Pretty. Damn. Certain.

It is a line that will live with Michael Gove for a very long time. Along with the phrase ‘enemies of promise’ (I didn’t mind that one, actually), his utterance that “people in this country have had enough of experts…” will be played, replayed and brought up regularly when the hindsight enabled story of the political mess that is Britain in 2016 is told. Johnson’s hijacking, Leadsom’s mothering, Crabb’s sexting, the lesser of two Eagles and Corbyn grimly holding to office like some greyed limpit fastened to the side of a quickly sinking vessel: that’s just the last couple of weeks. It is hard not to be depressed by the mess, whether you’re an ardent remainer or a committed leaver.

Gove’s role has been the greatest personal disappointment because I felt he was a politician of ambition (and not just for himself), talent and integrity. I thought he did a fine job as education secretary, displaying clear purpose, vision and a belief in the transformative power of education. He was not the man to lower intellectual expectations as a result of limited economic means; instead he understood that economic capital and cultural capital are two different things and that one can provide a far better future for one’s children by becoming a fully educated member of society.

His quote about experts was ill-judged, and when watching the clip back, I noted that he seems to pause for a moment to comprehend the silliness of what he has just said. However, as is the way with politicians, there was no instant retraction, just a continuation down the path of absolute certainty. Andrea Leadsom’s recent comments to The Times about motherhood is a similar case. Why can these people not just admit they have said something foolish in error and move on? After all, to err is human; to forgive, divine.

We all speak a few thousand words each day. It was be surprising in the extreme if at least some of these weren’t ill-judged, formed factually incorrect sentences or simply failed to make the point we wished to convey.

President Obama, the greatest orator of our time, says here ( https://youtu.be/UjGUUGw0pQ8 ) that “it’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about…”

But how often do we ever really know what we’re talking about? Who really understood what the effect of Brexit would be on the economy, or on the national mood? How should we best address global terrorism, the rising population or the possibility of disease pandemics? We do need experts, of course, and that is why democracy should never involve giving complex decision making over to the public, especially when such a nuanced issue can be couched as such a simple in/out decision, thus setting up a classic false dilemma.

We live in a time of bombastic certainty – Iraq was all about the oil; Blair went to war simply to cosy up to the US; you only care about the future if you are a mother; let’s take back control; immigration keeps our country going; immigration is an uncontrolled shambles; the England football team lost because they didn’t have enough passion, or were overpaid, or were at the end of a long season, or we’re not technical enough, or it was the tactics, or the selection, or the injuries. There is probably a kernel of truth in all these statements, but the status updates and 140 character assertions are over-simplifications at best. To express a state of uncertainty or confusion on any issue is seen as a weakness to be pounced on by the Internet masses, so we are forced to abandon the tentative in favour of the assured, like someone stamping for all they are worth on a frozen lake. The problem being that we have no idea how thick the ice is. We can only hope it is as thick as most of the people keen to be part of the debate.

The purpose of argument and debate is to persuade, but one should also be willing to be persuaded. Social media is a poor forum for debate, given that we can never be sure who the audience is; no-one wants to look foolish in front of both their peers *and* total strangers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone concede an inch on Twitter, with the ‘agree to disagree’ line usually confirming a draw. More often, bold opposing statements are uttered, positions are confirmed and a stand-off is created, until such point as both protagonists become bored and search for videos of cats instead.

Arguments are not about winning and losing so much as accepting, clarifying and understanding. True certainty is far more rare than we seem to think, and living with a degree of uncertainty in all that we do is a more realistic way to behave and might even allow us to enjoy ourselves a little more, rather than seeking out the next stranger to pick an e-fight with.

I am, of course, willing to accept that I might be wrong about this.

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Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Actually, espresso seems to be the hardest word, at least to pronounce and if you happen to work as a ‘barista’ for any major UK coffee chain, it’s nigh on impossible: hashtag eXpresso.

The need for an apology has been highlighted several times in recent months, with David Cameron’s apology being the most in demand.  He’s been asked to apologise for the British massacre at Amritsar, for the Bloody Sunday shootings, for the police errors and subsequent cover-up at Hillsborough.  Each time the significance of the event seems to have been lost in the desperate clamour for apology, which is unfortunate but inevitable given the need for a simple banner headline.  The events (in 1919, 1972 and 1989) have nothing to do with Cameron personally and therefore he is in effect being asked to apologise for the faults of others.  I don’t think anyone would argue that British people in authority were at fault in each of these cases, and given that few if any of them are around to apologise now, it seems that if an apology is required it must carry most weight when delivered by the man at the top.  Not even the most ardent Cameron-haters would suggest that he’s apologising for any wrong-doing on his part, so what’s the problem?

We all apologise multiple times every day – when we hand over a £20 note to pay for a single stamp to when someone barges into us in the street – we simply can’t wait to apologise.  Maybe it’s because we’ll never see these people again, or because we feel that it’s merely customary to apologise, or because it’s simply a learned reaction.  We’re not really sorry of course, and maybe that’s why it’s easier to get the word out.

An apology should make everyone feel better, or at least make a person on one side of the apology feel better.  It’s a way of drawing a line under things; it signals the time to move on.   I hesitate to use the dreadful word ‘closure’, but that’s what I’m hinting at.  However, in too many cases it’s seen as a sign of weakness to apologise; one is handing the initiative to the other person and providing them with back-up ammunition to be brought out during a later argument. 

Problems tend to arise because we feel the need to categorise apologies under so many headings, some of which are likely to inflame the situation:

1.  I’m apologising for something I have done wrong and feel that it’s right to say sorry.

2.  I’m apologising even though I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong.  This tends to be used as a way of diffusing an argument one wants to get out of.

3.  I’m apologising because you’re upset with me even though I don’t think I did anything to upset you.  This is usually delivered as an apology which isn’t really an apology at all: ‘I’m sorry that you feel this way’ i.e. it’s actually mostly your fault that you feel this way.

4.  I’m apologising for the situation, even though it’s clearly someone else’s fault.  I shoulder overall responsibility and therefore it’s reasonable for me to apologise.

I’d suggest that 1 is a pretty good reason to apologise and 4 is not someone we should shy away from.  I do a fair amount of 4 in my job and it’s surprising how often it catches people off-balance when they demand an apology and you give it to them.  They often seem disappointed and had hoped they would be able to get in a few jabs before the knock-out.  It’s as though there’s something disconcerting about the immediacy and unexpectedness of an apology.

Maybe a few people in power could learn from bogun Aussie PM Julia Gillard.  Her recent adoption apology was well delivered and fully appropriate.  It didn’t make her seem weak, merely reasonable.  It may not have provided ‘closure’ to many, but I’m sure it increased the collective ‘feeling better-ness’, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  

I predict a riot

Actually, I didn’t predict the London riots, but at least I had the excuse that I was abroad, on holiday. Whilst I was away, I watched Question Time on the BBC Parliament channel (it’s amazing that I have a girlfriend, isn’t it?), and from listening to those sage political commentators, you’d be convinced that each of them had predicted these precise events a long time ago. Many of them (Prescott, Paddick etc) spoke of a kind of inevitability about the London riots, which was surprising, as no-one to my knowledge had warned the country of this powder keg about to blow at any point before certain areas of the capital were on fire, by which time most people would agree that it was a little late. The shocking events of last week are made even more shocking by the fact that they came as a surprise to most people.

Public (and media) reaction has broadly fallen into two wildly simplistic categories. The liberal view is that we have a mass of young people (mainly young black males) that have been ‘failed by society’. This failed by society line (henceforth to be known as FBS) is trotted out often, but no-one has yet to give a satisfactory answer as to what it means. Still, it sounds good, and it gave the Guardian a chance to wheel Russell Brand out to emphasise the FBS point. Mr Brand clearly gave so many soundbites after the death of Amy Winhouse that he’s now required to comment on all major news stories. I await his coverage of the US presidential race with baited breath. Back to the main point, but in what way has society failed these young rioters? One news channel suggested that it was the fault of the ‘nice things’ industry, which has created ‘must-have’ items such as iphones and D+G clothing. The theory is that young people cannot afford these things, therefore their self-worth is defated, meaning there is nothing left for them to do but smash things, and nick things. Does anyone actually believe this is the truth? There’s lots of things that I can’t afford (a yacht, for example), but you won’t see me down at Brighton Marina at midnight in a hoodie, making off with someone else’s.

Having nice things doesn’t make you happy and content. These young people are angry because they don’t aspire to anything, and the majority of the fault lies with the parents. Quality parenting is about setting your child up well for life, and guiding your child as best you can until you are able to remove the stabilisers, and they are free to make their own way in society. This usually means some form of understanding of what is right and wrong, a respect for your fellow human beings, and a little bit of education along the way. Is that too much to ask? Only yesterday, my hairdresser was bemoaning the fact that so many of her friends are pregnant (they’re all about 21, and the babies are unplanned in general; I did a bit of research). Why are these people so happy to have kids, when they’re generally so unhappy with the raising them properly bit? True satisfaction comes from earning things: not having them given to you, and not from nicking them. There’s a good message from which to start. Labour were totally wrong in the assertion that 50% of people going to university would be a good thing. In fact, fewer people going to university would be a good thing, and more people doing apprenticeships and learning a trade would be an even better thing. All young people have talents, and the sooner they find out what they are good at the better.

On the flip side to the liberals and their seeking to justify this behaviour comes the ‘lock em up and throw away the key’ brigade. Those that think it’s reasonable to lock up two morons from Cheshire for 4 years each for trying to incite a riot via facebook. I don’t know what’s more tragic, the long sentence or the fact that nobody came. This knee-jerk reaction attempts to placate a public that is baying for blood, but we cannot allow public opinion to override rational decision-making. Handing out over-tough sentences as an ‘example’ has been proved not to work; someone isn’t going to refrain from hurling a brick through a window because the sentence length for criminal damage has increased by 33% in recent times. We need to consider the root causes of this anti-social behaviour to prevent it – to cure the cause, not to hammer the consequence.

We are a confused country. Are you proud to be British? Am I? Do we know what it means? The spectacular failure of Cameron’s Big Society suggests that the Thatcherite ideal of greed is good still looms large over the country. Better parenting to start, more opportunities for kids to learn a trade early, less emphasis on having to go to university (fewer universities even) and far less exposure for Russell Brand.

That can’t be too tricky, can it? Or maybe Huxley had the best idea after all?