I Paradigm I

It’s an odd time to be a Briton. The UK will formally start the process leaving the EU next week. About half the people of Britain and Northern Ireland will lose something they have had since birth, EU citizenship. For some this will make them feel less European as a part of their identity is stripped away. It may present a paradigm shift.

A paradigm shift is a change to what is normal, a change in mode of thinking, adopting a new set of rules and identities. For example, going from being an anxious to a confident person completely changes one’s worldview. There seem to be rather a lot of these shifts occurring at the moment due to Climate Change and Brexit, to quite fundamental parts of whom we are as humans, what we eat and our identity.

Food

I have written recently about this whole debate between whether the most sustainable diet is plant-based or contain some quantity of meat. There are some visceral arguments flying around. Between the meat fraternity and vegans about which diet is more sustainable, which diet requires less land and is a sustainable management of that land. In my opinion the answer lies somewhere in the middle. However it seems that much of the argument is not based on the science, but rather the “naturalness” of the diet choice.

This “naturalness” concept is rather bizarre as there is very little that is natural about how humans produce food when you consider that humans developed as a species as hunter gatherers. However across the millenia agriculture has developed, allowing larger populations. This agriculture has undergone massive changes since the industrialisation period began some two hundred years ago. Keeping animals inside in a controlled environment feeding them a grown diet, injecting them with chemicals and an industrial process for slaughtering them, is much at odds with practices for the first few thousand years of agriculture.

It is because this form of agriculture has persisted for so long that it has been normalised. Our increasingly urbanised societies do not generally spare a thought for the lived conditions of the animals they eat every day. People who become vegans and vegetarians have thought about this and concluded that modern agriculture is very strange and not “natural” and often make a decision to either stop eating meat or change how they get their meats.

Arguably the debate between these two groups are the traditionalists (even if that tradition [intensive agriculture] is only around one hundred years old) and those that have gone through a paradigm shift in how they think about the rearing of animals for food. Hold that thought.

Identity

Brexit has divided the people of Britain quite fundamentally. Even those of us in the middle have been forced to take sides. The question was whether the UK is better of in or outside of the EU, but Brexit is something else, it is perhaps about differing views of national identity and what is a normal way of thinking about your national identity.

Generally there are those people that consider that the UK nation state is normal, to feel patriotic towards the UK and those that feel differently or are more pragmatic about it and open to different possibilities. This makes sense in the context that the Brexiteers are generally older and remember life before the EU and the Remainers aren’t.

The Brexiteers seem to regard a particular form of British Nationalism as sacrosanct, one which has parallels with the Imperialism and authoritarian nature of the British Empire period.

For example, there have been objections this week to the announcement of Gaelic becoming the default language of instruction in Schools in the Western Isles of Scotland. In Wales, Welsh medium schools have been in existence for quite some time, yet these are often objected to. I don’t get these objections as Welsh and Gaelic are native British languages, so as patriotic Britons do we not all want to maintain the tradition of these languages? It seems these Brexiteer British Nationalists do not view British culture in this way, that they only support certain facets of “Britishness” and not others. You have to be one of this sect to understand what they like and what they do not. These people seem to object to people using other languages than English in Britain, whether it’s Hindi, Polish, Welsh, Gaelic or anything else it seems. It seems to be part of this intolerance of different people.

There also those who object to people who are LGBTQ. Someone said recently that there are two sexes, men and women and this is basic biology. I am a Biologist and I said to her that that is very basic biology, the reality is a lot more complicated and indeed different sexualities exist in other mammalian species. Sex is in our genes and it’s just how biology works. Yet people seem unable to listen to expert advice nowadays. It seems feelings and identity trump science and as a scientist I find that hard to conceptualise.

I believe that the solution to the decline and malaise in the UK economy is to revitalise democracy re-building the economy with Welsh and Scottish independence, Irish re-unification and regional government within England. This just makes sense to me as the most sensible way to improve things. However there are many that object to this, yet they seem to be unable to articulate an argument for the union of the UK, beyond a denial that Wales can govern herself  and a sentimental attachment to the UK nation state. They seem to have not passed through any paradigm shifts.

Diversity Education

There seems to be a general trend in this division between those with a university education and those who don’t. I have even heard it said that universities encourage liberal thought to the detriment of conservatism. There is some truth in that.

A university education is essentially about challenging ideas and assumptions about how things work. It’s about learning how to build a logically sound argument and testing premises. So any traditional conservative values are tested and the only ones that survive are those that have a positive beneficial value and  reason to be conserved beyond sentimentality.

The university experience is also about exposure to diversity, where living with diversity is part of the life of people at universities. When someone goes to university for the first time, they usually live away from home in an area with a different culture. For me I went from a rural Welsh existence to living in a big city in another country; a huge culture shock! You then meet and work with people from different backgrounds, from different parts of the world and you just accept things that are different to what you knew. Through an undergraduate degree course you make multiple paradigm shifts in worldview and your understanding of your subject. Paradigm shifts become second nature.

However for those who do not go to university and never live in a different country, may not get this exposure to diversity or have their ideas so rigorously challenged. It may simply be a lack of training in the skill of coping with paradigm shifting.

Brexit

This Brexit division really has torn apart the paradigm of Britain. The Britain I love and grew up in consisted of people of different backgrounds and places whom for the most part got along doing our own things. I grew up in an area that produces people who are loosely defined as Welsh-British and that chimed perfectly with my identity and as such my identity was of as much value as the identity of any other Briton. However Brexit has blown apart that tolerance of all the huge variance in the people of Britain, there now seems an increasing divide between a narrow British nationalism of arguably the largest minority ethnic group in the UK, the White English and everybody else. The White English, may in actuality be a majority of the UK population, however when you take away those that went to university, the LGBT community and those who married outside of their ethnicity for example, you do perhaps end up with a minority, yet one which has acquired power through Brexit and now seems to feel legitimised and emboldened by Brexit that they don’t need to listen to any voices of dissent and are at liberty to abuse people who are different.

This I find disturbing as Britain  seems to be have become in the control of an insular sect which ignores experts at a time when new modes of thinking and a new economic relationship are kind of required by Brexit and even more so by Climate Change. Britain leaving the EU doesn’t really bother me all that much in itself, but ceding control to people who lack experience of paradigm shifts when the nation state is going through a paradigm shift is worrying indeed.

I just feel that the direction of the UK becoming a less tolerant society is one I do not feel part of anymore. Hence I am Yes Cymru.

I Palindrome I

Conformity Rules

Following on from my last post. The other aspect of a socially conservative viewpoint is the value placed on conformity to social rules. Again this is a spectrum, but perhaps the issue with it is that it’s self-perpetuating as it encourages greater and greater conformity to be viewed as a valuable member of a society. This aspect is simply bad.

The ability to follow social rules is important for a society to function, to enable people to come together to do something enriching or useful. For example I went to a Christmas play for young children before Christmas, Llygoden yr Eira (The Snow Mouse) concerning the adventures of a mouse in a snowy wonderland. We probably all know the rule about theatre, musical performances or football matches, that you don’t enter the stage area unless specifically invited by the performers and even then you must do as directed by the performers. However this was a show for very young children who could not be expected to know this rule and it was very tempting to get up and touch the wonders being produced on the stage and so the children did. The company expected this and allowed it up to a point and had a number of crew at hand to herd children off the stage when necessary for safety and coherence of the show. In many ways the show was educational is showing children what was acceptable and what wasn’t. This social rule is there to ensure that everyone can enjoy the performance as intended, it makes sense.

On the other hand the example I gave earlier of homophobia. Repression of homosexuality, because it is seen as a social value of the majority as the majority are almost always heterosexuals. However homophobia is in itself socially damaging and divisive, so there it should not be valued and is unacceptable behaviour.

As I see it, there are some social situations where you need to conform and behave in a certain way and others where such restrictions are much reduced. For example expected behaviour at a Church service and that at a music festival, where social norms are expected to be flouted. Thus society has a good balance, we learn the rules and have space to relax those rules once in a while. However it seems that some  conservatives place a value on conformity above and beyond simply enabling people to enjoy themselves or work together on particular projects.

I grew up in a very conservative part of rural Wales and it was very stifling and there were very few places rules where rules were relaxed. Indeed the popularity of local taverns as the place you could relax those rules perhaps contributed to their popularity. When such a conformity starts to dictate how you dress, how you behave, what jobs are acceptable and which discouraged it becomes painful as the rules no longer make any kind of sense.

When rules don’t make sense and there seems no logic or reason for them to exist you cannot help break the rules, you just keep breaking them as you are unable to internalise their sense. All children break rules as they don’t understand them or why they exist. That is why good parents tell children why a behaviour is wrong, such as playing with electrical wires a sit’s dangerous, but it will be some years until they get taught all about electricity at school, but the rule makes sense, as children do learn what can be played with and what is to be left alone.

As adults we expect to have learnt the rules, that is the mark of being an adult. when some conformity rules get difficult and you have to twist and bend your personality so much to fit those rules, you are no longer in control, you can’t rely on reason or experience to tell you how to behave and it then follows that you cease to be useful, trying to follow the rules takes all your time and energy to the point that you can do little productive work. If you are not naturally inclined in such a way that you are a perfect match for the these conformity rules, you fail socially, you become mentally ill and suffer from anxiety.  The upshot of this is you have a society where a significant percentage of otherwise healthy individuals cannot contribute to that society and this makes no sense. Conformity to rules is there to make social functions easier, not more difficult, that is why I don’t get this obsession with extreme conformity.

Anxiety is a terrible affliction/ Being nervous before going on stage or attending a job interview, is normal anxiety. Seeming to continually break the rules you don’t understand which no-one will take the time and effort to explain to you, makes you constantly anxious and encourage you to withdraw from society and this is not a good thing to do. If you are going to have rules, they need to make sense, and not just be a privilege for those whom through sheer dumb luck are able to naturally conform with arbitrary social rules.

I think it’s going to be one of the biggest challenges of the next years. The world is facing devastating climate change. Every person and organisation will need to make big changes to how we do things. It’s going to effect what we eat, how we shop how we work and how we travel and so many of the conformity rules that exist in Wales and throughout the world are going to have to change. In particular the quantities of unsustainable meat society consumes. I was vegetarian form the age of 15 and so many people didn’t understand  my reasoning or the importance of sustainability. I think this is partly as this social custom was rigidly enforced “If you don’t eat your meat, how can you expect to have pudding!”. Getting young children to eat healthily is hard work, but there is no need to enforce rules, purely because they are the traditional conforming rules to older children who may know a lot more about nutrition than their parents.

To tackle climate change the world needs to become a lot more liberal in it’s worldview. However it’s then even more important to identify and protect the things we genuinely care about as positive values.

The Elixir of Confidence

To the anxious person the idea that there is simply a potion to quaff to give confidence is a compelling one. There are also ideas of potions of strength, luck and of invisibility. There are actually drugs that you can take to temporarily achieve changes in mental states. Often the anxious person feels trapped in their anxiety while ‘normal’ people seem to get on with their lives in a permanent state of self-confidence.

However anxious people are not permanently anxious and neither are ‘normal’ folk permanently confident and never anxious. It’s simply that anxiety seems the default setting, yet anxious people still experience the occasional short euphoric bursts of confidence. At such times I’ve often wondered what are the conditions that cause me to feel confident and could I replicate them regularly.

There is no complex alchemy involved. At a very basic level, it’s simply when you are enjoying yourself, or even more simply just happy. However such occasions are relatively rare. The real trick is make this enjoying yourself the default setting. This is perhaps a little more complicated.

That default happiness perhaps requires a couple of things to be true. You have to live somewhere you like, in surroundings and a community of people you like. You also have to work somewhere you like, somewhere you feel you are making a valued contribution and are relaxed doing whatever mundane tasks are part of doing that work. Whilst this sounds simple it can be very difficult to achieve. Very few people achieve this absolute dream situation, most of us have to make compromises somewhere in the attempt to be as happy as we can be.

It’s not that simple as we are social animals, we need to be told from time to time that what we are doing is worthwhile by people we respect and not have lots of people continually telling us that we are not doing anything worthwhile. People need affirmation.

Often it seems that the economy, our families and restrictions in how much money we can make all conspire to thwart our simple aim for happiness. As anxious people continually over-think things and have a negative outlook as they gather data and understandings of what is going on around them.

I felt rather depressed and lethargic last Sunday. It seemed crazy as I’d just spent a week working at the Urdd Eisteddfod in Cardiff. A week where I enjoyed myself, working at an event I have huge regard for;  and basically trying to make up for missing out on it when I was a child and I was a very anxious child. Whilst I’m still not fully fluent in Cymraeg,  living in the language somehow makes me feel more confident as I’ve written about previously. I caught the anxious me coming out to ponder why I was feeling bad after a happy week. Of course, it was just a come down and I needed rest and some me-time. I suspect most people who had lived on the Urdd Maes for the week were also feeling similarly down.

My point is that the difference between the anxious is that the feeling down and worried is the usual position and the happy worthwhileness of the Eisteddfod is the exception, while for the normal folk, this is the normal situation. Basically I think I suffered from anxiety for so long as I simply wasn’t doing something worthwhile, somewhere i liked with people thanking me for what I was working on.

Overcoming anxiety for me was realising that when you get everything right, you can be a normal confident person for sustained periods. During that period of revelation, there was a time when things hadn’t worked out well and I was feeling down. Everyone else in my group was feeling down too, it was strange to me to be in-tune with how everyone else was feeling and I perked up when others started to perk up. However the rest of the time I was exerting energy on finding solutions to the problems we faced, rather than dealing with my anxiety.

It’s like football. Part of the reason I like going to football matches is the tribalism, being in a team of like minded people, sharing the ups and downs together and the feeling of confidence of feeling accepted for who I am. Trying to match that situation in real life is a challenge to find, especially in a world where so many people seem to end up happy without any seeking of it out.

Hei Mister Urdd

Idea Loyalty

When we are young we cling to safe comforting ideas, in a favourite teddy bear perhaps, where a simple love is a soft cocoon away from the confusing ideas of the wider world. We know that teddy will always love us because we have total control over that relationship as it exists in our imaginations, created by us. That relationship progresses, it grows more complex, we deepen those ties within our own heads.

Such idea loyalty is later found in other areas of life. The things that we like, that give us comfort are found in various aspects of our lives, but unlike the teddy bear these relationships exist with entities outside of ourselves, we decide to be loyal or to trust things outside of ourselves. That we do this so readily when those things may not be so trustworthy is really quite remarkable. Yet that loyalty persists.

For example, when we hear a piece of music for the first time, we know that we like that particular piece of music, but may not be entirely sure why, yet we know we like it. It is only with subsequent listenings that we delve deeper and discover why we like that piece of music, we have a relationship with that piece of music.

It’s the same type of thing with attraction. Sometimes we meet people and just instantly like them. As we get to know them we learn why we like them and have a sense of loyalty towards them. Even if we lose contact with that person, or don’t listen to a piece of music anymore, when their name crops up we instantly have warm feelings of fondness, even to sometimes awful pieces of trashy pop music that formed part of our lives when we were young.

We develop idea loyalty. I believe it is partly that we see something of ourselves in that piece of music or that other person that resonates with how we think. Such things engage our interest because whilst they are like us they are also different. The interest is perhaps partly why they are different, what is that subtle difference in worldview.

Politics is another example of this phenomena. Those of us who go through the whole internal debate of working out what our own political philosophy and position is, often tends to resonate with that first encounter with politics. We instantly have a reaction in support of or against something which lick starts that journey. Once this process is complete, we don’t have to think about the politics anymore we know our own position. We have idea loyalty to a particular set of beliefs. It is kind of self-affirming to spend time socialising with people who think the same way, to share a common bond with, it gives us self-confidence.

Of course if we spend too much time on the familiar, with things that are close to who we are, we get bored. It is the things that are different than we enjoy exploring. Yet those familiar things don’t change, we always like the same music, the same people, the same ideas. I sometimes think this is strange, how I don’t come to dislike things I once liked and find that I now like completely different things. Perhaps what we seek as human beings is the right balance of centring ourselves with things that confirm ourselves as valid individuals with the desire to explore the new and unfamiliar. And of course we are all different and have different cravings for adventure into the unknown. This sense is perhaps summed up by how we yearn to go and visit new places and do new things, yet at whilst we are there we crave coming home, there is no perfect point to be at.

However, often we struggle to find this balance, the world often doesn’t allow us to make this process easy. I have suffered from anxiety and perhaps I was partly that way as I didn’t fit in, I didn’t get enough of the comfort of the familiar. Indeed it is those who are different, who don’t fit in who tend to suffer more from anxiety. Such people struggle to find enough people like them, they don’t get enough of the home time to develop confidence to go out and explore as they constantly seek the comfort blanket where none surrounds them.

When I was growing up I had this sense from being in a family and friends who had very different political ideals to my own, different tastes in music and worldview in general. I left home and found some people who were a lot more like me, yet to be with them i had to live in an unfamiliar environment of big cities outside of Wales. In such a situation I could only grasp hold of some of my roots and never all of them at the same time. I’ve also never lived long enough somewhere that felt like home long enough for those roots to deepen and grow to give me the confidence to fly further from home to satisfy my cravings to explore.

I do believe that there are higher rates of mental illness because our society fails top provide opportunities for people to find the balance they need. Most of humanity’s history was spent living in small villages. Where the diverse people of the village enabled people to find their place within that society and it’s economy. The great pushes of modern capitalism seem to force a particular way of ding things upon people, to compete to be at the centre of very large groupings of people. It seems like a society based on certain type of people who like conforming. whereas those people who are different who don’t conform struggle with the abnegation such large societies seem to demand and there seem to be fewer opportunities to find places on the fringes in a globalised world. The stress seems to be on rewarding those with the ability to be central to the one prevalent worldview and that doesn’t suit everybody, whom have idea loyalty to a different set of beliefs.

 

Bubble Popping

Remembering being a child blowing bubbles and then chasing them around popping them is not the subject of this missive. Rather I wish to consider the bubbles I live in. These days we live in social bubbles based on where we live, work and socialise. Increasingly it seems that we live more in bubbles of people who think like we do than generations past. A consequence of this bubble living is that we understand less people who are not like us and due to this we seem to be living in a society that doesn’t consider what life is like for people who are different from ourselves. We don’t consider enough people’s backgrounds or how we are different. There seems to be a tendency for this to be exposed when families who live apart gather for Christmas, suddenly we are living with people who live in different bubbles and these bubbles can burst creating arguments.

As children we make a start in life thinking that other people think broadly the same way as we do. We learn to empathise by putting ourselves in others shoes. For example when someoen says that they are hungry, we understand because we know what hunger feels like ourselves. Yet somehow as adults we do this less, perhaps because we think we know enough not to have to do this thinking as often.

So how am I different and what insights have I gained over the past year and what has happened to me this year and to the society I live in.

I am different because I have suffered from anxiety. Living with anxiety led me to analyse my social interactions very deeply, too deeply. Overcoming anxiety was partly a process of letting go, of stopping analysis, of allowing a first impression to be generally correct.

I am also a scientist, which means I have lots of experience dealing with data sets in the attempt to answer questions, to remove sources of bias as much as possible. To be exhaustive in testing data and being cautious about any conclusions reached.

Really it is perhaps safe to assume that most people do not analyse things in such great detail. Indeed, i am often surprised by how little other people seem to analyse issues to what i feel is a decently robust level. So, what has happened this year?

Work

I have not been working in science this year sadly. Instead I have been working in the supposed ‘real world’ in an office working with the largest, but least robust or reliable data sets I have ever had to. I am managed so that i am not given the time to do any rigorous analysis and have to resort to processing data in a a rough and ready way withing very short time-frames. In terms of efficiency of the business, this makes sense as the broad results will generally be improve the business situation and in any case where the results are wrong, a major reason can often be reasonably assumed and the suggestions modified; rather than spending a lot of time getting things robustly right in the first place. Often rigour or deeper analysis is seen as a luxury if there is ever tiem for it. I have found it a challenging way to work, yet it is one that I have found to be shared by sciencey friends who work on the real world; speed is more important than accuracy. Working this way does make me a little uncomfortable at times and I do crave a return to science and ‘doing things properly’. Perhaps this is how most of the world works and how decisions are made, we thus live in a world which makes avoidable mistakes.

Cymraeg /Welsh

I am still learning Welsh, but can speak Welsh now and have become a part of the culture of the Welsh language. I am now exposed a lot more to opinions about the Welsh language from people with no knowledge of Welsh at all. For example complaints about bi-lingual signs. Bi-lingual signs are provided in two languages because there are two main language communities in Wales. If you don’t know anything about the Welsh language, then what exactly is the basis for an opinion on Welsh signage? When I hear the near constant criticism of the Welsh language, which you really notice when you are a Welsh speaker, it does feel like an attack. Yet, i don’t believe it’s an attack it’s perhaps simply a disregard for people with different needs. such ‘attacks’ happen to every grouping who is different from any individual. What i don’t get is why any individual would regard communities they are members of as being ‘normal’ and only these ‘normal’ causes are worthy of attention.

Brexit

Which brings me to Brexit again. The debate about Brexit should be about analysing likely impacts of Brexit on democracy in the UK and likely changes to the economy. Yet during the Brexit vote debate and ever since, this exploration of the costs and benefits of the two options barely gets a mention. Instead Brexit has exacerbated the tensions between people of the right and people of the left and been about which side you are on.

Brexit seems to be a division between those who desire a British mono-culture, similar to that which existed in the post second world war period and those that don’t. So, being of a range of identities and perhaps as a liberal “intellectual” I have to be on the Remain side, despite all my criticisms of the EU. There is no wiggle room for people to ‘switch sides’ even when we never desired to be on one side or the other.

British is one of my identities, yet the Brexiteers position seems to be attacking my British identity, which sees Britain as a union of diverse identities. I am Welsh, it is impossible for me to envisage Britain as a mono-culture, it hasn’t ever been and never will be. The terms of the debate now have entrenched the UK population into this division and the opinion polls suggest that eighteen months on from Brexit are still 50:50 and will probably remain so.

I fear this focus on this irreconcilable division at the expense of working out what is the best way forward isn’t helpful at all. If only someone could find a solution that everyone can unify behind, but it seems the likelihood of that happening is infinitely small.

Popping Bubbles

What I really find difficult to deal with, especially with the Brexiteers, is this adopting a position that doesn’t hold up to any serious analysis even when data breaks those positions. There is merit in not analysing everything to death, to adopt a position that works okay for now, but there should always be a readiness to accept that it is inaccurate and develop a new position. This maxim applies in science and social life and especially politics where we live in an ever changing world. It allows us to be independently thinking individuals and not suffer in a herd mentality of one size fits all.

The whole Blue Passports issue came up over Christmas. If people want the UK passport to be blue, fair enough. I’m not bothered about its colour, really I’d like a Welsh passport. However, when it is pointed out that 1, The UK passport was never blue, my parents had the old style ones and I looked at them at Christmas, one is black, the other is a very dark blue and not navy blue at all and 2, The EU did not prevent the UK government changing passport colour if it really wanted to anyway. Yet despite these two facts, people still try and maintain that blue passports is an important issue, in spite of the facts.

As I see it, life is about deciding when to engage with deeper analysis and when to just move forward with a quickly framed rough and ready position that is good enough for now, enabling us to live in the moment. As an anxious person, I needed to learn how to do the latter. However for the new year, I really believe that we need to consider other people more and that means accepting that our first answer may need some testing and analysis of data from beyond our cozy bubbles. Next year lets keep running around popping bubbles, be open to new ideas and consider other people.

Crossing the Road

If we do something but can’t observe it’s consequences, we feel anxious. This sentence struck me as raising an important facet of anxiety, how it is about fear of the unknown. I have always been troubled by not knowing how other people react to my behaviour, partly because I’m aware that I am unusual, so can’t rely on how I would react as a reliable means of assessing the likely reaction of others. Overcoming anxiety is not overly worrying about how other people react, as long as what you are going is reasonable.

Of course, having largely overcome anxiety I am still sometimes anxious. So I still haven’t quite worked out what is normal everyday anxiety and what is overly worrying, but I just feel that I continue to make progress with this, knowing that a welded down definition is impossible.

The problem in the modern world is that we communicate far less face to face. Face to face communication is much easier because you can assess reactions straight away in real time and instantly modify behaviour. For example realising someone doesn’t want to discuss a particular subject at the moment. Sending a letter an e-mail or a text is difficult as you have no idea how people will react, you don’t know what mood they will be in when the message is received and it is difficult to express your intent without being overly wordy and often your meaning may be misinterpreted.

A good general strategy for for deciding when you shouldn’t be anxious about an action is to ask ‘What is the worst possible outcome?’. If this outcome is very unlikely, which you can usually assess, then you needn’t be anxious. Sometimes that worst possible outcome will happen, low probability events do happen from time to time. However, this doesn’t mean your action was wrong as the alternative is to do nothing, which often means sitting at home not engaging with the world.

I was incredibly unlucky in when I first overcame anxiety, the worst possible outcomes happened. I basically wanted to thank someone for helping me realise that I need not be anxious and the worst possible outcome was that they would be upset. So i was completely shocked when they did seem upset, it made no sense to me, because they didn’t reply and blocked me on social media, so to me they were upset. In my assessment that outcome seemed incredibly unlikely, yet it had happened. This confused me as i was unsure how careful I needed to be when communicating freely and honestly, as this suggested I needed to be incredible careful, even to the point where I shouldn’t initiate communication, ever. Years later I discovered that she wasn’t upset by my communicating, but rather that she had interpreted my being gushy and emotional as seeking a relationship, to black-mail them into being supportive, which was never the case. The fault seemed to be the everyday sexism of male attention to females that to them suggested that 99% of the time my communication would have been manipulative. These 1% unlikely outcomes seem to have a habit of cropping up when they are important, because it is the exceptional case anyway which people try to deal with using everyday assessments. As humans we are kind of programmed to  see exceptional events as unlikely to be true. Yet it is only these rare events when people make great leap forwards.

This all suggests that anxiety assessments are about dealing with probability and in the real world we never have nice large data sets to play with to get towards the truth, we so often get one data point and have to ascertain if it is a rare event  we have stumbled upon or is there somethign unknown to us (such as an aspect of what it is like to be a woman) that we have hit which is completely unrelated to our motive.

I grew up with an highly anxious mother and grandmother and I am also an only child. I became an adult with a much more limited understanding of regular social relations than the majority of people. So instead of naturally building up a database of social interactions to guide behaviour I had to observe the world as an outsider and try and build rule systems that seemed to work. So social interactions seem more like a game than living everyday life. The problem with rule systems is they are not good at exceptionalism and if there is a big factor that has not been included in the model, it can break down frequently until that factor has been quantified. There isn’t always time to study these down to root causes.

There are other areas where there are rule based solutions and more organic, interactive, transactional solutions, such as the simple act of crossing the road in the centres of large towns and cities at zebra crossings. In Britain where there are rules they are strict and if someone is standing by a zebra crossing or is close and looks like they wish to cross, cars must stop and wait until the crossing is finished. So a pedestrian doesn’t have to think they just cross and the cars must wait.

I was in Italy recently and I never looked up the rules, leading to a few anxious moments as the cars do not automatically stop for pedestrians. Nonetheless when walking across a zebra crossing, the cars will stop whilst you are blocking their lane. Sometimes they will toot their horn to suggest you have broken the unwritten rules.

After many crossings, it seemed to me that what Italy has a more social transnational system. If you wait for a gap in the traffic and then cross, cars happily stop. However if it’s busy and there are no gaps you can still cross, but get glared at. However when busy and you wait a few seconds to cross with a group of people the drivers seem happier. Basically, it’s a social and democratic system, everyone has the right to cross if you cause minimum disruption to others. The result is that traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian can move about smoothly, once the system is complex interactions is inherently understood. Such a system appeals to me a lot, that you can do whatever you want provided you try and cause minimal disruption to others. Nonetheless, if you have anxiety you do yearn a little for harder more precise rules.

In another European culture, Germany, it is much more rule based. On a pedestrian crossing where pedestrians have a a green and red ‘man’ signal, it is illegal and finable to cross when the red man is showing. What happens is that on a deserted road at night a pedestrian will wait until a green man signal, effectively wasting their own time to conform to the rule. In Britain, for contrast, we only follow this rule when it is busy, at other times we cross on red men signals. So, in Britain we only apply the strict rules to busy intersections but not universally like in Germany.

I think most people understand that perfection is impossible so there has to be a sliding scale of when rigid rules are obeyed and when not. For example we accept loud music of Friday and Saturday evenings, but expect things to be quieter during the week. Though there is no actual law covering this. However legally, anyone who official complains about noise has the courts on their side, whether the complaint is generally regarded as reasonable or not.

Culture is diverse, not only is our society made up of incomers from other cultures, but all sorts of different kinds of people with different attitudes to rules from within that culture.  For example Italian culture is very rule based, but doesn’t seem so in a town centre where people race down narrow busy streets at night on their mopeds and the scenes can seem quite chaotic.

Social rules do seem better than strict laws, as laws are impossible to get absolutely right. However there are always those who will push the boundaries for personal advantage, and societies need mechanism for to ensure this code breaking doesn’t pay off to general detriment.

A visitor to a culture, such as myself in Italy, who doesn’t know the rules, in some circumstances can raise anxiety levels. Cultural rules, usually give some leeway to visitors because they don’t know the rules, and are not seeking advantage by not knowing them. However cultures tend not to give as much leeway to the anxious or otherwise different. If you don’t know the rules in your own culture you are looked down upon, despite not knowing all the rules isn’t your fault.

I have moved around a lot and broken many cultural rules I do feel a lot less anxious in Wales, as I understand the culture more deeply and am probably have less anxiety about throwing myself into foreign cultures than most people. At home i feel much less anxiety and comfortable, there are less unknowns. However, for work reasons, I have often lived away from my native culture and have to re-learn new subtle changes to the rules every time, to the point where I am less wary of not knowing the consequences of my actions as I know my understanding of these things is poorer anyway.

The other aspect of anxiety is fear of being judged by other people. I suppose I have become hardened to a lot of judgement as it isn’t relevant to me. Perhaps in reaction to that there are other areas where I care a lot more about being judged, yet learning that I am being judged because of the actions of others rather than my own actions just makes me feel less inclined to be bothered by others judgements of me.

Essentially what i am saying is that anything is fine as long as you can justify it to yourself as reasonable, or to a peer group. Yet, I am aware that this is quite a dangerous attitude as there is nothing but my own conscience or people who think in similar ways to me guiding my actions. And if in moving away from anxiety means that i spend less time thinking everything through so deeply then I will do bad things without realising it and be judged even more harshly than I ever used to worry about. This is the thing with living in a city, you never make much progress before there is another big road to cross.

Breaking the Silence #MeToo

Sexual harassment has been in the news recently and it is about time that this issue is more widely discussed. I’ve written on here before about how as a straight bloke it is very easy not to notice that sexual harassment is taking place right under our noses. I’m more aware of that now so I knew that there was a high likelihood of friends of mine suffering from sexual harassment. Yet it is a subject that is rarely discussed, or seems not to be with straight blokes.

So I wasn’t surprised to see on my Facebook feed lots of #MeToo postings. This social media campaign was a really good thing because it really brought the issue home when you know the victims personally, it’s no longer a statistical probability, it’s more real. Some of my friends were even brave enough to share details about what had happened to them.

Sexual harassment is perhaps the thick end and everyday sexism is the other. The everyday comments and banter just wears you down as it happens day after day.It’s a shame these things are not discussed more widely so there is greater awareness.

We are all different and sensitive to different things. As an anxious person, I too have suffered from the negative effects of everyday banter, which seems worse because it was nothing to do with my gender, so seems more personally directed.

I get the wearing down of everyday banter because I’m Welsh. When the Six nations rugby tournament is on, the banter of jokes directed between nations is part of the thing. However, being Welsh we get the jokes a lot of the time all through the year and mainly from men: The endless sheep jokes and attacks on our language, maybe be justified as merely ‘banter’ or ‘taking the piss but not meaning anything by it’ are really just tedious, but when we do get fed up of them we can usually find solace with fellow Welsh folk.

Maybe that is partly why women, the vast majority of victims of sexual harassment are women, seek solace with other women, rather than discuss the issue with straight blokes they know. and maybe that is why it is tougher on the anxious as there is no ready made group to seek solace in.

This isn’t saying that banter is wrong, it can be a bit of fun, especially between friends where we know where the limits of taking something too far are and it is established that we really don’t mean it. However men are generally more cautious about such banter with women, when they are not cautious then it is harassment. It is harassment because harassment is defined by the victim, they state when it is harassment, not the behaviour itself. Knowing the limits comes from knowing the people, which is why friends can take the piss out of each other, however when someone ‘wolf whistles’ at a woman in the street, they do not know the woman, so that is just pure harassment.

The issue with sexual harassment is that men generally don’t suffer from it, so men don’t understand it, so men are unable to know where the limits of banter are for women they know a bit from the workplace. In the same way banter affects the anxious because the non-anxious don’t understand anxiety. Really , if there were to be daily comments about how big our penises are, most men would quickly collapse sobbing in states of insecurity.

While being a victim of abuse is horrible, that such harassment is commonplace also affects blokes. To not be an anxious person I decided to be a lot more open about my feelings, which includes being open with women. Often I prefer to talk about my feelings with women as generally they listen more. However sometimes that openness can be misinterpreted as seeking a deeper relationship, or trying to get into their knickers. This troubled me because surely it was obvious from my words and how I expressed them that that wasn’t my intention. However, it took me years to realise that you can accidentally harass someone, when you don’t understand what the daily lived experience of being a woman is like.  The thing is I have been a harasser of women, but the blame for those events lies with the whole widespread commonality of sexual harassment.not anything i did or said specifically.

I’ve always been reluctant to touch women to express empathy and support because it may be inappropriate. Now I know the reason for that , because the woman may not know that I am not trying to take advantage of the situation to cop a feel. Yet straight blokes always desire copping feels, because women’s bodies are ace, yet we learn to restrain ourselves, it’s not something worth doing. Because of this blokes miss out on so much of warmth of human physical contact, to the extent that some men seek ways to slyly cop feels or worse to make up for this missing out. The solution has to be talking more about these issues, for abuse to be recognised, so these men don’t end up raping or otherwise abusing women.

Even today, there still seems to be a reluctance to take on board that everyone is different and jokes about gender, race, sexuality, nationality, mental health, religion, anything and everything else cause a lot of harm and there is too much casual banter.

This doesn’t mean that straight blokes have to somehow try and not be fascinated by women’s bodies, or that we are not allowed to talk to women we are attracted to, even if we do want to get into their knickers. What it means is simply respecting other people and realising that we can easily hurt people without realising it because we don’t know who they are. and who has been harassing them in their personal history.

 

Alcohol & Anxiety

Having grown up in a drinking culture, I do enjoy the occasional drink or three. Drinking allows people to weaken the social rules we have for a few hours to lubricate social interactions and have some fun. Drinking is an appealing way of spending time, to celebrate life  rather than spend too much time contemplating the bleakness of existence. It has been society’s way of escaping the sheer craziness of human life on planet Earth.

Drinking is an escape from the social norms, unfortunately it has consequences. Those whom do not have a pleasant existence can overly turn to alcohol as the escape becomes addictive.

When I was a much more anxious person, I did enjoy the escape into drinking as this allowed me to be a normal person, unconstrained by the ties of anxiety. As an anxious person it probably took an additional pint to achieve that state of relaxation, free from inhibition that the non-anxious could do with fewer or even no alcohol. I was fortunate to never rely on alcohol to function, which alcoholics do. However, I quite often needed to drink to actually enjoy social interaction. In Britain this kind of works as much larger social functions generally include availability of alcohol.

Now that I am less anxious, I don’t feel that need to gain the effects of alcohol to enjoy socialising in large groups, though alcohol does increase the enjoyment, it just adds emphasis to enjoying socialising.

I’m sure everyone, whether they suffer from mental illness or not has that nervousness about going across to chat to the pretty girl. Alcohol helps us say ‘Why not, it’s hugely unlikely that they will humiliate me’, which I think is the fear everyone has. Alcohol has been allowing people to get together and form relationships for centuries. The thing about anxiety is that the anxious have this fear with everyone,they fear social interactions with everyone whether they are attractive or not. The normal social rule of anxiety about speaking to attractive women is simply exaggerated to the point where normal social function becomes a huge strain.

Overcoming anxiety is a journey, much like a night in town where the effects of alcohol get to the point of insobriety where we can enjoy ourselves fully, but still function. Such a state has a cost in the morning! The difference is the longer timescale and leading to a more permanent non-anxious state. For me, way back when the only time I felt  happy was when I was drunk. As I overcame anxiety i started to have moments of happiness or just feeling relaxed without drink. Over time the frequency and length of these spells increased. Happiness is never a permanent state, but a state of feeling relaxed within oneself increases in time until it is the majority of the time and eventually becomes the normal state. Eventually you no longer fear waking up in the morning feeling anxious. I used to have the idea that being happy always meant that the depression and anxiety would always be the worse afterwards, much like a hangover. However there does not need to be a hangover, you can just carry on the next day being not anxious. i still go ‘wow’ sometimes/

This state of relaxed normality is still a fairly new concept for me, but one I gather that most people have always had. It is kind of like when getting drunk for the first time and realising you can do this again and again. Gaining more experience of not being anxious is great and so enabling and having a few beers is even more enjoyable. It’s the feeling of being able to escape without a constant desire to escape.

The Fall and Rise of Respectability

My parents and grandparents went to some lengths to instil in me the importance of respectability. This concept was one I struggled to understand when I was young and then realised wasn’t important as I got older. What I did learn was that it was important to my older family and the older generation and discovered through my friends  that our generation didn’t give respectability any real value. So what I learned was how to play the game of respectability to not upset older people.

I think my main objection to respectability was that it was so complicated and seemed to lack a coherence or a logically related set of premises, it seemed like a fairly random set of rules and thus required commitment to learn. Really respectability had been important for generations, bound up with the issue of class that bound society together for a long time. Respectability is about showing that you have learned this very complex set of rules. Hence it is showing that you have been educated. This was an important badge of respectability during a period when a large chunk of society didn’t receive any formal education. The older generation are very impressed when our generation wave around degrees or have letters after our names, when my generation isn’t at all.

Much of these complex rules were not just about respectability and education but also about our culture and it’s traditions. I think the older generation have been fearful of the way my generation unpicked all the traditions and worked out which ones had sense or useful purpose to them and which were remnants of things that had once been useful but no more. I think they feared we would lose our culture and sense of who we were.

I kind of get that fear, but the rules are so harsh that they hold a culture bound to arbitrary rules that actually inhibit cultural growth. What I mean is that you can spend so much time and energy following the rules that you lack  the time to realise why something is valuable.

To illustrate this idea by example. As a child I was taken to a music concert, great, but this involved such things as dressing in uncomfortable clothes that I wasn’t comfortable wearing, sitting still and receiving instructions on how to appear I was appreciating the music. So, being an anxious child, I felt obliged to follow all these bizarre rules to keep my parents and grandparents happy, so much so that i didn’t get to enjoy the music! It was only later that I was able to relax and open my ears and really start to appreciate what the musicians were doing. So I now look down on anyone who suggests there should be ‘dress codes’ at musical concerts, if you like dressing up, great, if it’s not your thing, that is just as cool. I personally, make a point of not dressing up at all as all music should be accessible to everyone, whatever helps you open your ears is what is of paramount importance.

The other issue my cohort had when growing up was that we realised that we were growing up in rural Wales. We could look back on our families tilling the land for generation after generation and for me that meant I was one whole generation away from the land and that tradition.My cohort have been realising that in European terms our local culture hadn’t undergone the rapid changes experienced by those who went to the large towns and cities, that we also needed to learn the new etiquette of a more globalised world, especially those of us who had lost the farming tradition.

For my generation the world isn’t one of knowing the arcane rules of respectability. Perhaps we are more interested in what things are valuable and useful and disparage those things which aren’t. In a way all this is is just a completely new set of rules of respectability, with the difference in that the rules relate to the world we know rather than old traditions.

We live in rapidly changing times. Rural Wales was late in awakening to industrialisation, so when my parents generation realised that they weren’t to continue the agricultural tradition, Europe was beginning to struggle with post industrialisation, we had missed out perhaps almost entirely on the industrial era, apart from tractors replacing horses. Tractors replacing horses was surely progress, saving so much time and not needing to grow crops to feed the horses. However these very changes meant that fewer people were needed to work the farm. Many farms became one or two man operations and the rest of the family had to go and find work elsewhere, which almost invariably meant moving away.

Until that is, broadband came, and the transport network got so congested that staying at home for administrative jobs started to become the best option. Furthermore the beginnings of the effects of climate change are starting to have real unignorable impacts and the era of cheap oil and indeed it’s tractors is coming to an end. Perhaps I am witnessing the end of that  flight to cities to find work and all in just one generation.

Welsh farmers have largely always looked down their noses at all the city people, sitting in offices not producing very much of any real use. They are largely right of course. Whilst they have been spending all their days proudly producing food for people to eat. After all owning land was the height of respectability. European history has always been about the those at top of society who own the land.

The thing is anyone can farm. Humanity for most of history has been made up of farmers. It was only during the industrial period when modern conveniences enabled rises in living standards that land, farmland, for a time lost it’s value, enabling a generation of farmers to finally own their own land. It can be viewed that they got lucky to have ended up with the the thing that meant respectability to the very last generation that valued respectability.

I grew up with the concept of ‘look smart and wear a collar and tie’. The dual meaning of smart of being educated and dressing well, is perhaps no accident as both meanings are really about respectability. There is some evidence of this word ‘smart’ flipping in meaning as the meaning of respectability changes. We now talk about being ‘street smart’ and making smart decisions. These newer meanings of smart are not about old respectability but more about being a useful individual and contributing to rather than exploiting society.

The great irony for me growing up of wearing of ties is that the people who wore ties all the time were and still are the big business executives and politicians who made decisions for their personal gain and failed to appreciate what the communities they effected needed. It seems to me that the wearing of a tie is a mark of the disrespectful. I grew up during the Miner’s strike, and the baddies were all wearing suits. I only wear them when etiquette and tradition demands though.

Anyone who analysis society realises that the things that respectability valued, such as land or education are largely acquired by luck or an odious obsession with garnering the facets of respectability through acting in a disrespectful way, such as the acquisition of land to be a rentier, rather than actively working the land. Somewhat paradoxically respectability regards those who are respectable by luck of being in the right family  in the right place much more highly, rather than those who have acquired respectability by behaving disrespectfully by the new generations definition. Perhaps because the mistakes of the previous generations of the powerful were more innocent and on a smaller scale than those made by those in power today.

So, whilst my generation watch as the old respectability does, we are witnessing the rise of a new one where what is regarded as respectable has flipped and  is utterly different and instead values being true to yourself and your community, rather than learning the rules to be someone different and of entering a sub-community. Where diversity and difference is at last valued and conformity isn’t. The interesting question now is whether or not respectability will flip again in a new direction with the next generation or whether we stop valuing people’s acquired traits at all. I’m sure if either of these two directions is more worthy than the other.

 

Waiting for the bus that never comes

I used to hate waiting for buses. It was the not knowing how long you had to wait, whether it was worth getting my book out, whether I had time to pop to the local shop, an answer to whether  the bus had been cancelled so I could go to the pub for a pint or two whilst waiting for the next one. Often these days you can use an app’ on your phones which will tell you where the bus really is and how long it will be, which solves all these problems of lost time waiting and makes bus travel a lot less annoying.

Unfortunately there is not an app’ for the UK government. Brexit is like waiting for the bus that never comes; We know the service will be crap but at least we may soon be on the ruddy thing and we are no longer waiting.

We are in this strange Brexit zone. No-one talks about Brexit anymore, I think we are all fed up of going through the same tired arguments yet again, the arguments that frustratingly never get around to their logical conclusion. There doesn’t seem much we can go about it and we don’t want to open up those divisive arguments again. Of course we do make lots of jokes about how pathetic the UK is being by not having a Brexit plan and trying to wing it and keep the important electoral demographics happy during the process, rather than formulate sensible policy. I’m sure those outside the UK are making the exact same jokes.

It’s not only Brexit fatigue, it’s this whole three year period whilst the UK negotiates Brexit on the fly, with no plan of what to do with it. We kind of want to know what will happen at the end so we can start preparing for it and start thinking about how to adapt to it. We are waiting again without knowing when the bus will turn up. With this Tory UK government having decided to take all the responsibility for Brexit and secured government by a gnat’s wing to do so, there seems little to do but get on with our lives in the meantime.

When and indeed if Brexit does happen, I expect the vast majority of people to be disappointed, only a particularly bizarre few are going to get what they want. The big issues of the “debate” over Brexit of immigration and better regulations are not going to be tackled as there is unlikely to be any agreement of how best to resolve these problems. Of course we could actually have a debate, work through the issues and come up with sensible policies, but that isn’t how the British state works. The EU doesn’t work that way either of course, but is perhaps less likely to do anything truly daft, which was always my argument for remain; that the UK can and should do more to sort out our problems rather than waste years on Brexit with no plan for post-Brexit.

I am still aware of all the problems with the EU: economic migrancy, regulations that don’t really apply and are a hindrance to the UK economy, the Eurozone holding back the economies of Southern Europe, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) etc. The problem with Brexit was that acknowledging these problems but not offering an alternative, not looking at what the alternatives are, the arguments never got beyond this beginning of forming an argument, taking the first premise as a conclusion.  A great weakness of the EU was failing to sort out the CAP. The CAP was a strong argument for Brexit, however the UK has not promised to replace it with anything better, instead suggesting that agriculture won’t get any subsidies, but don’t worry we can import lovely unhealthy foods like chlorine chicken and hormone beef from the US, making food regulation even more complicated. How is this better than staying in the EU?

The other powerful Brexit argument was that the UK would never be offered a choice on the EU again, so Brexit should be voted for to give Britain the chance for modern democracy and reform of our failing institutions. However instead of preparing for this, instead we hear about binding ourselves to a different set of damaging “free trade” deals.

We know that both of the major Uk political parties are slaves to their focus groups, rather than what is best for economy. Tory Bliar’s  [Tony Blair] “Labour” government, only implemented limited devolution to gain votes and the Tories only had Brexit to win an election as well. Britain just needs to end this ghastly Westminster system, have true democracy and that means Wales getting to decide it’s own affairs, rather than decided by these two lots of political careerists.

Much of the motivation for Brexit was hope, hope for new systems that actually worked and performed their function to be developed, rather than continual decline in living standards. Paradoxically, the only way for Brexit to work is bring Westminster government crashing down and allow genuine reform from the bottom up. We are still waiting for that but anxious that that day may never come.