A Sense of Achievement

Towards the end of the year, many people, like myself, reflect on the year that is drawing to it’s close. Often a question asked is what has been achieved?

Conducting this reflection myself I feel I have made substantial progress on the projects I set myself in three areas.

Firstly I had the aim to learn to speak Welsh properly. Whilst I am still a long way off fluency I have passed many milestones and have some competency of the language and feel it is a part of me now.

Secondly, I wanted to make progress in learning and practicing social skills, now that i had overcome anxiety, again i feel I have made substantial progress.

The third thing, was trying to understand why people support right-wing ideas. Whilst a somewhat vague aim, I think I have progressed here too.

I do feel a sense of achievement, a warm fuzzy glow from the realisation that I have exceeded my own expectations. Really, perhaps the main reason why as animals we do things is simply to enjoy these positive feelings.

Another thing people do at the end of the year, is travel home or spend time with their families and do different things, such as watch live TV, which I no longer normally do.

On the telly recently I watched a really interesting documentary about the Waorani tribe in Ecuador. This tribe live in the rainforests of Ecuador, living a basic existence by Western standards. One of the striking things was that the people generally seemed happier than people in Western countries. I wondered what it was that made life somehow better there. Indeed, I experienced this myself when I lived for 3 months in a camp in the forests of Madagascar, a time I was much happier than at home. I think the reason is a lot more than simply living more naturally in some wonderful forest.

It is perhaps to do with this sense of achievement. As humans we essentially do two types of thing. One type of thing is what we have to do to survive (secure food, water and shelter) and things we can do once the survival stuff is done. The non-essential things may involve home improvements, finding way of making our work easier and more efficient and other projects to feel good about being alive, to achieve this sense of achievement, sometimes this sense is heightened when what we have achieved has no effect on surviving, it is done for the pure thrill of doing it.

This men of this Woarani tribe have a ritual where they go out and catch Giant Anacondas. I can understand this, as I loved catching snakes, whilst I was in Madagascar. In the film, the men and indeed the presenter were clearly showing that they felt this sense of achievement. The question then is there a difference in the Woarani experience and Western society?

For the forest tribe, it is clear, where the lines between surviving, improving and fun are, even if many of the things they do combine these elements. It’s the same thing here in Wales, we do a similar mixture of activities, however the lines are not so clear. For example, we play computer games and gain a sense of achievement for finishing a level. Indeed games are designed to give you this sense of achievement. However, at Christmas, a family tradition is to play board games. Arguably this is more fun because it involves the social interactions with other people and in particular people you share long term relationships with.

I know from my experiences in Madagascar that a large part of my own sense of achievement sprang from living in a sealed community of a small number people, where almost all our social interactions were with each other. We were living and working together, suffering problems together, like a tropical monsoon and the river flooding and also sharing our successes. We were emotionally in the same place, most of the time. I imagine life for the Waorani is similar to this. The positivity of the shared success was bolstered because we believed that we were doing something useful. Even though some other people would argue that what we were doing wasn’t useful. The important thing is that we believed in it.

When we play a video game, or go shopping, we do enjoy some sense of achievement. However, this is often not a huge sense as we kind of know that we are not doing anything that benefits anyone else, or indeed ourselves very much. Incidentally, we perhaps enjoy Christmas shopping more as we are doing it for the people we are buying presents for. We don’t really have this big sense of having achieved anything really useful. I believe that doing something useful is a very important part of doing things in general.

I feel a sense of achievement in learning Welsh, not only as a personal accomplishment, but also because I can now contribute to the Welsh speaking community. Similarly with overcoming anxiety, I can now be more helpful to others. Also the same with understanding the right, I feel I can contribute to discussions more usefully when discussing politics. Simply having this sense of usefulness beyond a personal satisfaction is what makes  the sense of achievement feel so much bigger, so much wider.

I often write on this blog about how as a society in Britain, we are not doing well because there is a sense that all our achievements are artificial. It’s a modern curse really,there is rarely a clear link between what we do and a positive outcome. Perhaps too many of our achievements are not useful, not large, not important and this is part of the problem in our society.

The other big change that happened to me this year was taking on what people describe as my first “proper” job. It has been a really fascinating journey so far. I’ve made decisions in my role that have increased the income of the organisation that I work for. It is an organisation that I believe is doing useful things. So I should feel a big sense of achievement. However I only feel the smaller sense, like in a video game, where I receive satisfaction of getting tasks done quickly and finding more efficient ways of doing things. There is a sense that what i do isn’t real, isn’t palpable. I’m not doing my own projects, I’m doing someone elses and I am but a tiny cog in the organisation. I think this disconnect, where the good things resulting from your actions are felt distantly, elsewhere. This sense of an alienation from results affects most modern jobs, especially in offices. In contrast, when i have been doing science and solve a problem or get real results from an experiment i got the big proper sense of achievement. Whilst I am grateful to have a job and be earning a little money above basic need, I feel I should really be getting back to science as soon as I can, even if that means a smaller income.

I think we all want to have moments of feeling a real sense of achievement and it is often better to do those things within our community, with people we interrelate with and share a commonality.

So, this is what I don’t get about, the right and the whole Brexit thing. Across the spectrum of mainstream political thought, is the idea, that most of us relate to, is the idea that we should all contribute to our community, our society. In particular those with more resources should help those who are less able. Like how in the Woarani tribe, when the young men go out to hunt and the old stay in the village to look after the children, similarly we should all have roles in our communities. The right-wing idea that the market, or individual people and organisations should fulfill these roles, by creating wealth, that is then spent charitably, rather than the state is completely understandable, it is one way of getting to this good society that the Western world has struggled to achieve. However, the modern political right in the UK have abandoned the whole community idea, instead to serve a subset of society, or people like ‘us’, people who are conservatives. I just don’t get this and it makes me angry, it’s just so divisive and pits sections of our society against each other, when we should all be working for the good of our communities. I don’t understand why right wing people are not more angry with ‘their’ politicians for dividing society. How can you gain a sense of achievement from making things worse, it’s below the neutrality of a video game, it should be guilt. It is simply harder to gain a full sense of achievement when all you are doing is making a worsening situation just that little bit less bad.

I appreciate that we don’t live in local communities anymore, that we live in our various globally connected niches. However, local communities, where at least geography is shared is so important. It’s why I associate with the Welsh, simply as the people who live in Wales, rather than some weird racial/ religious identity. I think as humanity, we lose a sense of community at our peril. A sense of achievement is greater than hatred of another lot of people.

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The Language of Brexit

This blog is perhaps a vehicle for my tirade against the world that almost everything exists as spectra, the world is not binary. Perhaps language itself is partly responsible for this and Brexit seems a good example of this.

Language is rarely precise, this is why we have poetry to be able to express ideas and that there is always more than one way of expressing the same thing. We use language as a kind of shorthand. We reduce long lengthy explanations to just a few words and expect that we will be understood. Indeed we often ask if our shorthand has been understood by adding an ‘isn’t it’ or something similar to the end of our sentences. We refer to things such as national characteristics, that we hope our audience may share an understanding of to enable higher level discussions. Complex discussions are only possible when the basic concepts are understood. Through this very process of creating shorthand, we often reduce complex nuances thoughts to a few words, thus creating binaries, it is or it isn’t to spectral ideas. The first words we lean are often Yes, no and not. Later we learn the much more complex vocabulary of quite, very and slightly. Sometimes, it is easy to forget that the binaries created in language are not real binaries.

The Brexit referendum was itself making the complex position of the UK in the EU into a simple for or against, to which many people wished to answer: ‘yes But…’ or ‘no But…’ often with very big buts. The issue of immigration is perhaps the biggest theme of the debate. Indeed, the meaning of the very word ‘immigration’ has subtly changed through the various debates. Whilst we know what immigration is, the movement of people into an area, the word has come to mean lots of different things to different people. In a sense this one word has lost it’s practical meaning in being a shorthand for a concept.

Even as a binary opionion, people are not for or against immigration, this is almost absurd. Most people are of the opinion that there should be less immigration into the UK. However how much less, what specific types of people are to be restricted is a huge complicated spectra. Yet, arguably Brexit won the vote when Nigel Farage said ‘the only way the UK can regulate immigration is by leaving the EU’, however exactly how this is to be achieved has not really been made clear, that;s the complicated bit and i would argue we don’t have the democratic structure to enable this to be implemented well. Lots of other things have to be sorted out for benefits to come about.

Yet, the issue of immigration in the UK is not even a simple ‘how much less?’ question as there is a whole spectra of arguments for why immigration should be reduced.

At one end of the spectra is the the cultural argument, that some  people simply don’t like ‘too many’ people from different cultures living amongst the native population, for all sorts of reasons. This position is very close to racism, but not in itself racist. However racists will have this opinion. Indeed UKIP have used this argument to appeal to people with racist views, but cleverly hidden behind statements that are not in themselves racist. If you get the cultural argument and agree with it, it is simple to agree with this argument.

At the other end of this spectra is the economic argument: That a high net level of immigration is bad for the economy. The UK is economically unbalanced between the North and the South. The UK population doesn’t produce workers with the right skills, geographically where organisations require them. The UK economy found a work around to this in importing workers through immigration. The UK called out to the people of the British Empire to come and help rebuild Britain after the Second World war, so the UK now has significant populations from India and the Caribbean. These immigrants did suffer a lot of racism that we have made progress in moving on from that, these populations are now reasonably integrated into British society. However the more recent influxes from central Europe were to take jobs the resident population were unable to fill, rather than unwilling to fulfill. The argument is that it would simply be better if the UK arranged it’s economy so that it did produce the workers it required. We are now in the position where we have to import Doctors and Nurses as we don’t produce these skilled workers natively. We have a shortage of medical doctors in Mid-Wales which  seems absurd as GPs are quite well paid. We don’t produce these workers naively because of the housing crisis, declining education standards and  a declining healthcare system where doctors are over-worked. We are asking young people to go into a six figure debt to fund their own training, to do a job where they have to do a ten year induction before they achieve salaries that can re-pay their student debt, without mentioning, that during this 15 year period, we expect them to subsidise those who own property, save money for their own housing which is more expensive every year and somehow find the money to bring up their own children before they are too old. Is it any surprise that people do something else and leave these skilled jobs for immigrants who study somewhere where the cost of living is much less. There is the  argument I heard during the Brexit campaign from people in areas with negligible immigration, people were concerned about immigration, because it meant jobs went elsewhere and didn’t come to their area (South Wales). This even applies to high earners, who refuse to accept offers of work from London as they can’t afford the housing costs there. London is harder to move to for a British person than it is to move abroad. The other part of this argument is that the failure of successive governments to provide housing , education and healthcare befitting a 1st world economy, has finally come to popular light and simply immigration, whilst papering over some systemic problems with the UK economy, puts additional pressure on housing, education and hospital places, which are still not being sorted out,., I would argue because of deficient democracy. This economic argument for reduced immigration is a lot more complex and nuanced than can be summed up in a single word ‘immigration’, so left an centre politicians struggle to communicate it effectively.

Essentially, it seems the population of the UK at large has woken up to the failures of the political consensus, or the establishment of the centre-right orthodoxy that has somehow held sway for the last thirty years. There is a widely felt understanding that the consensus was indeed wrong and has failed; as it was predicted thirty years ago that it would. However, there is no clear answer to the UK’s problems. There are two main forces seeking to implement their solutions, the liberal centre and the populist right. both of these groups with very different visions of what to do with Brexit, both groups share the frustration of never having been in political office to implement their visions. Largely because of the UKs binary democracy, that prevents non consensus ideas being implemented, and that the consensus view is itself a minority. Somehow the centre-right orhodoxy is still in power and not popularly opposed. The establishment is cleverly playing the two sides against each other to retain it’s own grip on power.

A serious Brexit government would be out there consulting widely, forging agreements and finding ways to make Brexit work for the UK economy. Instead they are arguing amongst themselves behind closed doors. Perhaps the idea is that all the division and dithering over Brexit will eventually mean that popular calls for Brexit are eventually dropped and the centre-right can continue as normal. This is frustrating the Brexiteers, who fear Brexit may never happen, but turning their ire against the centre-liberal ‘remoaners’, who never wanted this mess in the first place, it’s a distraction for us from the real work of making the UK economy stronger and a better place to live and work..

Which is all largely as I predicted. I was against Brexit, not out of love for the EU, but simply that the chances of making Brexit work well were tiny.What the UK needs more than anything is electoral reform, but this is challenging to argue for when there are so many other things going on. However , we need a system that enables the right decisions to be made and the current system proves again and again, that it is incapable of implementing the right solutions, or even basing it’s decisions on evidence based data.

If there is to be an alternative, the odds are stacked towards the populist right. Indeed as they were in the 1930s when the fascists were able to capture the popular imagination more than the communists, in Western Europe at least. Favoured, simply because the populist right can use the word ‘immigration’ as shorthand for their dislike of different people, whereas the liberal left have the much more complex, nuanced economic argument that will get lost in the clamour of what passes for debate in the main stream media these days.  Essentially, it is a battle for whose meaning of a word becomes the consensus and it is much easier to do this with a simpler message, one that can be repeated often until people accept it. After all hate is simple, hope is more complex.

Maybe, the nature of language is at the heart of why political debates can be won with flawed arguments, through clever rhetoric. A symbol, a word, can be more powerful than a concept or a sentence. Such symbols have the power to change the world.