some rhetoric

I know I haven’t posted much here recently (mainly because I’ve been a bit busy with research that is far too dull to post here), but thought I’d upload this exerpt from a debate paper I wrote. It was originally in response to a lame question like, ‘Is religion the cause of the worlds problems?’  but it provoked some quite neat expressions of my position on some other issues. For the record, I was writing for the opposition (No) side.

…With the Middle East conflict, as with all conflicts, there are two conflicting sides. But the real divide between sides is not between Jewish Israelis and Muslim Arabs. Which of those sides one might take is, to a large extent, irrelevant. The religious divide is not the real divide. The real divide is, as always, between those who think it is possible to justify violence against innocent people; and those who do not.

The first side – which has held the balance of power for too long – believe that there are circumstances under which there are sufficient reasons for innocent people to be violently harmed. ‘Harm’, in this case, might involve blowing people up or shooting at them; but it can also be taking their homes, throwing rocks at them, kidnapping them, stealing from them, refusing them medical supplies. (It’s important to note, as John Stuart Mill does, that ‘causing offence’, unless there is good reason to believe that offence will provoke violence, does not constitute actual harm. If it did, then we would have to put health warnings on debate chambers, comedy clubs and anywhere else where people are free to voice their opinions).

Those who lie on this first side of the divide use many means to justify violent harm (or to explain it away). Generally such justification means invoking past events, tribal differences, or, admittedly, religious metaphysical claims – for example, the will of a God or Gods. And, it is true, those who base justification for harm on such metaphysical claims often do the most terrible harm of all, because there is nothing in the physical world that can disprove their reasoning.

But that is not the same as saying that religion is the dividing factor, let alone the cause of harm. Many people hold metaphysical beliefs without ever feeling the need to cause harm as a result; and so we must conclude that religion does not always divide people. However substantial the specific differences of their metaphysical beliefs are, how real that divide feels to many people, it is in fact only a superficial dividing line; far from being divided by religion, those on the side of violent harm are in fact united by their mutual taste for, or tolerance of, tribalist inhumanity.

Now, on the other side of this divide are those us for whom nothing in this world, or beyond it, can justify violent harm to an innocent person.

We do not attempt to defend any military action which harms non-militants.

We do not consider any past event to be a justification for killing in the present or future.

We stubbornly refuse to lay blame along tribal lines, and we firmly believe that one must publicly condemn the violence of one’s own tribe just as vocally as one condemns the violence of another: failure to do this is equal to justifying the violence of one’s own tribe.

In the Middle East, We are not crudely ‘pro-Israel’ or ‘pro-Palestine’. We are, in fact, pro-Israel because we are pro-Palestine, and we are pro-Palestine because we are pro-Israel: we recognise that neither will have security, economic development and a good quality of life until both do, and every act of harm committed against a non-combatant from either tribe can only further endanger those on the other.

And certainly, we seek to explain and understand the psychology of violence, but we never do so in order to justify it. We will not be held responsible, as those on the other side of this divide are, for violent harm to innocents of any religion or tribe – except in our failure to condemn and hold to account those who have caused that harm.

Now, many of us, too, hold religious convictions. I am not one of them. But  for those of us who do, these convictions frequently confirm their belief that the innocent must be protected. Religious and political ideologies can only support this belief; they do not harm it.

Nor, for the record, is it either a left-wing nor a right-wing belief. It is a belief in the value of life, the rule of law, and decency towards our fellow humans, which unites both side of the left/right divide, as well as uniting religions.

Still: a divide exists – and all of us are either on one side or the other. But the divide is more significant than mere politics, and more urgent than religion. Religious and political affiliations are used as a tool used by those on the side of cruelty in order to drive a wedge between us. But we must recognise that while innocent lives are at stake, these supposed divisions are not what really divides us.

It is for all of us – religious and secular – to recognise what really divides us, and which side we really want to be on.

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(andrew’s fault)

So while I’m trying to decide whether to start posting my obscenely over-academic university research on here (and finding out if I’m even allowed – I have a feeling it might be the property of the University and thus unpublishable anywhere else), here is a very lengthy response I posted today to this post on Andrew Watts’ superb blog. His basic point is that socialists don’t have the ability to be decent people themselves and want the state to do it for them; and that’s why socialists don’t give blood. I thought I’d repost my response here because it ended up being quite a neat little autobiographical statement of political philosophy – but you should read Andrew’s blog first; as a rule it tends to be funnier than mine anyway, and that’s the important thing…


The last time I tried to give blood, they wouldn’t let me. They looked at me, weighed me, and then said I wasn’t allowed. Your BMI is too low, they said. Really, I said? Yes, they said. If we let you give blood you could have a heart seizure. You should see a doctor actually, they said.

So I went to see my GP, and my GP told me I should try eating meat and stop being such a big (well, small) vegetarian nancy. So, for the sake of my health, I learned to be harsher and not to feel so much remorse for the suffering of less fortunate creatures when it interferes with my own self-interest.

That was ten years ago. From there, it was only a small step to becoming a fan of Nietzsche, who recognised exactly how cruel humans can be if it’s in their own interest, and of course inadvertantly influenced a string of idiots like Rand and Hayek, and indirectly, Thatcher. She’d been long out of office, but I was able to recognize then that I had hated her through my childhood for the wrong reasons. I had mistakenly hated her, for the reason most people, as you say, still hate the Tories – for being cruel. But she wasn’t a bad Prime Minister because she was cruel; she was a bad Prime Minister simply because she had, if anything, much too positive a view of humans – she thought that if we were freer to be independent as entrepreneurial capitalists, then we would also be freer to be responsible and kind to each other as individuals. But what happened under Thatcher was social carnage; her liberalism was too radical and people who were suddenly able to make a lot of money didn’t bother to look after those who were less able, or those who didn’t regard the acquisition of wealth as being the telos of human existence.

For a while, I admired New Labour then; they recognised that if the wealthy were going to actually contribute anything of substance for the less advantaged, they were going to need a bit more encouragement. New Labour weren’t socialists because they didn’t want to compel the advantaged to help the disadvantaged – or at least, Blair didn’t – but they did at least try to come up with ways in which it could happen: academies, foundation hospitals, PPPs etc. But these were never going to work: when organisations with their own interests (whether that is profit or religious influence) get power over things like transport or education or healthcare, they were never going to act primarily in the interests of transport or education or healthcare as being intrinsically worthwhile; they were always going to use those things as instruments of their own interest (generally profit). So rail fares become unaffordable; academy schools get more obsessed with exam results in the short term and will lose good teachers – and possibly their buildings – in the long term.

This might not be intentional, it might not even be conscious most of the time, and it’s not that people aren’t ‘kind’; it’s that when kindness gets in the way of their own immediate goals, their own goals come first. This is because people are, at bottom, selfish.  And this is what socialists understand.

As much as it might seem to go against the Sixth-form-common-room debate of “wouldn’t socialism be nice/no it won’t work because people are selfish”, in the real world socialists are the ones who DO recognise that people are selfish. 

And so I actually do accept your premise that socialism is about outsourcing your kindness – although actually I think it’s about outsourcing responsibility for your kindness – but if it is, it’s because they recognise that otherwise the kindness won’t get done. Capitalism would never have been so successful if the rich had noticed people were starving and done something about it.  

Now personally, I’m not a socialist because, having become a flesh-eating Nietzschean, I don’t see any obligation at all in moral kindness. For the sake of basic human decency and my own safety, I’m in favour of personal responsibility – but it needs to be given gradually, not thrust upon us. And in the meantime, we need to be compelled by law to help the less fortunate, otherwise they won’t get helped and then they’ll revolt.

So, the consequences of this: a few years ago I abandoned the Labour Party, whose tribe I had, in the first place, been indoctrinated into by my mother, a high Anglican from Liverpool, who quite correctly regarded Jesus’ agape-or-hell law/compulsion as being profoundly socialist in nature. Jesus, too, thought that people are equal in the eyes of God, but basically selfish and need compelling to be kind: and socialism is the practice of positing the (empirically false) claim that all people are of equal value and then, as you say, adding that the more well-off must be compelled, by the threat of punishment (ie hell) if necessary, to be kind as a result. And hell is a pretty tough punishment for breaking the only human law Jesus set out and not loving your neighbour.

Anyway, I deserted the Labour Party but didn’t give up hope: individual people CAN be decent to each other without such compulsion;but you can’t do it by just taking all the support away and leaving them to it. It will take a long gradual time to get there, but it’s possible; the state should be dismantled very, very slowly, and give plenty of practical transitional support in the meantime. I like to call this ideology Pragmatic Gradualist Anarchism. Some people, I think, call it Liberalism.

So this year – regrettably, now – I decided to join the Liberal Democrats, and I even campaigned for them – in a Liberal vs. Labour seat. I did that because they seemed to be pretty sensible about gradually pushing against state authoritarianism while still providing support for people to be decent to each other. (And also because, having taught Politics for a few years now, I’ve become deeply, deeply dissatisfied that the FPTP voting system is representative of what people actually want and so doesn’t provide proper legitimacy.)

So, to answer your point: the reason I’ve been bombarding facebook with annoyed messages is not because I want my kindness to need outsourcing, or because I’m opposed to the idea of personal responsibility and lower taxation and so on. I’m angry at the spending review because the party I campaigned for have done the political equivalent of promising to help us build a plane and learn to fly, and then joined up with a bunch of people who like pushing people off cliffs and pushed us all of a cliff. And we’re going do hit the ground hard, our most vulnerable parts first.

The people who hate the Tories for that aren’t wrong to point out that they are so personally wealthy that they are cutting things they will never personally have to depend on. And they aren’t wrong to point out that George Osbourne smiled a lot during and after his Spending Review speech, and seemed proud of the cuts to quality of life that he’d made on other people’s behalf.

Personally, I’m glad I wasn’t allowed to give blood. Because I’d only have done it so that I could take the credit, but it would have really hurt.

But I wonder if perhaps Osbourne wouldn’t give blood either if he could get a poor person to do it and still take personal credit…

why i’ve gone a bit quiet again

So I’ve been a bit quiet again the last few weeks, but it’s mainly because I’ve started this thing which has been taking up a bit of time…(mumbles incoherently)

…all right, so I’ve basically started a PhD. Don’t worry, you won’t have to call me Doctor or anything. Not unless I’m examining your vagina with a torch.*

But I’ve enrolled to do some doctoral research at Sussex University (because the lecturers there are super) on the philosophy of stand-up. Yes, that’s right. The philosophy of stand-up comedy. And I’ve spent the last three weeks writing a short piece on John Morreall’s philosophy of laughter. I’m trying to decide whether to publish it here or not…

* copyright Toby Williams 2007

poor and happy

Contrary to popular belief, London is a great place to be skint.

I mean, I’m only temporarily skint because I thought I was going to get paid on Friday and wasn’t, which left me with £6 to last me almost a week. And I think London is a very difficult place to be permanently poor.

But there’s SO much to do here for little or no money that I sometimes wonder why I bother spending money at all.

Yesterday I made a packed lunch (total cost: £1.20), got a bendybus (obviously) from my house to Trafalgar Square, and walked over the river to the National Theatre bookshop where I spent an hour quite happily sitting around reading Aristophanes’ Clouds and a bunch of books about comic performance.

Then I walked back up to Trafalgar Square to the National Gallery where I spent ages with the Velasquez paintings;

and also this incredible painting by Philips Koninck (it’s just called ‘Extensive Landscape with a Road by a River’). It’s a fairly ordinary landscape but the canvas is huge – and just look at all that sky! It takes up almost two-thirds of the picture! It’s incredible, there is so much openness in it…

Anyway, then I got another bendybus to the house in Finsbury Park where I used to live, where my friends gave me tea and nuts and tolerated my ill-qualified relationship advice; and then home to listen to the Manic Street Preachers’ new LP (which is, incidentally, outstanding) on spotify. Which, to be fair, I pay £10 a month for so I don’t have to get advertised at, but that’s still ridiculously cheap considering that a few years ago I’d have paid more than that for the Manics album alone.

And that’s just scratching the surface. Today I’m thinking I might go for a walk around Regent’s Park, or go to a free comedy gig, or treat myself to a £1.50 film at the Prince Charles Cinema, or go to the Tate Modern, or the British Museum, or the library…

in case you were worried

As an addendum to that last post, it’s worth pointing out that I wrote it about a week and a half ago, on a day when I was not in an especially good mood.

Since then, I’ve found somewhere quite good to live, done some really fun gigs, done some work on fixing personal relationship-type things that are unbloggable but really did need fixing, and more or less stopped drinking alcohol at all.

Just so you don’t worry or anything.

the wisdom of silenus

There’s a reason why comedians shouldn’t be allowed near alcohol. I think we’re fairly well-disposed to misery anyway, but people prone to annual post-Edinburgh anticlimactic mood slumps shouldn’t drink at all.

Not everyone gets the post-festival depression, of course – some comics I’ve spoken to just came back exhausted.

But there seems to be a fair bit of depression about. And it doesn’t seem to matter whether you stop drinking (as is most sensible, despite the alcohol-withdrawal period) or carry on and just accept that you’ve become an alcoholic.

I know so many stand-ups who don’t drink at all; they don’t need naming here, but if you know any then just ask around and you’ll find a higher than normal percentage of teetotallers. Meanwhile, the ones who do drink probably drink too much.

This is possibly because, Edinburgh aside, drinking – like comedy – is both a relaxant and a downer. They are both mechanisms for those who know just what a bleak and shitty thing life is, and understand that the only alternative to nihilism and suicide is to embrace it anyway, to make something joyful out of it, to create laughter out of pain.

Which is what comedians and alcoholics generally tend to be addicted to.

If you’re fully committed to one mechanism, it’s likely that you’ll either have to forgo the other – or embrace it just as completely.

I think the Greeks were probably onto something with their myths about Silenus. He was the closest companion – often, it’s said, even the tutor – of Dionysus, the god of wine and orgies and music and loss of control.

Basically, Silenus was the guy who taught fun to the god of fun.

In art, he’s pretty much always depicted drunk. Old, bald, and drunk. Sometimes he also has the ears and legs of a horse, but I think that’s probably irrelevant.

Anyway, for those of you who are not familiar with it from The Birth of Tragedy or whatever, the story goes that one day, King Midas – yes, that one – was trying to find the secret of happiness, the thing that is most desirable for humans to have. Midas did that kind of thing, and it tended to get him into trouble. You remember the gold-touching thing.

On one occasion he went to speak to Silenus. Silenus repeatedly refused to tell him, so Midas did what any smart king would do and got Silenus drunk. Eventually, Silenus laughed and burst out,

“Oh wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do you compel me to tell you what it would be better for you not to hear? What is best for you is utterly beyond your reach: it is not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing! But the second best for you is – to die soon.”

Remember – this was Mr. Fun. This is what Mr. Funny Funtimes, the man who taught fun to the god of fun, can only admit when he’s drunk.

Most alcoholics and most good comedians understand the bleak pointlessness of existence all the time, and never more than in the weeks after an Edinburgh run. The laughter stops and we get left with – what?

Overdrafts; insomnia; distraction; collapsing relationships, homelessness (if, like me, you were dumb enough to leave your house to go to Edinburgh)…

And then we come back to London and we make stupid judgements.

And nobody stops us.

We shouldn’t be allowed.

ramblin’ man

I woke up yesterday morning in a backpacker hostel in King’s Cross. It was the fifth bed I’d woken up in since the previous Monday.

To be honest, it’s been a challenging week. The first week back from Edinburgh always is, but I don’t usually try to do it homeless. Also I don’t usually drink so much and make so many bad judgments.

Unlike the weeks before Edinburgh, when I quite enjoyed the whole travelling thing, I’d quite like to go home now, if only I had one to go to. Since I woke up – massively hungover – in the empty Edinburgh flat last Monday, I’ve slept in my sister and brother-in-laws’ spare room, my mother’s house in Northampton, Loz’s house in Stoke Newington, and last night’s hostel bed.

The hostel was quite nice, in fact; and perversely, the nights you’d expect to be the alcoholic ones (the backpacker hostel and the night I met Loz in the pub and stayed at his house) have been the most civilized. It was pretty great to see Loz because I missed him in Edinburgh – he was busy getting engaged instead, which is kind of beautiful and also kind of terrifying because he and his girlfriend have always been glowing beacons of successful cohabitation. It means there’s more steps to settling than I’m anywhere near.

Hell, I don’t even have a house.

More importantly, I don’t really have a home. My mother’s flat in Northampton feels kind of homely and very loving, but I’ve never lived there and I can’t seem to relate to Northampton at all any more. I know I was born there, but my parents weren’t and I might as well have been born in Leicester or Salisbury or Tewkesbury for all the ancestral attachments I’ve got to the place. Getting off the train into the sunlight and the familiar smell of hops from the Carlsberg factory was nice, but people do often feel strange genetic links to places (whether it’s from unique climates or from generations of their ancestors eating from the soil or whatever) and I don’t feel it with Northampton. It’s just a big, weird suburban sprawl in the middle of England, and to cope with being there on Saturday I had to get stupendously drunk in the kind of bar where everyone drinks cocktails out of coconut shells and pretends that their lives aren’t being wasted.

In fact, the only really fulfilling thing that I’ve got out of Northampton this week was finding out from my mum that its greatest ever MP Charlie Bradlaugh (who is one of my all-time political heroes) supposedly once had an affair with Ellen Terry, (who – as well as being a distant relative of mine – was also supposedly the greatest actress of the Victorian age). It just seems like the perfect Politics/Showbiz match-up and I like that there’s some of my genetics in it.

But neither Terry nor Bradlaugh ever stayed put either, partly because both had dangerous habits of getting involved in both foreign and domestic politics. And Northampton’s such a dodgy Middle England swing town now that it would never return someone as ballsy as Bradlaugh even once, let alone four times. That town can’t be my home.

The closest place I have to a home is London. Well, specifically Crouch End. But the only evening I’ve spent there this week, I accidentally crashed a party, missed my train and ended up learning things that maybe would have made me act differently a long time ago if only I’d realized them when it wasn’t all too late. Then I shot myself in the foot again the next day via email.

Ah, well. Things appear and things disappear.

Anyway, the point is that I do love moving around all the time, but I’ve done it for a few months now and I think I need to stop somewhere. I never thought I’d be a settling-down-white-picket-fence-kinda-guy. But I’m homeless and tired right now, and perhaps I could be persuaded.