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Monthly Archives: September 2006

I’ve been bouncing around a couple of writing sites, just looking for the odd tip hint or topic that might spark my fancy and give wings to my writing again. I went through a intensive burst a little while back, and it seems that I consumed all that was available to spend for the last few weeks.

I found myself intrigued by a little auto-suggestion generator, that popped up topics that it suggested that you should write about just to use as an exercise. It came up with a lot of suggestions, some that I ideally flicked through just to get a feel of the prompter, others that I rejected because they were either too tangential or too personal.

One of the ones that stuck with me as I flicked on by was the invitation to write about ten things that I learned at school that weren’t on the curriculum, and that made me think of just that. I may not have ten things to list, I’m doing this off the top of my head after all on the faintest of whims, so we’ll see were we end up. If you want sappy stories of days gone by, sung to the tune of “these are the days of our lives”, well be warned; I don’t really do that. The lessons I think I learned at school outside of class are quite negative ones.

  1. Money is nice, but having the personality and ability of a pot plant and all the money in the world is still failure.

The Paris Hilton hypothesis I guess this would be called now, but international schools do have a certain type of people going ot them, and they very rarely turn out to be wonderful exciting people while they’re adolescents. I’m not precluding their ability to become decent human beings at 25. Just that most of the people with a lot of money and the intellectual capacity of a tsetse fly are never going to be on my list of good things.

  1. Hong Kong Chinese are not friendly people

Yeah talk about starting on a soft one, but all my exposure to my same aged peers of local Chinese extraction produced what can be considered as 90% negative outcomes, with people who weren’t bothered to get to know anyone outside their real comfort zone. Now back at HKU, I’ve found myself experiencing the same phenomenon. I’ve talked to Mainland Chinese, Dutchman, Australians and a slew of other nationalities, but not one local hong kong student has been inclined to talk. Its just weird. There is a caveat. Locals who go somewhere and then come back, make up some of the best people I know, and are actually some of the most astute, benifitting from both worlds. This doesn’t apply to them.

  1. Stereotypes hold through, 90% of the time

A white boy is going to behave a certain way in the international school set. A brown boy who acts like a white boy, is going to behave in another entirely predictable way. A yellow boy who acts like a white boy is going to act in another entirely predictable way. Boys aren’t special either, girls are the same too. If you know the template, you can get a lot of the picture accurately without having to worry about what the precise details are. Oh sure there are going to be fine details that the broad brush strokes I’ve painted above will miss, but the fine details are rarely relevant. If 90% of a person changes, you have a very different person.

  1. People matter a great deal, but I still don’t like most of them

This warm thought was developed really in my reaction to graduation from Island School, which in its essence for me felt like a true non-event. Others may speak of the lifelong bond of friendship forged at a young age with apt nostalgia, they were young a long time ago, but I suspect that in the end I’ll take maybe 3 friends with me on my journey outwards, and to be honest I suspect that’s not a bad haul. What’s more interesting is the people I’ve realized in hindsight that I don’t really like, that were sometimes reasonably close in school, and people otherwise of good standing. Even more interesting is the people that I didn’t realize I really liked at the time who I got on quite well with at the end and for a long while afterwards.

  1. One person can change the lives of many if they truly want to.

This was the ethos of Island School, and if we had a school motto, perhaps we would have inscribed this appropriately deified in the Latin script to give august inspiration to our students. But instead the institution breathed its logos at us, and yet left me totally unmoved by it. I’m not sure why, but I probably was the least concerned person in Island School about a tremendous variety of causes that everyone else was involved in. I guess I’m not really fussed about changing the world.

  1. When all is said and done, I’m actually a very conservative person

Island school abounded with arts and crafts, opportunities for skills and talents to be learned and displayed, and my response to it was really to shun it all. Inside my pretty traditional Islamic viewpoint, singing and dancing is much more smoke, mirrors and pseudo-intellectual seduction then a meaningful activity. Besides, I never really liked the arts anyway.

  1. Respect is a fluid concept

This little gem Mr. Adams [initials PDA, another one of the tech orientated physics department], my year 13 physics teacher taught me, and others have taught it to me subsequently, but his incompetence and general nonchalance about said incompetence gave him only fifteen minutes of glory in my eyes, and an eternity of dismissive treatment. Mrs. Ferns might get special mention here, but she just makes me angry, and we don’t want it to be personal. I’ve written a lot about respect before on the blog in the horizontal context, but vertical authority respect was first destroyed by the venerable PDA.

I guess this is the end of the list, because certainly I can’t think of any others. In some perspectives the list is extraordinarily negative, that the aspects I’ve selected are rather harsh and unforgiving of my secondary school experience. But I suspect that may well be the case for me. I went to school to get an education, I didn’t want more and so I really didn’t get more either. I didn’t need it to provide me with a social life or with things to do or people to do it with. I never had an interest in people, so it never gave me those people that might cultivate such an interest. School was a nice place to visit, and the football was excellent. But in some respects, I’m glad I didn’t stay.

In the progressive liberal church in which I attended high school, it would be a rare assembly where our charismatic Welsh choirmaster did not preface or conclude the misdeeds of others without the memorable quotation of Edmund Burke; “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”. Recently, in the throes of a little historical revivalism and perhaps not a little influenced by this post, I have been considering whether it in fact holds true, and whether inside the glibness of its wit and the apparent accuracy of its content do not reveal a slight deficiency in its truth.

It sets up some interesting parameters for the question. That good is passive, unmotivated, unexceptional and therefore must be rallied by a potent call to arms, that it must fear the triumph of evil over all good, a dark empire ever enduring in which Good and its cohorts will see no hope. That evil on the other hand, seductive, easy and capricious is the default behavior of the vast hordes of humanity that thrive upon the Earth. That perhaps not everyone is the distilled essence of evil, but rather that without unceasing eternal vigilance, evil will seduce good one day and forever divest it of its innocence. And perhaps the suggestion that deep down inside, we all wish to be seduced and would be if not for the imperative demands of others that we do good.

Of course, as is the wont of words, there is the inherent ambiguity in ‘good’ and ’evil’, as if they were coherent concepts capable of clear dichotomy. Of course in the real world, there are no such clear divisions and the individual person has no recourse either to an absolute indicator of morality that is self-evident or otherwise independently confirmed to be correct, nor is it as easy to abdicate the individual as the agent of moral choice and accept that enforcement of the collective morality is the correct position to maintain. We chose the criteria on which we make our moral choices, chose before it can have moral criteria applied to it.

Secondly I find an interesting exhortation contained within the quote, the exhortation to action. The notion seems to be that passive evil is a virtue, while passive good is not. The man who is evil, has evil thoughts and evil intents but does no evil acts is actually doing something good, because wittingly or unwittingly he is preventing evil from happening. The passively good on the other hand are failing. Their inaction is directly or indirectly to blame for the evil that does occur. They are weighed down by a moral responsibility to act to prevent as much evil as they can, and every instance of evil triumphing is a personal failure. This kind of reasoning parallels closely to my mind the covenant of the Old Testament, where the collective obligations could only be failed or passed collectively. I do not believe that such a moral model naturally finds itself within my derivative moral taxonomy. In a theological and worldly model based on the individual, either as rights, responsibilities, obligations or ownership, such collective reasoning seems flawed.

The other reason that I find myself uninclined to accept Burke’s glib division is that I do not believe really in the exhortation to action. I have always cast myself as the observer, I see what occurs record remember. I do not do, until the moment for doing is correct, where the right action at the right time, weighed before and properly calculated is aimed at the right goal with the right force. I believe that exhortations to action are always flawed if they don’t tell you what the action is and why it is necessary. On the other hand I don’t hold with total passivity. The trick, and as in all things there is a trick, is to wait as long as necessary and not a second longer. Not so easy to do but essential. At some point David has to fight Goliath, but the moment when the pebble is released for maximal impact must be waited for, not hoped for by throwing a hundred pebbles simultaneously. Not all action must be done know, nor should it. That at its core is my objection to Mr. Burke, and those who would weigh upon us the imperative to act

I’ve had this thought percolating in my mind for a while and it very much is a nascent idea still, but I’m starting to feel more and more dissatisfied with the concept of progress and the almost blind faith that people have that the West represents progress, and that progress itself, as defined by the western conceptions, is a good idea.

The thought has been bought into sharpness by three things. The first is the decision of the Bhutanese government to slowly expand the television channels that are allowed into the country, moving towards three or four now instead of the current one. The BBC when running this item highlighted that TV seemed to have had a tremendously disruptive effect on Bhutan’s traditional life style by undermining the family structure and cohesiveness. The contented nature of the Bhutanese lifestyle was being seriously undermined by people watching TV when they should have been doing the things that needed doing in the household and time that had previously been spending with each other was now being sacrificed to the idiot box.

The second of these is the chance to watch again the movie The Last Samurai. This exceptional movie, hidden behind the Hollywood dramatisation, evokes the nostalgia of the old way of life prevalent in Japan in the 19th century, which while acknowledging there was a serious brutality and hierarchy in the order of life, it also allowed for a strong and elegant culture to flower that was in its own unique way at the zenith of cultural development in the age and civilisation it was unique to.

The third, a perennial impression of a visit to India, is the rapid westernisation that India is undergoing, drawn in by the phenomenal rise of the middle class and its desire to live the elegant lives that they believe material satisfaction can bring them. At the same time the traditional moral codes of India are vanishing from these lives; whole societies that are based around them are disappearing between one generation and the next as the values espoused by parents do not inculcate themselves in the hearts of a new generation who believe in the western vision of prosperity and society, who desire the same freedom of choices and variety of options, without shouldering the equivalent level of responsibility and obligation that enables the karmic wheel of society to keep turning and to ensure that each generation is well positioned to step out into the great unknown challenges of their time.

I believe that progress can be broken down into two components, moral and technological. They are interdependent and interconnected; the bounds of the moral defined by what is feasible and the bounds of the permitted defined by what is moral. Yet the quest now I feel in western society is to defy the limits of morality; the absence of a common form of morality except lowest denomination tolerance meaning that the simple act of stubborn denial of the moral imperative is enough to ensure that the technological progression remains unhindered, as it does in regard to genetic cloning or stem cell research where scientists are known to have ‘jurisdiction shopped’ in an attempt to get the best deal for themselves. Many US advocates of embryonic stem cell research do in fact use the argument that other jurisdictions permit the work to be done, as if an all out race to the bottom was actually a moral imperative.

Progression then, as it is advocated and imposed in the age of globalisation is actually really the technological imperative (though arguably the Bush Doctrine and its subscribers advocate a moral position on democracy and freedom as intrinsically good commodities). It is a desire to push the technological imperative in society, and use that as a catalyst for moral change, or to just wait long enough for the moral change to occur. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that in a society where you can push the sale of condoms as sexual safety will casually and unintentionally adopt a looser code of sexual conduct as it gets used to the product and begins to understand all the uses to which it can be put. I would generalise this example, and that societies that transition to the western technology orientated model will inevitably move in the direction set by western societies in terms of social development.

I don’t think it takes a bold social visionary to say that the western model of society is preciously close to failure. America’s deep rooted poverty and self centred focus has been a reason for tears in many parts of the world, not a utopian society of the prosperous in any sense. European integrative socialism and high command economies also totter on the edge of collapse, unable to deal with the social challenges forced upon them by civilisational and religious issues of identity, part of the moral imperative that was so causally dismissed during the middle part of the previous century. Disunity and division sprung by false idols of tolerance and multiculturalism, ideals that are actually incompatible with strong decisive and progressive action promote a fractioning of society, broken of into enclaves of class, race and wealth. While I’m no Marxist and I do not see any revolution of the working classes to be the answer, it does trouble me that this lack of moral dynamism is to be the net path that the modernising world seems to be inclined to take.

There you have the clash of ideals that the concept of Progress encapsulates. The moral imperative is a restraining force on the progress of life, it perhaps prevents the many from living in the best possible of all worlds, but it also creates a thriving cream layer that showcases the best of humanity and its abilities, a system undoable without the support of the multitude. The technological progress is a focus on the many at the expense of the whole, severing people into compartments of material and spiritual needs without understanding the feedback loop that is involved in the process and bringing down the bulwarks upon which the moral imperative is based by its egalitarian process.

I cannot shake the conception that this sacrifice has been made too readily and without any clear understanding of what was lost. The moral imperative has been displaced, perhaps lost from many societies, and failing to recognise their loss as a loss, perceiving it instead as liberation, they argue that all societies should pass down the path of the technological imperative so as to create their vision of a utopia based on the satisfaction of material needs as primary criteria. I think too much of the human soul, the human society and the independent essence of civilisations are casually abandoned in such changes, and I find myself cheering the people of Bhutan and their enlightened leadership, who know that such things should only be taken slowly and in the smallest of baby steps.

The scintillating nature of possibilities is a phenomenon that you are unable to comprehend until you find yourself in the midst of a situation where it rebounds upon itself, creating a heightened sense of its own importance. Causes, effects, options, differences, all shimmer before the eye of the mind in a mind numbing circle of slight variations all commendable in their own rights and equally uncertain and with tenuous results all clearly visible to the minds eye. To this bewitching dilemma, if time sufficiently compressed and dilated can be attached, the vision swims exceedingly fast while the mill of the mind grinds exceedingly fine, creating a problematic swirling mist.

The mind computes these multiplying options endlessly, visions fleetingly flashing across the mind’s eye, slight changes to simple situations with significant consequences,consequencess we probably have only guessed at, most of our guesses probably wrong. Somehow we remain convinced of the false belief that enough thought, enough rationality, enough analysis will enable it to give a clear answer to a question that is beyond the intrinsic ability of the mind to solve, dependant on variables so far beyond its control that restriction is not a possibility and all results are those of rough and ready calculations done on the back of a tissue, with rough approximations and greater or lesser error margins that are themselves unknowable.

The result hits hard and with a cold kernel of truth; its core assertion that this endless shimmying visage is not sustainable, that eventually there will come a moment when all the probabilities must be removed and certainty acquired by a moment of decisive violence. This endless succession of alternatives is not sustainable, and indeed life would not be livable if we were to dwell in the realm of past “‘what ifs”. At the core we understand that the past must be shrouded over, the realms of probability forgotten by the weakness of human memory. The only veils we draw our attention to is that of future choices, all the while knowing that they too are temporary. The fog must be dispersed, for that is the nature of fog.