Wednesday, August 31, 2016

No more politics?

[This piece was posted earlier today in my Google+ collection, Social and Political Reflections.]

I'm beginning to question the wisdom of writing about and giving my personal views on politically contentious issues. For one thing, speaking out is socially disadvantageous. In fact, I have more than once lost a good friend because they read something I wrote with which they strongly disagreed.

There is, of course, a downside to most activities. But where, I am wondering, is the upside here? What is the point of my sticking my neck out on political themes? It's not as if I really expect people to be persuaded to my point of view.

On the other hand, it may be that such ideological reflections do have a point and purpose, albeit one which is difficult precisely to discern or define. It may be in fact that they have more significance than just about any other form of discourse because they are centrally concerned with human values (and so with the motive force of human actions). Even if something I say makes only the slightest difference to how you see the world, your subsequent thoughts and actions will be different from how they would have been without that influence, will they not? The difference may be miniscule, but in complex systems – brains, societies – even small differences can sometimes become very significant.

I suspect, however, that contentious values-based issues are best approached obliquely rather than head on. Perhaps very obliquely.

I never was much into polemics (which nonetheless has its place in the scheme of things); my style has been more 'thinking out loud'. Only now I am reconsidering what to 'think out loud' about.

I am usually careful in a casual social context not to be too outspoken. When you talk to a person or group you tailor what you say to that audience, taking account of their responses, etc.. But with written communication, you don't have that kind of control.

When you write something and make it publicly available the audience is largely invisible and its nature unknown. Moreover, you don't usually get a chance to correct misunderstandings or clarify, something which happens as a matter of course in normal conversational exchanges.

A crucial thing about social and political values is that they are largely subjective. We may feel that our point of view is totally compelling. It is compelling to us. But objectively speaking?

Though some aspects of social and political value systems can be set out and objectively assessed, in the end no objective assessment can rank competing systems or – except in the case of hopelessly implausible systems – make definitive judgments. Ideology is just not the sort of thing that can be laid out clearly or definitively assessed.

In the light of these considerations, I am – as an experiment – adopting a new strategy of self-censorship on contentious ideological matters. The intention is to refrain from expressing political views and to keep the focus on the non-ideological side of things.

How will this decision affect my personal sites? It will mean that I will probably be posting mainly to my other general collection – Language, Logic, Life – in preference to this one, and reposting most or all of that material to (the Blogger blog) Language, Life and Logic.

My other blog, Conservative Tendency, finds itself at least for the time being, like this collection, in limbo.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Jonathan Miller's view of life

I said I might follow up on Jonathan Miller, having posted a couple of weeks ago a segment of an old TV interview in which he talked about his Jewishness. There he was basically saying that he asserts it only in the face of anti-Semitism, and also that he was not religiously Jewish. (Apparently, he gave up on the religious side of things as he was preparing for his bar mitzvah, which in the end never took place).

When he was interviewed by Ben Silverstone in 2006, Miller was saying the same things about his Jewishness as he had been a quarter of a century earlier. But it's clear that he had become more embittered over the intervening years, convinced that he had not been given his due (as a director, say) as well as exhibiting more regrets about giving up the practice of medicine.

A number of things struck me, most notably his commitment to the ideas (mainly his views on religion and social issues, I suspect) of Bertrand Russell. Miller's father (who later became a noted psychiatrist) had studied philosophy at Cambridge before World War I and Jonathan inherited his father's library which included works by Russell.

Miller -- I think unfortunately -- made a bigger deal than Russell did of rejecting religion. For Russell this was primarily a personal decision whereas Miller sees religion as an evil social force which must be actively resisted.

I am also out of sympathy with Miller's left-wing social and political views. His children were sent to the local comprehensive, described by his son as a "war zone".

Russell had some decidedly dodgy ideas on education, and made (or lent his name to) some extreme political statements, particularly in his old age as a leading member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and associated groups. But generally I think his social and political views were more nuanced than Miller's.

I won't talk about Miller's activism on behalf of the Palestinians and against Israel. I have never lived in the region and I prefer to steer clear of these sorts of discussions. Both sides have done bad things.

In three main respects I am on the same page as Miller: I share his respect for scientific knowledge and achievement, his rejection of metaphysics, and his fascination with ordinary human behaviour.

Miller says: "On the whole, the best works of literature simply address the tiny, quotidian questions - what happens when you get up? What stops you not going to bed earlier? In neurology, you’re also looking at the peculiar, anomalous ways in which patients do what they do: deficits, failures to say what they wished to say. In both neurology and theatre, subtle observation of what appear to be negligible details turns out to be the name of the game: that’s where the payload is."

I agree. Certainly there is no way we can get answers to those old, traditional metaphysical questions about purpose and meaning. The best we can do is muddle through, understanding the little we can and cherishing, if possible, the uncertainty and fragility of human life.

At the time of the interview, Miller was directing a production (in Michael Frayne's strange but wonderful translation) of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard.

Chekhov, he points out, was a doctor also. Miller also mentions Flaubert in this regard (but not Somerset Maugham who -- though he too was trained as a physician and was an acute observer of mundane human behaviour -- was probably not ideologically sound from Miller's point of view, being rather conservative). Frankly, I think medical training is much less relevant to observational capacities than Miller is making out.

According to Miller, great literature is simply about "what it's like to get from one end of a life to another". This sounds about right. Seriousness and triviality are inevitably intertwined.

The Cherry Orchard, Miller explains, "ends with a short scene depicting the aged footman, Firs, locked into a freezing house, left alone, apparently to die, after the departure of the entire Gayev household for the winter."

In Michael Frayn’s translation, Firs’s final words read...

“My life’s gone by, and it’s just as if I’d never lived at all. I’ll lie down for a bit, then… No strength, have you? Nothing left. Nothing… Oh you… sillybilly…”