The Home Office is pushing a foolhardy immigration bill that will, among other things, charge foreign students a premium to access NHS care as well as introduce new requirements for British citizens to do the UKBA’s bidding.
British immigration policy has already done quite enough do discourage foreign students, who already pay much higher tuition than their British/EU counterparts. And even if the new policies are designed to discourage irregular migration, they have the effect of creating a hostile and unwelcoming atmosphere for migrants of all kinds (including those who might help to lift the UK from its 18th position in the world competitiveness rankings). The degree to which these policies conflate several analytically distinct migrant categories shows just how blind the Home Office is to human rights and economic strategy as it pursues the much-publicized net migration cuts.
Requiring students to pay £200 to access the health service is a bad idea for many reasons; here are two:
First: public health. Thrifty and cash-poor as students tend to be, the price tag will make students resist seeking medical attention even when they know they should, which threatens their own well-being and that of the community at large. (The same argument also applies to irregular migrants, whose access to the NHS would be further restricted by immigration status checks.)
Second, students tend to be young and infrequent users of health services. The urgency with which Ms May aims to address this problem evokes an image of international students as some kind of gaunt and hunched-over horde of healthcare carpetbaggers, which is hardly how the UK should be characterising a £17 billion export industry. If, as critics claim, there is a problem with many student visa recipients not being genuine students, then a £200 healthcare surcharge is a feeble way to address it.
Now to that other, very different group of people affected by these ham-fisted measures – the unauthorised immigrants. My contention here is not that Britain should swing open its hospital doors to just anyone who might fancy a new knee or two. It’s not so unreasonable to tie some restrictions on non-emergency care to immigration status. What this bill does, however, is pumps that ragged immigrant straw man’s face full of expensive British taxpayer-funded Botox. Let’s not forget that, overall, immigrants contribute more than they take, and that to thrive in the globalised 21st century will require a whole lot more innovative approach than to exorcise the immigrant demons from this small and remote island. (Who better than migrants, arriving with nothing but the drive to build a better life, to create something of value?)
And we should also remember that it is absolutely unfair – indeed, it is immoral and destructive – to require members of a society to cast suspicion upon anyone they wish to engage with. The UKBA, either through ineptitude or because of the insurmountable difficulty (and futility) of the task, is diffusing its enforcement responsibility by requiring doctors, professors, banks, employers, and now even landlords to act as border agents. Citizens should have the right to choose for themselves whom they wish to associate with, and should not be put in a position of vigilante authority over anyone they just may wish to harass or exclude. This devolvement of immigration authority creates a toxic and tribalistic axis of subordination in which different people have different rights, and those with more rights are encouraged to treat those with fewer rights accordingly.
This is where Emerson’s insights come in so powerfully. In ‘The Fugitive Slave Law’ (1851, and again in different form in 1854), Emerson notes the insidiousness of the state using everyday citizens as enforcement mechanisms.
“The last year has forced us all into politics”, he writes. “I have lived all my life in [Massachusetts], and never had any experience of personal inconvenience from the laws, until now”.
The law to which he refers required law enforcement officials in northern states to arrest and return to their owners anyone suspected of being a runaway slave. It also made the provision of food or shelter to runaway slaves a punishable offense, to the tune of six months in prison and a $1,000 fine. It criminalised a natural human inclination towards compassion, and for all free citizens made suspicion a prerequisite for engagement.
To be clear, the condition of irregular migrants is not to be confused with that of slavery, although the mockery often made of human rights in the tabloids is disconcerting. I simply mean to observe that more and more British citizens are being turned into enforcement agents for the Home Office, and that should give everyone pause – both because of the erosion it causes to the freedom, openness and cohesiveness of a society, as well as the hostility it creates towards many of the people who make British cities the lively and metropolitan world capitals they are.
As Emerson described it, the Fugitive Slave Law “required me to hunt slaves, and it found citizens in Massachusetts willing to act as judges and captors”. How were Emerson and his contemporaries to know whether someone they met happened to be considered another man’s property? Absent any regularised system of documentation and verification, inquisition was the only viable option. A regularised system, as it became clear, was unnecessary; all that was needed was a handful of those who are always all too willing to appoint themselves arbiters of belonging. Put simply, if exclusion in a society is legitimised at an official level, you are likely to find, as Emerson did, citizens willing and eager to help.
If you watch the BBC interview, May stumbles when asked how GPs and landlords are supposed to know whether people are illegal immigrants. And that’s the wickedness of the subtext here: it’s obvious that the complexity of the immigration system is far beyond what the average citizen can be expected to adjudicate, which means that many landlords instead will rely on intuition—and in all likelihood on prejudice—to judge for themselves whether it appears someone does or does not belong. The Home Office might also open a helpline.
How moral are you feeling at the moment? The answer, curiously, may depend upon when you are reading these words.
Any discussion of ‘morality’ is contentious, but we tend to speak of it as a quality that you have in fixed amounts, even though the way we express our moral sense is often through the quality of self-restraint that is generally context specific, and more tangibly, something that depletes gradually throughout the day.
“The authors checked out this theory of a ‘morning morality’ effect by giving participants in four studies opportunities to cheat while carrying out simple computer-based tasks. Sometimes people were tested in the morning and sometimes in the afternoon. Each time, during the tasks, they were surreptitiously given chances to cut corners or tell little fibs. Across the studies, the researchers found that people were less likely to cheat and lie in the morning than the afternoon.People who cheated more in the afternoon also showed lower moral awareness, suggesting their moral character was bleeding away as the day proceeded.”
In so far as this effect is true (‘morality’ cannot be scientifically operationalised; and even if this is done very sensitively/carefully, one experiment is not enough…) its greatest value is probably *not* that we should take our biggest and most important ethical decisions when we feel at our brightest and freshest (because we knew that already).
The deeper value of the study is to get away from the idea that morality is a binary quality that we either have or don’t have; but rather think, as Zimbardo and many other have been arguing for a long time, that morality is primarily situational- it’s less about who we are and more about where we are, who we are with, and what we are doing.
I have been waiting for ‘life to settle down a bit’ before reflecting on last week’s public event Beyond Belief: Taking Spirituality Seriously, but that looks like it’s not going to happen, so here goes:
The main thing to say is that I felt a sense of relief. I’m 36 and it’s about time I felt at ease in my own skin, so it was liberating to talk about something in public that is an important part of my life and work- it wasn’t quite like coming out of the closet, but the event as a whole did have that slight confessional feeling to it.
And it was an encouraging start. The event booked out very quickly, the Great Room was packed with over 160 people, there was a chatty group (I’m told) in the spillover room downstairs, an online audience, many stayed behind afterwards, there was some tweeting (though we could have done a better job of stoking the fires) and the RSAreplay video has been viewed almost 3,000 times in just over a week.
There were also thoughtful public responses from co-panelist Elizabeth Oldfield, Director of Theos, and Philosopher Jules Evans, who is working as a consultant on the project, and many more positive (and a few constructively critical) emails and comments came to me privately.
The general impression seemed to be a kind of grateful and willing discomfort, as if everybody agrees that we need to talk about these matters, but nobody is quite sure how to do it.
Qualitatively speaking, it is harder to judge, but the general impression seemed to be a kind of grateful and willing discomfort, as if everybody agrees that we need to talk about these matters, but nobody is quite sure how to do it.
In this respect I liked Jules’s remark that: “I found it refreshing to hear a public conversation on this topic – as if a window had been opened and we could all breathe easier.”
I know that some in the audience may have hoped for a less qualified discussion and a more transformative experience, but given the diversity of perspectives,the nature of the medium, and the organisational context, I only have a certain amount of sympathy with that view! The four of us on stage were not there as sages or gurus; the event was about publicly airing our collective concern with such matters, rather than advocating a particular spiritual practice or metaphysical worldview.
I plan to share the text of my speech from the event here in due course, but first wanted to pitch an amended version of it to a few external sources, to spread the word, as it were, as far as possible.
I am not fond of speeches that are read out, but on this occasion it felt appropriate to mark the moment with choice words, rather than roll the dice with improvised remarks. The crux of my pitch was that we have lost sight of the essential link between personal and social transformation, and that we need spiritual perspectives, practices and experiences to bring that link back to our attention. (For what it’s worth, this morning I noticed that no less than Russell Brand is making a similar case in his guest editorship of New Statesman, but I would want to check the details before claiming him as an ally!)
In my opening remarks, I introduced a core distinction to encapsulate a common theme among different forms of spirituality (e.g. religious spirituality, ‘spiritual but not religious’, secular spirituality) namely the distinction between our ground (the basic facts of our existence) and our place (our social standing) and suggested that many of our existing social and ecological problems stem from getting distracted by a fixation with our place, and losing sight of our ground.
This pervasive neglect and imbalance manifests principally through the constant pressure to work in order to consume, but is also evident in our widespread de-facto denial of climate change, and an increase in mental health problems.
This is not an easy subject to talk about. I find myself torn between repeating the main messages in ‘The Brains Behind Spirituality’ essay in this summer’s journal that opened the discussion, and trying to forge new ground, as I began to here, and in the speech. Some are willing to follow these lines of thought, but others struggle to forge ahead without a clearer sense of what kind of work we are asking the contested word ‘spiritual’ to do for us. Some people seem to want a canonical definition, but the very nature of the term is much more like a placeholder concept to mark out key questions that otherwise lack a conceptual reference point.
For those who are not merely ambivalent about the term, but actively hostile towards it, I should say that I have written before about why spirituality is not a distinctly capitalist phenomenon, about buying new age products and services, and has a much deeper relevance as a critique of certain aspects of capitalist society.
It was good to hear Madeleine Bunting draw attention to the fact that such a discussion was entirely consistent with the RSA’s history, and also acknowledge that, sadly, hosting such a discussion today was ‘brave’. I also agree with her that while semantic discussions rarely feel productive, sometimes the words we choose to discuss such matters are the single most important thing. Part of the bravery is to stick with the discussion about the words, while being clear about the limitations of what such a discussion can reveal.
Elizabeth Oldfield’s reference to ‘the human propensity to f*** things up’, or ‘HPtFtU’ is useful. It stems from the outstandingly written book: Unapologetic by Francis Spufford, and is presented as an accessible way to understand the idea of original sin. In some respects HPtFtU is very much what my introductory talk was about, and there might be interesting connections between the shared psychological underpinnings of the Christian notion of ‘sin’ and the Secular Buddhist notion of ‘ground’ to be explored for those who are so inclined.
I was grateful to Robert Rowland Smith for beginning his remarks by saying: “I’m wondering why Madeleine is so freaked out by the word ‘spirituality…’” because is spared me from doing so, and more broadly it was helpful to have an historical and dialectical perspective on how we came to this moment of cultural confusion about how to discuss fundamental human questions in public.
In Defence of Scented Candles….
It was also funny to see ‘scented candles in the bath’ given such a hard time as a metaphor for spirituality as self-indulgent pampering rather than self-transforming practice. I am very keen to move discussions of spirituality away from such references, but for the record, I am quite partial to a nice scented candle!
RSA events are now a global brand, and as such they have certain constraints. One of these constraints is that our public events have a limited range of formats and almost never extend beyond 75 minutes. Last Wednesday we ended with unanswered questions about a version of ‘the objective transcendent’ that wasn’t God, and human aspiration not being big enough to reconceive the spiritual in a challenging way. I felt like a real curmudgeon to end the discussion when I did.
There is certainly more to say, so please keep in mind that the conversation is just beginning!
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I will update this post soon with some thoughts and reactions, but for those who missed it, I wanted to share the unedited replay of last night’s packed event about rethinking spirituality, with myself, Madeleine Bunting, Elizabeth Oldfield, Robert Rowland Smith and very informed audience, which can be found here.
The best line of the night, for me, came from our joint Head of Events, Mairi Ryan, who found herself feeling too engaged and absorbed to draw her attention away and live tweet while the discussion was underway.
As she put it just after it was all over: “It was too tweetable to tweet.”
Hard to believe, I know, but a study at Cologne university suggests that cinema advertising has no impact on people eating popcorn.
The story was reported in yesterday’s Guardian and developed in a bit more detail on Phys.org. The idea is that most audio-visual adverts work by making us subtly and imperceptibly repeat the sounds we are hearing as ‘inner talk’, and chewing gets in the way of that:
From Philip Oltermann at the Guardian: “The reason why adverts manage to imprint brand names on our brains is that our lips and the tongue automatically simulate the pronunciation of a new name when we first hear it. Every time we re-encounter the name, our mouth subconsciously practices its pronunciation.”
And this is not just one cute study. The sample was originally relatively small – 96 people – but there was a second study with 188 which confirmed the effect. So I am intrigued, and although I wouldn’t yet put it up there with Newton’s second law in terms of scientific credibility, it is another illustration of how much is happening physiologically and unconsciously, and how little ‘consumer choice’ really means in the context of pervasive advertising.
If it does prove to be true that chewing (and not just popcorn!) immunises us against cinema adverts, it would be quite amusing, and also potentially quite dark.
Cinemas rely on advertising revenue- they need people to be susceptible to its influence. So just like Charlie Brooker’s bleak picture of the future in ‘Fifteen Million Merits‘ where we are stuck in cubicles and not allowed to avert our eyes from adverts, you can almost imagine a dystopic future where people are searched for chewing devices before entering the cinema…
Almost, but not quite.
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Which is the odd one out?
If the question seems too easy, it is worth reflecting on that ways in which number 4 might be considered Pythonesque.
This is not a polemic. Humour can be a serious business. Before challenging any educational idea or policy one needs to accept that educational disagreements are all about value judgments, conceptual caveats and political compromises. It’s also difficult to know how valid a policy is without wider awareness -preferably international and historical- of what has been tried before. And if you manage all that, many would say you really have to have ‘been there’ with your own classroom experience.
On Friday I took part in an expert seminar/workshop on Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education, abbreviated to SMSC; part of a fresh RSA Investigate-Ed approach to making sense of complex educational issues, organised by Joe Hallgarten. It was a relief to be asked to be speak about SMSC on the understanding that I didn’t have to pretend to be an expert, in the hope that my naivety would be constructive.
I was impressed by the depth and range of expertise in the room. There was a mixture of School Heads, frontline SMSC teachers e.g. RE, Citizenship, Ofsted inspectors and various kinds of researchers and education consultants. For most of these professionals SMSC is a given, a reality of their working lives, and the first thing I noticed was the language forms reflected this. Many spoke in terms of “How do we do SMSC?”
For an outsider this sounds really odd. As I said in my response, there is something Pythonesque about a situation where leading education experts assemble in an opulent room at the Royal Society for the Arts and discuss how to ‘do’ what sounds like a single discrete task (e.g. shall we do lunch?) but actually comprises four pillars of human civilisation – spiritual, moral, social and cultural – that presumably are what education is all about, rather than a single issue to be ‘done’.
Moreover, the idea that each of them can – in theory or practice – be disembedded from wider processes and taught explicitly also sounds slightly absurd. Surely there are SMSC dimensions in every walk of life, in every family, every city, every classroom? Aren’t the tacit and implicit aspects of SMSC learning always going to trump, shape or subsume the explicit classroom-based instruction?
Aren’t the tacit and implicit aspects of SMSC learning always going to trump, shape or subsume the explicit classroom-based instruction?
But such questions are the luxury of the outsider. I don’t have to go to work and be obliged to ‘do’ SMSC, nor think of how to measure it, or link it to other educational outcomes.
Nonetheless I did find myself asking my table: How did it come to this? What’s the history, the genealogy of SMSC?
That’s a research question in itself, but the quick answer appears to be tied to education acts in 1944 and 1988 – I will leave experts to flesh out the details, but from what I heard (and this should be checked) it sounds like S,M,S & C were originally alongside ‘physical and mental’ as six overarching domains/themes/goals of education, and then somewhere along the way there was a philosophical oversight, or ontological slippage whereby each of these dimensions ceased to be holistic goals of education as a whole, and instead became individual items, which could be separated out and taught.
The creation of ‘SMSC’ appears to have been a way of dealing with that evolution, but of course this is not merely a technocratic oversight that can be patched up, but rather a deep loss of perspective about what education is for, and for what teaching and learning should be about.
In case I sound like I think we should ‘call the whole thing off’, I really don’t. Each of these dimensions is hugely important, and we always have to play the hand we are given. I believe that doing/conceiving/reconceiving SMSC better might be a way to transform education ‘from the inside’ more broadly. In this respect, here are a few shorter points that might be relevant to this goal:
Rather than ask how do we do SMSC, in most cases it makes more sense to me to ask what it would look like for a student to be doing S, or M or S or C?
- Throughout the discussion I kept thinking of Iain Mcgilchrist’s work on the difference ‘ways of being’ of the two hemispheres. The drive to measure outcomes of explicit instruction rather than judge the significance of implicit learning; and the focus on parts of the learning experience rather than the integrated whole- I felt all of that was there as a kind of background music to the discussion; and, for those who sense that too, Iain’s work helps make sense of why that might be so.
- I also felt there is an philosophical difference between ‘social’ and the other three dimensions. For me, with Social Brain hat on, I now see the social as constitutive of the other perspectives. We are so fundamentally, physiologically and psychologically ‘social’ that this grounds and shapes how we construct morality, culture and spirituality. If this subtle point sounds interesting to you, check out pages 10-15 of Transforming Behaviour change: What does it mean to say the Brain is ‘Social‘?
- There is much to say about the spiritual. My impression is that current framings and measures could be improved in various ways. There is a real danger that in a drive to be non-denominational all the rich content of the spiritual is thrown out. The main thing I would want to impart to children about the spiritual is a deeper appreciation for experience as such, and their own role in shaping their experience. You can’t do that with a textbook, but from a relatively early stage you can learn practices related to meditation that will teach them more about, for instance, their own minds and their own breathing. Personally, I believe that’s a necessary, but not sufficient condition for ‘doing’ spirituality well.
More generally, I was struck by the impression, perhaps mistaken, that teachers and schools sounded like they were in danger of doing SMSC to students rather than making it possible for them to acquire such understanding/appreciation/experience themselves.
Rather than ask how do we do SMSC, in most cases it makes more sense to me to ask what it would look like for a student to be doing S, or M or S or C? It would be helpful to have more examples of the kinds of activities that would allow students to grasp such things for themselves through their own thoughts or action. In this respect, I was reminded of the following quote by Matthew Lipman (Philosophy in the Classroom, 1980, p13) which seems a good place to end this personal reflection:
“Meanings cannot be dispensed. They cannot be given or handed out (to children). Meanings must be acquired; they are capta, not data. We have to learn how to establish the conditions and opportunities that will enable (children), with their natural curiosity and appetite for meaning, to seize upon the appropriate clues and make sense of things for themselves… Something must be done to enable (children) to acquire meaning for themselves. They will not acquire such meaning merely by learning the contents of (adult) knowledge. They must be taught to think and, in particular, to think for themselves.”
I work in an organisation that revolves around social research and policy. I went to grad school to study the social sciences. And there is not currently a single novel in my to-read stack, except for the half-metre tower of Game of Thrones novels, courtesy of a colleague here at the RSA.
Which is why what I’m about to say surprises even myself: As a tool for understanding human behaviour, human society, the way we think, emote, love, hate, live – the humanities are much more useful. The largest social science library doesn’t hold a candle to a much smaller handful of classic works of literature.
Of course, it took a recent social science study to help me understand this. It showed that reading literary fiction – and not nonfiction, and not ‘mass-market’ fiction – improves people’s ability to display empathy and to accurately register the emotions of others. The study asked participants to read a randomly-assigned selection of text from sources such as Don DeLillo, Smithsonian Magazine, or popular romance novels, and then to answer questions designed to assess their ability to decode the emotions and expectations of others in a given scenario. They were also shown close-up photographs of a person’s eyes and asked to identify that person’s current emotional state. Those who had read just a few minutes of classic fiction did significantly better than all the others.
This study’s findings alone certainly don’t go quite so far as my claim above. Emotional intelligence on a personal level is not the same thing as the kind of meta-understanding of human behaviour that social science affords; Shakespeare can’t tell us a whole lot about, say, the impact of switching schools mid-year, or how young people view entrepreneurship. This analysis should perhaps be narrowed from comparing humanities and social sciences to comparing humanities and modern psychology, which – like great literature – does try to explain why we do, think and feel what we do.
But the study’s conclusions do bring up important epistemological questions. True as they may be, the findings contained in a research report can be difficult to internalise, and certainly difficult to personalise. Perhaps this is because the lessons we learn best are those we teach ourselves. The artfulness of great literature lies at least partly in the way it forces us to piece together various perspectives, to become the omniscient narrator-analyst the text itself lacks. Your supermarket spy novels give the reader too much, whereas in classic literature “there is no single, overarching authorial voice,” as David Comer Kidd, one of the researchers, told the New York Times. “Each character presents a different version of reality, and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life.”
I’m reminded of Tim O’Brien’s classic meditations on truth in The Things They Carried, his memoir of the Vietnam war: “Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” The nervous truth for social scientists may be that the product of all the polling, interviewing, data crunching and theory testing we do – all these facts – may contain less truth in the end than an artfully crafted story that never even happened.
That’s not to say I’d give up the ghost just yet. One lesson here may be to think of social science less as a way to explain human behaviour, and more as a way to explain and refine the plastic structures of civilisation built around it. The modern workplace, for example, affects our lives as much as the confounding intricacies of love and attraction; we need innovative ways to engage workers as much as we need Jane Austen. It would be great if literature could play a complementary role in social science research, although I don’t see citing Chaucer or Chekhov in research reports becoming fashionable anytime soon.
Later this month I will be giving a short talk at the beginning of an RSA public event introducing the project outlined in The Brains Behind Spirituality. I am arguing that we need a reappraisal of the cultural and social value of spirituality as essential foundational work for deepening our understanding of a range of practical and policy issues.
As outlined in the above essay, rather than thinking of ‘the spiritual’ as an aspect of religion, or as an alternative to religion, we want to view it through the lens of what we have learnt (or perhaps remembered) about human nature over the last few decades; including the fact that our cognition has evolved and it is embodied in flesh, embedded in culture and extended through technology; we have a fundamentally social nature, we are burdened and blessed by automaticity, and we now understand that our ‘self’ may not be unitary and soul-like but rather in some sense illusory, protean or virtual, and created and maintained mostly through the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.
The resulting conception of the spiritual is evolving, but some core aspects of what might be considered central to spirituality – meaning, belief and morality for instance, do start to look very different. In the talk I will develop the idea that meaning is best understood as embodied and made, that belief is more about social and cultural norms than factual propositions and that morality is best understood as dispositional rather than rational; not so much about adhering to ethical precepts, but closely connected with our idea of self and our capacity to experience it as illusory and constructed, while also working towards the experience of integration.
It is a daunting task. In about twelve minutes I will have to cover a lot of ground, so for now I wanted to try to hone the part about the rationale for the project, which also relates to why the RSA might be doing something like this. I currently see three main reasons why it is timely and important to enrich our idea of spirituality:
In a context where economic expansion is both harder to achieve and less likely to improve our welfare, we need to enhance our idea of non-material aspiration
1) In a context where economic expansion is both harder to achieve and unlikely to improve our welfare, we need to enhance our idea of non-material aspiration – of what we should be aiming for – and ‘wellbeing’, a relatively static concept, doesn’t always suffice.
2) In light of the intractability of various social and ecological challenges, include climate change, security, and public health, we need to deepen and widen our understanding of what ‘behaviour change‘ might mean.
3) There are several policy domains where ‘spirituality’ is recognised as being important – education, end of life care, mental health, but the concept is rarely unpacked in detail and needs a sounder grounding in what we know about ourselves.
To take these in turn:
1) Beyond wellbeing: aspiration in austerity.
The extent to which money makes you happy is complex, and to some extent unresolved, but the evidence appears to indicate that, at best, money brings diminishing returns for wellbeing. More to the point, in the context of public debt, austerity, and increasingly salient environmental limits on economic expansion, it is likely to be harder for most people to meet material aspirations for the foreseeable future. It is therefore timely to look more closely at what non-material aspiration looks like.
The issue is not so much the familiar ethical question of how we should live, but the more subtle one of how we can grow and develop over time rather than merely change. If what I seek to improve or increase is not necessarily my wealth, what is it? The domain for such questions used to be philosophy and religion, but these questions have a new urgency in the developed world, and we may need to look in new places for the answers.
One such place is ‘How much is enough?’ by Robert and Edward Skidelsky, which is a marvellous book (Rowan Williams called it ‘crisp and pungent’) with the underlying claim in the virtue ethics tradition that our proper collective aim is to help people not just to be happy, but to have reasons to be happy.
You don’t need spirituality to have reason to be happy, but it could help rather a lot. It is noteworthy, for instance, that the positive psychologist Martin Seligman calls spirituality ‘a signature strength’ which is an important aspect of resilience, and he suggests it is about “knowing where you fit in the larger scheme,” as he writes in his book, Flourish.
There are abundant definitions of spirituality, and my particular framing of spirituality is gradually emerging. I am beginning to think of it as a mixture of three inter-related fundamental aspects of how we relate to each other and the world: perspectives (world views, life stances, values), practices (meditation, rituals, customs) and experiences (belonging, aliveness, transcendence). On this framing, spiritual growth is about enriching our capacity to develop and align our perspectives, practices and experiences. In this sense spirituality is fundamentally about non-material aspiration, about ‘being the change you want to see in the world’, which goes beyond wellbeing and taps into a higher-order conception of behaviour change.
2) Deepening behaviour change: ‘improving the grain’ of human nature.
The hegemonic behaviour change perspective – libertarian paternalism (‘nudge‘) takes many aspects of human nature as givens- things we should just accept and work with rather than try to change. Policymakers in the UK and many other countries are increasingly advised to ‘go with the grain’ of human nature, as if this grain was invariant and inflexible. This perspective has its place, but is largely blind to the potential of spiritual practice.
spirituality is fundamentally about non-material aspiration, about ‘being the change you want to see in the world’, which goes beyond wellbeing and taps into a higher-order conception of behaviour change.
To take two examples, while much of human behaviour is automatic, and heavily influenced by the choice architectures of the surrounding environment, messenger effects, social norms and a range of other influences, meditators who have cultivated the capacity for mindfulness have much greater control over their reactions. Over time, mindfulness helps behaviour to become significantly less reactive, and much more in people’s conscious control. This may not make them entirely immune to all cognitive biases, but it does show the possibility that we can change our ‘grain’.
Second, in the Summer RSA Journal, there was an article about ‘The Biological limits of empathy‘ by Steven Asma who makes the superficially compelling case that there are limits to how much we can expand our empathy:
“If care is indeed a limited resource, then it cannot stretch indefinitely to cover the massive domain of strangers…Our tribes of kith and kin are ‘affective communities’ and this unique emotional connection with our favourites entails great generosity and selfless loyalty. There is an upper limit to our tribal emotional expansion and that limit makes universal empathy impossible.”
Now I am not saying he is strictly wrong, but I strongly suspect he hasn’t heard of metta bhavana, or ‘loving kindness meditation‘, which is precisely about expanding this sense of empathy and care beyond our natural impulses. If every child were to learn this practice and be supported in doing it regularly with supervision and advice, the ‘upper limit’ to empathy and ‘emotional expansion’ may not hold at all.
Moreover, I have only skimmed the surface with just two forms of practice, from a predominantly Buddhist perspective. Other traditions would have things to say, and the Common Cause group may add that you don’t even need spiritual practice to illustrate this point, and that it is enough to prime people’s sense of caring about bigger-that-self problems to get them to think and act more generously and altruistically.
3) Informing spiritual needs and practices in specific domains.
Later this week RSA Education is hosting a workshop on “Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education‘ and although I don’t know the area well, I believe the ‘spiritual’ dimension is considered particularly hard to teach and assess.
One of the best references to inform this perspective is Guy Claxton’s Inaugural address to Bristol Graduate School of Education in 2002 called ‘Mind Expanding‘. He unpacks spiritual needs of children as the search for entirely normal and adaptive experiences including belonging, peace of mind, aliveness and mystery.
Claxton unpacks spiritual needs of children as the search for entirely normal and adaptive experiences including belonging, peace of mind, aliveness and mystery.
The claim is that if they don’t find such experiences in safe nurturing environments, they may seek them out elsewhere. So gangs may give belonging, crime may offer aliveness, drugs the experience of mystery and so forth. The point is definitely not to encourage such activities, but to recognise the legitimate spiritual need that legitimately seeks a less harmful form of expression.
So that’s my current pitch for the relatively public aspect of the ‘so what?’, and ‘why bother?’ question of Spirituality. It’s very much a work in progress, so if you have made it this far, I would be very grateful for any thoughts.
“The People need to rise before the seas do” – Alice Bell
I felt a little bemused by the reactions to the IPCC report on Friday for three main reasons.
First, for those thinking about climate change for the last few years there was little new in the report. The most generous way to interpret the international public shift in understanding from ‘very likely’(90%) to ‘extremely likely’(95%) is that before Friday we merely knew that climate change is a real and present danger and caused by humans, now we know that we know.
Second, so many sceptics focused on the so-called fifteen year ‘pause’ in planetary warming of surface temperatures despite an ongoing increase in carbon dioxide. On the one hand this is fair and fundamental: if you say more X leads to more of Y, and there has been more of X, but no more of Y, people are entitled to question the relationship. On the other hand, there are really robust answers that the sceptics tend not to mention. First climate scientists don’t think it matters in terms of overall trends because the time window is too short(more X leads to more Y in the long term with periodic exceptions). Second, we have had a similar pause before, mid century, followed by a subsequent rapid increase in temperatures which is likely to happen again, and third, and for me most compellingly, those 15 years began with an outlier: 1998 was an exceptionally hot year because of a particular climactic event, an El Nino. If you take 1998 out of the picture, there is no pause.
Third, almost everybody seemed to be saying ‘we need to act‘, ‘time for action‘ and so forth, but few commentators said exactly how we should act. Alice Bell is right in her evocative line above- if the people don’t mobilise, governments won’t ‘act’ with sufficient speed and scale, markets won’t respond in their investment decisions, and the patterns of energy supply will continue.
I’m currently writing up a report on climate change that is about that ‘how’. Writing almost always takes longer than planned and is subject to Hofstadter’s law but in this case the delay has a more substantive basis. Shortly after writing the post “what kind of behaviour change does climate change call for” I realised that the difference between behaviour change for reducing domestic energy demand (how do you get people to insulate their lofts, turn down their thermostats, wash at lower temperatures, buy less imported goods from China etc) and behaviour change that might actually address the global challenge are not just slightly different, but based on completely different readings of the climate problem. Climate change is partly about behaviour and partly about technology, but I have come to believe that it’s mostly about money and power.
Simply stated, changing the domestic demand for energy, or ensuring that energy is used more efficiently in homes, offices and transport may have intrinsic benefits in terms of saving money, and not wasting precious resources. However, such changes do not contribute to addressing climate change unless they have a knock-on impact on global energy supply, and that is often a huge lacuna in particular policies, including the green deal.
Globally rising emissions(reductions in the developed world are entirely cancelled out by increases in the developing world) are caused by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, which are the lifeblood of the global economy. Short of a global reduction in energy demand, as long as fossil fuels are significantly cheaper relative to other forms of energy, a global energy market will continue to use them, and we won’t be any closer to preventing significant planetary warming. And of course, fossil fuels are currently significantly cheaper than they might be because they are not taxed in a way that is commensurate with their social harm, indeed they are effectively subsidised; while the investment in renewable energy and carbon capture and storage are not incentivised by government in the way they need to be.
There is a role for decreasing energy demand and consumption more generally, but once you see climate change as being first and foremost a supply-side problem(the main goal is to keep fossil fuels in the ground) what you do about energy demand has to be much more focused, such that the impact on supply is more immediate and tangible. In the forthcoming report this idea is fleshed out with a detailed examination of how we might address rebound effects and patterns of climate denial in the British population.
The challenge then shifts from localised goals of reducing consumption or improving energy efficiency to something more ambitious: How can we use behavioural insight to get people to change, in ways that get governments to change, in ways that get markets to change. The crux of what it means to ‘act’ therefore involves recognising that markets follow government signals to make energy investment decisions, and governments follow democratic signals to make political decisions. The people need to rise before the seas do.
But how? I am tempted to say watch this space, but two of the main policy answers I am beginning to believe in are a rapid divestment in pension funds that invest in fossil fuels and an alternative to the EU Cap and Trade scheme known as ‘fee and dividend’ that ‘taxes’ carbon at source, but gives the money as a flat fee to the population, rather than to Government, while still incentivising reductions in energy demand.
Identifying policies to get behind is important to make sense of what it means to ‘act’. To gain traction the incipient climate movement we need to swiftly galvanise will require a positive story to believe in, so that when we are called upon to act, the action is not just against something intangible, destructive and dominant, but for something tangible, progressive and credible.
Filed under: Design and Society, Social Brain, Social Economy
Did you see the one about Apple Maps mistakenly directing people to drive across the runway at an Alaskan Airport? The coverage provides an indication of how much we’ve outsourced our intelligence to our smartphones, and how we are likely to erode our own intelligence as a result.
An excerpt from the BBC coverage:
“They must have been persistent,” the airport’s assistant manager Angie Spear told the BBC.
“They had to enter the airport property via a motion-activated gate, and afterwards there are many signs, lights and painted markings, first warning that aircraft may share the road and then that drivers should not be there at all.
“They needed to drive over a mile with all this before reaching the runway. But the drivers disregarded all that because they were following the directions given on their iPhones.”
So here we are in 2013. We can carry in our pocket a device which can instantaneously direct us, aided by a network of satellites we’ve launched into space above our planet, between any two points on earth. When there are glitches in this remarkable system, we appear to be losing our ability to engage our auxiliary senses of navigation. We increasingly trust our smartphones, simultaneously giving our innate sensual systems less trust in connecting to our cognitive comprehension. When people put themselves in danger, we vent anger at the technological miscues they may have received. How did people drive to airports before SatNav? We expect technology to be perfect: an upgrade to our own human fallibility.
There is a broader danger associated with the ubiquity of smartphone use. We withdraw from engaging with the places we are in and the people with whom we share them. Mobile technology enables local disconnectedness through providing a ubiquitous connection to everyone we know (and many we don’t), regardless of where we are (or where they are) in the world. As a result, our other communication skills become degraded. Smartphone users are constantly interrupted and distracted, less present in the place and the moment something that a recent Apple ad celebrates. We are unable to switch off – indeed the more technology enables us to work flexibly the more anxious we are to demonstrate to our work colleagues that we are not slacking, as the latest RSA Animate explores.
Comedian Lewis CK recently noted that constant connectivity spares us from the emptiness and sadness (and subsequent tranquillity and happiness) that we find when faced with overcoming periods of being alone. Taking notice of the world around us is one of the five “ways to well-being”.
Just walked into my neighbours house by accident while texting. I only noticed when someone called out and I looked up and saw it wasn’t my flat. Christ. - From Facebook, 26/9/13
With a phone in hand, we are less likely practice mindfulness (recognising our thoughts and feelings). And inter-personal communication skills are at risk of deteriorating as we avoid talking with neighbours or chitchatting with shopkeepers.
As Richard Sennett argues, learning to cooperate with different people, outside of your regular networks, is a key rite of passage to adulthood and civility and is contagious in a population. If that sounds too pretentious, then even on a basic level we’ve got to connect the dots: listening to others talk is the most important aspect of learning in early years. My fear is that the rising rates of social isolation, autism and technology penetration are inter-related. On the tube these days it’s becoming rude not to look at your smartphone: we can’t tolerate the gaze of fellow passengers.
I’m not saying we should give up this powerful technology. Many technological applications support local connectedness (such as Streetbank), while other applications support our offline social well-being (such as the RSA’s social mirror). SatNav gives people the confidence to navigate and explore, and mobile phone cameras empower citizen journalists across the world, but we need to know its OK to switch off and unplug. Smartphone adoption may be the most rapid technology adoption of all time – 45% of under-11s in the UK regularly use a smartphone or tablet. We need to understand the implications for public and inter-personal engagement, fast.
Consider those moments where you pause and think to yourself “this is what life is all about”. Its likely you’ll be mentally present. Think of your favourite streets, parks, squares, or bus routes. We can be entertained us for hours watching what Jane Jacobs calls the “sidewalk ballet”: an urban, social, public experience. At the height of our powers of human perception we can learn silently, discretely admiring the athleticism of streetballers and joggers, the daring of skateboarders, and the technique of a street performer. We develop visual literacy to comprehend the age of our buildings, the fashions of different generations, and the processes which clean our streets. Taking a walk, sitting on a bench or at a cafe, we guess the age of a passing infant, the profession of their parent, or simply where someone got those shoes. And we can mindread, discerning the causes of the argument between two lovers and enjoy from the deduction of awkward body language between two people that this must be a first date.
This role (sometimes termed the “flaneur” – the strolling observer) is a somewhat romantic and privileged notion, but we need to protect the time and space for activity which develops our social skills: reading other people’s faces, body language, tone of voice and emotional signals. Indeed our most skilled public servants – social workers, police officers, nurses, school teachers – recognise that inter-personal intelligence is essential in co-producing desirable outcomes, especially with vulnerable people with barriers to verbal or written communication.
The time each of us has to engage with our surroundings is precious, and the design of the spaces which surround us are often disengaging. Several initiatives have shown that often space the looks like public space is not: subject to surveillance, regulation and restrictions on use and participation. A true public space might include a shared institutional setting where we experience a base feeling of equality because we’re all accessing the same thing.
No doubt we will develop better maps, location-based apps and global 3G coverage, but we need to engage in real places to support the development of our capabilities as social creatures.
Jonathan Schifferes is a Senior Researcher in the Public Service 2020 and Connected Communities team (and does use his smartphone for Twitter).