Saturday, December 16, 2017


Donald Trump got a huge number of votes.  Those who disagree with him have to concede at least this.  There is a train of thought within my own social media circles that his win was inexplicable in a reasonable world; that it is an example of something evil happening; that those who voted for him are, in all probability, missing something psychologically.

I would like to argue that this response is of itself likely to enhance Donald Trump's prospects.  And I would like to base my argument on simple human relations.

Let's say you disagree with a friend.  What is your best strategy for persuading them that they may be mistaken?  Maybe not the usual response of Trump-haters.  Maybe don't:

1. Roll your eyes
2. Think of something rude to say about them
3. Explain that only a fool would share their views
4. Start to diagnose them as evil, a monster, or a person wth a disorder

Why not?  Because:

1. Rolling your eyes is an indication that you have lost your patience with the other person
2. Saying rude things about someone is a form of bullying
3. Calling people foolish is an attack on their person and not their ideas
4. Dismissing someone as disordered is acknowledging that you are unable to understand them or engage with them on equal terms

I am suggesting that the typical response anti-Trump people offer demonstrates impatience, bullying, a willingness to attack individuals, and an inability to engage in a friendly way with other people's ideas.

Many may say that this is something they observe in the Trump camp; but I wonder why they feel this excuses the same behaviour in the anti-Trump camp.  After all, two wrongs don't make a right.

The above behaviours are excellent ways of polarising another person against your views.  It creates the same battle that happens in adolescence: it makes someone desperate to prove their ideological independence from you.

So by all means carry on behaving in the same way, if you want to turn Trump sympathisers into adamant Trump supporters.  By using dismissive and insulting behaviour, you are likely to avoid any sincere engagement between sides.  This is great if you want to contribute to the polarisation of society, its division into two sides that don't understand each other well.

Instead, it's interesting to try some of the tactics that you think might work on yourself.  Thinking back to the times others have, over time, persuaded you towards their approach to life, what did you notice about their style?  Did they lose patience, insult you, and treat you as a fool?  Probably not.  When I performed the same mental exercise, I came up with a few things my most respected persuaders (i.e. those who influence me for the better) do:

1. Instead of rolling their eyes, they look at me attentively.  They give me their time and attention.
2. Instead of being rude, they are complimentary and courteous.
3. Instead of criticising my person, they discuss ideas with me in the gentlest of ways.
4. Instead of dismissing me, they get to know me on equal terms.

So, whenever I want to persuade someone, perhaps I am better off being attentive, polite, gentle and fair.

This might involve making the effort to understand the other person's world from the inside.  Attend their political rallies.  Understand some of the human drivers that energise their views.  Above all, appreciate that there may be hidden virtue in among their beliefs.  We tend to treat opposing ideologies as unfailingly wrong.  It is easier for our brains to process that way.  But that sort of polarised view of true and false is unlikely to help you understand a spectrum of ideas with subtlety.

This sounds great in theory, but I would like to spell out how it could look in practice.  It may make you uncomfortable.

Here are some examples of comments which may show attentiveness, politeness, gentleness and fairness.

Left-wing person: I can really see how immigration could cause unwelcome changes in people's lives.
Right-wing person: I can really see how immigration controls could deprive people of their dignity.
Left-wing person: I can see there are some good arguments for lowering taxes to incentivise wealth creation.
Right-wing person: I can see there are some good arguments for raising taxes to redistribute wealth.
Left-wing person: I can see the attraction in making America great again.
Right-wing person: I can see how it can seem selfish and uncooperative to put America first.

In each case, the person speaking is not, in the first instance, agreeing with the other person.  They are, though, increasing the possible field of discussion.  That is how, in ordinary conversation, you get on with people: you appreciate an element of their world, thereby increasing the overlapping territory.  Graphically, it looks like this:

The extension of empathy works because it increases the common ground available on which both people can speak.  It involves an extension of each other's minds so that each person is more inclined, and better able, to see how life might look from the other's point of view.

By being attentive, polite, gentle and fair, you are most likely to increase this common ground.   By being dismissive, rude, personally offensive and one-sided, you are most likely to decrease this common ground.

A strange magic happens when empathy is extended.  Non-negotiables start to evaporate as trust builds.  But first, each side must learn to speak in a way that reduces polarisation, and increases common ground, making it attractive and habitable.

So try it, next time you find yourself boiling with rage over the statements of a political opponent.  Find it in yourself to explore their world, and appreciate it.  That way, you are less likely to polarise them, and more likely to soften both them, and yourself, making future communication and compromise so much easier.

After Donald Trump's win in the US, many on the left became quite rude about him and his supporters.  This kind of communication is quite likely to make both sides firmer, not softer, in their mutual convictions and sense of separation from a perceived opposition.  It might be better to apply a bit of psychology, and extend a hand of empathy, showing that you really do see the other side of the argument.  There will be more common ground to talk on, and instead of insulting each other, we can negotiate, and even persuade and be persuaded, with greater subtlety and understanding.

Sunday, December 10, 2017


How can I slow the world down? On some days, the demands of noise and clamour seem so intense.  Go near a shop, and the imperative screams out at you to buy, to search, to do your bit.

It seems that our society has its ways of, shall we say, encouraging us to take part... in predefined ways.  You go to school; you go to university or do some training; you get a job; you earn enough to live on; you retire; you die.

Except that many people find that this turns into a barely.  You barely go to school; you barely make it through university; you barely manage to get a job; you barely earn enough to live on.  So many people are finding that life has become a matter of only just getting through.

Listen to economists talking, and you will realise that the models they work on are still based on encouraging people to need things.  They call it supply and demand in the technical language; but really it's just a question of some people needing things, and other people being willing to fulfil that need in exchange for money.  Once you have accepted that model, you are stuck with the inevitability of the behaviour it encourages you towards: speeding up and ballooning the circle of need so that it goes as fast and as big as possible.  The fast we call volume, the big we call price.  Sell fast and sell big.  That's the belief.  Or rather the model.  That way we don't have to admit it's a belief.

This, in part, explains the noise and pace of the world we are surrounded by.  We are encouraged to live in little hotbeds of market activity, whether we buy and sell houses, or food, or leisure products, or clothes... it doesn't matter what.

This way of living is bound to cause distress.  This is because we are being asked to travel faster than our organisms would comfortably travel.  Hollywood has even developed films with heroes in them who embody this mythical ability to travel faster than we normally would.  Rocky, Rambo, superhero films, romantic films, films about people 'made good' in some way... they feed us, for a while, the illusion of someone else's idea of success, ways of being which are truly difficult in the world, but on film, when someone else is doing it, look entertaining.

If you find yourself taking in escapist films with half of your life, and then feeling behind in the other half of your life, then you are living according to this model - the model of 'try to live slightly faster than you normally would'.  Eventually it will catch up with you.  You may find yourself having periodic 'blowouts' or 'breakdowns', as your whole body gets together and decides it really doesn't want to play ball with these unrealistic demands.

One of the key causes of illness is specialisation - the division of activities into narrower and narrower funnels, with each person responsible for managing their own little funnel.  Thus, in a factory, one person becomes a 'packer', responsible for doing just that one thing - or they don't get their money.  In medicine, you become a specialist in one area, however wide your interests.  If you do decide to become a generalist (for instance, a General Practitioner in the health service), then even that generalism will become a specialism you are paid for: for example, you will become a specialist 'port of first call' for patients; or a specialist 'prescriber for mild disease'.

This specialism pulls us further and further away from who we feel we are; which is why so many people eventually pull out of careers which, on the face of it, look rewarding, at least in a financial sense.

This all makes sense if we realise we are generated from generations of animals and humans who lived by relaxation-and-impulse. Watch lions living; or zebras; or otters; or fish.  You will see that they don't fuss about becoming a 'specialist in eating weed from the side of ponds'.  A fish is not keen to become 'the most famous fish in the world for grabbing 2 millimetre items from the water surface'.

But this is the kind of diversion from our natural selves that we have created.  Transpose that last example to the Olympics, and see how silly we have become.  We have so many categories, and then we invest large amounts of money trying to create temporary champions in those absurdly-defined categories.

Our evolved selves are still wanting to wander around in a much more leisurely fashion, occasionally focused, but much of the time just getting a few things done and taking a few things in.  Watch birds sitting on branches.  Watch cows mulling.  Watch fish browsing.

Alternatively, watch a busy city street.  It is often full of people going places.  Not necessarily the places they would naturally go without social pressure and advertising.  We sit in specialist jobs and dream of release.

In the same way, many of our psychological experiments, the ones that have defined recent cognitive psychology, have results derived from taking animals and people out of their natural environment and making them perform specialist tasks.  As a species, we are becoming experts only at making each other become expert in expertises we have pared off from parts of ourselves.  That is why, when we try hard at one thing, we crave another: we are beating one part of ourselves to death, and ignoring the rest of ourselves.  We are becoming the opposite of wholistic.

Purpose becomes trying to make yourself into something you aren't.  A sportsman with purpose has to ignore all the other parts of their natural self to excel at their chosen sport.  A businessman with highly-developed purpose has to ignore all the other things they could do with their time.

It is no surprise, then, when we overdose on purpose, and our bodies become tired of being forced into specialist boxes that do not come naturally to us.

There is a reward system that makes all this possible.  Again, some of its foundations came from the experiments that founded recent cognitive psychology.  The idea that, given the right reward, people will play the game of specialism.  If you do happen to want to escape the specialism trap, then you may have to learn not to respond in the same way to the rewards system developed to reinforce it.

Animals are quite good at escaping our silly reward system.  Humans tend to like the animals who do fall for it, but there are many who don't.  Thus, while some dolphins have been duped into carrying explosives, or surveillance equipment, into enemy territory... while some really intelligent animals have been harnessed by our specialist silliness... some are a little more circumspect.

You might, for example, choose to be more like a cat.  Watch cats.  They tend to wander around being fairly uninfluenced by humans.  They rest a lot.  They find warm places to be.  When they are fed up with something, they vote with their feet.  They don't agonise quite so much about everyone else's opinion.

Humans tend to celebrate the animals who respond easily to our little reward games.  Animals who let themselves be saddled, herded, homed, farmed, with the simple promise of food.

Escaping this intensity, if you are feeling intensively farmed, might be a matter of looking at some of the other animals, the ones the humans tend to like less, because they cannot be manipulated so easily.  Insects, reptiles, smaller birds, bacteria, worms, slugs, whales... I have no idea what will take your fancy, but whatever it is, try accepting some other models of living from creatures with less of a specialist obsession.  In time, you may find yourself breaking the shackles of your current reward system, and feeling a little freer.

Many modern economies are based on a model of exponentially-increasing supply and demand. We are persuaded to produce things faster and bigger than feels natural.  It makes us ill.  Furthermore, to feed this system, we are forced into uncomfortable specialisms with fancy names.  These forces pull us away from our more natural, relaxed, impulse-influenced ways of being.  Instead of quietly being ourselves, we seek to be famous, fucked-up specialists, in pop music, politics, whatever.

To escape this fate, try learning from some animals that resist human manipulation.  They may hold some secrets that may make you calmer and happier.

Saturday, December 2, 2017


Patience is a quality we all want.  From time to time, we all encounter situations which benefit from patience, whether it be a neighbour making too much noise, or a friend 'pushing our buttons' and making us angry or upset.  Patience is the ability to encounter such interruptions to our environment, and remain calm.

I have a picture on my wall of a dog lying quietly on the ground while a kitten plays with its mouth.  To me, it illustrates patience, because much of patience is to do with tolerating things which would ordinarily be taxing, but which we allow peacefully and calmly because we have an understanding of the situation.  In the case of the dog in my picture, it seems to understand that it cannot expect the playful kitten to be patient.  It flexes its behaviour wisely to the situation.  At other times, I imagine the dog would growl, or take evasive action.  But it reads the current situation, and decides not to react violently.

I thought I'd offer a few techniques for remaining patient in adversity.  But first, what characterises the situations that tax our patience, and why do they tax it?

Here are, I suggest, the main types of situation which challenge patience:

1. Events which aggravate our senses (for instance, loud noises)
2. Events which prevent us from performing our intentions (for instance, traffic jams)
3. People who don't seem to learn as quickly as we would like (for instance, people slow to learn something we are expert in)
4. Being ignored, discounted or passed by for long periods of time (for instance, not being given a pay rise for years)
5. Events which spoil our preferred patterns of understanding, environment or behaviour (for instance, a shop running out of our usual food)

Tracing these types of situation to their causes, we find they have a few things in common.  Hint: we don't usually get impatient about things that happen half way across the world.  I suggest the common factors are:

1. All these things challenge our sense of importance
2. All these things challenge our assumption that we should not be slowed down
3. All these things challenge our assumption that we should not be interrupted
4.  All these things challenge our existing customs or habits
5. All these things challenge our sense that the world should adapt to our needs

In summary, we operate with a set of assumptions which, combined, read like this:

'I am important and have my expectations; it's the world's job to adapt to my ways, and not to challenge me.'

The key to remaining patient is to reverse the above set of assumptions.  If you reverse the above set of assumptions, you get the following:

'I am not more important than others, and have no expectations; I accept the world's ways, and accept its challenges.'

In short, the qualities to develop are humility and acceptance.

Here are a few techniques you can learn; they are simple to try, and believe me, you get better with practice.

1. If you experience sense interruptions (e.g. loud noises), then actively welcome them.  Say to yourself 'thank you, teacher noise, for putting me in my place'.
2. If you are slowed down (e.g. by traffic), then actively welcome it.  Say to yourself 'thank you, teacher traffic, for putting me in my place'.
3. If someone is slow to learn, then actively welcome the slower pace.  Say to yourself 'thank you, slow learner, for putting me in my place'.
4. If you are ignored, then actively welcome the ignorer.  Say to yourself 'thank you, ignorer, for putting me in my place'.
5. If your habits are disturbed (e.g. by a shop being out of stock), then actively welcome the shortfall.  Say to yourself 'thank you, poor supply, for putting me in my place.'

Saying 'thank you' reminds you of acceptance, and saying 'putting me in my place' reminds you of humility.

Some people think the above is wrong because it can imply acceptance of injustice (for instance, if a woman is paid less than her male colleagues).

However, you are still free to make your argument for justice if you choose.  It is just that, first, you have reminded yourself to accept the situation as it is, and to behave with humility.  You can then, if you wish, fight for a particular outcome.  Your arguments will probably be better communicated because of your patient manner; the listener may be more inclined to hear you, and you may find it easier to think clearly and plan your course of action.

If you want to learn patience, then practice saying 'thank you for putting me in my place' whenever you are inconvenienced.  You can then take your next action from a place of peace.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017


In the UK at the moment there is much talk about the problem of productivity.  The mainstream media has been repeating a message to the effect that the UK has fallen behind in its productivity.  But what is productivity, and why is it considered important to politicians?

A technical definition of productivity is 'the rate of output per unit of input'.  It leaves us none the wiser, because unless we define output and input, we have no idea what we are talking about.  Starting with input: let's imagine we are looking at a person's 'productivity'.  From the point of view of an employer, the 'input' is what it costs to employ and maintain that person; in other words, the resources that the employer has to pay for in order to have that person do their work.  Moving on to output: output is often talked of as the value of things produced.

This is one of those ideas that sounds great in principle, but in practice starts to fall apart.  If I tell you that Bert costs £10,000 a year to maintain, but produces £20,000-worth of goods, you might immediately see a ratio of 2:1, and say 'great: Bert is producing twice her cost'.

But we haven't analysed how Bert is doing this.  What if she is failing to see her family, failing to eat properly, and sacrificing her mental health in order to produce those goods.  None of this will appear in her productivity ratio, because it is hard to put an economic value on wellbeing.  So productivity cannot tell us anything about wellbeing.  Furthermore, our £10,000 only includes the direct costs of employing Bert.  We haven't taken into account what her parents spent in helping her to grow, what her friends spend in helping her to function: in other words, our direct cost approach completely ignores many of the real resource inputs for an activity.  And finally, what if Bert is producing guns for export to an oppressive regime?  Do we attach the same value to that?

The above highlights three problems with productivity calculations:

1. They ignore wellbeing
2. They ignore the true cost to society
3. They are amoral in that they can't discriminate between good and bad activities

Productivity calculations can vary.  National data, for instance, sometimes just calculates average output per individual.  On the most basic level, this is just estimating the total value of stuff produced (i.e. total national sales), and dividing it by the number of people. 

Imagine total stuff produced (economists call it GDP, Gross Domestic Product) is, say, $3 trillion (that's 3 with twelve zeros).  Imagine also that the total number of people is 75 million.  $3tr/75m = $40,000 per person.  Each individual 'produces' $40k of output.  This is roughly the position in the UK.

So when the government says it wants to increase productivity, assuming a stable population, it usually means it wants to increase the total stuff produced, or GDP.  To increase the amount of billing we all do to each other.

This doesn't take into account, as we mentioned above, wellbeing, or the true cost to society, or WHAT we are actually billing each other for.  As far as the government is concerned, we could all be drinking, smoking and gambling our way to higher GDP.

Those who say so, assert that higher productivity implies more successful economic activity, and more successful economic activity implies greater wealth, and greater wealth implies a better standard of living.

There are a host of assumptions implied in that conclusion, including the following:

1. When someone bills other people more, they are succeeding
2. Personal wealth is to be measured as success in gaining an inflow of money
3. Personal wellbeing is to be sought via wealth

If you happen to believe these three things, then productivity ratios are more likely to mean something to you.  You may wish to monitor them in order to control your wellbeing.

However, if you think success, wealth and wellbeing lie in places other than money, then you may wish to focus on other statistics.  Examples of statistics that take a different view of wellbeing are already produced by the Office for National Statistics.  Please see the following link:

When you review the data around the above link, you may notice something strange.  It goes like this: in the last year or two, while productivity may have been falling, wellbeing may have increased.

Perhaps this should make us think again about the assumption that higher productivity is good per se.

Think about it.  Are you at your happiest when you are working hard to charge other people for what you do (being 'productive' according to the government), or when you are giving, helping others, being creative and exploring your world?  I'm sure your view will differ depending on your life philosopy and politics; but it's a question worth asking. 

Saturday, November 18, 2017


Recently, the UK government has received bad press for excluding a reference to animal sentience from a legal statute.  The clause at issue was a part of an EU regulation which ensures that each state, 'since animals are sentient beings, pays full regard to the welfare requirements of animals' in formulating all policies that involve them.  The government decided to leave this out of UK law in future, as part of the secession from the EU.

Why would the government seek to do this?  A couple of ideas include:

1. Creating more flexibility in policy making, in order to give the UK a competitive advantage in developing agricultural and industrial policy
2. Preparing the way for a relaxation of hunting regulations, as it removes a constraint on forms of hunting that cause animals distress or pain

Two questions arise from the current debate:

1. Are animals sentient beings?
2. Should animal welfare be given priority over human requirements?

There are two parts to this question, relating to two primary meanings of the word sentient.  Firstly, are animals able to feel pain?  And secondly, are animals conscious of their painful experiences?

Taking the first question first: humans get very confused when it comes to deciding if other species can feel.  They get all tangled up in debates about what it is to feel.  Some say feeling is simply the ability to respond to sensory data.  By that argument, even plants have feelings, because they evidently respond to such stimuli as light, heat and wind by changing their behaviour.  To find a definition that applies to animals rather than plants, some people point to the development of a complex nervous system as a definer.  So, the argument goes, if you have a complex network of sensors that report stimuli to a central system - a bit like mobile phones have begun to do - then this qualifies the being for special treatment.  A problem with this is that, as I just hinted, even some modern mobile phones might qualify for special rights under these definitions.  Complexity of response is a problematic way to distinguish animals as worthy of special treatment, because if we apply it to animals, we may have to apply it to machines in due course.

If we discard an ability to respond or recoil as a definer of welfare rights, we are left with the idea that we may have to find something special in the response of certain animals which makes them worthy of privilege.  There are two main concepts which are used in developing this idea.

Firstly, there is the concept of consciousness.  Consciousness has two main sides to it.  Firstly, an ability to reflect on your own experience.  This falls prey to the above problem of generalisability to machines: many machines, as they develop, will be able to reflect on their own experience, in the sense of being able to create metaperceptions of their own perceptions.  For example, a computer can already observe the way it is experiencing data management, and adjust its metacognitions, or master concepts, in the light of what it learns.  This is one of the principles of machine learning being incorporated in artificial intelligence projects.

The second main side to consciousness is the mysterious one.  It is best expressed by your surprise when you realise that you are a sentient being stuck inside yourself - you feel like you are kind of inside your own head, uniquely, and are nowhere else.  You cannot explain where this 'self' came from, nor where it is going; you just feel strongly that your awareness, your perspective, is unique.  Humans have developed some ability to extend this awareness to their fellow humans - in other words, they have come to a general understanding that each human, because similar, is likely to experience the same sense of being a unique centre of awareness.  We talk of 'subjectivity', meaning the understanding that, in our communications, we are each unique centres of awareness.

Humans have developed ethical structures around this sense of common subjectivity.  But they have trouble extending this to animals.  Much thought has been expended trying to justify a boundary between humans and other animals.  You can see it in many religious approaches, which seem to give humans a special position in a hierarchy of being. You can see it in much literature, which seems to glorify the human individual's centre of awareness as unique in comparison to an animal.

But at what point does an animal acquire a subjective nature, in the sense of being a unique centre of awareness?  And why do some humans still insist on differentiating between human subjectivity and animal perception?

I would like to suggest that the problem here lies in a unique deficiency of humans, rather than a unique awareness.  It goes like this:

Other species are able to live their lives without the assumption that they are special.  Humans, however, have a thing I'd like to label 'Interspecies Psychopathy Disorder', or IPD.  A species suffering from IPD cannot conceive of any other species having the same powers, and therefore the same value, as it does.  It lives in its own little bubble of power-hungriness and self-aggrandisement.

This explains why the government cannot include a sentience clause in the latest legislative adaptations.  This is especially true of a conservative government, which by definition sees itself as there to continue recent historical views rather than develop new ones.  As the heads of a state of people with IPD, they feel duty-bound to make life more comfortable for those who wish to continue being power-hungry and self-aggrandising.  Anything else might cause undue shock in the general population, as they realise that they are not alone on the planet, but part of a network of sentience, in the sense of subjective consciousness, that extends beyond humans.

We don't want to scare the masses.

Some may wish to develop beyond human-specific concerns, and see the world as more of a network of different, but equally valuable, consciousnesses.  They may even wish to stop being terrified by the idea, and to start thinking that empathy with all things, even so-called lower beings, is a generally good thing.  Such people may even find themselves becoming happier, as their need for self-protection, and therefore fear, reduces.  I couldn't possibly comment.

Monday, November 13, 2017


Harrassment is unwelcome verbal or physical conduct.  Sex is anything involving either intimate physical relations, or gender.  So sexual harrassment is unwelcome talk or behaviour towards a colleague, compromising their freedom to manage their own body, or their own sexual identity, as they choose.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk in the press and on social media about where lines are drawn.  The suggestion is that it is not always clear when sexual harrassment is taking place.  Some have suggested that what is friendly banter to one person, can be unfriendly harassment to another.  Others have replied that the lines are indeed clear, and that those who say there is a grey area have limited understanding.

Both are in a sense right.  Sexual harassment is one of those areas of behaviour which requires the operation of something psychologists tend to call 'theory of mind'.  Theory of mind is the ability to speculate (i.e. theorise) reasonably accurately about what is going on in someone else's mind, and to moderate one's own behaviour in the light of that speculation.  We use this ability all the time in our human relations.  It is perhaps shown most clearly when one human openly empathises with another, saying 'you must be feeling...', and offering a helping hand of some kind.

Essentially, things go wrong if person A fails to moderate their behaviour in a way that respects person B.  In other words, avoiding sexual harrassment is the same thing as demonstrating respect in your actions.

In order to appropriately adjust to B's needs, person A needs to make sure they have the following skills:

1. An understanding of the general rules of human interaction in the particular social context
2. An appreciation of any additional flexibility that person B might need
3. The ability to modify one's own conduct in keeping with 1 or 2

Most of the arguments for a grey area are situated in areas 1 and 2.  The general rules of human interaction do change from culture to culture; and, on top of that, each individual will have their own requirements for a comfortable social interaction.

There is no magical age or time when a human suddenly becomes qualified to make judgements as to local social rules, and others' individual requirements.  There is no doubt that some of us are better at it than others.  Some people genuinely find it difficult to get a hold on social etiquette; and some people find it difficult to read other people's individualised social signals.  

This is where caution comes in.  One reason we are shy in new social situations, is that we are holding back from social interaction until we have a better appreciation of the social rules of the gathering, and the character of the individuals contained within it.  In this way, shyness, far from being a social dysfunction, is a social skill which prevents us from harassing others unduly.

Negotiating any social situation involves practicing a degree of shyness, or caution.  This buys all parties time to 'size each other up', to get to know existing social hopes and expectations, and to begin negotiating any new ways of behaving that might be necessary to involve everyone well.

Caution can massively reduce the risk of harassment.  Using a driving analogy, slowing down, and increasing observational awareness, reduces the risk of unwanted accidents.

Linked to this idea of caution, is another kind of reticence - respect for the other person's freedom of mind, and modifying one's behaviour to allow the other to exercise consent without feeling pressure.

This requires perhaps more skill than any of the above.  It takes time to learn a behavioural style which allows others the ability to say no gracefully.  A hand on a knee, for instance, if unwelcome, requires the other to be quite explicit in response, either removing the hand, or drawing attention to the act and explaining that it isn't welcome.

The burden on the other to say no explicitly, and the difficulty of doing so, is at its most pressurised when person A has power over person B.  In such situations, A is used to having their wishes met by others, and the social environment is often adapted to this expectation.  Conversely, person B, if in possession of less prima facie power, will have to summon far greater courage to express a refusal - not least because the social rules of the workplace imply that solving problems for a boss is a good thing.

Hence, person A has a greater responsibility than usual to ensure they leave a large amount of room for person B to say no.  Ironically, this is the opposite of the behaviour expected of many bosses, who are often applauded for an ability to reduce others' ability to say no.  In other words, the lauded dealmaker for the firm, has to learn to put this particular deal into the hands of a weaker person, to leave it there, and to accept no as an answer.  Furthermore, it is wise to treat the absence of a yes or no in the same way as a no.

There has also been recent discussion of whether, and how, flirting can be allowed in the workplace, and whether it is compatible with the workplace.  Many politicians have commented that they met their current partner at work, and, without the ability to flirt, they simply would not have had a relationship.

Flirting is complex.  It is, roughly speaking, the expression of a willingness to enter into an exclusive intimacy with another person.  I say exclusive because flirting implies the possibility of a special relationship.  Not necessarily sexual; but an intimacy of a special kind, not afforded to the world in general.  For example, a person would not normally be expected to flirt with a cat; society has expectations as to who might be expected to flirt with whom, and why.  This definition of flirting does not necessarily relate to concrete reality: it is one of those words which does something just by being used.  Thus: 'Are you flirting with me?' implies that the other may be intending to open the door to a special relationship that is only really definable in terms of flirting.  Romance is similarly a word which defines its own world: sprinkles some kind of fairy dust over certain relationships, and implies they are special in a particular way.

The language of flirting is in conflict with the language of business in certain ways:

1. It implies a preferential relationship between two people independent of the requirements of business
2. It therefore implies that the requirements of business might be compromised
3. Flirting challenges the impartial operation of business hierarchies and boundaries

Given the value put upon the role of impartiality in business, flirting is therefore often considered an abuse.  Whether in a job interview, or a work meeting, or a court, or a police station... a situation designed for fairness is severely challenged if one party playing one role attempts to enter into a special relationship with a party playing another.  Suddenly, it becomes hard to communicate on a 'business' basis, because the world of 'special intimacy' has been invoked.

So on one side we have people saying that flirting should be banished from the workplace.  On the other, people saying that many relationships start at work, and to banish flirting would be to impoverish society.

One solution commonly used is to banish 'special relationship' type behaviour from the workplace.  It is hard to eliminate it entirely, but, broadly speaking, many workplaces expect business behaviour in business hours.

Professions with problems in this area are often professions like acting, media, modelling... professions which are often in the business of promoting, albeit temporarily, 'special relationships'.  Some of the biggest recent scandals have come from film and theatre, where the distinction between 'business' and 'special relationship' can become blurred.  For example, a director may feel that it is OK, in the name of art, to walk across boundaries of intimacy with an actor.

Power has a particular role here if the object of flirting, the object of an invitation towards a special relationship, is dependent on the flirter for their welfare or livelihood.  There is a simple sequence of questions that might be asked in order to develop good working practice:

1. Am I interested in a deeper relationship with this person?
2. If so, am I in some way in charge of this persons welfare?
3. If so, does it better protect their welfare if I keep my interest to myself?
4. If so, perhaps it is better not to flirt.

Some professional relationships have a built-in quasi-legal framework which reflects this.  Thus a doctor, prima facie, is under a duty not to flirt with a patient.

To negotiate relationships without harassment, we need to have a practical understanding of social expectations, but also individual personalities.  We need to have an ability to manage our own behaviour, and to make situational judgements which protect both ourselves and others.  The role of caution is not to be underestimated: it is better to do nothing than to risk an accidental misunderstanding.  And, most importantly, if we have power or responsibility over another person's welfare, then we would do well to keep any flirtatious interest to ourselves, and at the very least to respect the other person's personal decision space, to allow enormous room for a 'no', and to treat the absence of a positive response in the same way as a no.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017


There's a great hoo-ha at the moment in the UK about things offshore.  A recent release of hitherto secret information has revealed that several influential individuals have investments held offshore.  This means that they have invested funds in organisations registered elsewhere than the UK, to take advantage of more favourable terms.  Those favourable terms can include such things as lower tax rates, greater secrecy, and differences in regulations which enable the saving of money.

There is, in many cases, no indication that the individuals concerned have done anything illegal.  Offshore investing has a long history.  And it got me to thinking: what, exactly, is the problem that the media are feeding on?  What, in our, the readers', perceptions, is this news stimulating?  Certainly, if you watch the UK news at the moment, there is an impression being spread that something dodgy is being exposed, that wealthy people have been doing what they shouldn't do, and that something should be done about it.

As with many stories with a scandalous feel to them, the public is feeling its way as it goes.  Cultural viewpoints have a way of developing themselves as they go, using news events as catalysts for changes in ideology.

Picking out a few of the materialising assumptions, some of which may not be conscious in everyone's minds, what do we get as emergent ideas?

Let's choose an example of such news stories, and then try to take apart what it is inciting.

Lewis Hamilton, the racing driver, is being accused of acquiring a private jet via the Isle of Man, to take advantage of a VAT exemption on planes exclusively for business use. Additionally, it is alleged that he in fact went on to make some private use of the jet.

There are a range of assertions that members of the public might make in their minds in response to the story.  Teasing apart a few of the ethical assumptions we might apply, here is a short list of statements you might approve or disapprove of:

1. A citizen should pay home country tax on all their earnings
2. A citizen should not use transactions outside their home country to reduce their tax liability
3. A citizen should not make financial transactions in secret
4. A citizen should not benefit financially from making a false statement

The first three, while possible moral views, are, as a matter of fact, not the legal position in the UK.  Legally, the UK allows certain offshore schemes to avoid tax, and does not generally require immediate public disclosure of such schemes.  Number four may have the law on its side - Lewis Hamilton may have fallen foul of tax regulations in claiming exclusive business use of his plane.

Regarding the first three: while fiduciary loyalty and openness are what the public may like in a rich citizen, they are not legally required.  If UK citizens want them, they may have to press for legislation to require it.

So what is all the fuss about?

I suggest the power of the story is in the language used by the journalists, and it is this language that may ultimately incite change.  The key words here (even if they are not always uttered out loud) are:

1. Disloyalty
2. Secrecy

The feeling left by the language of journalists, is that Lewis Hamilton, in seeking to invest money elsewhere, is being (a) disloyal to his home tax regime, and (b) secretive in order to gain an advantage.  Compare these two sentences:

1. Lewis Hamilton bought a plane via the Isle of Man
2. Investigations reveal that Lewis Hamilton avoided taxes of £3 million through an Isle of Man scheme

Using the language of revelation and exposure makes the original act sound more sinister and secretive.  And in saying 'avoided taxes', there is a double hit.  Avoiding can be positive, but has many negative connotations; and 'taxes', in the plural, rather than 'tax' in the singular, sounds less technical, and more as though Lewis Hamilton is avoiding what most people have to pay.  In this way, the language used by journalists can emphasise social division, and stimulate a sense of social injustice.

If UK citizens want new legislation that requires UK citizens to maximise the UK tax they pay, and publicise all of their financial information, then that option is open.

I just have a couple of balancing reflections.

Imagine you are in a relationship with someone who requires you to do nothing unless it benefits them.  If you do, then they accuse you, directly or indirectly, of disloyalty and secrecy.  Under UK legislation, this can be classified as controlling behaviour, and there is a law against it.  Carrying the analogy across to the UK's financial affairs: is it a good way of encouraging people to be UK citizens, or residents in the UK, if the government and media insist that to benefit from an offshore transaction is to be disloyal and secretive?  Do we want to become a world of selfish countries, with each government only interested in its own benefit?  Just asking.

Have you holidayed abroad?  If so, how do you feel about it being characterised as an offshore transaction? 

What a disgrace!  Instead of supporting your home country and investing your money there, you skulked abroad and gave your money to foreigners!  You avoided traditional UK weather in order to benefit from enhanced conditions offshore.  Shame on you!

Have you learned another language?  If so, how do you feel about that being characterised as an offshore ruse?

What a disgrace!  Instead of supporting your home language and enriching it, you slipped away to evening classes and used your hard-earned brain capacity helping to promote a language not your own.  You avoided your traditional words in order to benefit from an enhanced relationship with those that use other languages.  Shame on you!

I guess I am suggesting we think carefully about what world we are trying to create.  It is all very well to be watchful of hypocrisy, and to ensure that those with wealth and power are aware of the great responsibility they can hold to behave with dignity and respect.  Speaking truth to power is a great function of the media.

But readers of the media must be careful that they are not led into hypocrisy themselves.  It is easy to view the rich and powerful as a different species, prone to disloyalty and secrecy.  It is harder to realise that we can all, even when we think we are being righteous, be prone to controlling, intolerant and invasive behaviour. 

Offshore is not necessarily sinful.  A sense of balance, perhaps, would help.