Generally Speaking

The Paradox of Progress revisited

The gifted blogger Richard Emerson has recently done me the honour of making me one of the first to be featured in his new podcast ‘Conversations about philosophy, science, mythology, good life, travels, and the big questions!

In this conversation we revisit my 1995 book The Paradox of Progress together and discuss striking links with Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary (2009), and what has turned out to be its magisterial follow-up, The Matter with Things (2021).

Daunting company

This has taken me back to the period of several years in the 90s during which I, a perfectly ordinary NHS GP, was asked to write about the book, give formal lectures and address numerous meetings, including one in The Hague – when the President of the Dutch College of GPs invited me to give the opening keynote of their annnual congress with the wonderful words, ‘Your book puts words to feeling that are felt by many Dutch GPs‘. A third of all the GPs in Holland were in the hall – 1,500 of them – and I remember they all arrived by bicycle or public transport.

With his friendly, informal style, his distinctive Norwegian accent, his wide-ranging erudition, and his insight, Richard Emerson is the ideal intervewer. I found he had picked out perfect extracts from my book to guide our conversation, showing the links with McGilchrist and showing how much we were on the same wavelength as we explored these fascinating and immensely important ideas.

Here is one extract he picked out:

We use the word ‘unbalanced’ to describe an insane mind. Thus the accumulated wisdom embodied in the very language we speak acknowledges the fundamental role of balance in the definition of sanity. So when I say that the common mind of our society is unbalanced, I am making a very serious diagnosis. I am saying that the common mind of society is, to some extent, insane. But that is what I do say.

The Paradox of Progress, Chapter 11 : Good Intentions

I’d love people to hear my conversation with Richard. I think it puts words to feelings that are just as widely shared as they were 25 years ago, and are no less crucially important: Link to the conversation/podcast

My book was reprinted three times by Radcliffe Medical Press, one of their most successful titles ever, but has been out of print since they were taken over many years ago. I have long sought ways to make it available once again. So the other thing that Richard has done for me is to introduce me to Payhip – a simple way to publish a pdf version of a book and make it available for download for a modest charge:

Link to downloadable pdf of The Paradox of Progress

This complements the online version which has been free to read ever since I placed it on my website some twenty years ago. It is complete with a clickable index of ideas in the book, which as far as I know is rarely used, but might help some people:

Link to The Paradox of Progress on my old website

The importance of being honest.

My teenage grandson called me 10 days ago saying he wanted to talk about the BBC relay of Prime Minister’s Questions that he had been watching earlier (at school – don’t ask, but he is doing Politics and Ethics).

He wanted to discuss the matter of our nation’s Prime Minister lying through his teeth. Again.

So, after we’d growled together about that for a bit, I asked him, hoping it didn’t sound patronising, or grand-patronising, whether he thought this behaviour was setting a terrible example to young people,

Yes, yes, exactly. Absolutely. And what’s more – and to me even more importantly – he absolutely agreed that the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, across the House from Johnson, was a patently honest man.

The next morning, while I was sitting at the desk in my study, I spotted the paper-boy bringing our Guardian. And, as I sometimes do because of our embarrassingly-low letterbox, I got up to open the front door to make it easier for him.

At first he didn’t seem to see me because, unusually, he was engrossed in the front page headlines about those same events in parliament as he walked down the slope. So I said something rueful about the news not getting any better. And we exchanged wry smiles.

He’s a nice young man, been doing his round for years, reliable in all weathers, sun & rain, ice & snow. So on impulse I added, probably a little too vehemently, “There ARE some honest people, you know.”

Another shy nod. Then, as he moved back towards the road I called after him – ‘You’ll find them in every back street in Alton. I was a doctor here once, I know.”

As indeed I do – I know from my personal experience that there is no truer fable than The Widow’s Mite. That was the old woman who would give away her last penny to help someone else.

When I was their age (I imagine the two lads are about the same age) we were brought up learning about the kind of heroes who valued their honour more than their life. Romantic nonsense perhaps, but that was the official line, and that was the ideal we held in our minds. People at least pretended to be good. If someone told a lie, they looked sorry. They apologised. If they were important people and it was an important lie, they resigned. Or were sacked.

Those were the days.

The tragedy is that I don’t think it is just Boris Johnson, or for that matter Donald Trump. It seems to be part of a general decline in morality in our age. And don’t pretend I mean gay marriage, or women’s right to control what happens to their bodies, or (horror) unmarried people having access to contraception, or (enhanced horror) living together.

I mean the terrible fact that a very large proportion of people, ordinary people, ordinary voters (crucially), don’t seem to mind. A large number of people have apparently lost the ability to discriminate truth from falsehood, or if they can see the difference, they have come to think it doesn’t matter.

I have written about this in earlier posts, but I have just found a passage near the end of The Matter with Things, the book I recommended in my last post, which links this modern change to the transcendency of mechanistic, left hemisphere thinking, and to the decline in religion:

“When our society generally held with religion, we might indeed have committed many of the same wrongs; but power-seeking, selfishness, self-promotion, narcissism and entitlement, neglect of duty, dishonesty, ruthlessness, greed, and lust were never condoned or actively and openly encouraged – even admired – in the way they sometimes are now. In other words we have lost all shame.

Iain McGilchrist, The Matter with Things p.1,293

To our shame, that is Boris Johnson in a nutshell.

The consequences of this change include a loss of trust, and of respect for authority. There has never been a time when we needed to trust authority more than we do today, with so many crises facing our civilisation. It is a terrible time to lose it – and to give terrible examples to the young. That is why – to put my heart on my sleeve – why I do quite deliberately set out to be an example of integrity for young people, like these two young men, and thus to deserve their trust.

I am blessed with the knowledge that my father was a man of complete integrity. He was a government scientist of some distinction – a public servant during the war and for the rest of his life. His life was largely governed by a sense of duty. My mother used to say, proudly, that if he was sent a bottle of wine at Christmas (a rare event) he would send it back. When he died – 47 years ago – heavens! – the British ambassador he had served under at the US embassy, Sir Roger Makins, wrote to her saying that he had ‘done great service for his country’. Neither she nor any of the rest of us ever knew what that service was. He never talked about it. Of course. We grew up immensely proud of him. And half assuming everyone had fathers like that.

I remember once asking him why Britain continued to enjoy such a disproportionately high standing in the world, and he said something about its institutions having a kind of basic integrity.

Those were the days.

So – I was an embassy child in America in the 50s. I started high school in Washington DC immediately after Edmund Hilary had reached the summit of Mount Everest, Roger Bannister had broken the four minute mile, Sir John Cockcroft had ‘split the atom’, WW2 ace Neville Duke had just broken the world speed record in his (British of course) Hawker Hunter jet fighter, and the world had used television to watch, in grainy black and white, the magnificent pageantry of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

So fiercely patriotic was I after all this that I stood proudly silent as my classmates put their hands on their hearts at the start of every school-day to ‘pledge allegiance to the flag’ which was always hanging in the corner of the classroom. And (to everyone’s surprise) I managed to keep my English accent right through until my return with my elder brother at the end of his second summer holiday to join him at boarding school in Abingdon.

And so, eventually, I became a doctor – a role in society for which Trust is absolutely fundamental. ‘Trust me I’m a doctor‘ is sometimes used ironically, as in Dr Phil Hammond’s funny stuff, but it wouldn’t work as a joke if the natural role didn’t require that status. I used to say, when colleagues quoted surveys showing doctors enjoyed higher levels of trust than almost anyone else, that that was like doing a survey to show that cars have wheels. Being trusted is precisely what the ecological role of ‘doctor’ is.

In a letter to our Member of Parliament recently I was bold enough to claim authority for something I was saying by pointing out that I had spent my life behaving so as to earn the right to be trusted. And, as I have suggested in another earlier post, integrity is one of the nearest things to an absolute in life. Reputation is something that can be destroyed at a stroke – a single lapse by an honest man, by say, Keir Starmer telling a single lie, or by my father, say, keeping a single Christmas gift from a company in the running for public money, would shatter that magic. Not least – or even most of all – in the mind of the individual him or her self. (Self-respect – that’s another magic thing) That very fragility of reputation is what makes it so precious, and ultimately so powerful.

I long to live again in a country led by people worthy to inspire young people with such values.

But Britain does still possess one such, crowning asset – one whose reign has spanned the whole of the period I am taking about. One who sat alone in an almost empty chapel at the funeral of her husband of 73 years. With whom she had stayed in the heart of London throughout the blitz, in spite of having so many safer alternative homes. Who had turned down the offer of dispensation from the lockdown rules for that epoch-marking funeral – such a tragic shadow of what it would have been in normal times – because of her overriding sense of duty to set a good example.

Powerful example

It is sickening to have to bottom-out this noble tone by noting that the home of the Prime Minister who set those rules, and who instructed the police to enforce them ruthlessly throughout the land, rocked the night before to the sound of jolly parties. This was the home of a Prime Minister who is still supported by a jolly political party that doesn’t seem to understand why it matters very much. And which is now hoping it will be a long time before the police investigation tells them whether or not it was a bad thing to do.

Enough of that. Let’s pop in a break-line while I retch.

Was that ‘a little too vehement’? I don’t know. But I do know that it has never been more important to set a good example. Which is why I try. And where we came in.

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 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



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