Sunday, 27 January 2008

Anticant on Love

This is a slightly edited version of a post which originally appeared last year:

In the early 1990s I wrote a short book, Speaking of Sex, about the various ways in which sex was thought about and discussed in our then contemporary society. I say ‘then’ because attitudes and discourse have changed considerably during the past 15 or so years, and if I were writing the book today it would be different in a good many respects. However, I believe it is still worth reading.

One of the chapters was called "What is this thing called love?" It was symptomatic, I thought, that someone had asked me: “Why do you need to talk about love in this book?” Nowadays, so much sexual activity is purely sensual and emotionless and love often plays little if any part. But it did, and does, seem to me important to consider the nature of love. I realise that this is a topic which has been mulled over by some of the profoundest minds down the centuries, and it is presumptuous of me to add my twopennyworth. Nevertheless, here goes.

Resorting to metaphor, love is an embracing atmosphere which we absorb – if we are fortunate – in infancy and childhood. Those who grow up surrounded by it, and receiving it, take it for granted: for them, love is the natural, spontaneous feeling people have for each other in the absence of painful emotions. The caring concern and warmth of parents and other close grownups confirms the child’s sense of self and worthwhileness; and those of us who are fortunate enough to have received such positive messages about ourselves when we were little give out love spontaneously to others.

Those who know that they are loved, and who grow up loving others in their turn, do so largely unaware of how lucky they are. Those who don’t receive and experience love in their childhood don’t know what it is that they are missing; and so their own capacity to love is stunted. Often they are angry, without knowing why; and their emotions of resentment, and even hatred, which stem from their not having been loved, seem as natural to them as a loving nature does to those who have been brought up lovingly.

While the potential to experience and to express emotions is inborn, the activities of loving and of hating are acquired through experience and reciprocation. Even then, one does not spontaneously become a loving or a hating person; each one of us constantly makes and remakes that choice [whether we are conscious of doing so or not] in every event and relationship of our lives.

I believe that, regardless of the good or ill fortune of their upbringing, and the influences it has exerted upon them, every human being experiences the need to be loved, whether or not they comprehend what this yearning is; and that its absence, or frustration, is the most potent breeding-ground of misery and of anger which all too readily turns into hatred and cruelty. And the need for love is not only emotional: it has a strongly physical component which expresses itself through the sensuous urge [not always, but very often, sexual] for fusion with other human beings. Plato identified this urge, and depicted it beautifully in his legend [told by Aristophanes in the Symposium] of the hermaphrodites cut in two by the gods, who constantly yearned to be reunited with their ‘other halves’.

Apart from this instinctive physical yearning, and far from being the soul-shattering thunderbolt which romantic novels and films depict as ‘falling in love’, love is not an unwilled experience. As Rollo May tells us in Love and Will, love is the outcome of a deliberate act of will and intention – a chosen reaching out towards others, and specifically to one other [‘the Beloved’], in loving care and concern for their wellbeing. To be loving requires openness and involves risk. It is an art, and also a skill, which can be consciously learned and developed, as Erich Fromm describes in The Art of Loving.

Do these notions bring us any closer to defining the elusive butterfly? In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson offer an original metaphor: ‘Love is a collaborative work of art’. This, they say, incorporates many other metaphors: love is an aesthetic experience [beauty]; love is energy; love is work; love requires co-operation, dedication, compromise, discipline, patience, instinctive communication, shared values, goals and responsibility.

Some other familiar metaphors are: Love is a journey, an adventure, a pilgrimage, a service; Love is madness [as in ‘I’m crazy about him’; ‘She’s driving me wild’]. An entire book [Love and Addiction by Stanton Peele] has been devoted to the metaphor of love as a junkie’s fix, characterising the state of being ‘in love’ as a toxic dependency upon a romanticised vision of the Beloved who, being actually only an ordinary human being, is incapable of living up to the lover’s inflamed expectations. In this state, love becomes an unhealthy mutual protection racket forged out of a victim-like need for security. Such overheated ‘romantic love’ flies in the face of common sense and lures many to heartbreak and even tragedy. And the clearer vision of detached third parties is rarely of much help.

Before we can love anyone else happily and successfully, we have to love ourselves – not in a selfish or self-centred way, but realistically and with some sense of proportion. We must be aware of our own strengths and weaknesses, and take responsibility for making fruitful use of the former and improving the latter. Only then can we offer supportive affection to another human being, rather than making dependant demands upon them. My own favourite metaphor for a healthy loving relationship is two pillars standing side by side in comradely togetherness but each solidly based upon its own sound foundations.

The essence of love is emotional honesty which does not falsify, either to oneself or to the beloved. That cannily sage and unusually modern Victorian, Robert Louis Stevenson, says in one of his essays: “Truth to your own heart and your friends, never to feign or falsify emotion - that is the truth which makes love possible and mankind happy.” And elsewhere he writes: “The essence of love is kindness; and indeed it may best be defined as passionate kindness: kindness, so to speak, run mad and become importunate and violent”. In this, Stevenson concurs with his friend Henry James, who once said that only three things really count in life: the first is to be kind; the second is to go on being kind; and the third is still to be kind.

It is a noble aspiration. I wonder how many of us achieve this in our lives?

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Plea for Peace

The following Declaration against Global Violence was posted as an online petition by Anticant and a few friends in several countries in the Spring of 2007. So far, it has attracted fewer than 50 signatures. This strikes me as a sad commentary on the state of the world and the combative temper of the blogosphere. I hope that visitors to Anticant's Arena will read the petition and, if they agree with it, take a moment to sign it by clicking on the link at the head of the 'friendly places' sidebar.

To: Citizens of the World


We the undersigned call upon our fellow world citizens to join us in doing everything in our power to reduce the prevailing level of global violence, and to seek the resolution of all conflicts by peaceful means.

We do not believe that the promoters of hatred and the practitioners of violence [whether in the name of countries or causes] are supported by the great mass of humanity. Their behaviour, under whatever pretext, is immoral and intolerable. We abhor their activities, and deplore the amount of publicity given to them as well as the unhealthy depiction and glorification of fictional violence in so much ‘entertainment’.

We believe that the great majority of human beings, whatever their country or creed, are good-hearted peace-loving people like ourselves, who wish for an end to violence in personal, domestic, public, and international affairs.

We urge all those holding responsible positions in politics, government, and the media to pledge themselves to do their utmost to achieve a more peaceful world through discussion and negotiation, and to renounce violence as an instrument of policy.

We ask all those in agreement with this statement to sign it, and to pass it on to others requesting them to do so.

Note: This Declaration has been launched by private citizens of several countries, with the aim of gathering worldwide support from as many peace-loving non-violent people as are willing to sign it. The Declaration is not sponsored by any organisation, and your signature commits you to nothing except endorsement of the above text. No copyright is claimed. There is no limit to the number of signatures we seek. We ask you to publicise the Declaration in every legitimate way you can and to urge others to sign. Tell all your family, friends, and colleagues. Post the link on your website. Help to create a publicity snowball for humanity’s demand that violence must stop.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Does God's existence matter?

Another resurrection from the Anticant Archive:

I am becoming increasingly convinced that it doesn’t. The truth or otherwise of the existence of a supernatural being or beings will never be conclusively decided in the absence of proof that convinces non-believers, and arguments around the topic merely cause bad feelings between people of good will who would be better employed bending their energies in co-operating to solve the practical problems bedevilling the world.

What really does matter is the consequences of religious belief, particularly as manifested in the actions of those who are self-professed disciples of the competing faiths of Jehovah, Jesus, or Allah. The insane hatreds and conflicts generated by these people rend the fragile fabric of peace into shreds, and endanger everyone all over the world, whether believers or not.

It only takes one person or group to make a quarrel; it takes both sides to make peace. It is futile to talk of peace when one side, or both, have no genuine wish for it. This is clearly the present position in the Israel-Palestine conflict and in the disputes between Islamic jihadists and crusaders for Christ. Both sides are stuck firmly in blaming mode, each protesting like Tweedledum and Tweedledee that their battles are the fault of the other. There are well-tried conflict resolution techniques aplenty, but these are not likely to get a look in until both parties to these and other world antagonisms are ready to put the past behind them and to consider the present and future realistically.

While religious myths retain their grip, this seems a remote possibility. And time is fast running out. Whether a Supreme Being - Jehovah, the God of Jesus, or Allah – actually exists or not, His all too numerous fanatical, frightful, hate-filled devotees most certainly do, alas!

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Does reason matter?

In view of the fascinating ongoing debate over at Stephen Law's blog with Ibrahim Lawson, headmaster of an Islamic school, on the nature of education and the conflict between faith and reason, I am reprinting an earlier post of mine which bears on the issues:

Reason, we believe – it’s a matter of faith, of course – is what distinguishes the human species from all others. Or, rather, articulate reason: it’s quite clear from observation that some animals possess and use intelligence, and work things out for themselves by a process if reasoning, but they cannot exchange thoughts with each other or with us about it or anything else in a meaningful way, as adult human beings can do.

For centuries there has been an ongoing battle between reason and faith. Religious faith, being grounded in the supernatural – itself a speculative concept – claims human reason as its handmaiden, and always seeks to trump it in any argument. One sometimes feels, in arguing with religious people, that they are convinced they know all the answers: they know them right or they know them wrong, but they KNOW them. Their faith is invincible, so why bother to argue? Does it really matter whether the Earth is flat or globular, or whether prayer actually works? Yes it does; because if people base their actions on false assumptions, awkward consequences are bound to follow - not only for the perpetrators, but also for millions of others who don’t share their beliefs.

Logical reasoning, which is the basis of scientific method, proceeds by testing the probability of various hypotheses against the available evidence to obtain the best ‘fit’. Reasonable people are prepared to abandon even a cherished hypothesis if this is overtaken by a more convincing one. The upholders of faith are not; they know what they know because they BELIEVE it, sometimes against all the evidence. Evidence is not important to them - only faith is. The faith of many believers is grounded in a Holy Book which they are convinced was written by, or at any rate dictated by, a God. The trouble is, there are many Holy Books to choose from, and how do you know which is the “right” one? Jews have the Torah; Christians have the Bible; Muslims have the Koran; Mormons have the Book of Mormon; Christian Scientists have Mrs Eddy’s outpourings, and Scientologists have the works of L Ron Hubbard. A rich smorgasbord of faith! But according to each, theirs is the only “true” Word of God and the others are all fakes. A good beginning for harmonious inter-faith relations!

The irony of it is that, while denigrating reason, the religious use ingenious displays of it to bolster their irrational creeds. Their persistent casuistry is quite remarkable. The Pope, for instance, loses no opportunity to denounce the insolent hubris of the Enlightenment, an intellectual project which forms the foundation-stone of Western democracy and technological progress.

And of course, religious people are the first to avail themselves of the wondrous creations of modern science such as the internet, the jet airliner, and life-saving medical drugs. With few exceptions, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, they do not refuse to benefit from the very thought-process which they are constantly denouncing as impious. But where would we be, I wonder, if religion had succeeded in stifling independent scientific thought? Still convinced that the earth is flat and the centre of the universe? [There was, and maybe still is, a Flat Earth Society presided over, I believe - ah, there we go again…- by a Mr Huttle-Glank.] Still travelling by foot, or on horse, camel or mule? [“That person who invented the wheel, impious they were, knew better than God, they did; good thing we put a stop to that by crucifying them. If God had meant us to travel on wheels, He would have built them into the human frame.”] Still relying on witch-doctors and herbal remedies to treat cancer, tuberculosis and malaria? Still burning harmless old women as witches?

Which reminds me, apropos of nothing, of the tale about the hell-fire preacher haranguing his subdued audience about the dismal prospects awaiting them in the nether regions. “And there will be weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth” he yelled. A little old lady in the front row quaveringly piped up: ”But I haven’t got any teeth.” “Make no mistake, Madam”, the preacher retorted, “TEETH WILL BE PROVIDED!”

Creationism is now the religionists’ favourite wheeze for attacking scientific method. It is a hypothesis based entirely upon faith, not evidence, but they want it to be taught in schools as a possible alternative to evolution – a hypothesis with a great deal of evidence to support it which has stood up for 150 years. I have no objection to Creationism being taught in schools, but not as “science”. It should be taught, if at all, as part of religious studies, or to illustrate the crucial differences between faith-based and scientific thinking.

The more religionists succeed in their attack on reason and its proper use, the more the world will descend into a chaotic, strife-ridden mess. It’s time to call a halt to the religious revolt against reason.

Crooked cobwebs of mental moonshine

Here is a newly anointed World Blogger's view [first posted about a year ago] on the twisted global politics of this wretched first decade of the 21st century:

My friend Jose says, “It's hard for me to understand how it is possible that man having been able to land on the moon isn't able to seek the terrorist heads out and do away with the problem?”

This mystifies me, too. With all the stupendous surveillance technology at our disposal, why are we – the West – unable to pinpoint and eliminate our ideological enemies?

It is now 5½ years since the Twin Towers outrage of 9/11. Yet Osama bin Laden and his leading henchmen have still not been apprehended, and their whereabouts are apparently unknown to US and British intelligence.

Frankly, I find this quite incomprehensible, and indeed unbelievable. I vividly remember the somewhat ludicrous spectacle of President Bush – when he had regained his speech after being struck dumb while reading ‘My Pet Goat’ – donning his metaphorical Stetson, cocking his best six-shooter wild west rhetoric, and histrionically proclaiming that “They can run, but they can’t hide. We’ll smoke ‘em out, track ‘em down, cut off their financial bases” – or words to that effect.

And has any of this happened? Not a smidgeon. Despite all the space satellite technology, the lavish international on-the-ground intelligence resources, the boasted “pinpoint weaponry” – which in action on the ground in Iraq seems as scatter-prone as an 18th century blunderbuss – bin Laden and Co. remain unearthed from their presumably quite comfortable, if not luxurious, hideaways “somewhere on the Pakistan/Afghan border” [why is this assumed? Aren’t they more likely to be hiding out in Riyadh, Cairo or Brick Lane?] and reputed to be richer than ever.

I find this extremely odd. And not only odd – positively sinister. For what have we – the US and UK citizenry – been landed with as a consequence? The absurdly mis-named ‘war on terror’, with all its paraphernalia of illegal, mismanaged and futile foreign wars; repulsive obscenities such as what Naomi Wolf accurately dubs “Bush’s gulag” at Guantanamo Bay; constantly drummed-up fears of domestic acts of terrorism – which on the few occasions when they do occur appear to be the work of a handful of deranged and inadequate misfits – and the wholesale binning of our centuries-old civil liberties so cherished and hard-fought for by previous generations [including mine who grew up through World War Two] but seemingly meaningless to the young people of the Bush/Blair years, obsessed as they are with cosy consumerism and unnecessarily elaborate fancy gadgets such as i-pods.

Those of us who are appalled by the unconscionable and incompetent behaviour of our rulers in defence of what they choose to term our “free” way of life can grumble away as much as we like on the internet – for now, anyway: I wonder whether we shall be allowed that old-fashioned luxury for very much longer, the way things are going? [See Naomi Wolf again.] But in political terms, our complaints fall on deaf ears. In Britain, mainstream politics has been in the doldrums since our Dear Leader turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to over a million people - maybe two million - marching against the illegal invasion of Iraq and his rentamob of spineless “New Labour” MPs failed to call him to account for his contempt of the people’s loudly articulated will. From then on a sense of electoral impotence has grown, first as a feeling of resigned helplessness, then sullen acquiescence, and now dangerously verging on futile despair. This feeling of impotence is a big component, in my view, of the pervasive depression that is nowadays so widespread.

When will the tide turn? A new politics of mass protest and active democracy is overdue in both Britain and the United States, if we in the West are to regain our political health and spiritual integrity as the standard bearers of true freedom and moral front-runners for humanity in this so far nightmarish century.

World eminence for Anticant!

Pela68 has kindly nominated me a 'Blogger of the World'. I'm flattered he thinks I deserve such an accolade, and hope that new visitors to the Arena who don't find many new posts here in the immediate future will browse around the past year's archive as there are [IMHO] some worthwhile nuggets to be gleaned there.

Monday, 14 January 2008

All values are relative...

[Another resurrected previous post]

I remember, when I was a first-year undergraduate, one of those intense after-dinner discussions where an earnest young lady fervently proclaimed: “Nothing is absolute! Everything is relative!” This - even if illogical - is probably true. But it didn’t occur to me then that it would ever be used by self-styled ‘intellectuals’ to maintain that “and therefore, nothing is better or worse than anything else”. This is obvious nonsense, if only because if something is relative it has to be relative to some standard of value. As Orwell famously said, "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others".

Ancient and mentally out-dated I may be, but I would never have foreseen that anyone educated in the Western liberal tradition of free enquiry and open debate could seriously aver that closed thought systems of a totalitarian cast, whether religious, philosophical, or political, are entitled to equal respect and toleration – one-sided, of course – with democratic pluralism.

But such is the case nowadays. Incredibly, many of the trendy pundits of the near-brain dead, ‘postmodern’, Left are tumbling over themselves to assure us that Islam is deserving in Britain and other European countries of equal status for its adherents with the values and customs of our open secular society and the rule of law which we have slowly and painfully evolved over centuries of hard-fought struggle against tyranny. Are these ‘multiculti’ idiots seriously proposing that a primitive system of law such as Shari’a, which by Western standards is in many respects cruel and even barbaric, should be given even informal houseroom here?

If trumping our values is to be OK for Islam, why not for Roman Catholicism, fascism, communism, and other mind-controlling doctrines? All of these, whether religious or political or both - because all religion is political in its intent and operation - seek to dominate and control not only their own willing followers but, ultimately, everybody else. Whatever route they follow, their destination and ambition are always identical: their domination and others’ [i.e. our] submission – ultimately obtained, if necessary, by force.

There are indeed many and deep flaws in the practice of Western democracy in these grievous opening years of the 21st century. Remedying these is surely task enough for anyone who cares about the health and future of our society, without embarking upon quixotic championship of Trojan horses in our midst.

By all means let us be relativist – but not mindlessly relativist in the fashion of W.S. Gilbert’s “idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this, and every country but his own”.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Phony Phobias

After a Christmas and New Year break I am resuming occasional postings here, although not with the frequency of last year. For a start, I shall continue resurrecting pieces I wrote in my earlier blogging days which still seem to me to have topical relevance. Here is one of them:

Never having been a fan of ‘political correctness’ – a euphemism for stifling free expression of honestly held, however misguided or obnoxious, opinions – I am becoming increasingly sceptical of the legitimacy of importing pseudo-medical terms into political and social debate.

It is almost unthinkingly common practice nowadays to accuse those whose views are considered abhorrent or prejudiced of being ‘phobic’ – in other words, mentally ill. A phobia is defined [Oxford Concise Dictionary] as a morbid fear or aversion: In other words, a mental or psychological glitch requiring treatment. To assert that your critics are phobic is a power-play intended to rule their views out of order, and if possible to deny them a hearing.

Some uses of the term ‘phobic’ are more plausible than others. The most successful ‘PC’ campaign to date in this area has been the claim that those who dislike homosexuals, or consider their relationships and practices sinful, are ‘homophobic’. The term was invented, or reinvented, by American psychiatrist Dr. George Weinberg, in his 1972 book Society and the Healthy Homosexual. In 2002 Dr Weinberg said: "Homophobia is just that: a phobia. A morbid and irrational dread which prompts irrational behaviour, flight, or the desire to destroy the stimulus for the phobia and anything reminiscent of it." Homophobic distaste, disgust, and aversion leads to the mistreatment of homosexuals by those who find them repulsive.

Until I was aged 40, all homosexual behaviour between men, even when fully consenting and in private, was a serious criminal offence. Many lives were wrecked, and suicides were common. There was vehement opposition from many church people and politicians to relaxing this cruel law. But I would not regard all even of the most vehement opponents of reform as being homophobic: some were, but others were simply sticking to their traditional principles over what they saw as a straightforward moral issue.

We have, thank goodness, moved a long way forward since then, and anti-gay prejudice, whether ‘homophobic’ or not, is no longer regarded as respectable. A good deal of the credit is due to those campaigners who have espoused and applied the doctrine of homophobia. But sometimes I think they have carried it too far. Is it really reasonable to brand religious people, whether Christian or Muslim, who sincerely believe their faith tells them that homosexuality is sinful, as homophobes? I am not convinced.

And I am totally unconvinced by the case that is nowadays vociferously being made, that there is a parallel phenomenon called ‘Islamophobia’ which leads to irrational dislike of Muslims, sometimes amounting to hatred and unfair discrimination against them.

There is really no plausible parallel between homosexuality, which is an innate psycho-emotional state of being, and adherence to religious beliefs which lay down certain tenets that the faithful are required to follow.

It may well be that, in the febrile atmosphere we have been living in since 9/11, there is mounting dislike and fear of Muslims, sometimes amounting to hatred. This should be of great concern to everyone, and all possible steps should be taken to deal with it. But branding all those who dislike Islam and its doctrines as ‘Islamophobic’ is totally misleading and muddies the waters. I believe there is only a tiny minority of people in the West who fear and dislike Muslims in a phobic way and who would wish to mistreat them because they find them unbearable as human beings. But hearty dislike, even amounting to revulsion, against some the teachings of Islam and practices such as sharia law punishments which strike many Europeans as primitive and barbaric, is not necessarily a ‘phobia’. It can pragmatically be based firmly on reasonable arguments, whether one agrees with them or not.

In a free society the right to express honestly held opinions and prejudices, even if these are deemed woundingly offensive by their targets, must be stoutly defended. Seeking to evade criticism by branding all your critics as 'phobic' and seeking legal curbs on 'hate speech' may seem a tempting tactical ploy, but it is not candid and is likely to prove counterproductive in the end. Muslims, gays, and other publicly controversial groups would be far better advised to show willingness to take on board the criticisms made of them, however wounding they feel these are, and to counter them on their lack of merit in reasoned debate instead of howling 'phobia!', 'phobia' at the moon.