Fear of Ideas

All people fear new ideas to some extent, a fear of change and the unfamiliar.  Such fears are natural, but often embracing new ideas or ways of thinking can be immensely positive. The familiar, the status quo, seems safe, so why even consider change? Well, sometimes the status quo is bad for people as individuals and wider society. sometimes it is easy to forget that everything is a journey, we can take small cautious steps, we can always turn and go back or in a different direction. Such a steady cautious approach is safe, rather than leaping crazily across to another place, a place that is strange and unknown. Accepting new ideas doesn’t change who you are but can make you a better person, just take small firm steps.

I have written much on this blog about my overcoming anxiety. Making such a change was scary, there was a fear of my personality changing, a change in my values, a change in how I think. I think this was why I rejected, like many other anxious people, the calls of people to just let go of yourself or to just not be anxious, this is taking that giant leap into the unknown. Better advice to the anxious is to take cautious steps, allow people to reflect that the direction they are going in is one they are happy with.

This process of change, of alleviating fear, occurs in many areas of life and realising this, has helped me understand why other people are cautious of other ideas. For example, my becoming a Christian.  When I was young, I lived in a traditional Christian community in rural Wales. My generation were highly sceptical of religion, we regarded it as a load of nonsense. We regarded religion as scary irrationality. Growing up there seemed to be this maniacal street preachers, evangelicals waving their arms around as if possessed by spirit, a seemingly very conservative culture that stifled innovative ideas. Then one day i was exposed to the joy and wonderful music of renaissance polyphony and the choral works of J.S. Bach, this music helped me understand some of the core ideas of Christianity, that they were good, open ideas, that the complexity and suffering of human existence, could be understood as a whole, that it was okay to accept this and that doing things to make the world a better place was a righteous thing to do.. This music led me onto a journey of discovery of the Christian faith and along the way I became a Christian. Becoming a Christian was not scary, it didn’t change how I am, or my other beliefs, it simply helped me become a better person. It has helped me appreciate that there are no easy answers, no single mantra to base your life on, that faith, like anything else is a journey.

Another issue, I am passionate about and  often write about is food. I became a vegetarian at the age of 15 because I became aware that many animals reared for the meat I ate were kept in inside with restricted space, this seemed cruel and wrong on animal welfare grounds. I now ethically source meat, I don’t believe it is wrong to rear animals for meat, but in rearing animals there is a contract that the animals should have a reasonable quality of life and be able to express natural behaviours. What I have come to realise is that there is a wonderful synergy that can be achieved with animals welfare, sustainably looking after agricultural land and the wider environment, sound economics, healthy food and a greater enjoyment in eating. Though it seems there is a fear of changing diet and shopping habits, even with such positive outcomes. Though i appreciate I arrived at this synergy by taking slow steps and consideration of each step. I used to fear that having high animal welfare standards may mean that it was not possible to feed all the humans on the planet by farming in such a way and may cause environmental damage. I was so pleased to realise that this isn’t the case, positive change benefits other areas. My message on food is that only eating meat as a treat and not everyday is healthier, cheaper, more sustainable and maintains animal welfare. Meat from animals that can range freely and are fed in a sustainable way, develops muscle, which makes the meat tastier and increases nutrients in the meat, making it healthier for the animals and the consumers. Rearing animals, working with nature, rather than against it, not only seems better, it is also better economically. So, I would encourage people to ethically source meat and save money by cutting out eating low quality meat in every meal, ultimately it’s cheaper and more enjoyable.

I think the idea of being open to new ideas and ways of being is so important, to better ourselves individually and wider society. However it is important to journey slowly and carefully, keeping our feet firmly on the ground as we do so.

This is why I was upset by the words of Donald Trump this week. Often politicians and other orators need to be regarded cautiously, they appeal to core conventional beliefs of a culture, then can take great leaps into the unknown, without questioning, without scrutiny. using Trump as an example, he states that there is a fear in Western societies of terrorism and in this most people will agree. However then Trump leaps onto blaming Muslims moving into the US as part of the problem, when there is no rational basis for this belief, it simply plays on fear and encourages fear, when fear is the actually the enemy. If Trump was a great expert on the history and politics of the Middle-East, then he may be worth listening to, however Trump himself has stated that he knows little of the history or politics of the Muslim world, thus he is not qualified to make meaningful comment. We are perhaps fortunate in Wales to have a significant Muslim population, there are a part of our communities, our workplaces, so it is clear that they are as decent people as any other sub group. The knowledge that the family down the street are ordinary decent people and are not secretly plotting the overthrow of civilisation, to think that they were would be extreme paranoia. However where there isn’t a normal family living in your locale it is much easier to play on the fears of the unknown.

Trump for President?

Foreign elections are often viewed as light relief, to the more painful machinations of the idiots of our own political class. Instead of using humour as a coping strategy, it is possible to relax a little more as we are a little less affected and thee is some comfort in  things being just as stupid elsewhere. Sometimes characters come along, such as Donald Trump that provide much material for mirth, until you realise that he is being taken seriously in some quarters.

The revelations this week that Trump advocates Muslims in the US wearing identification and being barred from entry to the country, is essentially fascist, drawing scarily accurate parallels with the Nazis. What has happened? Did my grandparents generation go on a massive war against the Nazi regime for nothing?

The Second World war created the post war consensus, a sense of solidarity throughout society. It has been argued that this consensus is fading, with negative consequences.

It may be an indirect consequence, but when I was younger politicians used to argue the case for their proposals, rationality and reasoned argument were important. In recent times, such rationality has been lost, policy has been framed and argued for in populist terms, rather than its true effect on the economy. For example, The UK had the Labour parties PFI reforms, an insanely bad idea, however they fitted the popular narrative at the time, they appealed to the demographic the Labour party needed to appeal to, to stay in power, so PFI was implemented and the UK taxpayer is still paying for them.

Last week the UK parliament voted on joining the bombing of ISIS in Syria. The actual argument for the campaign was very unclear, however the rhetoric from the government was that: ‘Well we might not have thought this through, like we didn’t think things through before the Iraq war of 2003, but look, the US and France are doing it and ISIS are bad guys right?’

The problem with this, is that it’s beginning to go beyond just trying to be popular (though that is bad enough), instead it seems that politicians are creating their own populist causes, with the full backing of the mainstream media.

Last night, I was watching on the telly an interview with a prominant Trump supporter. The interviewer asked ‘I live in London, I know for a fact that there are no ‘no-go extremist zones’, so where does Trump get these ideas from?’ The interviewee, after coughing and spluttering a bit, said that well, it was possible that in cities like London, such areas could exist potentially’. Trump’s argument collapsed as his premises were proved to have been made up. Some months ago, Fox ‘news’ were claiming such areas existed in Birmingham, they later admitted the error and apologised.

These days, losing an argument isn’t the end of the story, losing a rational argument no longer matters, what is important is the narrative. This is the problem, this is why many in the UK are really scared of Trump winning, because people often vote in idiots, look at the UK prime minister! Scarred because it is this populist changing of the narrative, picking a scapegoat for all the countries supposed woes, that led to the rise of the Nazis, with popular support.

It’s not the rise of politicians I personally don’t support, that bothers me, it’s the loss of rational debate and discussion that concerns me. To many who think about politics, it is often exasperating that there are so many things to work through with political opponents before you get to the actual issue, political discussion requires a great deal of patience and listening. The issues seem so obvious to those so politically inclined, that often the issue isn’t listened and responded to with opponents. This exasperation can lead to labeling opponents as being stupid. Often arguments in the media and from contemporary politicians mainly concern calling the other side stupid as a side show away from the real issue.

Of course, most people are not stupid, most politicians are a lot less stupid than they act in public. Do we really want flamboyant characters as leaders who make terrible decisions, but we like their narrative, or rational thinkers to make decisions?




Anxiety and Understanding

Generally, there is much misunderstanding of mental illness in the world. Mental illness doesn’t receive the same support and sympathy as other ailments. I suffered from severe anxiety for most of my life, as did my mother and my maternal grandmother. for which, we as a family received little support or understanding. It is partly that I grew up surrounded by anxiety, that it seemed normal, that anxiety seemed to be a part of me. It was wonderful to discover that anxiety wasn’t a part of me, that it was simply an illness and it wasn’t something I had genetically inherited.

I fortunately managed to to self diagnose and work through a solution to this chronic anxiety. I still get anxious from time to time, because anxiety is a natural part of existence. It is perhaps for this reason that people don’t understand anxiety or such conditions as depression, because there is a perception that people are simply wallowing in it or using it as an excuse. Most of the time people with such conditions aren’t behaving that way out of choice, they fervently wish that they were healthy.

One of the issues that I struggled with in overcoming anxiety, is that often people don’t understand what it is like to recover from such a condition, to become ‘normal’ [by normal I mean mentally healthy]. It’s like being re-born and you realise that there is this whole world of social interaction that you can now participate in fully. That the people who like you and you share positive experiences with are no longer confined to people who suffer from debilitating conditions themselves. you no longer find the need to seek out the vulnerable to find people to be open and honest with. The issue has been for me, one of being more open with ‘normal’ people. Being open with ‘normal’ people is great, it’s only a problem if you open up about your past anxiety, because ‘normal’ people don’t understand it.

It took me quite a while to appreciate the difficulty of discussing anxiety, an issue the other people have scant understanding of. It’s kind of a taboo subject, something people don’t want to think about. I can completely understand this taboo, as it’s like the fear of trying to understand the motivations of a terrorist or a serial killer, the fear that this mental condition could happen to you, the fear that you may contract anxiety and not have the skills and knowledge to get out of it easily.

It was especially problematic for me as I didn’t know anyone else who had overcome anxiety, to ‘compare notes’ and to realise that I wasn’t the only person in the world who this had happened to. I kind of needed some reassurance that not being anxious was really a good, healthy way of being, that I could just stay not being continually worried. Also the people who had encouraged me to be more confident and less paranoid, were people I couldn’t thank properly, as they didn’t understand, that what happened to em was more profound that simply building up confidence and experience of situations; even as an anxious person I still built up confidence with experience of situations.

Listening Styles

I have often wondered about how other people listen to music, what drives what music people like. As a teenager the top 40 singles seemed important, as was my confusion about how great tracks faired less well that rubbish singles.

There is a considerable amount of research focused on these very questions. I stumbled upon research being conducted by David Greenberg and his theory of musical taste styles here. This theory is that people have a preference for listening in an empathetic music,  systemising music or a combination of both. Empathisers focus is on the artists thoughts and emotions, Systemisers focus on patterns and rules, whilst combiners balance these two styles.

My initial thought was combining is how I listen and I kind of assumed everyone did this. On the other hand I listen to music from a wide range of genres and have been described as having eclectic taste in music, most people don’t generally have this broad taste.

This musical preference theory isn’t entirely straight forward as all music contains emotional content and systemic content, great music merges this two facets seamlessly. Music is an amazing, richly complex art form and i would argue very difficult to assign content between these two styles as everyone listens differently.

Having said that, I do get the idea behind this theory. However what perhaps distinguishes the serious music listener from the casual listener is flexibility. Listening to music is cognitively a complex process and one that develops the more music is listened to. Empathetic music, in perhaps it’s purest form, is the singer songwriter, singing about there personal experience of life with a simple chord based guitar accompaniment. This form of music I very much enjoy. In listening to this form, I reduce my focus on looking for systemic patterns and increase my focus on the emotional content of the words, I change how I listen to suit the musical form. On the other hand, a complex piece of instrumental music is perhaps the pure form of systemic music, however it is from listening to the patterns, where rules are broken that the sense of the composers and performers emotional content emerges.

Whilst people listen to music in different ways, simply concentrating 100% on the music in a full open way, is not the only way music is listened to. for example the playing of a church organ before a religious service , some people will be listening intently, for others it will help set there mood in preparation for the service. most of the time, people rarely listen to music fully intently. Music is often the backdrop at a party, sets the mood during a scene in a film, something in the background whilst we are working or driving a car. some music suits these less intense listening moments better, sometimes concentration is expended on expressing the music through dance, where listening is only a part of the enjoyment of the music.

The experience of music is how it is heard, rather than solely the artistic output of it’s creator. The composer is important, it is there musical expression that forms the statement of the music. For some musicians the lyrical content is there main focus, for others it is the structure of the music. It is up to the listener to appreciate where the composers focus lies, to focus on that. I like great songwriters where the musical content is quite simple, here the song is important. I like bands who play with the musical content and have poor lyrics, here the music is important.  My point is that listening is an active process, it is flexible to the style of the music, sometimes the quality of an aspect of piece overwhelms any personal preference for musical style.

The question is whether there is actually a preference spectrum here. My music collection in comparison to others may place me somewhere on a spectrum line between emotion and system. However it is more complex than that, i listen to different styles of music depending on the time of day, my mood, what else is going on in my life etc. such lifestyle issues may influence where I appear on such a spectrum, for example, I love classical music, but don’t tend to listen to it whilst driving because the high level of background noise from the engine, means that changes in volume, which form an integral part of the music are lost, so the more time i spend driving changes where on such a spectrum I would be. Another example is that peopel may be pushed towards emotional content due to poor speakers, where gross musical effects are more important than subtle ones.