Complexity is a good thing...

"You know I've noticed a certain anti-intellectualism going around this country ever since around 1980, coincidentally enough.

I was in Nashville, Tennessee last weekend and after the show I went to a waffle house and I'm sitting there and I'm eating and reading a book. I don't know anybody, I'm alone, I'm eating and I'm reading a book.

This waitress comes over to me (mocks chewing gum)

'what you readin' for?', I've never been asked that; not 'What am I reading', 'What am I reading for?'.

Well, goddamnit, you stumped me... I guess I read for a lot of reasons — the main one is so I don't end up being a fuckin' waffle waitress. Yeah, that would be pretty high on the list.

Then this trucker in the booth next to me gets up, stands over me and says [mocks Southern drawl]

'Well, looks like we got ourselves a readah'

...Aahh, what the fuck's goin' on? It's like I walked into a Klan rally in a Boy George costume or something. Am I stepping out of some intellectual closet here? I read, there I said it. I feel better.

Bill Hicks, 1989

I have started to realise that there is a subtle (or perhaps not actually that subtle at all) undercurrent in modern, Western society that is flowing unmistakeably towards the middle, if not the bottom, intellectually speaking. We seem to be, as a society, anywhere on the continuum of disinterested and dismissive to downright abusive towards people and ideas that do not comply with being able to be conveyed in ten words or less.

Politicians are (almost) all ploughing the same field of mediocrity with their "on message" politics and their inability to take a position on anything, unless it's deriding UKIP of course.

Our media distills everything to the blandest, bite-size nuggets of reportage, not that the news or factual programming can even hold a candle to the horror that is "reality television". On top of that, the Cult of Celebrity holds such sway that recent polls list "being famous" as the most commonly held aspiration of today's youth.

At what point did we decide that seeing the World as it is in all of its rich complexity and inspiring diversity was too much like hard work? At what point did we decide that considering more than one idea was old fashioned. When did we stop thinking?

Of course there are hold-outs, but why are they almost all self-started outlets, like this one, trying desperately to shout a different message into the gale of mediocrity flowing towards us?

It feels as though nobody cares. It feels as though we are told that real life is what is happening on TOWIE, Survivor and The Voice UK. As Bill would say;

"Go back to sleep, America. Your government is in control."

So what? I know; so fucking what?

The corporations run the World, God and Art are both dead and you cannot get a good cup of coffee for less than £2.50 in London, so what's the point?

I suppose the point is that we cannot hope to fix anything if no one is interested in really understanding anything. There is an exchange in The West Wing in which Bruno tells the President that he finds it very hard to explain things to people who do not race sailing yachts, and in a similar vein I sometimes find it hard to explain the issue I am trying to convey now to people who have not watched The West Wing. Anyway, self referential as that may be, there is a sub-plot in an episode of The West Wing in which Josh sends his assistant Donna to attend a self-help lecture given by a self-help guru who has been advising their presidential adversary from the Republican Party. It turns out that the guru in question is slicing the top layer off great thought as explored and discussed by others and making is easy to swallow. In other words, his talks and books are the Cliff Notes version of critical thinking:

"It comes from a 193-page book called 'A Critique of Practical Reason.' It's about metaphysica and epistemology. Tomba's impressively boiled it down to two-thirds of one page."

Josh Lyman, The West Wing, S4 Ep4

Josh goes on to show how the self-help guru, who let us remember is advising a Presidential candidate, has either grossly over-simplified other bits of powerful philosophy and literature or utterly missed the point and pushed a round peg into his square political ideology. Here is the pay-off:

"What does this remind you of?

'I believe in hope, not fear.'

'I'm a leader, not a politician.'

'It's time for an American leader.'

'America's earned a change.'

'I before 'E' except after 'C'!'

It's the fortune-cookie candidacy! These are important thinkers, and understanding them can be very useful and it's not ever going to happen at a four-hour seminar.

When the President's got an embassy surrounded in Haiti, or a keyhole photograph of a heavy water reactor, or any of the fifty life-and-death matters that walk across his desk every day, I don't know if he's thinking about Immanuel Kant or not. I doubt it, but if he does, I am comforted at least in my certainty that he is doing his best to reach for all of it and not just the McNuggets.

Is it possible we would be willing to require any less of the person sitting in that chair? The
low road? I don't think it is."

Josh Lyman, The West Wing, S4 Ep4

In a kind of grim augury from nearly twenty years ago, Sorkin has basically described the Republican candidates who are currently vying for their party's candidacy in 2016.

It doesn't stop there; all over the World we are being lied to by our governments, elected officials who have forgotten that they work for us, that they are supposed to do what is best for us, not what is best for them and their close friends and allies. It is becoming more and more blatant and still we are all apparently happy to be lied to, happy to ignore the inconsistencies and the broken promises and the empty rhetoric. Almost the entire community of economists are in agreement that austerity is not the route to economic recovery, either for nations or the world economy as a whole - how are the austerity "hawks" still winning elections?

I believe that having a deep understanding of something, anything, is the only route to two very important parts of life:

  1. Knowing how to best make decisions about one's area of expertise.

  2. Knowing how hard it is to really understand something, and thus being able to spot when to ask an expert for their input, and the value and strength in acknowledging that reality rather than being afraid of being seen as weak.

When those two things are combined together there is an extra advantage, a kind of combinatorial, bonus up-side. Not only does it become impossible to be certain about anything without considering the whole picture (and even then skepticism becomes the foil to certainty), but one ceases to be satisfied by catch-phrase wisdom and bumper-sticker dogma. If the "ten words" explanation is no longer compelling, so much of life becomes susceptible to real scrutiny.

If you have never been encouraged to attempt to master an intellectual skill, say calculus or literary criticism or the experimental method or writing a symphony or a book or a poem, how can you ever hope to be able to comprehend the wider context of almost anything being a complex and intricate thing, rather than a sound bite?

More to the point, how can we expect the people around us to care about whether or not our politicians are actually capable, clever people if they have no frame of reference? How can we expect our society to prize intellect and accomplishment when we continue to under-resource education, when we continue to under-pay and under-value teachers and when we continue to treat public education policy as the means to the end of populating the workforce instead of education being the journey that empowers our children to become well-rounded human adults and, wait for it, thinkers?

I realise that we are all different and all have different strengths and some people were not made to read philosophy or study applied mathematics, but surely we can all agree that most people have the native wit to think things through properly, if only they had the tools to do so and an environment where there was a general and genuine sense that being a thinker is a positive thing?

Not only that, but can we not get together on demanding a higher level of political discourse from our leaders than the Westminster equivalent of "you smell!"? (I am referencing Prime Minister's Questions). Better still, would it not be to our shared benefit as a society to get politicians into power who were actually interested in making everyone's lives better instead of simply serving a partisan agenda? If we were all applying a bit of critical thought to our voting choices instead of voting from a place of fear or greed (or both), would we not have a far greater chance of effecting change for the better, for many more of our fellow human beings?

This blog is going to try and do its bit, by bringing together voices from across a variety of spectra (not just the political spectrum), to show that there are plenty of thinkers out there, and that you, dear reader, are not alone, but also to challenge the norm and to ask impertinent questions.

In 1984 (by George Orwell) the idea of thought crime is a powerful, terrifying concept wherein one can even transgress in the privacy of one's own mind. Here we hope to give voice to all of those thought crimes, no matter the difficulty, and to provide a place for dissenting voices to be heard. Not all of it will be worthy and overwrought; I really hope that we will find ways to laugh at the World as much as attempt to shape it.

Finally I hope that we will make it clear that there is an irony in the name; that really the only crime is to settle for an absence of thought.

Maleghast, November 2015