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MONTHLY BLOG 125, WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A WHOLE PERSON? WHY WE SHOULD ALL BE ARTY-SMARTY.

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)

Fig:1 Specimens
© Michael Mapes 2021

Having declared my wish to be appreciated as a whole person,1 I got a mix of replies – some testy, some curious – asking what personal ‘wholeness’ actually means. It’s a fair question. Referring to a ‘whole person’ certainly sounds a bit ‘arty’ – or, for more severe critics, dangerously ‘arty-farty’. The terminology, sometimes dignified as ‘holistic’, commonly appears in handbooks to alternative medicine, which may range from sound sense to the wilder shores of snake-oil healthcare. So … is being a whole person somehow a concept which is abstruse or ‘fringe’ – or perhaps simply redundant?

My answer is emphatically: No. Being understood as a whole person is a positive need, which is the quintessence of humanity. It expresses how individuals should properly relate together, both individually and collectively.

On the way to that conclusion, however, it’s necessary to accept the parallel need for generalisations, abstract statistics and collective identifications. For certain purposes, overviews are essential. When talking about global population pressures, it would take far, far too long to itemise and salute the full personality of every one of the 7.8 billion living individuals who inhabit Planet Earth, according to the latest estimates for December 2020.2

To take but one example of collective analysis, many medical research programmes work by investigating generic patterns among thousands of case-histories. In that way, linkages between genetic heritage and specific maladies can be tested – and at times proven or (bearing in mind the role of trial and error) at other times refuted. Similarly, treatments and palliatives can be assessed by group trials. My own gluten allergy, known as coeliac disease (sometimes spelt as ‘celiac’), turns out to be partially, though not automatically, heritable.3 When I first got that information, years ago, I checked my family history and worked out, from corroborative evidence, that the weak link was being transmitted via my father’s mother’s branch. I then conveyed the news to every relevant relative, to much initial bemusement and some derision. Over the years, however, as many siblings and cousins have been diagnosed as coeliacs, they universally tell me that they are glad to be forewarned. It’s an excellent example of how aggregative analysis can help individual understanding.

There are also countless other instances. Targeted advertising works by identifying people with specific consumer profiles. So does political blitzing. In some cases, such as social class, the personal identifications are usually (though not invariably) made by others. But in other circumstances, individuals are invited to classify themselves. On bureaucratic forms, for example, there are often questions about age, gender; ethnic identification; religion; or any combination of those factors.

It’s true that responding truthfully can be tricky, if people don’t accept the options provided. Traditionally, British army recruits who self-defined as ‘atheists’ or ‘agnostics’ were entered as members of the established Anglican church, because there was then no space on the form for non-believers. But, for many purposes, the people, who are processing the data, want broad aggregates, not individual vagaries. They don’t mind a few exceptions and mistaken classifications. And often big, general groupings will suffice – though not for projects attempting to make fine-grained investigations into (say) people’s real religious beliefs, which furthermore may fluctuate during a lifetime.

The upshot is that, for some – even for many – purposes, individuals are statistics. However, just as it is often necessary to generalise, so at other times it’s crucial to go beyond generic categories and impersonal labels to encounter living humans, in all their often glorious and sometimes maddening diversity.

In medical treatment, for example (as opposed to aggregative medical research), there is now a simmering debate about the need for holistic medicine.4 That approach entails understanding the mix of mental and physical factors in human wellbeing. It moves beyond concentrating simply on the immediate cause of any malaise; and asks about the cause of the cause (or, in other words, the underlying root cause). In the case of undiagnosed coeliacs, they suffer from disturbed guts, aching bones, exhaustion and (often) depression. Yet they don’t need a soothing bromide. They need a biopsy or blood-test to get a full medical diagnosis and help in adopting a gluten-free diet.

Taking a holistic approach also means that clinicians should ensure that their own practices are humanised. In other words, the prevalent medical system should not make doctors unhappy, as they strive to heal their patients.5 Other areas where holistic approaches are actively proposed include many forms of therapy and social care.6 Help for people with mental health issues is also claimed to benefit from a whole-person approach7 – rather than just palliative medication. And similar hopes apply to assistance for individuals recovering from trauma.8 Indeed, ‘holistic’ interventions are credited with improvements in many diverse fields: from sports coaching;9 to sexual therapies;10 to business management;11 right through to cyber-security.12

Needless to say, invoking the concept of ‘holism’ doesn’t guarantee its effective use. Nonetheless, these usages indicate an interest in considering issues ‘in the round’. Picking on just one symptom; one solution; one approach; is unhelpful when dealing with the greatest intricacies of life. Practical people will snort that it’s best, at least, to get on with one big remedy, without having to wait to figure out the whole. But single interventions so often have unintended consequences, unless the big picture has been properly configured and understood.

Above all, it’s in child-rearing and education where it’s particularly crucial to assist all individuals to develop as a whole and rounded people.13 No-one should be pre-categorised by prior labels. And especially not so, if the labels carry pejorative meanings. No children should be simply dismissed or excluded as ‘difficult’. Such terminology makes tricky situations worse.14 (And equally children can also be over-praised, giving them a false impression of the world and their own abilities).

Being typecast negatively is particularly damaging. For example, women often used to be dismissed as ‘feather-brained’ air-heads. As a result, many did not trouble to activate their talents, especially in public view. Worse too, some clever women used voluntarily to play the game of ‘Oh it’s only silly little me!’ Then later, when, they wanted to be taken seriously, they found that they were trapped in the role of ‘dumb bimbos’. Their subsequent struggles to break free often proved to be very destructive – breaking up family relationships, which were founded upon false identities.

Quite a few people do, in practice, manage either to avoid or to ignore being stereotyped. But no youngsters should have to face being typecast, whether by gender, sexual preferences, ethnic heritage, religion, accent, appearance, social class, bodily abilities/disabilities. or any other category that humans can invoke.

Instead, all should, from very young, have a chance to develop their personalities and talents to the full. They should be not only properly fed but also warmly loved, to give them inner confidence. They should be given reasonable framework rules, but also great encouragement to innovate. Every person should also have a chance, when young, to explore the entire range of special human skills: including not only literacy and numeracy but also art, chess, drama, handicrafts, music, riding, all forms of sport and swimming. (And please add any skills that I have temporarily overlooked). Not that everyone will become a superstar. That’s not the point. It is that all should have a chance to find and develop their talents to the full – to have a lifetime of nurtured learning to become rounded and fulfilled personalities.

Needless to say, such a humanist project is expensive in terms of human labour and money. Classes should be small; and individual attention paid to each learner.15 But, from another point of view, the costs can be justified on many grounds – not least by providing work for people whose jobs have been automated. Education for the ‘whole person’ should not be an optional extra. Instead, it’s a supreme economic as well as social, political and cultural good.

Planet Earth does not need ‘partial’ and undeveloped minds and bodies. It needs the fully-charged brain-power and person-power of 7.8 billion people. There are enough global problems, many of our own making, for us all to resolve.

To repeat, the aim is not to turn everyone into a prize-winner. But behind every summary statistic, there should be a human being who is supremely well in mind and body: in other words, a whole person. Effective knowledge entails both aggregation/generalisation and disaggregation/particularisation. One early reader of this BLOG sniffed that this line of argument is indeed ‘very arty-farty’. Yet enlightened scientists are today calling for a rounded education, adding balance and creativity from the Arts and Humanities to the necessary scientific specialisation and technical knowhow.16 To live well and to safeguard Planet Earth, humans need to be not arty-farty – but really arty-smarty.

ENDNOTES:

1 See PJC, ‘Being Assessed as a Whole Person: A Critique of Identity Politics’, BLOG 121 (Jan. 2021) – pdf/58 in PJC website www.penelopejcorfield.com; also published in Academic Letters (Dec. 2020): see https://www.academia.edu.

2 https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/world-population-projections/ [accessed 4 May 2021].

3 For the latest updates, see variously https://www.nature.com/subjects/coeliac-disease [accessed 4 May 2021] and reports from the American Celiac Disease Foundation in https://celiac.org/about-celiac-disease/future-therapies-for-celiac-disease/ [accessed 4 May 2021]. There are also numerous personal guidebooks, gluten-free cookery books, and clinical textbooks on the condition.

4 See e.g. A.C. Hastings, J. Fadiman, J.S. Gordon, Health for the Whole Person: The Complete Guide to Holistic Medicine (New York, 2018).

5 E.K. Ledermann, Medicine for the Whole Person: A Critique of Scientific Medicine (Shaftesbury, 1997); D.R. Kopacz, Re-Humanising Medicine: A Holistic Framework for Transforming Yourself, Your Practice and the Culture of Medicine (2014).

6 See e.g. A. Burnham (ed.), Together: A Vision of Whole Person Care for a Twenty-First Century Health and Care Service (2013).

7 C.L. Fracasso and others (eds), Holistic Treatment in Mental Health: A Handbook of Practitioners’ Perspectives (Jefferson, NC, 2020).

8 L.A. Prock (ed.), Holistic Perspectives on Trauma: Implications for Social Workers and Health Care Professionals (Toronto, 2015).

9 E.g. R. Light and others, Advances in Rugby Coaching: A Holistic Approach (2014).

10 J. Adams, Explore, Dream, Discover: Working with Holistic Models of Sexual Health and Sexuality, Self Esteem and Mental Health (Sheffield, 2004).

11 C-H.C. Law, Managing Enterprise, Resource Planning … and Business Processes: A Holistic Approach (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2019).

12 D. Chatterjee, Cybersecurity Readiness: A Holistic and High-Performance Approach (Los Angeles, 2021).

13 C. Mayes, Developing the Whole Student: Bew Horizons for Holistic Education (2020).

14 M. Jewell, Are Difficult Children Difficult or Just Different? What if We Can Change to Help Them? (2019).

15 See e.g. C. Mayes, Developing the Whole Student: New Horizons for Holistic Education (2020); J.P. Miller and others (eds), International Handbook of Holistic Education (2018); and D.W. Crowley (ed.), Educating the Whole Person: Towards a Total View of Lifelong Learning (Canberra, 1975).

16 J. Horgan, ‘Why STEM Students [i.e. studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] Need Humanities Courses’, Scientific American (16 August 2018): https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/why-stem-students-need-humanities-courses/ [accessed 7 May 2021].

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MONTHLY BLOG 123, THE PEOPLING OF BRITAIN: PROPOSED SCHOOLS COURSE FOR TEENAGERS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)

123.1 Black-and-white diagram showing ‘everyman’ and ‘everywoman’ on the move:
© binary template from research.net (2021)

Humans are a globe-trotting species;1 and the people of Britain are notable exponents of that trait. In fact, continental Europe’s sizeable offshore islands, with their long maritime tradition, are among the world’s most hybrid communities. Its people come and go. Many stop and stay. Others move on and depart, and, not infrequently, return. In the process, their histories say much about both the culturally positive and negative aspects of migration.

For that reason, there’s a great case for a schools course for British teenagers to study ‘The Peopling of Britain’, from the earliest times until now. Everybody’s family plays a part in the collective story. Such a course can be located within Modern History, or Sociology, or Civics: and it can easily be associated with individual Roots Projects, in which students discuss their history with older members of the family.2

Such themes need to be addressed with care and sensitivity. Not all families are happy to uncover past secrets, if secrets there be. Some are happy to be revealed as ‘stayers’. Yet not all families are satisfied with staying put. Conversely, not all cases of migration are happy ones. And some adopted children don’t know their full family history. They especially need thoughtful and sensitive help in tracing their roots, in so far as that’s possible.3 But they can also benefit from understanding their adoptive families’ stories, which show how population mixing happens from day-to-day, as part of ordinary life. These are all crucial issues for young adults as they grow up and find their places in a complex society. So it is helpful to confront the long history of ‘the peopling of Britain’ in a supportive class environment, with supportive teachers.

One immediate effect is to provide historical perspective. Population movement into and out of Britain is far from a recent invention. It goes back to the very earliest recorded settlements by Celts and Basques; and has continued ever since. In 1701 the novelist and journalist Daniel Defoe amused his readers by poetically lampooning the mongrel heritage of The True-Born Englishman:

‘The Scot, Pict, Britain, Roman, Dane, submit;

And with the English-Saxon all Unite.’4

He was not intent on disparagement. On the contrary, he was glorying in the country’s diversity. Moreover, Defoe was writing about the English as they had recruited population in the millennia before 1066. After that date, the Norman French invaders followed in 1066, Dutch and Walloon religious refugees arrived in the sixteenth century; French Huguenot, German, Irish, and Caribbean migrants settled from the eighteenth century onwards; and many others have followed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from Canada, North and South America; from the Middle East; from India, Pakistan, China, and the Far East, including the Philippines; from many parts of Africa; from Australia and New Zealand; as well as from Scandinavia, from across central, southern and eastern Europe – and, on a small scale, from Russia.5

Defoe’s point, as he explained in the  Preface to the 1703 edition of The True-Born Englishman, was that population migration was and is normal. Accordingly, he explained that: ‘I only infer, that an English Man, of all Men ought not to despise Foreigners as such, and I think the Inference is just, since what they are today, we were yesterday; and tomorrow they will be like us’.6

Of course, migration has not always been easy. That is a big, obvious and important point. There have been tensions, hostilities, riots, rejection, and simmering bitterness.7 But such responses should not therefore be brushed under the historical carpet. Instead, it is helpful for students to explore: why tensions emerge in some circumstances; and not in others. And in some periods; but not in others? What factors help integration? And which factors impeded cohesion? The answers include crucial contextual factors, like the availability of work and housing. And they also highlight the behaviour both of host communities and of migrant groups, including rival languages, religions, and differing cultural attitudes – for example to the role of women.

At the same time, migration has its positive and dynamic side. The acceptance of social pluralism, for example with different religions worshipping peacefully side by side, is a useful civic art, in a world full of different religious groups. Equally, learning from and sharing the global diversity of food and music adds much to cultural creativity. And the same applies across the board, in terms of generating and sharing the global stock of knowledge, to which all cultures contribute.

Moreover, there is one quietly successful – almost secret – experience that underpins migration, which many students’ own family histories will reveal. That is, the very great extent of intermarriage between these migrant groups, especially over time. (Needless to say, not all the unions between people from different backgrounds were actually legal ones; but ‘intermarriage’ is the demographers’ term not just for sexual encounters but for all unions which produced children). Such relationships happen across and between different ethnic, religious, and social groups, even when forbidden. Romeo and Juliet are the tragic theatrical representations of a human story of love despite barriers.

It is certainly a common experience for Britons, who delve back into their ancestry, to find forebears from a variety of ethnic, religious and geographical origins. Equally, many known migrants to Britain from ‘foreign parts’ have descendants who merge seamlessly into the population today. One example stands proxy for many. The ancestry of Lord ‘Bill’ Wedderburn, a noted Labour lawyer and politician (1927-2012), stretches back, on his father’s side, to Robert Wedderburn, the Jamaican-born radical and anti-slavery campaigner (1762-c.1835). They couldn’t meet in daily life; but they do meet in the pages of British history – complete with their intent gazes and small frown lines between the eyes.

123.2 (L) Jamaican-born Robert Wedderburn (1762-c.1835), anti-slavery campaigner, and (R) his descendant, Bill Wedderburn, lawyer & Labour politician (1927-2012).

Incidentally, Britain’s long-standing aversion to national identity papers made it hard for the authorities in earlier times to track the location of migrants. Hence many ‘foreigners’ quietly Anglicised their names and disappeared from the official record. That situation contrasted, for example, with non-Islamic newcomers into the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire. They were required, in theory at least, to wear distinctive dress, featuring specifically coloured turbans to indicate their religious/ethnic origins.8 But all such regulations were difficult to sustain over time, as migrant families became established over successive generations.

Studying these issues provides a long-term perspective on issues of social and personal sensitivity. The Schools’ curriculum tends to be divided into chunks around specific periods of history – often very recent ones. But it’s good for teenagers to study some long-term trends. History is rightly not taught today as one inevitable success story. Old Whig views of ‘the March of Progress’ have been discarded in the light of chronic warfare, famines, genocides, racism, chronic poverty, and sundry catastrophes. And an alternative Marxist view of history as unending class struggle, leading to the inevitable triumph of the proletariat, has also been revealed as a massive over-simplification.9

Yet all British students can study with benefit the long-term peopling of the country in which they live. They will confront conflict, but also cooperation. Enmities but also love. They will learn how and why people move – and how societies can learn to cope with migration. These complex legacies impact not only upon society at large but also upon all individuals. (At the same time, too, there is a parallel story of the massive British diaspora around the world).10 Understanding the history of humanity’s chronic globe-trotting is part of learning to be simultaneously a British citizen and a global one.

ENDNOTES:

1 L.L. Cavalli-Sforza and F. Cavalli-Sforza, The Great Human Diasporas: The History of Diversity and Evolution, transl. S. Thomas (Harlow, 1995).

2 See companion-piece PJC BLOG/122 (Feb.2021), ‘Proposed Roots Project for Teenagers’. And relevant analysis in R. Coleman, ‘Why We Need Family History Now More than Ever’, FamilySearch, 26 Sept. 2017: https://www.familysearch.org/blog/en/family-history-2.

3 See e.g. J. Rees, Life Story Books for Adopted Children: A Family-Friendly Approach (2009); J. Waterman and others, Adoption-Specific Therapy: A Guide to Helping Adopted Children and their Families Thrive (Washington DC, 2018); A. James, The Science of Parenting Adopted Children: A Brain-Based, Trauma-Informed Approach to Cultivating Your Child’s Social, Emotional and Moral Development (2019).

4 D. Defoe, The True-Born Englishman (1703), lines 25-26.

5 J. Walvin, Passage to Britain: Immigration in British History and Politics (Harmondsworth, 1984); P. Panayi, An Immigration History of Britain: Multicultural Racism since 1800 (Harlow, 2010); M. Spafford and D. Lyndon, Migrants to Britain, c.1250 to Present (2016).

6 Defoe, True-Born Englishman, Preface to 1703 edn.

7 A.H. Richmond, Immigration and Ethnic Conflict (Basingstoke, 1988); R.M. Dancygier, Immigration and Conflict in Europe (Cambridge, 2010).

8 D. Quataert, ‘Clothing Laws, State and Society in the Ottoman Empire, 1720-1829’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 29 (1997), pp. 403-25.

9 P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007), pp. 74-5, 174-8; and idem, ‘Time and the Historians in the Age of Relativity’, in A.C.T. Geppert and Till Kössler (eds), Obsession der Gegenwart: Zeit im 20. Jahrhundert; transl. as Obsession with the Here-and-Now: Concepts of Time in the Twentieth Century, (Göttingen, 2015), pp. 71-91, esp. pp. 78-80, 83.

10 E. Richards, Britannia’s Children: Emigration from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland since 1600 (2004).

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MONTHLY BLOG 122, PROPOSED ROOTS PROJECT FOR TEENAGERS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)

Line Drawing of Tree & Roots:
© Vector Illustrations (2020)
65691748

It’s important for individuals to know about their personal roots, Humans all live in Time-Space (also known as the Space-Time continuum).1 And knowing a bit about personal family roots helps to locate people in their own individual spot in history and geography.

So this short essay speculates about a possible School Roots Project for children in their mid-teens. (Perhaps in a Civics class; or a part of a contemporary History course). The aim is not in any way to encourage family- bragging, whether for ‘lofty’ aristocratic lineage or for ‘authentic’ proletarian roots. Instead, the value is chiefly for the individuals concerned, to know more about themselves – and to have the chance to talk seriously about their roots with parents/ grandparents/ influential family members/ and/or any others who played a significant role in their upbringings.

Clearly teachers need to organise all such Roots Projects with great sensitivity. Not all families are happy ones. Not all older relatives will be at ease talking about the past with people of a younger generation. And thoughtful arrangements have to be made for students who are adopted, who may know little or nothing about their biological background – but who share the same human need to be socially well rooted in Time-Space. Indeed, it can well be argued that those whose position is, outwardly at least, relatively unsettled have the greatest need for this exercise in rooting, both with their adoptive families and/or with their biological families, if they can be traced.2

The more that individuals know about their personal background, the more secure they feel – the more they understand their connections with others – the better their sense of self-esteem – and the more they feel in control of their own lives. Rootedness is a prime indicator of emotional health and happiness. And the more that people are secure in their own skin, the better they can relate to others.3 They can simultaneously see their own role as part of a wider human history, set in unfolding Time which links the generations.

What then should a Roots Project for teenagers entail? The details are best left to be specified by teachers who know the relevant age-group. There’s no magic formula. Just a desire to get children talking to their parents/ grandparents/ or any other significant figures in their upbringing. At infant school level, there are many good storybooks about families; and there are projects which invite children to ask grandparents (say) simple questions, such as ‘What sort of toys did you have as a child?’ For teenagers, the discussion can be more probing – but may be hampered by years of not talking about personal matters. Therefore Projects should start modestly: asking children which adults influenced them as they grew? And then asking the youngsters to think of questions to ask the grownups in their lives?

Students should also be briefed on asking for family help with their Roots Projects. It must be stressed that all information will be used exclusively by the students. These talks will not be ‘on the record’ – here contrasting with what can happen to taped interviews as the result of formal Oral History exercises.4 Instead, the Roots Projects are intended as launch-pads for informal chats, enabling the students to write a short account of one or more significant adults who influenced their upbringing.

Afterwards, the class can be invited to share their experiences of the process. Some families will already be talkers. Others not. In every case, there is always more to be learned. Did the students find it easy or difficult to get the adults to talk? If difficult, why was that? Was it that they themselves were embarrassed? Or the parents shy? Did the talking exercise make things any easier? Did they learn anything surprising? What might they ask next time that they have a family chat? To stress again, the exercise is not a competitive exercise in bragging about comparative social backgrounds. Instead, it is an exercise in Rooting – taking specific steps in what may become a longer series of family discussions.

Generally, it’s very common for people to exclaim, at the demise of a parent, grandparent or any other significant relative or carer: ‘I wish I’d asked them more about themselves, when they were alive to tell me’. Death locks the doors to personal memories of a shared past. Rooting Projects help to open the conversations while all the protagonists are alive to relate their own histories.

ENDNOTES:

1 Whether the chosen terminology is Time-Space or Space-Time, the proposition is the same: that Time and Space are integrally yoked. For further discussion, see P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007), pp. 15, 9-11, 17-18, 218, 220, 248-52; and PJC current research-in-progress.

2 See e.g. J. Rees, Life Story Books for Adopted Children: A Family-Friendly Approach (2009); J. Waterman and others, Adoption-Specific Therapy: A Guide to Helping Adopted Children and their Families Thrive (Washington DC, 2018); A. James, The Science of Parenting Adopted Children: A Brain-Based, Trauma-Informed Approach to Cultivating Your Child’s Social, Emotional and Moral Development (2019).

3 R. Coleman, ‘Why We Need Family History Now More than Ever’, FamilySearch, 26 Sept. 2017: https://www.familysearch.org/blog/en/family-history-2/

4 Oral History, professionally undertaken, provides a wonderful set of original resources for historical studies: among a huge literature, see e.g. A. Zusman, Story Bridges: A Guide for Conducting Intergenerational Oral History Projects (2016); F-A. Montoya and B. Allen, Practising Oral History to Connect University to Community (2018). These Schools Rooting Projects can be regarded as early stepping stones in the same process of tapping into the powers of the human memory – and sharing them with others.

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MONTHLY BLOG 121, BEING ASSESSED AS A WHOLE PERSON – A CRITIQUE OF IDENTITY POLITICS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)
[PJC Pdf/58]

One of series of Dissected Photographs by New York artist
© Michael Mapes

Friends: I want to be taken seriously as a whole person, assessed in the round. It’s positively good to feel part of a universalist personhood.1 Something that is experienced in common with all fellow humans. But how is that attitude to be encouraged, whilst simultaneously acknowledging the benefits that separatist identity politics can bring?

Social groups who have been marginalised – victims of an oppressive history – obviously gain a great deal by asserting their claims to general appreciation. Black Lives Matter. Of course they do: unequivocally and absolutely. It’s a proposition that draws strength from its utter truth.

One among the many challenges of identity politics, however, is the question of definition. Who decides who is or is not aligned with which particular identity? What happens when others persistently allocate you (for example, because of your looks) with a group with whom you personally feel little or no affinity? People of mixed ethnic heritage sometimes feel doubly excluded: their skins perhaps not dark enough for a ‘real’ Black identity, but not pale enough for a ‘real’ White one. Or perhaps children of mixed marriages may physically resemble one parent, whilst emotionally identifying with the other. What chance do such individuals have of asserting their inner sense of identity, when society instantly classifies them with the parent they physically resemble?

That point highlights another related problem of definition. An individual may have – indeed most do have – multiple identities. In my case, I could be described (variously) as a white, middle-class, heterosexual, childless woman, living in a stable partnership; as well as a Yorkshire-born Londoner, with English, British and/or European affiliations; as well as: an older person; as tolerably well-off; as a home-owner with a pension; as a coeliac (with a chronic gluten-allergy); as someone with short sight; as a professor; as an academic historian; as a bibliophile; as a left-winger; as an agnostic, reared in a cultural tradition of secularised Protestant Dissent; as a keen swimmer; as a music fan; as an amateur gardener; as a cat-lover; as someone with a sense of humour; … as an optimist …  Any of those characteristics might be used to ascribe to me a cultural identity. Some of them I would warmly endorse. Others would leave me cold, as being true (childlessness) but not being at all central to my self-definition. And yet another of those terminologies would fill me with horror. I am (or so the calendar tells me) an old woman; but I emphatically don’t self-identify as such.

There are clearly differences between what one might term ‘objective’ personal identifiers and ‘subjective’ ones. There are also different experiences in a person’s lifetime when some affiliations might assume more importance than others. For example, a sense of patriotic resistance is likely to be strongly aroused if one’s own country suddenly comes under unprovoked attack from a hostile overseas tyranny. And a sense of internationalism is conversely likely to be strengthened if one’s own country is engaged in aggressive and bloody militarism against a harmless and defenceless overseas people, whose sole act of provocation lies in their happening to inhabit strategically important or resource-rich territory.

In other words, people have multiple identities. Some of these are more important at some points in a lifetime than are others. And, indeed, some identities might seem to clash with others. For example, it is sometimes assumed that all people with capital assets should always strive to gain the maximum from their investments and to pay as little tax as possible. (Tax advisers often assert that explicitly).

Yet it can equally be argued that property-owners with a civic conscience – and also acting out of enlightened self-interest – should want to pay more taxes in order to reduce inequalities, relieve poverty, reduce environmental degradation, and promote a more harmonious and just society. These are matters of judgment, clearly. Not simply a reflex response to owning property. (One complaint about so-called ‘identity politics’ is that the concept may encourage electors to vote purely for their own immediate personal benefit rather than for wider civic considerations.2 But, in practice, voters have a multitude of concerns in play at any given point).

Identities are actually so intricate and simultaneously so personal that any cultural politics based upon stereotypical assumptions is offensive to the individuals involved. It’s annoying to be told what one is likely to think ‘as a woman’. It’s infuriating to be told that one is intrinsically and automatically a racist oppressor because of one’s light skin colour. That assertion leaves no scope for moral growth and change. White people in many societies may, for example, be initially unaware of their ethnic privileges and may share inherited prejudices about their fellow humans. Yet such views can be overturned, sometimes dramatically, sometimes gradually. As the former slave-trader John Newton wrote movingly from personal experience, in Amazing Grace: ‘My eyes were blind, yet now I see…’3

Furthermore, before getting back to the universalist concept of personhood, let’s also acknowledge that identity politics are not just invoked these days for the purpose of warm, affirmative rectifications of historic injustice. Separating people by group classification may well provoke a serious backlash. Black Lives Matter is currently opposed by a number of far-right white supremacist groups. Interestingly (on the theme of complex identities), the all-male Proud Boys in the USA include members of mixed heritage, including the current leader who identifies as Afro-Cuban, while their collective ethos is one of aggressive pro-Western, anti-feminist and anti-socialist masculinity.4

Underlying these divisions, however, there remains the universalist concept of common personhood. There are communal human characteristics and communal interests. It is thus not always relevant to enquire about the detailed personal circumstances of each individual. Being a person is enough.

Such a view was expressed with clarion force in 1849 by the young author Charlotte Brontë. She first published as Currer Bell, deliberately choosing a name which concealed her gender identity. Writing to her male publisher, she urged him to forget the conventional courtesies between the sexes.5 Those niceties too often implied condescension from the ‘superior’ male to an ‘inferior’ female. She wanted to be judged on fair terms. So Brontë urged upon him that:

to you, I am neither Man nor Woman – I come before you as an Author only – it is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me – the sole ground on which I accept your judgment.

It was a spirited invention from a budding novelist to an established figure in the world of publishing. Charlotte Brontë’s claim thus falls within the history of personhood, and within the history of meritocracy too. And these are themes of great relevance and topicality today. Interest in individual personhood (or self) is coming up on the ropes, alongside the huge publishing boom in studies of ‘identity’. Evidence can be found in debates within philosophy,6 ethics,7 animal rights,8 theology,9 politics,10 psychology,11 law,12 anthropology,13 social welfare,14 economics,15 electoral history,16 literary studies,17 even contemporary poetry18

Becoming vividly aware of past and present injustices – and the need for systematic redress – is certainly a necessary stage in today’s identity politics. It’s understandable that people who have been stigmatised for their gender; sexuality; religion; nationality; ethnic identity; class position; personal disability; or any other quality need to express solidarity with others in like circumstances – and to get respect and contrition from the wider society, It’s also true that sometimes a counter-vailing mantle of universalism can be used as a smoke screen to hide sectional interests. Yet it is to be hoped that, in the long run, a celebration of truly shared and egalitarian human personhood will prevail. In the meantime, dear friends, please judge this communication as coming not from someone representing any one of the separate descriptive categories listed in paragraph four (above); but from a whole person.

ENDNOTES:

1 A slightly shorter version of this text appears online in Academia Letters (Jan. 2021): ; and it also constitutes PJC Pdf/58 within personal website as item 4.3.9. [Items 4.3.6 and 4.3.7 have earlier meditations on the same theme].

2 M. Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, London, Hurst & Co., 2018; A. Stoker, Taking Back Control: Restoring Universalism in the Age of Identity Politics, Sydney, NSW, Centre for Independent Studies, 2019; T.B. Dyrberg, Radical Identity Politics: Beyond Right and Left, Newcastle upon Tyue, Cambridge Scholars, 2020.

3 Words from the hymn Amazing Grace (written 1772; published 1779) by John Newton (1725-1807), reflecting the personal experience of this former slave-trader turned evangelical Christian clergyman and abolitionist.

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proud_Boys.

5 C. Brontë, Letter dated 16 August 1849, in M. Smith (ed.), The Letters of Charlotte Brontë, Vol. 2: 1848-51, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 235.

6 D. Parfit, Reasons and Persons, Oxford, Clarendon, 1984; E. Sprague, Persons and their Minds: A Philosophical Investigation, London, Routledge, 2018.

7 G. Stanghellini and R. Rosfort, Emotions and Personhood: Exploring Fragility – Making Sense of Vulnerability, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013.

8 C. Hutton, Integrationism and the Self: Reflections on the Legal Personhood of Animals, Hong Kong, Routledge, 2019.

9 E.L Graham, Making the Difference: Gender, Personhood and Theology, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

10 F. Brugère, La politique de l’individu, Paris, La République des Idées, Seuil, 2013; A. Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Cambridge, Polity, 1991.

11 R. Jones, Personhood and Social Robotics: A Psychological Consideration, London, Routledge, 2015.

12 J. Richardson, Freedom, Autonomy and Privacy: Legal Personhood, London, Routledge, 2015; W.A.J. Kurki, A Theory of Legal Personhood, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2019; L.M. Kingston, Fully Human: Personhood, Citizenship and Rights, New York, Oxford University Press, 2019.

13 L.P. Appell-Warren, Personhood: An Examination of the History and Use of an Anthropological Concept, Lewiston, Edwin Mellen Press, 2014.

14 P. Higgs and C. Gilleard, Personhood, Identity and Care in Advanced Old Age, Cambridge, Polity, 2016.

15 N. Makovicky, Neoliberalism, Personhood and Postsocialism: Enterprising Selves in Changing Economies, Farnham, Ashgate, 2014; reissued London, Routledge, 2016.

16 M. Lodge and C.B. Taber, The Rationalising Voter, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013; L. Mechtenberg and J-R. Tyran, Voter Motivation and the Quality of Democratic Choice, London, Centre for Economic Policy Research, 2015.

17 J.L. Gittinger, Personhood in Science Fiction: Religious and Philosophical Considerations, Cham, Switzerland, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

18 Z. Olszewska, The Pearl of Dari: Poetry and Personhood among Young Afghans in Iran, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2015.

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MONTHLY BLOG 117, AN EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FOLLY-BUILDER & CAT-LOVER

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2020)


Public monuments to cats – as opposed to literary, artistic and musical celebrations1 – are rare to find, especially dating from the eighteenth century. So this majestic example deserves full appreciation. The lordly cat sits atop a giant Grecian vase, all forming the substantial Cat Monument.2 It was designed in 1749 and built c.1770 in the new weatherproof composite known as Coade Stone.3 Erected at Shugborough Park in Staffordshire, the Monument was commissioned by Thomas Anson (c.1695-1773). He was the felinophile, who owned the estate and had the wealth as well as the space to indulge his taste for architectural patronage in full.

Curiously enough, the identity of this publicly honoured cat remains uncertain. One strong possibility is that it commemorates Thomas Anton’s own favoured pet, named Khouli-Khan. This cat was the last of a line of Persian cats owned by the family. Hence, behind the luxuriant mustachios on the Monument’s lordly feline, the statue may show the round face and short muzzle that is characteristic of that particular breed.

Another possibility, however, is that the honoured cat was the adventurous moggy who circumnavigated the globe in the years 1740-44 with Admiral George Anson (1697-1762). He was the much admired younger brother of Thomas Anson. And the childless George Anson had bequeathed his great fortune, based upon Spanish treasure, to his older sibling. As a result, some of the monuments and memorabilia at Shugborough Park were devised as fraternal tributes to the circumnavigator. In that context, therefore, it is possible that the Cat Monument commemorates the circumnavigating cat.

Throughout this period (as in earlier and later eras), thousands of feline pest controllers travelled the high seas.4 They dined on the mice and rats which infested the wooden ships of the commercial fleet and the Royal Navy. (Keeping pets on board was banned by the British Navy only in 1975). Often these sailing cats were adopted by the crews as informal mascots. The feline companion (name unknown) of George Anson seems to have been a talisman of that ilk. Indeed, it is quite possible that the Cat Monument commemorates not one specific cat but human admiration for the species generically. The design is certainly eclectic. Around the Monument’s plinth are the carved heads of Corinthian goats, which were kept on the Shugborough Park estate c.1768. But the lofty cat is the king.

Accompanying the Monument, meanwhile, Anson commissioned an extraordinary array of follies and fancies.5 The Chinese House (1747) is one of the earliest examples of oriental design in Britain. A Gothic Ruin, complete with a gothic pigeon-house, followed in 1750. The Shepherd’s Monument was built in the later 1750s, taking the form of an ornamental arch around a pastoral bas-relief. (Two outer pillars and a classic pediment were added in 1763). A Doric Temple followed in c.1760. The massive Hadrian’s Arch was then erected in 1762, at a high point on the estate with extensive views. Built in a style borrowed from classical Athens, the design was adapted as a tribute to George Anson, who died in 1762, and George’s wife Elizabeth. A Tower of the Winds, based upon the Athens’ Horologium of Andronikos, was created in 1765, initially with a surrounding pool of water, which was lost in the course of flood damage on the estate in 1795. And in 1771 the Lanthorn of Demosthenes, based upon the design of an Athenian house dating from 4BCE, completed Anson’s career as an alfresco architectural patron. (He also remodelled the ancestral Shugborough Hall and amassed a collection of memorabilia).

Amongst this eclectic miscellany of edifices, the Cat Monument more than holds its own. It has a stately presence, framed by trees. It is not overawed by its Gothic, Oriental, Doric or Corinthian monumental companions, elsewhere in Shugborough Park. Whether it commemorates one adventurous globe-trotting feline, or one exotic Persian cat, or all cats generically, it makes its point finely.

Fig.2.1-3 Three Shugborough Park Monuments, Commissioned by Thomas Anson:
(L) The Shepherd’s Monument (later 1750s; expanded 1763)
(Centre) The Cat Monument (designed 1749; built c.1770)
(R) Hadrian’s Arch (1762), adapted as a tribute to Admiral George Anson and his wife Elizabeth.

Around the globe – and at home in Staffordshire – feline companionship is something to admire. A cat may look at an admiral or at a country landowner (and MP) or at a king. And humans look closely at these classic domestic companions too. At a time of global crisis, compounded of climatic, epidemiological, economic and political challenges, it is as well for humans to recollect their pan-global co-residence with all living beings. And, not least among them, those great triggers to the literary imagination in the form of the amiable, adventurous, wily, and famously enigmatic cats.6

ENDNOTES:

1 H. Loxton, Cats: 99 Lives – Cats in History, Legend and Literature (1999).

2 For the Cat Monument (designed 1749; erected c.1770) NGR: SJ9932022722, see https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/shugborough-estate/features/parkland-buildings-monuments-and-follies

3 H. Van Lemmen, Coade Stone (Princes Risborough, 2006).

4 See V. Lewis, Ship’s Cats in War and Peace (2001); and listings in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship%27s_cat/.

5 All monuments are listed and dated in https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/shugborough-estate/features/parkland-buildings-monuments-and-follies

6 See P.J. Corfield, ‘“For I will Consider my Cat Jeoffry”: Cats and Literary Creativity in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, work-in-progress for publication 2021.

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MONTHLY BLOG 114, SELF-ISOLATION EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY STYLE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2020)

Fig.1 Engraving (1808) of Lord Rokeby (1713-1800),
a famous eighteenth-century self-isolator,
who looked like a wise old wizard
but whose actual message was obscure.

It’s not original to note that humans are a highly social species. But it’s only now becoming generally appreciated just how damaging a period of prolonged and enforced isolation from others can be. Basically, it’s bad news for both physical and mental health.1 Of course, some individuals do embrace silence and seek solitude. Maybe for spiritual reasons. Yet such conscious choices, which can be revoked at any time, are very different from enforced solitude, not of an individual’s seeking.

The eighteenth century in Britain provided two quirky individuals who famously created their own isolated lifestyles, cushioned by their private incomes. So what can be learned from their stories? No great revelation of enlightenment emerges. Instead, the two men have been slotted into the history of zany English eccentricity.2 They certainly both fitted into that category plausibly enough. Yet do their lifestyles convey some further message for humanity in the early summer of today’s special virus-avoiding Lockdown?

One of these isolates was the well-connected Matthew Robinson, 2nd Baron Rokeby (1713-1800). He was a landowner, with legal training and literary interests. In his thirties (1747-61), he became MP for Canterbury. There was nothing to suggest his impending eccentricity. Anyhow, at a certain point, he developed a passion for daily immersion in water for hours on end. At first, he walked from his country estate near Hythe (Kent), on the edge of Romney Marsh, to swim in the sea, bathing for hours until he was exhausted and had to be rescued. Then he constructed a private pool in a glass-house attached to his country mansion, which he refused to heat. Again he stayed for hours in the water, refusing company. He got nourishment chiefly from an infusion of beef tea; refused to see doctors; and claimed that he could best worship naturally, in the water and under the stars. Occasional visitors were treated to readings of his lengthy poems.

When Rokeby (rarely) appeared in public, he was taken for a foreigner, on account of his flowing locks and massive beard. Anecdotes circulated about his lifestyle; and prints were engraved (as shown above), to illustrate his hirsute appearance. His younger sister, the highly sociable literary lady and bluestocking Mrs Montagu, wrote sardonically that her brother had become a modern Diogenes: ‘he flies the life of London, and leads a life of such privacy and seriousness as looks to the beholder like wisdom’.3 Ouch. Evidently his nearest and dearest were not impressed. His two younger sisters remained busy and productive: Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800), later dubbed ‘Queen of the Blues’, and Sarah Scott (1723-95), the novelist and translator, whose Millennium Hall (1763) envisaged a harmonious community of women without men.4

For his part, Rokeby wrote and said nothing memorable, despite looking ever more like a wizard in his later years, He did not do anything to foster swimming or sea-bathing. His eccentric pastime remained a purely private matter, which ended only with his peaceful death in bed, unmarried and childless. His estate and the barony passed to a cousin.

What did all it mean? Rokeby’s lifestyle suggests a personal quest for ecological simplicity, before there was an ecological movement to join him or for him to join. He does not seem to have been personally unhappy; or, at any rate, did not announce any disquiet. Yet his story seems at very least to have been one of unrealised talents, particularly when contrasted with his siblings.

A second case of self-isolation was that of John Tallis (1675-1755). As reported in the Gentleman’s Magazine, he stayed in bed for the last 30 years of his life, swathed in coverings and with a peg on his nose, in a darkened, draught-proof room in a country inn at Burcot (Worcestershire).5 He saw no-one but a few occasional visitors, impelled by curiosity – and his servants, who replaced his bed annually.

Insofar as he justified his strange lifestyle choice, Tallis claimed, to general bemusement, that his morbid fear of fresh air was triggered by an old beldame’s curse. Evidently, he had sufficient funds to pay for his lodging and minimal keep. And no family intervened to try to change his mind. Throughout, Tallis declined to seek medical or even spiritual help for what seemed to be a prolonged and debilitating physical and/or psychological malady.

By the end of his life, he was becoming classed among the ranks of great British eccentrics. His sad tale probably provided the inspiration for William Wordsworth’s later ballad The True Story of Goody Blake and Harry Gill (1798). That jingling poem recounted a malediction directed at a wealthy but hard-hearted farmer, who had no compassion for a poor old woman gleaning in his hedgerow.6 His penalty for an icy heart was then to lie abed, forever chilled:

Oh!  what’s the matter?  what’s the matter?
What is’t that ails young Harry Gill?
That evermore his teeth they chatter,
Chatter, chatter, chatter still.
Of waistcoats Harry has no lack,
Good duffle grey, and flannel fine;
He has a blanket on his back,
And coats enough to smother nine.

Wordsworth’s imaginative evocation was much more vivid than anything communicated by Tallis, who gave no further explanation of his condition. The poet’s moral was that a flinty heart brought its own penalty. Property-owners should not begrudge the poor who gleaned in the fields and hedgerows, Wordsworth concluded pointedly.7

Tallis’s own inert self-isolation baffled everyone during his lifetime. Such a fatalistic belief in a personal curse already seemed like a relic of a bygone age, if that was indeed his motivation. It may simply have been an excuse for doing what he wanted, although his 30 year bed-rest did not seem very enjoyable. Certainly no witnesses to Tallis’s fate made any move to get him exorcised or the notional curse removed.

However, thanks to the transmuting power of poetry, this eccentric case of self-isolation prompted Wordsworth’s appeal for liberal warm-heartedness. ‘A-bed or up, by night or day;/ His teeth they chatter, chatter still,/ Now think, ye farmers all, I pray,/ Of Goody Blake and Harry Gill’. It’s always open to self-isolates to explain themselves to the wider world. But, if they don’t, then others will have a stab at doing so for them. After all, the moral is that isolates are not actually alone. The human community is watching, trying to detect a message.

ENDNOTES:

1 K.T. Rowe (ed.), Social Isolation, Participation and Impact upon Mental Health (New York, 2015); R. Fiorella, R. Morese and S. Palermo, Social Isolation: An Interdisciplinary View (2020).

2 J. Timbs, English Eccentrics and Eccentricities (1875); E. Sitwell, The English Eccentrics (1933); D. Long, English Country House Eccentrics (Stroud, 2012); S.D. Tucker, Great British Eccentrics (Stroud, 2015).

3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_Robinson,_2nd_Baron_Rokeby.

4 J. Busse, Mrs Montagu, Queen of the Blues (1928); S.H. Myers, The Bluestocking Circle: Women, Friendship and the Life of the Mind in Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford, 1990).

5 Gentleman’s Magazine (March 1753), p. 123.

6 J.A. Sharpe, A Fiery and Furious People: A History of Violence in England (2016), pp. 251-2.

7 W. Wordsworth, Poetical Works, ed. T. Hutchinson (1920), pp. 536-7.

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MONTHLY BLOG 112, ON RECONSIDERING THE (INTERRUPTED) FUTURE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2020)

Fig.1 Silhouettes of grass in fog

It is not possible to learn from the future that has not yet unfolded. The unidirectional nature of Time forbids it. So when people assert airily: ‘We don’t learn from the past’, I am incredulous. What? Of course, humans must learn from the past because they can’t learn from the future – and the unstable present, in which they learn, is constantly morphing, nano-second by nano-second, into the past.

However, while humans can’t learn from the future, it is certainly pertinent to think again about future expectations, now that routine life has been so suddenly interrupted. Diaries that were full of engagements and plans have suddenly been voided. The clear future has become foggy. It’s disconcerting but educational, particularly for those, like myself, living voluntarily under something near to house-arrest for the duration of the health emergency.

In fact, humans have a lot of advance knowledge about the long-term future. One certainty, confirmed by universal past experience, is that all living creatures will, sooner or later, die. Generally, however, humans manage to live their daily lives without dwelling on that thought. But, in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic – a contemporary plague – an awareness of the reality and ubiquity of death is sharpened. It’s a valuable jolt. Remember to finish projects; to express affection; to help others; to enjoy every immediate minute; to make the mental leap into long-term history which will continue whatever; and to breathe deeply.

Then there’s the immediate future. That’s much more under personal control. Coming through the fog more clearly. Living indoors and making minimal trips outside heightens appreciation of the usefulness of daily routines. It helps to have a structure to the day, without over-organising. Remember to exercise; to laugh; to contact friends; to eat healthily; to think about others; to do a daily crossword; to study history; to tend the plants; to listen to music (sometimes to sing); and (vital for me personally) to write.

Yet the most problematic area of the suddenly interrupted future is the uncertainty of the intermediate span of the soon-to-follow weeks, months and years. Very far ahead will look after itself. Close at hand can be managed. But the intermediate future is the foggiest of all. Very disconcerting. For how long will the lockdown continue? Will the containment policy work? For how long will the population consent to the current state of affairs? Will historians judge the government’s efforts kindly or unkindly? Will the laid-back Swedish approach to the health emergency prove to have been the right one? How far will life in Britain be radically changed once the crisis is over? No-one knows.

Informed guesses can be ventured, based upon past experience. One pattern suggests that the people – and particularly those at the ‘foot’ of the social hierarchy – will want major reforms, after the great upheaval and sacrifices of a collectively fought war. Yet the actual outcome is unknown.

The foggy shapelessness of the intermediate future contains threats and promises. Remember to roll with the punches; to keep a measured optimism; to avoid being disconcerted by history’s capacity to spring surprises; to recall also the staying power of history’s deep continuities; to be ready to resume life outdoors and on the move; to enjoy hugging friends and family again; to look for the wood in the trees – the big picture in the daily details – the pattern emerging from the fog; and, above all, to embrace the unknown future, which will become the past from which humans can learn. Unseen, social energies are being recharged. Through the fog,  community options are emerging. Yet only Time will reveal the precise story, as it always does.

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MONTHLY BLOG 107, Reasons for unrepentant (relative) Optimism about the coming of Green Politics

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

Fig.1 Greta Thunberg (b. 2003),
Swedish environmental activist;
author of No One is Too Small to Make a Difference (2019)

In response to my October BLOG about Greener Cities, I got many queries about how I could plausibly state that ‘I am an unrepentant optimist’? In fact, I should have said an ‘unrepentant (relative) optimist’, since it’s clear that not all is currently well with Planet Earth. Things would be better without today’s growing number of major fires, heatwaves, droughts, tempests, floods, icemelts, and rising seas. So I am far from taking the ultra-optimist’s view that all is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds.

But, short of adopting a totally Panglossian outlook, it is possible, indeed necessary, to remain optimistic that actions can be taken in time to control the adverse effects of global warming. Humans are not only problem-creators but also problem- solvers. In this case, the challenge is undeniably great. It will require significant changes from not only big business and big politics (using that term for the networks of national and international institutions) but also from individuals. Global patterns of transport, trade, energy generation; and energy consumption will have to be fundamentally adapted. And at an individual level, people will have to think again about their food and drink; their clothing; their systems for warming houses; their transport; their sports; their holidays; and, indeed, everything. It is asking a lot. Especially as remedial actions will need to be adopted at both macro- and micro-levels simultaneously.

Nonetheless, here are four arguments for (relative) optimism. Governments and big businesses have paid attention to scientific warnings in the past, and then taken successful remedial action. In the 1970s, it was first reported that there was a widening gap in the ozone layer, which shields Planet Earth from harmful ultra-violet radiation. The culprits were chemicals known familiarly as CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), which were used in aerosol sprays, refrigerators, and blowing agents for foams and packaging materials. An international agreement, known as the Montreal Protocol (1987), then launched decisive change. CFCs were banned.

Over time, all nations around the world have signed up to the Protocol. And in May 2018 a new scientific survey confirmed that the ozone hole has diminished significantly.1 Humans still have to remain vigilant, since the workings of the upper atmosphere are volatile and not easy to study.2 Nonetheless, collective action has been undertaken; and is working.

A second example can be taken from individual actions to renounce a social practice, which was once seen as a great source of personal pleasure. Smoking tobacco in cigars and cigarettes is disappearing. Not at the same rate in all countries around the world. Nor at the same rate among all social classes. Yet, globally, humans are entering into what has been well described as the ‘tobacco-endgame’.3 For example, in the case of Britain, it is hoped that the entire country may become smoke-free by 2030, according to a health report in July 2019.4 Progress in curbing smoking has been triggered by many factors. Medical warnings paved the way from the 1950s onwards, at first cautiously, and then, with more definitive research, more emphatically. Supportive government policies eventually helped too. Above all, however, the slow but eventually decisive shift in individual and communal attitudes was crucial.

Up to and including most of the 1960s, it was considered ‘cool’ to smoke and rude to refuse a friend’s offer of a cigarette. Over time, those attitudes have been completely reversed. Many older people can still remember their personal struggles to quit. Younger people, if they are lucky, never get caught by the habit in the first place. They have no memories of pubs, cinemas, tube trains and other public places being clogged with tobacco fumes – or of their hair and clothes reeking unpleasantly. Again, the battle against smoking is far from won. There are still skirmishes and diversionary tactics (as from e-cigarettes) along the way.5 Yet the trend is becoming clear. As is the crucial role of individual decision-making and active participation in the process.

The story of Prohibition in the USA in 1919 offers an instructive contrast. There the legislative ban on the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol was well intentioned. Drinking as such was never made illegal; but aggregate consumption was indeed reduced. However, the policy was introduced too abruptly and without widespread public support. The outcome was evasion on an epic scale, boosting illicit stills and bootlegging gangsters. Other side-effects included a boom in hypocrisy and contempt for the law. Campaigners for a more rational system managed to repeal the ban in 1933, leaving the different US states to adopt their own policies.6 The contrast between alcohol’s survival, despite Prohibition, and nicotine’s slow demise is instructive. Government policies, health advisors and medical practitioners can and do play significant roles. But on big questions which affect people’s intimate personal behaviour on a day-by-day basis, structural policies have to work with, not against, public opinion. Hence the question of how that state-of-many-collective-minds is formed and sustained becomes crucial.

So here is a third reason for (relative) optimism on global warming. Public opinion, fuelled by young people like the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, is being everywhere encouraged to turn in favour of urgent action. True, the mechanisms for channelling such attitudes into the political system are indirect and slow-working. However, what is happening now seems like part of a Zeitgeist shift of immense significance. The young are numerous, vocal, and willing to campaign. Furthermore, people of all ages know that the human species has no other domicile than Planet Earth. People of many different political persuasions are showing new interest in green policies. And people in all parts of the world are witnessing the increased incidence of freak weather. The voices of sceptics and deniers are waning.7 Getting collective action to harness this rising tide of opinion will depend upon big politics being able and willing to channel the tide successfully – and upon big business becoming aware and either adjusting its actions, or being made to do so. Big demands, which entail challenging big vested interests. Yet these demands are not impossible ones. Vigorous explorations are already being undertaken to find alternative technologies. Such game-changing innovations may alter the nature of the decisions that need to be made. Politicians need to show the same willingness to respond positively, in the face of an accumulating emergency.

And, lastly, a degree of activism (whether driven by pessimism or optimism) is needed from everyone, to add force to the changing Zeitgeist. The alternative is fatalism, which only makes a bad situation worse. True, being optimistic is easier for those with optimistic temperaments. Yet even those who feel nothing but gloom are called upon, in this climate emergency, to transmute their valid anxieties into pressure for change. Relative pessimism can be as great a goad to call for remedial action, as can relative optimism. ‘Climate change constitutes a global emergency!’ ‘Let’s take countervailing action!’ All can lend their voices to swell the tide of public opinion.

ENDNOTES:

1 S. Pereira, report on Ozone Layer dated 1/5/2018 for Newsweek 27 October 2019: https://www.newsweek.com/nasa-hole-earths-ozone-layer-finally-closing-humans-did-something-771922

2 E.A. Parson, Protecting the Ozone Layer: Science and Strategy (Oxford, 2003); S.O. Andersen and K.M. Sarma, Protecting the Ozone Layer: The United Nations History (2002).

3 [British Medical Journal], India: The Endgame for Tobacco Conference (2013).

4 S. Barr, report dated 23 July 2019 in The Independent: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/smoking-ban-uk-end-cigarettes-tobacco-health-green-paper-a9016636.html

5 S. Gabb, Smoking and its Enemies: A Short History of 500 Years of the Use and Prohibition of Tobacco (1990).

6 D. Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (New York, 2010); J.J. Binder, Al Capone’s Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organised Crime in Chicago during Prohibition (Amherst, 2017);

7 G.T. Farmer, Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis (Dordrecht, 2013); J. Fessmann (ed.), Strategic Climate Change Communications: Effective Approaches to Fighting Climate Change Denial (Wilmington, 2019); S. Maloney, H. Fuenfgeld and M. Gramberg, Local Action on Climate Change: Opportunities and Constraints (2017).

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MONTHLY BLOG 91, PEOPLE SOMETIMES SAY: ‘WE DON’T LEARN FROM THE PAST’ AND WHY THAT STATEMENT IS COMPLETELY ABSURD

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)

People sometimes say, dogmatically but absurdly: ’We don’t learn from the Past’. Oh really? So what do humans learn from, then? We don’t learn from the Future, which has yet to unfold. We do learn in and from the Present. Yet every moment of ‘Now’ constitutes an infinitesimal micro-instant an unfolding process. The Present is an unstable time-period, which is constantly morphing, nano-second by nano-second, into the Past. Humans don’t have time, in that split-second of ‘Now’, to comprehend and assimilate everything. As a result, we have, unavoidably, to learn from what has gone before: our own and others’ experiences, which are summed as everything before ‘Now’: the Past.

It’s worth reprising the status of those temporal categories. The Future, which has not yet unfolded, is not known or knowable in its entirety. That’s a definitional quality which springs from the unidirectional nature of Time. It does not mean that the Future is either entirely unknown or entirely unknowable. As an impending temporal state, it may beckon, suggest, portend. Humans are enabled to have considerable information and expectations about many significant aspects of the Future. For example, it’s clear from past experience that all living creatures will, sooner or later, die in their current corporeal form. We additionally know that tomorrow will come after today, because that is how we habitually define diurnal progression within unilinear Time. We also confidently expect that in the future two plus two will continue to equal four; and that all the corroborated laws of physics will still apply.

And we undertake calculations, based upon past data, which provide the basis for Future predictions or estimates. For example, actuarial tables, showing age-related life expectancy, indicate group probabilities, though not absolute certainties. Or, to take a different example, we know, from expert observation and calculation, that Halley’s Comet is forecast to return into sight from Earth in mid-2061. Many, though not all, people alive today will be able to tell whether that astronomical prediction turns out to be correct or not. And there’s every likelihood  that it will be.

Commemorating a successful prediction,
in the light of past experience:
a special token struck in South America in 2010 to celebrate
the predicted return to view from Planet Earth
of Halley’s Comet,
whose periodicity was first calculated by Edward Halley (1656-1742)

Yet all this (and much more) useful information about the Future is, entirely unsurprisingly, drawn from past experience, observations and calculations. As a result, humans can use the Past to illuminate and to plan for the Future, without being able to foretell it with anything like total precision.

So how about learning from the Present? It’s live, immediate, encircling, inescapably ‘real’. We all learn in our own present times – and sometimes illumination may come in a flash of understanding. One example, as Biblically recounted, is the conversion of St Paul, who in his unregenerate days was named Saul: ‘And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus; and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven. And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”’1 His eyes were temporarily blinded; but spiritually he was enlightened. Before then, Saul was one of the Christians’ chief persecutors, ‘breathing out threatening and slaughter’.2 Perhaps a psychologist might suggest that his intense hostility concealed some unexpressed fascination with Christianity. Nonetheless, there was no apparent preparation, so the ‘Damascene conversion’ which turned Saul into St Paul remains the classic expression of an instant change of heart. But then he had to rethink and grow into his new role, working with those he had been attempting to expunge.

A secular case of sudden illumination appears in the fiction of Jane Austen. In Emma (1815), the protagonist, a socially confident would-be match-maker, has remained in ignorance of her own heart. She encourages her young and humble protégé, Harriet Smith, to fancy herself in love. They enjoy the prospect of romance. Then Emma suddenly learns precisely who is the object of Harriet’s affections. The result is wonderfully described.3 Emma sits in silence for several moments, in a fixed attitude, contemplating the unpleasant news:

Why was it so much worse that Harriet should be in love with Mr Knightley, than with Frank Churchill? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet’s having some hope of a return? It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself!

I remember first reading this novel, as a teenager, when I was as surprised as Emma at this development. Since then, I’ve reread the story many times; and I can now see the prior clues which Austen scatters through the story to alert more worldly-wise readers that George Knightley and Emma Woodhouse are a socially and personally compatible couple, acting in concert long before they both (separately) realise their true feelings. It’s a well drawn example of people learning from the past whilst ‘wising up’ in a single moment. Emma then undertakes some mortifying retrospection as she gauges her own past errors and blindness. But she is capable of learning from experience. She does; and so, rather more artlessly, does Harriet. It’s a comedy of trial-and-error as the path to wisdom.

As those examples suggest, the relationship of learning with Time is in fact a very interesting and complex one. Humans learn in their own present moments. Yet the process of learning and education as a whole has to be a through-Time endeavour. A flash of illumination needs to be mentally consolidated and ‘owned’. Otherwise it is just one of those bright ideas which can come and as quickly go.   Effective learning thus entails making oneself familiar with a subject by repetition, cogitation, debating, and lots of practice. Such through-Time application applies whether people are learning physical or intellectual skills or both. The role of perspiration, as well as inspiration, is the stuff of many mottoes: ‘practice makes perfect’; ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again’; ‘stick at it’; ‘never stop learning’; ‘trudge another mile’; ‘learn from experience’.

Indeed, the entire corpus of knowledge and experience that humans have assembled over many generations is far too huge to be assimilated in an instant. (It’s actually too huge for any one individual to master. So we have to specialise and share).

So that brings the discussion back to the Past. It stretches back through Time and onwards until ‘Now’. Of course, we learn from it. Needless to say, it doesn’t follow that people always agree on messages from former times, or act wisely in the light of such information. Hence when people say: ‘We don’t learn from the Past’, they probably mean that it does not deliver one guiding message, on which everyone agrees. And that’s right. It doesn’t and there isn’t.

One further pertinent point: there are rumbling arguments around the question – is the Past alive or dead? (With a hostile implication in the sub-text that nothing can really be learned from a dead and vanished Past.) But that’s not a helpful binary. In other words, it’s a silly question. Some elements of the past have conclusively gone, while many others persist through time.4 To take just a few examples, the human genome was not invented this morning; human languages have evolved over countless generations; and the laws of physics apply throughout.

Above all, therefore, the integral meshing between Past and Present means that we, individual humans, have also come from the Past. It’s in us as well as, metaphorically speaking, behind us. Thinking of Time as running along a pathway or flowing like a river is a common human conception of temporality. Other alternatives might envisage the Past as ‘above’, ‘below’, ‘in front’, ‘behind’, or ‘nowhere specific’. The metaphor doesn’t really matter as long as we realise that it pervades everything, including ourselves.

1 Holy Bible, Acts 9: 3-4.

2 Ibid, 9:1.

3 J. Austen, Emma: A Novel (1815), ed. R. Blythe (Harmondsworth, 1969), p. 398.

4 P.J. Corfield, ‘Is the Past Dead or Alive? And the Snares of Such Binary Questions’, BLOG/62 (Feb.2016).

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