Knowledge is not wisdom

Knowledge is knowledge. Wisdom is something else entirely.

Where has knowledge got us? To a point of existential crisis. Technology has brought us medical advances and robotics. It has also brought the nuclear bomb. It has got us mass surveillance at levels of which the Stasi could have only dreamed, with all the ensuing oppression and threat to democratic structures.

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But technology itself is neutral. Super computers can do all sorts of things – they can do nothing on their own. Someone, somewhere has to understand the technology which is governing all our lives – technology over which many of us have only an infant level grasp. It is certainly true that we all need a far greater knowledge of this technology – its limits or lack of limits – than we seem to possess. That is what Edward Snowden risked his freedom and his very life to tell us.

The freedoms that we hopefully envisaged  would come with social networking have soured into commodification and entrapment. After publication of the book  The Satanic Verses brought down a fatwa upon his head, author Salman Rushdie spent half his life trying to outrun extremist attempts to assassinate him and others connected with publication of the work, (which in the case of at least one publisher, succeeded).  In his book Joseph Anton his autobiographical account of this time, Rushdie commented that he would not have stood a chance had the events taken place in the internet age. People are easier to find and easier to control.

We need knowledge but even more than that we need wisdom. Buddhist Philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda, says: “Simply put, knowledge corresponds to the past; it is technology. Wisdom is the future; it is philosophy.”

We need people educated to exhibit foresight and moral balance. Beyond the limits of the spreadsheet, the balance sheet, the nationalist rhetoric lies the still uncharted realm of the philosophy book.  Human beings are human beings. They are not fodder for giant corporates or a collection of data to be stored for some as yet unspecified future use. Unfortunately that is not the message that narrow political views with their shadowy vested interest backers are keen to put across at the moment.

What do massive tech companies want from their employees?   They want people who know how to run massive tech companies. They do not want balanced individuals who have been trained to question authority and think for themselves.   Aye there’s the rub! We are sandwiched in between our increasingly desperate need for people who understand the technologies with which we have so liberally laced our unfree world – a new Bletchley Park peopled with those who can see off alleged hackers and keep our little island safe from viral incursions (at least of the digital variety) – and our need to create a new societal model in which people can think long-term, think their way out of crises situations before they occur, rather than constantly fire-fighting.

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But where there is use, there is abuse. In her book Not for Profit (Princeton University Press, 2010) Martha C. Nussbaum says:

“Educators for economic growth will do more than ignore the arts. They will fear them. For a cultivated and developed sympathy is a particularly dangerous enemy of obtuseness, and moral obtuseness is necessary to carry out programs of economic development that ignore equality.”

A program of economic development that ignores equality is the agenda which got Donald Trump elected to the White House.  Proof, if proof were needed, of the dangers of the dehumanizing effects of modernity coupled with a complete inability to see others as we see ourselves.

When the actor Hugh Laurie accepted his Golden Globe award in January for a performance in the TV series The Night Manager “on behalf of psychopathic billionaires everywhere” we all felt the sharp end of the joke that wasn’t funny. The sociopath has no concept of ‘other’ except as something to be acquired, collected or used.

Here is another worrying thought from Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore:

“aggressive nationalism seeks to blunt the moral conscience, so it needs people who do not recognize the individual, who speak group-speak, who behave and see the world like docile bureaucrats.” (Nationalism, London, Macmillan 1917).

In short, the real crisis shortage of labour is in people who can tell right from wrong. The big votes in 2016 were Brexit and the US election. Did voters in either case exhibit a rounded ability to think about all the political issues affecting the nation, to reason and debate, to make decisions based on sound judgement ?  If our so-called leaders are not doing that …. ? Did voters exhibit the ability to recognize other people as individuals, fellow citizens, regardless of race, religion or gender?   Or were they swayed by any nationalist rhetoric regardless of how illogical?

There may be many and complex reasons for the things that happened in 2016 but top of my list would be the decades long narrowing of the focus of education away from the humanities. Music, poetry and the arts ask us to wonder about our world – they ask us to take time to look inside it and question what we see. It can be said that the sciences do this too but these are concerned more with evidence and proof, rather than spirit and possibility. Science, business, economics, technology are great subjects for knowing how the physical world works, but they are not great at developing empathy. They are not great at teaching us to transcend cultural barriers at recognizing ‘other’.

But as Nussbaum points out, in the UK, since the Thatcher era, humanities departments of Universities have increasingly been under pressure to ‘justify’ themselves in terms of profitability a measurable short-term ‘impact’ being required, over the idea of philosophical development. In fact the very word ‘impact’ raises the bureaucratic spectre of ‘measurable outcomes’. James Rebanks, author of A Shepherd’s Life would be the first to admit that his ‘measurable outcomes’ at school were insignificant.   This did not appear to stop him achieving a double first at Oxford and going on to write several best selling books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grassroots is us

 

How modern we like to think ourselves. How clever.  We know about waterborne diseases such as typhoid, cholera and dysentery. Whatever else we in the UK may die of we won’t at least die of those. We beat those years back. Dragged ourselves out of our 19th century health ignorance, discovered new medicines and technologies needed to keep our water and air clean. Health and long life – a massive reduction in child morbidity and mortality – these were the prizes to be fought for and won.

Yet here we are in the 21st century and our air and water quality are under threat again: our water supplies at risk from the Government’s fracking cronies while our air is being poisoned by emissions of nitrous oxides and particulates PM2.5, so liberally handed out to us by diesel cars and a greedy, expansionist aviation industry with shareholders to feed. As at 6th January London has already exceeded its illegal air levels for the whole of 2017.

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The Government that was elected in this strange ‘democracy’ is no longer interested in supporting us, in caring about our health or our children’s education. Instead they follow the money and back the big boys, for example, taking away the right of local Councils to refuse planning permission to an untried and untested fracking industry, while in other cases forcing individuals and local Councils to Court to defend the freedoms of their communities against the violent noise and choking poisons belching out of Heathrow airport and its dirty energy planes. Client Earth has twice taken the Government to Court over its failure to protect the quality of our air in accordance with EU regulations. Twice they have won. May’s response? To announce a 3rd runway at Heathrow.

Apparently, we must show the UK is ‘open for business’ particularly after the result of the EU referendum. Although it is not currently known how many business people wish to come to the UK wearing gas masks or carrying their own water supplies.

Far from fighting to keep its communities safe and healthy, this government is siding with those who completely disregard communities as interfering nuisances to be brushed aside and/or intimidated into submission. The need to show that the UK is ‘open for business’ does not excuse the poisoning of our air.   New energy sources cannot be found at a cost of fouling our water supplies or with a total disregard for the health and welfare of communities that have to live alongside massive infrastructure projects.

When climate justice wins we win the world we want.  We can’t sit this one out, not because we have too  much  to lose but because we have too much to gain….

Naomi Klein. This Changes Everything

So who will protect us now? We will. The granny that Cuadrilla tried and failed to get put in prison; the very ordinary people that chained themselves to Heathrow’s railings or lay down on the M4 motorway; these unlikely heroes are the new guardians of our air and water.

Communities of unimprisoned grannies are being protected by the Courts against land and air grabbing corporates prepared to go to any lengths to get what they want. In the absence of a political solution, there will be a people-centred movement. It has already started. A coming together of community groups united by a desire to be treated as citizens with rights and responsibilities (rather than that favoured Thatcherist term ‘consumers’).

What does it mean to consume? To use up air and water and spit out foulness? To take the money and run?   It is not the people that are doing that.

 

 

 

Standing on the pinafores of giants

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Having watched To Walk Invisible the BBC’s dramatized life of the Brontë sisters I was struck anew by the force of Emily Brontë’s poetry, the words given life force through the power of the voice that spoke them – so much more immediate than merely reading from a page.    Even more extraordinary is to consider how these works were produced – at the dining room table in between housekeeping and caring duties.

What I enjoyed about this view of the Brontës is that it allowed them – even through their immortality – to look cold, wet and ordinary beings. 19th century Yorkshire anyone? We do not really know what they were like. What they had to cope with. How they related to one another. We can only imagine and the programme imagines very well.

Juliet Barker says in her introduction to her biography of the siblings The Brontës:

“The known facts of their lives could be written on a single sheet of paper. Their letters, diary papers and drawings would not fill two dozen.”

Not, then, a treasure trove of autobiographical materials. It is for this reason that seekers after the facts look to the Brontë’s fiction to shed light on their own lives. Did they write to reproduce their own difficulties on paper? I imagine not. They wrote to escape all the many shackles, financial, physical, social, with which they were faced. But even more I imagine they wrote because they could.

And not at any other time has a single family produced three such literary giants

The single, gloriously romantic, shot of Heathcliff outlined against the stormy moorland included offered a huge contrast to the very unromantic and – in the case of three of the siblings – disastrously short lives that were the subject of the drama.