Thursday 25 December 2008

Hail the nanny state!

A few days ago the story of Hannah's parents went through the media.

Last October the two-year-old girl drowned in a swimming pool and since then her parents "lobbied vigorously" to strengthen the pool safety laws in Queensland. Pool owners face the compulsory installation of added locks and regular inspection by the authorities, all at their own expense and regardless of whether they have children of their own or not and whatever their age and swimming skills.

"Vicious hate mail" came their way, and state premier Anna Bligh was "shocked" at such a response.

Loosing one's child is tragic, but it is interesting no-one has touched upon the deeper reasons for the on-going attempts to impose more and more controls in our lives in such a general and pervasive manner.

One or two incidents of some kind are hardly a sign of a culture, but have the events multiply and there is reason to look more closely.

An unsupervised and untrained child drowns and everybody is meant to bear the consequences. An irresponsible driver fails to negotiate a curve and the Roads Department is lambasted for its negligence. Someone slips on a wet rock in a river and Parks and Wildlife Services are taken to court. A pedestrian trips over a kink in the footpath and the Council has to pay. Some people cannot handle their alcohol and the opening hours in the entire city are reduced.

See the common denominator?

Generally speaking, in the face of a potential danger one of two reactions is possible. Either the individual is held to account and leaned upon to be prepared, or the environment at large is modified to reduce the danger.

The question becomes, what is the overall cost in both cases? A danger might be so unforeseeable and complex that training everybody would be unfeasible and so the focus is on the threat itself. On the other hand, the act of preparing can be so trivial that individuals rather than society can be expected to take responsibility.

Clearly, in the examples above society at large has been forced to address the issue, with the added onus of needing organisational and administrative entities to cope with the extra burden - a measure individuals do not need. Therefore, a society in which each and every member is up to the task of daily life will have more resources at its disposal than one that assumes the role of general supervisor, guardian, and nanny.

The source of both approaches can readily be found in human existence, and for good reason. A child in its first few years does not have the capacity to understand the wider surrounds and needs protection, most immediately supplied by the mother – the female. Rather than expect the child to master every eventuality a mother will concentrate on the surrounds to make them safe. When the father – the male – takes over in later years the focus shifts to the child, to be trained and thus prepared for what is to come. Hence if a young child falls off a swing a mother seeks to change the swing, if an older child does the same a father changes the child.

Through feminism the female mindset has spread out from the home into society and with it carried the values and priorities of its bearers. As a consequence society has become the ‘home’ and its members have attained the status of ‘child’ in so many ways. No longer is it desirable to have strong and independent youngsters – they must play the role of children for as long as possible. No longer is the drive to adult life seen as a sign of vigour – it is being decried as irresponsible and being deprived of one’s childhood.

Just as a mother will always see the young boy in the grown man, so does society now view its members as children who need to be protected at all costs.

“If only one child is saved by...” has become the war cry of nannies of any ilk as soon as some measure is contemplated which yet again lowers the standards for us all. Nobody can, or dares, question the effect of such a sentiment. If out of 100 children one cannot manage a roundabout, does this mean all the other 99 must be dumbed down as well?

If out of 100 children one manages to find a questionable website, does that mean every ISP in the land needs to install filters? The idiosyncrasy becomes particularly poignant in cases like these: on one hand we – however grudgingly – admire the technical savvy of youngsters, yet on the other we impose limits on their inventiveness (whether these limits actually work is of course another matter again).

Now consider those dangers that do need a collective effort to counter; climate change, terrorism, scarcity of resources, population density come to mind. If we all run ourselves into the ground trying to sustain a female-friendly nursery, what then will be left to address the real problems – the ones outside the newly-pervasive ‘home’?

Even more to the point, societies which do not cater to the inward-looking narcissism to the same extent are better placed to pursue their intents. While the West drowns in its self-imposed navel-gazing they in turn fulfill their ambitions at will.

While we pledge obeisance to the eternal Mother, they are free to take advantage of our weakness.

Sunday 14 December 2008

The Schopenhauer dilemma

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

This famous quote by Schopenhauer speaks, like all the others, of the man's experience with life.

A good phrase inveigles itself into the mind through its seductive power. A splendid phrase holds up even under examination.

When an author writes beautifully the lean sentence has an allure a volume of words cannot match. Like a simple but haunting melody the few tones stand for so much, unsaid.

Yet to delve more deeply often reveals such detail that the audience runs the risk of having its own visions curtailed against the intention of the writer.

What stands for truth has been the subject of endless arguments, from antiquity to the present. Let us not dwell on the false authority of religion, nor on the obsession of ideologues. Let us simply say that truth represents what, at any given moment, can be shown to mirror reality. No more, but certainly no less.

Since its completion in 2003 the Otoom model of the mind has proven itself against hundreds of events around the world. Almost a thousand references in the book itself and over two hundred mentioned in the Parallels attest to that (see the website). A small truth here, a small truth there, they all add up.

Why then the opposition, why the reluctance to engage?

In general a newly arrived truth, even a small one, competes with the established. By its very definition it is a sentiment not shared by anyone aligned with the familiar. For something new to take hold it has to replace the old, and the old has become comfortable through sheer habit.

That applies at any scale, but consider the mystery of the mind. For millennia thinkers have confronted the inescapable question how humans formulate thoughts, generate ideas, and arrive at insights. In modern times the theologians and philosophers were joined by researchers focusing on society, on cognition, right up to artificial intelligence. Just as nobody came up with a comprehensive picture, many offered hypotheses built upon what to them seemed plausible under their own circumstances.

From a mysterious and all-powerful creator, to the multitude of actions throughout society, to the abstracts of mental dynamics, to computer-based neural networks, they all were seen as a promising entrance to what we perceive as the Mind, that vast and inscrutable system.

Fancy has given way to science, but even here this elusive phenomenon provided more questions than answers in the end. And so in our times the debates became occasions for a form of mutual commiseration.

I may present my view, but in the absence of a conclusive solution my own version is no better or worse than anyone else's in the end. The discussions came to enjoy a conviviality born out of a shared frustration with the real, and the participants could repeat the exercise happy in the knowledge that no-one else would destroy their own artifice either.

Such an atmosphere, such fun!

For a member of that club to undermine the reason for its very existence borders on the masochistic, or at least on the personality of a misanthrope.

Yet this is precisely what the Otoom model is asking. Except that the old stuffy comfort gets replaced by the bracing winds sweeping in from a land beckoning to be explored.

Then there is status.

Imagine walking down the street and a bedraggled individual emerges from the shadows, whispering the secrets of the universe. Would you stop and listen?

Or imagine an air-brushed fashion thing sprouts inanities from the front page. Would you toss away the paper?

Under ordinary circumstances a scientist can rely upon the credence their testamur bestows. The document represents commitment, effort, and success.

But what if the circumstances are outside the ordinary - what if, for reasons that need explaining, and sometimes in detail, the usual path had not been available?

Nothing would have changed in the content of a presented material, but the perception is now radically different. Not only is the material itself questioned, if dealt with at all the tendency exists to measure it against others which did in fact come from more acceptable sources. If found wanting in that regard the concept is criticised for being in neglect of the established; never mind that it may have nothing to do with it.

Familiarity, it has been said, breeds contempt. More often than not it also calcifies thinking.

One attribute of familiarity is norm, and it can manifest in insidious ways. Since the norm represents a standard, such markers can be used to preempt further investigation.

Although universities enjoy a respect they well deserve, as societal entities they are situated within the greater realm of their demographic. It is the demographic that determines the ultimate quality of their surrounds, the mindset that pervades the overall climate and therefore the nature of any outcome.

Universities create their own intellectual space but they are nevertheless part of the wider community. Should this community be prone to secrecy, should those who voice some concern be subjected to threats and censorship, should leaders rise through its ranks not because of their learning but due to some religious or ideological appeal resonating through the social strata, then the critic is seen as an iconoclast at best or an usurper at worst. Outsiders not familiar with such an ambience do not see the background but only the critic and so his or her actions are not taken seriously.

Yet Queensland society does fall into that category, and people in the rest of the country or abroad do not necessarily relate to what can happen here. For example, a surgeon who complained about health practises has been publicly gagged, a local member of parliament thinks the financial crisis has been foretold in the Bible, a doctor who warned of problems with the intended merger of two children's hospitals has been warned to stay out of this "or else" and has been put down as a "blow-in", and the state's education system is not only well below world standards but has high school teachers who literally can't spell.

I emphasise I am talking about the general ambience. Not everybody falls into the same class and there are notable exceptions. What the latter have to deal with in everyday life is anyone's guess, but if one does speak out the response is swift and brutal.

To nurture something like the Otoom model in such a climate is an interesting experiment in itself. Only time will tell us about the ultimate outcome and furnish the lessons learnt.