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The Lost Art of Self-interrogation by Joe Newell

From my dear friend Joe - this one speaks for itself.

Making a meaningful contribution to this impressive catalogue of community posts posed a real challenge. Equally challenging, if not more so, was resisting the urge to hijack Ria's blog to impose my old-manish grievances about the world on her unwitting readers. To restrain myself, and establish some sort of mandate, I looked over Matriarch's home page for inspiration.

Ria asks half-way down, "what's the point?" Instantly drawn to this nihilism, I continued reading past the subheading, after which she writes: "I was not happy with the way the world was, the labels we put on each other, the discourses and categories we live within." Shoe-boxing groups of people and ourselves with labels is a dangerous trend, certainly worthy of discussion, and it's something I've considered putting into writing in the past; hence, from a collection of stray thoughts and a bit of research, the following drivel was born.

Already I suspect that the paint-by-numbers science student will be considering the terms "danger" and "labels" and rolling their eyes at the abstract vagueness of the humanities. And, to be fair, I understand why. After all, categorising the stuff around us is a distinctly human trait, used to make sense of a complex world. So why can labels be damaging, or even dangerous?

To address this question, I'll be devoting my word-count to that tireless workhorse of political conversation, the spectrum from left to right. To describe someone or yourself as belonging to the left or right "wing" is to recognise the similarities between one set of views, and the archetype. Of late, defining the parameters of those views is becoming very difficult. The archetypes are expanding so voraciously, consuming all manner of personal and political beliefs, that we may as well resort to BuzzFeed quizzes to decide our political affiliations. One minute a right winger is someone who wants unregulated markets. The next she is concerned about oversensitive millennials. Now he has an opinion on gender pronouns. Perhaps this is another symptom of a broader phenomenon, namely politics creeping into every aspect of our lives. I don't know


'...sometimes a bit of pragmatism is healthy when we evaluate our political rivals.'

If anything, labels are problematic because they can oversimplify something complicated. Categorising mammals into species is useful because it allows us to differentiate between unique variants and identify evolutionary patterns. By contrast, denouncing all Tory MPs as selfish and self-serving is an unfair generalisation, and not a very useful way to engage with politics. The variety of opinion among MPs in both parties - at times amounting to schisms - is undeniable. And on pertinent issues like climate change and the coronavirus pandemic, for which policy can never be black and white, the variety of political angles can be helpful. It's a cornerstone of democracy. A few of my left-leaning friends (or more accurately, stooping) might call me a spineless apologist for saying this, but sometimes a bit of pragmatism is healthy when we evaluate our political rivals. Tribalism can have nefarious consequences.

Perhaps aligning with one group and homogenising another is ingrained in our biology. The us-and-them mentality is probably a natural instinct after all (I might know for sure if I studied a useful subject). However, in a world that is bloated with opinions, one single radical or embarrassing view can suddenly become representative of the whole, no matter how far it diverges from the average. As popular as "SJW owned" Youtube compilations are, these people do not represent the left-wing sentiment to which they are often attributed (although they can resemble it).

Certain high-profile public intellectuals are guilty of this reductionism; Jordan Peterson, although a respectable academic and writer, frequently addresses the collective aims of a group he calls the "post-modernists", or in other words, the "left" with some intellectual glitter sprinkled on top. When we have gotten to the point of talking about each other in such vague terms and assigning such vague objectives (in Peterson's case, the left wants to destabilise the very fabric of society), then we are in serious trouble.

This is the problem when the definition of a group expands so far beyond its original parameters - an enormous array of personal and political doctrines is crammed and into words with fewer letters than fingers on a hand. It may be the letterbox effect of my media consumption, but it seems that more often than not, the terms right and left act as convenient straw-men to be propped up and swiftly shot down, along with their fictitious agendas. It's just lazy.

'and suddenly the unsuspecting Guardian reader is on trial for the crimes of a few Westminster twats.'

Of course, there is a more serious side. Once a whiff of poisonous ideology is picked up - most recently, anti-Semitism - it can easily become endemic to that group in the eyes of its critics. Don't mistake my meaning. These ideologies must be stamped out, and their prevalence within the group (party) not ruled out as a possibility. I am simply suggesting that the dark fringes of any belief system can be weaponized against the whole, and suddenly the unsuspecting Guardian reader is on trial for the crimes of a few Westminster twats.

Make no mistake though, there is a palpable division of opinion, at least in this country. The recently coined phrase "culture war" is a product of shameless shit-stirrers, but the danger of radicalisation resulting from political fault lines shouldn't be understated. I am not particularly comfortable discussing radicalisation. And definitely not on the internet. It's not only a sensitive matter, but explaining its causes is complex and highly contentious. It's just something that needs to be mentioned.

For the majority, the fix is still easier said than done: we need to be less rigid. We need to recognise that a person's decision to align with a certain school of thought is based on an intricate web of personal experiences and inevitable biases. Once that is straight, I think we will begin to see that humans are not so dull as to be defined by bullet points on a manifesto (as inconsistent as they can be). Maybe, just maybe, we could return to (or find?) healthy scepticism.

Just to be crystal clear, this is not something unique to any "side". I know people who, in the midst of gossiping, will ask if Doris from down the road is left-wing, as if that awards her some immutable badge of honour which pardons the fact she cheated on her boyfriend with the local plumber. I'll admit that's a slightly exaggerated example, but the point is that everyone harbours a loyalty to their "side" and tends to view their political kin, in the case of left wingers, through the red-rose tint of Labour spectacles.

Here lies the danger of our own labels, those that we apply to ourselves voluntarily, at least to begin with.

Once internalised these ideologies can become a prison.

I speak from experience in saying that we form an intense emotional connection with our doctrines. So powerful is this connection that it can close us off to new concepts that contradict our ideals, and warp even the sturdiest of facts. But don't take my word for it. A host of studies have explored this phenomenon: an experiment conducted by psychologist Ziva Kunda in the late 90s presented a group of women with evidence that caffeine consumption can increase the likelihood of developing breast cysts. Those that were least convinced by the evidence were the regular coffee drinkers. Closer to our topic, one 2006 study examining how Americans reacted to controversial political issues found the following:

Two experimental studies explore how citizens evaluate arguments about affirmative action and gun control, finding strong evidence of a prior attitude effect such that attitudinally congruent arguments are evaluated as stronger than attitudinally incongruent arguments.

Stripped of the jargon: whether we want to believe something has an effect on whether we do believe it. This can go as far as selectively ignoring evidence that does not conform to our preconceived world view, which incidentally, is written in political language. Worryingly, smarter people tend to be even more likely to perform this intellectual gymnastics, since they're better equipped to seek out, and rationalise information.

Or as I prefer to view it,

people are like cats: where they fits, they sits.

Maybe labels like left and right wing should instead be applied retrospectively - and cautiously - to the set of opinions, not the other way around. Maybe they should be dispensed with entirely. Who knows? Without doubt though, a label should not become a constraint on our relationship with new ideas, because we become stagnant, then adversarial.

Labels lock us into restrictive, insular patterns of thought. From our side of the tracks, we are blinded to the other models of thought that to all intents and purposes run parallel, to the same destination.

So, let's try to evaluate ideas on the basis of their intrinsic merit, not how they square up to our own world view. And try to not to be influenced so much by who is communicating these ideas. It may well be that our stubbornness is feeding division and hatred.

Or maybe not. This post was essentially a product of shower-thoughts. I just hope it has resonated with some of you.

Joe Newell

I think it's fair to say neither Joe or I left much of an impression on each other when we met, not that I can remember at least. But as with any good any strong bond, ours was something that warmed up over time.

Intrinsically different, Joe and I found a friendship in the intellectual and academic which is really a cover for very humble beginnings talking shit drunk in a kitchen at 1am. But nonetheless, we broached the humanity degree stereotypes together.

I think Joe is genuinely a strong intellectual who has made me richer of the mind. Whilst incredibly well hidden by his far too often employed humility, reading this post reminded me of the luck I have to call him my friend.

I can't wait to read the book you inevitably publish one day Joe, I impatiently await a signed copy.

Promise I won't sell it.


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