Our world is embroiled in a crisis which has exposed and exacerbated profound issues. Covid-19 has stirred deep fears about safety and economic security. It has placed pressures upon political and business leaders that seem unique and deeply disturbing. It raises profound questions. These need thought – serious thought – to appreciate, then address.
So, it might surprise you to read that we could turn to Morecambe and Wise for guidance. As they joked their way through the Seventies, they reminded us that ‘with good strong, positive thinking, we’ll get together and life won’t let us down’. They sang that we should ‘laugh at our troubles’. Can we? Should we?Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask, act! Action will delineate…’
Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask, act! Action will delineate
Quoting Morecambe and Wise might seem flippant. People are dying and businesses teetering on the brink – but it is not flippant: far from it. It is my contention that the qualities they extolled are precisely what we will need to pull through: starting with good humour, proceeding to thought and action.
In a previous article, I wrote about the Mayflower spirit. It has the potential to inspire us now – those voyagers in 1620 confronted profound problems which killed half of their number within a few months. Ultimately, they triumphed. My focus now is the degree to which we have retained, or lost, that spirit, and the underlying qualities which might increase our exposure to crises generally: our fragility or resilience. I will only touch on the gentle erosion of widespread and natural Faith in God – the sort of faith which the Mayflower voyagers held deeply. I do suggest, however, that to some extent post-Enlightenment, we have replaced belief in an intangible deity with a fragile confidence in the works of Man.
We might feel that our age has largely moved from faith in an ‘abstract’ divinity to confidence in ‘tangible‘ and ‘material’. But, that it not entirely true. All religions have certain articles of faith which are asserted and debated to varying degrees by their believers. There might be discussion about those articles but they can be stated.
Many of the works of Man upon which we have come to depend are ‘invisible technologies’, to a degree equally abstract and imperfectly understood. When the assumptions which drive them are called into question the erosion of confidence can be profound.
The Great Recession of 2008 exposed flaws in complex credit modelling and disturbed confidence in financial services. Modelling of Covid-19 spread is equally prone to hubris. The team at Imperial College, led by Professor Ferguson, sought to assert an almost pure level of ‘scientific’ proof on a matter of social science. They created a cat’s cradle of vast complexity. Although the outputs of their modelling on previous crises were flawed, policy makers placed faith in the results again. They believed the system had been perfected, whilst critics might claim it had merely been tweaked. When the immediate crisis passes, our reliance upon such models should be considered calmly.
While faith in God, can never be disproven – it is rooted in an after-life, faith in the Works of Man is a more fragile affair. It was shaken by the bursting of the dot-com bubble, in 2001 after 9/11, later with the Great Recession and might be further so by Covid-19.
That replacement of belief in God with Man, underpins the general situation which informs wider emotional responses to recent history. Feelings arise from an emotional response to our personal predicament, or the wider situation of society. They can originate with joy or unhappiness, tempered by visceral hope, or fear, but they are not easily expressed until considered. If they do not translate to action they simply depress but if action follows without thought, they disturb.
Thomas Jefferson declared ‘Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask, act! Action will delineate…’. In some sense his guidance is useful. Dwelling on feeling can paralyse us. It prevents us moving forward. However, the visceral and emotional needs first to be thought through to ensure that consequent action is not a mistake. Racine wrote that ‘life is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel’. Does our society remain immersed in ‘feeling’ or has it moved to ‘thought’? Dwelling on our feelings can prevent a clear eyed assessment of experience and opportunity. Discovering reality requires thought.
So, it might be useful to consider how people faced adversity in the last Century. Did they skew their emotions to tragedy or comedy? The 1920’s and 30’s were the peak of pulp fiction – particularly detective novels. Dashiell Hammett was one of the greats of that genre. He took up writing when hit by Spanish Flu in 1918, obliged to stop working in order to ‘self-isolate’ from his family.
Millions died of that virus – famously, more than in battle during the World War I itself. While Hammett wrote about the awful randomness of death, he did not dwell on the ‘flu Itself. Neither did those others who typically shape our sense of that time. There were exceptions, like Edvard Munch, but you will find scant reference in writing, film or on canvas to the the ‘flu. To some extent, ‘Acts of God’ were not dwelt upon unduly – people were simply grateful to move forward. Lessons were drawn and thought led to action.
When Covid-19 is a memory, will we get clear sighted assessment or will we wallow in blame and recrimination? Of course, we might do the latter because we feel our leaders let us down, that their actions failed us.
In the democracies of the Twentieth Century, the results of human action, were treated reasonably. The First World War cast a dark shadow over the early Twenties. The Great Depression did likewise.
The theories of Hayek, and those of Keynes, were distinct attempts to address the economic issues which underpinned the First World War. FDR’s New Deal, however questionable, was similarly a reasoned attempt to face the issues of the Great Depression. The League of Nations although ultimately a failure, was also an attempt to address the causes of the First World War. Feelings were channelled into thought, whenever possible. The dictatorships of Communism, Fascism and Nazism remained emotionally disturbed places, defined by ongoing trauma. Their visceral realm of feeling never quite gave birth to reasoned policy – waves of oppression bred dark and clinging emotions.
It is unsurprising that the totalitarian regimes were central to collapsing the rational structures intended to preserve peace and prosperity – particularly the League of Nations. They did not value the enterprise because it did not feed their rage. What followed was the horror of the Second World War. The subsequent peace gave birth to the United Nations, NATO, and the EU – institutions intended to forestall such disaster again. Likewise, the Marshall Plan and the Bretton Woods system. Once more feeling turned to action.
To what extent do we think through ‘big’ questions these days?
Let’s start with the environment – and the cry of Greta Thunberg, ‘you stole my childhood’. In former times, that remark would have been assessed sceptically. It is celebrated now because it is a self-pitying declaration which chimes with wider unease. Greta rose in defence of a cause which ‘feels’ good – protection of our planet – so her sentiment wins hearts. There is little opportunity to ask if she cites facts accurately (without resorting to an internet search can you actually recall any she offered?). It is sufficient that she ‘feels’ caring and expresses emotions. Instead of allaying concern, or focusing thought, such contributions, unchecked, simply fuel despair and anxiety. They breed hopelessness. There is plenty of data about climate change and the depletion of our natural resources. There is material for a reasoned debate but the agenda has been set by raw emotion.
Public policy debate is largely led by the instincts of the ‘rebels’ and deprecation of the deniers. Until the conversation can move from feeling to thought, it will be puerile, pandering to childlike anxiety.
Terrorism is of course a different matter. The threat is apparent, extreme, random, immediate and personal. It is also an undeniable threat. It has unsettled a broad swathe of society. The hammer blow which fell on America on 9/11 in 2001 was terrifying. It ended a time of ephemeral hope. Before the towers fell, we gloried in the possibilities of technology with a wide sense of optimism – perhaps glib but hopeful. The attack struck at the heart of one of the greatest cities Mankind has ever created. In itself it was historically significant, but what followed has had a long-lasting and global impact.
The ‘de-Baathification’ of Iraq was badly handled. It created the incentive for former regime loyalists to turn to terror – having weapons and no alternative path – and so they did. President Obama’s encouragement of the Arab Spring, followed by inaction, simply took an awful problem in Iraq and spread it across the region. That in turn provided refuge and resources for terrorism – precisely what the invasion of Iraq was intended to prevent.
So, policy was counterproductive. Once terrorism was apparent in Western countries, however, the domestic security and legal response was generally moderate. Rights have been protected and new laws hardly draconian.
Perhaps the most significant twist of mood has been that sense of unease many people have particularly when travelling into big cities or attending major events. We might think about what to do in the event of an attack – escape routes and so on. Most of us, however, tend not to think too deeply about the our personal, infinitesimally small, daily risk. We leave it in the blurry realm of feelings.
Of course much modern terrorism is based on an unnatural expression of faith – a desire to chastise ‘unbelievers’ – ultimately to command or kill them. It is primitive and born from a lack of confidence – an inability to persuade. In part, it is a reaction to modernity, although the proponents have become adept at using the products of our age – particularly social media and the darkest recesses of the internet.
When we feel that we alone can define God’s will and then command others to accept that delineation, perhaps our ‘faith‘ is really in controlling self rather than a creative God? As Chesterton noted, when we cease to believe in God we become capable of ‘believing in anything’. Terrorists might not proceed much further, in actuality, than a hubristic belief in themselves. That is why they hector others. Still, in that respect, they are not alone.
It is fitting that Twitter allows such people to find followers, to become Poundland Prophets. The attention span of our age requires ‘prophecy’ in 280 characters – another reason we too rarely move from feeling to thought.
We are all aware how rapidly communications technology has developed. By 2017, there were 79.17 million mobile subscriptions in the UK with about 95% of households now having mobile ‘phones. The ubiquity of such devices means we have almost continuous access to frequently refreshed web pages and vast quantities of social media commentariat. All too often, specific expertise is treated either as sacrosanct (for example, scientists with narrow expertise held up as generally sage) or discarded if it fails to amplify our pre-set emotions. There is little time for reflection. Instead the commentary offered, on sites like Twitter, whilst sometimes insightful, all too often simply speaks to our anxieties. For every Captain Sir Tom, we have thousands of people whose anger or fear propels them to action without deliberation.
With recent Black Lives Matter protests we have seen some of this. The killing of George Floyd was horrific. It was violence in the extreme. It raises deep questions about racism in American society but also about the general discipline of urban American police forces and the extent of psychosis among officers dealing with a deluge of heavy weaponry in their daily work.
There are so many issues which need consideration – none of which are addressed by simply ‘defunding’ the police. Technology allows – understandable – anger to prompt quick action but our use of it does not always encourage rational public debate. Thus we proceed, in the UK, from anger about violence elsewhere to assault on unarmed policemen here; from toppling the statue of a slaver to removing (blameless) Gladstone’s name from a building.
With social media we also suffer from an amplification effect. Twitter is a fabulous brand but, according to Jay Baer, only about 7% of the American population use the site. There is a strong skew to the ‘chattering classes’ so it gives undue weight to their world view. It gives a false sense of our society’s values yet one which can become definitive.
Along with this, newspapers and TV news are no longer the sole, or even fastest, conduit for information. Instead we turn to them often for opinions which confirm our prejudice, exacerbating the febrile quality of debate. For example, media treatment of Dominic Cummings recently was largely defined by a rush to judgement. Whether or not he actually broke regulations almost mattered less than the writer’s emotionally based preconception of him.
Our ‘thought leaders’ are often simply our biggest ‘emoters’. The effect is to impede our ability to think rationally. It has an impact on our political, commercial and social decisions. It might tend to responses mired in ‘feeling’ which are ‘passive’ – when we become followers – or ‘controlling’ – if we turn to Prophecy. Moreover, such emotion turns us to crave the certainties of infancy. We might crave ‘safe spaces‘, metaphorically and physically, but at some point we will have to accept that they are illusory.
At a social and personal level, we ought to now develop a more mature sense of the limits of our knowledge and control. We ought to appreciate our flaws a little more. We should not expect that we have either the infallibility of God or ‘Infinite Reason’. We need to accept risk in our lives and address it with discernment and thought – accepting the limits of that. Above all, we need leadership which enables individual and collective thought and action, rather than seeks to control the uncontrollable.
Such leadership will best be defined by influence rather than authority. As individuals we will need to ‘think without making thoughts our aim’. We should try to find the sparks of hope in our emotions, consider them carefully – then act. Essentially, we need the ‘positive thinking’ of Morecambe and Wise.