Why in today’s disunited times, biblical unity matters

‘The times, they are a-changing’, so goes the familiar melody by Bob Dylan, and when you look both at the world we live in today, and how it might change in the future, it would be hard to disagree with Mr Dylan wouldn’t it? To me, this change is particularly characterised in two ways. First, we seem to be in a state of increased disunity. The changes thrust upon us in recent times seem to have exposed divisions based on colour, religion, politics, income, I could go on. Second, we live in a world of uncertainty. Of course, change of whatever kind often brings uncertainty, and events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are no exception.

protest-155927_1280

You may be pleased to read that I’m not going to spill any ink analysing policy, scrutinising decisions and their implications or studying the character and morality of figureheads. Plenty of this has been done already and will continue to permeate our screens in the days, months and years to come. Instead, in part 1, I want to argue that the disunified and uncertain times we live in should lead Christians to take heart, and perhaps surprisingly, rejoice. Part 2, focusing on the theme of uncertainty, will be published in due course.

Disunity

I’ve just finished looking at the book of Ephesians with my Bible Study Small Group. One of the things we saw was how both Jew and Gentile believers have been united as one body. This wasn’t done on the basis of race, income, politics or any human means, but by the blood of Jesus Christ. As such, Paul is saying that if people groups as different (and as vehemently opposed to one another) as Jews and Gentiles have been brought together by the blood of Jesus, then so have we today in all our differences.

And so, because we are unified in one body, Paul prays that:

‘Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.’

This prayer shows us that the unity that has been achieved isn’t just any old unity, but an incredible, amazing unity so much better than anything the world can offer.

Paul goes onto say that if we have been unified in this way, we should act like it. Paul wants us to maintain this amazing unity we’ve been given, and one the ways we do that is by building up the body by speaking the truth (that is, the truth of the Bible) in love with another:

‘Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.’

Now, it goes without saying that we’re still sinners, and this unity won’t be fully realised in all its glory until Jesus comes again and ushers in the new creation. In addition, we as a body, in our own families, congregations and churches will sometimes find it hard to maintain this unity, and we won’t always feel that unified. It is true however to say that in Paul’s eyes, we are undoubtedly unified now. Further, as well-being able to know this factually, we’re also able experience something of the joy of this unity today.

In an increasingly disunified world, these realities should provide great comfort to us as a body today.

It isn’t just about us though. My hope and prayer is that as the church displays this unity, outsiders would see be attracted to it[1], particularly in today’s increasingly fraught environment.

Maybe they’ll notice the way which we actively seek to speak the truth in love with those who have different views about Brexit or Donald Trump, instead of segregating and sowing discord. Or perhaps they’ll be struck by the way we refrain from calling people who are different to us nasty names, instead affirming them as part of a closely-knit body. Alternatively, they might see the way we don’t merely tolerate those different to us, but cherish them as if we dearly need them in our Christian walk.

Needless to say of course that there’s more we as a body can be doing to pursue biblical unity, but the fact remains that to my mind, these things even only slightly demonstrated show the Church to be a more united institution than any man-made equivalent.

To sum up, making efforts to pursue and maintain unity is worth it for at least three reasons. First, it’s a biblical command. Second, it’ll do us individually and corporately as a body the world of good. Thirdly, this unity puts the majesty and glory of God’s church on display to both the ‘rulers and authorities in the heavenly places’, and to the world at large. With all this in mind, let’s keep going in pursuing unity, in good times and in bad and whether it seems easy or hard.

[1] See 2 Cor 2:15-16, John 13:34-35

On Trump, part 2

Part one of my thoughts on Trump explored why he won, this second part seeks to offer some ideas on where we go from here.

—-

If we are to learn one thing from the 2016 US Presidential election, it is this:

Shouting at, or telling people that certain things are innately good and decrying alternative viewpoints as outrageous or wrong doesn’t necessarily lead to very desirable outcomes.

lots-of-trumps

That is, being given a seemingly irrefutable worldview by an elite of how the world should be doesn’t necessarily make it correct. Indeed, recent events like Brexit and the 2016 US election tell us that the question of what kind of world we want to live in is as contested as ever.

Ironically perhaps, more and more of our public discourse seems to be focused on ‘preaching to the converted’ and creating safe spaces around us where we are incubated in our self-contained echo chambers from people and views deemed ‘offensive’ or intolerable rather than seeking to discuss, argue and persuade others of how we think things should be. In other words, if you think your vision of the world is better than mine, then talk to me, convince me, don’t shout at me that it is simply so!

Indeed, in getting to know people outside our circles, we might be surprised not only to discover these people are human, but that their views and concerns are more valid than we think, even if we don’t agree with them. The same goes for reading outside our normal frames of reference. Hence, being exposed to ideas different to our own doesn’t mean we have to compromise, but it might result the beliefs we hold dear being sharpened, this being a very good and important thing.

Before we move on, there’s a commercial aspect to the echo chamber effect that is worth touching on. That is, the ‘old way’ of paying for journalism have given way to expectations that what we read should be free. As a result, proprietors are now increasingly turning to ‘click bait’ to pull in the readers, and the advertising revenue that comes with it. We’ve known this for a while, but what seem far less explored is the way in which this new model portrays language, people groups and ideologies in increasingly polarised terms. In short, people will read the controversial and the divisive more readily than they’ll read the nuanced, in depth and balanced. Given the above, this is a concern.

In saying all of this, I’m not as naive as to think that this engagement will lead to a ‘Lennon-esque’ world where people of all different backgrounds all hold hands in a circle singing Kumbaya all united in every way imaginable. Indeed, it would be optimistic for a proponent of high levels of immigration to think that anti-immigration sentiment will disappear if we just talk to people who have concerns about the issue. This is a dilemma the UK Labour Party has experienced in recent years; having embraced immigration under Tony Blair, the Party in red are finding that a good number of their voters don’t like immigration very much (or, they may well have known all along, but assumed it didn’t matter), or at least in the numbers seen in recent years. The dilemma they have faced is whether to argue the case as to why immigration (either in general, or at as high levels as it was under New Labour) is a good thing, or to cave in and say, actually, no immigration can be a problem and/or we need to reduce it.

I should also say that more engagement shouldn’t necessarily lead to more pandering either. Those whom we find (for whatever reason) genuinely hateful or offensive should be called out as such. Worryingly, I recently read something (I can’t remember where) which argued that those in positions of privilege and/or power are (especially in today’s times) in danger of shutting down dissenting views – this of course being one of the defining features of Fascist ideology. Ironically, given both his and his supporters protestations about being gagged, signs of this can be seen from both Donald Trump and his supporters.

This whole issue of the need for better engagement issue was summed up perfectly in a podcast I was listening to the other day. One of the journalists was talking about the change seen in Shoreditch (an area in Central London) in recent years. To him, Shoreditch used to be a place full of ‘undesirables’ – racists and the like. What was telling though was that he thought that the change seen in the area (I think it’s now become something of a self-parodying theme park myself) had been brought about by the irrepressible rise of social liberalism in the area. On the one hand, he’s right, as gentrification has taken hold in areas like Shoreditch, these parts have definitely become more socially liberal. What he missed out though, and this is critical, is the question as to where the so called ‘undesirables’ went. Shoreditch isn’t an area of social transformation, more an area subject to ‘social shifting’. The people who used to live in Shoreditch haven’t just disappeared or magically changed their views but have moved to other areas. Certain groups that used to live in Shoreditch and inner East London have moved outwards towards Essex for example. Thus, it isn’t as if social liberalism has taken over the UK or the US. Rather, over generations, certain areas have changed in terms of their makeup. This reinforces a point made earlier – the battle as to what kind of nation and society we want to live in is by no means settled.

There is one more theme that needs discussing before summing up – uncertainty. The election of Trump epitomises this on a global political, economic and social level, and to a degree not seen before by many of us. Will he bring in policies in line with his bombastic rhetoric or will his tough talk be just that, all talk, and the neo-liberal orthodoxy seen in the past will, more or less, continue unabated? We just don’t know. My own view is that Trump on his own doesn’t have the nous to implement or oversee a substantial change in direction, political, economic or social. His presidential picks on the other hand might, and Trump may be happy to operate like a Chairman, rubber-stamping the direction of things (and of course taking the credit where the opportunity presents itself), leaving the nitty gritty to Messrs Pence, Harbertson etc.

Let’s briefly explore this theme of uncertainty through one issue – world security. Trump has indicated, in line with his general isolationist bent that he wouldn’t necessarily object to the USA withdrawing from NATO under certain circumstances. Such an action would obviously cause great levels of uncertainty. Up until now, if a NATO state were to be attacked by, oh I don’t know, Russia, then the USA would be legally obliged to step in and help defend that nation state. Might a USA-less NATO arise, then it’s states (not to mention surrounding world regions) would be far less secure and far more vulnerable to attack from an enemy. Even if the USA doesn’t leave, Trump’s apparent cosying up to Vladimir Putin could in itself signal a change in geo-politics. Put it this way, if I were a citizen in Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia, I’m not sure I’d be confident of the USA coming to my aid should Putin fancy a westwards invasion. And this is all before we think about any relationship between Trump’s impetuousness and the red button! Should such a pressing come to pass, then we all could really be in trouble.

It is perfectly possible that none of the above will happen of course. Nonetheless, people are understandably fearful about the coming weeks, months and years. I hope to write something in due course on how fear doesn’t have to be the last word however.

For now though, let us conclude. Many have been worried about what a Trump presidency might bring, and these concerns may well manifest themselves. But I also think Trump (and Brexit for that matter) present a great opportunity. For much of my lifetime for instance, there has been a broad consensus about what kind of world we should want to live in (pro-globalisation, socially liberal, pro- welfare to work, pro Europe, pro-immigration). The election of Trump presents a real challenge to this consensus, and an chance to ask ourselves about what kind of world we want to live in. It also provides an important challenge and chance for proponents of the consensus to make their case. As such, now seems to be an ideal opportunity for the main parties and media to do better in engaging with the public, including unfashionable minorities, and offering alternatives that don’t necessarily pander to racism and unkindness but offer chances for people of all backgrounds to be heard.

Indeed, maybe Trump has shown us that ‘business as usual’ in terms of politics, the economy and society and the media for that matter just won’t do anymore.

On Trump – Part 1

Now before I start, please allow me to offer something of a disclaimer. A lot of the following should be treated as theoretical possibility rather than certain fact. Owing both to the complexity of humanity, the fact that the election fallout is still unfolding, not to mention the uncertainty around the man himself, we just don’t know what will happen in the coming weeks, months and years. Neither do we know whether the explanations proffered for Trump’s victory are correct, or the extent to which they are so. Indeed, one of the regrettable consequences of how our 21st century media landscape works is the clamour for immediacy in the wake of significant events – manifesting itself through shallowness, slogan instead of prose, and catchy and ‘confirmation bias esque’ explanations. This is one of the reasons why I’ve waited a little while before offering some thoughts. I believe in potentially seismic times as these, it is wise to let things percolate before spouting off, and I say this as someone who all too often has been guilty of this.

trump-1822121_1280

So, why did Trump win? A lot of reasons, probably.

Much of the commentariat have pounced on a whole array of data and hypotheses to try and explain why Donald Trump is now the president elect. Early on, there seemed to be at least two camps, the economic and the socio-cultural. The former argue that this election was won because a high number of poor to middle income voters plumped for Trump – those who have had their incomes squeezed and who have lost jobs (which haven’t been replaced) as the manufacturing bases which formed the bedrock of many communities have moved overseas. It is true that the rust belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania all voted Trumpwards. And even more remarkably, there was a 16 point swing toward Trump amongst voters earning $30,000 per year.

Indeed, a core component of politics in the last 30 years has been the consensus around neo-liberalism, an important part of which has been the embrace of globalisation and with that, the embrace of things like international trade arrangements and the free movement of labour. Proponents will argue this has brought widespread national and international economic growth, but inevitably, there have been losers, many of which can be found in the aforementioned rust belt communities. Thus, voters, fed up with seemingly unending economic stagnation wanted change and to them, Trump represented just that. Whether he’ll bring in jobs and greater prosperity for these communities (as he’s promised) is still to be seen, as is the reaction if he doesn’t.

Others have pointed to more cultural and social explanations to explain the result. Yet these explanations aren’t totally divorced from the economic. Again, globalisation, along with what many perceive as the ever increasing pace of social reform (gay marriage, shifting social norms around gender and sexuality), and high levels of immigration has left many in the USA (and in the UK for that matter) feeling threatened, uncertain and increasingly disconnected from debates around what kind of nation they want to live in. Elites, whether they be political, media or otherwise have imposed new ideas on their citizens and many are rebelling. Trump, the scheming pragmatist that he is, capitalised on these legitimate concerns and offered an alternative vision of a better society. As with the above, it is still to be seen whether Trump will have the desire or ability to carry through on bringing about the social reforms many of his voters desire.

I wonder whether to many Trump voters it matters that much whether he actually brings in any significant change. To many, he represented a refreshing change from what had gone before, and he appeared to listen to and represent groups who felt they hadn’t been listened to in a long time. On the flipside, it may be that if Trump and his team are unable to bring in the promised changes, supporters may deem him to be in fact no different from the rest, and a backlash may ensue. It’s worth saying that if the president elect doesn’t do much of what he has promised, excuses are already being made for him. ‘Alt Right’ stalwart Alex Jones for instance, quite literally the day after Trump won, said that the mainstream media and the political elite were scheming against him to make sure he failed. Thus, if Trump does indeed fail, it won’t (in the eyes of Jones and no doubt many of his supporters) be because of any malpractice or incompetence of the Trump administration, but because of an elitist conspiracy to stop him succeeding. It’ll be interesting to see whether many of who voted for him will buy this if perceived failure does ensue.

Moving on, it is impossible to overlook the role race played. It can’t be denied that Trump was supported (and voted in) by those who are overwhelmingly white. White men voted him in by 63% to 31%, whilst most white women also voted in favour of the Trump-meister, despite his infamous comments. There are undoubtedly links between this point and the above; communities affected by the decimation in the manufacturing base in the US (plus many more besides) and who have valid concerns/views regarding immigration tend to be white. Perhaps correspondingly, elements of the ‘coastal media elite’ have wrongly labelled these legitimate concerns regarding immigration, job losses, security and terrorism and economic difficulty as racist, or racially motivated. Yet, as legitimate as these concerns are, it could well be true that there is a genuinely racist overtone to the Trump vote. That is, some voters simply don’t like ethnic minorities, and the fact that the changes brought by pro-globalisation policies have resulted in an increase in the number of people from these ethnic groups, or rather, a perceived increase. Nonetheless, it is imperative not to conflate these two groups.

There are other factors too that could and perhaps should be explored. Others have pointed to educational background being a factor. As seems normal these days, certain commentators and individuals have (both implicitly and explicitly) mocked and derided Trump voters for being stupid. This would be a grave error. For one thing, this label stands at odds with the fact that white men regardless of educational level voted for Trump, and secondly (and more importantly) it gives an excuse to delegitimise certain viewpoints as lesser, without proper engagement, something not helped by the way in which our social media platforms are designed (shouting and sloganeering rather than thoughtfulness and insight.)

Moving on, a piece in the Financial Times also raised the impact of personal values. What particularly caught my eye in this piece was the research cited – it found that most of those analysed DIDN’T change their personal values they had been raised with during university. Further, it found that those who went into degrees around the political and social sciences didn’t find university as an experience which challenged their views on the world, but merely entrenched pre-existing opinions further. This then is a challenge to the oft espoused notion that education is the key to making everyone that bit more ‘tolerant’ and ‘progressive.’ It could be that personal values are entrenched earlier on in the education system, at primary or secondary school. Another alternative could be that parents play a key role in shaping the personal values of their children.

Maybe we’re overanalysing all of this. Celebrated pollster Nate Silver remarked in a podcast just after the election that every so often people just fancy a ‘change.’ It doesn’t go much deeper than that. Every so often, the electorate want a change see a change in the party in power, regardless of whether it’s red or blue. Perhaps this is why Barack Obama back in 2008 utilised the word ‘change’ and placed it front and centre of his campaign (to great effect, he won the thing). He successfully persuaded enough of the US electorate that he was the ‘change’ candidate. Indeed, whatever you think of Trump, few will disagree that he likewise was the ‘change’ candidate in 2016. It is unnecessary to explore what exactly constitutes ‘change’, merely that a decent portion of the electorate feel something different is required every now and then, and whoever happens to be in opposition and perhaps manages to utilise the desire for a different direction reaps the benefits.

Returning back to the media, the way in which this fourth estate works is such that its less about WHAT is said but WHEN it is said. That is, due to the fierce competition for clicks (more clicks means more advertising revenue) there is a race to put out articles which quickly and comfortably offer explanations for certain phenomena or results. By ‘comfortably’, I mean explanations which offer relatively simple explanations for events which although often controversial, confirm one’s view and opinions. This results in publications and websites offering output which sits well with audiences, while at the same time offering novel enough explanations as to generate the advertising revenue. Further, in the age we live, we simply don’t have the time to mull over the reasons for and the implications of certain events. The danger then is at least twofold; a.) we fall for simplistic explanations of the world and the events around us, without leaving ourselves and each other the time to fully consider the evidence and or experiences, and our own views of these experiences, and b.) we naturally gravitate towards explanations which conform to our own pre-determined views of the world and events.

I feel like this latter point has been done to death, but the first point is an important one. In the case of Trump’s victory, I think it’s probably true that all the aforementioned factors, plus more, played a role in the Republican candidate’s victory. Thus, it is true that BOTH economic and cultural factors played a role in his success (as well as many others.) And whilst its fine to focus in on an individual factor and examine its role in an outcome, it is surely just as, if not more, important to consider how ALL the factors interacted with one another to foresee an event. I’ve seen precious little of this in the coverage around Trump; it’s been ‘education levels key to Trump victory’ or ‘economic decline amongst US middle classes key to Trump victory’ etc. Admittedly, considering a number of factors and their relative importance to an event can be very difficult, and is probably beyond the remit of statistics or quantitative research alone. By no means should we give up in the pursuit of explaining events, but as already said, humans are incredibly complex beings, and it therefore might be impossible to totally get to the bottom of why Trump won the election.

So, why did Trump win? A number of reasons, probably.

On Trump – Part 1

Now before I start, please allow me to offer something of a disclaimer. A lot of the following should be treated as theoretical possibility rather than certain fact. Owing both to the complexity of humanity, the fact that the election fallout is still unfolding, not to mention the uncertainty around the man himself, we just don’t know what will happen in the coming weeks, months and years. Neither do we know whether the explanations proffered for Trump’s victory are correct, or the extent to which they are so. Indeed, one of the regrettable consequences of how our 21st century media landscape works is the clamour for immediacy in the wake of significant events – manifesting itself through shallowness, slogan instead of prose, and catchy and ‘confirmation bias esque’ explanations. This is one of the reasons why I’ve waited a little while before offering some thoughts. I believe in potentially seismic times as these, it is wise to let things percolate before spouting off, and I say this as someone who all too often has been guilty of the former.

trump-1822121_1280

So, why did Trump win? A lot of reasons, probably

Much of the commentariat have pounced on a whole array of data and hypotheses to try and explain why Donald Trump is now the president elect. Early on, there seemed to be at least two camps, the economic and the socio-cultural. The former argue that this election was won because a high number of poor to middle income voters plumped for Trump – those who have had their incomes squeezed and who have lost jobs (which haven’t been replaced) as the manufacturing bases which formed the bedrock of many communities have moved overseas. It is true that the rust belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania all voted Trumpwards. And even more remarkably, there was a 16 point swing toward Trump amongst voters earning $30,000 per year.

Indeed, a core component of politics in the last 30 years has been the consensus around neo-liberalism, an important part of which has been the embrace of globalisation and with that, the embrace of things like international trade arrangements and the free movement of labour. Proponents will argue this has brought widespread national and international economic growth, but inevitably, there have been losers, many of which can be found in the aforementioned rust belt communities. Thus, voters, fed up with seemingly unending economic stagnation wanted change and to them, Trump represented just that. Whether he’ll bring in jobs and greater prosperity for these communities (as he’s promised) is still to be seen, as is the reaction if he doesn’t.

Others have pointed to more cultural and social explanations to explain the result. Yet these explanations aren’t totally divorced from the economic. Again, globalisation, along with what many perceive as the ever increasing pace of social reform (gay marriage, shifting social norms around gender and sexuality), and high levels of immigration has left many in the USA (and in the UK for that matter) feeling threatened, uncertain and increasingly disconnected from debates around what kind of nation they want to live in. Elites, whether they be political, media or otherwise have imposed new ideas on their citizens and many are rebelling. Trump, the scheming pragmatist that he is, capitalised on these legitimate concerns and offered an alternative vision of a better society. As with the above, it is still to be seen whether Trump will have the desire or ability to carry through on bringing about the social reforms many of his voters desire.

I wonder whether to many Trump voters it matters that much whether he actually brings in any significant change. To many, he represented a refreshing change from what had gone before, and he appeared to listen to and represent groups who felt they hadn’t been listened to in a long time. On the flipside, it may be that if Trump and his team are unable to bring in the promised changes, supporters may deem him to be in fact no different from the rest, and a backlash may ensue. It’s worth saying that if the president elect doesn’t do much of what he has promised, excuses are already being made for him. ‘Alt Right’ stalwart Alex Jones for instance, quite literally the day after Trump won, said that the mainstream media and the political elite were scheming against him to make sure he failed. Thus, if Trump does indeed fail, it won’t (in the eyes of Jones and no doubt many of his supporters) be because of any malpractice or incompetence of the Trump administration, but because of an elitist conspiracy to stop him succeeding. It’ll be interesting to see whether many of who voted for him will buy this if perceived failure does ensue.

Moving on, it is impossible to overlook the role race played. It can’t be denied that Trump was supported (and voted in) by those who are overwhelmingly white. White men voted him in by 63% to 31%, whilst most white women also voted in favour of the Trump-meister, despite his infamous comments. There are undoubtedly links between this point and the above; communities affected by the decimation in the manufacturing base in the US (plus many more besides) and who have valid concerns/views regarding immigration tend to be white. Perhaps correspondingly, elements of the ‘coastal media elite’ have wrongly labelled these legitimate concerns regarding immigration, job losses, security and terrorism and economic difficulty as racist, or racially motivated. Yet, as legitimate as these concerns are, it could well be true that there is a genuinely racist overtone to the Trump vote. That is, some voters simply don’t like ethnic minorities, and the fact that the changes brought by pro-globalisation policies have resulted in an increase in the number of people from these ethnic groups, or rather, a perceived increase. Nonetheless, it is imperative not to conflate these two groups.

There are other factors too that could and perhaps should be explored. Others have pointed to educational background being a factor. As seems normal these days, certain commentators and individuals have (both implicitly and explicitly) mocked and derided Trump voters for being stupid. This would be grave error. For one thing, this label stands at odds with the fact that white men regardless of educational level voted for Trump, and secondly (and more importantly) it gives an excuse to delegitimise certain viewpoints as lesser, without proper engagement, something not helped by the way in which our social media platforms are designed (shouting and sloganeering rather than thoughtfulness and insight.)

Moving on, a piece in the Financial Times also raised the impact of personal values. What particularly caught my eye in this piece was the research cited – it found that most of those analysed DIDN’T change their personal values they had been raised with during university. Further, it found that those who went into degrees around the political and social sciences didn’t find university as an experience which challenged their views on the world, but merely entrenched pre-existing opinions further. This then is a challenge to the oft espoused notion that education is the key to making everyone that bit more ‘tolerant’ and ‘progressive.’ It could be that personal values are entrenched earlier on in the education system, at primary or secondary school. Another alternative could be that parents play a key role in shaping personal values on their children.

Maybe we’re overanalysing all of this. Celebrated pollster Nate Silver remarked in a podcast just after the election that every so often people just fancy a ‘change.’ It doesn’t go much deeper than that. Every so often, the electorate want a change see a change in the party in power, regardless of whether it’s red or blue. Perhaps this is why Barack Obama back in 2008 utilised the word ‘change’ and placed it front and centre of his campaign (to great effect, he won the thing). He successfully persuaded enough of the US electorate that he was the ‘change’ candidate. Indeed, whatever you think of Trump, few will disagree that he likewise was the ‘change’ candidate in 2016. It is unnecessary to explore what exactly constitutes ‘change’, merely that a decent portion of the electorate feel something different is required every now and then, and whoever happens to be in opposition and perhaps manages to utilise the desire for a different direction reaps the benefits.

Returning back to the media, the way in which this fourth estate works is such that its less about WHAT is said but WHEN it is said. That is, due to the fierce competition for clicks (more clicks means more advertising revenue) there is a race to put out articles which quickly and comfortably offer explanations for certain phenomena or results. By ‘comfortably’, I mean explanations which offer relatively simple explanations for events which although often controversial, confirm ones view and opinions. This results in publications and websites offering output which sits well with audiences, while at the same time offering novel enough explanations as to generate the advertising revenue. Further, in the age we live, both we simply don’t have the time to mull over the reasons for and the implications of certain events. The danger then is at least two fold; a.) we fall for simplistic explanations of the world and the events around us, without leaving ourselves and each other the time to fully consider the evidence and or experiences, and our own views of these experiences, and b.) we naturally gravitate towards explanations which conform to our own pre-determined views of the world and events.

I feel like this latter point has been done to death, but the first point is an important one. In the case of Trump’s victory, I think it’s probably true that all the aforementioned factors, plus more, played a role in the Republican candidate’s victory. Thus, it is true that BOTH economic and cultural factors played a role in his success (as well as many others.) And whilst its fine to focus in on an individual factor and examine its role in an outcome, it is surely just as, if not more, important to consider how ALL the factors interacted with one another to foresee an event. I’ve seen precious little of this in the coverage around Trump; it’s been ‘education levels key to Trump victory’ or ‘economic decline amongst US middle classes key to Trump victory’ etc. Admittedly, considering a number of factors and their relative importance to an event can be very difficult, and is probably beyond the remit of statistics or quantitative research alone. By no means should we give up in the pursuit of explaining events, but as already said, humans are incredibly complex beings, and it therefore might be impossible to totally get to the bottom of why Trump won the election.

So, why did Trump win? A number of reasons, probably.

 

A review of Louis Theroux’s ‘Drinking to Oblivion’

Last week, the ever popular Louis Theroux returned to our TV screens for a one off documentary exploring the issue of alcoholism. In common with much of his work, Theroux, rather than drawing on statistics and expert evidence chose to explore this topic by talking to those affected themselves – the people experiencing alcoholism and various associated others (spouses, partners, boyfriends etc.) In watching this latest offering, I was left with a whole range of different impressions and emotions in comparison to his earlier work.

Louis Theroux - Drinking to oblivion review pic

Charting Louis Theroux’s career to date is an intriguing exercise. In his earlier output, Theroux came across as somewhat smug and sneering as he engaged with various perceived fringe groups in western society, whether they be ‘survivalists’ or those who believe in the existence of UFOs. This trend for engaging with alternative sects continued throughout Theroux’s career into the early and mid-2000s, minus the smugness and sneering I’m glad to say.

Whether it was leftfield groups or charismatic celebrities, the Oxford graduate soon built something of an imitable trademark style – altogether emotionally neutral, deadpan yet also charming and relatable. This odd mix of qualities perhaps helps explain why he has been able not only to gain access to notorious groups and people but also able to build relationships with them, bringing out their human side alongside their oddities.  All of this has made for rather compelling viewing over the years. Did ‘Drinking to Oblivion’ continue this trend?

Perhaps the first thing to say about this latest documentary is that its subjects are fundamentally different from any of Theroux’s others. As already noted, Theroux has built his career on being able to engage with society’s fringe, and whilst alcoholics are in many ways similarly seen as fringe, they are in many ways seen as far more relatable, visible and knowable (if not literally, then certainly culturally) than any other group Theroux has explored. We are far more likely to know an alcoholic for example, whereas how many of us can say that we know a survivalist or a member of Westboro’ Baptist Church?! We are also far more likely to ‘know’ about alcoholism in as far as we know (even if on a basic and/or flawed level) what it is. In comparison, I might have heard of the survivalists or Westboro’ Baptist Church but not much more than that – who they are, what they believe or how they behave for example.

Further, the way Theroux relates to those he meets in ‘Drinking to Oblivion’ is patently different to how he has done so in the past. Here, he seems to wear his emotions much more openly, he is visibly saddened and stirred by the way in which alcohol has gripped and destroyed the lives of a number (if not all, thankfully) of those he meets. Accordingly, he comes across as much more attached than in the past, it is clear that he dearly wants to help those he meet escape alcohol’s clutches. This is no more apparent than when Joe, in the depths of an alcohol induced crisis decides (whilst at hospital) that he wants to go out and buy a bottle of vodka, to which Louis responds by imploring him not to. It isn’t merely the words he says to Joe, but the way in which he almost begs Joe not to that sticks in the memory.

All of which leads the viewer to respond to ‘Drinking to Oblivion’ in a wholly different way than to previous Theroux offerings. In the past, we might have been entertained by Theroux’s dalliances with people to whom many feel deserve our mockery, derision and laughter. This certainly isn’t the case here. Rather, Drinking to Oblivion is an often uncomfortable, hard-hitting and altogether sad watch. Indeed, we aren’t encouraged to be entertained, intrigued, and to mock, deride and laugh but to lament, be saddened, discomforted and moved by how this terrifying affliction can affect significant numbers of people. Thus, given the subject matter, Theroux’s change in tone is welcome (I say this as someone who has enjoyed much of Theroux’s earlier work).

In summary, drinking to Oblivion is indeed hard, discomforting and saddening, and it is all the better for it.

Some thoughts on the Paris attacks

I was in a hotel room just outside Reading when it happened. Watching Later with Jools Holland, a chill went down my spine when out of nowhere the pictures of singing and joviality faded out to be replaced by haunting words along the lines of ‘we’re now joining the BBC News Channel live.’ Whilst it’s not my intention in the slightest to come across as trivial, you know something very serious has taken place when a scheduled TV programme is interrupted in this way, and so it unfortunately proved here.

eiffel tower

Most readers will surely by now be familiar with the terrible events two and a half weeks ago which left 132 dead, so I won’t describe the details again here. I would however like to offer some humble reflections of my own.

  1. A rush for comment

In an increasingly ‘microwave’ age, just as we demand information in a rapid, bitesize and easy to digest fashion, we also do so for in-depth analysis. This was patently demonstrated in the social media reaction (especially via Twitter) to the atrocities in France. Why did these events happen? What were the causes? Who is to blame? What is the world going to do about it? Such questions in the wake of such barbarity are nothing new, and are utterly understandable and right. Yet, it was the sheer speed at which explanations and apparently expert commentary were offered in answer to these questions which struck me. My concern is that without allowing ourselves the requisite time to consider, analyse and evaluate whether (or not) to act we’ll promote ill conceived and knee jerk solutions that potentially make things worse; this being the case both in terms of our own understanding of such atrocities and formal responses to them. Whilst in some situations rapid reaction will be necessary, it is crucial that our policy makers don’t give into the clamour for immediacy, particularly if the response demanded will have potentially long term, unintended, and life altering consequences.

2. On our doorstep

It was telling that the day before the Paris attacks, an event of similar ferocity struck the Lebanese capital of Beirut. Yet here there were no hashtags, no national anthem played at international sporting events and no Lebanese flags covering Facebook profile pictures. If the French population are deserving of such sympathy and solidarity (and I’m not for one minute suggesting that they’re not) then why aren’t the Lebanese, the Iraqis, the Syrians, the Nigerians and the millions the world over whose lives have been scarred by terrorism? One journalist argued that their newspaper had indeed given plenty of coverage to the Beirut attack, and such an assertion wouldn’t be incorrect. Yet, to suggest that somehow the Paris and Beirut (substitute Beirut for Bamako, Aleppo or Yola) had received comparable amounts of media coverage is, I’m afraid, ludicrous. Some may retort that the differing levels of coverage only exist becausethe public demand it so. Yet, regardless of whether its the media constructing certain atrocities as ‘worse’ than others, or whether the public simply care ‘more’ about French attacks than those further away (I happen to think it’s a mixture of both) the bigger question iswhy the Paris attacks gained such greater levels of coverage.

I believe there may be at least one key reason — proximity, both in ageographical and cultural sense. In regard to the former, Paris is so much closer to us than Beirut, Yola or Bamako and therefore somehow feels so much more real to us. In terms of the latter, the attacks on Paris were not only perceived as an attack on French people but also an attack on the ‘sacred’ collective Western ideas of democracy, modernity and freedom. Perhaps it is because other ‘far off’ nations do not (apparently) share these ideals that we find it harder to feel outraged (or as outraged) when news of terrorist atrocities in Lebanon, Mali or Nigeria come to our attention. In other words, France is much more likely to be seen as a nation ‘like us’, hence why a terrorist attack here is deemed indeterminably more horrific than it would be in the Middle East, Asia or Africa. Indeed, there is a collectively shared notion that terrorism is something that normally happens ‘over there’ where ‘that sort of thing’ is to be expected. Whilst it may be true that you’re more likely to be killed by terrorism in Baghdad than London, the overriding point is that if all life is sacred, then a death from terrorism should sadden us regardless of both it’s geographical and cultural context or rarity.

3. ‘These people aren’t real Muslims’

One of the more common reactions to the violence in France has been to say ‘these attacks have nothing to do with Islam’ or ‘these people aren’t real Muslims’, or words to that effect. It is a matter of great thanksgiving that most who identify themselves as Muslims are peace loving people who want nothing to do with terrorism. Yet one cannot escape the fact that there areparts of the Quran that could quite feasibly be interpreted as justifying such acts.  

Let me be clear, my intention here is not to unfairly malign those who identify as Muslims, or to categorically declare what the correct interpretation of these verses is (the debate continues to rage here), but to encourage acknowledgement of the sad truth that ISIS and organisations like them aren’t simply making things up from the top of their heads when they command their followers to martyr themselves. Why does this matter? Because if we are to fight Islamist terrorism effectively then it is surely essential that we fully understand the root causes, theology being one (but by no means the only) motivation.

4. ‘In humanity lies the answer’

An obvious and natural and reaction to such terrible events is to unite and declare one’s ultimate faith in humanity. Maybe in one sense this is an act of defiance against those deemed as ‘other.’ ‘They’ do not represent ‘us’, and ‘we’ together , because of our ingenuity, kindness, undiminished capacity to love one another and sheer awesomeness will bring an end to terrorism and all the evil we see around us. The same logic applies even if no such ‘othering’ takes place. Somehow, love will win the day, we’ll all be sitting in a (metaphorical) circle, holding hands (metaphorically) singing Kumbaya (metaphorically). Such reactions reflect our largely secular humanist age that tells us that we are glorious self sustaining autonomous agents, bringing in a world which is progressively improving and will continue to do so inextricably. Yet becuse we can’t see beyond ourselves for a solution to the pain, we miss the wood for the trees. We might not like to admit it, but if history teaches us one thing it is that evil done by humans, whether in the form of terrorism or some other ill, will never flee us. This isn’t to say of course that we shouldn’t implement ideas and policies to improve things, of course we should! Yet ultimately, humanity, in the name of this that and the other will continue to commit all sorts of horrors against it’s own race. Thus, the foundational problem of evil will never go away. If its a solution to the indelible problem of evil we’re after, we’d surely do well to start by looking beyond ourselves.

The Shame of Being a Meat Eater

I have a terrible confession to make: I really like meat. I know, I’m a monster. Not literally, like the Loch Ness Monster or Albi the racist dragon, but for liking and consuming my fair share of beef, chicken, pork and lamb et al. I do sometimes feel rather under the cosh. At best we’re viewed by ‘the other side’ as ignorant and irresponsible citizens unaware of the terrible treatment we’re subjecting our fellow animal earth dwellers to, and at worst we’re condemned as callous and evil murderers with a disgusting lust for sweet chilli chicken.

I’m slightly over exaggerating of course, but I can’t be the only one who has noticed the increasing number of social media content from animal rights organisations such as Mercy For Animals, the UK Cattle Protection League, Colin the Chicken for President (ok I made the latter two up) showing often graphic content depicting animal cruelty and death. The point of such content appears pretty similar all round, to encourage the consumer to abandon meat and embrace a vegetarian lifestyle, or even better, a vegan one. Moreover, such campaigns seem to imply that in continuing to eat meat we’re responsible for the suffering of farmed animals, and that if we all just embraced a meat free lifestyle everything would be ok. It’s all enough to make this writer feel rather guilty.

Now I’m not here to deny that animal cruelty is indeed cruel and that more should be done to encourage more compassionate practices throughout the world, absolutely, 100 per cent. Yet I’m really not sure shifting the burden of responsibility on to the consumer is the way to go; this being the case both from a pragmatic perspective – I’m not sure this is the most effective strategy to achieve better animal welfare practices, or from a fairness perspective – whilst consumers make certain choices in terms of what they buy it is unfair to blame consumer for animal cruelty. Both points centre on a number of key variables which as far as I can tell are almost entirely ignored by social media campaigns; industry, government and regulation.

In shifting the focus almost exclusively on consumer ‘choice’ such campaigns and organisations ignore the levers and powers of industry and government to affect change. After all, isn’t this where the real problem lies, in industry practices and techniques used to exploit animals for profit? It is these powers that ‘hold all the cards’ in terms of controlling conditions for millions of animals, and as a result it would surely be a better use of time to lobby these stakeholders rather than target individual consumers by shovelling guilt onto them.

Indeed, I’d go as far as to say such campaigns actually let industry, government and regulatory bodies off the hook. This is done by implying (albeit implicitly) that individuals are to blame for animal cruelty for making the choice to buy meat, and not those with legal duties of care who could implement wide scale reforms that’d improve conditions for livestock and still ensure a healthy profit for industry. Put another way, if I were a large scale meat processor or farmer I’d actually get behind campaigns like those by Mercy for Animals. I might say for instance; ‘yeah look guys, we’re just producing what consumers want here, if consumers told us that they wanted more ethically produced meat then we’d do it, but they don’t, so they’re the ones actually responsible for the cruelty.’

Having said all of that, let’s assume industry and regulators actually do take the mettle and agree to transnational change which results in happier more, less ethically challenged animals. Would that be enough for some animal rights campaigners? Not a chance. There’s a strong underlying moral assumption at play here, namely that animals and humans are of equal value. To eat them is implied as being akin to murder and morally reprehensible. Meat consumption should therefore be eradicated and veganism should be embraced by the World’s populace. True, other motivations such as the supposed health and financial benefits of veganism are also touted as motivators (worth an article and more in itself) but the truth it seems to me underpinning the philosophy of many of the more radical animal rights groups is that animals are on a par (in every sense of the word) with homo sapiens. This in turn explains why they employ the tactics that they do.

This I think needs addressing. What if, like me, you think animals do have intrinsic worth as living organisms and should therefore not be cruelly treated but that humans are uniquely and inherently more valuable? If you believe in animal testing for cancer treatments, or merely eating meat because it’s just so darned tasty then this principal won’t be new to you. In other words, if you do believe in a ‘hierarchy of value’ then you should have no qualms and feel no guilt about utilising animals, whether for survival or enjoyment.

In closing, I like meat. I always have done and probably always will. Yet I also accept the arguments regarding how animal welfare standards could and should improve. But what is the best way to go about this? Lobby government, regulators and industry. Don’t load all the responsibility onto the consumer. Doing so is both futile (whilst some may be converted to vegetarianism and veganism, many more will go about their lives eating meat like it’s on sale for £19.99) and ignores where the real power lies in the battle for improved animal welfare. Thus, those who wish to pursue a meat or animal product free diet should of course be entirely free to do so. But I beg of you, please no more sensationalist videos or photos? Write a letter to your MP, go and have a nice chat with your local cattle farmer, fly to Brussels! All three would surely be a better use of your time.

Right, I’m off to McDonald’s for five Big Macs.