This was the title of a talk by the philosopher and journalist Robert Rowland Smith, at London’s School of Life two days ago.
I have known Robert for a couple of years, during which he has published two books exploring how philosophy is relevant to the everyday dilemmas of modern life: Breakfast with Socrates and Driving with Plato.
The essence of the talk, I think, was that despite regular reminders throughout history of humanity’s less than fully rational nature, we still tend to overestimate our self-control. The constant development of technology not only distracts us from evidence to the contrary, but creates neurotic
dissatisfaction which we tend to worsen by seeking relief in materialism rather than by improving our interpersonal relationships.
I’m not sure that Robert is right in seeing the Western rational “Enlightenment” as perhaps now needing some sort of counter in the form of an Endarkenment”, because I think that contemporary philosophies and psychotherapies, as well as older Romantic Western culture, offer a whole range of ways to explore what Jung called our “shadow aspects”. And some people who are stuck in over-rational ways of life are suffering from biologically-based problems such as depression (1) or autistic spectrum disorders: they may need medication or other treatments to fully take part in philosophical or psychotherapeutic discourse.
It might seem odd that medical technology is sometimes necessary to enable a less technologically-dependent life. But in my view this is just a particular case of science liberating rather than oppressing (2). Philosophy too contains many paradoxes of this kind, such as Wittgenstein’s recommendation that we should simply stop chattering about “things of which nothing can be said”: his non-silence was required first, so that therapeutic silence could follow.
(1) In general the more severe and long-lasting the depression the greater is the need for medication. But some severe depressions may respond well to psychotherapy and/or philosophy, and some mild depressions may respond only to medication.
(2) Of course, technology and science are often used oppressively, or at least with neglect, whether deliberately or by mistake. Antidepressants prescribed after a ten-minute consultation with a GP (rather than a much longer consultation with a GP, psychiatrist or clinical psychologist), including little or no discussion of psychotherapy, amounts to state-sanctioned neglect in my view.
England have today won the Ashes in Australia for the first time since 1986. The media have contrasted the travelling England supporters’ cheerful optimism through the last two dozen years, with the fair-weather Australians, who deserted the stands as this Tour played out.
Like the “Tartan Army” who support the Scotland football team, many of England’s cricket supporters abroad are said to drink heavily and yet stay good-humoured. This “Barmy Army” has attracted the attention of academic sociologists, who suggest that they have created “a new form of English national identity” (1).
“Barmy” of course means “mad” or “insane”. As far as I know, no charity or professional group has censured the “Barmy Army” for the name they have chosen for themselves. To do so would itself be seen as crazed political correctness, which shows the importance of context for language like this (2).
English, (mostly) male sports fans who have been drinking: the more usual image is of football supporters facing off against baton-wielding European riot police (3). Both the Barmy and Tartan Armies show that it is not alcohol itself that inevitably leads to public disorder (4): for that to happen there has to be an advance expectation of hostility and violence. Perhaps the message in the “Barmy” name is that expectations can be changed.
So if toasting England’s Ashes victory tonight, pay attention to context and expectations; before downing those units of fizzy chardonnay, Aussie or otherwise.
(1) Parry M, Malcolm D (2004) England’s Barmy Army: Commercialization, Masculinity and Nationalism. International Review for the Sociology of Sport. March 75-94. I have only read the abstract, at: http://irs.sagepub.com/content/39/1/75.abstract
(2) See ‘ ”Nutters”, “Fruitcakes” and “Loonies” ‘, 30th April 2010: http://drnmblog.wordpress.com/2010/04/30/nutters-fruitcakes-and-loonies/
(3) Documented in Bill Buford (1990) Among the Thugs
(4) A recent article in the Bulletin of the World Health Organisation seems rather confused. Despite the title – Governments confront drunken violence –implying a strong causative role for alcohol, the experts quoted appear to differ widely about social factors. Just one example: France is stated to have a growing problem, but the overall consumption of alcohol in France has continuously fallen in recent decades.
Nick Clegg has apologised for using the word “nutters” to describe the conservatives’ East European allies in the 22nd April leaders’ debate: ”I am acutely aware that the stigma of mental health causes great distress to many people and my use of language that could be considered derogatory was entirely unintentional.”
This seems a bit strange, because much of the language used in these events is pre-planned. Also, only four weeks before the debate, the mental health charity Rethink obtained an agreement from Mr Clegg, together with the other leaders, not to use “mental health slurs” during the election campaign (1).
Less than a year ago the former Labour minister, Denis MacShane, made exactly the same point about the Conservative allies, but using the more derogatory “loonies and wierdos”. This was in the House of Commons, where there appears to be a guideline against “insulting, coarse, or abusive language”, but perhaps significant is the qualification “particularly as applied to other Members [of Parliament]” (2).
Back in 2006 David Cameron talked about UKIP as being “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly”. UKIP’s Nigel Farage demanded an apology over the racism allegation, but interestingly he said that “fruitcakes and loonies” was fine, because “we have a sense of humour”.
So Nick Clegg may have thought that his own language was an improvement on “loonies”.
(2) Some Traditions and Customs of the House: House of Commons Information Office. January 2009