It shouldn’t be allowed.

You know when you are getting old when the values of your generation are replaced by a different set of values. Over the past few years, student unions at British universities have been banning speakers from speaking. The reasoning for such bans seem to be not to give a platform to non-mainstream views and to protect students from hostile ideas.

I grew up with the highest value given to freedom of speech and protection of the environment. Perhaps the two greatest causes of the times I grew up in. Going back I remember the sheer disbelief that Nelson Mandela was incarcerated in apartheid South Africa, members of Sinn Fein were not allowed to speak on broadcast media, having to be dubbed in interviews. Their were endless debates about the rights of the  BNP (British Nationalist Party) to be heard. In can perhaps be said that my generation failed to succeed in it’s two big causes.

The basic idea is that freedom of speech trumps any other consideration. With this freedom there is then the freedom to respond to ideas that people don’t like. Debate is seen as vital to a healthy society, so without it society is unhealthy.

The other issue for my generation was privacy. What you did in your private life had no bearing in your public or working life. There was a sense that you didn’t have to say anything you didn’t want to. There was also a freedom of not to speak. I grew up in a world with grandparents who had vivid memories of the Second World War, fears of a totalitarian Nazi state and a general fear of a manipulative ‘Big Brother’ state as exemplified in George Orwell’s ‘1984’, which was made into a film in 1984!

Of course generational shifts occur. Each generation deals with what it perceives as the great failings of the previous generation. My generation threw off the shackles of appearing respectable and doing what you feel you should do, to have the freedom to be ourselves, pursue our own dreams. Really this was at a time when the establishment itself was becoming less and less respectable anyway, hence the lack of respect for respectability!

If there is any single cause of the shift from Generation X to The Millennial generation it is the internet. My generation grew up with computers evolving into ever more powerful machines, performing ever more amazingly useful functions, my generation love computers. The difference is that Millennials grew up with the internet already there, for Millennials the internet wasn’t a source for wondering what could we do in ten years time. Really computers haven’t developed all that much recently , all that has happened is that bandwidth has increased, enabling streaming video and functions available on portable devices, such as smartphones. How I remember the days of leaving the computer on overnight to download a series of pre-chosen music tracks for listening to the next day. This seems almost laughable now.

Putting these these things together, you have my generation in thrall to the internet, yet hugely paranoid about privacy. So much so that many people my age, spurned social media because of the fear that anyone could then trace our tastes, opinions, location, contacts, etc and use this information against us. So many people, myself included, just gave up on maintaining privacy to make use of new forums. Yet, my generation have this idea that snooping on peoples activities is bad and thus no ‘respectable’ person should use such information, like how you pretend not to hear and forget things you accidentally overhear. Except some unscrupulous people do, privacy is not respected, online presences are scrutinised by employers and security services. I don’t livwe in soviet russia, but I think I’m would be less surprised if at some point I am taken away at night and never heard from again.

Dealing with this creep in increased access to information, working both ways is something society has not really addressed in any meaningful way. Social media, such as Facebook, started off innocently enough. I was introduced to Facebook as a way of keeping in touch with a group of friends once we became geographically separated. Over time, as with most Facebook users, More and more ‘friends’ were added, now several hundred people from various aspects of my life. To the point where my Facebook is full of people with widely different outlooks on life, though the majority generally share my worldview. In many wasy this is bad, any prejudices I have are enforced, people and views outside my social circle are not encountered.

Prejudice is a terrible thing. Back when i was a very young man, I had prejudices, and held ill thought through beliefs. I’m  sure I still do have prejudices, but I strive not to have any. anyway, because I was comfortable to express my opinions, I was questioned and these things were discussed, I listened, reflected, discussed further with other people and eventually overcame some of my major prejudices. Arguably such prejudice removal processses are being less common for two main reasons:

Firstly, that we end up in social circles of similar people to ourselves, made up of people with similar world views, so any prejudice doesn’t seem like a problem.

Secondly, if we do venture to be open about our opinions, instead of being listened to and the ideas discussed, there seems to be a growing tendency for abuse, to be shouted down, to be ‘unfriended’. The problem with this is that if you are shouted at, seemingly unreasonably, you start ignoring what you hear and build a wall between yourself and your opinions with the wider world, it enforces the prejudice rather than dispels it.

An example of this second reason happened this week on Twitter. A man wrote “I confronted a Muslim woman yesterday in Croydon and asked her to explain Brussels. She said “Nothing to do with me”  a mealy mouthed reply”.

Okay, lets pretend not to know about what happened after this tweet and give the guy the benefit of the doubt: A man  didn’t understand the Brussels terrorist atrocity of last week. He has heard countless reports from the media about this being an attack by “Islamists”. He has put these two things together simply as ‘Muslims are to blame for acts of terrorism” So, he aired this view to a Muslim woman in his community. So what should have happened is that members of his community discussed the situation with him, he would listen and reflect and modify his beliefs to reality and possibly vice versa . It may be that this man didn’t know any Muslims personally to ask. However instead of this being an episode of freedom of speech working for mutual benefit, instead the situation created increased tension, the man was subjected to endless abuse and probably feels compelled to apologise, for expressing an opinion he knows is probably shared by millions around the world. My point is that by not expressing his opinion, by there not being the freedom to air it and for his concerns to be addressed thoughtfully and sympathetically, he is instead ridiculed and ‘banned’.

So, for a generation Xer, like myself, the world seems to be becoming a worse, more scary place, where instead of being honest, open and ready to listen, we seem to be entering a protectionist world, where we start to hide out  personal thoughts and opinions, this is very bad. where instead of working together to resolve problems and misunderstandings, we pigeon hole the rest of society and keep our opinions to carefully selecte similar people to ourselves.

One of my early prejudices was racism. In a pre-globalised world, where people didn’t travel the globe, it seemed perfectly acceptable to laugh about funny stories about the strange people who lived on the other side of the world. Of course, once people do travel and people learn more about other people and cultures, it is no longer acceptable to ‘point and laugh’ at the different people. Because those other people become part of our communities and ourselves part of theirs. Society adapts to changes in circumstances by speaking and listening. the issues are worked through.

A concern is that this happens less. People used to socialise with all of their local community, rather than a sub -set of it. Any community anywhere in the world is made up of different types of people, with different personalities and opinions. In a local community, if someone airs a controversial opinion that offends others, it is often said that the person who said the offending remark was a decent person, meant no offence and the community would then go to work discussing the issue with the offender, working it through with them. With no such local close-knot community this fails to happen, people prejudices are not addressed.

Of course, local, isolated communities have there own issues, their own prejudices, I know I grew up in one! But at least there is some diversity, rather than the narrow social circles we can easily inhabit through work or social media. Perhaps because there isn’t the wider social support to help people overcome prejudice, that people are physically and mentally attacked fro expressing views that there is a desire to protect, to keep people free from controversial ideas, rather than confront them head on. That if you were to confront the racist, sexist, homophobes in the pub, instead of community support, you would be left to be attacked yourself by that sub-set of society that supports that prejudice, or in cruder terms to be beaten up by their mates.

In local communities humanity has developed systems to regulate these local communities. As individuals or families it is possible to regulate what information is kept private and which shared, we decide who we tell certain things to. With the internet, there has not been this evolution of social systems. We use the internet for private communication between friends and family as well as publicly and we also use it to communicate professionally. sometimes it is not clear who we are broadcasting to. The problem with this is a free open discussion within a group is fine for developing understanding of an issue, it is another thing when things are seemed to be discussed more widely. The problem is that we haven;t developed clear ways of differentiating what is more private and what is public.

Another issue is access to information. The internet is a fantastic resource, it is possible to look up information or opinion on any matter within a few clicks. From this it should not be possible to claim ignorance. However, of course it still is, there is more data available than anyone can sift through. Whilst research is seemingly ever easier, the direction of things is actually more difficult. For example a search engine should speedily take a user to the information they seek, but they don’t, they pigeon hole users, and give results based on geographical location and previous browsing history, so seeking objective information becomes harder, we are still subjected to very bias data. We still haven’t really developed ways to use the internet effectively, we rely on  curated material and the bias of our own communities. so much as this occurred, so used are we too bias data that there is a tendency to no longer look for facts, to build up a full picture of an issue. Rational argument is coming to seem less important than who is saying something, someone’s background is more important than what they actually are saying.

There seems to be a worrying trend of protecting access to opposing opinions, with so much information available, as individuals we do yearn for simplicity, to be able to see the wood for the trees. Hence the wish for protection from the wilds of extremist views as we are increasingly exposed more to extremist views and less of the reasoned consensus views of the community, because there no longer is a community in the traditional sense to buffer and question extreme opinions.

 

 

 

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Devolution

It is probable that I write more about politics on this blog than I would perhaps like. Part of the reason I’d rather not is that I assume people have spent a lot of time thinking about politics and that the arguments for positions are well known and at least understood, even if not agreed with. For example ‘Question Time’, where politicians avoid answering questions from the audience and other panellists often stand out by actually expressing their opinions. What sometimes seems clear is members of the public not really understanding the issue and quite often it seems that politicians don’t understand either. In the case of politicians there is a least the suspicion that they do understand but hide this for some reason, yet in the case of members of the public it is likely that such misunderstanding is genuine.

I wrote a while ago about why Plaid Cymru, seem to struggle to make electoral progress in the face of an under-performing Labour administration in the Welsh government and probably the worst government in history at the UK level. Plaid Cymru are saddled with the impression that they are nationalists and are only for speakers of Welsh, neither of which is really the case. Furthermore, in the light of the forthcoming UK European Union (EU) membership referendum, the issue of why people can be in favour of withdrawal from one union, the UK, yet be in favour of continued membership of another, the EU. Superficially, there is a point, it seems contradictory, but it isn’t at all.

I am surprised by this misunderstanding, perhaps a lot of people don’t understand what the argument for devolution is about. This lack of understanding is not  merely Unionist political spin. In any case isn’t wishing to leave one union, the EU, yet be in favour of retaining another, the UK, also superficially inconsistent. Perhaps there is a similarity in logic, in principle, but the two positions are far part practically and ideologically
Personally I am in favour of independence for Wales as things stand, but would not describe myself as a nationalist. The argument for devolution is all about democracy

Devolutionists believe that political power should belong with the people, that power is granted to central bodies from local communities with consent  (and can be withdrawn if necessary) and gain mutual benefits and efficiencies of working at larger scales and that decisions should be made as locally as practicable.

The argument is that the Welsh economy could do better if freed from the restraints of a UK government that favours the financial sector (which is very small in Wales) and supports the economy of South East England, to the detriment of everybody else. Wales is now one of the, if not the poorest, region in Northern Europe. Wales used to be one of the wealthier regions, this wealth was generated from the coal and steel industries, though arguably much of the actual wealth went to London, rather than staying in Wales.

Modern economies are cyclical, with periods of growth and recession. The role of government is perhaps to attempt to manage this, by sustaining growth by not allowing the economy to expand too quickly and then acting to boost the economy to minimise the effects of recession. In larger states, such as the UK, a problem is that the economy is divided into regions with different local economies. In the UK there is a divide between the South East of England and everywhere else. So, what has happened is that when the South East is growing too quickly, interest rates were raised to control this expansion. The problem with this is that the rest of the UK, is only just entering into a growth phase and this expansion is prevented by UK fiscal policy. This would not be so much of a problem if the state, the UK acted to mitigate the imbalances, but this isn’t really done and the media often suggest it is the rest of the UK’s fault that it is relatively poor, rather than simply admit it’s part of how large states work.

In Wales, we remember the Miners dispute of the early 1980s. The argument for closing the mines wasn’t terrible. The mines were basically just about paying their way and not making a profit as the international price of coal fell. so the idea that closing them, so the workers could then do something more productive made sense. However, infrastructure was not put in place of the mines, opportunities for enterprise were not provided. So, what happened instead of communities breaking even, the communities of the South Wales valleys lived off unemployment benefits from central (UK) government. So in reality, closing the mines cost the UK money, and made living in the valleys more depressing than when there was high employment. Arguably there was also an agenda about attacking the power of the trade union movement, so it didn’t really matter about the valleys, the end justified the means, it allowed South East England to prosper, but of course it does matter, especially if you live in Wales!

Part of the issue is the problem of centralisation. Centralising things can confer benefits and great efficiencies however centralising creates executive elites which creates problems for the majority not in the elite. Imagine a political union as much like a club, I’ll use the example a sailing club.

People can join a sailing club by paying an annual membership fee. In return members receive benefits, such as use of club boats, training, social events and opportunities to enter competitions. The point of being a member is that it is much cheaper to be a member rather than do it all by yourself, which would be more expensive. So, like any club an executive committee is elected to run the club, which regularly meet together to organise the running of the club. Generally, the committee will be the more committed sailors, people who make the most use of club facilities, do more sailing and generally get more out of  their membership fee, than a more casual member. This can become a problem if the committee or elite start running the club for their own benefit, because the ordinary member will remain a member even if it is only slightly better to be a member than paying for everything themselves. They may even consider leaving the club in such circumstances, but refrain because of the high costs of buying their own boat. However if anyone is overly greedy, they would be likely to find themselves voted out of office at the next Annual General Meeting (AGM).

If it is imagined that this sailing club is compared to an international political union, many parallels become apparent. As I argued above, the UK does have an executive elite that serves it’s own interests rather than the good of the membership/citizenry generally and an electoral system that makes it difficult to boot out the elitists. So, with the case of say Welsh independence from the UK, there would be huge costs of separation for Wales: new systems such as  new tax systems, new laws and a new judicial system, new systems for businesses and individuals and costs due to economic uncertainty from the wider international community. However, where membership of a union is more costly than independence, in the long term, the country would be better off governing themselves. Of course Wales would not exist in isolation, it would then wish to cooperate for mutual benefits with the wider international community, but would at least do it on it’s own terms and have the political infrastructure to withdraw from any agreement that didn’t have a net benefit. Having the means to leave relatively easily, encourages the union to look after all it’s members.

So, my ideal would be for a maximum amount of devolution, self-determination, the political systems for independence to remain in place and a functional representative democracy. Then international agreements can be entered into and left when there is a benefit for doing so. It is still possible this way to enter into wide ranging agreements where there is a net cost in some areas and benefits in other areas. Cooperation can use the existing political infrastructure, provided it is not removed.

Perhaps a difficulty with long terms unions, such as the UK or the EU, is there is a tendency to lose local systems to central authorities, for example the European Central Bank for Eurozone (EZ) countries and it seems that such arrangements are difficult to leave. I would argue that the ability to leave is central for such cooperation to work.

In the proverbial nutshell, membership of international agreements should be based on a rational assessment of the benefits and costs for the economy as a whole, as long as there is a net benefit of membership, you join to stay a member.

My arguments for Welsh independence, stem simply because I am Welsh. I would be just as in favour of a new federal state formed of say, Wales, South West England, Northern England, Scotland and possibly Ireland, the similarities in the economies would enable a strong beneficial union. The argument for devolution is universal.

So, to answer the question of why you can argue for more independence from the UK, whilst arguing for continuing membership of the EU. The simple answer is that there is a net benefit from EU membership, but not from  UK membership

A longer answer is that the UK keeps (mysteriously) electing Conservative governments, whose policies don’t help Wales or it’s economy, they actually make it gradually worse. Wales exists in a political union where the electorate are governed by political parties that don’t command a majority in Wales. So, independence would free Wales to run it’s own economy , have a more representative government and improve it’s GDP.
So, why do devolutionists want to remain in the EU? Because the EU is a slow cumbersome organisation, that doesn’t change things rapidly in reaction to current media trends. When it does make a policy is more general as it has to work across most of the EU, so tends to have a less negative effect on the Welsh economy than a UK decision, the bias towards some regions found in the UK is less at an EU level.
Whilst devolutionists want democracy and local power, they are also internationalists who believe in cooperation for mutual benefit, to work together with neighbours and partners for mutual benefits, rather than be dictated to by centralised governments we have no influence over. The EU does lack democratic accountability, this is it’s main failing, but hopefully this can be rectified, although this may take some time, it needs to be the priority. The oil of common systems and regulations is generally beneficial and to some extent buffers the desire of individual governments to remove benefits for ordinary members to serve their own elites.

So really, I seek an independent Wales in a heavily reformed, more democratic EU and a close relationship with rUK, working together for mutual advantage, with common systems where there is a net benefit to ordinary people or the wider economy. Basically the idea is establish democratic control first, then cooperate, rather than just grumble about the problems of a centralised dictatorial elite.
I have written quite a long answer, but I hope you would agree at least that there is an argument for leaving the UK, but remaining in the EU, though you may disagree and see the balance of benefits and costs differently for each possible union.
If the UK was a fully federal, level playing field, I would not be arguing to leave the UK as then the benefit of being a member of bigger state would be mutually advantageous. If the EU becomes even more dictatorial I would advocate leaving that too. It all about the balance of power, whether the advantages outweigh the benefits, and they constantly change.
The whole EU remain/leave referendum is not a simple question at all and does bring the  question of devolution and democracy to prominence.

Science is Golden

Scientists are perhaps simply people who like to know how things work. I am a scientist and I do feel a compulsion to understand how everything works. The desire to take things apart, see how each component functions, then try to put it back together again making a single change to see what happens. Of course Scientists realise that as individuals they cannot understand everything, so scientists specialise into an areas they are interested in.

Scientists go out into the world like everyone else and are often somewhat startled to realise that not everyone is a scientist. Other people often become another subject themselves to try and work out how they work, usually is some empirical way. however as human society is too big and too complex a challenge, scientists realise that society is something they can only make some progress in understanding and never fully understand.

Generally, scientists are profoundly appreciative of artists and have a huge respect for people who can transcend the compulsion to understand how things work and simply create things based on partial understandings. To the scientist this seems to be how other people function. Instead of seeking the most accurate, rational explanation possible, most people seem to be more comfortable with things that are probably true, or simply use systems that work most of the time and seem to ignore the rare situations where the frailty of that system is exposed, or explore how that is interesting, rather than how it works.

The image of scientists as the geeky obsessive with poor social skills is actually fairly accurate in many cases. This is exemplified by such popular culture television series as ‘The Big Bang Theory’, where a group of scientists struggle to interact with the real world. The problem is that scientists use scientific methodologies to learn social skills, in a social world where there is such a diversity of people and changing social values that such any understanding of social rules ends up being based on very rough, but workable approximations. Actually to develop social skills more efficiently a non-scientific approach is required, which is what most scientists try to do.

This issue has been brought to my attention through learning a second language. It is possible to learn a language in a way familiar to academics; to study the workings of the grammar, learn vocabulary, make sentences with the system, then experiment. However, to actually use the language to speak with people, to read and listen, requires understanding of how the language works in context. Often language is illogical, in any language you can construct a sentence in a sensible way, only to find that such a structure is not used by speakers. I have found a more rapid language acquisition method is to learn through how words are used and build up from an evidence base, with repetition. What this means, practically is letting go of the desire to focus on the mechanics of the language and simply use sentences that are probably correct, then correct when their failure rate is high. It’s a shockingly bad use os statistical method, but it works practically as language isn’t really trying to mislead. It is important not to try too hard to make sense of the second language in terms of the first language. I can construct sentences in Welsh from English sentences, that are grammatically correct, but are not how the language really works. it’s the need as an adult learner, to through off the shackles of the English way of expressing things that is deeply ingrained.

I am spending a lot of time listening to Welsh language radio and television. It is frustrating not being able to completely understand what people are saying. when I switch off this rational scientific desire and just listen to what I can, I can pick up the gist of what is said, expand the process of fitting in new words from context and understand more each time, without spending too much time thinking about why it works that way.

Using a non-scientific method as a tool for acquiring the ability to speak a new language is justifiable, because it is known that there is a rational structure underneath, which can be explored later, once the new language is fully bedded into the memory. However, the world of human beings seems a world where so many things happen that are not based on how things really work, decisions are not made from a scientific enquiry. Often decisions are made on the idea of systems that work most of the time, being applied to all systems. the scientific mind screams about how wrong this is.

We live in a world where the media reports such things as ‘Science say this’, or ‘Scientists say that’. Science does no such thing, the media seem to ignore the fact that all science does is attempt to answer questions to the most rigorous way possible. The answers that science provides can only be understood in the specific context of the question asked, you cannot leap from a specific case to a universal rule.

The worst example of this is the political world. Now, to the scientist, politics presents an interesting realm, politics asks questions like ‘what is the best way of running an economy?’. So the scientist then begins to think about all the various factors and competing forces, it is a very big, complex and interesting question. However the politicians of today, don’t base their decisions on the results of such enquiries. Today the political world involves the spinning of media stories, appealing to particular emotions, crass universal applying of a specific principle to the whole economy. Rarely do politicians actually make rational reasoned decisions based on evidence to increase the efficiency of an economy. This causes scientists and other rational thinkers to despair and become angry, how can people be this,well, stupid. It is tempting to withdraw back to a world where discussions lead to evidence based conclusions, where things get settled.

It is one thing to ignore how things work to to achieve a goal, such as learning to drive a car without also learning how the engine works, or indeed learning a language, it’s another thing to ignore evidence and rational enquiry and base decisions on things that seem to work well in a specific context to the huge complex system of a global economy.