On Tolerance

I like to describe myself as a tolerant person. Not tolerant in terms of being patient with incompetence or having a high pain threshold, I tolerate difference. I have no problem with people thinking differently, looking differently or acting differently to the way I would (or at least the way I’d like to think I would). I think that tolerance of the differences between people is a fundamental part of any modern, humane society. I think many of the world’s problems could be solved if the starting point was tolerance and the next step was discussion. I’d like others to be tolerant of me in the same way that I am tolerant of them. Many are not.

“Conventional people are roused to fury by departure from convention, largely because they regard such departure as a criticism of themselves” – Bertrand Russell

It is not just religion that breeds intolerance and bigotry (although that is the largest driving force behind it in the modern world), uninformed ideology can also contribute, although many of the features of religion are present in fascism and communism and some would describe them as secular religions. There is an underlying force behind all of this, when people become divided on any grounds and the two sides become somehow ‘other’, it becomes all to easy for those in authority driving the divide to dehumanize the two sides, separating them still further. Humans are tribal by nature and putting people into boxes which suffice to summarise their entire character without any direct contact happens without any conscious effort. There are clear evolutionary benefits from this tribalism, being more wary of people who have less genetically in common with you is an obvious way of keeping you (and your close family) safe. People from other tribes who are not related to you will ‘look after their own’ first and if this means an action that is detrimental to your safety, so be it. Altruism towards people who you have less genetically in common with at the expense of those with whom you share more genetic material doesn’t work in evolutionary terms. It seems perfectly natural that when people are separated into groups, the feelings or needs of the group to which you belong become more important than those of another.

The easiest and I think most obvious way of combating the inherent tribalism within all of us is to cut it off at its source. The only reason people are ever seen as different or ‘other’ is because they are (but only in a geographic or social sense). Separating people of difference without encouraging a full and all-encompassing mixing (to avoid dilution and assimilation) is the theory behind multiculturalism, it doesn’t work and only serves to strengthen the feelings of difference. It has been tried in almost all major cities in Western Europe and many others around the world. When people are allowed to mix naturally without the fear of their own culture being in any way harmed or lessened by pressure from outside, the ignorance that exists between separate groups evaporates and the clear common ground that exists between all people regardless of race, culture or religion becomes apparent.

What exactly do we mean by tolerance? To some it may mean voting for a candidate who believes that homosexuality should not be illegal, to others it means smiling through gritted teeth while your son brings home his first boyfriend, while to others it means being the proud parent at your son’s gay wedding. Personally, to me tolerance means treating people in an equal way whatever difference they may have from you (or each other) to the point of ignoring the difference, not even noticing it. A person’s choice (or inherited genetic tendency) of lifestyle, should not be judged by the way it affects them but by the way it directly affects those around them, not in a ‘I don’t approve’ way but in a ‘their children aren’t safe’ or a ‘driving like that is dangerous’ way. Not doing what you would do in a given situation is not grounds for persecution, doing something that has negative affects on other people is. Maybe ‘acceptance’ is a better word to use but tolerance is the word in common usage on the subject so I’ll continue with that.

What are the limits of tolerance? Should I tolerate unlawful behaviour? Unethical practise? Cruelty?

No, these are not things I think anyone should tolerate. They all have a clear victim, all freedoms of action have a boundary around which stand the other members of society who could be affected by those actions. Granted there are many examples of ‘victimless crimes’ such as drug use but I don’t really want to get into the whole ‘legalise drugs’ issue. Suffice to say that in this piece I mean crimes that have a clear victim (I would include children of substance abusers in this category). Poor ethics are not constricted to the corporate world, we all know examples of religious leaders driving expensive cars and wearing designer suits, while the charities and causes they claim to support struggle with lack of funds (or no funding at all if they dare to break one of the requirements set down by the church). There are many examples of cruelty that are only permissible in law due to dietary restrictions, or bodily requirements placed on the religious. These actions are still cruel, whoever or whatever orders you to do them. Tolerance does not extend to allowing actions against an unwilling victim (I include all children in this) or to slaughter any animal in a way that causes any more than the bare minimum of suffering and for any reason other than necessary pest removal or food.

These are so far examples of toleration with regards to behaviour, what about tolerating intolerant thoughts and views?

Many people may disagree with me on this but I cannot allow the suppression of intolerant views to be more important than the freedom to express them. I do not believe that they are (or can ever be) correct or valid but for tolerance to be truly tolerant it must cover all members of society not just those who I agree with. It is only through frank and open discussion that the enemies of tolerance and freedom can be engaged, silencing one’s critics without exposition is a surefire way to encourage them, ensuring their continuance. Deconstructing and refuting their arguments in front of those they are attempting to convert in the most public forum possible is the only way to show people the falsity of their claims. The irony of the religious fanatic standing on a street corner screaming about the evils of free speech is not lost on me but it almost certainly is on him or her. However, tolerance of this sort is not really comparable to the tolerance spoken of above, if a person has views you do not agree with it is not only your right but also your duty (time and place allowing) to challenge them, point out any errors, inconsistencies and errors before expressing your own opinions and backing them up with the reasons you hold them and any evidence to support your claim. Just shouting ‘Shut Up You Nutter!’ before walking off without giving them the option of reply won’t convince anyone of anything other than your own intolerance and inability to accept criticism.

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” – Voltaire

We all live here, in this now global society, it is no longer enough to peer through the once murky camera lens of a far away country, wondering how people could treat each other like that. Metaphorically walking by when one witnesses harassment, bullying or victimisation of any member of society be they part of a vulnerable minority or just unlucky enough to be surrounded by ignorant idiots is not an option anymore. It is only by standing up and confronting the peddlers of hate head on that we can start to build a world we would be proud for our children and grandchildren to live in.

We are not just members of society, we are society.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

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Big Gay Bus? Or Ex-Big Gay Bus?

I woke up the radio news this morning to learn of a London bus advert that has been banned by TFL (Transport for London). If you’re in Britain you may already know about it but if you haven’t yet heard you can read the story from the bbc here. In summary, an advert from an organisation claiming to be able to ‘cure gayness’ has been banned for being offensive. This is the text (capitals intended as on the advert) that was to be printed down the side of the buses:

“NOT GAY! EX-GAY, POST-GAY AND PROUD. GET OVER IT.”

It was meant as a response to (and copied the style of) the advert by Stonewall, the LGBT charity which, since 1st April has 1000 buses with this on the side:

“SOME PEOPLE ARE GAY. GET OVER IT.”

My initial reaction to the story was, ‘good, I can’t believe they thought it was ok to say stuff like that in public’ and I still feel like that. The sentiments behind the ad, although not explicitly printed on it, are that homosexuality is some sort of mental illness or disease that can be cured through therapy. That is what the group who put the advert forward, Core Issues Trust, promote:

“CORE is a non-profit Christian initiative seeking to support men and women with homosexual issues who voluntarily seek change in sexual preference and expression”

Clearly with a mission statement like that, I think we should be wary about promoting their adverts. However, there is a part of me that is uneasy with the banning of any advert merely on the basis of it being offensive to some people. It is, after all, not obscene, crude or crass. This is a topic over which two of my most strongly held beliefs, freedom of speech and freedom from prejudice, are in direct opposition with each other. That the advert is offensive and designed to be so is not in question, that it is designed to cause controversy and promote discussion is also clear. The same could also be said of the humanist ‘there probably is no god…’ bus advert from a few years ago, yet that was not banned. Should these groups be free to express their views in public forums? My ‘freedom of speech’ head tells me yes, one cannot claim to live in a free society without having to listen to opinions one thoroughly disagrees with, just as those who disagree with me should not be able to silence me for the same reasons. My ‘freedom from prejudice’ head tells me no, you cannot allow those among us who have such horrendously outdated, divisive and bigoted views to promote the concept of homosexuality as something that is to be cured, akin to drug addiction or gambling.

Is it the subject matter that’s the difference between this and the humanist advert? What if the British National Party wanted to run an ad campaign based on race? ‘Stop being so Black’ or ‘Asians should be in Asia’ ? This, I think, would attract nearly unanimous negative attention and would certainly be banned, rightly. There are fundamental differences between ethnicity, sexuality and religion. While I don’t personally believe that religion is a true ‘choice’ in the same way as a political vote, it is certainly a lot closer to choice than ethnicity, over which one has not control whatever or sexuality, where the only choice is whether or not to practise. A person can choose to learn about different religions and beliefs and may well change their views with age. Openly projected sexuality may change with age but it is normally a ‘coming out’ experience from a repressed position rather than some sort of ‘switch’. Prejudices on any grounds have no place in the public sphere but debates over the subjects of the prejudices can be welcome. It is when the subject is a matter over which one has no control, that the debates become unwanted, unwarranted and often truly offensive, this is where the metaphorical ‘line in the sand’ is drawn in many people’s minds.

I think the difference between the adverts in the news today and the humanist campaign from a few years ago is the sentiments behind them. The humanists did not openly criticise anyone in society who believed in god or attended any religious congregation, they merely pointed out their own beliefs. They did not attempt to lure people into an atheistic ‘conversion’ or even assert that one belief system was better than the other, only that you shouldn’t worry if yours doesn’t quite match up to what people expect of you. The advert by CORE, on the other hand, is directly aimed an already victimized section of society. A minority who, despite recent advances, still face prejudice and persecution from many vocal and sometimes violent members of our society.

Do I believe in free speech? Yes, of course. Do I believe in untrammelled freedom of speech? Yes, but not on the side of a public bus. I believe that I (or anyone else) should be free to say whatever I think using certain mediums, public buses are not one of them. In short, the demography of the readership and their sensibilities do need to be taken into account. Thats not to say that all public adverts and promotions should be mundane or banal but there is a balance to be found and I believe Boris has found it on this topic.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

I’d love to hear some of your comments and opinions on this as I’m not fully committed either way.

Both the UN and Al-Assad are the Enemies of the Syrian People

We have today witnessed the first cracks from within the core of the ruling Ba’ath party in Syria, with the resignation of the deputy oil & mineral wealth minister Abdo Hussameddin. More importantly, he has not merely resigned because of the regime’s brutal oppression of the rebels, he has chosen to side with the revolutionary forces in their cause and questioned the legitimacy of a regime whose grip on power can only be maintained by overwhelming force and even reported massacres of dissidents.

The significance of this action remains to be seen. Will we see a domino effect of Al-Assad opponents from within the regime switching sides? Or will the inevitable destruction of Abdo Hussameddin’s property and persecution of his family be enough to keep quiet any dissenting voices within the party?

As yet, all those switching sides have been from within the armed forces, mostly from lower ranks, the political power base has remained steadfast in its opposition to the popular uprising seen in some cities. In the Arab and North African regimes that have fallen so far; Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the regimes found it difficult to maintain internal support from ministers and the military, handing the revolutionary forces priceless political capital and legitimacy in the eyes of the external world. If those closest to the leader desert, it becomes near impossible for any outside observer to remain neutral in a civil or revolutionary war. A dictator who can only rely on the support of his overpaid generals cannot be granted any degree of legitimacy by the world when an active opposition movement is in progress. This is why the latest political development in Syria could prove to be so significant. Without the internal support from his party, the backing given to Al-Assad from the permanent UN Security Council members of China & Russia becomes ever more farcical. For now, they can hide behind the maxims of ‘stability’, ‘security’ and ‘opposition to regime change’, safe in the knowledge that, having learnt painful lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan, both Nato and the Arab League have no desire for active military intervention in a country with a strong, if hugely unpopular, governing regime and no stable political opposition.

It remains one of the aspects of modern humanity that I find most abhorrent. Our inability to act in a supportive, coherent manner to stop known acts of genocide in foreign countries is, for me, evidence of how far humanity has to left to go before we can call ourselves truly humane. Be it in Rwanda, Chechnya, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sudan, Sierra Leone or Syria, the facts that those affected are ‘not like us’ or ‘far away’ has no bearing on the suffering endured. This is not the middle of the 20th century, no-one in the outside world knew of the atrocities committed in German death camps during WW2 or the forced labour camps in Kampuchea (Cambodia) until well after the events, there was no opportunity to prevent them in action. Now the information and communication technology exists to make the world aware of what is happening almost instantaneously. Even when the incumbent government shuts down communication networks, getting an arresting grip on the slippery multi media messages coming out from any conflict zone is now impossible, some will always squeeze out. To what end? So politicians can sit around for months debating ‘sanctions’ and ‘non-lethal aid’ or ‘peace-keeping missions’. Even these insipid measures take months if not years to occur, yet when they do they achieve nothing. The records are littered with cases of victims being murdered in clear view of UN soldiers with no fear of reprisal because of the pathetic terms of engagement given to the soldiers, in some cases not even allowed to return fire when engaged.

Please don’t mistake me for a war-monger. I am always opposed to unnecessary military conflict, it is the inability of the international community to reach a consensus on a positive course of action that I find so frustrating. It is clear to all what is wrong, we all know it must be stopped. It is not so much the wrong action we need be so scared of, no action in these instances is the worst course. Iraq is not to be seen in this way, Saddam Hussein was, despite his reputation, not in the active process of eliminating whole sections of society opposed to his rule. He may have been portrayed as a threat to democracy but this was not, in my opinion, enough to justify his removal.

I do not want any military intervention in Syria but I do think the international community could do far more to prevent further violence. It is understandable that China & Russia would want to stop the UN preventing the brutal oppression of a dissenting of rebellious movement, after all they want to be able to continue to do the same to their own domestic opposition. It is the construct of the UN Security Council that is to blame. Too much emphasis is placed in universal consensus and power invested in vetoes by the permanent members. One of the purposes of the UN is to prevent rogue states from doing as they please without repercussions. If a dictator knows that getting China or Russia onside grants you the equivalent of immunity from prosecution, why would they worry? It is the overly hierarchical bureaucracy of the UN that slows its effectiveness, it is democratic compromise rather than universal endorsement or veto that will affect a solution to worldwide problems.

None of what I write can help the people suffering on the ground in Syria, my blogging is just another part of the diplomatic waffling that only serves to lengthen the process of helping the victims. Until people start to realise that not only are all the people of the world deserving of a basic standard of living, that not only should the leaders of other countries opinions be equal but also that their own opinion is of no more import than that of any others will the principles behind the founding of the UN be truly implementable.

Hopefully, the Al-Assad regime will realise the futility of their current position and start a strategic withdrawal from power without foreign military intervention but I fear there will be much more blood spilt before then. This blood will be on the hands of all politicians and political lobbyists around the world who believe that their opinion is, because of their financial or military power, more valid than any others who disagree.

I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.

 Voltaire

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Economic Sanctions Will Not (And Cannot) Work In Iran.

The aftermath of the “1st Gulf War” of the early 1990s was the first time I remember hearing the phrase “Economic Sanctions”, which were to be used against the Ba’athist regime in Iraq, with the intention of pressurising the then dictator, Saddam Hussein into cooperation with UN weapons inspectors. At that time I was in my early teens with a still highly idealised and polarised world view, the cold war with its threat of nuclear oblivion was still fresh in the collective memory and the modern financial superpowers of China, India and their smaller neighbours were still thought of as stagnant economic backwaters. The continued dominance of Western industrial imperialism seemed unstoppable, communism had fallen in almost all of Eastern Europe and the devastating military power of NATO had just been in evidence. It seemed to us that the only way to power and success was by working with the West, that fighting was futile and could only postpone the inevitable fall. The political opinion of the time (having just witnessed the events following the fall of the Berlin Wall) was that large-scale military conflict would be no longer necessary, that external political pressure and internal civil unrest would be the modern, safer (for the West) and cheaper (for the West) way to wage regime changing wars. It was on this background that economic sanctions were proposed and agreed against Iraq. Knowing that the Iraqi economy was (and still is) highly dependant on the export of crude oil to the Western powers who would be implementing the sanctions, the collective opinion in the UN was that Saddam Hussein would be forced to cooperate with the weapons inspectors or risk losing power completely in a violet coup d’état brought on by the impoverishment of the civilian population.

As we know, this is not how it happened.

While it is unquestionably true that economic sanctions on a country such as Iraq in the 1990s can and often do have the effect of reducing their power on the world stage by crushing the financial muscle available to them and driving their economic development backwards, the supposition that this is probable or even likely to lead to inevitable rebellion and regime change is at best questionable. Crippling the economy of a rebel state may make its leader unpopular with its population but the financial losses imposed upon Iraq led to a humanitarian crises with a disputed but huge number of children and vulnerable adults dying or being severely affected by malnutrition and a lack of both clean water and medical supplies (between 200,000 and 500,000 child deaths), the per capita yearly income in Iraq fell from over $3,500 to less than $450 in the years leading up to 1996. The outside world was not unaffected by the suffering caused by the sanctions and various UN resolutions were passed allowing Iraq to trade crude oil in return for humanitarian aid. However, while much aid was bought using this system, it all had to come through centralised government agencies, further strengthening the dictator’s control over his people and making civil unrest (let alone open rebellion) nearly impossible. Without Saddam Hussein’s blessing, the populace of many areas would have starved to death, they were simply not strong enough to even consider a popular uprising. The sanctions had not just failed in their attempts to get Iraq to tow the line and cooperate with the UN resolutions, they had caused millions of ordinary Iraqis pain, misery and suffering, while further reinforcing the vice like grip Saddam held over the country.

Now the new fear, as perceived by Western governments, is the proliferation of nuclear armaments spreading to Iran, a volatile theocracy openly opposed to “Western Imperialism” and the state of Israel (also a nuclear power). This opposition is not without cause, the Western backed Shah of Iran was openly put in place following the nationalisation of the country’s petroleum industry by a democratically elected government. The Shah went on to be increasingly autocratic and brutal becoming ever more unpopular until the islamic revolution of 1979. Western governments have almost all been unilaterally opposed to the government in Tehran since this time and mistrust of Western governmental policy has become embedded in the political structure of the country. Despite Iran’s protestations that their nuclear programme is wholly for civilian purposes, it is widely recognised throughout the international community that the level of uranium enrichment being pursued could easily result in the manufacture of weaponry; combined with the use of Iran’s domestically produced missiles, a large number of countries could theoretically become vulnerable to attack.

However, despite the continued hostility of the Iranian government towards the West, when asked (in confidence) many citizens will express a belief in the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the US. The general population in large Iranian cities like Tehran live highly modernised lifestyles, compared to the states surrounding them (due mostly to revenues provided rom state oil exports) and have much more political and expressive freedom than most islamic states (partly due to the differences between Shiite & Sunni attitudes to discussion). Contrast this to Pakistan (a current nuclear power) where scenes of celebration following the September-11-2001 attacks were broadcast worldwide, large sections of the country are under tribal rule and corruption is rife throughout both the military and political establishments. It is however, a democracy which, although unstable, has a stated (though not always actioned) aim of aiding Western military forces in their pursuit of the Taliban and other religious fundamentalist and fanatical organisations hostile to Western involvement in Islamic politics.

We have recently seen various military maneuvers in and around the strait of Hormuz both by the Iranians demonstrating that they could close it and the Americans showing that they could keep it open. Given the stated Iranian military aim of deterrent rather than engagement and the American desire to sustain stability in the region I don’t believe that this posturing and flexing of muscles is likely to come to anything more than slightly heightened tensions between neighbours. The idea that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be used as any more than almost all have them have ever been used for (a deterrent) I find equally implausible. The Iranian government may be theocratic but they are not suicidal. Neither are they genocidal, whatever you might hear in loaded news reports. The only overtly aggressive statement to come out of Tehran in recent years was the highly dubious Farsi translation of a speech by President Ahmadinejad when he appeared to predict the elimination of the Israeli government, although he did not say how or when. Given that the president is not the “Supreme Ruler” and the verbally belligerent yet reluctantly pragmatic approach normally taken by such states in foreign affairs, a nuclear Iran could well be a stabilising influence on the region to counterbalance the military and diplomatic power of Israel.

It should also not be forgotten that nearly 60% of all Iran’s exports go to China, India, Japan and South Korea, not Europe and North America. With these figures set to rise as the Eastern economies grow more rapidly than their Western counterparts, stricter restriction on oil exports to the West will most likely result in strengthening bonds between Iran and the Far East, further loosening any controlling influence Western governments may feel they have in the region.

It is my belief that only by engaging with states like Iran on an equal diplomatic basis rather than treating them like errant teenagers needing to be ostracised from the community can stability, peace and equitable, sustainable development be achieved, not just in the Middle East but throughout the world. I do not mean in a Kissinger “Realpolitik”, condescending way just to deal with them because one has to. Treating another’s opinions or values as equal and as valid as yours is fundamental to a belief in democracy and free speech. Persuasion and debate through the use of evidence are the only tools needed here, not intimidation and coercion with threats of force. We should not be surprised if others are offended and defend themselves aggressively if they perceive us as aggressors trying to change them forcibly, if we listen we’ll probably see that most of us want the same things in life, just wrapped up a little differently.

Thanks for Reading

Rowan

Can Assad Hold Back The Arab Spring Tide In Syria?

More than a year since the start of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ it has become clear that the predicted collapse of the numerous dictatorships throughout North Africa and the Middle East will not be happening at the pace some had hoped. It certainly has not happened in the same way the former communist bloc in Eastern Europe changed in the years following the fall of the Berlin Wall. With hindsight, it is clear why this could not have been the case. Almost all (Yugoslavia excepted) of communist Europe relied heavily on the central authority of Moscow for military, security and financial support, as was shown by the responses to various popular uprisings in the 1950s and1960s, most notably Hungary in the Autumn of 1956. This created an atmosphere of mistrust among the citizens of the country, with the state feeling no need to curry popular support from any section of society. With the start of Perestroika in the USSR during the middle to late 1980s, the governments of Eastern Europe were left with an empowered populace determined to change the status quo and little state power to prevent them. This has not been the story in North Africa and the Middle East. There is no single dominant central power dictating and enforcing policy in the region, much of the income of the region is dependant on the export of natural resources to foreign markets (most notably crude oil) rather than heavy industry, tending to empower an autocratic despot still further by not relying on near full employment levels for economic stability. The history of European communism since the death of Stalin seems to suggest that ruling by committee without an unchallengeable tyrant was the government of choice (Yugoslavia & Romania excepted), this gives greater stability when the state is strong by spreading the strain or pooling resources and loyalties but once cracks appear under severe pressure, the lack of a central authority figure for those in power to gather around can lead to further rifts and fragmentation, possibly precipitating governmental collapse.

However, the overriding factors in the success or fall of governments under popular revolt seem to be:

  1. Does the current government accept there must be a change and will they go without being forced?
  2. Has the current government lost control of the military?
  3. Do the rebels have adequate resources to fight or do they have any outside (foreign) aid?

When we look at this list in this order and compare them with the list of states to have had successful rebellions in the ‘Arab Spring’ and the order in which they fell (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya) we can see that as soon as a ‘no’ answer appeared to a question, the government fell. It may seem fairly obvious that if the government has no will or resources to hod on to power they will lose it but it is also quite unusual for those in power to relinquish it easily and not to have contingencies in place to support them, especially within the military.

Clearly, Syria has not reached any of these points yet. Assad will not go anywhere willingly and excepting a few deserters, the majority of the armed forces are still under his control. The international community is wary of supporting a dispersed and disorganised rebel army whose leadership, power and political polices are largely unknown. Currently, the situation appears to be unwinnable for both sides, the uprising is too powerful, numerous and widespread to be crushed by Assad and his government forces but without outside assistance the rebels have little chance against a trained, organised and well equipped army. The current trend in the international community is to look for a peaceful solution based on government reform and more popular representation. However, many of the diplomats pushing these ideas are from The ‘Arab League’, whose membership consists of states who are (in the most part) dictatorships. Clearly instability in the region is bad for all of them but the thought that another of their number could fall victim to a revolutionary movement that still threatens them must surely be a worry. It is stability and peace that concern them, not liberty and justice.

In Libya, the geography and demography of the country made rebel support fairly simple and almost risk free. Almost all the population centres and military installations are near the coast, using modern aircraft carriers and battleships to provide air support for the rebel fighters proved an effective way of removing a largely unpopular dictatorship without the use for ground troops. This could not happen in Syria. With many of the population centres far inland and at altitude, effective air support for untrained guerilla fighters would prove difficult and would be unlikely to succeed without providing active ground troops to support the rebel forces. Given the close political links between Syria and Iran and the incredible worldwide unpopularity of the war in Iraq, ground troops are really not a viable option.

Nor should they be. One of the major failures of Western foreign policy in recent years has been the underlying belief that governments in the developing world should be encouraged, coerced or cajoled into running their economies for the benefit of us rather than their own citizens. The conviction that what is good for them cannot be good for us and vice versa is a long-held misconception that is prevalent in the corridors of power throughout the Western world. The conservative short-termism implicit in this belief is undeniable. Flourishing, developed economies need partners to trade with, the more equal or near-equal trading partners you have the stronger you will all be. Imposing Western-dependant governments, even if those governments are democratically elected, in countries like Iraq or Afghanistan is not a long-term solution. Propping-up pro-Western despots like the Shah in Iran or Mubarak in Egypt may provide temporary stability but only at the expense of long-tem development. Allowing (Egypt) or enabling (Libya) the citizens of a country overthrow their own government and giving them the choice to run their state affairs for their own benefit is the only long-term solution. Much of the political and religious instability and fanaticism throughout the region could be tempered and moderated by fair and equitable development. Treating them as political equals rather than noisy, troublesome peasants who deserve to be tricked into selling their prized assets on unfair terms will only exacerbate the ill-feeling towards the West many of these people feel.

It’s not the decadent, modern lifestyle that we lead that leaves many Arabs feeling resentment towards us. You only have to look at the popularity of many aspects of Western culture and technology throughout the region to see that. Its our arrogant belief that only we deserve it.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

All comments are welcome, I’ll try to answer as many as I can.

The True Origins of Morality

As an atheist, I am often accused of either having no morals or of using moral standards previously prescribed by god. That I have no morals at all cannot be true, everyone has a morality of their own. Even if a persons views differ from yours, that a person has things they will or will not do and things they believe are right or wrong gives them a morality. An immoral person has morals, although this morality is not something many of us would realise and would disagree with this person on many matters. However, this first point is merely semantics, we all know what is really meant by morality. A base of views on what is right or wrong that, while the details may vary between individuals, are generally agreed between most members of a society. So what about the second point? Do I have a moral standard that was previously prescribed by god? I certainly have a moral compass which points in the same direction on many issues as would one belonging to a Christian (or most other religions). That two people agree on a decision has little to do with religious law or even (in my opinion) fundamental truths about good and evil. I believe there are several mechanisms inherent within our minds that tell us what feels right. People often do things that they know to be wrong, why? Actions that we know to be wrong are rarely carried out without both clear benefits and lack of reprisal, yet even with these in place, most people would still resist any temptations they may feel. Is this because of religion convictions or is there another psychological mechanism at work here? I will do my best to explain my thoughts on these mechanisms in the following words.

  • Empathy

Empathy is a character trait that, although present to a degree in many animals, is uniquely powerful in humans. Our ability to appreciate both the pain and happiness of others, not only in our own social group but also outside, has given us social powers not available to any other animal. Knowing how others feel and being able to react accordingly gives us an advantage in being able to judge our actions from the point of view of other people.

By knowing what it feels like to be stolen from, I can have some idea what a victim of my theft may feel like, this will in turn affect my choice of actions and may persuade me from stealing. Clearly real world situations are far more complex than this but the principle remains. Also, our ability to feel a version of the emotions our relatives are feeling (and for them to feel ours) makes it much easier to reassure or encourage them, strengthening our social bonds and enhancing our ability to work together.

  • Anticipation

The ability of being able to predict the future with any degree of accuracy is unique to humans. A dog may be able to learn what happens when I put my boots on (its time for a walk) or a bear may know when there are likely to be salmon swimming upstream but these are learnt responses to repeating stimuli rather than the sort of anticipation I refer to here. Foreseeing the possibility of being caught in a criminal act (or even being caught following a police investigation) is something that only we can do.

Knowing that we should not indulge our child’s every whim but should show restraint and try to teach them patience is an example of a combination of these first two traits. Our empathy tells us the child is unhappy yet our ability to anticipate tells us that the child will be happier in the long-term once they have learnt that they cannot have everything they want immediately. In a more negative sense, knowing how a neighbouring tribe may feel if their religious symbols are desecrated in an act of war may make me more likely to do it if my intent is to inflict as much harm as possible, even if those religious symbols are worth nothing to me in material terms.

  • Selfishness

The first and most obvious cause of a person’s actions is selfishness. There is the obvious, outward selfishness of a person unwilling to share his food or refusing to give money to charity. These character traits would not be described as good by most people, indeed the majority of us will have left these behaviours behind in childhood. In adulthood much of this outward selfishness can become tempered by our knowledge of how others will feel about our behaviour (empathy) and how this will in turn affect our relationships with them in the future (anticipation). We may justify our selfish actions (‘I don’t give to the homeless because they’ll spend it on drugs’) or exaggerate our unselfish ones (wearing a charity badge) but both of these have the same starting point, selfishness. What benefits one’s family, friend and loved ones can also be seen as a selfish cause, depending on the closeness of the relationship and the level of personal sacrifice involved.

There is a level of selfishness involved in almost all actions, even if not immediately apparent. Our previously discussed qualities of empathy and anticipation tell us that even an anonymous gift to charity has a selfish outcome, the knowledge of the happiness being provided to someone in need. The three work in a circular way, back round to the start with a diminution of strength at each switch. If I send a friend a card, I anticipate he will be happy & grateful (empathy), this makes me glad (selfish), I also anticipate there may be a return card and so on.

How do these relate to morals?

The moral right or wrong we all feel have a basis in the reasons for the actions given above. We are all able to empathise with both the maker and receiver of any action. We know that theft is wrong because we have an idea of what it may be like to be stolen from. Mitigating circumstances may be taken into account (such as a starving woman stealing food to feed her children) and this will affect the punishment given by a court. Even with mitigating circumstances, immoral acts cannot be allowed to continue unchecked because we are able to anticipate the effects increasing the frequency of these acts may have (if everyone who was hungry was allowed to steal food there would be no incentive to grow it).

Why do we have different moral standards?

Once a moral code has been established in law (either secular or religious) it has been given a level of permanence not applicable to most other parts of cultural life. Tastes and fashions change as technology advances, once hardline or leftfield views gradually move from the edge to the centre and back again in politics and the media, tolerance of difference waxes and wanes with the zeitgeist. Laws established in a secular court or parliament can be changed but are usually well behind the current feeling of the populace. Religious laws are set permanently for all time (apart from some eg. usury in christian cultures) and as they are supposedly given by god must always be more important than what feels right.

Religious taboos around food are good examples of this; shellfish is likely to give one food poisoning if not freshly prepared and in a hot country the window for fresh consumption can be quite short so stopping members of your tribe from consuming them is a good way to improve their health. In the modern world where we understand the causes of food poisoning and have much better sanitation, this law is no longer necessary and the fact that most of the world has learnt how to prepare and eat prawns safely seems reason enough to abolish the laws against their consumption.

Condemning a person for being a practising homosexual or using contraception may well have made sense in the world where the religious law was originally conceived, a world where procreation and population increase was important to the survival of the tribe or clan. It makes no sense now, in an overpopulated world where parents need to put far more resources into the support of each child until a much older age and a couple (of any sexual mixing) participating in non-procreational sexual activity purely for their own pleasure is seen by most people as a positive thing for their relationship.

Adultery is still seen by most people as an immoral act because there is a clear victim who may be negatively affected without having any obvious or immediate choice. However, the old days where a spouse was seen as a possession are past and while we may not approve of the behaviour we, as a society, have deemed it to be not punishable as a criminal act (although still clear grounds for divorce).

As the world developed materially and economically at differing rates around the globe, so too the rates of moral development differed. In the years since the industrialisation of the west we have seen immigration and emigration throughout the globe, often followed by the friction of differing cultural moral standards, each with their own righteousness. Worldwide mass media has highlighted these differences without the viewer having to actually visit the places in question. Without considering how relevant a person’s cultural practises may be in the place they developed, many dismiss them as ‘barbaric’, ‘oppressive’ or ‘decadent’. However, as many of these are due to religious reasons they cannot be changed for fear of undermining the cultural history of the people to which they pertain (eg. headscarves, circumcision). It remains to be seen if the more moderate religious leaders will be able to hold back the tide of radicalisation and convince their flock to follow the spirit rather than the letter of their religious laws or if the world will continue its current trend of dividing into devout and apathetic.

We know scientifically that there have been people on earth for many thousands of years before any universal religious laws were written down. Do modern orthodox Jews really believe that a small band of shellfish eating hunter-gatherers in Northern Europe 8,000 years ago must have displeased yahweh with their unholy diet? Despite what you may hear now, many people across Europe in the early twentieth century thought there was a ‘Jewish Question’, would Pope Urban II have approved of Hitler’s ‘final solution’? We all cringe at the brutality shown by many aspects of British rule during the colonial period, yet these actions were often not condemned at the time. If one truly believes that sacrificing a child will ensure the health of one’s family, what is the moral course of action? What we now know has affected our answers to many moral dilemmas which in days gone by had different answers. Religion provides not the unchanging morality with which to answer the questions of how we should live our lives, religion is the barrier we need to cross in order that we may enable our knowledge and reason to show us the appropriate current morality necessary for societal harmony in these rapidly changing, turbulent times.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

All comments are welcome, I’ll answer as many as I can.

I know I should have expanded on a number of points made and it seems a bit jumbled but at nearly 2000 words it’s getting too long for a single post, I may discuss in more depth some of the points in later posts.

7 Billion need not be too many

Today, the estimated population of the world reaches 7 billion or 7,000,000,000. Thats a lot, by anyone’s standards.

Of course, it’s only an estimate, we just don’t have the infrastructure to count every single person. Even in developed countries, an error margin of 1-2% is presumed. In poorer, developing nations, especially those experiencing clear population booms, the accuracy of these figures is sketchy at best. However, the statistical consensus is not if but when. We may be already passed 7bn, we may not get there for another year but we will certainly be there soon. 50 years ago, when the world’s population was less than half the current estimates, the huge population growth we have seen in the developing world was seen as the second biggest threat to global stability (nuclear war being rightly seen as the most dangerous). Malthusian limits to the global human population have so far been proved false and I can see no reason why they should become true in the forseeable near future.

Despite the lack of food seen in many parts of the world, we see no slowdown in the population growth rates in these areas, in fact they seem to be increasing in many places. Why is this? Some would have you believe that the aid often given to these people helps fuel these growth rates, that without the aid many children would die and the growth rates would fall. This lack of humanitarianism fails to take into account the thoughts and intentions of the people involved. Nobody wants to live in a place where they cannot grow enough food to feed their families and statements like “well someone has to live there” are clearly wrong. No-one “has” to live in an area that is incapable of supporting human life. It is the misfortune of being born into such crippling poverty with their ability to relocate to more fertile lands crushed by government corruption or roving bands of local militias that keeps so many people in environments unable to support them. One of the main reasons people in these circumstances feel the need to have so many children is because of the harsh environment they find themselves in. Low nutrition rates and poor medical care mean that many children die before adulthood and those that survive do not often make it into what we would call ‘old age’. To ensure the continuation of your family line and to have the possibility of someone to care for you in your retirement you need to have many children. While these may be changing in fact, they are still entrenched in many cultural norms worldwide. A period of rapid population growth is inevitable while the cultural practices of local populations catch up with the medical realities of the present day. This was seen throughout the industrialised nations of the Victorian age and is mirrored in the developing nations of today.

Clearly ongoing charity donations for an indeterminate period of time will never solve the problems, only postpone the necessity of finding a solution. Simply removing the obstacles stated above and giving them enough land to farm will not solve these problems either. Subsistence farming by individual families is an incredibly inefficient way of producing food and will not be able to support large increases in population. People only use subsistence agriculture when they cannot afford to buy food at market prices, this is generally because they have nothing to sell in exchange (I include labour as a sellable commodity in this example). Almost everything we know about industrialisation tells us that economies of scale will always deliver cost savings to large-scale production, be this of food or any manufactured goods. The only way out of the food poverty trap for any developing nations is for them to do exactly as the name suggests, develop. If their populations have access to employment they will be able to afford the food produced more efficiently on larger farms, reducing their reliance on the developed world charities. As this development continues their demand for consumer goods will increase, thus contributing to the economies of the industrialised world. This form of development does not have to happen at the current locations of the people who need it, it just has to be made available to them as an option.

All the studies I am aware of show that it is development and economic growth that fuels a lowering fertility rate, not the other way around. If a family can be sure that their children are likely to survive into adulthood and they can afford to save for their own retirement having many children becomes a burden on family resources rather than a necessary investment. Fertility rates the world over are lowering with industrialisation but are still well above replacement rates. Even once they get down to two children per woman (currently about 2.5) we will still see growth for a generation while the children born during the above replacement rate period have their own children.

None of this can happen however without education on a massive scale. Education of both boys and girls without the hideous excuses of religious or racial prejudices and traditions can be the only solution for the poverty and hunger seen throughout large parts of the developing world. The advances made by large parts of China, India and many of the so-called “Asian Tiger” economies in the Asia-Pacific region have shown us that improving the quality of a populations education and investing in modern industry will almost inevitably improve that nation’s economic strength. Even if the employment opportunities are not yet present in the country, a well-educated, mobile workforce, willing to travel to find work is a benefit not just for the nation of eventual employment but also the home nation as money is often sent home to support waiting families.

It is for the good of both the giver and the receiver of aid that long-term solutions to poverty and hunger are found. Gifts of food and medical supplies cannot improve more than the immediate situation, foreign investment into industry without the necessary supporting infrastructure will be doomed to fail if a local workforce cannot be found with the necessary skills. Development in all nations begins first with emancipation (and preferably suffrage) then continues with compulsory education for all. If foreign aid is needed to supply this, then we, as a developed nation supplying the aid, should look beyond the immediate hardships and into the future of not just the nations being aided but also the entire world. It is, after all, the politics of the short-term that has caused and is still causing so many problems in the Southern Eurozone now.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

All comments welcome, I’ll answer as many as I can.

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