Trauma and the return of hope

I wanted to write something about the recent traumatic events including the Manchester arena bomb, the London Bridge incident, the Grenfell Tower fire. These are very painful and raw events that have been quite distressing to learn about, and I am aware that we still don’t have the full picture. I also wanted to touch on the reaction to these tragedies including the One Love concert, and to give my reaction to the election results. I hope it doesn’t seem disrespectful to connect the two, but to me they represent both the fear and sadness of recent events, and the compassion and hope that have followed them. I should warn you now that the second half of this blog is less psychological and more political than usual. That probably isn’t surprising when I am writing about the election, but I know that type of content is not for everyone so I’ve marked where you might want to skip to the end.

Barring 9/11 I can’t remember a month in my lifetime with more traumatic events. The Manchester bomb killed predominantly young people and parents, and felt very close to home for me. The idea that innocent young people and families going to a concert could be the target for terrorists was unbelievably horrific, and the ages of the victims made the story identify with people of all life stages around the country who could imagine it being their child, grandchild, sibling, friend or parent who was affected. This wasn’t some far away event in another country, where people speak another language or have different culture or appearance that can let us abstract the horror away from ourselves.

The impact of the explosion was felt in ripples that spread far wider than just those who tragically died or were injured in the blast, to those who lost friends, relatives and loved ones, and wider again to those at the concert who witnessed the horrific scenes and felt scared by the situation, the emergency services and NHS staff who responded to it, and those who were peripherally involved in the aftermath of helping people find ways home or places to stay, or in looking for people who were missing. As well as the terrible loss of life, and lasting physical injuries, psychologically these events will have changed the course of people’s lives in various ways and to various degrees.

The same was true of those involved in the events on London Bridge and Borough Market. These were ordinary Londoners and tourists going about their daily life. On another day, or with another roll of the dice this could be any one of us or people that we know. Again, the ripples spread far and wide.

And now we have another unspeakably awful tragedy, where the Grenfell Tower fire has killed and injured large numbers of people representing the full spectrum of age and cultural diversity. What they had in common was living in a tower block built by the council in the 1970s. Preliminary commentary suggests that the decorative and insulating cladding used in a refurbishment of the block was highly flammable and caused the fire to spread rapidly and the compartmentalisation system to fail. If that is true, and it was cost-cutting and a delay in updating the fire regulations that was to blame, then that is unforgivable and needs to lead to legal consequences for those responsible, as well as learning that prevents similar tragedies occurring in the future. I can understand the level of anger that is being expressed by the local residents whose concerns were ignored, and by those who feel that the balance of power in the current political situation means that the lives of people with below average income are given little value compared to the profits of the rich.

Here too the psychological consequences will ripple out widely beyond the horrendous loss of life and physical injuries to those who were bereaved, traumatised by what they witnessed, those who tried to raise the alarm but couldn’t reach everybody, the emergency services who responded so admirably against insurmountable adversity and those more peripherally involved. There will be complex feelings for those who survived when others perished, and I can’t begin to imagine how it must feel for the person whose flat the fire started in. If it is true that a faulty washing machine started the blaze, they must be wondering whether there were any choices they could have made differently that would have prevented or reduced the terrible outcomes that followed. Likewise those on lower floors or adjacent buildings who escaped early on and had to watch others jumping from windows, throwing out children, or being trapped too high to do either. I can’t begin to imagine how that will impact upon them over time, as it was overwhelming to even watch on the limited TV coverage.

Yet, everywhere there is tragedy, we see good people come out to try to help. From the emergency services and NHS staff, to those running charities and organisations to help those affected to those doing practical things on the ground because they happened to be there and felt compelled to do something. The One Love Manchester concert had the highest viewing figures of the year and the fundraising for Manchester victims and charities has topped £11 million. Likewise the fundraising for victims and organisations that can provide support in relation to the London incidents and the Grenfell fire have been astronomical (last figures I read suggested there had been donations of over £1.5 million in 24 hours to causes related to the fire). Overall, following these tragedies we have seen an outpouring of love and kindness on an unprecedented scale.

So perhaps in that context it is not quite as surprising as the political commentators think that the election results suggest the tide is turning against austerity. Public sector workers with frozen pay are those who have been responding to these crises, killing and arresting the terrorists and identifying their networks, fighting the fires and patching up the injured. That means that the public have remembered what heroes they are, and look in a different light at the cuts to the public sector that are preventing them from doing an effective job and mean we are not rewarding them adequately for the essential work that they do. We have also been roused into action to prevent further victims. We can no longer ignore the fact that the NHS and fire service are warning of their inability to provide sufficient cover to meet the need with budgets cut to the bone. Hospitals are struggling to sustain staffing, let alone recruit, without nursing bursaries and international staff. Children are being harmed and dying because of insufficient social care services, and people with disabilities and health problems are suffering and dying because of cuts to their benefits and support packages.

In short, as events have awakened our empathy it has become clear that the government’s policies are without compassion, and are all about protecting big business and the super-wealthy. They are making the rich richer and the poor poorer, and the vulnerable are dying as a result. Tough talk about immigrants and scroungers has been used to justify a lack of public spending coupled with policies that harm the most vulnerable in society – yet the sudden change away from austerity when their electoral majority was lost confirms that these were idealogical rather than economic choices. The negative focus on blaming disadvantaged groups in society has turned the spotlight away from much bigger abuses of the system by international corporations who manage to pay little or no UK tax, and who exploit staff on zero hours contracts, or even force them to work for their benefits through work fare schemes. The wealthiest in society are able to pay accountants and lawyers to help them avoid tax the most, and to hide income in off-shore schemes for tax avoidance purposes.

So at a time when compassion is so needed, and so evident in response to terrible events, there has been a political shift. It hasn’t happened in isolation – we have seen increasing unpredictability in public voting over the last year. I can only make sense of this in terms of a desire for radical change. Young people and those who have felt disempowered and disenfranchised by a political system that seemed to occupy only the middle-right and work only to sustain the vested interests of those who are already wealthy and powerful have been voting for the option that they think will upset the establishment. Sadly, the only options for rebellion available last year were to vote for Brexit and for Trump, or to not vote at all. But this year, as the government has moved the Overton window further right since the Brexit vote, clear blue water has emerged between the parties. And to the surprise of many, the Labour Party has moved left from their centrist policies and candidates of the last decade. Somehow a genuine socialist candidate has been voted into leadership in the form of Jeremy Corbyn, and despite all the efforts of the press and his own party, he has stuck in there stubbornly, growing support from the ground up, and now he seems to have popular support and the potential to be a future Prime Minister.

[If you aren’t a fan of politics, feel free to skip to the last paragraph now, because the second half of this blog is about the election results and what they might mean].

Corbyn might be an unlikely leader following past templates, as he does not use glib press-friendly soundbites. But he is a man who has stuck to his principles throughout his political career, and has been a voice of reason and negotiation when others have been shouting. From day one he has been an authentic voice in a world of spin. Although he was damned for it at the time, he acknowledged the complexity of the issues and did not ally himself fully with either of the polarised sides of the Brexit debate (though he said on balance he would prefer to remain). He has subsequently been able to make a positive campaign in a time in which the fashion is to blame and ridicule. In the words of Michelle Obama that I like so much “when they go low, we go high“. It doesn’t mean not being outraged or angry. It means choosing to focus on how we can solve problems, rather than on denigrating opponents. Corbyn was not only an underdog that would upset the establishment but an opportunity to say enough to austerity. That message has connected with people whilst Theresa May was curiously defensive and robotic, repeating the same soundbites over and over again and refusing to engage in the debate.

Corbyn’s politics roused a new generation of political campaigners (Momentum) who fought a savvy campaign on social media, where it is said a budget of just £2000 reached more voters than over a million pounds spent by the Conservative party. Over 12 million voters saw a facebook post started by a Momentum member in the week before the election. Partly as a result of this, 622,000 people registered to vote for the first time. This image of Facebook reactions to a live stream of the Prime Minister made me smile:

It is obvious to anyone that knows me or anyone who reads what I write that I identify as being on the left of the political spectrum. I was alienated by Labour’s move to the centre, and have become a lifetime member of the Green Party, despite being pragmatic enough to recognise that whilst we have a first past the post voting system the UK will be a two party political system. So I have been quite interested in the rise of the left within the Labour Party, and a fan of Corbyn as an individual politician for some time (I wrote about Corbyn on this blog a year ago).

So, unsurprisingly, I saw the election outcome as a great result. I was afraid that the Tories would get a landslide victory and use it to push through ever more austerity, and channelling of wealth to the super rich. So to see them lose their majority was a brilliant outcome. I’m delighted, and the more I have thought about it the more I think a hung parliament is about the best possible result.

First off the Tories have lost the mandate for their hard right, hard Brexit plans. And young people have been engaged in politics. Hopefully we can prevent repugnant policies like the dementia tax and fox hunting and cuts to education because the majority is so slender and these policies haven’t played well with the public. But I like that brexit will be a Tory problem to resolve, because when it gets messy they will have nobody else to blame. There is a stronger position to oppose boundary changes and to press for electoral reform. Maybe we can improve the terrible cuts to benefits and the regime of sanctions whilst their focus is on damage limitation and Brexit. And the next election might be one in which change is possible.

I don’t think it is a panacea. After so many cycles of hope and disappointment in recent politics, I’m cynical about whether this is the beginning of a sea change, and worried there is still a lot of conservative thinking about the economy and UKIP influenced blaming of foreigners around. I’d like to believe that things will get better from here, but I don’t think we should expect too much too soon. Some of the optimistic predictions of having a Corbyn government by the end of the year, and reaching a point at which the populace don’t want to go through with Brexit by the two year deadline seem just too good to be true. However, I am optimistic about the long game, because of what the analysis about voting patterns shows. Corbyn’s support is younger and more educated than that of his opponents. That is supported by this chart from the Financial Times:

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You can see that over 65s were 35 points more conservative than the UK average, whilst under 45 year olds are more prone to voting progressively. That split by age is a relatively new thing and it has been much more marked over the last two elections. Then I think about what the five year interval between elections means to the population. With half a million older people dying every year, and half a million younger ones becoming eligible to vote, surely over time that will tip things in a positive direction. The only question is whether the tendency of people to swing right as they get older will continue as the current population ages and/or whether the Tories can start to market successfully to these new voters.

I’ve been trying to understand the reason for these demographic shifts, to judge whether the current middle aged moderates are the retired conservatives of the future. From what I have read I’m not sure that the fade from red to blue is inevitable. I think a lot of us who will be entering the top half of that graph soon age-wise grew up under Thatcher and have much more reticence for those kind of policies than the current over 65s who grew up during and soon after the war. We are also more educated (and education is associated with more progressive values) as well as growing up in a more socially liberal world, with greater exposure to diversity. As this article puts it “When my parents first voted in the 1960s, homosexuality was illegal, abortion was largely illegal, the death penalty was still in force and openly racist attitudes were widely acceptable. Now, the death penalty is a distant memory, abortion rights are firmly entrenched, gay marriage is legal” and (perhaps with the exception of the Brexit effect and islamophobia) racism isn’t socially acceptable. Environmental issues are really embedded in the values of young people, and the scientific consensus for climate change and the need to preserve our limited resources has become overwhelming over the last decade or two. Every school has recycling bins and anti bullying policies, every home has energy efficient light-bulbs and lots of products market their green credentials. There is an increased focus on making healthy choices for ourselves and our planet. Anyone under 40 is also growing up immersed in social media, and with the perspectives of the whole world available to them immediately, rather than just the opinion of the local community and the newspapers. The media barons have less influence, and the circulation of the tabloids is decreasing (and there is increased coverage of celebrity “news” within them, and less coverage of the more serious topics).

So I’m optimistic. Despite all of the things in the world that are upsetting people and setting them against each other, I think the march of time takes us towards an increasing prevalence of progressive values. I hope by the time my children are voters the world will be a nicer place, and the Overton window will have moved back to the left.

 

Why and what next?

Let me nail my colours to the mast. On balance, I am in favour of remaining in the EU, and in the USA I’d have voted for Hillary Clinton. I can see some problems with each of these positions, but I can see many many more problems with the option that has actually been chosen. In each case my pros and cons list strongly favoured the progressive choice, because of the potential negative consequences of the other option. But I was in the minority in both cases, and so were half of the electorate (maybe more in the case of Clinton). So rather than just be fed up about that, I want to understand it.

When it comes to Brexit I think it is wrong for the UK to leave the EU for a number of reasons. The unity of many nations ensures that we all maintain basic human rights and the fair rule of law. It prevents the rise of extremists and reduces the risk of international conflict. It was a large single market, and am important strategic alliance. I believe that calling the referendum was a foolish whim from a complacent leader who was too cowardly to face the consequences of his actions. It was supported by xenophobic self-serving politicians and by far-too-influential media moguls with a right wing agenda. I think it has been divisive and stoked xenophobia, as well as causing enormous economic fallout. However, I’m not saying that the EU doesn’t have excessive bureaucracy, or that it hasn’t been excessively harsh on southern European nations like Greece, Portugal and Italy, or that it doesn’t enshrine market capitalism in doctrine.

Likewise I think Donald Trump is a repugnant man whose attitudes to women and minorities are repulsive. He is a sex pest and a tax avoider. His business practices are dishonest, he is a blatant liar and his much touted business acumen is such that he would be three times as rich if he’d just stuck his inheritance into index funds. I find his racist rhetoric abhorrent, and I think he will foster international conflict and unhealthy alliances. So I could never vote for him, and would have voted strategically to avoid him reaching power. However, in choosing Clinton as the lesser of two evils I’m not saying that she doesn’t have vested interests, didn’t support arms sales to the middle east, isn’t associated with numerous scandals or wasn’t stupid to use a private server for her email. In fact I think Obama was right to sum her up in 2008 as someone who would “say anything and change nothing”. If she was running against a more palatable candidate who genuinely supported progressive ideals, I’d be advocating against her. I’m just saying that the idea that Trump could be president was even worse.

In both cases, it was a two horse race, and although I didn’t love either option I felt that one was clearly preferable to the other. That says something about modern politics – that we are voting for the least terrible option, rather than in favour of something we truly believe in. And I want to think a little more about why this is the case. I also want to think a little bit more here about why the results in both these votes went against the polls and against the incumbent business-as-usual candidate, and why the results have been so divisive and triggered such hateful behaviour from segments of the population.

So why did people vote for Brexit and for Trump? It seems that a number of factors contributed. Firstly there were demographic factors – these regressive options particularly appealed to white men and their wives, in areas that have been hit by economic recession. They tapped into a sense that the world is changing and they are being left behind. There was also a real desire for change, not just more of the same select few in the top one percent making all the decisions. The less people feel they have to lose, the more they are willing to gamble that any form of change will be an improvement. Trump carefully marketed himself as an outsider and a voice for change, but that is a carefully designed misrepresentation. It is also contradictory to his simultaneous positioning of himself as a tax-evader and shrewd businessman who is successful and super rich. In reality his businesses face a constant stream of lawsuits for not honouring contracts or dealing with people fairly and it is clear he is out for nobody’s interests but his own. He also has vested interests and hidden agendas all over the place, but this is something we now take as a given for politicians. So how can he connect with the man on the street more than other politicians? The answer seems to be by bucking convention, appealing to the desire for change and speaking in much more simple terms, as well as appealing to fear and self-preservation (some of which sadly overlapped with racism, sexism and homophobia).

Being wealthy and embedded in the establishment is something that also describes the majority of British politicians. Nigel Farage, for example, similarly markets himself as an everyman who always has a pint in his hand, but in reality is a privately educated millionaire ex-banker who claims every EU allowance possible for himself and his German wife, who he employs as his secretary. Cameron led a cabinet of millionaires, and May is herself a millionaire with a network of wealthy donors and has placed even richer men like Philip Hammond and Boris Johnson into her cabinet whilst claiming she will build a fairer Britain that “works for everyone”. They have no idea about the experiences of people who survive on minimum wages or benefits, but they have learnt to talk as if they care, whilst their actions clearly indicate the opposite. And so we have reached a position that everyone in politics is saying much the same things, and nobody appears to be sincere.

One of the big issues of the reaction to the American presidential election result, and to Brexit, is in how we think of ourselves and our fellow voters. It is all too easy to make sweeping brushstrokes about ignorant, selfish, racists. But I’m not convinced that there is as much difference between us as these dichotomous choices imply. Whilst there are some vocal and visible extremists who identify as Brexiteers or Trump supporters, the message clearly resonated with a lot of people in the middle ground who don’t identify with the racist or sexist undertones, but also don’t identify with the current power structure. I suspect a lot of people are fed up with the status quo, and feeling disenfranchised by the current political system. And maybe that has motivated a lot of people to vote for candidates who seem to be anti-establishment, straight-talking and authentic. This Jonathan Pie sketch, which is full of swearing and therefore NSFW, is worth watching.

I can’t say that a desire for change and for authenticity over spin is a bad thing. In fact having sincere politicians who mean what they say and are not motivated by self-interest or masking their true agenda is something that has been sorely lacking in the political arena over the last decade. Likewise a willingness to explore more radical change is something that I would want myself and a lot of more progressive people would support. But in the absence of such messages from the left and centre of the political spectrum, it has instead been harnessed by questionable individuals and causes. And voters have been sufficiently enticed by this message that they have been willing to disregard all of the bile it comes packaged with, a task made easier because it is addressed to groups outside of the main voting demographic. In response the progressive candidate is left to defend these minorities, and ends up looking like they care little for the main group. The regressive candidates and policies make more headlines, perhaps because of bias in the media and lies that have not been sufficiently challenged. Other parties and messages appear reactive, and end up fuelling that discussion rather than presenting their own position.

The more progressive candidates and causes need to work out how to tap into that feeling of disconnection with the establishment and the increasing desire for radical change. If they can do so with policies that will genuinely benefit those who are being left behind in the current austerity politics then they can avert the swing to the right. That will take the right mixture of passion and authenticity, a willingness to be plain spoken about who is to blame for problems, and a push for greater accountability for political claims.

So where now? First, I think we need to learn from our mistakes and not be complacent that progressive politics are now the default position. We need a return to politicians that mean what they say, and speak with authenticity and passion. We need people who get fired up about the issues and speak from the heart, rather than with spin and polish that hide vested interests.

Second, we need to explain that the same few people have all the power and are increasingly gathering the wealth away from everyone else, and to show the economic value of being kind to the more vulnerable sectors of the population. We need to demonstrate that the threat comes from above (the rich and powerful people who control the media and the corporate and private interests that have powerful lobbies that manipulate our political system) not below (immigrants, benefit claimants, people in minority groups). We need to name the organisations and individuals who are spreading hate and cheating the man on the street by avoiding paying their fair share of tax, and turn the rhetoric of blame to more appropriate targets.

Third, we need to show that the system is rigged to support the establishment, and needs to be overhauled. That may mean setting fair boundaries and catchments to prevent gerrymandering, preventing conflicts of interest and restricting lobbying, looking at the terms and roles for nominated unelected officials (eg striking out members of the house of Lords that are not actively involved in political debate) and/or changing the first-past-the-post system.

Fourth, we must hold people and organisations to account for their lies and false claims. We must give consequences for propaganda, misinformation and promises that are not fulfilled. We need to hold politicians to account for the claims that they make, and ensure that they cannot benefit from lies and deception.

Fifth, we must do much more work to engage those who are feeling disenfranchised, rather than excluding them because they have turned their resentment to the wrong place and are being selfish/xenophobic etc. We need to explain the issues, using short clear soundbites rather than long intellectual explanations whenever possible, so that these can be accessible to a wide audience and shared over social media. We need to be down to earth and not make assumptions about underlying knowledge or values. We need to understand that many people are feeling excluded and shamed for not sharing progressive values, and reach out to them starting with empathy for their current situation, their hopes and fears.

But finally, and most importantly, we need to continue to educate our children to be better than the generations that came before them. We can teach kids to care about each other, the environment and social issues and to not discriminate by gender, race, sexuality etc. We need to help them to become critical thinkers who can evaluate what people say and don’t just accept a lie as the truth. Then over time, the population will change, and progress will continue beyond what seems possible in the present.

I can see that right now it seems overwhelmingly sad and frustrating and many people don’t know what to do with those feelings. This negative focus and tendency to turn towards anger and fear is not surprising. We are sensitive to threat, and fear impedes our ability to use empathy and rational analysis. Our brains are programmed to look at immediate risk and the local picture. We are sensitive to potential threats and we easily catastrophise and generate worst case scenarios. We find it hard to conceptualise the bigger picture as this involves timescales outside our own lifetimes, and populations we have never met and can hardly imagine. But my real hope is in the inexorable march towards progress that is happening over the last century around the world. So whilst we seem to have taken a depressing step backwards it is good to remember that progress is often two steps forward one step back.

There has always been a pattern of economic booms and busts, political cycles including changes that seem awful, and international conflicts that kill hundreds of thousands and displace millions. When we focus on these negatives, it feels pessimistic and makes us worry it is all downhill from here. Like a panic attack, we see worst case scenarios and look for escape, rather than realising we can work through it. But over human history we have rebounded from all of these things before, and the same problems have been around before only bigger. For all his hateful rhetoric, Trump isn’t Hitler. Although he is set to enact policies that are homophobic and xenophobic, he has already backed away from some of his more extreme claims, and even in a worst case scenario he won’t kill millions of people. And like with May as Prime Minister here, things will continue much like normal for most people. I’m not dismissing the horrible impact of the rise in prejudice against various minority groups, or the risk of repealing some rights, but in the bigger picture they are temporary and against the overall direction of travel.

When we look at the wider view, the future seems much more optimistic. Science continues to make new discoveries that enhance our health, reduce energy consumption, deal with environmental issues and better understand our place in the universe. Technology and access to information and media are allowing people all round the world to access information and different perspectives. Life expectancy has increased remarkably (even in the face of increasing obesity bringing a rise in diabetes and heart disease, and austerity politics increasing mental health problems and suicides). Smoking is declining. Cancer treatment is more effective. Deaths from road traffic accidents are steadily falling. Even HIV is now treatable and prophylactic medication is available. Despite the constant headlines that make us feel otherwise, deaths from homicides have fallen over time in Europe and wavered and then fallen in the USA. Deaths from wars have massively decreased over time, and even the horrible events in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq are of a smaller scale than previous international conflicts. More and more nations have democracy, women’s rights, gay rights, access to justice and protection of human rights. I believe that the future for humanity is one of steady progress with temporary set-backs. And we should never forget that from enough distance we are just a pale blue dot.

Exploiting the ignorant: From quack cures to the rise of Trump

I was reading today about a man called Braco (pronounced Bratzoh) who is the centre of a personality cult that believes his “gaze” (looking out into a crowd and not speaking for 5-7 minutes) can heal health problems and have a positive impact on people’s lives and the lives of their loved ones. He does free online gaze sessions, and cheap or free local events all around the world in order to market books, DVDs and items of jewellery containing his golden “sun symbol” (many for $500+ each). I see nothing more than a man who learnt how profitable it was to be a fake healer from a mentor in a similar line of work, and took on his audience and methodologies (but without the stress of having to give any advice, or the risks of making any claims about himself that could be proven false).

Yet, nonetheless he has a plentiful audience of believers. People claim remarkably diverse experiences and attribute all kinds of random positive events in their lives to his gaze. One contributor believes that Braco cured the hearing loss of a newborn whose parent and grandparents went and gazed (and bought the $500+ trinket). Unknown to them, 13% of children identified with newborn hearing loss spontaneously recover, without any superstitious interventions. It reminds me of Tim Minchin’s fantastic song Thank You God [link contains swearing] that describes alternative explanations for a “miracle” in which a lady’s cataracts are “cured by prayer”. These include spontaneous remission, misdiagnosis, a record-keeping glitch, a lie or misunderstanding. He mentions the power of confirmation bias, groupthink, and simplistic ideas of causality based on temporal correlation (as was the case with autism and MMR). On the internet there is also the significant possibility that the review is fabricated.

The same story repeats all over the world. People are paying something for nothing more than woo in numerous seances, palm readings, psychics, mediums, crystal therapies, quack nutritionists, chiropractors, reiki, all energy therapies, coffee enemas, homeopathy, reflexology, magical weight loss products, Bach flower remedies, most vitamin supplements, magnetic items making health claims and anything that promises to “detox”. In fact, any one of us could invent our own snake-oil or novel form of quackery. And then we could invent some titles and qualifications and go on TV as an “expert” to promote them. The trade is worth in excess of £500 million per year in the UK alone. Quackwatch is a good reference point – I check doubtful health claims there, just as I check doubtful internet stories on Snopes.

We are 250 years past the enlightenment in which the ideas of reason and science supposedly gained supremacy over superstition and liberty progress and tolerance gained traction over dogma. Yet here we are in so many ways believing in magic and witch hunts. The public doesn’t understand science, is wedded to superstition, or simply has overwhelming credulity and a lack of critical thinking. This is the same culture that created plausibility for Andrew Wakefield’s weird “measles immunisation” recipe that contained his own blood and goat colostrum and that pushed an appropriately skeptical professor of complimentary and alternative medicine into early retirement because he wouldn’t endorse homeopathy and reflexology on the NHS.

No wonder in the Brexit campaign and in Trump’s electoral campaign there has been such wide deviation from the facts. The public have been told to disregard experts and go with their gut feelings, or with the guy who they could imagine meeting in the pub. That is a very poor way to judge the evidence base, and (as we have discovered with Brexit) a very easy way to be sold a pup. I can’t understand why it is not a crime, or even a disgrace, to lie to the public. Why were there not enquiries and reprimands for people who knowingly lied about the £350 million pounds a week extra that was supposed to go to the NHS if we left Europe? The answer is because we have better protections against a drink being sold with false weight loss claims than we do over vote-changing political claims.

It is interesting to explore why people don’t trust experts, and here it seems that there are a few dimensions that are important. Knowledge is only trusted if it is coupled with a perception of benevolence, and presented in words that people understand and don’t feel patronised by. It is all too easy for people with expertise to use jargon or technical terminology that makes sense in their field, for readers of the journals they publish in or in conversation with their peers, but that makes the content inaccessible to lay people, who then think of the expert as being part of an intellectual elite who are sneering down at them from a position of superiority.

And some people seem to deliberately manipulate any show of expertise to make it seem that particular commentators are not connected with the experience of ‘the man on the street’. Michael Gove (linked above) was probably the pinnacle of this, but Trump also directly appeals to this distrust of experts, and seems to bank on his audience not caring about his content being proved to be factually incorrect later down the line. Tim Minchin captured my feelings and frustrations about this rising anti-intellectualism (and Brexit and even Donald Trump in passing) here [contains swearing, I’d recommend watching from 24 to 35 mins in].

But it is becoming more and more common. I was listening to the radio earlier this week and flicked over from Radio 4 to Radio 2 to hear the host Vanessa Feltz tell a labour party spokesman that the word “narrative” when used in context, with four repetitions of the word “story”, was jargon that was beyond her and her listeners and proudly proclaimed that it was similar to the teaching that went over her head at university (listen at 15:00 for just over a minute). She seemed to want him to pitch his vocabulary lower, whilst showing her own insecurity about wanting to be clever by using the word “elucidate” herself in her instruction to him to do so! It was particularly notable in contrast to Radio 4, where the words that she criticised, such as “managerial”, “technocratic” and “narrative” would not stand out in the discussion or require definition. Maybe it is just a mark of my age and changing listening preferences, but I would always prefer to have conversation pitched at the level that I learn from, than patronisingly dumbed down.

It is also a reminder that, despite a natural tendency to consider ourselves pretty much average at everything, very often we fail to recognise our own levels of skew within the population. My politics are left of average, my income and intellect above average, just as my physical fitness is below average. But this deviation from the norm does not stand out to me as I have sought out a peer group of other professional, intellectual lefties. In my peer group, the remain preference was so strong that the vote to leave the EU was quite a shock!

Similarly, despite having written a book to try to make the scientific knowledge around attachment and developmental trauma accessible to care givers and professionals from other fields, and working hard to make psychological knowledge available through this blog and various forum posts, not everyone finds my writing accessible. For every ten positive views of the book there is one person who feels I pitched it too high. I’m sure I’m as guilty as the next person of knowing the meaning I intend to convey, and therefore not always recognising when I have not communicated this effectively. So please do point it out to me!

 

 

Hope out of chaos

I’ve written a lot about how distressing I’ve found the vote to leave the EU, the increase in overt racism, and the move to the right politically. In fact I’ve been quoted more widely than expected on this topic, with my letter published by the Psychologist website, a quote in a fantastic column in New Scientist and even this blog being quoted on Buzzfeed because I used to work with one of the Conservative Leadership contenders. Theresa May has just become Prime Minister, and my feeling is that she was the best of a bad lot. However, what saddens me at the moment is all the in-fighting in the labour party.

Let me nail my colours to the mast. I consider myself to be political, but not party political. I’m significantly left of centre when it comes to the political spectrum, and believe in progressive policies. I’d like to reduce the wealth gap, strengthen public services and reduce inequality through improved education and opportunities (including properly funded legal aid). I want to remove donations and corporate lobbying from our political system, and replace them with a fixed fee for membership and proportionate central funding. I believe in taxation on inheritance and property, bonuses and the top 1% of wages, but also the Robin Hood tax on financial transactions. I don’t believe in taxing sanitary products, heating, e-books, or any services provided to support free-at-the-point-of-access health or social care.

In terms of current political parties, I have a lot of admiration for the Green Party and the SNP, but I’ve never been in a location where there is an option to vote for either of them. In fact, I have always lived in safe Conservative seats. Until the death of John Smith I would probably have considered the Labour Party as my closest match politically. After that I felt homeless. I voted for the Lib Dems once, but felt betrayed by them entering the coalition with the Conservatives and supporting tuition fees.

Authenticity, empathy/mentalisation and reflective capacity are skills that I look for in the parenting assessments I do for the family courts. I consider them to be essential attributes when it comes to forming human relationships, so whether or not I see them in a politician really is make or break for me. And they are much rarer than you would hope.

John Smith was the last place I saw authenticity in the Labour leadership. I never could trust Blair, because his smile never reached his eyes, and his body language never seemed congruent with his verbal content. It was as if he had been so carefully schooled not to give away his true feelings that there was a hint of the uncanny valley. Likewise, Brown looked as forced when he smiled as May and Leadsom’s recent grimacing contest, like early models for Blade Runner style replicants. Milliband was so socially awkward that he was hard to feel any connection with (though in the pre-election interview with Russell Brand he seemed to relax a little and I saw a glimpse of something likeable and real that I’d not seen before).

The millionaire cabinets filled with chums from Eton and Oxbridge that have formed the last two governments have all looked to me like posh teenage boys that had teleported into adult bodies and, like the plot of a formulaic film, were trying to pretend to be grown ups doing responsible jobs and hoping they got to have sex before the switch was discovered. Bumbling Johnson and Trump have both learned to mask the threat they present by modifying their body language to appear ridiculous enough not to be taken seriously.

In short, politics has become a world full of phonies. The exception to this has been Barack Obama. His election gave me hope for the world, and I think he has been pretty authentic throughout his two terms (though any real power to create change, such as gun reform, has been leached away by the broader politics around him). I have particularly enjoyed him as he has become less guarded and shown his sense of humour more as he reaches the end of his term in office. His books are high up on my list of reading material next time I go on holiday, or if I ever have more time available.

And now there is Jeremy Corbyn. Since the death of Tony Benn, I see him as the one authentic option amongst a sea of vested interests and spin.

If I’m allowed to metaphorically liken the political changes around Brexit to a flood, then it has felt like we are wading through knee deep brown water contaminated with the sewage of repulsive opinions that is pooling in the homes and buildings all around us. Much of the established political road network has been flooded or washed away. My every instinct is telling me to get as far away from the mess as possible. However, the only person not being swept along with that tide has been Jeremy. He’s just been quietly organising teams that are going around door to door checking if people are okay, and trying to plan what needs to be done to clean up and repair the damage. He doesn’t have the uniform or back-up of the emergency services, but nobody has really seen them doing anything beyond trying to divert the water around the corporate skyscrapers, so he’s become something of a local hero. The news is blaming excessive rainfall up river, and congratulating the emergency services for keeping the businesses dry, whilst criticising “have a go heroes” for interfering, and saying it will take many years before flood protections or repairs can be organised.

Some people say Corbyn is too far left, and unelectable. To that I’d say you don’t need to be electable to be an effective opposition, and to change policy and the scope of discussion. UKIP have demonstrated that brilliantly over the last five years! Opposition has changed policy in a number of key ways over the last few years (making a series of government u-turns over cuts to benefits). If we had a coherent labour party giving a unified voice to this opposition we could achieve even more, whether or not we achieve a Labour government. It seems that the goal of gaining power has become of higher priority to some PLP members than the goal of making a difference for the constituents they represent.

I think Corbyn is one of the few people that understands that British politics is broken at the moment. Too much influence is purchased with party donations and sponsorship, and too many rich people are right at the top and making decisions with self-interest at the core. We need to reform that, and get genuine representation of the people. We need to reengage the people who are not voting more than we need to fight over the middle ground. We need to help people identify as working class and fight for their rights, despite the tide of propaganda getting them to blame immigrants, the EU and the vulnerable. Again, Corbyn is as close to that as I’ve seen in my adult life. He has no affiliations or financial interests outside of his job as a politician, and he has refused to kowtow to wealthy donors.

I fully accept that he hasn’t given his opinions in snappy soundbites. But I can’t see that as a bad thing. Issues like leaving the EU are complex, not black or white, and they merit reflection and discussion not just a yes/no answer. So I think that whilst people say he is losing the game, he is actually trying to play a different game, and one I think is a damn sight better.

I think Corbyn is a breath of fresh air in British politics. So I am very sad to see the way he has been treated by the PLP. Whilst complaining that he cannot lead, they have refused to follow him, despite his inclusiveness when it came to selecting the shadow cabinet.

To stretch another metaphor, I see it like an artist agreeing to make a mural with 200 aspiring young artists from local schools, and then finding out that 140 of the names on the list are of kids who are not engaged in mainstream education and have no interest in art. The way I see it, the artist’s only option is to try and make everyone feel included, select widely for those who are to take each role in making the mural, and then when kids don’t turn up, to fill the gaps with those who are keen to get on with the project. Sure, the artist can try to go out and meet with each kid who doesn’t turn up and try to engage them in the joys and challenges of the project, but that will mean they give a whole lot of energy to fruitless battles and will sap away the time for actually creating the art. The artist can’t fix the system that was stacked against them within the time given, so it makes sense to just get on with the art itself, in collaboration with the kids who want to work with them.

The only difference is that all labour MPs should want to create this piece of art, because in the terms of my metaphor they are art students and it is the course they signed up for, even if the style of the artist isn’t the familiar commercially driven billboards they were expecting. The result might still be surprisingly beautiful.

I believe the Leave campaign had massive appeal because it became a way to express dissatisfaction with the status quo, when the neoliberal hegemony meant that people could hardly see the difference between the mainstream political parties. Voting leave became a way for people who were feeling disenfranchised to thumb their nose at authority, to try to disrupt the established political systems. If that conclusion is correct, then I believe that this desire for change could as easily swing left as right, if the media and prominent voices from that side offered targets to blame (eg bankers and millionaires who buy politics) and promised easy solutions (tax bonuses and top 1% salaries, robin hood tax, fixed funding and no donations to political parties). The Labour Party need to unite to harness this desire for change, and to show that they can deliver it.

But not only have they not connected with the people or the media, they have allowed Theresa May to seize their territory by making a speech claiming that the Conservative Party can serve the working class (despite almost every claim directly contradicting with her voting record), whilst the only Labour news is about how the PLP don’t have faith in their leader, and have shown this in less and less dignified ways. The in-fighting has become increasingly ugly. Watching charismaless Eagle squirm whilst Leadsom’s resignation stole the press from her launch may have been the most cringe-inducing moment so far this year. But it is clear from the lack of policy or answers to any questions that she stands for nothing apart from not being Corbyn. I also suspect she has been goaded into being a stalking horse to allow other members of the party with leadership ambitions to come forward with less risk.

Meanwhile 130,000 new members have joined (or returned to) the Labour Party because they like Corbyn’s approach to reforming politics, and share the hope for change. And instead of being welcomed with open arms, they are having the door slammed in their face by the PLP, who assume (wrongly) that they represent militant left-wingers rather than members who lapsed during the New Labour years but have now returned because of seeing a return to principles, young people who have engaged with politics for the first time, or the disenfranchised members of the general public that they should want to connect with. Nearly 600,000 members could be an amazing force for changing politics in the UK – that’s just over 1% of the voting population, nearly four times the Conservative membership, more than ten times the membership of UKIP and the largest membership of a political party in modern times. In my opinion, making exclusionary rules as to who can vote for the party leader and chasing the centre ground is exactly the wrong move to make, and will end in anger, legal challenges and a split in the party. But it seems that touch paper was lit before the referendum, and emotions are only getting higher, so I doubt the insight to avert it will arrive now.

If there is any hope we can make politics more authentic, and/or bring it back to the basics of representing the electorate, then that could give some meaning to all of this chaos for me. The one advantage of chaos and disruption to established systems is that change is possible. And the one person who has been consistently showing the qualities I’d want to lead that change is Corbyn.

So here’s hoping that we can make something positive out of the ashes of the current firestorm. I would welcome positive change right now, in whatever form it takes!

 

Not seeing the wood for the trees: A blog on progress and setbacks

After 3 days of feeling overwhelmed with depression about the referendum result and rise of racism, to the point of being immobilised and pessimistic about the future, I went out for a walk in the sunshine this afternoon.
 
I looked at the trees that have grown for much longer than I’ve been alive, and will still be growing long after I am gone. I noticed the way that rivers travel through the landscape making imperceptible changes that can cut through stone over time. And I thought about how evolution means that current species of plants, birds, animals and insects can make better use of their environment than their predecessors.
 
It made me think how much progress there has been in the last century in terms of human society across the world. We’ve made massive steps forward in science. We’ve cured diseases and developed more effective treatments and means of prevention. World poverty has reduced, infant mortality has fallen, and life expectancy has increased. We’ve seen the world from space, and started to map the universe and the genome. We’ve become a more secular society. War and violence are reducing enormously over time. Our tolerance of prejudice has reduced massively. Human rights have been championed in more and more countries. Gay marriage is now enshrined in law in most western democratic nations. We are more aware of finite energy resources and more mindful of the environment. Through increasing internet connectivity, many more people have access to information than ever before.
 
I realised that by the time our kids are adults the world will be very different to how it is now. They have grown up in a different age, with more awareness of the environment, greater opportunities for travel, and much wider access to information than any generation before them. They are world citizens, born into an age of technology and opportunity. I hope they will build a kinder and more tolerant society because of that.
 
It is easy to focus on the depressing headlines in the news, and the latest murders or racist incidents – but they make the news because they aren’t everyday events that we turn a blind eye to. We might have just taken a massive step backwards in the UK, but progress marches onwards, and despite all the skirmishes and set-backs, good triumphs in the end.
 
I believe the UK is mostly full of decent people who care about each other. Sure, much of the British media is full of poisonous propaganda, that blames the vulnerable rather than letting us look upwards at the wealthy and powerful who are siphoning off our rights and resources for their personal gain. And yes, the ideological choice of austerity has increased the wealth gap and made many people feel they had little to lose. And yes, a lot of people feel disenfranchised and were so used to being ignored that they voted for change without knowing what the change would mean. But I think the proportion of people who are genuinely racist and hateful is smaller than it appears. And the rest of us want to find a peaceful, progressive way forward.
So we need to stop being overwhelmed, stop the collective messages reinforcing our learned helplessness, and put our heads together and push for the most positive outcome possible. We need to all engage in the political process. Let us stop mourning the loss of the country we had and work together for a better one.

Terrorism revisited

I feel very very sad about the referendum results, but not entirely surprised given the previous election results.

I think the campaign has been fought on dishonest ground that didn’t represent what we were voting for, and the referendum and the Brexit campaign were the culmination of a particular message being pushed by vested interests in the media and politics for many years. It is part of a bigger problem of politics becoming ever more a game of the super-rich, corporate lobbying and propaganda, and less about representing what the majority of the electorate actually want. I think it is a sign of big trouble with the democratic process when two thirds of the cabinet are millionaires, and that demographic represents only 1% of the population, whilst they are supposed to speak for the breadth of the UK.

I’m not convinced that concerns about immigration are the unspoken elephant in the room, so much as one of a number of targets that keep on and on getting vilified and scapegoated for all of society’s ills. To paraphrase the metaphor: An immigrant, a voter and a millionaire politician are sitting at the table with 10 cookies. The politician takes 9 to give to his chums and then tells the voter “watch out, the immigrant is going to steal your cookie”.

What is unspoken is the responses we need to challenge these poisonous messages and to remind us that there but for fortune we could be in the shoes of an economic migrant, an asylum seeker, a single mother, a person with disabilities, a parent of a child with special needs, someone who loved that child that died because we didn’t have proper health and social care services, someone without legal representation, unemployed, the victim of racism/sexism/homophobia, the generation that live through war, etc. We should want to protect human rights and public services, legal aid, benefits and victims of crime, and to prevent war because we are them and they are us.

But somehow the talk was all focused on the money, and the immigrants, and the pointless bureaucracy of the EU. Maybe I am naive or cynical, but I think that a group of people have been actively driving that narrative for a long time, I don’t believe it is an organic grass-roots concern that has spontaneously bubbled up. I think there are vested interests pushing us towards greater income disparity, blaming of the vulnerable, and encouraging prejudice, selfishness and nihilism. I don’t think people are stupid, I think people have been drip fed right-wing propaganda for many many years, that blames all ills on “immigrants” and “benefits scroungers” so that we don’t look too hard at austerity politics and see all the vested interests. If there was a credible alternative, they’d as easily target that rage against the bankers, the corporations dodging tax and using zero hours contracts, and those using tax havens to hide their cash – all of which I consider to be much more legitimate targets.

As this article in the BMJ eloquently explained, the less people feel they have to lose, the more willing they are to take a gamble on a potentially risky outcome. And the results of austerity politics mean that large swathes of people are suffering financially, and feel powerless, hopeless, disenfranchised and exploited. At the same time as the referendum we have seen an even more tragic set of events unfolding that I think have the same underlying cause.

With the Miami mass shooting and the murder of Jo Cox (and longer ago, the shootings in Paris), I think that we have seen the ugly underbelly of what happens when people feel desperate and voiceless, and are radicalised by hearing poisonous messages blaming particular people for their unhappiness or lack of success in life. Both were horrendous acts, targeting people who had done absolutely nothing wrong in order to convey some kind of political message. Both were incredibly distressing to hear about, let alone for those who were personally involved.

Jo Cox was my age to within a fortnight and had a similar family configuration, so it has really hit home that her husband and kids will never see her again, just because she spoke out for compassion and inclusiveness. She is someone I had never heard of before she was attacked, but the more I read about her the more I like and admire her. She was taking action for the good of others, and she was a great example of our democracy. I have donated to the fund in her memory, and the fact it topped a million pounds in just a few days, suggests that I am not alone in wanting to take some kind of positive action in the face of such awful news.

And with that in mind, and the clear indications that this was politically motivated terrorism with a far-right agenda, I wanted to say something about all the references to mental illness. Being mentally ill doesn’t mean you kill people and killing people doesn’t mean you’re mentally ill. Doing something awful that we can’t understand is not the same as being mentally ill. One in four people has a mental illness, a characteristic as widespread as blond hair. The vast majority of them will never hurt anyone, and are at no greater risk of doing something awful than anyone else (although they are disproportionately the victims of violence). It is abhorrent to stigmatise all those people because of the actions of one person, even if he may have had mental health issues. He didn’t kill Jo Cox because he had mental health problems. He killed her because he wanted to promote his repugnant fascist beliefs.

I posted on Facebook about the causes of terrorism earlier in the week when the discussion was about the Miami mass murder, and this is exactly the same. This was what I wrote:

Just a reminder, but mental illness is not a cause of terrorism. There is pretty good research that has disproved this popular myth. People do awful things. We can’t understand that and we want to feel like they are different from us, so we assume their mind is broken. In fact the research says that it is a combination of a strong need to belong, coupled with a sense of marginalisation and injustice, dehumanisation of enemies, group processes where beliefs get hyped up into extreme actions and strong religious beliefs. Intelligent men who underachieve are particularly at risk for this radicalisation. That is, ordinary people with no genetic or mental abnormalities get pulled down a particular path by their experiences and social networks.

From a paper by Silke after 9/11:

“It is very rare to find a terrorist who suffers from a clinically defined ‘personality disorder’ or who could in any other way be regarded as mentally ill or psychologically deviant (Silke, 1998). Ultimately, the overwhelming majority of terrorists (and this significantly even includes suicide bombers) are average, normal individuals who in other circumstances would be quite unremarkable. Their involvement in terrorism is not the result of psychoses, inner traits or aberrant personalities. Rather, in most cases it is an understandable response to a series of life events.

The causes of terrorism need to be focused on – not just the actors. Once you are forced to throw away the ‘terrorists are different’ model, then attention must be given to other areas. An important realisation here is that becoming involved in terrorism is a process. Nobody is born a terrorist. Neither does anyone wake up one morning and decide abruptly that on that day they are going to start planting bombs in public streets. Becoming a terrorist is in the first instance an issue of socialisation. Any given society will possess some minorities or disaffected groups who rightly or wrongly perceive that the world is treating them harshly. In some cases there are genuine and very substantial causes for grievance. Individuals who belong to or identify with such disaffected groups share in a sense of injustice and persecution. It is from such pools that individual terrorists emerge”.

Western politicians will easily condemn muslim extremists, but in America in particular they find it much harder to look at terrorism fueled by prejudice, in this case racism (but previously by homophobia and religion) – because, like the gun lobby, it has so much popular support. I don’t have any solutions for that, but we do need to name the problem, and the problem is the rise of right wing regressive ideas, fueled by prejudice and religion, blaming every vulnerable minority whilst turning a blind eye to the rich and powerful exploiting the rest of us.

I want my country back from all this hatred and fear-mongering. We need to stop blaming the vulnerable, and start looking at the political system that has created an increasingly divisive and selfish society.