Mere Civility

sɪˈvɪlɪti

noun – formal politeness and courtesy in behaviour or speech.

“I hope we can treat each other with civility and respect”

(Courtesy, courteousness, politeness, mannerliness, graciousness, consideration, respect, urbanity, cordiality.)

It’s autumn; the clocks have gone back and the nights are getting dark…. So it’s time to start rolling the ‘relevant complexity’ dice again – for audio accompaniment to cooking, cleaning up the kitchen and stacking the dishwasher.

On Tuesday the dice said listen to a Philosophy Bites podcast

So I did; and listened to a fascinating one with Teresa M. Bejan from Oxford University on the topic of civility:

It’s here

Looking for more, I found her book ‘Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration’

As the synopsis rightly says:

Today, politicians and intellectuals warn that we face a crisis of civility and a veritable war of words polluting our public sphere.

In liberal democracies committed to tolerating diversity as well as active, often heated disagreement, the loss of this conversational virtue appears critical.

But is civility really a virtue? Or is it, as critics claim, a covert demand for conformity that silences dissent?

This is exactly what I was talking about with a former colleague of mine, in a lovely walk in the autumn sunshine past the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ yesterday.

Surely the disfiguring scaffolding all over it, is a reminder of how much democracy and civility need bracing in this country – and many others – right now.

Back to ‘Mere Civility’… it turns out that:

Many of the pressing questions facing liberal democracies today – what the proper scope of liberty should be and how to handle partisanship and hate speech – closely recall early modern concerns about the limits of toleration and the dangers posed by sectarianism, evangelical expression, and so-called “persecution of the tongue.”

Then as a now, thinkers appealed to civility as a way to reconcile the tension between diversity and disagreement, but determining what civility requires can be complicated.  While some restraint on expression is surely necessary to make disagreement tolerable, accusations of “incivility” can easily become pretexts for persecution.

The issue with civility is it feels weak and insipid, if it appears to allow bad things to be said. But when institutions close ‘protest’ down, there’s an equal fear that ‘free speech’, the legitimate right to be angry and to demand change is being curtailed.

I’ve spent significant parts of the last few weeks – at my university – writing new policies and procedures which walk this tightrope.

In work, in politics and at home, I’m an advocate for civility – if you’re not even prepared to listen there’s not much hope of reasonable accommodation or collective progress.

But the suffragettes weren’t civil, Malcolm X wasn’t civil and some of the protesters we host at work aren’t either; but the things they were and are fighting for are good things.

Theresa Bejan argues for ‘mere civility‘ – the absolute bare minimum of it:

that allows for rude, rambunctious, honest debate without the disputants attempting to eject each other from society, 

That’s the baseline I’m defending at work; but I must say I’d like to see a bit more civility than we have.

As a middle-aged, middle-class white ‘family man’ that’s easy to say – all society’s norms are tuned to me. If I was a woman, black, gay or poor I might see things very differently.

Perhaps ‘mere civility’ is right – we shouldn’t seek to be too comfortable in a world full of inequality.

Diced Relevant-Complexity

Having codified it three years ago, I amply proved the central premise of relevantcomplexity.com:

“But then, subtly and imperceptibly, sometimes even the things we once enjoyed the most, tail off into familiarity, boredom and ennui.”

I got bored of it.

Thanks goodness for Sonja Lyubomorsky… in the How of Happiness (which is also a website here) she sets out compelling evidence for two things which have really helped me this winter:

1) Hedonic Adaptation: pretty much anything which happens in your life – house move, significant gain or loss, any purchase from car to Concorde – you will have adapted to within three months; and then very importantly…

2) Happiness Set Point: you always return, inexorably, to your genetically determined default happiness setting; as proven by identical and non-identical twin studies. If you’re a miserable so and so, you likely always will be; if you’re a ray of sunlight, the same. Identical twins separated – with completely different life circumstances – have almost identical happiness levels. Non-identical twins living near identical lives, have widely divergent default happiness levels.

This sounds like a recipe for Stoicism (of which more anon). But the good news is you can better your Happiness Set Point – not by getting a better job, car or house… but by tricking yourself. The only way to beat your Happiness Set Point is to catch yourself out!

This explains (and links) my experience with Relevant Complexity and Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow”. My Happiness Set Point is a comparatively gloomy one. I was (initially) enjoying Relevant Complexity because of the variety and novelty. Then Hedonic Adaptation kicked in, “flow” went away – and inexorably and inevitably like a Newton’s Cradle I returned to my default ‘same old same old’ Happiness Set Point and lost enthusiasm for Relevant Complexity.

But now I’m back! The secret? Dice…

As Sonja Lyubomirsky sets out, the key is to trick yourself. So now I have dice and lists. When I’m pottering in the kitchen: the dice decide whether I’ll listen to a podcast, an audio book, the news in Italian, classical music, 80s hits, footie or talk radio. And each time I get bored; simple – roll again.

Similarly in a morning instead of fighting the randomness of which bus arrives first (and it’s never the one I want) I’m just hopping on. Make some progress, watch the world go by and change where there are more options. Embracing – even imposing – randomness seems to brighten up both me and my day. And it has certainly got me back doing the Relevant Complexity thing again.

But I’m not kidding myself… I’ve got three months before I have to come up with something new; you can’t cheat Hedonic Adaptation and your Happiness Set Point for long!

Relevant Complexity

Relevant Complexity Link

Here’s to a brand new year.

And to celebrate I’ve bashed out a new blog, based on what I’ve learned about life, the world and everything since I started Achilles and Aristotle in 2010.

Time flies – or rather it doesn’t; a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. But ‘Relevant Complexity’ was a fairly early discovery, I first wrote about it in January 2012 here.

Like all good things in the writing life, the more you write about it, the more you think about it, the more it changes you and what you do – Aristotle said as much.

I’ll plan to keep both blogs going: this one as a reminder of what I was up to in years to come; the new one to remind me to live for the day and enjoy a life full of ‘Relevant Complexity’.

Dasein

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Heidegger is a notoriously heavy read – and a controversial one, given he lived in Germany through two world wars and after. His concept of Dasein – the world as perceived and lived in by humans has made me think though.

It’s easy to imagine there’s a world without us. Of course there is. Surely? A world of maths, logic, science and mindless physical processes. Not to mention a less thought-filled living world of birds and beasts – nature red in tooth and claw.

So what’s so special about humans that Heidegger says we define our very own universe? I think I get his point. Everything we see, refer to, understand and know is in fact self-referring – it is based on human experiences, human timescales, human sensory apparatus and the human scale.

We can’t truly understand or describe the world from the point of view of an ant, let alone from the perspective of a celestial body. But a celestial body is dead, so it has no perspective surely? If I read Heidegger right – I think it does.

Knowledge, wisdom, trial and error, mindless and mindful – the course of the universe is to record more and more information in itself including embodied intelligence – information stored in physical forms.

In the same way as an ant contains within it information about carbon-based life, geological time and the process of evolution; even the most basic planet contains information about the elements, supernovae and stellar aeons which led to it.

From the blinding simplicity of the Big Bang to the unimaginably vast store of data which is a galaxy – let alone a universe of them – the course of ‘life’ has been captured, recorded, embodied and stored in both vast and minuscule stores of accumulated ‘relevant complexity’ – in effect: information.

As Heidegger suggests, our mentally comprehensible portion of this recorded information is determined by our embodied human faculties and timescales. But for the ant or the celestial body the ‘recording’ is at vastly different scales. Dasein or the ‘human universe’ is but a tiny portion of this. And what each of us sees and understands of it, is but the portion lit by our own tiny flickering candle.

That we see and understand even that much, is an accident of stellar and evolutionary history – our tiny illuminated moment in space and time. But for each of us it is a very fortunate and beautiful one. And Heidegger invites us to live it to the full.

Irrelevant Complexity 1) – Odd Jobs

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‘Relevant complexity’ is my theory of everything: satisfaction and joy arise from the pursuit of complex, worthwhile and comparatively challenging pursuits.

Art history, particle physics, the raising of children, the preparation and enjoyment of good food etc etc – all relevantly complex.

You need to learn, improve, occasionally triumph – and sometimes feel you actually know almost nothing – to achieve the satisfaction of mastering relevant complexity with a good degree of skill.

Then there are hobbies. Same effect Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ – as one become adept or expert but some risks: becoming a bore or solitary obsessive. I have achieved ‘flow’ by hoovering well, even cleaning a fridge. But these are not monuments to my life’s work or relevantly complex pursuits I’d want defining who I am.

What’s in? An eclectic and erratic list: cooking, relevant; gardening, chore. Writing, relevant; drawing embarrassment. Cleaning the fish tank, chore (and only tolerable if I’m left to do it properly) odd jobs, drilling and hanging things source of great irritation and angst. Why?

Because it’s hard to get odd jobs right. Our walls are rubbish, you only ever do a thing once – so you make maximum mistakes, never get the chance to practice what you’ve learned. And the smallest thing can take disproportionate time for a disappointing effect; which then stares down at you in reproach for years. Aaargh. Irrelevant complexity.

My latest botched odd job stares down at me here:

Curtain derailed
DIY failed
Drooping drapes
In awkward shapes
Lots of screws
And hacksaw blades
Variety of fixings
Wobbling and fiddling
Scarcely blocking the sky
Humble pie.

But every cloud has a silver lining. After three separate wasted days on and off up ladders, with hacksaws, at the DIY shop, I definitively gave up in a huff on our lounge curtains.

Then a miracle intervened. My beloved took to the ladders, took up the drill and made it all hang together. Perhaps she found it satisfying enough that she might become Oddjob now… Fingers crossed.

Writing

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Is there a better thing than writing? While I’m not with the 20th century British philosophers who said language is all there is, I am with Aquinas. He’d say that, along with body and soul, language is a defining part of the human experience.

20th century norms made writing a minority sport – one for the professional. The rise of social media in the 21st century means we can all have a go.

I find if I don’t get the chance to write something, the day feels unfulfilled. And if (rarely) I’ve a moment with nothing I have to do, writing – or reading someone else’s writing – is the first thing I want to do.

For twenty years – from university to my 42nd year – I didn’t write anything for my own pleasure at all. Thank goodness for the invention of iPhone as my carry along notebook. I couldn’t be happier than when tapping out a bit of text with my right thumb.

Lights Down

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Months back – having discovered ‘relevant complexity’ in Saint Saëns Organ Symphony no 3 – I booked two tickets for the Royal Albert Hall.

After a long old week, neither me or the missus fancied it much. I tried to offload the tickets to my folks – nothing doing. So I asked my daughter if she wanted to go? ‘Why yes’ she said brightly.

Pace 6pm. And smartly dressed, armed with a bag of sweets, we set off. After a nice vanilla ice, we took our seats and had a good look at the splendid scene. Huge dome, red plush, gold fittings – and the enormous great organ which massively towers at one end of the Royal Albert Hall.

We reckoned that organ was about the size of our house; the illuminated organ ‘loft’ about the size of her bedroom. But a good deal tidier I pointed out to her; and a good job too or the organist would never find his music. She was not amused.

Then lights down, orchestra in, conductor up and away we went. Berlioz to get the players warmed up, then onto Saint Saëns. But my little one was nodding. A pale face, tired eyes, fiddling with her little shoulder purse – she was knackered.

A whisper: ‘How long to the organ?’ 12 minutes I said. A minute later ‘how long to the organ Dad?’ Five minutes I lied. Five minutes later: ‘how long to the organ?’ Two minutes I gestured silently.

And her eyes gently closed and she was asleep. Moments later BAHHHM! And the roof of the Albert Hall nearly blew off. Her eyes snapped open. ‘That’s the organ’ I said.

She stared wide eyed. And then the lead in her eyelids weighed them down again. And silently she slept through one of the loudest crescendos – on one of the largest organs in the world. Just a twitch of her brow at the final booming finale which made your tripes vibrate.

Proud of her. She did great. A memorable night out and a good chuckle. We were both shattered. But sometimes you have to dig deep to get the best from life. A night out with my big brave girl was a performance I’ll remember forever.

Relevant Complexity 6) Superhumans

ImageThe most moving thing I’ve seen in a long time is the Channel 4 ‘superhumans’ clip to preview the London 2012 Paralympics. Just watch it.

The music, the muscles, the missing limbs and pieces of bodies, the bomb, the womb, the car smash, the slap of the basket long shot. It’s stunning.

But the bit that chokes me up, is the lad in GB shirt number 5101 in the middle. He looks at you like he’s maybe not sure if you’re going to laugh at him, but the almost imperceptible smile suggests he’s starting to believe that after this Paralympics you never will again.

I’m proud of Channel 4 and the UK for taking the ‘dis’ out of disability. There are millions of people round the world who – like those in the video – have to be ‘superhuman’ in their daily lives. All with different stories and obstacles they overcome and some they can’t.

What a way to remind us there’s amazing relevant complexity in people – which we often demean as disability – that too often we, society, employers, even governments choose to look away from and ignore – instead of recognising it as superhuman.

Relevant Complexity 5) Age

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Talking to someone at work, she said she’d been surprised that a very experienced chap in his late 50s had come on a training course.

We concluded that age shouldn’t matter in deciding who gets training. I know plenty of pig-headed twenty and thirtysomethings who’d have got less and will give less as a result of that training course – it’s openness to new ideas that matters.

It dawned on me that nearly all the people I most enjoy conversation and contemplation with, are at least ten years older than me. And many much older. When it comes to thinking about things, you can’t beat the right sort of older person.

Contemporary society glorifies youth. But younger people haven’t always got much to say. Of course there’s freshness and simplicity but relevant complexity in people takes time to grow.

Openness, curiosity and the experience of age are key attributes of the Aristotelian ‘friend in contemplation’. Aquinas’s ‘prudentia’ – practical wisdom – is not innate, it is learned. Wisdom takes time. Forget youth, when comes to interesting people – the oldies are the goodies.

Chaos and Complexity

20120428-170548.jpgI typed ‘Where does complexity come from given entropy?’ into Google this morning. Why? Because my life and work are in pretty good order, so a law of physics which threatens to mess them up is most inconvenient.

Given how hard it is to get anything done at work, given how fragile our lives and life’s works are and given the formidable obstacles to multicellular life a – how on earth do we get from chaos to complexity.

Before Googling, I’d read in the New Scientist that Precambrian alkaline oceans may have forced floppy-walled cells to get a shell – to keep the toxic alkalinity out. Alkaline oceans would also have promoted calcification. A problem and a solution jostling together.

I also read E.O. Wilson, the Harvard sociobiologist, explaining that the simplest way to understand complex human motivations, is the constant competitive/cooperative interplay between our loyalty to ourselves and that we pay to tribes and collectives -which give us faith, identity, mythologies and protection.

Speaking of which, high up the Google list of answers to my complexity vs entropy question was our old friend God. If the second law of thermodynamics demands increasing entropy, then a creator and His constant intervention seem to some like our only hope.

But I’m reminded of the classic sociological example I cited at work this week, in favour of not planning big things too much. You’re never more than five minutes from fresh bread in chaotic Paris but couldn’t get it anywhere in centrally planned Moscow – ecosystems are too complex to plan or design.

Instead of God, I preferred a great paper, which came top of the highly evolved ecosystem which is the Google search rank. MIT physicist Michel Baranger writes that the 20th century ‘certainty’ of scientific analysis has given way to the chaos of fractals and non-linearity.

Baranger admits complexity still defies a simple definition. But it does have these six features:

1) Complex systems contain many constituents interacting chaotically.

2) The constituents of a complex system are interdependent.

3) A complex system possesses a structure spanning several scales. (cell, leg, person; building, district, city)

4) A complex system is capable of emergent behaviour. (properties emerge at a higher level which are more than a description of the constituent parts – consciousness, life, society, culture)

5) Complexity involves an interplay between chaos and non-chaos. (if it’s all chaos nothing happens, if there’s no chaos nothing happens either)

6) Complexity involves an interplay between cooperation and competition for resources (the big one – drives reactions, feedback loops, religion, ethics, moral dilemmas, kindness and cruelty)

Fully embracing the messiness of chaos and complexity opens up the possibility that we might come to better understand the biological and social systems which drive us, and which we in turn drive.

The answers won’t be in neat models. But they would be a small step towards what E.O. Wilson calls a ‘New Enlightenment’. An Enlightenment built not on the determinism of Newton’s calculus and Adam Smith’s pin factory. Or on the individualism and reductionism of pure ‘survival of the fittest’. But one recognising that complexity comes from the jostling of chaos and order, competition and cooperation, small scale and large and interdependence of the whole.

What does that mean for my efforts to maintain a well-ordered life? Accepting a meteorite could flatten our house. That disagreements at work and at home are probably the drivers of progress. And that the competing demands on me create, yes, chaos; but also new complexity and the spur to creativity.

A reminder then that chaos and change can’t be avoided – you can only ride the waves not hold back the tide.