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June 2 2012 7 02 /06 /June /2012 05:04

Unfortunately I left, suddenly and unfinished, the post headed "Meaningfulness and its surrogates." I have also delayed returning to it until now, because its fuller development depended on my willingness to open up issues that I was hoping to leave to later, when I, rather than my readers, might be more adequately prepared to confront them.


Well, ready or not, I clearly have to confront them, so here goes . . . I'll start with the implications of the penultimate paragraph in that post. I referred there to the difficulty, indeed, the virtual impossibility, of fully understanding how the vagaries of circumstance affect the kind of sense we make. I intended in that paragraph to draw our attention to the difficulty we have in understanding others, rather than to the similar but even thornier issue of understanding ourselves. Those tasks are of course closely related, but the point I want to develop here is that none of us is free from the tendency to believe that if we make good progress in relation to either one, we can with impunity neglect the other. I have certainly myself been guilty of that error. I'll document in due course the manner in which some significant others have been similarly misguided, but here I'm going to begin with myself.


I'll try to be brief. As indicated in the acknowledgements section in MSOU, I and my brother are of the first generation that was enabled to transcend our "working class" roots by the opportunities afforded by the 1944 Education Act in Britain, and thus by our subsequent admission to university. That we were able to use those opportunities is directly attributable to the enlightenment of our remarkable parents. Both their open-mindedness and its vulnerability undoubtedly influenced my brother's decision to enter politics, and mine to become a social worker. Both of us in our own ways were determined to try to do something about social inequality.


Readers of this blog who are familiar with my anniversary post will already know that my own moment of true enlightenment was to occur only belatedly in the late nineteen seventies, when I realized that my assumptions about society had caused me unknowingly to classify the unfortunates in our society as in some way "pathological" and in need of "therapy" rather than human beings like me, struggling as best they knew how to live meaningful lives. I am still undecided as to whether that stance itself can be attributed to the very class assumptions of which I was myself so critical, and which had profoundly affected the circumstances of my childhood. 


I get no satisfaction, I assure you, from the realization that such a dysfunctional attitude is widely characteristic of our elected representatives. For example, in Britain in 2011, in the aftermath of the August riots, we witnessed a prime minister only too eager to yield to the attraction of attributing those terrible events to irresponsible parenting, rather than to his government's withdrawal of funding from the very social services which had been devised to strengthen family life. It is particularly ironic, then, that In the aftermath of the riots and looting, not a few children surrendered to the police because their parents had persuaded them to do so.


You will also remember, I hope, that in my very first post I drew your attention to the work of Zygmunt Bauman. His commentary on both the riots and the government's response to them is most easily accessed by googling Zygmunt Bauman, and clicking on the connection to the account of his 2011/08 interview featured in Social Europe. I believe this is probably still the best account of the significance of those riots available to us.


It is a virtual cliché of sociological thinking that the relationship between any society and its individual members can be described as constituting a kind of virtual "contact space." Since I happen to belong to a profession whose very reason for being is to negotiate the manner in which both parties meeting in that space affect one another, I am particularly concerned when a thinker of international renown known for his insight on these matters can apparently be seen to characterize the function of social workers and their activity as


"getting rid of unemployed, handicapped, invalid and other indolent people who for one reason or another cannot eke out their own living, and depend on social help and care for their survival." (Zygmunt Bauman. "Am I My Brother's Keeper?" , European Journal of Social Work, 3 (1): 5-11.)


My source for this quotation is the excellent Bauman Beyond Postmodernity, edited by Michael Hviid Jacobsen, Sophia Marshman and Keith Tester, Aarlborg University Press, 2007.


In their "annotation" of the above-quoted article, those editors comment aptly that the statement by Bauman is "asserted rather than established", but it is unclear whether this is Bauman's interpretation of the mandate assigned to the profession by governments, or whether he sees it as a mandate that the profession itself endorses. The rest of the annotation clarifies how Bauman's major argument as to the logic of defining such "indolents" as dependent and flawed consumers necessarily thus also defines them as useless. 


The commentary on Bauman's article deserves very careful reading, since it illustrates how easily groups can be placed into categories, both self- and other-determined. It also ilustrates how Bauman's own thinking at times comes to resembling a mirror image of that which is worthy of condemnation, for example, in the statements made by Prime Minister Cameron.


Indeed, Bauman has himself been criticized for his apparent inability to break free from the polarizing character of Marxist doctrine––and this in spite of his own recognition of the dangers of any utopian prescription for an ideal society. In fact, Bauman is likely more aware than even his most severe critics of the ease with which any innovative thinker can be type-cast according to existing prejudices, even when, as in his case, he rigorously avoids prescriptive statements.


This is not only a problem for Bauman; it is a problem for all of us. Indeed, it is noteworthy that Bauman's conscious eschewing of prescriptive formulations is exasperating for all who are urgently seeking for something beyond descriptive accounts, however insightful. In the case of Bauman's formulations on consumerism, for example, the question remains: "What are we going to do about it?" (Be assured; I'll return to that issue in a later post.)


I apologize; I'm still dithering. I'll try to state the major point as bluntly as I can. . . Any formulation can quickly become formulaic––that is, it can itself become the source of subsequent closed-mindedness. Bauman continues to struggle valiantly to help all of us, as he does himself, (and, like me, and like you, not always successfully) to transcend the formulas and assumptions that distort the kind of sense we are able to make. Breaking free of them and the polarities they encourage is no easy task. Replacing them with something wiser is even harder . . .  I'd like to think that MSOU is not a bad place to start.




(The following is an appended postscript, written on September 11th, 2012. I had considered making it simply a response to one part of the above post, but perhaps it is better that it be included as part of the post itself, since a significant part of what I say above is invalidated by what I have now discovered.)


September 11th.


After a long delay, I have now been able to gain access to the original text of the article of Bauman's upon which I commented in the post. (It appears in the collection of papers published together in Zygmunt Bauman's The Individualized Society.) I now find I have egg on my face––I mis-interpreted Bauman's message and intent. Possibly the easiest way to correct my error is to quote in its entirety the text of the paragraph in Bauman's article of which I was critical . . .


The proper task of social work ought to be, we are told, getting rid of the unemployed, the handicapped, invalids and other indolent people who for one reason or another cannot eke out their own living and so depend on social help and care for their survival; and this is evidently not happening. As social work, we are told, ought to be judged like any other action by its cost-and-effects balance sheet –– it does not, in its present form,'make economic sense'. It could only justify its continued existence if it made dependent people independent and made lame people walk on their own feet. The tacit, rarely spelled-out assumption is that for not-independent people, such people as do not join in the game of selling and buying, there is no room in the society of players. 'Dependence' has become a dirty word: it refers to something which decent people should be ashamed of.     [The emphases are mine.]


Obviously I cannot attribute my error to Bauman, nor, indeed, to the editors whose commentary on the article was my earlier source. It is true that those editors did not ascribe the opinions described by Bauman to a specific source, but the full quotation makes it pretty obvious that Bauman did not present it as a view that social workers themselves would justify.


More on this still to come: there is a larger message to attend to in this . . .





































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June 1 2012 6 01 /06 /June /2012 21:07

In the last few days I have gradually become aware of a previously undiscerned theme that has characterized a number of my posts, and that I only got closer to discerning towards the end of my post on connectedness.


Specifically, I've noticed a pattern of concern in much of the debate on various internet sites that seems to indicate an almost frantic––and certainly agonized––search for effective connectedness. Another way of saying that, I suppose, is that I was detecting a widespread concern about the sensation of being alone. The evidence for this is probably most clearly seen not only in the degree to which the various contributions to the commentary on articles published in international journals, magazines, and even the daily press, are characterized by all of the interpersonal ploys I identified in MSOU (Chapter Seven: "Safeguarding Identity.") as protective of particular continuities of belief, but also by their apparently compulsive repetition.


Perhaps because of the assured anonymity of these publicly posted comments, my own impression is that they accurately reflect the dilemmas experienced by their authors. They also thus inevitably reveal the extent to which, at least for any particular population of commentators, their authors feel connected to or alienated from one another.


It is possible, nevertheless, I think, to distinguish two clearly distinctive groups of contributors. One group is reflectively responsive to debate (and therefore, of course, to meaningful connectedness). The other is not.


I hope you'll forgive me for my quoting from myself about this issue. It makes perhaps a larger statement than could be justified by the ruminations above, but I think it does epitomize the importance of the issue we are all in our own ways trying to face, or to avoid. (The quote is from page 139 in Making Sense of Us.


   Do we see . . . others as competing with us for very survival, or as fellows in the common endeavour of human existence?


In short, are we going to be able to transcend the characteristics that Carl Woese has discerned as "Darwinian" and fully engage in realizing the potential of a new biological era? My own very unsystematic trolling of contributions on the internet indicates that it's not likely to be easy!


You may not agree with my assessment (in the blurb on the back cover of MSOU) that our very survival as a species may depend on our resolution of the question posed above, but I'd be very grateful for other perspectives on the issue . . .


Please join in!






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May 30 2012 4 30 /05 /May /2012 19:10

Upon reflection, I think my last post (on the commodification of ideas) was uncomfortably cryptic. I seemed to go off on a tangent.  This, I'm afraid, is an unfortunate consequence of being so familiar with one's own thinking that one doesn't register where the puzzled reader might "gang agley" (i.e., shoot off in the wrong direction!). This is my attempt to clarify matters––at least a little.


It all comes down to the widespread human concern about meaninglessness. We find all kinds of compensations for this (or, at least try to, as the protagonist in Joan Didion's novel does). The other alternative seems to be only empty despair. It is in light of this that I wanted to show that the addiction to the delusion of everything having a price (the central issue identified in Aitkenhead's book review) is simply another ploy to substitute a surrogate meaning for the apparent absence of true purposefulness; it certainly keeps an awful lot of people very busy indeed! Readers of MSOU will know that I give very close attention to this in the book. As I hinted rather clumsily in my last post, any purpose at all, since it provides the opportunity for effective action, carries the satisfaction of meaningful purpose. The assigning of a monetary price to everything thus provides ready-made implications for successful action.


The other unfortunate consequence of being so familiar with one's own thinking is that one remains ignorant of the very specific personal factors in any life that strongly affect how anyone comes to make their own decisions.


I'm sorry; I've just run out of time. I'll return to this in the next post.



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May 29 2012 3 29 /05 /May /2012 19:46

Greetings once more!


This post has been triggered by my awareness that much more needs to be said about the issue raised in my last post ( "I'm just making this up as I go along."), and also by my having just read today the very interesting review of Michael Sandel's book "What Money Can't Buy" in the Guardian of May 27, 2012 by Decca Aitkenhead. It is obtainable by googling Michael Sandel and Decca Aitkenhead jointly. Or, go to




The review and the book, too, are interesting, because they unknowingly skirt around the very issue to which I am trying to draw attention in my own book, that is, the processes that we unknowingly take for granted in our own efforts to make sense. They are also pertinent to the central thrust of two other very interesting books. One, by David Graeber (Debt, The First 5000 Years) takes a slightly different slant than the other (Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition by Charles Eisenstein), but  both, of course, are available to people who are OK with paying for the right to possess them. Eisenstein makes a very strong case in his Introduction for introducing his book to the public under a "Creative Commons" licence, in order to at least register his attempt to by-pass the constraints of a society organized primarily as a money economy.


(How often, in argument, do we find that our interlocutor expostulates "I don't buy that !")


The crucial trigger for this current post, though, occurred as a result of my attempt to post a comment on the Guardian review of Sandel's book on their website. In order to do so, I had to register, and in so doing, agree to the terms for use they required me to adhere to. One of those terms was that I agree not to use my comment for any commercial purpose. Since I had intended to refer to my own book, and, indeed, to this blog, in order for readers to understand the deeper ramifications of meaning in my comments, this particular requirement I felt I could not meet, and so, did not post my comment.


This, I now understand, is a difficulty that we all at some point encounter in our everyday transactions––we already exist in an international economy which is primarily organized around monetary transactions, rather than the moral implications of every interpersonal interaction. My own book did not consider the specifics of any prescriptive plan for freeing us from constraints unknowingly accepted as givens; it simply outlined the characteristic assumptions any such prescriptive plan should incorporate if it were to be effective. Obviously, we all need to consider carefully not only the issues identified by Sandel and by Graeber, but also the emotional, intellectual and pragmatic dynamics that both produced them in the first place, and subsequently protect them from change.


Over to you!







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May 21 2012 2 21 /05 /May /2012 22:38

I'm just fresh from a protracted conversation over breakfast with my daughter Sarah, and the above quote came into my mind, I think, as a result of my recalling from our conversation a brief reference to the works of Joan Didion, and, particularly, to her novel (and subsequent movie) "Play It As It Lays." In both the novel and the movie, the major protagonist Maria sums up her ongoing resolution to continue living in the face of an apparent emptiness of purpose and aspiration, with the words "Why not?'


Somehow, this reminded me of the quotation that forms this post's title. My specific memory of it comes from recalling one of the Indiana Jones movies (or perhaps it was from the first Star Wars movie, in which the Han Solo character voices it in exasperated response to a question about why he is doing what he is doing). The line always seems to conjure up a delighted response from the movie audience, who are (rightly) to be suspected of being very familiar with the feeling that it expresses.


Why was I so reminded by the reverberations in my mind about the Joan Didion story, and the final line voiced by its protagonist? I think it was because, in my conversation with Sarah, I had been expounding upon the lack of any sense of positive direction in many human lives, and a general sense, not only of long-term meaninglessness, but also of the impossibility of transcending the angst of existence itself. Now, that really is a "downer"! The Han Solo quote, though, virtually celebrates the lack of both any coherent understanding, and indeed the possibility of it. It is the hero as ignoramus which is being promoted here, much as the phenomenon of "post modernism" celebrates it similarly. It is possibly fair to summarize the attitude as being one that accepts both the impossibility of coming to terms with the meaning of anything at all. and hence, too, the impossibility of actually being able to do anything significant about it. In sum, then, if you don't know what to do, at least do something!


Why am I so fired up about this? It's because both Han Solo's bloody-minded defiance, and Maria's self-effacing acceptance of the absence of meaningful choice are both echoes of Samuel Beckett's "I can't go on;  . . . I'll go on." in Waiting for Godot. How I wish Han Solo, and Maria (and indeed Lucas, too!) had been able to read the last chapter of my book! You, too, Reader! (I think, possibly, Didion doesn't exactly need to; and Beckett almost certainly wouldn't, as a careful examination of the stage directions of Waiting for Godot will testify . . .)


More to come.



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May 9 2012 4 09 /05 /May /2012 21:15

One of the problems confronting me in the writing of this blog is that I do not know what to assume about its potential readers. Not only must I assume that only a few will have read the book, and will therefore have some idea of its central thrust; I can also only speculate about the ability, concerns, and modes of understanding of any reader. Since I want the blog to stimulate conversation, I must, in fact, rely on the willingness of readers to participate, and, in doing so, improve my understanding of what might be useful to them . . . (or, otherwise put, to you who are presently reading this).


In previous posts I have of course simply guessed what might be of concern to you, and, in the absence of any reader response, I can probably do little better than persist in my guesswork. This, then, is my plea for you to become actively involved in the conversation. A monologue will quickly exhaust the interest of all of us!


That said, I do want to comment briefly and more specifically on what I have been trying to do in those earlier posts. I have taken for granted that all readers are doing the best they feel they can to both improve the quality of their understanding of their own lives, and how they might improve their engagement with others in our communal life. What may be relatively new to some readers, however, will have been my overall concern to define that communal life in both global, and personal terms. The downside to such an approach is that, in concentrating on either aspect of the large picture, it may seem to de-emphasize either one at the expense of the other. Those of you who have read the book will know that it not only attempts to deal with all of us as collectively determining the quality of our overall existence, but also emphasizes our personal involvement in our evolution as a species  These are larger issues than most of us are likely to feel comfortable in confronting––the demands of our everyday lives cry out their priority––but the position I argue for in the book is that our very survival as a species may depend on our communal willingness to confront them.


From some of the earlier posts, I hope you will have become slightly better acquainted with some of those who are contributing to a wider awareness of ourselves, but there is a still larger task––the one, in fact, that I feel I gave insufficient attention to in the book itself. Possibly it's best to state it first simply as a question . . .


"How can we contrive to hear one another better?"


To ask that question now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, undoubtedly stimulates very different responses from the sort we might have expected, say, fifty years ago. All the technologically accomplished nations on earth presently have significant populations who are as familiar with computers and the internet as those fifty years ago were savvy about telephones. The current almost universal myth amongst such groups is that we are now better connected with one another than we ever were previously, and in one respect this is undoubtedly true. I am presently sitting at my keyboard, and writing what I can reasonably expect to be available to anyone, anywhere on earth, who knows how to use the internet, can understand English, and has found my blog. Similarly, I can gain access to the questioning and mental ruminations of others whose activities are documented on the world wide web. A few judicious clicks of my mouse are all that separate me from the works of other minds, even the very greatest ones.


Hold on a minute, though! What determines whether I can actually find those minds, hear them, and be affected by what they say? What determines whether they (the actual living ones, of course!) can hear and be affected by what I say? In that respect, things are probably little different now from what they were fifty years ago, or a hundred, or a thousand. Most of us are still likely to hear largely what we listen for, and listen for only what we are willing to hear. The factors affecting those tendencies are examined at some length in my book, but I think that at least some further attention needs to be paid to those characteristics of the internet that both boost the amount of data that is now potentially available to those who are adept at searching it out, and at the same time inhibit our ability to discern in it what is meaningful. Data is not in itself, of course, information,  unless we can interpret it as having a particular meaning. What are the factors that on the internet affect our ability to do so?


Bear with me . . . I've been attempting an adequate answer for some time now, and I'm still not satisfied. Other perspectives on this will be very welcome! Part of the nature of our problem is expressed rather well in the plaintive article by Heidi Julavits published in The New Statesman of April 18th 2012. It is called "Ten years on, the Believer has had to change its ways." From my point of view, the outcome envisaged and planned for in the article is a particularly unsatisfactory one, but the evidence of limited open-mindedness to new information and perspectives is tellingly presented. The general tone is aptly summarized in The New Statesman's own portmanteau heading that precedes the article: it is "American Writing Special –– Cough Syrup for the Mind." You should be able to find it at



Are we indeed becoming better connected? It appears not!


More soon . . .

























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May 7 2012 2 07 /05 /May /2012 00:52

You'll have to forgive me. After the previous posting, I thought it would be a good idea to do something a little lighter in tone. The title is a bit of a tease, in fact, since I'm only ambivalently making fun of the term. A more serious (less playful) title could well be something like "Oh, dear! This one is about metaphors, too."


The issue I want to get at is perhaps best illustrated by the well known joke about the person on a bus, who, seeing another passenger with a large banana sticking out of his ear, asks "Excuse me, sir, but could you tell me why it is you have a banana in your ear?" The answer he receives is simply "I'm sorry: you'll have to speak louder. I've got a banana in my ear!"


The writer G.K.Chesterton composed a delightful short story on a somewhat similar theme, in which a rather academic-looking man begins to wear a cabbage on his head for a couple of weeks before it is revealed that, since he had promised to eat his hat if he was proven wrong about a particular statement, and he was, then he was in duty bound to actually use something edible as his hat if he was to honour his promise to eat it.


Trivia? Yes, of course, but Chesterton was notably one of the very few people who was aware of the importance of the principle (now, unfortunately almost a "buzz-word") originally coined in Russian by Viktor Shklovsky, subsequently picked up by Bertolt Brecht in German as "Verfremdungseffekt", and then further by some literary and theatre critics as "de-familiarization" or "alienation." Rather more playfully, the actor Simon Callow, tongue in cheek, called it the "mooreeffoc" effect (that is, akin to the experience of seeing the word "Coffeeroom" from inside the window upon which it had been written.)


What has all this to do with the meaning of the title of this post? Well, all the various meanings of the terms congeal around the implication that we sometimes only see things clearly when they appear in a form that is unfamiliar to us. And that, of course, brings us back to our previous posts on the utility and danger of our using metaphors to define our awareness of experiences that might otherwise be inadequately understood.


I am choosing to write about this right now because I have recently been re-reading a piece by Michael Hviid Jacobsen and Sophia Marshman (now, Wood) on the significance of metaphor in the works of Zygmunt Bauman. (You'll remember that in my very first post, I drew your attention to this very significant European sociologist.) Jacobsen and Marshman evaluate Bauman's use of metaphors very specifically in relation to how effective they are in helping us to see what was already familiar in a somewhat different manner. What emerges from their article for me, however, is an issue that transcends the particular context upon which they are commenting.


In my earlier posts on the use of metaphors I simply spoke (over-simply, I'm sure) of how their effects are achieved. What I did not mention, and is now at the forefront of my attention, is the question of the longevity of a metaphor's ability to enable us to break free from a more restricted mode of thought. Indeed, I am particularly interested in the speed at which an at-first-freeing metaphor itself becomes part of yet another different kind of familiarity, which itself then closes down the opportunities for more open thinking. I even toyed with the suggestion that all metaphors have what could be termed a "half-life", that is, a measure of how much time it took for their effect on opening up new thinking to diminish. Unfortunately, such a precise measurement would be impossible: metaphors are not radioactive elements whose rate of decay is invariant. Indeed, the power of metaphors is vulnerable to a number of factors: who reads, them, how many read them, and when. Sometimes a quickly weakening metaphor is resuscitated by its exposure to a new public. It's nevertheless also true that  a metaphor loses most of its initial powerful effect over time, and becomes part of "normal " language. Linguistic scholars have documented the existence of many ostensibly "dead" metaphors in our languages that continue to maintain the power to influence our thinking without our recognizing their implications. They have thus in fact become part of the way we unknowingly import belief assumptions into our "normal" modes of thought. (In MSOU I give the example of our frequent usage of the terms "superior" and "inferior" in this regard.)


You'll remember, too, I hope (from an earlier post) that powerful metaphors are as easily available for closing down thinking as they are for opening it up. There is also the factor of the inherent ambiguity of a metaphor's potential meaning. Bauman, for example, has commented on the use of a gardening metaphor that emphasizes the designation of particular groups of people to be classified as weeds endangering the integrity of a beautiful socially cultivated society. His examples refer primarily to the language that could be used to "rationalize" the obliteration of such undesirable growth. The language is familiar to us from any controlling group that justifies oppression and marginalization of undesirables. (Sorry! That last term reveals another kind of linguistic ploy, the "personalization" of an attribute. That is important enough for me to post on it separately later.) "Weeds", "cankers", "viruses", "germs", "vermin",and so on are still being used in this way by the authorities in oppressive regimes to justify punitive practtces. And yet, the same gardening allusion can be used to alert us to our need to care for and cherish one another. Arguably, Voltaire did himself use the metaphor in that way in the final sentence of the novella Candide. There is still indeed work to do in the garden. A significant part of that work would undoubtedly be to become more alert to the implications of the assumptions our metaphors invisibly contain . . .





















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April 27 2012 6 27 /04 /April /2012 22:04

I am drafting this post on the first anniversary of my very first public reading from Making Sense of Us: An Essay on Human Meaning, which took place at the Kitsilano branch of the Vancouver Public Library on April 27th, 2011.


Such an anniversary is very different from the kind that the word almost universally connotes: that is, a speciific birth date, for example. Making Sense of Us didn't have a specific birth date. Its text was in fact virtually complete more than three years earlier, but, since I needed a date that I felt I could logically celebrate, I opted for the date of the first public exposure of the book's content.


This post is in consequence a sentimental moment, but it is also a logical opportunity to take stock of the whole process whereby new ideas are enabled to make their way in the world, or are left to languish by the roadside.


It is undoubtedly too early to assess which of those possibilities is likely to be the outcome for the ideas in my book, but since the book itself focusses on the very manner in which ideas come to exist, and what determines whether and how they have an impact on our lives, there may be some value in analyzing the processes that have clearly been at work in a very specific case.


As I hope I made clear in MSOU, the various elements of which those processes consist combine in very different ways in different situations, but in all situations those elements are likely to be present. Attentive readers of the earlier posts on this site will need little reminder that, not only are there very many different ways to arrive at the beliefs according to which we live our lives, but probably also as many ways to deny validity to those with which we disagree. In an earlier post I also stated in no uncertain terms that I would not consciously take a position on the truth or falsity of particular opposing propositions, since I think it is more valuable to discern how it is that the common processes to which we are all subject themselves combine in such a way that what is engendered either alienates us from one another, or enhances our awareness of our interdependence. (It will also be clear, I hope, that I am not speaking of those situations where it is indeed possible to arrive at verifiable facts, but rather those in which opposing attitudes and opinion are the prime determinants of action.)


Now, it's clearly not advisable to sit eternally on the fence that divides one position from another, but it is possible, I think, to identify how such fences have come to be built, and in consequence bring about their dismantlement by those on both sides.


In that regard, I think it relevant to tell you about the incident in my own life that both triggered and affirmed my decision to write: the moment, in fact, when the fundamental conception of the need for a book occurred to me.


I consciously began the writing of what was eventually to become Making Sense of Us in the late nineteen seventies, at around the same time as the incident related to Susanne's concerns reported on in the post titled "Three marvellous moments: three remarkable people." The incident is best understood as a good example of what Susanne was concerned about.


I and my colleagues at the University of British Columbia were involved in a faculty-meeting discussion on plans for a revised curriculum in one of our programs. I believe some alternative recommendations had been put forward by a faculty work group. We were some twelve to fifteen people. (It was a long time ago, and my memory is fallible.) Very quickly the "discussion" degenerated into a "no holds barred" outright verbal conflict between faculty members whose own courses were likely to be modified in order to make room for other, previously less well regarded, and thus omitted elements. I feel sure that most readers of this blog will have had at some point similar experiences of such dyfunctional processes, particularly those that are characteristic of ostensibly egalitarian group decision-making.


What made this experience a particularly enlightening one for me, however, was that I suddenly realized that the dynamics of the process I was both a witness of, and a self-questioning participant in, had all the characteristics of the dysfunctional family functioning that I was familiar with from my work with "multiple problem families" in London's East End many years before.


It was at this very moment, I think, that I became aware that, if our very "best" minds were capable of functioning in a manner that they themselves might well describe as "pathological" if observed in the behaviour of others, then that manner could best be described as "normal" for anyone whose sense of personal identity was felt to be under attack. Such protective behaviour, then, while dysfunctional for joint decision-making, was self preservative of individual identity continuity; (or also, as in this particular case, protective of the identity of given sub-groups, who were united in their defence of a given segment of the curriculum.)


I don't want to oversimplify these matters, but I do remember my almost ecstatic realization that the processes I was witnessing are also characteristic of international decision-making, and possibly of every situation in which a given continuity of belief in a particular identity (as, for example, a national, ethnic, or religious one)  is felt to be under attack. I realized, in fact, that the behaviour in our faculty meeting was symptomatic of humankind in its entirety, and not simply of those identified in any given society as disruptive and pathological by those in positions of power to determine that society's policies in relation to its citizens. The implications of such a view are, as I argue extensively in the book itself, ultimately critical to the potential future of our species, or its extinction.


I am sorry that such a brief summary can do little more than alert you to the importance of the content of the book itself, but such, I'm afraid, are the limitations of this blog . . . I suppose what I have been doing here, is not only celebrating, and giving thanks for a moment of great existential clarity, but also affirming my conviction that further insights are a possibility for us all. I very much want Making Sense of Us to be a contribution to that outcome.


Comments are welcome, regardless of whether or not you have read the book . . . We all need to converse about this!







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April 24 2012 3 24 /04 /April /2012 04:59

In writing my previous post I was acutely aware that it is easy to oversimplfy the issues I was trying to clarify, and, in so doing, to miss their larger implications.


One way to overcome that difficulty is to draw your attention to the very significant article by Susan Blackmore that appears as "Dangerous Memes; or, What the Pandorans let loose." It is available at




The principal value of the article from my point of view is that it provides a wonderful example of a metaphor gone wild. The seeds of this already existed in Dawkins' seminal book, but they grow to fruition in this extraordinary piece. In fairness, Blackmore herself is uneasy with Dawkins' characterization of the very term she herself then goes on to use (and for much the same reasons as I was similarly critical in my earlier post). From the very first sentence, however, we are introduced to the likelihood of far-reaching extrapolations from a fundamental metaphor: "Cultural evolution is a dangerous child for any species to let loose on its world." What follows is an extensive speculation about what is primarily conceived as a mechanistic evolutionary process, which, in the article, leads to hypotheses about the probability, and indeed the character of other cultures elsewhere in the cosmos. It is hard not to be carried along by the force of the author's conviction, carried along, that is, until we are brought up short (Well, I certainly am!) by Blackmore's assertion (supporting Dennett) that "all the fantastic and beautiful creatures in the world are produced by lots and lots of tiny steps in a mindless and mechanical algorithm." Now, there is ample reason to be cautious about any assertion attributing evolution to a process that is "mindful," (Some kind of anthropomorphic God may be lurking in there somewhere), but it is hard to dismiss the possibility that the process itself reveals, if not a foreseen purpose, nevertheless a consistent directionality, in that more and more adaptive and complex forms have emerged over the aeons on our planet. The evolution of a self/and/other observing mind (since we ourselves exist) is a given outcome, if not, obviously, a final one. I did not (and do not anywhere else) take on the issue of whether there is or is not a motivated evolutionary force. Both the pros and cons of either side of the argument can be, have been, and still are being argued. My position is rather that, as I state in MSOU, there are more important matters to be addressed.


Since those more important matters substantially constitute the content of Making Sense of Us, it doesn't seem very useful simply to re-iterate them here. . . If I could have summarized MSOU adequately in a few short paragraphs, I wouldn't have needed to write it!


Perhaps this is nevertheless a good time to recall specifically why I decided to do so . . .


Watch this space!





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April 9 2012 2 09 /04 /April /2012 05:00

Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but I hope it is still the case that not all readers of this blog will yet have succumbed to the temptation of using the word "meme" to characterize every possible kind of symbolically transmitted information between human beings. For you happy few who are as yet unfamliar wth the term, I do, unfortunately, need to give a short history of its growing use in order to explain why I think it is likely to be dangerous to our ability to think clearly about our human situation. Its very sound, I'm afraid, contains an association that promotes its use as another of those potentially attractive but dangerous metaphors that give the illusion of a superior understanding, and yet contain the seeds of even greater closed-mindedness.


The original coining of the term is significant, for it was a spin-off of Richard Dawkins' thinking about genes. Dawkins not only coined the word in The Selfish Gene, but shared in detail there how he arrived at the decision to choose a word that was significantly similar to the one that referred to the transmission of genetic information from one generation to the next. The major theme in The Selfish Gene was of course the assertion of the immutability of that "selfish" motive.


Why did Dawkins feel the need for this new term? Well, he was quite aware that the transmission of symbolically formulated information between human beings was a powerful means of speeding up the spread of adaptive and creative ability in our case, and thus now needed to be taken into account when considering the future evolution of our species. Symbolic communication of experience and ideas was already enabling our species to evolve far more quickly than the relatively sluggish natural selection processes identified by Wallace and Darwin. Even more importantly, since the "selfish gene" idea emphasized the "arms race" characteristic that Dawkins saw as the essential feature of Darwinian evolutionary processes, Dawkins wanted a term that would promote greater awareness of the presence of a countervailing force in evolution, namely, the possibility of cooperation.


Unfortunately, however––as Dawkins has shown himself aware, and as I argue in my own book––the simple availability of information transmitted symbolically is not an indicator of its validity, nor of its value. Ideas themselves can be dangerous. They may not enhance cooperation. They can endanger it.


I've referred elsewhere to Mary Midgley's telling criticism of Dawkins' "selfish gene" metaphor, and Mary's book The Solitary Self is, I think, is a powerfully effective antidote to its message. There is, however, a larger can of worms to be dealt with when coming to grips with the implications of the new term.


Those implications become more apparent in the works of Susan Blackmore, and, indeed, Daniel Dennett, who both use the term as if what it represents is an entity of some kind that has all the attributes of an actor. The lazy acceptance of such an attribution can be traced back to Dawkins' choice of the word "replicator" to characterized genes themselves. The very form of that word is derived from the Latin forms that specifically designate actors. The result is that we now have a surge of literature in which the word "meme," by its association with the word "gene," is used to denote ideas themselves as agents––that is, "doers.". So, we apparently now have "selfish" memes, too ! (Indeed, Dawkins does so designate them in the 1989 edition of his book.)


Since my previous post was a bit of a rant about our tendency to see ourselves as helpless in the face of the circumstances that we ourselves have produced, I trust you will understand why it is that I want to draw our attention to this additional seductive usage.


There's a quite substantial irony here, too. Dawkins is indeed acutely aware of the need for us to emphasize the possibilities for cooperation, adaptation and creativity that are enabled by the horizontal transmission of information within generations, and, indeed, beyond them. The biologist Carl Woese has even suggested that the transmission of symbolized information requires our defining a new biological era that can be termed "post Darwinian," because it carries the promise of widespread cooperative rather than competitive interaction. Ever since he and Lynn Margulis and others have alerted us to the universality of cooperative processes in evolution, there has been awakened the possibility of a fundamental change in our attitudes towards one another. It is timely, although perhaps long overdue. Hopefully, too. it is not too late! It's up to us to make sure that it isn't . . . However, much depends on whether we accept or reject the assumptions in Dawkins' view that "We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth, and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination." At least in 1989, Dawkins seemed unaware that his dominant metaphor remained an adversarial one.  . .  But again, as I frequentlly point out in MSOU, it's more complicated than that!


Comments are welcomed. This needs discussion!!







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