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

The Plight of the British High Street

A walk through my local High Street tells an all too familiar tale. Nationwide there are hoards of empty units, boarded up shops and ‘To Let’ signs throughout areas that not too long ago were bustling retail parades, bursting with shoppers all too willing to part with their hard-earned cash in exchange for items they didn’t need and a feeling of satisfaction with having ‘made something’ of their lives. This has now gone. High Streets are now the domain of businesses with nowhere else to go. Post-Offices, Banks, Estate Agents, Chemists and Newsagents are still there but there are some new kids on the block. Poundshops, Gold Exchangers, Second-Hand buyers and sellers are nestled in between the ever-expanding franchised fast-food outlets and the odd independently owned, overpriced boutique, selling worthless tat to people with more money than sense (or taste).

It’s very easy to put this down to the current financial hardship being felt by almost everyone not a professional footballer or hedge-fund manager but I think this is a much deeper shift in attitudes toward shopping and town centres. It is true that the global economic downturn has put extra pressure on small High Street shops but the emigration of major retailers to ‘out-of-town’ aircraft hangers in retail parks on motorway junctions is not new, I remember them starting in the eighties. Equally, the influx of service providers and discount stores to fill the void left by the large retailer’s exit is a change that has been progressing slowly for decades, the recent recessions have merely accelerated the process.

Blame for the decline in High Street popularity is also put on local governmental decisions to allow these lager superstores to operate far enough outside town centres to benefit from cheaper land and rates while still being near enough to them to be in active competition. This could be a valid criticism given that it is local authorities who set both the business rates paid by the units in the town centres and the parking rates for their customers but while I accept that much local governmental policy is misguided, I cannot understand why any council would be driving business out of the town centres while facing cuts to their own budgets. Also, dropping rates to keep some shops in business would amount to a subsidy, propping-up an otherwise unprofitable enterprise, something I do not believe any local authority should be doing with private sector businesses.

Another factor needing to be taken in to account when assessing the situations discussed above is the rise of online shopping. Online retailers have seen well above inflation growth year on year regardless of recession. People are becoming ever more comfortable buying things online and retailers ever more sophisticated in their marketing and delivery strategies. Gone are the days of worrying about being stuck with an item you don’t want because the picture online made the product look nothing like the reality and not being able to return it. Delivery times can often be set at the time of order to fit in with one’s lifestyle and the rise in online competition has forced most retailers into abiding by an easy returns policy. Christmas shopping in December used to be an absolute nightmare but I wouldn’t know now as I haven’t done any gift shopping in actual shops for years.

Changes in the local business landscape should not be seen as all negative, the decline in daytime activity in town centres has been counteracted by a rise in nightlife as pubs, bars and restaurants flourish, offering people a temporary escape from the depressing news headlines and the even more melancholic soap-operas or reality TV epidemics currently offered up as weekend night-time entertainment. It’s not just in the darkness that these changes in activity are evident, the empty units are nearly always near offices, colleges and schools, making them attractive to the glut of deep-fried poultry providers with near identical names (normally based on an American State), offering their fare to any who are unaware or uncaring of the resulting arterial damage its consumption entails.

At root, all these changes are not the result of policy change or government ideology, they are the result of a basic economic model. Give people choices and they will make them, if you are able, as a retailer to offer a more popular option than your competitors you will be more successful. High Street shops are there not as an aesthetic distraction as you drive through on your way to the cheaper and more convenient superstore down the road, they are there as businesses to make money. One cannot have the convenience of local shops while being disinclined to use the regularly, if you think that the superstore is causing the decline in your local high street, you are wrong. It is you, the users of your local shops who have the collective power over their success or failure. As the saying goes: if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.

Even more so than with politicians, we don’t just get the High Streets we deserve, we actually get the High Streets we want, even if we don’t know it yet.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

P.S. – Wow, when I had the original thought for this post it was supposed to show my positive feelings towards the changes in our town centres and how I wholly embraced them but having read it back it’s incredibly negative. I don’t actually feel the way I come across, I quite like the idea of service based High Streets and shops being conveniently out-of-town but I suppose I’m too grumpy to get my positivity communicated in a comprehensible way without appearing sarcastic!

Capping Benefits Will Not Cause Child Poverty

One of the main stories in the news this week is the government proposal to cap the total amount payable in state benefits to a family with children at a maximum of £26,000 per annum (or £500 per week) and the House of Lords attempts to block this cap. This amount has not been plucked out of the air, it has been chosen because it is the amount of money (after tax) that an average wage earning family would have available to spend. Families receiving out of work benefits to do with disability or illness will be exempt from the cap. Currently, the amount of benefit received by a family is not limited in any way, more children means more money, as do higher housing benefit costs.

The idea of a cap set at a fixed, arbitrary level seems to have strong public support, especially among those working but earning low salaries, who appear to be working to support their families yet find themselves unable to provide their families with a lifestyle that may be available to them if they were not working. However there are sections of society who are resisting having a limit to the amount payable to some families, with their main objections to the bill being that all cases should be assessed separately and that families with high housing costs or large numbers of children in the household should not be punished by the state for being out of work.

Many people (me included) believe that having an income equivalent to that earned in an average working household is quite enough for any family to live on, regardless of size. If a family’s housing benefit costs are so high as to be eating up a huge proportion of their total benefits cap, they are free to move to a cheaper area, that is after all what all working families have to do. I cannot see this being the huge, nationwide problem reported in some parts of the press. London has much higher housing costs than all other parts of the UK and also happens to have the most comprehensive transport infrastructure (meaning the move would be less disruptive) and the most buoyant jobs market (meaning less excuses for being out of work long-term), those claimants living in London may experience most of the problems associated with these changes but also have the most chance of being able to deal with them easily.

I have heard it said that these changes may push many children into poverty. I think this is entirely the wrong attitude to have, the parents of these children need to look at themselves if they are unable to provide what they believe their children need. The government is not preventing them from working and it is not the government’s responsibility to pick up the tab for ever-increasing family size. Most people do not choose to have families they know they will be unable to support, this is called ‘being responsible’. The idea that it is a ‘right’ to have as many children as you like, safe in the knowledge that the taxpayer (you & me) will foot the ever-increasing bill, while the majority struggle to provide our families with what they need with little or no outside help is clearly not ‘right’ or ‘fair’ (incidentally these are the very terms used by those who disagree with me) .

What exactly is the definition of ‘Child Poverty’? The existing social infrastructure prevents all forms of absolute poverty in all but the most extreme of cases. We do not have children starving to death or dying of easily treated illnesses (cases of child neglect excepted) as happens in some countries in other parts of the world. The poverty we are speaking about here is known as relative poverty, measured against other members of the society in which they live. While a family can be judged as being in poverty based on numbers and statistics, when it comes to individual members within a family unit it is not so simple. Not owning a smartphone, iPod or trainers with air bubbles and flashing lights may be a sign of not having much money but does it really mean you are so poor as to be deprived of what is necessary for your general well-being? If judging poverty from a child’s point of view, do the societal norms of the childs immediate surroundings get taken into account? I was lucky enough to be sent to a private school, yet among my peers I was considered relatively poor, clearly not poor when placed in the setting of society at large but given the socio-economic background of the English public school system my family were near the lower end of the income scale. Even in families with a bare minimum of expendable income, children need not go without things they need, as long as all the family do not spend what little money they have on things they merely want. Relative poverty is supposed to indicate when a person has to go without things that most members of society take for granted. I may take for granted being able to turn the heating on or being able to afford to eat meat every day but I certainly wouldn’t put foreign holidays or subscription TV into this bracket.

The fundamentals of this argument over who is to blame for a child’s poverty boil down to whose responsibility you believe it is to ensure a child’s well-being. In the first instance this should surely be the parent’s, I would not imagine many people thinking it a good idea for the state to install surveillance cameras in a home after a child’s birth to monitor the parenting skills on show but most would see it as the state’s responsibility to step in if the care given was seen to be inadequate, abusive or neglectful. It is also the case that it must be first the parent’s responsibility to ensure the well-being of their children. Given that the vast majority of parents manage to provide for their children perfectly adequately, even with many having much lower incomes than the cap under current proposal, any form of poverty or deprivation evident in the child’s upbringing cannot and should not be seen as being caused solely by a change in government policy.

If you have a child who you are unable to raise, stop looking around for others to blame. You are not the only one in your circumstances, others are managing. If you can’t, don’t blame them, or the government, or me. Blame yourself.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

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

You’re only fat because you want to be

The first thing some of you will have done when you see the title of this piece is have a quick look at the photo, you will see that I am clearly carrying a few extra kilos and may well think that I’m not really in a position to discuss obesity. I would have to counter that despite having lost several kilos since that photo was taken I know exactly what has caused my weight gain, me.

That is the point of this piece, however much you hear people say how unfair it is that some people can eat what they want but never gain yet they only have to ‘look’ at a sausage for it to go straight to their hips, you know that by ‘look’ they mean eat and eat and eat. Nobody gains weight by eating less that their body uses and nobody can lose weight without eating less than their body uses. One cannot escape from these simple facts. Whilst it may be true that not all our resting metabolic rates are the same and there are a minority of people for whom medical problems may make weight control more difficult, I still feel no sympathy. If you’re gaining weight you need to eat less or do more, there’s no getting away from that simple formula, no ‘magic bullet’.

It seems to have become very fashionable in the modern world to blame a person’s weight, not on his or her love of pies but on the manufacturer or server of the pies. This has led to more and more information on food packaging and now on many chain restaurant menus. This can help to an extent, one may want to know whether to have the triple quarter ponder or the double-decker mega-burger but if you’ve already decided on a burger before you get to the restaurant, you can’t be that bothered about the calories to start with and does anyone really go to a burger restaurant and have a salad?

The people to whom this information is intended however, will pay no notice whatsoever to any labelling. Here we arrive back at the title of the piece, you’re only fat because you want to be. Of course I don’t think that many people actually think ‘I want to be fat’ but when given the choice of being fat and stuffing your face full of pies & chocolate every day or controlling your weight by a combination of self-control, unwanted exercise and a diet consisting mostly of vegetables that my even my dog turns his nose up to, it’s not surprising that many of us find the fat choice more appealing.

Most of us seem to know, however, what the right choice is and stop ourselves from making the wrong choices too often, either by filling our fridges with fruit & veg or joining a sports team to pressurize ourselves into regular exercise. Many people seem to have decided that they don’t want to be fat, that they will do their best to take the tough choices, that they want to be healthy later in their lives. It isn’t difficult though, to find those who’ve decided not to do this, they’ve decided to go for the easy, short-term option. To eat now, pay with your health later. It would appear that these people have never had so much help to make the right choices, from ‘traffic lights’ on pizza boxes & cake wrappers to slimming clubs or celebrity diets. Yet still they’re all around us, mega-fatties everywhere, blocking the entrances to kebab shops, overflowing their seats on buses & trains and most importantly clogging up the NHS which we all pay for.

I know some of you will now be thinking that I should leave these poor people alone, that I wouldn’t want to be in their position so I shouldn’t judge them. Despite not wanting to be fully in their shoes, most people would want to be able to eat whatever they want whenever they want with no feeling of guilt or remorse, with no thought to the future whatsoever. Maybe this is what makes these sort of people so detestable. We live a responsible lifestyle, working hard and paying our taxes toward a health system that treats those who have been irresponsible their whole lives without a care for the future until they develop type 2 diabetes or heart disease in their 30s. The biggest problem I have is this lack of foresight is that many of these people seem to show contempt for the very concept of looking after their bodies, deciding that it’s just too hard. We all treated our bodies poorly when we were younger but giving up or cutting down on things you love is not as hard as is commonly perceived, it’s all about how much you want it. Will power is just about desire, if you really want it, you will be able to do it. I managed to give up smoking without too much difficulty, my wife managed to lose about 40 kilos (about 90lbs) over the course of about 2 years by joining a slimming club. There’s nothing special about us, we just wanted to do it and did it.

It may not be much consolation but evolution has fine-tuned your body to be fat in the modern world. Imagine, if you will two tribes in Africa many thousands of years ago. One tribe loves salad, the other loves meat. The human brain needs huge amounts of calories to keep us alert and to get these calories, the salad eating tribe essentially have to become grazers, eating nearly all of their waking time. The meat-eating tribe will be able to get their calories much quicker and have more free time to do other things like procreate. More of the meat loving tribe’s genes and culture will be passed on to the next generation etc. All animals are genetically programmed to choose the higher calorie option of any food choice given to them, storing any excess as fat to help cope with leaner times. Here’s the problem, modern farming and food transport techniques have ensured there are no longer any lean times for us in the developed world, we have to find a way to beat our nature in order to insure our health. Choosing against your preferred food option and doing unnecessary exercise are obvious ways to do this.

But in the end it all comes down to how much you want it.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Any comments welcome, I’ll try to answer as many as possible

Families, who needs em?

Every so often, the subject of my relationship (or rather non-relationship) with my father comes up in conversation. Most of you won’t know so I’ll briefly fill you in. I left home at 20 and in the last 12 years have only seen him for a couple of hours at my mum’s wake and we didn’t have much to say to each other then.

An awful lot of people seem to think this is really sad, that we’re both missing out on so much family joy by not seeing each other regularly. Are we? Really? I think people seem to find it difficult to understand how we could just not speak to each other for so long. We haven’t fallen out, there’s no underlying feud, rivalry or any other reason to not speak, I just don’t have anything to say to him. I think that’s where it lies. I don’t really care what he’s been doing, he doesn’t really care what I’ve been doing, we’re both aware of this so why bother?

Now we get into the part that has little to do with me but more to do with you. Why is everyone so obsessed with families? In what way is blood thicker than water? What exactly am I missing out on by restricting my family ties to my wife & step-daughter? A choice of venues for Christmas day? An extra card on my birthday? Or am I missing the point entirely? Maybe the point of families for many people is an innate sense of belonging, of being a fundamental piece in an enormous interlocking jigsaw linking man, woman & child across the land. Feeling at the heart of something special and exclusive, among those who need you and you them, knowing that their love is unconditional, no strings, forever. An extension of the time when you were a babe in arms, relying absolutely on these parents before you, knowing that you needed them for everything and they would do anything in their power to aid your survival in this harsh, unsafe world.

I think that probably is the point, it can’t be nice to feel that the comfort blanket you’ve had for so long may no longer be necessary, as though you’ve suddenly realised that the man holding the back of your stabiliser free bicycle is about to let go. But he won’t will he? Not unless you make it clear that’s what you want , even then he’ll be following behind you to help you up if and when you fall. What most of you will not have felt, however, unless you’re in a situation like me, is the elation of knowing there’s nobody behind me and even if I do fall I can get up by myself.

Ok, I think the metaphor has run its course now, most of you can cycle and I’d hope that if you haven’t already, most of you have left home and can foresee a time when parental intervention is neither necessary nor desirable for either child or parent. Is that when we come back to the belonging part? We are after all social animals, we need social contact, the success of social media and the reason for me writing this is all fulfilling a basic instinct inherent in us all to communicate. The need to have people you are close to and can spend time with to moan & groan about your boss or express admiration for the friendly, hardworking local shopkeeper is something we all have.

Is this really all family is? An evening gossip club for working adults? No, of course not it’s a combination of all the aspects I’ve mentioned above and so much more. Am I coming round to the idea of feeling I’m missing out? No. I never said I didn’t want a family, I said I didn’t want or need the family thrust upon me as a child. Now I’m a married adult I’ve rejected the dysfunctional, semi-parasitic notion that because you share a fraction of your genetic material with a person you must be permanently adhered to each other for the rest of both your lives. I’ve chosen instead to put my time and effort into the family of my choice not only that but also the choice of my wife. This is probably more important, knowing that as complete as it is now, there was a time when our bond was anything but unconditional. It has been earned, indeed it continues to be and is much stronger as a result.

Of course many people are not as lucky as us in these matters. Children have no such choices and many young adults are in a similar position. For the young and inexperienced, financial and emotional support has to come from somewhere and the younger the person is the more often it is likely to be needed. This, for me, is what the old-fashioned notion of ‘family’ is all about. When one is in those younger stages of life, without the support network available to older adults, a family is needed. As you get older, a family becomes wanted.

Many of you may be thinking I had a bad childhood. This is far from the case, as poor as my parents were at parenting, I have mostly pleasant memories from that time. I was not neglected or beaten (no more than was usual for the 80s anyway!) and as a young adult I used the support provided by my mother as much as any of my peers. The point of this piece is not that we don’t need families or that people should reject their parents at the first point of independence. It’s not that couples in their 30s & 40s should stop talking to or visiting their parents. It’s that if you get nothing positive from your family relationships but feel that you have to keep them because ‘its what you do’, take a step back. What would you miss if they weren’t there?

Thanks for reading.

Rowan

All comments welcome, I’ll try to respond to as many as possible.

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