector pensions and uncapped benefits.

"What do we want?" "Yesterday!" "When do we want it?" "Tomorrow!"

The ‘left wing’ is now the one opposing change and the Labour party are, confusingly, now conservatives.  (What this makes the Conservative party is anybody’s guess, but if they want to consider a name change I can probably come up with a few suggestions.)  Given this, I don’t think I can really award points to either side.  Which means…

Final score: Left: 1, Right: 1

Result: Draw

Something of a shock result, there.  The left played a blinding first round but the right hung in there tenaciously and at the end of the day it’s a game of three halves, Brian.

So what does this show us?  Well, it might suggest that when Mr. Monbiot says:

It feels crude, illiberal to point out that the other side is, on average, more stupid than our own. But this, the study suggests, is not unfounded generalisation but empirical fact.

It could be because it is crude and illiberal, and far from being an ‘empirical fact’.  Why is that?

If, while you were reading my scoring above you thought to yourself something along the lines of “Hey, this guy is just arbitrarily shifting the dividing line between right- and left-wings in order to engineer a result that will support his argument”, then, yes.  Good work.  Give that man an honorary degree from the university of being correct, because that was exactly what I was doing.  It’s also exactly what the authors of the study in question seem to have been doing and it’s exactly what Monbiot is doing in the quotation above.

George Monbiot, seen here about to deck an innocent cameraman for wearing a Top Gear T-shirt. (Legal note: lie)

The most blatant form of stupidity on display here is really the “right-wing” and “left-wing”, “our side” and “the other side”, “us” and “them” splitting.  The idea that the entire possibility-space of human political thought can be compressed down into a simple binary system is beyond absurd.  Forget ‘crude’ or ‘illiberal’; extrapolating from the fact that racists appear to be of low average intelligence that everybody who disagrees with you for any reason must also be king of the dumb-dumbs is a logical fallacy of such staggering proportions that it becomes pretty much a photo-finish with racism itself in the thicko olympics.

That a lot of journalists think and express themselves in these terms is bad enough.  That supposedly reputable scientists have taken to doing it as well is  bit more concerning.  But it all pales into insignificance in comparison to the fact that this is also the way most of our political systems are arranged.  The dominance of dualistic political systems; ‘Labour’ vs ‘Tories’, ‘Democrats’ vs ‘Republicans’ makes a mockery of democracy and is driven by this kind of false dichotomy (as well as the grievous flaws in the voting system which disincentivise the formation of smaller groups). When this reaches the extremes that it has today, with somebody like Ron Paul running for nomination in the same party as Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann, something is going a bit wrong somewhere.

The idea that you can express the many variations and nuances of a political opinion on a single axis (or even on a pair of axes) is a drastic oversimplification, the usefulness of which has long since passed and now serves only to stifle any kind of intelligent debate of the actual issues.  Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of stupid ideas around and I agree absolutely that we should be speaking out against them – but it’s the ideas we should be targeting, not just the people who hold them and the people who happen to be sitting next to them on the seating plan. I say it is time we kick the level of debate up a notch and dispense with both the ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’.  Ornithologically speaking, neither of them contain any brains anyway.

0 comments

Fairly pointless

Sure, Ed Milliband is sexy, but I liked him better when he was in Everybody Loves Raymond

According to Ed Milliband, “The Labour Party stands for fairness”, which is nice. It’s also “easy to talk about fairness” apparently, which is probably just as well.

If this is the case then it looks like Labour have a new convert; none other than Prime Minister David Cameron is also a member of the fairness fan club, it seems, claiming that the welfare reforms which he recently struggled to pass through the house of Lords like a particularly intransigent constipation poo were “a basic issue of fairness”.

Strangely enough Labour didn’t seem all that overjoyed by this unexpected support for their fairness agenda – saying that the welfare bill in question crossed “the basic line of British decency” (because a spot of casual racism was exactly what the welfare debate needed).  Have Labour changed their mind about the whole fairness thing then?  Apparently not – the issue of fairness managed to get involved with Scottish independence somehow, with Mr. Milliband proclaiming “we need to make Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland a fairer, more just, place to live.” and what’s more: “we can do this best together.”  Oh Ed, I never knew you cared.

Fairness is in political vogue right now; it’s this season’s hip, must-have vacuous political catchphrase.  And it’s not hard to see why: ‘fairness’ is pure political gold firstly because absolutely everybody is in favour of it and secondly because it doesn’t really mean anything whatsoever.  Or perhaps it might be better to say, it means too much.

I demand to know what exactly you are demanding!

‘Fairness’ is one of those concepts without any real basis in the physical world – it has been invented by humans to express a particular kind of moral intuition and therefore can mean pretty much anything you want it to mean.  Because it’s fun to stereotype, we might image that to the typical Labour voter, ‘fairness’ is to do with wage inequalities – ‘fat cats’ who have ‘taken all the money’.  To the typical Conservative, perhaps it is more likely to do with the working population being forced to support the non-working population, sometimes to a higher standard than they themselves can afford – ‘scroungers’ who are, again ‘taking all the money’.

There is not really a ‘right’ answer to this, and I suspect that to the vast majority of people both of these situations (massively oversimplified as of course they are) would strike them as unfair to a greater or lesser degree.  It’s how we play these -and other- ideas of fairness off against each other that is the real essense of politics.  All mainstream political ideologies have some aspects which might be considered unfair from a certain perspective – it’s up to the people espousing these philosophies to explain why their proposed set of trade-offs is better than the other guy’s.  But the politicians involved seem strangely reticent to engage in this level of debate – instead preferring to tell us how much they like things to be ‘fair’ without really explaining what they mean.  They might as well tell us they are in favour of ‘happiness’, ‘goodness’ and ‘chocolate hobnobs’.  Nobody in their right mind is going to disagree with the basic sentiment, but by itself it’s not all that meaningful.  Perhaps it would be fairer on all of us if our political overlords were a little more concerned with discussing their underlying philosophies of what fairness is rather than just competing to see who can repeat the same trite soundbite the most times in a row.

Didn't you hear, Chicago? The world's not fair.

Welcome to the blog.  So far all that is here are a couple of entries from my old blog that I considered worthy of making the cut, but more is to follow.

“Multiculturalism has failed” said David Cameron at the Munich Security Council last month.

Well, except, actually, he didn’t say that.  What he actually said was:

Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream.  We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong.

Which is a little bit different.  Well, it’s a good job no supposedly reputable news sources went with any sensationalist and misleading headlines then, isn’t it?  I don’t particularly like David Cameron all that much but I would rather dislike him for things he’s actually said rather than things tenth-rate journalists have made up for the fun of it.

Cameron interviews a suitable replacement for Nick Clegg

So what else did he actually say?  Well, like everything that Cameron comes out with, it veres wildly between points that are frustratingly close to being semi-intelligent and absolute brain-melting drivel.  If you’re interested then the full transcript is here.

But, since we’re on the topic, has multiculturalism failed?

Well.  My girlfriend is (ethnically) Chinese. I have friends from France, Germany, Australia, Holland, Italy, America and a whole host of other places.  I get paid a rather generous amounts to teach students from all over the world.  Within a five minute walk from my house I can sample the cuisines of over a dozen different countries. For me personally It would have to say it’s working out pretty nicely, thanks.

United Colours of Benneton showed us that people of all races and creeds can dress like utter twats.

But I guess the real question we have to ask when discussing the question of multiculturalism’s failure or otherwise, is what exactly is it actually supposed to be doing?  Surely if we take the phrase literally, it’s actually doing rather well – we do have a multitude of different cultures now co-existing in the UK.  If something is failing it is actually monoculturalism, which is more what Cameron seems to be after.  In essense, his approach to multiculturalism seems to be that you can have any culture you like provided it’s our one.

And this is where he begins saying things which would be disturbing if they made any sense whatsoever.  He talks about ‘collective identity’, ‘our values’ and ‘shared national identity’, all pretty meaningless phrases if you consider human beings anything other than numbers.  None of these things really exist – they’re all collectivist fantasies built on an inaccurate abstraction of humankind into a series of amorphous isotropic lumps that can be neatly categorised and therefore controlled.  He goes on to say:

Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism.  A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone.  It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them.  Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality.  It says to its citizens, this is what defines us as a society: to belong here is to believe in these things.  Now, each of us in our own countries, I believe, must be unambiguous and hard-nosed about this defence of our liberty.

I don’t really want to know what ‘muscular liberalism’ is in case it involves Vince Cable in a posing pouch.  But anyway…

I disagree with the rest of it on a couple of points.  Firstly, as I sometimes argue with my more socialist friends, it is my belief that a government that uses its power to promote any set of subjective values, regardless of what percentage of the population agrees with them, is tyrannical.  The only ‘safe’ form of government, the only kind that stands any chance of avoiding the horrible atrocities that all states commit from time to time, is an amoral one that governs as unemotionally and objectively as possible.  But that’s not a particularly popular opinion among people who instead think that the role of government is to fix absolutely everything that they personally think is wrong with the world, so let’s move swiftly onto my second objection.

Morality with the Daily Mail: Videogames: pure evil. Supporting Hitler: A-OK!

Cameron here mentions freedom of speech and freedom of worship but he fails to mention the most important one; freedom of thought.  What he suggests instead here is the complete antithesis of this; the creation of a kind of thoughtcrime: either you believe in these things we tell you to believe in or you can fuck off back where you came from.  I myself, a native Brit,  don’t have perfect faith in all of these; I think that democracy, while “the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried” has the potential to be improved upon – it’s not quite the utopian ideal we’re apparently supposed to believe it is.  Ditto the rule of law is something I support only with the proviso that I consider the law in question to be just.  What is to become of me for such outrageous dissent from the one true path?

In the olden days, being gay was regarded as such a sin that even doing the YMCA dance was enough to get you burned alive.

Besides which, are all these things really an integral part of British culture?  Or are they just things that we like to pretend are part of our culture because they make us feel good about ourselves?  Is not our actual culture largely based around drinking large quantities of alcohol, moaning, looking down on foreigners, a stunning inability to communicate with the opposite sex and standing around waiting for it to stop fucking raining for long enough to play some kind of ridiculous sport that we invented and yet are still shit at? Are these not more appropriate values to force immigrants to adopt?

This brings me on to my main point, being what David Cameron should have said.   The cause of many of the problems we see around us is not multiculturalism.  It is simply culturalism.

That’s not really a word though, so what do I mean?  I mean the process by which ideas and values are transferred between people and more specifially, the way in which there is a societal pressure to accept these memes – to not even question them – regardless of how absurd they are.  In other words; the adoption of ideas based not on rational assessment of their merits but due to intimidation by or loyalty to other people who already hold these ideals, and who may have originally acquired them in much the same way.  Even more specifically, the way that this lack of quality control over thought is somehow seen as a good thing.

Of course David Cameron would never say any of that, because, well, he’s a conservative.  The clue is kind of in the name there.  The closest he can come is pretending that the values he wishes to promote are already the predominant ones in our culture.  But as mentioned previously, I find that a little difficult to swallow.  If things like racial and sexual equality are really part of our culture then they are very recent additions indeed.  Even going to school in the early 90s (as I sadly did), the culture was mainly one of xeno- and homophobia, the celebration of mediocrity and intense anti-intellectualism (and that was just the teachers).  That I have grown up to endorse none of those things is because I examined these concepts, found them unworthy and discarded them.  Just as all these values that Cameron holds up as defining us are really the result of people throughout history rejecting aspects of our culture that made no sense – racism, sexism, autocracy, theocracy and so on – and fighting to change them.

I rest my case. David Cameron loves the Status Quo.

At the very least these values result from the ability of individuals to examine multiple cultures and choose the one that seems best to them (or even come up with something new), and this is where the true value of multiculturalism lies.  The more we can provide people with alternatives to their traditional viewpoints the more likely they are to question them and perhaps modify them.  This is a slow, painful process and unavoidably so – any pro-active attempt by the government to aggressively push a multicultural agenda stands a high chance of being wholly counterproductive.  The best it can do is to stop actively promoting the opposite by coming up with a set of things that it considers ‘British’.  Stopping state funding of ‘faith schools’, and for that matter any other institutions that exist to agressively push a particular cultural agenda, would be nice too.

If faith schools want funding, let them get it the normal way - by putting on a rhythm and blues revue.

Of course this mixing of cultures will make the traditional elements on each side feel like something is being taken from them – and this is likely to lead to violent clashes.  But this should not be taken as a reason not to do it.  Indeed, you might argue that such a response is down to the fact that, deep down, they know their inherited position is not defensible – violence is the only thing they have left.  Any ideal which is actually valid has nothing to fear from greater scrutiny.  And in the end, hopefully, it is these values that will win out.

For my first proper bloggy blog post on this blog, it would probably be a good idea to ease myself in by talking about a topic that’s not particularly controversial.  Something that could not possibly lead to misunderstandings.  Preferably, something that ties into the two topics I highlighted last time.

I know, let’s talk about race! I don’t see any way this could possibly go wrong.

It may interest you to know that I am not the only great historical figure to have borne the name ‘Jeffries’.  There was also a man called Jim Jeffries (no relation, so far as I know).  Not the present-day Australian comedian (also no relation, so far as I know) but the early 20th Century world heavyweight boxing champion.  A.K.A. ‘The Great White Hope’.  In his professional boxing career, Jeffries was only ever beaten once, in the so-called ‘Fight of the Century’.

I cheerfully admit to not caring very much about sport, boxing included, but it does sometimes have it’s rare moments of greater relevance.  This fight in particular is quite important because of who Jeffries, the Great White Hope, was fighting.  His opponent that day was a man – specifically, a black man – called Jack Johnson.

This was in 1910, when the prevailing wisdom (amongst the white population at least) was that black people were inherently inferior to white people, both mentally and physically.  Jack Johnson changed that.

A black and white photograph. Ho ho ho.

One of the benefits of sport is that it appeals to those people who are by nature competitive, nationalistic, aggressive, obsessed with physical characteristics… basically, racists.  Racists love sport.  By beating every white man sent against him, including the previously invincible Jeffries, Johnson finally offered some proof that the racists could no longer happily ignore (as opposed to that offered by science, observation and pure common sense) that their beliefs were a load of bullshit.  And this was a process continued by Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, etc. etc.

Sadly, Racism didn’t die, it merely evolved.  OK, the racists said, clearly, we were wrong about the whole physical superiority thing.  Obviously, black men aren’t really any less physically capable than white men.  In fact – that’s it! – they’re really more capable!  Because – hang on, I’ve got something here – they’re brutal, animalistic!  All brawn, you see – no brains.  They can have the whole physical strength thing, but we can still have intellectual superiority! Phew, that was a close one…

Racism took a lick, but it kept on ticking.  It retrenched itself based around the intellect, where it survives because racists, not being particularly intellectual themselves, can easily avoid having to pay attention to any contrary evidence that might pop up.  Even if the defences do eventually erode it will probably survive in some other form.  No matter how overwhelming the evidence it’s unlikely to destroy racism utterly because racism is not evidence-based, it comes from an irrational fear and hatred of The Other, personal insecurity and good old-fashioned vindictiveness.  The form of expression of this can be limited by rationality, but it is likely to still exist in potentially more subtle and insidious ways.

Slightly more contemporary case-in-point: Thor.

For the unaware: Thor, the upcoming movie based on the Marvel Comics superhero that was foreshadowed in Iron Man 2 with all the subtlety of, well, a hammer falling out of the sky, has a black actor playing Heimdall.  The Council of Conservative Citizens, which I shall henceforth refer to as CoCC, because it sounds a bit like ‘Cock’, takes issue with this, even going so far as to start a campaign to boycott the movie because of it.

So; do they actually have a point here?  Well, Heimdall has previously mostly been portrayed as being white.  In fact, in the original mythology he’s called the ‘White God’ (oh, I see what you did, there).  But, let’s be frank, Heimdall wasn’t ‘really’ a white guy because Heimdall wasn’t ‘really’ anything.  Heimdall isn’t real.  Besides which, where’s the rule that says gods have to be the same colour as the people worshipping them?  I mean, Shiva is blue, for fuck’s sake.

This is outrageous! Everybody knows Heimdall's eyes were purple, not orange!

The only really justified reason that somebody might be a little upset about this is if they were a big big fan of the comics or a big big fan of Norse mythology and were concerned that they were not being true to the source material (though, there are probably worse offenders).  Is this why CoCC is upset?

Well, given that they say

“…Marvel attacks conservative values and promotes the left-wing…”

I’m guessing they’re not really big comics fans.  And given that the number one entry on their statement of principles is

(1) We believe the United States is a Christian country. We believe that the United States of America is a Christian country, that its people are a Christian people, and that its government and public leaders at all levels must reflect Christian beliefs and values. We therefore oppose all efforts to deny or weaken the Christian heritage of the United States, including the unconstitutional prohibitions of prayers and other religious expression in schools and other public institutions.”

we might conclude that they are probably all Christian.  Which would in turn suggest:

1) They don’t actually believe in or worship Heimdall.

2) They don’t have any problem whatsoever with another mythological character supposedly born in the middle east being routinely depicted as looking like a white European.

So, yeah, looks like they’re actually just huge fucking racists after all.

However, while in this case their stated objections are clearly bogus, there might be occasions when the race of fictional characters can have certain unfortunate implications.  It’s fun to take the piss out of racist idiots but it’s all a bit too easy.  Let’s instead pick on the BBC a bit here and talk about the black characters of Guinevere in Merlin and Martha Jones in Doctor Who.

The ‘problem’ I see here isn’t that these characters are black. (Though in the case of Guinevere it does give the misleading impression that European aristocracy has a far larger gene pool than in fact it does.)  What I find mildly worrying is in the way that their race is treated by the other characters in these shows.  Or rather, isn’t treated by the other characters in these shows, even though in the historical (or, pseudo-historical) periods in which they are set this might be kind of a big deal.  (The revived series of) Doctor Who in particular has a tendency to depict various periods of history as glorious multicultural playgrounds where people of all races hold hands and skip along merrily while dodging laser blasts from the alien bastard of the week.

"Dear Diary, today absolutely nothing that wouldn't be compatible with broadcasting standards 1500 years in the future happened. Also, Richard Wilson said 'I don't believe it' and we all ROFLd."

This is of course all done very intentionally and with the purest of motives.  But.  Saying that race should not affect the way people treat other people is one thing.  Saying that race does not affect the way people treat other people is another thing altogether, at best naive and at worst a bare-faced lie.  Saying that race has never affected the way people treat other people is historical revisionism, and in favor of the oppressor, not the oppressed.  It denigrates and trivialises centuries of suffering and struggle.  It’s holocaust denial writ large.  Literally, a whitewash of history.

OK, these programs are supposedly, y’know, for kids.  OK, they’re both fantasy programs, they aren’t meant to be realistic.  OK, Doctor Who does occasionally have stories that do actually deal with racism.  OK, this is generally fairly trivial – we should probably aim to get rid of the genuine racists before we tackle the patronising BBC arses. Certainly I don’t think that these examples really do all that much harm and I don’t advocate boycotting them because of it. (You may wish to boycott Merlin purely because it isn’t very good, however.)  I just think that if the creators of these shows have the intent that I’m charitably assuming they do, they’re doing it wrong.

These are also only two examples of a much larger cultural trend towards sanitizing our past – trimming away inconvenient historical facts that don’t happen to fit our societal self-image.  It’s tempting to think that if we just ignore racism it will eventually go away.  It won’t.  And it’s tempting to ignore the attitudes and actions of our ancestors, especially the role that their ‘steal it off the darkie’ school of economics might have played in bringing about our own current high standard of living.  Talking and thinking about racism is always going to be uncomfortable, but that does not mean that it is not worth doing.  Particularly pertinent here is George Santayana’s famous aphorism, as inscibed on a plaque at the site of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp:

“The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.”

So what have we learned?  That racism is probably more adaptable than we usually give it credit for, and therefore harder to eradicate.  But you don’t fight racism by pretending it isn’t there.  As Jack Johnson showed us, you fight racism by finding some guy called Jeffries and repeatedly punching him in the face.

Oh. Er, no, actually…