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A fart in a hurricane (or a haddock’s guide to staying on an even keel)

November 28, 2020

I don’t often spend time thinking about how my brain works. But I do sometimes wonder how we, or more specifically I, manage to stay on an even keel despite an awareness of all the troubling information that in this especially troubled year seems to bombard us from all directions.

A good example is the furore over the British government’s decision to reduce foreign aid from 0.7% of gross domestic product to 0.5%.

A manifesto promise broken, howl opponents, as if manifesto promises, or any other promises by politicians, are somehow sacred. The decision will cost the lives of a hundred thousand children, claim some.

We can’t afford it at the moment, says Rishi Sunak, our finance minister. We are in the middle of the most serious financial crisis for three hundred years. We must look after ourselves.

You can argue the issue either way.

You might say that foreign aid is a waste of money anyway, because most of the dosh ends up in the pockets of consultants, dictators or corrupt officials, rather than the people it was intended to help. You know this because you’ve read an article about it in the papers.

Or you might ask how we justify spending £2 billion on building a tunnel near Stonehenge, thus trashing thousands of historical artefacts to make the journey between the South East and the South West a few minutes faster, when by doing so we show the rest of the world that we couldn’t give a damn about eliminating poverty, disease and pollution beyond our borders. Or, worse still, we’re prepared to spend £80 billion on HS2, a railway line that will reduce the travelling time between North and South by the time it takes to perform our morning ablutions or check out our Instagram feed.

Actually, I’ve long thought that how we react to such issues depends on in which of a number of mental compartments we place them.

Let me explain.

Suppose our minds contain a number of separate cognitive departments, or boxes, that process our response to given situations. Yes, I understand a little about emotion versus reason, and what happens in the hippocampus and the amygdala, in the left brain and the right brain, but I prefer a non-scientific analogy.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that we have four boxes that sit next to each other. Each has its own little mechanism that determines how we respond to a given situation, or to a piece of incoming information.

Let’s call the first box Immediate. It’s the one we were born into. It’s about needs and wants. I’m hungry, I’m tired, I’m bored, I’m frightened, I’m amused, I’m having fun. Everything starts off there.

The second box I call Personal Future. We acquire this when we get older and are able to distinguish realities that might directly affect us in the future. If I run across the road, I’ll get killed. If I study hard, I’ll get to university. These are things that we understand to be under our control, or would be under our control provided nothing happens to take our control away from us.

My third box is Abstract Future. It contains stuff that might not affect our personal well-being but that we find interesting and emotionally engaging. It’s where we put stuff that informs our world view: political beliefs, religious faith. Things that move us, inspire us, arouse our curiosity, even if we’re bystanders rather than participants.

The fourth box is Engaged Future. It’s the box in which we place everything that reaches the Abstract Future, but that we’re prepared to do something about personally. It’s activism versus passivity. It’s everything we do that doesn’t have an immediate personal benefit other than an emotional sense of doing the right thing. Often those actions result from a sense of justice, guilt or altruism. It can also be the result of self-interest, when the scary things we’ve placed in Box 2 (Personal Future) start to come to pass.

These are my boxes. They’re not the result of years of academic study into neurology, psychology, economics or social science. I’m not Freud, Milgram, Maslow or Kahneman. Nor do I expect a Nobel Prize for a stunning revelation. They’re just the way I make sense of how my opinions, my emotions and my reactions to what I see and experience change over time.

The thing about these boxes is that they’re separate. Yet they co-exist. And stuff you park in one box you can easily move to another. Take the example of delayed gratification. I’m hungry. I go to the cupboard and the first thing I see is a bar of chocolate. Do I eat it, thus satisfying an impulse that sits in Box One? Or does Box Two come into play and override the impulse? If I eat this, I’ll put on weight. Therefore I won’t be as good at football. So I’ll eat something else, or maybe I won’t eat until later.

But what we put in each box can easily be manipulated. Put a health warning on an item of food, and our Box Two fears might lead us not to buy it. It might even lead us to go to Box Four and become vegan, or campaign for animal rights. Or we might know it’s not saving the planet (Box Three), but eat it anyway, because it tastes good, even if we feel bad about it afterwards.

So in which box do we put cutting foreign aid? Box Three, in which we agonise to our heart’s content but do nothing? Or Box Four, in which we tweet angrily and go on marches?

That, I think, largely depends on how it’s presented to us, and on whether the presentation chimes with our lived reality. If I said to you that we can keep the 0.7%, but as a result, every public library in the country will have to close, you might perceive a direct threat to your personal future over which you have no control, which sits in Box Two. You can’t afford to buy books, your interests will wither, you’ll get bored, your education will suffer. Therefore to hell with the poor in other countries, you’re more concerned about your future. Which, on the next election day, leads you to Box 4, when you vote for the government that cut the aid to 0.5%

But if I tell you that if aid is cut to 5%, 100,000 children will die in Africa, South America and Asia, you might perceive no threat to your personal interests, even though you think the idea is appalling. Your view might go straight into Box Three, where it sits alongside your agony over COVID deaths, your sadness about the victims of civil war in Syria and all the other things you think you can’t do anything about. Or you might go to Box Four and hit the streets.

With some of us, our boxes co-exist with little reference to each other. Recently I wrote about the example of the young Saudis who flew planes into the World Trade Centre as the expression of their religious beliefs. These were the same people who in the months before their deaths indulged in video games, porn and partying in Las Vegas. You could argue that the willingness to martyr themselves began in Box Three, and moved to Box Four, whereas giving in to the temptation of alcohol and gambling sat firmly in Box One. Whatever contradiction they felt between haram and halal was overridden by what they perceived as the needs or desires of the moment.

Most of us, I think, have an overpopulated Box Three. We are full of beliefs, opinions and emotions that we might talk about, but to all intents and purposes we label “no further action”. You could call it the bleeding heart box. It may be that when the stuff crammed into Box Three reaches a saturation point, it starts leaking out incoherently into other boxes. Is that when we start getting depressed? I defer to the psychologists on this one.

An interesting development of the age is that the social media gives us the opportunity to move stuff, at least to our satisfaction, to Box Four. By tweeting about something we see ourselves as taking action. We are publicly engaged. We are activists, or think we are. No matter that our published thoughts have no more impact than a fart in a hurricane. We’re doing something. And who knows? Many farts, blown off at the same time, could stop a hurricane.

Does this matter? Quite a lot, in my opinion, because what matters is not the effectiveness of our actions but the box in which they sit. You could argue that Box Three is the repository of our anxiety, our fears and our frustrations as well as our hopes and expectations. Therefore if we deal with some of them by moving them into Box Four, we’re potentially boosting our mental well-being, whether or not our actions make any difference. But still, being an activist makes us feel good about ourselves.

If you’re an academic, you might think of these ramblings as cod psychology, or possibly haddock Gladwell (hence the rather odd title). You’d probably be right. But I make no apology. It’s just my way of making sense of how I can remain with my backside firmly rooted in a comfortable chair in southern England, and manage to stay sane while so many things that wrench the heart are taking place just up the road, just across the channel or just over on the other side of the world.

At least I can write about them, which is one way I can move them to the box marked Do Something.

Even a fart in a hurricane has some value, if only to the person who lets rip.

From → Politics, Social, UK

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