Part 2 of Hen Do – A Philosophical Geek Out

Last Sunday morning I woke up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, on account of not staying up all night clubbing.

We were off to the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff. The highlight of my weekend – aside from celebrating my friend’s impending nuptials of course!

It turns out one of of the other revellers is as big a Whovian as me, so we went round the costumes and artefacts together getting our Nerd on, and effortlessly outclassing the rest of the visitors with our extensive who-trivia. (Which earned us some rather dirty looks from a few of the older gentleman, who obviously felt young ladies should not be bigger fans than they were!)

And then, as is the custom whenever two Doctor Who aficionados get together, the conversation turns more serious. Solemnly she asked me if I, as the Doctor, would have destroyed the Daleks on Skaro in the Classic Tom Baker story “Genesis of the Daleks.”

Obviously this isn’t a question one takes lightly. I need to give this some thought. After a minute I realise that to answer this question I need more information.
“Which Doctor am I?”
Of the 11 incarnations that have so far graced our screens (Red Nose day specials and the abysmal Peter Cushing film notwithstanding) I feel that each Doctor would have responded to this moral quandry quite differently. Troughton and Davison wouldn’t have done it – they were too nice. Whereas Colin Baker was always a bit of a bastard, by which I mean that he was (for my money) one of the least ‘human’ doctors. Not for him the constraints of homo sapien morality. Similarly Christopher Eccleston would totally have connected the wires. His backstory makes it clear that he (attempted) to destroy the entire Dalek race previously, and the experience has left him with what is essentially PTSD.

That was 5 days ago and apparently it’s been preying on my mind. Earlier today the following occurred to me: towards the end of The Parting of the Ways, Jack gets killed by the Daleks. Rose then brings him back to life as an Immortal. At which point he becomes a fact – a fixed point in time to which the Tardis then strenuously objects. (Sidebar – might this offer a clue as to why the Tardis now appears to hate Clara?!) But if Jack is now a fixed point in time, then the survival of the Daleks up to the point that they kill Jack must have been inevitable! Tom Baker’s doctor had no choice.

All of which demonstrates why Doctor Who is the perfect philosophical programme. There’s all the wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey stuff which covers your basic metaphysics. There are ethical conundrums aplenty. Some great food for thought on aesthetics; in a vast universe populated with aliens, who’s to say what is beautiful and what is ugly. And if that wasn’t enough you also get to play with propositional logic. In an ever-expanding canon of material, which apparent logical inconsistencies can be explained away and which can’t. Tracing the logical validity of a complex argument is not the easiest thing to do, and Dr Who is a brilliant mental scratching post upon which to sharpen the critical faculties.

Hen Do

This weekend I went on the Hen Do of a friend and colleague. I don’t have that many female friends to start with, still fewer who are not already married so I have limited experience of Hen Parties. I knew we had an action packed weekend ahead of us and I was a little nervous about hanging out with a group of people I barely knew. In that event I was happily worrying over nothing. Her friends are lovely and we bonded over a white water rafting session and a Masterclass in Cuban Cocktail Making. We had the obligatory games of making our Hen guess how her betrothed would have answered various intimate questions, replete with anatomically themed prizes. We drank, we giggled, we fortified ourselves over an Italian dinner, and then we went to a nightclub.

This was the part I had been dreading. As I have previously blogged, I don’t really do late nights. I’m definitely a morning person. Get me up at 5 in the morning, and while I won’t be particularly happy about it I will be functional. Keep me up after midnight however and I turn into a pumpkin. I’ll have been unattractively petulant for the past hour anyway, but after midnight I just stop. Woe betide if you haven’t got me into bed by then.

But, I’m away for a mate’s pre-wedding party and I am aware that I should make a special effort. After the rafting I have some water trapped in my ear, and on the advice of my roommate I lie down on my side. My bed is by a large window and I curl up like a cat in the little sun trap which has obligingly appeared. I drift off into a pleasant slumber. At least I assume I do. I wake up about an hour later having drooled on the pillow, which I don’t generally do whilst conscious. Annoyingly this pool of liquid emanating from my body is not from my ear as hoped, but I’m barely caring about that, instead focussing on the delightful realisation that I Got A Nap.

The reason I am so pleased about this is that any period of actual sleep I can get during the day extends the period of time I can remain awake and alert later on. Perhaps now with the right combination of alcohol, sugar and general exuberance I can make it through the clubbing portion of the weekend after all.

So we’re all nicely tipsy from our cocktail session (but not rolling around drunk out of our skulls like most of the other hen parties I’ve seen in Cardiff tonight.) I’ve taken the risky decision to sip a diet coke through dinner (normally I avoid all caffeine after about 3pm) followed by a digestif of Amaretto to ramp myself back up for the night ahead. We take a short walk to the club and although I’m still feeling trepidation about what’s to come I have some confidence that I won’t be bailing out straight away due to exhaustion.

I pay my £2 cover charge and step into a crowded room with pulsating lights and bodies, the latter crowded at the bar, gyrating on the dancefloor and draped over bannisters. The Wall of Sound rushes towards me, only it’s covered in evil looking spikes. I know at once I’ve made a mistake. I generally don’t get panic attacks, and knowing people who do I would not want to debase that hellish experience by saying my discomfort is in any way comparable to what they suffer. But the atmosphere in this sweaty club is palpable, and it’s an atmosphere which is threatening to choke me. Despite being in a large group of women, none of whom are overly intoxicated, I feel vulnerable.

Hands grasp me round my hips, ostensibly to keep me from stepping backwards while their owner slides past on his way to the bar. Do they linger on my body for slightly longer than is necessary? Am I just being paranoid? Was that a grope? Or is that a par-for-the-course physical interaction, inevitable when that many writhing humans are packed into so confined a space? People are shaking and shimmying in time to music which is slightly familiar to me, but hardly the soundtrack of my life. I’m astounded by their carefree movement. If I tried to do that I’d be either the unwilling victim or perpetrator of a mild sexual assault.

The floor is sticky. It’s a nightclub, of course the floor is sticky. The bar staff are filling tiny glasses to the brim with viscous, luminous liquids half of which are spilled en route to the gullets of those who would consume them. The room smells of stale sweat and beer (which is unpleasant but probably not carcinogenic so in my book an improvement on the days when cigarette smoke drove out all other offending odours.)

Belatedly I notice that the reason the music sounds familiar is that it hails from the 90s, not the 80s as promised. I was 7 years old when the 80s ended. I knew Christmas Carols and the theme song to Postman Pat. If it sounds familiar then it must mean I’m failing to enjoy myself in the wrong era. The only things which look authentically 80s to my eye are 2 enormous cathode-ray tube TV sets in cream plastic casing mounted on the wall. I look around me at the party-goers dancing and drinking and having fun. I wonder how often the term “cathode-ray tube” goes through the minds of the average attendee at this venue.

I realise this is not for me. I can no more go to a nightclub than I could run the Marathon. By which I mean: I accept it is not a superhuman feat, plenty of people do it. But you need a certain disposition to start with, or failing that, a substantial period of training. I have neither. I have spent the past decade of my leisure time reading, watching TV & drinking good ale (or good wine or good spirits) slowly in a comfortable environment (either home or a nice local pub) whilst conversing on topics both whimsical and earnest with friends. I relax knowing my property and my person is safe from danger, I can take my time to consume well crafted alcohol, and I can hear & be heard. With hindsight I wonder why I even tried to ‘go clubbing.’ It’s loud, frenetic, and kinda skeezy.

Perhaps I needed one last experience to realise that this is not something I will ever find fun. And that’s fine. Perhaps as a philosopher I’m always looking for the moral dimension to any given situation. I realised that didn’t need to be the case here. I could just accept that people enjoy different things. That doesn’t make me better, or worse, than anyone else.

So I make my excuses and head out towards my hotel to get into bed with John Scalzi. On the way out the doorman asks if I am coming back. I smile sweetly and say “Under no circumstances ever!”

Dead politicians

Margaret Thatcher died today. As a staunch liberal I had no love of Thatcher’s politics, and no interest in her non-political life. I cannot therefore truthfully express any sadness at her passing. Most of my friends are staunch liberals as well, and have split themselves into 2 groups: the gloaters and the chiders. A friend of mine saw the below pie chart on Facebook, which summarises the likely range of reactions. (The lefties in-fighting in particular made me chuckle.)

Thatcher Pie Chart

I am an atheist. Related to which I do not believe there is such a thing as an immortal soul. I believe that our character, memory, and all things which could contribute to a sense of personal identity reside in the brain. I believe when blood stops being pumped to that brain, depriving it of oxygen, then the brain ceases to function. I believe all the information stored in there, and the capacity for hierarchical thinking which separates us from other animals, also disappears.

When someone dies, while I endeavour to be sympathetic to those grieving and will say whatever I deem to be appropriate, privately I abhor the term “Rest in Peace.” They are not ‘resting’; they are dead. There is no ‘peace’; there is nothing. And they no longer exist as an entity to be ‘in’ any state of any kind.

So I am not writing “RIP Thatcher” on my Facebook wall, either in a spirit of genuine mourning, or in a spirit of (perhaps grudging) respect for someone I disliked.

Nearly 2 years ago my 93 year old maternal Grandmother died. She was a lovely, warm, caring lady. She’d had a long, full life. She had suffered loss, known great happiness, and was eminently sensible and stoic. She remained interested in the world around her right up until she passed away. She died knowing she was loved by her friends and family. Would that we were all so lucky.

I don’t think that she is up there somewhere looking down on us all, but I know that I and others carry the memory of her with us. When considering my own mortality and the mortality of those I love – that is the thought to which I turn for comfort: that after a person’s death, the effect that they had on other people continues.

I think it’s fair to say that when someone’s obituary starts with the words “The former Prime Minister of The UK” one can assume their influence on other people was larger than most of us will get the chance to exert. I am not saying that politicians should be expected to sacrifice their humanity for their work, in fact I really wish they wouldn’t, but I think when you get into the upper echelons of government you become the mouthpiece of your party’s policies. To the majority of citizens in the country – who do not know you personally – your status as an individual becomes secondary to your status as a member of the government. Accordingly, the masses’ attitude to you will be entirely based on what you have done as a politician (and what elements of your personal life have been deemed relevant by the media and consequently thrust into the limelight.)

It is an occupational hazard of being in power that there will be those who despise you. It is impossible to please all of the people all of the time, as what all of the people find pleasing is heterogeneous. Those who are displeased with your decision to please someone else are likely to hate you for it. And as the power increases, the level of hatred increases too. This would be true of any politician, not just the particular ones who ‘polarised opinion’ (which I reckon will be one of the most used descriptors in the next few days.)

Today there are people expressing outrage at other people expressing glee at the death of a political figure. Those expressing glee are the people for whom Thatcher represented tremendous injustice, lack of compassion and cruelty. In celebrating her death, are they showing disrespect? Perhaps. But maybe they feel that disrespect is justified. Maybe that vicious instinct to jeer at the misfortune of others is the only way they have left to show how much anger they bore towards someone so instrumental in bringing about the hardships we face now. Are they forgetting that she was a person too? Perhaps. But in what meaningful sense was she a person to the majority of people? In the absence of any personal experience how could she be anything more than the figurehead of a political party? In fact, she was the person that party elected to shoulder the burden of public opinion, some positive, some negative. Much as I like to think that our current political system is populated with dunderheads, I refuse to believe there can be a serving MP anywhere with ambitions to become a cabinet minister, who is not aware of the following: if they become a ‘household name’, in some households that name will become a swear word, inextricably linked with the reviled party they represent.

Powerful people become ubiquitous pegs upon which a multitude of ideas can be hung. I’m sure that within the next few days there will be opinion pieces galore celebrating Thatcher’s status as the first (and to date, only) female British prime minister, or how she ‘stood up’ to the unions, or Argentina, or the IRA.

But surely this attitude is no different from those currently singing Ding Dong the Witch is Dead. It’s not about her, it’s about what she represented.

In death, the person that a politician was is lost to everyone except those that actually knew them. But what they represented becomes amplified, and frozen in time. No more blustering through interviews, insisting a quote was taken out of context. No more opportunities to debate an issue, raise awareness or jump on a bandwagon. And no more chances to make amends for the wrongs they have inflicted.

Dead politicians are remembered by vastly more people than they ever actually knew. I don’t believe in an immortal soul. I don’t believe in heaven or hell. I believe that when we die, metaphysically all that remains of us is what other people remember. If you are a politician, be aware that for a lot of people all they will remember of you is evil. Because that is all they ever knew of you. To them, you were not a person.

On the other hand of course, you could remember that in actual fact you are a person. And you could try acting like that sometimes. Exercise some judgement, exude some compassion, exhibit some humour, show some humility. And then maybe, just maybe, some of those who disagreed with you will not put crass jokes on Facebook about dancing on your grave.

News and politics. Would that they never met.

Today seems to have been a bad day for politicians taking tragic and terrifying events and spinning them to their advantage. 2 days ago there was an outpouring of disgust at the Daily Mail’s vicious, manipulative and disingenuous ‘coverage’ on its front page of the Philpott case. The hate-mongering rag invited its readers to ponder the link between this horrifying crime and the fact that the chief perpetrator was claiming government benefits.

As far as I can tell, this fact had very little to do with Philpott’s actions. He was an abuser; a power-hungry misogynist obsessed with controlling the people in his life – in particular, but not limited to, women. The given reasoning for his actions was to win a custody battle, which would not be out of place as a plot line in a soap about beautiful rich people.

Anyway this was rightly vilified by non Mail Readers (although also rightly pointed out that this kind of nastiness would not be solved by Leveson inspired regulation in case anyone felt inclined to muddy the waters further.)

Disturbingly it seems that George Osborne is a Mail Reader. Or at least has decided that they speak for the majority of people who are likely to vote for Gideon et al. He has taken up their battle cry, by engaging with this offensive and stupid line of reasoning, and in so doing surely lending it more credence than it would otherwise have garnered.

In the liberal press, and indeed most of my social circle, much has been made of the revolting way that the most disadvantaged members of society have been targeted by the latest searing round of cuts. Apparently the best way to deflect such criticism is to point to a virtually unrelated crime and implicitly hold it up as the kind of the thing the cuts will prevent. Unless you have the slightest interest in having a reasoned debate based on actual facts and statistics and not hijacking an emotive tragedy as an ersatz straw man.

Sadly Osbourne isn’t the only one at it. His actions are mirrored by Cameron seizing on the looming North Korean crisis and brandishing it as a reason for renewing Trident. Looking like he had ejaculated with glee at a real-world crisis looming that he could use to terrify citizens into accepting the necessity of nuclear armament, Cameron insisted that as a country we still need “the ultimate weapon of defence.” Because that’s really going to help matters, and in no way leads to the destruction of all humanity. Well thought through Dave.

So both of these things have made me pretty grumpy today. There’s actual news about stuff that’s going on in the world, coverage of which may or may not be remotely accurate, impartial or up to date. There are the opinion-makers in the form of newspaper editors and columnists, increasingly blurring the line between delivery of factual information and editorialising. And then there’s politicians wading in saying whatever they think will get them the most black crosses on Thursday 2nd May. And when those politicians are sufficiently senior, the very fact that they have deigned to speak on a given subject becomes in itself newsworthy. So the coverage of the opinion comes back into the realm of objectively imparting the truth. And in so doing it’s picked up a legitimacy it didn’t have before. So whether or not there is the slightest link between the existence of a welfare state and the brutal killing of 6 children, this is now A Matter To Be Debated. I suspect this will be going on for a while, as grandstanding is rather easier than sifting through actual data to find actual correlations which may or may be causally related.

But on the other hand maybe we’ll all get so distracted by which class we fall into that we won’t pay attention.

Would I fall for a hoax caller?

Warning – Spoilers ahead!

I’ve just watched Craig Zobel’s film Compliance. It’s one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen, brilliantly made, but tough to watch, and made all the more horrifying for being based on a true story.


Being a cynical kind of person I would usually take the words ‘based on a true story’ with a pinch of salt. But it seems that Zobel has taken the bare minimum of artistic license, if this article is to be trusted.

Normally I wouldn’t be overly concerned by the accuracy of a film like this. Bad stuff happens in real life, and sometimes people make films about them. I expect that certain elements of the story will be sexed-up, glossed-over, dumbed-down or some other verb-preposition combination.

But in this case, I find myself hoping that Compliance has heightened the reality of this situation. Sadly that really doesn’t seem to be the case.

For those of you disinclined to watch the film (for which I really can’t blame you) the premise is that a sociopathic hoax caller targets a fast-food restaurant posing as a policeman investigating an alleged theft. He succeeds in manipulating the frazzled manager into submitting one of her young employees to a series of increasingly horrendous degradations. It’s a grim study into what people will do when a supposed authority figure issues instructions.

Much has been made of the similarities to the infamous experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram, and various other instances of atrocities committed ‘under orders’. When I first heard about the Stanford Experiment (aged 17 studying for an AS Level in Psychology) my first response was to think that surely I wouldn’t do such a thing. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. I wanted to believe the best about myself, that I would be capable of intelligence, compassion & courage under pressure. I desperately want to think that I wouldn’t throw the switch that supposedly delivers an electric shock to an innocent victim because a person in a white coat told me it was necessary.

But how accurate is that, really? Earlier I said I was normally pretty cynical, but in certain circumstances might my critical faculties desert me, as they seem to have deserted the people involved here? What might slip under my radar if I’m not paying attention?

I’m not saying this is in any way comparable, but several years ago I was at home by myself and a chap rang the doorbell. He rattled off some spiel about being in the area checking people were on the correct energy tariff. Somehow I got the impression that he was there to check the meter, so I let him in, (for my sins probably not checking his ID properly, more on that in a moment) and then he started taking details about our payment plan. After a few minutes I came to my senses, realised I was being doorstopped and made him leave. I was furious with myself for letting my guard down. I couldn’t quite understand how I had fallen for it to the extent that I had. I figured I must have been having an off day.

Ordinarily that wouldn’t have happened. I like to think of myself as a healthily suspicious person, and I’m usually pretty sensitive to being ‘sold’ anything. (One of the few good outcomes from my dark days in retail banking is knowing a few basic techniques for which I am constantly on the look out.)

If I had mentally identified this bloke as a salesperson, he’d never have got across the threshold. But the fact that I wasn’t concentrating meant that I mistook him for a meter reader, which meant that I identified him as an Authority Figure. Admittedly not a very senior authority figure, but instantly I had engaged my ‘compliance’ setting, rather than my ‘trust no-one’ setting. And it turns out these settings are wildly different. Whilst I do endeavour to treat every human on the planet with a basic level of respect, even if they are scuzzy salespeople, when I’m in paranoid mode I will be politely curt, and treat everything that is said with incredulity. But if I’m in Doing What I’m Told mode then all that goes out the window. Suddenly I am helpful, subservient, and ready to assist in any way I can. Because I don’t want to be told off. Or thought rude.

So, the ID thing. I knew that checking ID is basic self preservation, and that I really shouldn’t be putting the prospect of mildly inconveniencing a stranger above my own safety. (And for the record I am a lot more diligent about this than I used to be.) But I do feel a twinge of something like guilt thinking I might be insulting someone by demanding they prove who they are. Like I’m insinuating that I expect them to be a liar, thief, cheat or worse.

So might this impulse to please people whom I perceive to be in charge lead me to humiliate and abuse someone else? After giving it some thought I have decided not. While past experience leads me to think I might be capable of getting myself into some awful situation by being too polite, I actually don’t think I’d let that happen to someone else. I sometimes struggle to stand up for myself, but have rather less difficulty standing up for other people. As well as learning some crass but effective techniques for trying to sell packages accounts to little old ladies at the bank, I also learned that when push came to shove I wasn’t prepared to be part of that culture. Perhaps it sounds a little melodramatic, but I made an ethical decision to leave retail banking and make a career somewhere else. I was given orders to do things I thought were wrong, and when it became obvious that I couldn’t reason with the people giving those orders I walked away.

But it’s easier to come to a decision like that over time. When you’re under immediate pressure it’s much harder to think clearly. By the end of the film what’s taking place seems very extreme, but by this point the hoaxer has built up a relationship with his victim. I’m not usually a fan of the slippery slope argument, but you can clearly see it in action here. Once the manager has undertaken to obey a few basic commands, and crucially received praise for doing so, then I can well imagine how each additional step must seem like a natural progression.

Forewarned is forearmed, and if nothing else this film has reminded me of some potential pitfalls when dealing with other people. Real authority figures should not be offended if you check their ID or question their methods. Responding to an odd sounding request with polite scepticism is not necessarily the same thing as disobeying. And any genuine authority system should encourage such scrutiny. Of course if the authorities really are corrupt and regard the absence of mindless compliance as a threat then we have a whole different problem. But that’s for another post.