Sunday, 23 March 2014


Not everyone blogs. Obviously. Not everyone reads blogs. Not everyone reads. So, not surprisingly those of us who either write or read this sort of thing on a regular basis are really not understood by those who don't. But many of them are happy to discuss things at the same level, in person. There are many ways to share ideas. I don't think it matters how we share ideas, only that we do. I think people need to talk to one another to get along, and I think we need to listen.

I do not divide people into those who discuss online and those who don't, I just divide people into those who, somehow, share ideas and opinions in a rational and reasonable way, and those who......don't.

I have wonderful children, a wonderful husband, and wonderful friends. I value their thoughts, ideas, and opinions, even if I don't always agree with them. Quite often our conversations are not about us, but about the world, about history, about philosophy, about art....we talk about stuff. Interesting stuff.

I am very lucky with my kids. In case you are not familiar with my personal life (I know I've picked up a few followers, regular readers here, who I don't actually know, and that's fine) I have a large family: 6 biological kids and 1 adopted. The youngest turns 18 this summer so we can safely call them all grown up, and so I have adult conversations with them. I won't go into details because this is a public blog, and they are entitled to private lives, but I want to explain something.

These are 7 very different young people, and if I count in their partners, there are another 4 young people who I also love very much and whose opinions I am always interested to hear. So  there are 11 very different minds, with different ideas about the world. Different. All different.

What they all share is enthusiasm. Interest. These are not boring people, and they are not bored people. They have things to say. They are things worth saying. And the most important thing any of us ever does is listen.

You must have heard, I'm sure, people who complain that their teenagers don't talk to them, or indeed that they are rude, or they just grunt or whatever. They actively avoid talking to their parents as much as possible. There are definitely no interesting conversations.

I can't imagine that. We've always had these fascinating discussions. Deep, deep conversations, no taboo topics, and all opinions given a chance. It isn't necessary to agree, all that matters is that the conversation, however controversial, is done in such a way that everyone gets their say, and is listened to. Debate, not argument. It can get loud and heated, oh yes, it can. That's OK, passion is good.

But I might ask why their teenagers don't talk to them. Is it because their parents aren't listening when they do?

Anyway, my experience, what I'm used to, is open discussion, so I'm a great fan of it. And of course as they've grown up and their lives have changed the discussions have changed because some of their views have changed, which is normal, and expected. But their core values haven't, because they are good people.

I have laboured the point that these very different minds can talk at length on all sorts of topics, because I am interested as why so often people can't. Why people don't even bother trying.

You know exactly what I'm talking about. People who, for whatever reason, don't want to be reasonable, and don't want to participate in a rational debate. They may be dismissive, or insulting, or apathetic, but they just refuse to follow the basic rules that are necessary when opinions vary, to avoid a fight. Perhaps they enjoy being confrontational, but how do they not see how this affects them and everyone around them? But most of all, what I see is that unreasonable people DON'T LISTEN. Their ears work, they hear words, but they block out any ideas other than their own.

I suppose it's pretty hopeless for me to try and understand the mind of an unreasonable person, because I'm so focused on reason. I'll just be grateful that I am surrounded by reasonable people, and I'll continue to enjoy the fantastic conversations we have.

In my objective of being reasonable, I try to learn about other perspectives. I won't learn anything just talking to people whose opinions and outlook are the same as mine. I deliberately step outside my comfort zone and face the things I object to. I've done this for a very long time. I try to understand what makes people tick, those whose opinions are very different to mine.

It's not easy sometimes. Inside my head are two voices, one screaming objections to what these people are saying, and another one that says just listen. And it isn't easy, and it never gets any easier. But I think it's worth doing.

I'm happy to see that this happens more now than it did maybe 30 years ago. I think people are becoming more open-minded. They may not change their opinions, but they change their attitude. They are more ready to listen to two sides to a story. Or maybe it's just those who I mix with. I'm not sure.

So, I spend a lot of time studying ethics, and not least meta-ethics, as in "how the hell do we decide what is right and wrong anyway?" Hold that thought.

One of the things that I study is the Islamic world. This puts me outside of my comfort zone, but I feel it's something I must try to understand (even if it's only academically) because it's something that crops up constantly in today's world. I can't offer opinions if I don't make the effort to understand it.

Of course plenty of people do just that. They know next to nothing about it but they have plenty of opinions. And frequently these opinions are presented in a way that is unreasonable. Sometimes it's deliberately provocative or offensive. So, again, for whatever reason, these people have chosen to avoid all basic rules of debate, and prefer to just offer an opinion based on ignorance and prejudice. They are entitled to that attitude, but I don't find it very helpful.

The hardest thing to pin down when trying to understand the worldview of other people is how they identify. In my studies I have come across contradictory views on the identity of people in the Muslim world. It seems to be one of those situations where if you ask 12 members of the group in question, you'll get 13 different answers. I've spoken to many women who say they are female first, Muslim second, for example. But I've spoken to many others who say it's the other way around. So I look to experts, rather than individuals, to help me here, and it's no help at all. Some experts say that the Muslim identity is first and foremost just that, that they are Muslims. That their religion defines them. Others say this is not accurate. There is no consensus on this important issue, and that's people for you.

It matters because, for example, an expert I was listening to (Tariq Ramadan) was asked directly if politics and religion could ever be separated within Islam. This is probably the commonest question raised in any such discussion, and while opinions vary, I thought his answer was the most clear. He said:

"I don't think politcs should ever be separated from ethics, and ethics has to do with religion"

And the two voices screamed in my head. I don't think anyone would disagree that politics must be ethical. But ethics from religion?

It has been said that even if you don't personally derive ethics from your religion (perhaps because you don't have one) that it is inescapable that the modern western ethics that we all tend to see as the default is based on a history that was at least highly coloured by religion, and to be precise by Christianity. You don't have to be Christian to have been affected culturally and ultimately ethically by this history. It's unavoidable.

But Islam is based on the same traditions, surely? By lineage it's an Abrahamic tradition. By geography it's a middle-eastern tradition just as Christianity is in origin. There should be more similarities in core values than there are differences. If you look at the big picture Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all siblings, or at least cousins, and while their discussions may be heated or even passionate, it should be possible for them to agree to disagree on details (dogma) while sharing a common set of values. Ethics.

So why doesn't this happen? What's the disconnect?

Remember, we're not talking about fundamentalism here, but about reasonable people. People who care, who take the time to debate, and stick to the rules. But still just can't seem to find common ground.

One reason has been proposed by these experts, and it is that western ethics and religious tradition (with its Christian background, like it or not) focuses on the individual. On his rights and needs. On his value. However, in the Muslim world, the emphasis is on the group, the collective. The rights and needs of the individual are not as important.

Clearly, if this is true, it really is an insurmountable problem. Before you are able to discuss anything else, before you can get to the meta-ethics, before you can ask what is right or wrong, you are faced with "for whom?"

This idea that the rights and needs of the individual are of greater or lesser importance than the rights and needs of the group is not limited to west vs. east, Christian vs. Muslim, or religious vs. non-religious. This is an issue that arises all the time, and always has done. It is the basis of any utilitarianism argument, notably economic ones. It's a critical philosophical issue, and a scientific one too as it's pretty obvious where evolution stands here.

And while you may think, as a person with a vested interest in the western worldview that you place a great importance on the individual, I'm pretty sure everyone reading this would agree that one of our biggest problems today is the unequal distribution of wealth. Taken to extremes, if there were a million people and a million dollars to be shared out, we'd all cry "unfair" if just one of them got the lot.

But just like supporters of trickle-down economics insist that great wealth given to one will benefit everybody, so believers in group-think insist that what's good for the group will ultimately benefit each individual in it.

While there may be something in the individual/group differentiation, I don't think it's as simple as that, there are just too many exceptions. As far as I can see, both systems, at their best, work just fine on a humanitarian level, and both systems, at their worst, commit unforgiveable injustices. It seems to be the application that matters, not the guiding principles.

Let's get one thing straight. Many of the criticisms of the west by the Islamic world, and the criticisms of the Islamic world by the west are valid. If you take an unbiased view, no matter how painful it is, if you are honest, no matter which side you are on, you cannot miss that both sides sometimes do harmful things, dangerous things, cruel things, and stupid things.

No matter how hard I try, and believe me I've tried, what I'm seeing is a disconnect between how CERTAIN groups, and CERTAIN individuals are treated. Each side in this has people it considers lesser. And it's based on....ethnicity and gender.

In any argument about rights and needs, the losers tend to be those who are ethnically the minority (in actual numbers, or simply not the ethnic elite), or women. Their needs (individually or collectively) are overlooked in favour of the majority.

Prove me wrong. Look at where human rights are compromised (or trashed) and look at who suffers. This applies to either side.

And this is where the fingers are pointed. In both directions. Even if it's not accurate. Pointy fingers.

This isn't getting us anywhere. 

At some point we have to accept the fact that IF there is both good and bad in both systems, then maybe it isn't the system that's the problem. Maybe it's the discussion. Maybe what's needed is a bit more listening.

More tomorrow.


  1. I read and I a better for it and reading you is always a treat.

  2. Of course. and, I think there is a role for literature here. There may be no better way to crawl into another culture's skin than through a story.

    1. I agree, and a lot of experts in the field would agree too.

  3. You might find this hard to believe but my kids talk to me. I find it hard to believe, but they actually do. I don't understand it but we just keep talking. I can't even say why they do, but I'm glad.

    Our family does not have deep. probing discussions. Maybe we will one day.

    I have to think about your post in order to respond. I am not the type to respond quickly to things like this. It is one of the reasons why it takes me forever to read non-fiction books on thoughtful subjects like this.

    1. Well, there you see, that explains itself. The reason I can write this stuff so easily (as a torrent) and the reason I can reply easily to other such torrents, is that I get lots of practice, with the deep discussions I have with my kids. It's just always been that way.

  4. I learned early on that I couldn't have deep discussions with my immediate family, particularly my father. As I've mentioned elsewhere he has very rigid opinions and will get extremely angry when someone tries to persuade him otherwise. My aunt was the person I usually sought for advice; she was one of the wisest people that I ever knew.

    1. Your father is what I think of as a brickwall mind. At some point, for some reason, he decided certain things are so, and there's no budging him. Unfortunately he's not alone, and in fact an awful lot of people, perhaps the majority have some things like that in their head. I think it's a pity, but there it is.