Filed under: Arts and Society, Education Matters, Social Brain
The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice – Mark Twain
It’s often said that history is told by the victors. But what effect does this have on how we understand the present? In Britain, it means all too often that we’re quick to judge the actions and beliefs of people abroad without reflecting on what’s going on at home.
Tensions between the West’s understanding of itself and of other countries surfaced recently at the RSA, when historian Orlando Figes came to give a talk on revolutionary Russia. Figes presented a thought-provoking argument for understanding the Russian Revolution in the longue durée (which you can watch here). But amidst this analysis he made a particular assertion that left me with an uncomfortable but unfortunately all too familiar sense of doubt.
Figes described Russian society as dominated by a pathology, in which Russian citizens accepted ‘state violence for national defence and for revolutionary goals’. The evidence he provided for this came in the form of a poll taken in 2007 in three Russian cities, St Petersburg, Kazan and Ulyanovsk. The results of this survey revealed that 71% of the population believe that Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet state’s security force, the Cheka, had protected ‘public order and civic life’and that two thirds of respondents thought Stalin was positive for the country, despite acknowledging that between 10-30 million people had suffered under his regime.
Taken in isolation this seems counter-intuitive. Surely if there’s hard evidence that a regime was responsible for such huge carnage, there would be unanimous agreement that it should be remembered as a historical evil.
It is this seeming incoherency that led Figes to propose his pathology hypothesis. But, his explanation doesn’t provide the answer to this puzzle. Instead, although he is no spokesperson for Britain, Figes’ explanation implicitly creates an alarming and unrealistic dichotomy between the West and the rest (or, in this case, Russia). Russia, imagined as a nation brimming with people who have a disturbing view of the past and the present, is seen as the antithesis of civilised Britain.
Now, this isn’t to say that I in any way embrace Stalin’s actions, nor support Putin, whose power Figes explains is, in part, predicated upon historical myth. But lurking in Figes’ hypothesis is the assumption that there is something unique about Russia’s glorification of past atrocities.
This simply isn’t the case. It’s time we, in Britain, talked about our own understanding of national history. Let’s look at the facts. In 1998 a Gallup poll found that when asked about the British Empire ‘roughly 70% of people’ expressed pride that Britain had an empire, while 60% said they regretted its passing. These levels of nostalgia for Empire are strikingly similar to the proportion of those polled in Russia who saw the Cheka as integral to maintaining order in Soviet society.
Yet, as with the Soviet Union, there’s no shortage of evidence to show the negative effects of Empire, which saw colonialists murdering, dispossessing and enslaving indigenous peoples who they saw as inferior to themselves. In the 10 years following the First War of Indian Independence in 1857, for example, it’s estimated that almost 10 million Indian people were killed at the hands of the British.
And although unlike Stalin’s regime in Russia, the majority of the colonialists’ actions affected peoples far away from Britain, the specifics of such atrocities continue to surface in contemporary society. Newspapers reported two years ago on the publication of documents that revealed with stark clarity the systematic torture and starvation of Kenyan people imprisoned in British-run Mau Mau detention camps. This means that despite not being affected directly, people in Britain are aware of the unquestionable suffering caused by British colonialists. In this context, a positive understanding of Empire is as galling as Russian support for the Cheka or Stalin.
The similarities between British and Russian peoples’ understanding of their respective national histories are not the result of underlying pathologies but rather romanticised narratives perpetuated in popular discourse. For example, alongside facts that begin to reveal the extent of its injustices, Empire is remembered by the likes of David Cameron, Boris Johnson,Michael Gove and Gordon Brown as halcyon days of British history, seen as necessary for the Britain’s and the world’s development. In this sense, the dominant historical narrative shapes public understanding and facts lose their importance.
A skewed understanding of history is therefore by no means limited to Russia. With this in mind, in the UK we must stop using such interpretations of the past to reinforce the division between East and West or between ‘them’ and ‘us’. Instead, domestically and internationally, it’s time to start challenging accepted historical narratives, where the voices of the victors are louder than all others.
Ten years ago we’d never heard of names like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp. And yet today, for many, they are modern pillars of daily communication. Social media has become an omnipresent host to our daily interactions with 72% of all internet users now active on some form of social media. We have an array of social media outlets to suit every kind of action, personality type and human expression- both newsworthy and banal – and our engagement online is increasingly unwavering; we send around 500 million tweets per day and spend on average around 15 hours and 33 minutes a month on Facebook, for example.
Social media has revolutionised the way we disseminate and receive information. While there are benefits to this, how does it affect the way we communicate with each other, who we choose to interact with and most of all how we feel? The video, The Innovation of Loneliness (above) is an effective and terrifying short film that in its essence presents us with the hard contradictory truth we’ve been avoiding; while we’ve never been so well ‘connected’ we have never felt so lonely.
I am in South Delhi in an air-conditioned hotel room. It is 40C+ outside. I have bottled water and a flat screen TV supplying endless Bollywood and Hollywood options, hour upon hour of Criminal Minds, The Voice USA and Indian talent shows and sitcoms. My tablet is on my lap and I am tapping out this blog. I have the power to create thanks to the world in which I live, the society, the country, the culture, the job. And yet right now I feel very, very sad and absolutely powerless. My home is in the UK, my job is with the RSA – these day-to-day norms empower me, enable and encourage me to write this. My other home, my husband’s home, is Delhi. This home is what leaves me feeling powerless today.
“What is most personal is most universal.” – Carl Rogers
I’m just back from the launch of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Mindfulness in the Houses of Parliament. This totemic ‘we have arrived’ moment is a small but significant step forward for the diverse and growing movement of people who broadly adhere to a radically sane idea, namely that some experiential awareness of the functioning of our own minds, and greater skill in directing our attention, might be important.
Meditation is simply about being yourself, and knowing something about who that is. - Jon Kabat-Zinn.
(The following post is a selection of ideas and links to add some texture and critical apparatus to help people better engage with the growing mindfulness phenomenon. It is by no means an exhaustive account, and was written mostly to make sense of how mindfulness connects with RSA’s work, past and present, which I refer to at the end. While one can and should distinguish between mindfulness meditation and meditation in general, Kabat Zinn’s statement captures why RSA’s Social Brain centre is interested – mindfulness is a form of practice that helps to cultivate self-knowledge.) Read more
You may have noticed the media have recently been interested in the question of whether Britain is a Christian country. The story went something like this:
Prime minister David Cameron let it be known that his famously unreliable celestial radio reception has improved and not only does he ‘do God’ but suggests that more of us should do the same: “I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.” Read more
A world-renowned academic, an advertising and communications guru, a boat, booze, and behavioural science. It can only mean one thing: Behavioural Boozenomics is having a birthday party! But behavioural science is about more than just booze and banter, and its reach is extending beyond the niche into the mainstream. Read more
Setting: in a little known boutique hidden inside Café de Paris in Piccadilly Circus, singles shuffle furtively as they prop up the bar. Long since unleashed from ideological matrimony, but increasingly weary of social media and existentially adrift, they have come for a subterranean adventure, hoping to meet ideas they can truly believe in, seeking friendship, and perhaps something more.
These ideas, in turn, are out on the prowl, miraculously assuming human form for the duration of the evening; they are secretly hoping they will be understood and accepted for ‘who they really are’, though none of them are quite sure what that means. Read more
Easter, where have you been all my life? I will be 37 on Good Friday, but only today did I get round to inquiring into what the Easter story might mean for those who genuinely wanted to know.
I am grateful to some Christian friends (you know who you are) who have helped in various ways with our work on spirituality for sharing their insight to help me think this through. It turns out that Easter has philosophical and psychological layers most people never reflect on, and with all due respect, it’s several orders of magnitude more interesting than Christmas. Read more
Well that’s a relief. The most recent IPCC report indicates that it needn’t cost the earth to save the planet (Ottmar Edenhofer’s line). It’s bizarre that the test of whether we should avert ecological catastrophe is whether we can afford to, but lamenting that absurdity is for another day.
In response to this latest report I was tempted to repeat a surprisingly popular post in response to another IPCC report a fortnight ago, but at a certain point the pattern of report publishing/report responding feels like complicity in climate inertia. We need to look at alternatives more closely. Read more