Generally Speaking

‘Truth and Reason are part of the Authority they are challenging.’

Thank you for helping me to remember that.

I don’t think I said very much.  I was looking at the little horse

I had suggested we stopped walking for a moment, ostensibly to look at the little horse (and photograph it, complete with its stumpy legs, as you see in the picture), but actually so that I could write down my precious new idea before I forgot it again.

Something about Reason – that was what I had been saying as we walked together yesterday morning – Authority, and what was happening in today’s world to Truth. There was some new way of putting it together that had come to me suddenly last night when I was in the last stage of consciousness before going to sleep. Too close to sleep to summon the willpower to rouse myself and write it down. In case it evaporated in the night.

Which of course it did.

A few hundred yards back, as our path emerged from the woods, I had started talking about the funny sense you get of some idea that you’ve lost – a feeling, a sort of fleeting glimpse. And the way the more you look to clarify what it was, to try to pin it down and bring it back, the more it retreats. Like some shy animal into a hole. Or like a pea stuck up a child’s nostril in our health centre treatment room years ago (I always think of that one, for some reason) and all you’ve done is drive it further into hiding, until even the elusive sense you had of it has evaporated as well. (I also think of it as the left hemisphere of my brain struggling to pin down and fossilise something that is semi-consciously, shimmeringly, alive in the right. But I’ll come back to that.)

This time, for once, and thanks to her, my idea did come back. But as I whooped and spoke out loud my flash of amazing insight, and then spoke it again, louder, her response was disappointingly low-key. Despite her having been my life-long soul-mate and collaborator, who has had, as I often say, ‘all my best ideas’, this shining new inspiration of mine had struck less of a spark with her than, let me admit it, the little horse.

When we got home I was still delighted with my idea and no less convinced that it would find receptive minds somewhere, so I sat straight down and posted it as one of my rather infrequent tweets. My Twitter profile tells me that I have just passed 300 followers, but my offerings rarely if ever provoke a response. But this one, I felt, would be special, and I took care in highlighting some key words as hashtags, and adding a line of explanation ‒ shrewdly judged, I thought, to hint at both its originality and its importance. Like this:

The above screenshot was taken two days later, and as you can see from the empty icons along the bottom, once again I had failed to make any impression, let alone spark some new kind of viral pandemic.

But I consoled myself with something I learned years ago from reading Edward do Bono – that genuinely new ideas always seem strange, or funny, or off-the-wall, otherwise people would know them already.  So, I told myself, this was all a good sign, my idea really was new. But another time perhaps I might try to spell it out a little more carefully.

Sure enough, another time presented itself lower down the same Twitter feed.  An item by the indefatigable James O’Brian caught my eye. (@mrjamesob ‒ he of the 755.1K followers!) His tweet was about Jacob Rees-Mogg claiming in parliament that Boris Johnson was ‘the most freedom-loving prime minister… for at least 100 years’:

O’Brien commented: ‘He’s going to go nuts when he finds out what’s happened to our freedom of movement’

Aah – the ambiguity of the word ‘Freedom’! Just the kind of cue I needed. So I added my idea, carefully reframed, to the comments underneath:

I am thinking that the ‘Freedom’ populists talk about includes freedom from what can seem the terrible Authority of Evidence, Reason, and Truth itself.
I am wondering whether this is an explanation for these people’s otherwise incomprehensible immunity from popular censure.

It was one of some 250 others, but in spite that, this time there was a response. Within 24 hours it had been flagged as Liked by no less than 21 people, and one of them had passed it on to their followers.

So now I’m going to take this to another stage. I’m going to use this blog to ‘unpack’ the idea that was phrased in the words of my late-night inspiration, as they came back to me the next morning on our walk, and to try to tease out and pin down why it seemed, and still seems, so meaningful to me.

Not just for readers who are kind enough to have got this far, but for me. Because, believe me, I am not writing this stuff straight off. I am using the writing of it, over what is turning out to be the best part of a week, to test out, confirm, and hopefully to explain, why somewhere in this idea I had is lurking a truth which is worth sharing. And here I return to the idea that this is a matter of using words as a left-brain tool to tease out and pin down a richly complex but amorphous conception in the right (see Iain McGilchrist’s masterpiece, The Master and His Emissary, for his definitive account of the divided brain).

It was this process that I discovered three or four decades ago when it dawned on me that my Amstrad personal computer could be used as a revolutionary tool for recording ideas in a new form, a form that was fixed and provisional at the same time, and which then made it easy to progressively hone them.

That was when I was still deeply immersed in the life and work of a family doctor, with a stable list of patients whom I knew extremely well, in many cases over decades and several generations. Out of this experience, which in the modern world was already almost unique, I began to draw what I called ‘notes and jottings’, setting down things that struck me as surprising during my daily consultations. Surprise, I already knew from my reading De Bono, was another of his signals that something you’ve noticed conflicts with your existing picture of the world, and therefore that you should be paying it attention (because your existing ideas might be wrong)..

For years I worked like this on what I called my ‘project’. Just for fun, just out of private curiosity. But gradually I began to believe I had something worth contributing, so that my humble collection of thoughts developed until it was accepted for publication as my book, The Paradox of Progress. And after that, for me, the rest was history.

Although that digression does have some relevance to what I am getting at, it was mainly about the method I’m going to use. So, back to the short sentence I started with and let me try to work out why I found it so meaningful:

Truth and Reason are part of the Authority they are challenging’.

First I should recall that as I went to sleep that night my preoccupation was still with the mystery I had been addressing here just a few days earlier: why almost half of America voted to give Donald Trump a second term, in spite of his record in his first. And I knew from the appreciative comments I was receiving, and indeed from the hit count on the blog ‒ by far the highest since the travelogue I posted here four years ago from our Golden Wedding trip up the west coast of North America – that I did seem to be able to contribute usefully on this subject.

So, that was the context, let’s start by asking who I was thinking of when I said ‘they’?

Easy – I meant the populists, specifically Trump. From the outset he set out to challenge authority, and his followers loved him for it. Because that picked up on a deep-seated, human resentment of authority. Which we can all understand because, to a greater of lesser extent, we share that feeling.

We hate our lives being constrained by rules, originally from our parents ‒ however much we loved and needed them ‒ later at school – then in adult life, both at the workplace and outside it ‒ e.g. speed limits on roads or the latest footling regulations on the use of garden pesticides.

And there is a tension in all of us between on the one hand our realisation that these constraints on our freedom are essential in a civilised society ‒ we know we can’t all choose which side of the road to drive on, or the voltage of our electricity supply ‒ and on the other hand our human desire for autonomy and freedom of action ‒ for the dignity and challenge of basing our actions on our own decisions.

It is that freedom that is at the heart of Americans’ understanding of what it means to be a citizen of their ‘sweet land of liberty’.  Perhaps my two formative years at High School in Washington DC ‒- mentioned in another earlier post – has made that assumption second nature to me as well.

This kind of resentment of authority is more acute when such constraints on our freedom come from a source which we perceive to be alien. Which is why so many British resented ‘Brussels’, however generously we have been represented in the decisions taken there, and why the Westerner we met in the canyon in Capitol Reef National Park so bitterly resented being prevented from exercising his dogs in that fragile environment by distant ‘Washington!’.

But I also meant authority as a concept, in the way that Shakespeare personifies Love in his song, Who is Sylvia? – ‘Love doth to her eyes repair/To help him of his blindness/And, being helped, inhabits there’.

Which is why I spelled Authority with a capital A.

Trump attacked Authority in all these senses. He didn’t just rail against the Washington ‘swamp’. He didn’t just tell his followers, as Michael Gove told his in the UK, that they had ‘had enough of experts’. He didn’t just sack officials who failed to echo his every, self-contradictory whim. All of that is obvious, all of that has been rehearsed endlessly by critics. With zero effect on his followers.

The deeper idea that struck me as I went to sleep that night was that Trump went much further ‒ he attacked the very concept of Authority by attacking the foundations upon which legitimate Authority rested. His cheerful and absolute disregard for Reason and for Truth (which I also capitalised in my sentence) made him wildly popular with great swathes of supporters precisely because, as I suddenly realised, Truth and Reason were themselves aspects of the overbearing authority which had, step by ratchet-step throughout the modern era, progressively constrained their freedom of action, and even freedom of thought.

Here again, I have my own reasons for understanding this. My freedom of action as a doctor was progressively subjected to more and more constraints as my career went by. That was the background story to my forty years as a doctor. And that, and my attempt to resolve the resulting conflicts, was largely the subject of the book I wrote as I approached retirement.

On the instant I qualified as a doctor the way I was perceived by society changed. This was symbolised by my moving from the highest risk category for car insurance (as a medical student) to the lowest.

As my years as a junior hospital doctor progressed, I acquired steadily more freedom of action, but the ultimate clinical responsibility always rested with the consultant who headed the team–my ‘chief’. It was the chief who, at least in theory, faced the music when something went wrong.

And eventually, when I became a GP with my own list of patients, I took on that mantle of responsibility myself. I had nobody over me and nobody under me ‒ one of the many things I loved about the role. I also loved, although it was as daunting as it was stimulating, what now seems the extraordinary privilege of ‘clinical freedom’.

Clinical freedom did have its boundaries, which were policed with notorious severity by the General Medical Council. But that august body mainly concerned itself with drugs, sex, alcohol, and criminality. Freedom to treat our patients in whatever way we judged best remained to all intents and purposes absolute.

It made for a heady time when being trusted brought out the best in us a great deal of the time. But it also left too wide the door for bad practice and, crucially, for ignorance of what was an ever increasing cascade of scientific advances.

The end of those days can be traced with some accuracy to an editorial in the British Medical Journal of Saturday 29 October 1983. Headed The end of clinical freedom Its opening paragraph summarises what was a pivotal moment in medical history:

Clinical freedom is dead, and no one need regret its passing. Clinical freedom was the right‒some seemed to believe the divine right‒of doctors to do whatever in their opinion was best for their patients. In the days when investigation was non-existent and treatment as harmless as it was ineffective the doctor’s opinion was all that there was, but now opinion is not good enough. If we do not have the resources to do all that is technically possible then medical care must be limited to what is of proved value, and the medical profession will have to set opinion aside.

From then on, the changes were relentless. The god of Clinical Freedom was dead, only to be replaced by the god of Evidence Based Medicine. For the first time, government ‒ specifically Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1990, a year which my generation of GPs remembered for ever after as ‘when the darkness came’ ‒ saw its opportunity, as paymasters of the National Health Service, to call in what had been, ever since 1948, the independent contractor status of GPs. So began the imposition of more and more external rules and constraints on our practice. This, I have to say, was with the enthusiastic support of our Royal College, the academic body of British general practice, which saw nothing in the trend but progress.

And, writing this now, another new thought strikes me. For the first time I have an uncomfortable realisation that the success of my book, for success it undoubtedly was, may have been because it struck ‒ surely not, heaven help me, like Trump! ‒ a populist chord with fellow GPs.

It also struck a chord amongst people from outside medicine who happened to come across it. Perhaps that was populism as well? One of them, for example, wrote from a ballet school in Switzerland to thank me for it, saying it was ‘just the same for them’. Quite recently a farmer in the North of England emailed me out of the blue to say the same.

So, this ‘paradox of progress’ that I tried to analyse in the context of NHS general practice, seemed to pervade more generally. Throughout contemporary society there seemed to be a perception that making things better was making them worse.

Perhaps my own sense of impotence in the face of the terrible authority of our increasingly systematised world was lurking somewhere in the background to my supposed flash of inspiration into the mystery of Donald Trump?

Perhaps it was like this: Many of us feel trapped by the inescapable Authority of Logic and Reason which underlies Progress ‒ what Trump did, which accounts for his astonishing immunity from censure by half of a vast and superbly educated nation, was simply to throw Logic and Reason out of the window.

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
   Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
   A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
   Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
   “They are merely conventional signs!

Extract from The Hunting of the Snark Lewis Carrol 1832-98

And can’t you just see the attraction! What do you do when some clever clogs ‘fact-checker’ keeps some tedious count and says your hero has just passed 20,000 lies on the public record? You say, ‘I don’t believe they were lies – that’s just another opinion, there are alternative facts which say the opposite.’    On with the party!

Just the same with the size of the crowd at his inauguration. Just the same with Covid-19 when it manifestly didn’t ‘vanish like magic’. Just the same with the ‘hoax’ of climate change. Just the same with dozens of wild claims over the last four surreal years.

But Trump’s truly radical innovation, I think I now see, is to take things one stage beyond this: He says ‘what the heck do numbers matter ‒ they are just numbers ‒ they are ‘merely conventional signs’. What is this stuff called ‘truth’ which you keep throwing at me? What is this thing called ‘reason’? It is time to cast ourselves free from the shackles of these outdated concepts which have enslaved us for so long! Time to see this monster ‘science’ for what it is –a conspiracy against our heritage of freedom, which preachifies of nothing but encumbrances to our rights to frontier lives, to the drilling of oilwells, to the driving of giant cars, to the building of private armouries of guns. Americans were born free. Born to think freely, like birds up in the air. Yet everywhere their consciences have been chained by this foul imposter ‘evidence’! 

And once a leader convinces people that their chains are mere illusion, and gives them permission to ignore such outmoded constraints, to think without the shackles of reason, and to believe everything they want to believe is true, the people are wildly grateful. Wey hey, let the good times roll! It is the coming of a new Messiah.

Of course such a leader can do no wrong, for in this new New World, wrong is meaningless and has nothing to do with the case.

Perhaps it is time to return to the little horse, and leave further consideration of this for another day…

‘I’ve always had my doubts about you lot’

Mending things

I just mended my grand-daughter’s clarinet.

One of the notes wasn’t sounding and we played around until we’d tracked it down to one of the bottom key covers not closing snugly onto its sound-hole. (Apologies if this isn’t the correct nomenclature, I’m an amateur) When you looked closely you could see a fatal gap remaining under the pad when you pressed its key higher up the instrument. If you held the cover down directly with your finger (we discovered) the note came out perfectly. Lift it off again and it stopped. You could play a little trill like that. And we did.

The diagnosis was clear – the ‘close that cover’ message wasn’t making it through the intricate arrangement of shiny levers.

Part of the ‘complicated system of levers’

There was a concert imminent and phone calls were being made to try to find a spare clarinet. People were unhappy.


Now I have something of a reputation for this sort of thing which I cherish. Ever since, many years ago, when I did some trivial mending job – putting a wheel back on a toy car or something – and its little owner went toddling around the house holding it up to people and explaining ‘Gran’pa fix it‘.

Life doesn’t get much sweeter than that.


But now that treasured reputation was on the line – musical instruments being on a different level of delicacy and complexity from model cars. The best I could come up with was to suggest weakly that the pad might be dry (did that happen with clarinets?) perhaps we could make it plumper by moistening it with something? The young owner mentioned the special grease she used for the cork-lined joints of the instrument, and that sounded the sort of thing. I duly smeared some of that about with a wooden toothpick.

Absolutely useless.

So I put the instrument down while we attended to other things. Until stubborn curiosity drew me back for another look. And this time, as I pressed the keys idly up and down, I saw something new – one of the pivots seemed to be slightly sloppy. It looked, it seemed to me, like wear in that joint. Did that happen with clarinets? Were they supposed to be oiled?

Not sure, but it never had been.

Perhaps that was it?

One way or another, it was looking like a professional job.

But again I couldn’t resist one more look, and suddenly the penny dropped – that glorious eureka! moment: A little silver rod projecting from the mechanism, which I had noticed earlier and assumed was meant to be like that, was in fact the axle of the faulty key which had become detached from its socket. So the whole bearing wobbled slightly when you worked the key. I pressed on the end of the little rod with my finger and sure enough it started to move. Not the whole way in, but that was OK because I could now see a tiny screw slot across its end. All I needed, I announced to the company, was a suitable screwdriver to finish the job.

While my wife was searching in her handbag for the little glasses-repair kit she always carries (!) our young musician remembered that her equipment did indeed include a tiny screwdriver, for which she had never found a use. Exactly what I needed, this enabled me to screw the little axle securely home, completely abolishing the fatal floppiness.

And lo, the clarinet was sounded, and a torrent of melodious arpeggios poured into the grateful air.


Emboldened by a similar success with a drain plug in our bathroom sink (not to mention the hall clock triumph which I described in an earlier post) I recently volunteered my lack of expertise for the new Repair Café at our Community Centre.

Arriving with a few tools on the inaugural morning I was so conscious of the presumptuousness of what I was doing that I very nearly turned away and went back home.

But I did go in, and the first person in the queue happened to be a former patient of mine who greeted me like a old friend. And before I had time to demur, he and his broken item – his Father’s old mantelpiece clock – had been allotted to me.

The clock had three problems – it hadn’t run for 25 years, two pieces of wooden molding had become unglued from its case, and it needed a thorough clean.

Just the case left to mend.

I told him I had absolutely no expertise with clocks and he urged me to go ahead anyway – it was broken and there was nothing to lose. So I freed up the nuts that held the movement in place and eased it out.

Far from my comfort zone

It appeared to be fully wound, and as I gently prodded the balance wheel it oscillated a few times before slowing and stopping. It seemed to me that somewhere the mechanism was sticking. So I told him I did have a cheap and cheerful fix which had worked with a clock at home, and again he told me to go ahead.

So I gave it one judicious blast of WD40.

And that was that. It worked. I prodded the balance wheel again (this, I suspect, is again not a technical term) and this time it didn’t stop. I set the hands and it was still showing the right time when he left.

Dismantling the face, cleaning it, and replacing the fiddly-little screws that held it in place was the second and by far the longest job. And then it came to mending the wooden case.

It was obviously a simple gluing job, but I didn’t want to send him home with everything swathed in tape while it set. So I used a tip I once found on the web: we didn’t seem to have any PVA glue, so I mixed up some Araldite (epoxy resin) which we did have, and put a good blob of that in the middle of each piece of loose moulding. Then, and this is the clever bit, I put superglue in several different places on the same joints, and then pressed the pieces together until the superglue held. Handled gently, this would give time for the epoxy resin to develop its tremendous strength. Bingo!

Well. To say he was delighted is putting it very mildly. He wrote the most fulsome and heartwarming letter of appreciation anyone received that day.

Satisfied customer

Our Member of Parliament turned up at the next Repair Café the following month. Recognising me as a retired doctor and a persistent correspondent about issues very far removed from the mending of clocks he expressed surprise to see me there as one of the repairers.

But I pointed out that I had been a GP – a generalist – and that the mending of people in general practice had meant that doing things for the first time, using that amazing thing, educated common sense, had been the daily currency of that job. Or words to that effect. And that was why I had loved it so much.

I opened my book The Paradox of Progress with an anecdote about mending a dislocated kneecap (for the first and only time in my career) on a house call in the middle of one night, to make a similar point. It is here for anyone who is interested.

Brexit: We are all more susceptible to persuasion than we like to think.

I was a young doctor. I had it in my power to help this guy. So I did.

He was a drug rep. Sitting opposite me in my consulting room. Half a century – most of a lifetime – ago. He had been waiting outside for much of my morning surgery, as reps used to in those days, hoping I would see him before I started on my paperwork and visits. As usual it had worked – me being too soft-hearted to say no and send away a fellow human being with a wasted morning.  ‘There but for the grace of God’, and so on… Read more…

To Reykjavik for the Nordic Congress of General Practice

Back home now after a week in Iceland. Primarily for The 20th Nordic Congress of General Practice, a huge event with 1,500 delegates in the magnificent new Harpa Conference Centre and Concert Hall for which I and four fellow GPs ran a workshop on the subject ‘Doctors as Social Activists’. Link to my presentation

Views of the astonishing Harpa conference centre

I was describing my efforts since retirement to challenge organised climate change denial. Link to my presentation

1,500 Nordic GPs coming out for coffee break from one of the plenary sessions in the main hall

This was the very opposite of a freebie because we paid all our own expenses and discovered, having dutifully followed the advice to book flights and accommodation well in advance, that all five of us would have to pay the £700 registration fee for the conference.

This was on top of Reykjavik being, with Tokyo, currently the most expensive capital city in the world, even without the devalued pound, so that everything – food, trips, entrance to exhibitions, goods in shops – was more than twice as expensive as at home. Nonetheless, Lesley and I gritted our teeth, tightened our belts (I lost 3½ lbs on the trip) and took the opportunity to see something of this fascinating country and its admirable people.


Apart from the conference we were lucky to be in Reykjavik for Iceland’s National Independence Day (from Denmark : 1944). In spite of a cold wind and intermittent downpours, the atmosphere was festive and friendly. We felt it a real privilege to be there. We heard the President give a speech and then an actress gave a beautiful recital of a poem in Icelandic. Then there was a parade to the fair-ground around the lake, where there were circus acts and the world’s oldest strong-man competition.


The houses and buildings in Reykjavik were extraordinarily varied, often brightly painted, and quite a few had large murals painted on them.


The famous Hallgrimskirkja cathedral dominated from the top of the city, It was striking outside, although the concrete was currently under repair – testifying to the extreme harshness of the climate. The inside was serenely beautiful, with the most magnificent modern organ I have ever seen, being played while we were there.


We were unlucky with the weather, but we shared a car for a day out to the Snaefellsjoekull National Park north of the city, and took a coach trip around the ‘Golden Circle’ on our last day – our only really sunny day.

The Golden Circle is very much a tourist route but you see the junction between the American and the Eurasian tectonic plates (separating at about a centimetre a year) at the Þingvellir National Park, the magnificent Gullfoss Falls, and the geysers at the Haukadalur Geothermal Area.

Everywhere you see beautiful blue lupins, apparently a recent, deliberate introduction to stabilise and enrich the soil (lupins of course being nitrogen-fixers) which are proliferating at an incredible rate and seem to be broadly welcomed.  You can see them in the foreground and in the hills in the picture bottom right above. We were told that the country was 85% covered by trees when the Vikings arrived, but they cut them all down for fuel, housing and ships.

 

One thing which surprised us was the sheer size of the country – more than 300 miles East to West and 200 North to South. So we only saw a small part close to Reykjavik.

And this yellow door was the entry to our little room, with its blind to make it dark when it ought to have been night.

A tribute to Robert M. Pirsig

Photo by Ian Glendinning at Chester, England on 7th July 2005

Talking in some depth about things that seem important – by J A R Willis


This article appeared in the December 2000 issue of Medical Humanities in the series Medicine through the Novel.  It is repeated here as a tribute to one of my greatest inspirations – Robert M. Pirsig – who died two days ago (24 April 2017)


‘Unless you are fond of hollering you don’t make great conversations on a running cycle. Instead you spend your time being aware of things and meditating on them. On sights and sounds, on the mood of the weather and things remembered, on the machine and the countryside you’re in, thinking about things at great leisure and length without being hurried and without feeling that you are losing time.’ (p 17 of 416)

The gentle voice is incredibly familiar, heard now for the third time, a voice that seems to have got itself into my deepest being. Read more…

Old talks that still seem relevant

I am still working out how best to use this site.

Although it got several likes, which were much appreciated, I think my Sea Monster and the Whirlpool address is much better placed on its own page rather than here on the chronological blog. So I have moved it to its own page, tidied up the formatting and added some of the slides. That lecture, which I gave as the keynote on ‘Science’ to the 50th Anniversary Symposium of the Royal College of GPs, attracted thousands of hits when I posted it on my first website www.friendsinlowplaces.co.uk and was largely responsible for me coming up as the first ‘James Willis’ on Google for several years a decade or so ago – not bad for what is a fairly common name.

I have now added another talk which meant a lot to me and which I still believe said something important. Professionalism – Red and Grey – discussing the meaning of that confusing word and arguing that we need to restore respect for its more subtle, but ultimately more fundamental, colour. Flavour, if you like. Of course, I would love to receive comments, contributions and discussion. To this end, I have appended the complicated Venn diagram of the two aspects which I and my colleagues developed at the time – you can see that it is very much work in progress. If you are intrigued, have a look at the talk itself.

Red Grey chart

 

 

What happened to the nation that bred Lord Nelson?

Every spring the Alton Society which I belong to organises a voluntary litter-pick to tidy up the town. This year it has  been decreed from on high that all the volunteers must now sign  a legal disclaimer before taking part.

Rather than accepting that this is another step on the great march of progress I thought that it was completely misguided. I care deeply about the dreadful problem of littering in this country and in our town and as an active member of the committee of the Society I have always seen this event one of the best things we do. I definitely wanted to contribute as usual. So I made a point of doing my litter-pick that morning (last Saturday) on my own responsibility, using my own equipment, and I didn’t sign anything for anybody.  So there.

Here are my reasons why I think this apparently naughty behaviour is establishing an extremely important principle.

First a picture:

Litter pick pic 1
The organised litter pick – volunteers assemble (photo by my wife)

Here are my reasons:

  1. The document is not signed to protect the volunteer, it is to protect the organisers from the fear of litigation
  2. It is assumed that failure to perform this ritual would invalidate the organisers’ insurance, but this protection is illusory because insurance companies are notorious for finding reasons not to pay out.
  3. This is an example of treating a tiny relative risk (the risk of the organisers being sued by a volunteer who hurts themselves) as an absolute risk which must be protected against, irrespective of the cost, financial and otherwise (see below).
  4. Signing the form does not make it the slightest bit less likely that an actual accident will happen.
  5. By taking responsibility for my own actions I was able to clear rubbish in a place which would probably have required a road closure if done by a public employee, and in another which probably involved trespass.
  6. I am told that many of the volunteers who did sign the disclaimer agreed that it was completely bonkers. This brings proper precautions into contempt and breeds cynicism.
  7. It also feeds the growing trend to see all accidents as someone else’s fault and for people to feel they are victims and entitled to compensation.
  8. Cultivating the belief, particularly among young people, that you can only pick up litter if you have joined a group, donned protective clothing and signed to make someone else take responsibility for your actions, is counterproductive to the real object of the exercise – to change the culture so that we have a litter-free town.
  9. It is noteworthy that people who believe proper precautions and rules should be strictly adhered to, as I do, are the same ones who oppose the paying of lip service to token precautions.
  10. This kind of obsessional aversion to minute, theoretical risks is an affront to people, again like me, who are properly concerned about the all-too-common denial of the unimaginably-larger risk of global warming.
  11. I worry about the next logical step – the next click of the ‘ratchet of progress’. I understand those who signed the disclaimer, including the MP and other dignitaries, mainly did so without reading it. And that it was actually a general-purpose disclaimer which included the hazards of cliff edges and seashores.
    I worry that when the next step is taken down this logical road it will be just as impossible for people like me to argue against it without appearing equally irresponsible.
    For example: it is not hard to imagine that in a few years time someone will decide that it is no longer good enough just to obtain token signing of a meaningless mantra in this way, and organisers will start being required to provide video evidence that they really did line the volunteers up and show them how to cross the road. It will then be just as impossible to argue against this increment of  progress and avoid accusations that you have failed in your duty of care by not going along with it. Especially in court after an accident, with a lawyer bent on apportioning blame,  however freakishly unlikely that accident may actually have been. At that time the manifest failure to comply with the ludicrous ritual automatically becomes the crime, regardless of any other circumstances.
  12. As I said in my 2001 book Friends in Low Places, after giving an imaginary example of mindless regulations blighting the professional lives of teachers:
    That is hardly an exaggeration and certainly not a joke, the reality is beyond parody – and certainly beyond a joke.
  13. And that’s my last reason – I wrote two books and numerous articles about this sort of thing, and lots of people said they agreed with me. So I simply had to make a protest last Saturday to be true to myself – even though it added loneliness to the squalor of the morning’s work.

 

Litter pick pic 2
All my own work. Six big bags and there’s a second recovered supermarket trolley out of shot. That strange mixture of disgust and satisfaction.

But, as I said in my first book, The Paradox of Progress, one person taking a stand achieves something amazingly powerful – it stops anybody ever saying again that ‘everybody goes along with it in the end’. That’s why I solemnly record that one person didn’t go along with it this time.

The age of foolishness

A key change in the ‘new way of doing things’ is a wholesale substitution of externally-imposed rules for personal judgement and common sense. This is not so much a tyranny by the arbitrarily powerful as an abdication of responsibility in which we all are complicit.

This dutiful subservience to rules gives us a seductive excuse for abandoning the immensely difficult task of building up and then maintaining throughout life a soundly-based personal understanding of the way the world works. This is particularly true in the fields of technology and science, which are now deemed by many, if not most people, to be too advanced and abstruse for non-specialists to even attempt to understand. Thus, at a time of unprecedented freedom of access to information we have the perverse phenomenon of people everywhere, and at all levels of society, actually making a virtue of ignorance. And in consequence we are seeing everywhere, and at all levels of  intelligence, the fatuous certainty which is normally characteristic of  the very stupid. Nowhere is this more starkly and terrifyingly apparent than in the organised denial of the science of evolution and climate change which has become the orthodoxy throughout the immensely powerful American Republican party.

It is my instinctive recognition of this looming problem – and heaven knows where it came from – that has underlain my opposition to the systematisation of professionalism (for example in the form of blind subservience to ‘Evidence Based Medicine‘) which has dominated my career and motivated me to write my two books, numerous articles, and to give so many ineffectual lectures.

The Divided Brain… Iain McGilchrist

After reading Iain McGilchrist‘s extended essay The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning I was trying to summarise what it said, it being itself a summary of his great book The Master and His Emissary , to daughter Becky on the ‘phone. Here is more or less what I found myself saying:
When you look at a brain, not just a human brain but any animal brain, the most striking thing about it is that it is separated into two halves. When you look more closely you find that the connection between the two halves (the corpus callosum), deep inside, is surprisingly small in size. And when you look closer still, using sophisticated techniques of modern science, you find that 80% of the messages passing though this connection are inhibitory. On the face of it this is very strange. It seems that the two halves of the brain, the seat of what seems, self-evidently, to be a unified self, are being carefully kept apart.
McGilchrist pointed out another strange thing in The Master and His Emissary: People who have had their hemispheres completely separated, as is sometimes done as a desperate remedy for intractable epilepsy, are not greatly incapacitated as a result. He asks “why ever not?”.
He further points out that the two halves of the brain, when closely compared, are not mirror images of one another, but are actually quite different in both shape and internal structure.
His explanation for this profound division of the brain is that there are two ways of modelling the world, both necessary, but completely different from one another. And one half of the brain is adapted to do it one way, and the other the other. We need both, but most of the time they must be kept separate. This is because they are completely different kinds of things – or different kinds of models.
But how can we describe this difference between these kinds of modelling? Shall we say that one brain (the right) is touchy-feely, instinctive, direct experience, while the other is measured, analysed, codified, processed? Perhaps. But the idea that I found myself repeating to Becky was simpler: one (the left this time) is the map and the other is the territory. Which ties in with the old adage: ‘the map is not the territory‘. The two are not the same, not even when they appear to be. I see this as important in the modern world because the more sophisticated the ‘map’ becomes the stronger the illusion that it actually is the territory.
Another idea of mine is that the right brain model is analogue (like a vinyl record) and the left digital (like a CD) – again entirely different in kind, but all-too-easily producing the illusion of being exactly the same. But I would like to know what McGilchrist thinks of that.
That is what I said to Becky, but McGilchrist also  goes on to show that these two different ways of modelling the world are reflected in different ways of organising society and deciding its priorities. That both are necessary, but that the society we are living in at the moment leans far too much towards the left-brain model.
Of the myriad aspects of life to which this analysis is applicable, I am currently preoccupied with the difference between living according to the rules and living according to something beyond the rules. I see here an explanation for how reasonable people are currently disagreeing violently over the question of whether it is right to avoid paying tax by means of clever manipulation of ‘the rules’. In this case the violence of the disagreement arises from the fact that each party sees it as self-evident that his or her approach is correct. I would go as far as to say that people who spend a lot of time playing sport are used to seeing the clever manipulation of rules as self-evidently virtuous. And that links with a visceral distaste I feel for the current tendency to describe people engaged in human activities as ‘players’. So, while the terms of such arguments appear to be the same, in fact they are so different that they cannot be meaningfully compared. They ought to be kept separate, in two carefully divided halves of comprehension, but here they clash with a terrible thunder.
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