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Cognitive Column - March 2015

Not quite sure when you’ll get to read this, but hopefully soon enough that it is still appropriate to wish you a Happy New Year. I sincerely hope that for most, if not all of you, your personal sphere has generally been a happy one; that certainly doesn’t seem to be the case on the World stage. At the local level it is likely that we are surrounded by reasonably like-minded individuals; it is when local begins to expand towards general that incompatibilities start to create difficulties. It is sometimes argued that around seven is the ideal group size, which it may well be for decision making, but groups clearly need to increase if large-scale projects are to be realised. The Egyptians were, of course, only able to build pyramids because they had sufficient builders, but they also needed a large enough body of farmers to grow food both for themselves and for the builders (not to mention the priests and so on). Unfortunately, as soon as there is a division of labour there is the likelihood of forming sub-groups (e.g. workers and bosses) and between these there is a good chance of friction developing. Nevertheless, an overarching group identity can often keep things running reasonably smoothly, and that is what nations generally seem to have achieved.

Today the World has become so small that nations are overlapping and interfering to an unprecedented degree, and with disastrous results. In times past an intrepid Englishman could explore foreign parts, safe in the knowledge that he was from a superior race. He (naturally it was a man, being that little bit more superior than an Englishwoman) didn’t much mind what the natives got up to; he merely observed, then returned home to describe the quaint customs and have a general reinforcing of the maxim “British and Best”. Nowadays, quaint customs can leak across borders and travel on planes, and they no longer look so quaint. Unfortunately, Britain and indeed much of the Western World still thinks that Western ways are best, rather than seeing them as just one possible set of ways that happen to hold our society together, while other configurations and customs are likely to be equally stable.

“Ah, but . . . ,” some might argue. Western values uphold human rights: freedom, right to life and so on. These, it would be claimed, are absolute values that trump any local customs. There are all sorts of arguments against that position, but let’s just ask why, if the sanctity of life is paramount, our governments send troops to kill people abroad. That’s certainly not the Christian way. Of course some religious leaders have attempted to argue the case for a just war, but the Christian message is clear: turn the other cheek. Does that sound familiar? Yes, Islam is apparently a peaceful religion too. What people do and what they preach in their religions are entirely disconnected, so religion has no useful place in these considerations. Instead we can look at the notion of “The Greater Good”: that by killing a few people we are saving many – especially us! So, girding up our loins with truth and putting on the breastplate of righteousness (I kid you not, it’s in the Bible) we go and kill or provide weapons for others to kill the wicked. We save Afghanistan and Iraq (for the third time now) help Libya become a decent democracy like us, and have a stir for salvation in Syria. If these were fireworks and we’d read the label we would light the blue touch paper and retire immediately, but we don’t. Having lit it we hang around for a bit to make sure the conflagration is sufficiently spectacular. Of course a lot of our troops die, but it’s for the greater good; they are saving many more. Finally we leave, with our leaders explaining what a wonderfully worthwhile thing has been achieved. From the vantage point of the moral high ground we then get a great view of all these inferior foreigners in strange garb killing each other. What else would we have expected after destroying their version of stability? Countless thousands have died or been banished to a miserable existence as refugees. There is no version of the greater good argument that can put that balance sheet in the black, not even because it keeps us safer; that is the last and largest lie. If Blair had not taken us into Iraq, and if we had avoided subsequent conflicts, it is highly likely that Britain would have been spared most of the terrorist threats we have suffered.

As a result of the actions of Western Governments we have people with very different customs on our streets, people for whom life has a very different value. If psychology teaches us anything it is that our reality is an interpretation and a construct, built upon a selective awareness of our surroundings. Such a process is strongly influenced by culture. Like many of my generation, I was brought up as a church-goer, so had some sort of Christian belief system. Back in those days I remember hearing a “Jesus joke” which seemed rather shocking. Today I have no faith and can see no rational basis for a belief in God (or Allah). Nevertheless, I would still feel a certain awkwardness in repeating the joke; cultural values are very powerful and enduring. Had the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists been aware of this simple truth they might still be alive today. If we believe we have a right to impose our values on the citizens of other countries, it is unsurprising that some of their people feel they have a right to visit Paris and impose theirs.

Psychology, like any other science, has become involved with war, both in the destruction of others and in the putting together again of the mentally wounded. Today it has been announced that the British Army will be setting up a whole brigade devoted to Psyops – psychological operations. There’s nothing new in this, except perhaps the large numbers who will now be employed in these activities. They will be involved in winning the hearts and minds of people who see things rather differently from us, of sowing seeds of doubt, planting misinformation and undermining the morale of those who are actively against us. The Americans are very much into the idea, and one source in the US explains that the objective is to facilitate “the dissemination of truthful information to foreign audiences in support of U.S. policy and national objectives.” Truthful information? Hmmm! Of course I’m cynical, who wouldn’t be, but at least this is better than killing the opposition and creating more problems than are solved.

Well, what a bleak offering for the start of the New Year! There is, of course, so much that is good too, and I must choose a more cheerful topic for next time. Just to be going on with, let’s remember those brave people of many nations, who have crossed borders and tried gently to change customs, in order to halt the dreadful advance of Ebola. Yes, there is a self-interest, as we don’t want it to spread here, but that became the driver as soon as governments were involved, sending money and troops. Before that it was good people, driven by the finest motives, and no doubt aware that it is always better to work with, or for; seldom to work against.

As I said earlier, it is easier to find likeminded people at the local level, and this reminds me, I must finish this and get to my local. They’ve asked me to do a pub quiz and I’m dreading that either everyone will get all the answers or no one will get any of them! I’ll leave plenty of time for drinking between rounds – that should sort out the mental processes of any who are too clever, and make the rest not mind that they have no points. Anyway, it’s playing the game that counts isn’t it, not winning – that’s the British and Best way!

Very best wishes,

Peter

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