Tag Archives: Empathy

Open letter to PM May: Think to the future

Are you certain that you have a coherent vision for the direction of our country, and a steady hand on the tiller as we plough forward? Anyone watching the news over the past year has experienced growing dismay as key problems spin rapidly beyond the control not only of the beleaguered citizenry but also of the stewards of society whose remit for addressing society’s problems has evolved over centuries.

As a result of two triumphs of populist will over reasoned circumspection, two of the world’s most significant politicians – each one possessing a uniquely problematic mandate from their electorates – met recently in Washington DC to discuss a platform for cooperation in the future in general and, in particular, to establish the foundation for a trade deal.

One distinct difference between these politicians is that one is favoured by her upbringing within a culture that has learned, and is still learning, the enduring merits of exercising soft power over hard. The other politician is an unashamed practitioner of the coarse brutalities and darker arts of hard power.

In the course of this meeting a State Visit invitation was extended that was neither demanded of the circumstances nor consistent with long-established precedent. What has been broadly identified as a collusive and appeasing act had not even the fig leaf of pathetic and transient glistering gain. Within a week of the invitation being extended, almost two million signatures were secured here on a petition decrying that invitation, and prompted this reply from your government’s website:

“HM Government believes the President of the United States should be extended the full courtesy of a State Visit . . . HM Government recognises the strong views expressed by the many signatories of this petition, but does not support this petition . . . This invitation reflects the importance of the relationship between the United States of America and the United Kingdom.”

The “strong views” being expressed are more than emetic eruptions of dismay. They arise from millennia of reflections on the constitution of effective relationships, and what defines the “importance” of sustaining them. They reflect the lessons absorbed by people still living of more recent collisions of collusion and principle. Within a mere lifetime past we have witnessed the price to be paid for nurturing the nursery steps of autocratic egomaniacs simply because we think we can do business with them.

In a world in which “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity”, have you reflected on the well of inspiration to be derived from a thousand years of British history? Has enough not transpired that we can sense posterity’s judgments on rulers who sacrifice hard-won ideals and long-term prosperity for unseemly grasping after the petty inducements of what glitters today?

At a time when you are on a determined course to re-define the concept of national self-possession, you might reevaluate the prospects for Britain in selling the national soul not through adherence to a grander plan or higher ideal, but to headlong slavering after association with a regime as dystopian, cognitively chaotic and mendacious as Donald Trump’s.

New Year offers promise for foxes and lunatics

As 2017 gears up for its short sprint to the inauguration of America’s next president, the mature media are recoiling at the prospects of the people whom the president-elect is gathering around him to help define the tone and agenda of his presidency. Whether we look at Energy, the Environment, or Education – and that’s just the letter E – the impression is not so much that American political culture will be driven by incompetents, as that the foxes and lunatics whose career missions have been to spread mayhem in specific areas have been put in charge of the very henhouses and asylums that the rest of us have been trying to protect from their rapacities.

A common theme in the media commentary is that this amounts to a war on science. It is certainly this, but it is more: it is a war on critical thinking, on expertise and, critically, on empathy. What may prove most corrosive is the impact upon the key quality that separates human intelligence from its emerging machine correlate. It is empathy that emerged above so many other qualities when the cognitive explosion of some 60,000 years ago set the erstwhile Monkey Mind on its journey to the new and far more expansive cultural horizons of Homo sapiens.

Thinking in another person’s headspace is the cognitive equivalent of walking in another man’s shoes. It requires a theory of mind that allows for another creature’s possession of one, and an active consciousness that an evolving relationship with that other mind will require either conquest or collaboration. Academics can argue over the tactics and indeed over the practicality of “arguing for victory” or they can, in understanding the validity of empathy, agree with philosopher Daniel Dennett as he proposes some “rules for criticising with kindness”.

Amidst all the predictions for 2017 as to how human and artificial intelligence will evolve, we may hear more over the coming months about the relationship between intelligence (of any kind) and consciousness. To what extent will a Super Artificial Intelligence require that it be conscious?

And will we ever get to a point of looking back on 2016 and saying:

Astrology? Tribalism? Religion? Capitalism? Trump? What ever were we thinking? Perhaps in empathising with those who carried us through the infancy of our species, we will allow that at least for some of these curiosities, it was a stage we had to go through.