Do I know what I know?

Paul Simon sang with General M.D. Shirinda & the Gaza Sisters on the LP Graceland “I know what I know, I’ll sing what I said … who am I to blow against the wind?” Ed Sheeran sang, “Love can change the world in a moment, but what do I know?” Ed preferred to stay with what he knew; music is his world, and he knew of the effect of his songs. This is really the position we all have; we know what we have experienced and the affect it had on us, and we can see to a degree how it affects others, but what do we know?

You really have to try hard to blow against the wind, as Paul Simon said, and most of us have enough humility to question our own wisdom – or do we? There was a time when encyclopaedic knowledge was valued, and we still see it in quiz shows, which are popular because people test their own knowledge when the questions are asked. Instead of volumes of books, most people now use the internet, where you only have to type in one question to get multiple answers. It provides this encyclopaedic knowledge that gives us a foundation for our lives. We go through life with preconceptions that give us stability and generally we stick to peer groups that we agree with or have common experiences with.

In the distant past, this was a matter of life or death, and the Ancients often compounded their experience and knowledge into myths and tales that provided an orientation for their lives. Owen Barfield, an English philosopher, linguist, lawyer and writer, developed the idea of original participation, which stated that people long ago lived in a world that was an enchanted place, and they were caught up in a cosmic drama, in which for example, spirit, breath, and wind are all one thing, without any distinction. Some see this as superstition, but, as Barfield himself explained, it is “a perspective which reveals more and more of perception and less and less of thought.”[i]

We still see this in people who did not have or seek access to encyclopaedic knowledge and are content with their life experience to be “streetwise”, i.e., able to deal with the potential difficulties or dangers of life, which is also of great importance in an urban environment. This can also be the source of many conspiracy theories, which are easily dispelled after reference to a reliable source but thrive where such sources are themselves controversial. This suggests that experience rather than thought prevails, although experience is local and limited to our surroundings. But is not our experience often our first source of knowledge? It certainly is, when people explode in reaction to opinions they reject and emotion takes over. It is the same when we perceive danger and react automatically. How often, when we have calmed down, have we found that we have misunderstood something?

Some people react in the same way when their encyclopaedic knowledge is questioned, and they are confronted with new or different ideas to what they feel secure with. This was certainly the case when in various civilisations in the axial age[ii] experienced individuals who had begun to step back and employ thought to differentiate perception from reality, which is often at odds. It was about putting hindsight before reaction and weighing the evidence. This was also the case when Western theologians began to question the historicity of the biblical stories and Darwin was seen as the one who claimed that humans were not descended from Adam and Eve but from apes (which of course he did not). Until then, the Bible provided the basic understanding of our origins and provided a narrative that ennobled humanity and formed the basis of universal morality.

It was strange to see how the Greek gods, perhaps because of the comedic or satirical portrayal of the gods in some plays, were seen as mythical, much like the Hindu deities, while Yahweh and the Elohim were treated differently. Of course, by the Enlightenment, the myths had lost their meaning and significance and had degenerated into fiction, but the reverence for the biblical God remained, even if it slowly diminished in public opinion. At a time when religiosity has declined twice as much in the last 15 years as it did in the 1960s and 1970s, this may be hard to understand, but in the 1950s, the post-war period, there was a resurgence of religion in America. Some even saw this as a Third Great Awakening, and attempts were made to transfer this development to post-war Europe, where it had only moderate success for a time.

In Europe, the Enlightenment had been far more effective after the Thirty Years’ War from 1618 to 1648, one of the most destructive wars in European history, in which disagreements over religion and imperial authority played a major role. European historians traditionally date the beginning of the Enlightenment with the death of Louis XIV of France in 1715 and its end with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. The overlapping intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries had global influences and impacts, especially in Europe. We also associate “Modernity,” the ensemble of particular socio-cultural norms, attitudes and practices that arose in the wake of the Renaissance—in the “Age of Reason” of 17th-century thought – with the Enlightenment.

The progress that was made following the Enlightenment also gave the academic class a confidence of being able to solve any riddle that nature provided and progressively equip humanity with all the means to understand reality. Humanism began to emphasize the individual and social potential and agency of human beings, and gradually religion lost its standing. Some schools of thought assume that modernity ended in the late 20th century – in the 1980s or early 1990s – and was replaced by postmodernity. There are people who generally view modernity as obsolete or an outright failure, a flaw in humanity’s evolution leading to disasters like Auschwitz and Hiroshima, and see postmodernity as a positive development, whose “anti-ideological ideas” have been associated with the feminist movement, the movement for racial equality, the movement for gay rights, most forms of late 20th century anarchism and even the peace movement, as well as various hybrids of these movements in the current anti-globalisation movement.

We can see that over a relatively short period of time in history, a common narrative that gave society its foundation has given way to a multiplicity of ideas and concepts that have come into conflict at least as much as earlier religious disagreements, and which some have blamed for the upheavals of the 20th century. The conflicts have not abated since the wars, and despite the collapse of communism in 1989, we are still in conflict with Russia and at odds with China, giving people a sense of insecurity. Globalisation has not been without its victims, and a new phase has begun that challenges the status quo and threatens global war once again.

It is then no surprise that the tsunami of information, the conflicting ideas, the spread of unchecked opinions, the ease of medial distraction, and many other factors, could cause people to ask, “What do I know?” For many people I have spoken to, ideas are irritating, and serve only for anecdotal quotation. Some ideas around issues that are considered as “put to bed” are just ignored, or new conspiracy theories grow around them. Democracy, which needs participation and confrontation, examination and discussion, seems to overwhelm many people, who concentrate on issues that immediately affect them, but not necessarily the whole of society. The manifestos of political parties are often many pages long and therefore ignored, and perception is the judge once again. What disturbs me is the fact that we still think that we know so much, despite this lack of participation.

Perhaps we should return to the Delphic maxims: Nothing to excess, know thyself, and certainty brings ruin. It could help us realise that we have the potential for success and downfall in ourselves. It is only a question of what we choose. I feel much of whatever wisdom we have acquired throughout history goes back to these maxims. Additionally, applying the Socratic method, to learn through the use of critical thinking, reasoning, and logic, which involves finding holes in our own theories and then patching them up, could help us, but it involves participation and humility. But what do I know?


[i] History, Guilt and Habit, reprinted by Sophia Perennis, 2006

[ii] A term coined by German philosopher Karl Jaspers. It refers to broad changes in religious and philosophical thought that occurred in a variety of locations from about the 8th to the 3rd century BC.

Alan Watts and wider horizons

Recently I have started to re-read several books I own, some with photos in them, which give an extra indication of how long I have owned them. One book, Alan Watt’s ” The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are”, had a photo of members of my staff who I left in 2012 to take up a new job, but the book was marked 2005. The original English version was from 1966, but this book was in German because I felt at the time that I had to say the things he said in the German environment where I live. It was quite an important book for me at that time and on re-reading it, it still is.

Of course, Alan Watts was no angel, and I imagine he was quite difficult to live with. In his own estimation, he was imaginative, opinionated, and talkative, and he preferred to be called a “philosophical entertainer” rather than be given an academic title, and he hated the idea that he might be regarded as some kind of guru. Nevertheless, he influenced the lives of many people with more than 25 books and articles and was even an Episcopal priest for five years, although he apparently encouraged young people to become independent of the church. He said he wanted to attend to his vocation more like a doctor, helping his ‘patients’ not need him rather than gathering them each Sunday.

He popularised Japanese, Chinese, and Indian traditions of Buddhist, Taoist and Hindu philosophy for a Western audience and interpreted Christianity in a comparative way, for example, explaining the Gospel in the light of Vedantic philosophy in the book mentioned above. I found the reading liberating, and so did many others I met in philosophy forums since then. But the Western world has somehow become even more divided into extremes or factions, with people either completely against or completely for something. My impression is that those who are in favour of something are generally in the minority because it is so easy to criticise and dismantle, but so hard to build. That may be why some have become militant in their outlook. This is, of course, not only true of religion, but also of politics, which we have witnessed in America recently, where the two often merge.

Another influence is the scepticism of postmodernism, which has called into question many of the cherished conservative institutions. This is not least because of the scandals that have exposed the number of victims of sexual abuse, or because many of the revered leaders of movements have failed to live up to their teachings. The long history of abuse of power has been widespread and generally covered up by conservative organisations, while the liberals’ norms of behaviour allowed uninhibited play for a time, but it also had its victims. In this Watts was very openly liberal, and criticised – even ridiculed – the hypocrisy he saw in all organised religion or in public life, including what he perceived to be an obsession of the Catholic Church with sex.

It is true that during the time I worked in youth work, many of the young people had problems dealing with sexuality. On the one hand, conservative institutions expected sexual restraint, on the other hand, television and film showed sex comedies, and porn shops opened in the cities. Alan Watts suggested finding your own boundaries and sticking to them, but it was also a time of male dominance that made it difficult for young women to draw a line, especially if they were attracted to someone. By all accounts, from what I read on social media, the same problems are still present today, although they are made very complicated by gender ideology, and something called gender dysphoria has become a buzzword for normal adolescent confusion.

I tend to think that these problems arise from a general confusion of not knowing who is pulling at me. Who is having an influence on what I think? We often assume that ideas are our own, although studies show that people generally do what they see other people doing[i]. There must be some who develop ideas, but proverbially[ii], there is nothing new under the sun. An obvious suspect is the media, where advertisements are constantly flashing, and peer groups that are in many ways diverse but all display consistent dictatorial authority. This suggests that people cannot be as individual as we would like to believe we are, unless we close off the world and become hermits, although this often produces some very spooky people. The best solution seems to be to find a group in which I am positively influenced, but in which I retain a certain control over the intensity of influence.

It seems that many sectors of western society had claimed this positive influence, but in the end people were disappointed. Germany used to be called the land of clubs and associations, whether it was shooting clubs, sports clubs, football clubs or various support associations working for different causes, many of them have felt the decline in membership, especially the churches. People have withdrawn their participation and instead we have an increase in conspiracy theories being spread on the internet because it costs nothing to take part, because it is anonymous, and because I can still speak my mind – perhaps sometimes with more militant language than I would in a face-to-face conversation. Sometimes, when people get too angry about what they hear, they might take part in a protest with equally anonymous people next to them, but this activity is anything but constructive.

It is here that I return to Alan Watts and his provocative title, “The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are.” The subject of the book is understanding life and experiencing the fullness of being. If you are unable to have that experience, and fail to understand what life is about, says Watts, you will end up where we are now. Please note, he said this in 1966, in what he then called a difficult time:

We do not need a new religion or a new bible. We need a new experience—a new feeling of what it is to be “I.” The lowdown (which is, of course, the secret and profound view) on life is that our normal sensation of self is a hoax, or, at best, a temporary role that we are playing, or have been conned into playing—with our own tacit consent, just as every hypnotized person is basically willing to be hypnotized. The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego. Watts, Alan. The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (S.12). Profile.

The reason we have landed here, he says, is because of the way we have interpreted religion. People who were by far less distracted than we are, seem to have sorted this part out some time ago. With archaeology discovering examples of cultures that are getting older and older, now developing somewhere around the end of the ice age, it seems to have been a very long time ago. Officially, of course, earliest religions are said to be from a later date, but some Hindu traditions suggest that they had adopted the teaching from earlier times. In whatever way we look at the history of the traditions we still find today, we know that since then we have gone through many phases of civilisation, through tribal orders, feudal and exploitative empires, authoritarian nation states, oppressive capitalist republics to democracies that promote some aspect of social responsibility, though not necessarily in that order or to that extent. There seems to be a learn curve, especially after the world wars of the twentieth century and the suffering caused by ideologies, that is approaching an understanding that we are interactive, interdependent, and if we do not find a common understanding, we will continue to struggle – perhaps to extinction.

This falls in line with the discovery of Watts, that the Vedanta teachings have stated that humanity, indeed all life on the planet, has one source, and is in fact that source. All animosity we show towards others is in fact animosity towards our larger, collective self. It is an illusion to believe that we are separate, independent, and isolated egos, but instead, our ego is just a shell that we have to leave, if we want to live fully. This, albeit sometimes in very complicated ways, is what religions have been saying to us all along. His book is short, but in it he presents a multitude of illustrations of this fact, which are enlightening because they open up an understanding for what religions are pointing to. Religions point, because they can’t do anything else:

“God is the Self of the world, but you can’t see God for the same reason that, without a mirror, you can’t see your own eyes, and you certainly can’t bite your own teeth or look inside your head. Your self is that cleverly hidden because it is God hiding.” Watts, Alan. The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (S.16). Profile.

The use of the word “hiding” is also an illustration of a point, more a metaphor for the fact that you are in God and God is in you, as Jesuis Laplume entitled his book on the same subject. Laplume was trained as a scientist in an Engineering faculty, graduating in 1960 with a B.A.Sc. in Engineering Physics (Aeronautical Option) and came to the same conclusion. There is no separateness, but it is the experience of this that is primary.

If Alan Watts sounds too religious, there are other people drawing from Vedantic resources, such as Bernado Kastrup, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy (ontology, philosophy of mind) and another Ph.D. in computer engineering (reconfigurable computing, artificial intelligence). As a scientist, Bernardo has worked for the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the Philips Research Laboratories. He started out on a metaphysical journey when he discovered that artificial intelligence could not produce consciousness. His rejection of materialism and support of metaphysical idealism was described in the preface of is book More Than Allegory by Jeffrey J. Kripal:

He is thinking comparatively through the idealisms and nondualisms of Advaita Vedanta, Mind-Only Buddhism, mystical forms of Christianity, and a select number of creation myths, which he reads not as descriptions of some past creation event but as “icons of the now,” that is, as scripts of consciousness itself. Kastrup, Bernardo. More Than Allegory: On Religious Myth, Truth And Belief (S.4-5). John Hunt Publishing. Kindle-Version.

When science runs into an immovable object, like consciousness, we find an expansion of horizons, like Erwin Schrödinger who, in his 1925 book “Meine Weltansicht,” explained his own belief in the idea that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively[iii]. Or Vitaly Vanchurin, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, who published his paper “The World as a Neural Network” in 2020[iv], in which he discussed a possibility that the entire universe on its most fundamental level is a neural network. Another example is the term ‘Scientific Mysticism’ that was coined by Michael Whiteman, a British-born South African mathematician, who was also familiar with Vedic, Sanskrit, Pali, Greek and Biblical Hebrew.

At a conference on the science of consciousness, a statement was put out that said: “The Science of Consciousness (TSC) is an interdisciplinary conference emphasizing broad and rigorous approaches to all aspects of the study and understanding of conscious awareness. Topical areas include neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, biology, quantum physics, meditation and altered states, machine consciousness, culture and experiential phenomenology.[v] They have clearly identified this as an area of study that requires doing comparative studies, like Watts was doing in those early days.

So, the study of neural networks has also raised questions about our interpretation of reality, and we have come to realise that as common as our perceptions may be, our brain interprets the stimuli provided by our senses, and provides a better functioning way to engage with the world. No wonder Kastrup compares it to an operating system like Windows interpreting machine code, or to the controls and instruments on an aeroplane that make it possible to fly in the dark. The reality “out there” looks very different according to the statements from people in whom the brain’s interpretive work has been temporarily interrupted, either by drugs or illness.

To me, these are all indicators that Watts was right. The ancient thinkers of long ago had indeed fathomed the murky waters of perception and arrived at an insight that enabled them to better understand what reality was all about. They still used metaphors, of course, but what else can we do? Since then, different religions have tried to develop their own versions using their different cultural backgrounds – with dubious success. This may have at least helped to increase the learning curve towards a better understanding of the fact that we are indeed one and our survival depends on finding a way to realise that. Admittedly, there were several factors that contributed to this, including the terrible suffering and loss that the 20th century brought us after following ideologies. But this also led to a disenchantment with religion, which Watts said had been misunderstood. If you look at the situation in the world today, you get the impression that we still misunderstand it, and despite the lessons of the 20th century, we are seeing wars being fought on the basis of imperial claims of ownership of lands.


[i] https://theconversation.com/conform-to-the-social-norm-why-people-follow-what-other-people-do-107446

[ii] Ecclesiastes 1: 9

[iii] https://www.anthonypeake.com/erwin-schrodinger-thoughts-singular-consciousness/

[iv] https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/a35744336/universe-might-be-one-giant-neural-network/

[v] https://consciousness.arizona.edu/science-consciousness-conference#:~:text=The%20Science%20of%20Consciousness%20%28TSC%29%20is%20an%20interdisciplinary,altered%20states%2C%20machine%20consciousness%2C%20culture%20and%20experiential%20phenomenology.

Mobilisation

It is disturbing to see countries preparing for war, weapons being supplied to conflict zones and militant language becoming louder in the commentaries. But would the mobilisation in our own country be different from Russia, where many young men are trying to leave the country for wherever they can find refuge? How would I, as a 67-year-old, be involved? What would happen to my son, who is 40 years old and applied for civilian service as a conscientious objector when there was still compulsory military service? There are many questions that people don’t want to ask themselves at the moment because we fervently hope that there will be a peaceful solution.

Nevertheless, there will be people in charge who will deal with this issue if the governments in the West do their job. Not only are we dealing with an energy crisis and a pandemic that is not yet over, but there are also many people in Europe who are calling for abandoning support for Ukraine and negotiating with Putin. The more the right-wing parties gain support, the more votes will be directed against the liberal parties and governments. In Germany at least, there is a strange alliance in resistance, between left-wing and right-wing parties defending Russia and blaming the West for the war. The Ukrainian flags also became less on the balconies and cars. One can imagine how this would affect a potential mobilisation.

This may seem to be unduly alarmist, and I find myself continually seeking to calm myself down, but it seems to me that we are indeed in danger of stumbling into a terrible predicament by virtue of the fact that we want things to remain as they are. Western societies have demographically become old societies, and older people like stability, but it can’t be overseen that the world we have made has serious structural faults. Modernism arose during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and is characterized by industrialization, the nearly global adoption of capitalism, rapid social change, and advances in science and the social sciences, which have influenced us greatly. In many ways it was characterised by an optimism that was sure of itself, that sought ultimate truths, fighting world wars and a cold war in the interest of furthering its goals.

If you look at young people, you find that the increase in the number of students has fuelled an opposition to this position. Postmodernism has taken over, an intellectual stance or mode of discourse characterised by a sceptical attitude towards the “grand narratives” of modernity, a rejection of notions of absolute certainty or the stability of meaning, and an emphasis on the role of ideology in maintaining socio-political systems of power. They are, of course, right in a way in their critique, and the many crises of the modern world bear witness to this. The pursuit of growth and profit maximisation at the expense of human health and resource sustainability, the spread of the ideology of organising humanity like a vast machine, with humans merely part of the clockwork, are indications that at some point we will have to put the brakes on – hopefully before it is too late.

The problem, however, is that there is hardly anyone among these young people who have an idea of how things could be different. They lack the practical solution that can cope with the complexity of an overpopulated world. Many people are not aware of how fragile our supply chains have become, although this is obvious from the crises we have experienced and the shortages we have suffered. This, of course, affects any proposed solutions. We also have a divide between people who can imagine major change and those who cannot imagine the practical consequences. A glance at the Green Manifesto shows that the gradation of change necessary to ensure sustainability and a degree of independence after aggressive globalisation has forced the dependence of smaller nations on the global players will cause a great deal of upheaval. No less, I would add, than is already possibly in sight.

When we see that, due to the lack of people willing to do the job, fruit and vegetables were left on European fields to rot, it becomes clear that we have an increasing problem. It can be described as the divide between ‘Virtuals’ and ‘Physicals’, as mentioned by N.S. Lyons in the Wentworth Report[i], and it is only a question of time before cheap labour that is imported for that purpose is no longer available. I know several people who have ranted against green policies as a dangerous ideology, whereas in the long run, change will be a question of survival. It must be clear that the idea that everything can remain as it has been for the last twenty years is an illusion. Some have said that the pandemic in 2019 marked the end of this period and that change of some kind is imminent. The Ukraine conflict has only accelerated this process. John F. Kennedy is quoted as saying, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

In May 2022, George Monbiot published a book with the title “Regenesis”[ii] in which his vision of a new future for food and for humanity is drawn out. To begin with in the book, he introduces the soil, which he says as a pun we have just been “treating like dirt.” He shows the astonishing advances made in soil ecology and reveals how our changing understanding of that microscopic world could allow us to grow more food with less farming. He gives examples of people who explain their methods: the fruit and vegetable grower revolutionising our understanding of fertility, as well as breeders of perennial grains, showing how they are liberating the land from ploughs and poisons. He also goes to the scientists pioneering new ways to grow protein and fat. It is quite amazing to read how the tiniest life forms could help us make peace with the planet, and restore its living systems, replacing the threat of extinction with an age of re-genesis.

But Monbiot also warns of the planetary emergency we are facing if things don’t change. In an open letter on his website[iii], he wrote:

I don’t need to remind you that we are facing a planetary emergency. Earth systems are in grave danger of collapse. Ecosystems are being wiped from the surface of the Earth at terrifying speed. Extreme weather events triggered by climate breakdown are making large areas of the planet ever less habitable.

Among the first people to be driven off the land by environmental collapse are the small farmers you and I support. So even if you have forgotten the wider environmental principles on which we were once united, and are now exclusively concerned with agroecology and food sovereignty, you should engage with the issue of Earth systems collapse as urgently and seriously as I do.

In the face of the situation, it seems to me that mobilisation is unavoidable, only it had better be a mobilisation of people to bring about change to halt the collapse of the world’s natural ability to feed and sustain the population, or to enable us to respond flexibly to climatic change. At the moment, my fear is that this kind of mobilisation is as unpopular as that for war. This is probably because the potential outcome of such mobilisation seems as obscure as that to armed conflict. If we don’t have leaders with a vision that is transported in a way that seems practicable and promising, the danger is that the changes will be made when picking up the pieces after things have gone wrong.

Among other things, we need to motivate people to take up an active role and want change so that their lives become stable again and the structures of dependency are largely breached. I am afraid, however, that the current situation rather reflects what Iain McGilchrist said, that we need to look up from our narrow focus on things and dare a broad perception of the overall situation. We need to get everything in perspective and realise how much we depend on and influence each other, even if we are not aware of it. It is quite a challenge, but it is coming at us because my generation has not been able to see where they were taking the world with their assertiveness. Are we up to it?


[i] https://wentworthreport.com/2022/02/18/reality-honks-back-physicals-versus-virtuals/  the “thinking classes” who don’t interact much with the physical world directly and are handlers of knowledge, compared to the people who work primarily in the real, physical world.

[ii] https://www.amazon.de/Regenesis-Feeding-without-Devouring-Planet/dp/024144764X/ref=sr_1_2?__mk_de_DE=%C3%85M%C3%85%C5%BD%C3%95%C3%91&crid=29WMBZMT9QB72&keywords=Regenesis&qid=1664198264&sprefix=regenesis%2Caps%2C266&sr=8-2

[iii] https://www.monbiot.com/2022/08/22/the-coming-hunger/

Ian McGilchrist in conversation with Rebel Wisdom’s David Fuller: “We need to act!”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=686heq5QFPk

As a follower of Ian McGilchrist’s expansive work on the way we think, incorporating neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, and culture in a way that David Fuller rightly says is “really interesting”, I found this conversation to be very important and, although McGilchrist didn’t want to be alarmist, he was sounding an alarm. Like the book by Andrew Doyle, The New Puritans, McGilchrist put his finger of the destructivity of the puritan movement of the 16th and 17th century, and the similarities found in other religions, including Islam – but also in the way the discussions are being lead in social media today. Without mentioning them by name, the association with radical woke attitudes was made, which he found deplorable in their outcome.

McGilchrist’s concern, that “our society is moving towards highly undesirable ends” has caused him to speak out. Cynical people may accuse him of promoting his rather voluminous books, but because I feel that these books have important things to say, I find it important to hear him talk in reaction to current developments and a worrying tendency of people to lose the connection with culture and history, in fact criticising or reinterpreting all that went before, as though the current opinions are all that matter. He points to the importance of understanding time as flowing from the past through the present into the future, and that we take from the past and give to the future inexorably, which makes what we do, or do not do, important. The metaphor of the past being the stem of an organism that feeds it, was quite exemplary.

In the conversation I noticed how much I had read from McGilchrist, with echoes in my writing, such as in non-conformity and my rant-against-power. But I also heard echoes of the very much missed Sir Ken Robinson on education, as well as JRR Tolkien’s criticism of the machine, which I wrote about in tolkien-and-the-machine. I feel that there are many voices expressing concern about the situation we are in, but this conversation has brought a lot of things together. I have commented on the irrationality and sometimes wild voices of activists on various platforms, but McGilchrist gives the phenomenon an explanation with psychiatric expertise. Some may have problems with the pathologising of some groups but given my experience with stroke patients who often behave exactly as he describes, and the salivating frenzy of extremists who get so worked up, I can identify with what he says. He is the first to admit that reactions are nuanced, and we must not generalise, but when experience shows the truth of what he says, it is hard not to mention it.

My experiences with micro-managing, micro-controlling technocrats in social work, who have caused an acute dissonance in my understanding of what we were trying to achieve, also confirm the increase in depression and burn-out among people working in this field. In Germany, for example, care for the elderly has been largely taken over by corporations, with “growth” being the most important thing and everything else serving that purpose. It may be redundant to mention this, but everyday experience in this field shows how much equanimity is needed to deal with the regular emergencies that interrupt routine and the economic fluctuations that death brings. The micromanagement of such organisations ultimately promotes resignation, which is already a dreaded reaction that can befall one, due to the constant coming and going of patients or residents. If you don’t allow people freedom, there will be less and less creative thought coming out, which is required in social work, but due to micromanagement was reduced to repetitive exercises in care activities, that above all had to conform to predetermined requirements. Individual care suffered.

I am afraid that McGilchrist’s voluminous books are not likely to open people’s eyes, unless someone is already on that path, as I was. However, such a conversation can be helpful in shortening the message into easily digestible statements, with a point of reference when needed. The reduction of humour, joy and insouciance of young people through coercion in public debate “only leads to sameness, mediocrity and stereotypical behaviour”, as McGilchrist noted, and we see many young people arriving at a state of dysphoria, not knowing which “box” they belong in. As he says, they all want to be different but seem more uniform to the observer. The young people who are different are often the ones who do not participate in the rush to be different, and as he says, it doesn’t help to point that out. They then react similar to patients who, after months of therapy finally arrive at the conclusion that the psychiatrist originally had but couldn’t say.

So, is there any immediate action that could slow or stop our slide into irrationality? The way the conversation ended, there doesn’t seem to be one thing to do. The conclusion for me is that we must continue to hold up the other side of the picture and refuse to subscribe to ideologies that are merely unexamined ideas. We must protect culture from being abolished and protect our children from indoctrination. It would certainly help if schools taught young people to think for themselves and understand the point of view of others, while appreciating the fact that many questions about existence have already been asked and the answers are nuanced. That would be a start.

Living at the expense of others

There was an article in the Frankfurter Rundschau with this headline in December 2019 in which the Authors, Nilda Inkermann and Simon Walch stated that, “Even if they try, especially in rich societies, people have little choice but to live and manage at the expense of others.” It wasn’t especially surprising, since we only have to look at where the goods we consume are made or produced and look at the standard of life there, and it becomes obvious that the imperial powers of the past are still profiting from that time. The authors called it correctly the “Imperial way of life.” That this way of life is made possible by people who disguise the conditions under which the goods were made or produced has come to light at various times, often when disasters strike and the people to whom we owe our way of life suffer great misfortune, which consequently affects us slightly. However, we in the West all live an “imperial life” – although this is beginning to crumble in Europe where our dependency is becoming evident.

As people in formerly imperial countries struggle to pay their bills in 2022 and governments erode their rights, we are slowly getting a glimpse of what life was like before the world wars, before workers’ rights gradually took hold in Western society. It was a struggle, and many lost their lives for these rights, which were only granted because people would not work for less. Of course, the world wars interrupted this development and millions of idealists died in WWI, thinking that the world was moving forward, and if only this last war is won, things would get better. But the struggle went on between the wars, and the Weimarer Republik in Germany was an example of how an emerging ideological confusion in a newly gained republican state brought back the imperialistic mindset with a vengeance and a new world war, which was even more devastating. It had a temporary effect of creating institutions in Europe which were built on solidarity, but this was an internal solidarity.

The struggle for comparable workers’ rights was lost in the former colonies, and because enough profit was made there, people in Europe were able to enjoy the fruits of their struggle for a short time. Moreover, consumption became a new form of profit-making and enforced globalism, a neo-colonialism pushed by the new superpower America, enabled capitalism to maintain its course. Investigative journalism regularly showed that the struggle between East and West was a conflict for dominance in countries where democracies were developing, but where both sides had “national security” problems that they felt forced them to slow down that development. In many countries where fundamentalist religious movements arose to take over their countries, the moderate socialists, who had envisioned a modern democracy, had been killed. And so, in the richer countries, living at the expense of others continued.

However, as I mentioned some months ago, Europe especially has to face a new future, in which the cohesion of the member states is the only guarantee of a lifestyle that at least resembles that of the latter 20th century and first decades of the 21st century. It is no longer only a question of morality, but of economic survival. Added to this problem is the climate crisis, which is becoming ever more apparent, and at least to some degree the result of industrial expansion and the changing of the planet’s surface and cycles. Urban life, which is brightly seen from our space station, has an effect that we can no longer ignore, and apart from the environment issues, mental health has been declining in our cities for decades. I see this, not only in the burnout and breakdowns, but in the hysteria that has grown amongst young people in protest of modernism.

It is not just a question of living a life free from exploitation that is fair and sustainable, which are impressive goals in themselves, it is a question of survival. And yet there are the forces of the “machine” of globalist capitalism pushing nations to act in ways that lead to more exploitation, towards populism where fairness is seen as coddling people’s desires, and the assumption that sustainability is wishful thinking. Social media is manipulated by propaganda experts and opinions are steered towards what people think is the most comfortable or cheapest solution with minimal effort, and the mass of people find comfort in doing what everybody else does. A solution isn’t easy to find, given that some many forces are at work that are only interested in functioning, and so many people only try to “get through the day”.

The fact that the fossil resources we have consumed over the last 100 years have been created by global catastrophes over millions of years and are therefore no longer available when they are exhausted, i.e., that there is an end to their use, leads to the inescapable consequence that the energy we need must come from renewable sources if we are to continue to have our lives improved by technology. The strain on the environment through industrial usage as well as the use of arable land for the expansion of settlements means that there may one day be too little arable land available, or that the available land could lose its fertility. The effects of global warming will not only lead to a rise in sea level, but also worsen the ratio of freshwater to saltwater. As glaciers melt, rivers will eventually dry up or at least decline sharply. All this means that future generations will have to do more to preserve these natural resources.

As the article in the Frankfurter Rundschau said, “The limits of this way of life become more visible every day.” So, the life we lead is not only at the expense of people in the so stigmatised “third countries”, but also at the expense of future generations whose “No Future” and “Fridays For Future” protests have been criticised in organised populist campaigns. It seems understandable to me that younger people, naïve as some protests may be, show some form of resistance, be it in the form of open protest, alternative lifestyles, rejection of conventions and alienation from their parents’ generations, whom they perceive as lemmings hurtling towards the cliff.

There is a cleavage in society, which is going on at different levels and for that reason weakening the opposition against the “machine”, Alexander Beiner mentioned in a brilliant article on substack, https://rebelwisdom.substack.com/p/nazi-elves-and-cockney-orcs-the-rings, how the world was dividing, and quotes David Goodheart who identified the “somewheres” and the “anywheres”, or N.S.Lyons, who suggested a similar division between the “Virtuals” and the “Physicals”. Beiner’s article uses the discussion around the Amazon series “The Rings of Power” to show up how entertainment is being used to reignite the class war and is very important reading. The problems I see in this division is that it weakens the ability to confront the problems facing us, because individual opposition, as morally righteous as it may be, will not have the strength needed achieve a systemic change, which is what is required here.

While the “physicals” see the problems that are piling up in our society, e.g. through rising rents, insecure employment, the care crisis and increasing pressure to perform in the elbow society, the “virtuals” are more likely to throw themselves into ideological struggles, most clearly illustrated in the struggle for the inclusion of marginalised groups, which is fought out above all on the traditional left, because feminists see the rights they have fought for as being eroded in the interests of trans women, instead of seeking a solution for this group of people. The energy being used up here and its convenience for right-wing groups, who readily use it against the left only weakens the struggle to achieve a turnabout in society, and a farewell to the “imperial way of life” which exploits the rest of the world, but also leaves a great debt for its own children to pay.

Non-conformity

Non-conformity is generally understood as a deviation from a default, standard or expectation and is a feature of the individualist mindset which has many facets. It gained popularity in the 1950s, although it appeared for a while in the 1920s, probably supported by the feminist movement that emerged from the suffragettes. However, most artists are non-conformist in some way, which is why they are noticed, and have been for millennia. Anyone who is noticed is usually non-conform in some way, and this applies to all walks of life. In the past, non-conformism was said to be a failure or refusal to conform to an established church, and there were groups who called themselves “dissenters”, although revered religious figures were very often originally non-conformists, and it is extremely necessary for some people to stand out so that society gets different perspectives. Some examples of non-conformists are Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders, members of the Occupy Wall Street movement and high school subcultures such as punk or goth.

So, non-conform behaviour includes social behaviour that is somehow different, and for a long time the West had a collectivist attitude towards social behaviour and did not allow nonconformity. As far as interactions between people are concerned, there are of course aspects that require our attention. In particular, we need to pay attention to whether nonconformity is dangerous, either for the individual or for society as a whole, but also whether people who cannot defend themselves are exploited, forced into non-consensual activities or abused by stronger people. Conformity is a socio-psychological process whereby a person ideally follows group norms and social conventions to avoid this. This person adopts the accepted values, beliefs, laws, and norms to gain security in the group.

Having said that, nonconformity is a freedom that brings many benefits: people can think outside the box, discover new ways of expression, and even have new experiences that enhance our understanding of existence. The compulsion to conform can also be a constraint that is detrimental to mental health, especially when it limits ideas, visions, and constructive thinking. However, nonconformity is only something because the opposite is a prevailing position and describes how most people behave. Indeed, it is important to know the basics, whether in social behaviour or in developing a skill, before deciding on nonconformity. It may be a choice that is often an inner need, calling or conviction, but some choose nonconformity just to be different, or the will to resist a norm that is somehow repulsive. The ways and means of being non-conform are so varied that I could not even list them, but they range from habitual behaviour to sexual preferences, from lifestyle to cosplay.

Even collectivist societies have accepted nonconformity in certain areas of life, especially in entertainment and areas of expression where the West is a competitor, because, again, there is a need to be seen or stand out. However, we can see that the desire to be non-conform can also be banal, unreflective, or very dangerous in very young or immature people. Without understanding the basics of sensible interaction, these people simply feel the need to be special or to be seen, and many fear sinking into insignificance. The media provides a dichotomy of flashy celebrities on the one side and young people who feel they are not being noticed by anyone on the other. To reinforce the desire to be seen, some do things that cause controversy, which in turn confirms their bias. Controversy makes them feel alive, while the humdrum existence they observe around them looks like a precursor to death.

This may be because, unlike the experiences of older generations, their physiological and security needs are met to some extent, and they do not need to ensure that they are secured. Their search for a sense of belonging and esteem outside the family, which may be dysfunctional, becomes so much more important that nonconformity is the place to be. This is especially true for people who do not conform to exaggerated media standards of beauty, who are appalled by the expectations of potential partners, or who are not naturally conspicuous. Young girls and women in particular are often pressured by young men, incited by widespread pornography, to do things that would supposedly give them prestige in their eyes. The truth is often quite different, and once they commit themselves, young girls are often condemned for their boldness.

There is also the non-conformity of quiet people who do everything they can to be inconspicuous, who reject traditional sexual orientation, whether in appearance or attraction, and there are a variety of thoughts that motivate such behaviour. Again, it may be an inner need, a distrust, a non-conforming attraction, or a repulsion that drives people to be this way. With reserved people, it is better for their nonconformity to be discreet, and they feel better for it.

The problem arises, of course, when a generation loses its orientation. Non-conformity, too, needs the norm to identify itself, even if some do not notice this, and it becomes precarious when the norm fades to grey, which seems to be the effect of postmodernism. An attitude of scepticism towards what it characterises as the “grand narratives” of modernity, opposing notions of epistemic certainty or the stability of meaning, and emphasising the role of ideology in maintaining socio-political systems of power is understandable. There is reason to be unconvinced about modernism, which in the late 19th and early 20th centuries reflected the then emerging industrial world, including features such as urbanisation, architecture, new technologies and, above all, war. It was very restrictive, and people increasingly felt like cogs in a big machine. The solution, however, is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but to integrate the stages of development like necessary steps towards a goal.

At the moment, it seems like the majority of people who decide the norm are moving towards more restrictive and authoritarian norms to combat the feeling of insecurity that the wave of non-conformity that seems to run through libertarian movements awakens in them. Right-wing political parties are becoming more popular because they oppose this non-conformity, and more nuanced reactionaries are being lumped in with them, despite their fundamental differences. The shift comes at a time when armed conflict is once again being waged between West and East, an energy war is being fought, and political signals, such as Trump’s presidency, Brexit, and a shift to the right in Britain, Sweden’s new right-wing government, as well as developments in Poland and Hungary, have warned us of what may be coming. This should, for an attentive non-conformist person, be a warning signal that their activism could cause a quicker shift and endanger everything.

Theology and Humanities

Recently I was talking to a young German lady who, in her own words, is a “born-again” Christian, about the subject of theology as part of the humanities (Geisteswissenschaft), which she rejected because for her theology[i] means the doctrine of God or the doctrine of the contents of a particular religious faith and its faith documents in particular. I took the position that theology was a field of literary study and that people of faith often had difficulty with the study of theology because they could not accept literary education, literary criticism, literary references, or further literature as aspects of the study of Scripture, which she saw as the basis of her faith. I said that it takes into account both historical influences and individual perspectives, which is difficult for people of faith to accept because they often come from a particular doctrinal view.

Dictionary.com defines literature neutrally. In the narrower sense, literature here is what others classify according to various criteria:

  1. writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays.
  2. the entire body of writings of a specific language, period, people, etc.:
  3. the literature of England.
  4. the writings dealing with a particular subject:
  5. the literature of ornithology.
  6. the profession of a writer or author.
  7. literary work or production.
  8. any kind of printed material, as circulars, leaflets, or handbills:
  9. literature describing company products.

Literature here is then everything that can become the “object” of literary studies. Since literary studies is also concerned with the analysis of orally transmitted testimonies, it also includes, contrary to the original meaning of the word, things that have not been written down. Literary studies are the scientific study of literature. According to common understanding, it includes subfields such as literary history, literary criticism, literary interpretation, literary theory and edition philology. Historically, literary studies have emerged

  • from the university study of (rhetoric and) poetry,
  • from the study of the novel as a subject of the “belles lettres”[ii] and,
  • and, according to its name, from the study of “literature” – the field of academic publications until the 19th century.

In a similar vein, theology has over time equally included comparative studies, which is not the same as the theology of religions, even if issues such as the uniqueness of Christ, salvation inside and outside the Church, and the meaning of religious pluralism are important to the comparative theologian, just as to other theologians. Comparative theology is in part a comparison of theologies, and entails reflection on theological themes (“revelation,” “grace,” “the Trinity”) and also theological method and purpose as exemplified in various religious traditions. It is not primarily a comparison of faith in itself, nor experience, nor even of scriptures, but a theology that proceeds by comparison; it fulfils the basic goal of “faith seeking understanding” precisely in the intelligent juxtaposition and use-together of theological texts from different traditions.[iii]

In our conversation, she compared her experience of the so-called “study of theology”, which I understand to be a branch of theology, and her decision not to study theology, with an event I attended where theology students complained about the pressure, which they said was being put on them and questioning their faith. I had the impression that the students lacked maturity and had difficulty differentiating. Our conversation revealed that we agreed on this point, but not on whether it is acceptable to subject the Scriptures to literary criticism, which was a, issue in both our experiences.

It was significant that her husband seemed to have little time for the discussion, as he himself had belonged to the “born again” faction and was still attached to them, and he got up to see to the drinks. I therefore did not follow the discussion any further, but I thought at that moment that faith appeared to require a status where further thought or speculation was limited to what one already knew. He surprised me by reappearing and showing me the notes from a seminar he had attended on the origins of the Old Testament, which he had kept and filed away. There were several slides in his notes that contained exactly what I had talked about, namely that Abraham was born under the name Abram in the city of Ur in Babylonia around 1800 BC, and many examples of Babylonian, Sumerian and Akkadian references to Ur were given and archaeological finds were listed.

I think the difference between our attitudes was the literary aspect. A scientific attitude, usually found in academics (of which I am not one – at least not formally), follows the thoughts put forward on any subject and examines the evidence for the theories put forward, weighs them up and forms the synthesis in my case from which practical life is guided. It leads me down paths that some believers avoid, including traditions that they see as antithetical to their own, but which in my experience open up possibilities and deepen the hypothesis of our own culture and religion. It also explains descriptions of behaviour that we discover in Scripture that we do not understand and that often contradict the positions of the Church.

The connection with the humanities also gives us an idea of what the writers of the Scriptures were thinking, and this is the point that “born-again” believers balk at, because they often believe in a divine inspiration, which they believe contradicts the idea that the Bible is a collection of religious literature gathered and connected by a narrative that gave the people of Israel an identity. Inspiration, of course, has many facets and is often experienced in moments when one is not prepared for it, which is just as possible when sorting through centuries of religious experience as when praying under the starry night sky. Scientists have similar experiences, whether on a bus travelling home, or awakening in their bed, but seldom when pondering over a mathematical formula in a laboratory. The wealth of experience with inspiration should open up what we understand as divine inspiration, rather than restricting it to particular experiences.

For example, Owen Barfield, a British philosopher, author, poet, critic, and known as “the first and last Inkling” a group in which JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis were members, spoke about the participation in the world of people prior to the axial age[iv] having a different quality to afterwards. Barfield spoke of original participation, “The “primitive” awareness or consciousness in which mankind once believed–in a pre-logical, pre-mythical manner–that “there stands behind the phenomena, and on the other side of them from me, a represented which is of the same nature as me … of the same nature as the perceiving self, inasmuch as it is not mechanical or accidental, but psychic and voluntary …”

“A perspective which reveals more and more of perception and less and less of thought”, original participation is, Barfield explains in History, Guilt and Habit, “a kind of consciousness for which it was impossible to perceive unfiguratively. But what does one mean when one speaks of perceiving figuratively? One means a kind of consciousness which does not, which cannot, perceive the material merely as such, which in perceiving its environment, perceives at the same time an immaterial within or through, or expressed by it … a kind of consciousness for which there is no such thing as a merely “outer” world””[v][vi]

Mark Vernon went on to explain how the axial age brought a withdrawal from this original participation, which brought about new paradigms, and the beginning of scientific thought, as well as new religious ideas, which are seen in the younger prophetic age of the biblical record, which invariably led to them suffering for it. He also goes on to describe people like Socrates and Jesus as representatives of yet another kind of participation, namely of reciprocal participation, a synthesis of the two previous positions, for which they also were executed.

This is an example of literary criticism that helps us understand the development that Jewish and Christian scripture show us, and why there was so much resistance. Due to the developments that occurred when Christianity became an official Roman religion, we have lost the connection to reciprocal participation, of which Mark Vernon wrote:

It’s therefore a mistake that much subsequent church teaching on Jesus’ death has focused on treating it as a sacrifice that atones for sins. This is the logic of original participation. It’s the ancient understanding of sacrifice, as an external action that produces prescribed results. It depicts Christianity as something to be gained from without rather than something perceived within, and also feeds a culture of dependency that, I think, is another of the most quietly unattractive aspects of modern Christianity to adult people. Better is another view that also runs through the tradition, sometimes called the sign or exemplary theory. On this understanding, sacrifice is not about anxiously securing benefits but is rather about cultivating a sacrificial attitude: the routine letting go and offering up of life.[vii]

Therefore, I think we can see that understanding religion as an area of humanities, and using the methods of Literary Criticism, we can find alternative an understanding of traditions, which may render them more accessible to people.


[i] Greek θεολογία theología, from Ancient Greek θεός theós ‘God’ and λόγος lógos ‘word, speech, doctrine’

[ii] Belles Lettres (French belles lettres ‘beautiful literature’) is a term that emerged in the 17th century for the area of the book market that was shaped primarily by French fashions and that settled between the literature of the humanities and natural sciences (lettres or sciences) on the one hand and unpretentious book production on the other (which in the 19th century came under the word Volksbücher in German). Parallel to this, the term “fine literature” was established, which today is used synonymously with ” belletristic”.

[iii] https://www.bc.edu/bc-web/schools/mcas/departments/theology/areas-of-study/comparative-theology/what-is-comparative-theology.html

[iv] Axial Age is a term coined by German philosopher Karl Jaspers. It refers to broad changes in religious and philosophical thought that occurred in a variety of locations from about the 8th to the 3rd century BC.

[v] https://owenbarfield.org/BARFIELD/Encyclopedia_Barfieldiana/Lexicon/Original_Participation.html

[vi] For 20th Century minds the “logic” of Original Participation seems unfathomable. As Barfield notes in Saving the Appearances, “To make no class distinction between the sun and a white cockatoo, but to feel instantly and sharply a world of difference between both of these natural phenomena and a black cockatoo is, it is felt, a state of mind at which it would be difficult to arrive by inference”

[vii] Vernon, Mark. A Secret History of Christianity (S.128). John Hunt Publishing.

Being Phobic

If an eight-year-old boy at a scout camp wakes up at night because an adult supervisor is fondling his genitals and being told to touch the attacker’s genitals, it is perhaps not surprising that the boy has recurring nightmares after this incident. If the eleven-year-old boy narrowly escapes two men trying to trap him in a public toilet, he can perhaps be forgiven for becoming overcautious. If the same person, now sixteen and in his first job, finds that he is the centre of attraction for a man who wears make-up and constantly tries to pinch his bottom, one can perhaps understand a distaste for effeminate behaviour. If that young man at nineteen is cornered by gay men with lewd remarks, one can understand his discomfort at a transvestite show.

The fact that this person, after a period of stabilising his “phobia” and entering into a heterosexual relationship, is still able to be balanced towards homosexual people and understand the struggles they have gone through in a society where especially men’s aversion to homosexuality and transsexuality is or has been widespread is unusual. His heightened vigilance in situations where he senses deception or realises that something is not as it seems should be understandable and is the reason that he understands that transphobia is primarily a fear of deception. In the attempts to create an inclusive society, but overlooking this aspect, for example by saying that trans women are women and demanding that they share the protected spaces for women and urging lesbian women to date them, the problem of deception is also there for women. They too find themselves unable to feel safe in areas where they should be.

To be really inclusive, we have to effectively build more barriers to ensure that people who want to live a life in another identity can be safe, but without giving up the protection of women, girls and young boys. Being an inclusive society demands that we take steps to protect all groups and forget none. We are on guard against frauds, forgeries, swindlers, and scams when it comes to financial matters and take measures to protect people from them. Any lies, red herrings or concealments will be exposed if discovered, which is just a matter of protection. It is therefore not surprising that people show increased vigilance in sexual matters, where abuse and rape are unfortunately commonplace.

Of course, there are hypochondriacs and pessimists in our society who see disease and decay at every turn, as well as obsessive, neurotic and morbid people, but that doesn’t mean we overlook the real dangers we face. Just because we know that some people are overly phobic in one way or another, does not mean that we ignore the fears that people have. Nor should it be common to dismiss women’s concerns that they and their children are at risk when the door to their protected spaces is open to anyone who claims to be a woman, even if their anatomy shows that they are not. It is strange that in some countries this lack of consideration for women’s concerns is enshrined in the law and women can be accused of acting unlawfully if they voice their concerns. It is strongly emphasised when biological men posing as women take to the streets to shout down expressed concerns and when forms of verbal abuse are used that are distinctly unfeminine. The deception seems blatant in such cases, and such excesses do a disservice to the cause they profess. It is perceived as a bizarre mixture of fetishism rather than a bona-fide case of mis-gendered people calling for acceptance.

Above all, overlooked is the fact that a phobia is a disabling or exaggerated fear, which can be excessive, extreme, perhaps irrational or a panic reaction to a situation, person, animal, place or object. To call discomfort with or dislike towards a perceived deception a phobia is in itself an exaggeration, suggesting that no such deception exists and that existing concerns are neurotic or even paranoid. As I have tried to show in the examples above, there are legitimate reasons in people’s lives for worries, fears and anxieties that are not exaggerated, even if they are recurring worries that interfere with the ability to be comfortable with everyone. Experiences with predatory people increases vigilance rather than inspire trust.

To inspire trust, all people must show themselves to be trustworthy and not just say that they can be trusted. In doing so, there are several ways to show that one is reliable and committed to the common good. The inclusion of homosexuality in society grew more acceptable as they were able to show their contribution in different areas of life, and also how they excelled in some and otherwise blended in with everyone else. Many of the ways in which transsexual minorities in particular have protested their individuality have been anything but a demonstration of cohesion and have had the opposite effect in society. It is quite obvious on social media that trans men are far less reactionary than trans women. Artistic expression is one thing, but the struggle for social acceptance is another, and you have to be clear about what you want to achieve and accept that each has their place.

The last thing that I want to address is the fact that we all have our peculiarities, and we all have issues with our bodies, our thoughts, our imaginations, and many of us have had a feeling of not fitting in. Some of us are oversensitive, some are less sensitive, we have tall people and short people, we have large people and thin people. We can’t orientate ourselves on a common norm, set by a majority and enforced by some moral authority, but we must look at what helps and what endangers people. We can’t ignore the vast amount of people, mostly women and children, who are abused and maltreated. But we also can’t forget the men who do not feel comfortable with the common idea of manhood, and everybody in their specialness has to be appreciated.

By acknowledging opposites, we can learn to appreciate the diversity of life. They are mutually dependent, and we only know someone is tall when we see someone who is short. We only know that someone is white because many are not, or that someone is artistic because many of us are unimaginative or more technically inclined. There are also different attractions in sexuality, and we have to be careful not to hurt each other so that one person suffers involuntarily or is subjected to compulsive behaviour that forces them into life-threatening submission. We must not drive people to medication with all its side effects or to permanent operations and amputations. We must learn to help each other and ourselves, to heal when we are unwell or sick, and create an environment where this is possible.

When we are phobic, we may not know exactly why, but it is a sign that something is wrong. If we are not comfortable with who and what we are, that is also a sign that something is affecting us adversely and we need to recognise that unkindness. But we are all affected because we all interact with each other, and this must be the basis for a society where we can work together to deal with the problems we face. It is the truth of all wisdom teaching, that we are one in all diversity, and where there is suffering, we are all suffering, even if we are not aware of it.

Tolkien and The Machine

Due to the new series that started on Amazon Prime recently, I had cause to look back at my relationship with the writing of JRR Tolkien, which my son inherited to some degree, although his knowledge of the Tolkien world surpasses mine considerably. Connected with this has been the increase of the use of “the machine” as a metaphor for the unstoppable force of commercial power, the oligarchies of the world, and numerous studies in a diverse range of disciplines that show us that industrialisation on a global scale has had a devastating effect on our environment.

I found a touching example of a memory, revealing the attitude of people around the time of Tolkien, written in this piece by Richard Gunderman:

“My grandfather was a carpenter, and I don’t think he ever developed much of a sense of trust in machines. I remember him laboring away at our home one summer, transforming our screened-in porch into a dining room. He could drive a nail through a 2×4 with a single blow, a skill I still haven’t mastered. He simply loved making things, and he was good at it. But he referred to the family car simply as “the machine,” and he regarded what lay under its hood with suspicion. He believed that such machines enabled us to travel too far too fast, preventing us from getting to know our own backyards. He feared that the machine age was depriving us of the joy of craftsmanship […]

To Tolkien, the machine is something far more menacing than a mere mechanical device. Fundamentally, it represents the lust for power – in particular, for power over others. The evil lord Sauron wants the one ring more than anything and is willing to stop at nothing to get it precisely because it will enable him to exert absolute control. The ring is machine par excellence, the device that will enable its possessor to establish absolute tyranny over every other living creature. It is not a means of liberation but a tool of coercion, domination, and enslavement. As the British historian Lord Acton would have warned, the power of the ring not only corrupts but corrupts absolutely.”[i]

I was born in 1955, around the time Tolkien was correcting the appendices to The Lord of the Rings. He found the proofreading process too tedious and felt that it greatly increased the likelihood of errors and discrepancies, which was typical of his relationship with the machine. He wrote his manuscripts in a very legible handwriting, with some words so beautifully written that they seemed to come from an artist. We can hear here an echo of Gunderman’s recollection of his grandfather, who feared that the machine age would rob us of the joy of craftsmanship.

But the big takeaway from Tolkien was that for him, the machine represents a means to attain power over others. He wrote of the machine in a letter to Milton Waldman:

By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents — or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised … The Enemy in successive forms is always ‘naturally’ concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines.[ii][iii]

Normally we understand the machine as a means of performing tasks that are very monotonous and predictable, where workers become very distant from their work and somewhat robotic in their behaviour. It is a state that people very often fall into, and it can be said that in such cases they switch to automatic. Of course, we all work in automatic mode in much of what we do, mainly because in our busy and often hectic environment a lot is demanded of us, and we often lose touch with what is going on around us, being narrowly focused on a single task. As I have said before, I get the feeling that mobile telephones with the vast number of functions they are now equipped with only emphasise this and underlines the alienation from nature.

The metaphor of the machine, and in particular the metaphor of the clock, was used in the 17th century to interpret both the nature and the hierarchical features of the body politic. But “A rudimentary growth machine was invented roughly 5,000 years ago with the emergence of state societies with money, writing, and slavery. A supercharged capitalist version has gotten going at least twice in history: in China in the eleventh century (though it was quickly halted by traditional authorities who saw it as a threat to their power), and in Europe starting in the sixteenth century (where the rising mercantile class eventually triumphed over ecclesiastical and aristocratic opponents).”[iv]

Later, as Marx famously noted in Capital, the purpose of machinery from the capitalist’s point of view is to cheapen the commodities produced, which is possible above all when the cost of the machinery is less than the cost of the workers the machinery is supposed to replace. So, we have other people supporting a view that the machine was threatening, above all for the people who were losing their jobs and livelihood.

As a late agreement with that view, Richard Heinburg noted, the “doomsday machine of global industrial capitalism has been constructed largely at the expense not just of nature’s ability to continue functioning, but also the labor of the poorer segments of humanity, who will also be most immediately impacted by the machine’s destruction. ”i[v]

So, we have a situation in which the machine is not only a threat to nature, but also to the poorer segments of humanity, confirming the scepticism of people like JRR Tolkien, but also Marx, and even Stephen Hawking warned that the human race faces one its most dangerous centuries yet as progress in science and technology becomes an ever-greater threat to our existence. Green activists are also concerned that we have shown a good deal of recklessness in maintaining our position at the top of the food chain, by threatening the biodiversity of the planet, which makes life resilient to changes that occur.[vi]

Our global network has undermined much of this diversity, leaving countries unable to feed themselves when global supply chains are threatened. The war in Ukraine, where much of the world’s wheat is grown, brought this home to us, and immediately there were famines in Africa and elsewhere. Most importantly, rising energy and heating costs have alerted us to the fact that we are dependent on products supplied by the machine, despite the fact that at the same time it threatens the environment we need to survive. Machine ideology tempts us to think of ourselves as biological machines, to react like machines or even to be a part of them, and to see the machine as the life-saving influence in the world as it inexorably advances and takes the ability to survive out of our hands.

Attempts to regain control include taking the path to climate neutrality, which also offers huge opportunities for a better quality of life. Imagining cities with less traffic jams and exhaust fumes, with space to cycle and walk safely, to play and to live isn’t difficult. Imagining villages that are connected to public transport, forests where our children can still discover the beauty of nature, food that is healthy, produced with respect for animal rights and environmental protection should also be no problem – unless you want the machine to dominate our lives. It is when these goals are perceived as threats to one’s goals in life that we discover how much we have become a part of the machine. I am amazed at how fast this has occurred, considering the machine sceptic JRR Tolkien was writing about his scepticism after the first world war, a hundred years ago.

But Tolkien gave us imagination and tried to give us a source from which dreams and visions can grow, stories in which values and principles have a model in the characters he imagined. He described landscapes of beauty and misery, and societies filled with rascality or perversion, interspersed with greed and envy, oppression, and fear. He described harmony with nature and the brutish dominion over the land. He also described devotion and courage in creatures less suited to heroism, and showed us that sometimes, things have to be done, although they are difficult, harmful, or fateful for us, because they preserve the greater good.

At present, we are in a situation in which that greater good is endangered, not from a sorcerer like Sauron, but from a machine that is relentless, as well as the numerous vassals, that are rewarded for their loyalty. It took a lot of time and suffering for the Hobbits to realise that they were in danger, perhaps we will notice earlier, and prevent at least some of the trials that would otherwise come.


[i] Richard Gunderman, Chancellor’s Professor of Medicine, Liberal Arts, and Philanthropy, IUPUI in https://theconversation.com/tolkien-and-the-machine-35826

[ii] Carpenter, Humphrey; Tolkien, Christopher (2012-12-12T22:58:59.000). The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle-Version.

[iii] https://genius.com/J-r-r-tolkien-preface-to-the-silmarillion-a-letter-to-milton-waldman-annotated

[iv] https://www.resilience.org/stories/2021-02-25/capitalism-the-doomsday-machine-or-how-to-repurpose-growth-capital/ By Richard Heinberg, originally published by Common Dreams

[v] https://www.resilience.org/stories/2021-02-25/capitalism-the-doomsday-machine-or-how-to-repurpose-growth-capital/ By Richard Heinberg, originally published by Common Dreams

[vi] https://greentumble.com/major-threats-to-biodiversity/

Rant against power – a personal perspective

My tirade against power would not be complete if I did not also mention the areas of life where we use our limited or constrained power in ways that disgust us when we hear of men being convicted of crimes against helpless people. The problem is that our imagination knows no bounds, and too many find themselves in situations where men have watched or even incited the perpetrators, even if they were not the perpetrators themselves.

I remember at the tender age of sixteen, still “wet behind the ears”, hearing grown men in the company where I started working talk about a “gangbang” they had witnessed or heard about, or perhaps even participated in, where the woman at the centre was mentally impaired or drugged and brutally exploited. What puzzled me was that even though they knew about the woman’s limitations, it ‘turned them on’, as they said, in a way they felt was wrong.

Later, after joining the army and during a ‘firing camp’ in Wales, I was woken up in the tent that served as accommodation and asked to come along to a similar ‘event’ that the soldiers were celebrating with a local girl who probably had similar mental limitations. I declined, probably more out of embarrassment than anything else, and found it hard to grasp the fact that the same people who had asked me to write love letters for their girlfriends were doing this.

The disturbing thing about such stories, apart from the fact that it was quite obvious that a woman was being brutally exploited, was that every man knows that he did not intervene, but only smiled sheepishly when there was talk of such behaviour, so as not to appear stupid or to share in the pleasure they derived from it; too weak in spirit to object, too compromised by their own imaginations to be disgusted by the whole thing. Disgust with oneself grows with incidents of not doing the right thing.

Fortunately, my upbringing had instilled in me some principles that were battered by such experiences, causing a guilty conscience that even invaded my dreams and made me sit upright and feel guilty, even though I was not actually actively involved. Men know that our imagination deceives us, and happy is the man whose thoughts are not visible to all. Our shadow, which we conveniently avoid, plays these abstruse ideas to us, which should awaken humility and curb the misplaced pride that gets so out of hand.

Perhaps it was these experiences that shaped my relationships with women differently and empowered my naïve imagination to write love letters that other soldiers copied and sent home to their girlfriends. I was able to retain a certain romanticism, able to plagiarise the romantic poetry that attracted me and use it in my own interest. But that was manipulative too! I knew how the young women melted away then when they read my words, though I also knew how well I could walk away.

That too is an abuse of power, and the ability to exploit a weakness, even a desire in someone, is a power used to cause pain, sadness, and despair. I experienced the effect of my words one evening in a soldiers’ club where I impressed a woman with my words and watched her eyes widen and her lips moisten with no intention of going further. I knew she was a married woman and therefore ‘off limits’ to single soldiers like me. When I got up to leave, she got up behind me and followed me to the stairs where she ripped my shirt off and had to be held back by passers-by. I took no pleasure in the emotional impact I had but was rather shocked at how powerful words can be. My superiors saw the situation similarly and I was sternly reprimanded and warned not to do the same again, although I detected a smirk on their faces that suggested they were behaving as they were expected to and not as they felt about the matter.

This influenced my later relationships where I tried to be more responsible, but I still experienced how the local German girls reacted to me and sometimes saw through my game. It wasn’t until I was left confused by a girl who had declared her love for me in a letter received on my last day in Northern Ireland, that I felt I had “had a taste of my own medicine.” On my return I found that she had changed her address and was living in a place I didn’t know but was supposedly fifty kilometres away. From then on, I was more self-critical and cautious and stopped playing games. I also realised that I wanted more from a relationship, as perhaps had numerous recipients of my letters. This self-reflection was my salvation, if you will, and gave me an understanding of what people need in a relationship. My next girlfriend, who knew me before, sensed the change in me but was sceptical at first. Over time, she gained confidence and we got married.

Life offers many opportunities to experience the abuse of power and the next time a personal experience gave me a warning, I was training to be a geriatric nurse in Germany. Again, it was about situations where people find themselves dependent, in this case on the people who had the task of caring for them. I must add that I was quite idealistic about nursing and saw it as a vocation, which the headmistress warned could become a problem over time. However, the first experience of nursing practice was to discover that women could also be disturbingly pragmatic. This was expressed in a number of ways, starting with the first impression on my first day when a dying person was kept in the corridor so that staff could ‘keep an eye on them’. Another shock was the sight of a “force-feeding” of an old lady with dementia, which led me to lodge an official protest and resulted in the removal of the staff member in question.  Another humiliating practice was “group peeing” in a large bathroom before meals, with bars on the walls for the disabled people to hold onto while their clothes and nappies were adjusted, lined up in a row of 6-8 people.

There were many other situations that ran counter to my idealism, which was reinforced by the school being a Catholic institution. Although I was probably seen as a troublemaker at first, my diligence and willingness to take on the less attractive tasks led to me being asked to return. Eventually, during the ‘recognition year’ after the exams, I was provisionally appointed ward manager, although I had not yet received my final certification, and we set about changing many things on the ward that were questionable. One practice that was very disturbing was the habit of mixing ‘cocktails’ for patients who had trouble sleeping or who wandered around at night. This took some time and in the end some staff who had worked there for a long time were asked to leave. By the time the authorities became aware of the abuses, we had changed the way we worked and most of the staff no longer accepted them, although we certainly could not eliminate them completely.

This is not, as some have said, to ridicule the hard work done with geriatric patients, many of whom are mentally impaired in some way, but the fact that people uncritically develop habits that they tolerate because that is the way they have always been. This is abuse of power, and there are much worse cases that have come to public attention where this is quite obvious. This reminds me of a key experience in training when I had the task of changing wound dressings and came across a patient who had a dressing but no wound. When I recognised the date on the dressing, I asked why this was still done and the answer was: because it has always been done that way. The same response was given when I asked why a patient was not listened to when she made a request. The answer was that she always forgets after a short time. Mistakes like forgetting dentures and observing that the patient was not eating were common until we started to rethink what we were doing.

The heart-breaking truth is that malice, even if not always intentional, is often tolerated when it happens in situations where confidentiality is maintained. The only imperative then is not to get caught. The victim is rarely able to differentiate and can only recognise the malice as an abuse of power and disregard for their right to life and liberty. The victim often has no way to escape, and the perpetrator is well aware of this, which in my eyes constitutes evil.