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Monday, April 11, 2016

Chapter 3 Belief, Bias and Common Humanity

Fairy stories, Conspiracies and Cognitive Bias.  The art of Engagement

When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
'He was a man who used to notice such things'?

Thomas Hardy – Afterwards

What I noticed today was the sudden waft of resin as I walked under the pines. This isn't the gluey chemical smell you might associate with washing up liquid or bathroom cleaner. This was bigger, more complex, resonant with meaning. It conjured up two quite different memories. The first was sitting at a small table in the almost pitch black night of Corfu drinking a flask of piney retsina, "The beaded bubbles winking at the brim." At the same time, I recall trudging through silent northern pine forests quite alone and with a heavy yellow sky overhead pregnant with snow. I hope you find something to notice today.

I like to notice things.  I like to pick up bits and bobs I notice in the world around and squirrel them away until I can make something of them. I walk slow and try to listen and look but I don’t think I’m quite so good at noticing things about myself. In the last chapter I suggested that, in order for the playwright to be able to create an authentic, visceral narrative, he or she needs to discover and adopt an authentic voice and stance.  In that case it’s important for me to understand what it is I am and what drives me. I need to know who I am, where I’ve come from and, most of all, exactly what does all that museum of rubbish rattling about in my skull amount to.  What are the beliefs and irrational parts of my character? How do I twist things out of shape to represent them back to the world?  If I had any time for therapy I guess I would be finding out about my cognitive biases. This is the idea that I am right because... well, I believe I'm right.  What I believe is right and what you believe to the contrary is wrong. 

Art, history, politics, psychology, pine trees, the sea, my relationships and family they're all one thing. They make up my personality and whatever I write, comedy, drama, pantomime, murder mystery, they all reveal who I am in some small way.

It's impossible to be divorced from your work and, however you try to hide yourself, your work is a transparent window into your inner self. So be prepared to be open about what goes on inside and how it drives you. And the wilder your imaginative leaps and far flung projections, the closer they will become to you. You may want to hide behind your words but by the very act of writing, there you are, like it or not, exposed for all the world to see, trousers round your metaphorical ankles.

So why is so much of my time spent on making up lies and trying to pass them off as the truth?  And how on earth can I keep passing them off despite my pleas for authenticity and realism?  Why do I choose one narrative over another in my record of my noticings?  What narratives do other people employ and are mine any more right than theirs?

Ok, let’s talk about the bogus stuff that’s out there. Let me think about some of the narratives that others have created and which, I think need challenging.  Let me map out some of the ways I think we are being diverted from the authentic, the plausible and the genuine and led into a sham world where issues are beyond our grasp. Let me, for an example, consider the plethora of conspiracy theories and hoaxes I see promoted on the Internet.  Why do we get so worked up about them?  These are flung about and consumed with the same zeal as Coca Cola and Macdonalds or Dom Perignon and Heston Blumental’s snail porage and with the same disregard to nutrition.  And despite any evidence to the contrary, conspiracy theorists will cling on to these ideas like drowning sailors to a piece of driftwood or politicians to their scrap of power so that no-one can prise their fingers therefrom.

I ask myself: Why did NASA spend so much time and effort faking the moon landings when it would have been twenty times simpler to have gone to the moon in the first place?  All these planes leaving trails of poison across the sky, how do they fit in the passengers and luggage among all the tanks of chemicals?  Why haven’t the all-powerful Illuminati fixed the pot-holes in my street?

In a complicated world of cock up and chaos, most conspiracy theories require far too much in the way of organisational skill, money, resources and the bending of the laws of physics to make any sense at all.  They are simply too complicated to work without someone somewhere spilling the beans or inadvertently revealing the hidden truth.  Similarly, with the hoaxes and scams we’ve all been subject to.  We all know about a Nigerian Princess who would gladly give us all her treasure if only we would send our bank details.  Interestingly, that particular hoax began long before email and the internet was invented and first surfaced in the eighteenth century when the poor soul so imprisoned in her country was Spanish and delivered her impassioned plea by letter.  But it has continued to flourish and nets the perpetrators millions of pounds a year. We all know that if something seems too good to be true then it generally is but we fall headlong for these hoaxes and scams again and again.  What is it that makes us so vulnerable to them?

Conspiracists can always point to the Black Knight as proof of their theories.  In 1954, some years before anyone had the capacity to send objects into orbit, newspapers reported that there were one or two artificial satellites orbiting the earth.  These stories continued until 1960 when irrefutable proof in the shape of a strange object was photographed.  At last, they thought, our beliefs are proved to be true.

I think it’s something to do with my strong belief in a rational and trustable world.  Even if that rationale is sometimes well hidden.  You could probably say that I am a sceptic of the first water. OK, a cynic, then. The law that the simplest answer is usually the right one was dreamt up 700 years ago by a monk called William from Occam or Ockham near Guildford.    Most conspiracies and hoaxes have to be built on a teetering foundation of supposition, rumour and fear.  We suppose what we don’t know.  We believe there must be something more than just chance guiding the world otherwise why are we so poor while others have so much wealth? In the world of ignorance rumours abound and are fuelled by the ease of dissemination by social media.  If we never speak and debate face to face, we believe.  Most of all we live in fear that whatever malevolent force is out there, be it the Devil or the Government or the Illuminati and that they must necessarily mean us harm. In the end, everything we are: that is, all our possessions and accumulated junk will somehow be denied us and we will be left alone and exposed.  Times journalist David Aaronovitch says “We like the idea that there is an explanation for everything but we also like the idea that there is a hidden explanation as well.”

We sup with the Devil with the shortest spoon possible so that we can believe him to be our friend and that he will pour his random acid of evil on someone else.

Cut this all away as if with a razor and you will get something closer to the truth.  But still the conspiracy theorists and the White Queens ("Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.") will go on believing in a way the big books call cognitive bias and suffering the consequent discomfort they refer to as cognitive dissonance. And weirder still, the more the evidence is stacked against the conspiracy the more the belief is reinforced and the blunter Occam’s Razor becomes.

Let me tell you a fairy story.  There was once a wicked witch in the West. Originally she was from the East where she had been taught that everything that mattered could be weighed and measured and there was no need for any of the airy fairy flim flam that so many mortals worried about. But she had a rather beastly time in the East so she transported herself to the West where she developed a grudge against the gooey, sticky parts of mortal life that made her feel unhappy and she came to want to destroy everything that could not be weighed and measured.  She thought that everybody else should shut themselves in a cupboard and just go away. But nobody would listen to her silly ideas so she wrote all her grievances in a little book.   And then she died and with her last breath she cursed the world and wished that all mortals be turned to stone because in that way they could be weighed and measured. At first, anybody who read her book laughed at it because it was very silly and childish.  (And very badly written.) But one day some greedy and selfish crooks thought that they would do better out of the world if greed and selfishness were the made the things to be, so they took the wicked witch’s silly book and said to all their friends that this book had magic powers and would change the world as they wanted.  And gradually the book was passed around and, because these men said that the book was true, it was believed and slowly, slowly, the magic spell began to work and a dark shadow was unleashed upon the whole world because everybody believed that this was true and, what’s more, how things had to be.  And faster and faster, all the good things that were in people’s hearts like love and friendship (because the wicked witch had said such things were unfeasibly gooey and sticky) were replaced by selfishness and greed and hate and fear and everybody felt unhappy but they didn’t know why.  And they began to blame everything that was good and speak out for the evil things that were now rampaging through the world even though they were making themselves more and more unhappy.  And one of these crooks whispered in the ear of another powerful witch from another country and she said that everything that had gone before was now to be forgotten and laughed at.  And so it was.  The darkness descended on the world like a thick choking fog.  And people had no way of defending themselves against it and they began to turn to stone because a stone is easily weighed and measured.

OK not a very good fairy story but the best I can do.  It’s here to illustrate the idea that ideas can be passed around and believed despite any evidence to the contrary.  This is called cognitive bias.  We are all cognitively biased one way or another.  There are many things we believe because… well, because we believe them.  And the unhappiness it causes when it clashes with the reality of what we see with our eyes is called cognitive dissonance.

If you haven’t guessed already, the originator of all this nonsense is Russian born pulp fiction writer, Ayn Rand.  In Ayn Rand’s grindingly awful world stability would be achieved by having no government and with all individuals concerned only with their own ends. Altruism would be discounted and only self-interest allowed. What is frightening is that her bonkers belief became widespread among people who became big players in Silicon Valley and, eventually, though Alan Greenspan right into the heart of US government where the ideas brought about the collapse of two world economies; that of South east Asia in the nineteen nineties and the whole western economy in 2008. We shudder at this nonsense, these bizarre ideas of individual isolation one from another which have so thoroughly soaked into contemporary society through the vectors of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher the latter who famously said “There is no such thing as society”. Yes, it’s true, she did actually say that in an interview with Women’s Own Magazine on 31st October 1987 and it was an idea directly channelled from Rand.

While these policies derived some intellectual underpinning from economists such as Friedman and Hayek, it was essentially Rand’s philosophy that was at the stony heart of the whole enterprise.

And when this philosophy was put into action it devolved power from governments to the banks.  And the banks had only one end in view – accumulating money. It was an extraordinary display of open and naked greed, a great slobbering banquet that continued for years until nearly every cupboard and fridge was empty whilst the rest of us looked on in horror.   This was Ayn Rand’s philosophy of self-interest written on a world scale.   And in the end it was the small person who was left with a monstrous bill for the beanfeast which he or she was absolutely and utterly unable to dispute. What’s more we are made to feel the guilty parties in this farrago.  We feel powerless before this swelling tide. We cannot cope so we turn our faces to the wall, reach for the remote control or pound, pound, pound mindlessly along the clifftop and in the end we do nothing at all about it.

But, hey!  Hang about!  You say.  Here you are banging on about not believing in conspiracy theories  of the world and you’ve just propounded one of the biggest.  The virtual collapse of Western Civilization brought about by a pulp fiction writer.  Well, OK.  You, of course, have me banged to rights.  How come I can believe in this and not the one about faked moonlandings or whatever? I would defend myself by saying that actually all of this is well known and documented.  The people involved are open and have discussed it.  What they did with the banks has been admitted to and the perpetrators speak freely about it with little remorse.  So this is a conspiracy that is actually happening now and is a proud part of modern economics.

The corollary of this is The idea of Year Zero. The clock of history is reset to begin anew and usually at a year and day impossibly long ago when the world was apparently a simpler and better place. A time in which we conveniently overlook the lack of medicine and hygiene and personal freedoms we take for granted now.  Year Zero  is a reaction to the extreme Randists.  It is a reaction of people who see no way to influence the downward slide of the world into chaos.  I see the concept of Year Zero in the Christian Fundamentalists deep in the backwoods of the USA.  I see it in the hardline Putin backwoodsmen in Russia.  But most of all I see it in the Taliban in Northern Pakistan, the ISIS movement in the Middle East and in Boko Haram in Nigeria and the surrounding states.

This is nothing new.  We have seen it in the past in the Killing Fields of Cambodia, we saw it in the Jones Sect in North and Central America, we saw it in the French Revolution and onwards and backwards throughout history.  Maybe there was more than a little taste of it in the hippy communes and back to Mother Earth movements I was part of in the sixties. The whole edifice of the Christian church itself is predicated on the fact that the world will end with a Second Coming.

And we can see why the idea of year Zero is so attractive.  If you are poor and dispossessed such that you have nothing left then a return to the woods and fields seems not only attractive but inevitable.

But there is an additional feature of the idea of Year Zero that makes it more than an amusing historical trope and that is the complete and utter disregard for the sanctity of human life it produces.  I am not a sociologist or anthropologist but I perceive in these millenarian tendencies something that seems to align the end of the present world with the utter necessity of killing and killing again on a vast scale. Why?  Why should the end of one era and the beginning of a new one require so much bloodletting?  The folk who have inhabited the planet up to now and their funny ways and habits and customs and ideas such as love and sociability must be eliminated so the world can be cleansed and can begin afresh somewhere in the thirteenth century. But if we Join all these movements together, the millenarians and the privileged wealth grabbers somehow they all blend one into another. We see an almost ritual requirement for ordinary people to be crushed. Common humanity recoils from this blood lust but we cannot let the common herd stand in the way of our truth, they say.  This herd, merely cattle to be sacrificed to the blood God.

Both the Year Zero mob and the No Society isolationists have a common cause in the suffocation of common human warmth, compassion and, dare I say it, love. I see their common interest described in virtual reality games peddled to us by the same forces that propagandise the poor, sick and generally Other. These dystopian images of a future where the human race is strangled by hate and fear and the only rule is that of the gun and the laser disintegrator.

And as I dig deeper into this morass I seem to see that what ties this all together and fuels its onward rampage is this disengagement I was talking about earlier.  Not only a disengagement from politics but from humanity itself.  All of these phenomena that I've touched on have their roots in a distancing from, not only the levers of power, but the actual machinery of common human existence.   The Conspiracy theorists, The Randists, the Scientologists, the Bankers, the Rhapsodists, the Capitalists and other hoaxers and scammers. Who can tell them apart?  They see a world so maddened that it can be driven for their own ends. And so they can disseminate their own stories, the conspiracies, the year zero, the religions, the accumulation of money - anything to give them some justification for their existence.  Their stories spread.  We desire an explanation for the entirely unearned misfortunes that befall us. It seems somehow easier to believe a complex lie than the simple truth. As Joseph Goebbels is often misquoted as saying “in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily”. In other words “The bigger the lie, the easier it is to believe.”  Thus the welter of propaganda of the press and the internet is lapped up by people who feel they simply do not have the time or the resources to cut through to the truth. The stories become the narrative of a whole people and, as such, they become the truth of the politicians, the spiritual leaders, the wealthy that they can manipulate to maintain their status.  They have bamboozled us with their nonsense for too long. Let us all remember this playwrights and poets alike, at least once a year on April 10th William of Ockham’s official commemoration day. 

And just to set the record straight about Black Knight : According to Martina Redpath of Armagh Planetarium and James Oberg, it is more probable that the photographs are of a thermal blanket that was confirmed as lost during an EVA. (a space walk) Redpath wrote:

"Black Knight is a jumble of completely unrelated stories; reports of unusual science observations, authors promoting fringe ideas, classified spy satellites and people over-interpreting photos. These ingredients have chopped up, stirred together and stewed on the internet to one rambling and inconsistent dollop of myth."

Disengagement is, of course, a defence mechanism.  We all know that if we hide under the bedclothes with our head under a pillow it will go away.  Whatever it is.  And sometimes it does.  More often than not, like a bill or a bank statement or a bad smell it won’t. I guess I should acknowledge my own weakness here. I’m of the school that says “If you can do something about it, then do it.  Otherwise there’s no point in worrying about it.”  Which isn’t a problem solver but it is a strategy for dealing with the ensuing panic.  And if the thing is too big for any sort of personal action, say it’s a terrorist attack or a long illness, then I join the majority of you in laughing at it. Laughter undermines the pomposity of those who have all the hare-brained answers. Hmm.  Laugh at the troublemakers but engage with them at the same time.  A good trick if you can pull it off. But the questions still remains, how do we get stuck into the world, how do we plug ourselves back into a living breathing culture that needs us as much as we need it?  We have so little time, so few resources.

I tell myself I need to understand myself and what motivates me before I can begin to understand anyone else and write about them with any sense of honesty.  As playwrights it is important for us all to be honest with ourselves and to know about ourselves.  As a very clever man once said “Be your own lamp.  Seek no other refuge.”  That doesn’t mean that we have to be in any way even handed dealing with our characters.  That is for journalists. (Mind you whoever heard of an unbiased journalist these days?) It is not for us to pontificate, proselytise or propogandise but Playwrights are not journalists.  We are not required to be balanced.  In fact the more unbalanced we are, the more impact we have. We need to challenge our audiences to watch and listen to our characters and let them judge their actions.  As in cricket and football, the best part of the game is the arguments in the bar at the end of the match.

 The thing is that we need to be engaged, passionate about our subject.  Whether we admire our characters or despise them is irrelevant, we need to be engaged with them as they take this journey through our imaginations while being detached enough to follow their doings without hindrance.  We must love our creations and listen to what they are saying.  We must find out every single thing that it is possible to know. Fact or fiction, however much we despise our characters we must believe their every word and report it faithfully.

When I was commissioned to write about Thomas Hardy’s first wife, Emma I thought that I would be dealing with someone silly and vapid and very neurotic.  That’s what the biographies led me to believe, anyway.  But by the end I had completely switched my opinion.  She was no longer a figure of fun rolling down the High Street in Dorchester on her bicycle, her bloomers flapping in the wind like a barrage balloon.  I came to admire and respect her and by following her character through my play I came to see a reality that was far more than the historical biographers allowed. I hope I was able to give Emma some sort of redemption through my words.  But her redemption was of her own doing, demonstrated through the character that grew as the play grew. All I had to do was to observe and transcribe her progress.

The most boring sort of theatre for an audience is one where I bombard you with my propaganda about the state of the world as I see it.  I have learnt how quickly an audience will switch off from that so while I am driven by my cognitive bias I must keep an awareness of it and try to recognise when it is me speaking and not my characters. If it’s my voice, speaking my thoughts then I shall scrub that thoroughly. Plays occur through the speech and actions of characters.  Those characters must be given the right to roam freely.  Some of them will utter words completely at variance with my thoughts and beliefs.  The point is not to tell you the audience what to think but to offer a window on a situation where an audience can ponder and debate.  I acknowledge that you may not think the same way that I do, you may well disagree with my views.  That’s fine.  In fact that is a brilliant thing.  As an artist I will select a situation and characters whom will interact within that.  My selections will enable you to see something of that situation as I see it but it is ultimately up to you whether you agree with me or not. To be engaged doesn’t mean the playwright has to be Serious with a capital S.  I have written comedies, pantomimes, murder mysteries and biographical pieces.  I hope they are all entertaining in their own way but I also hope that each one contains a few nuggets of truth about being human mined from observation of the way the world works and how people work within it. Writing plays, creating characters and situations is one of the best ways I know for understanding people, their inner lives and the world as it is. And whether you create serious dramas or pantomimes every word you write is a mirror held up for you to peer into.  I hope I am engaged enough with my subject matter for characters and situations to leap out at audiences and remain with them and bother them until they are in the bar after the show at least.

So does this all add up to an explanation of my own cognitive bias?  When confronted by all this I am indeed, definitely and wholeheartedly cognitively biased.  What I believe so fervently is in the inherent goodness and worthwhileness of every single human being on the planet.  I must be prepared to change and adapt to new circumstances, new ideas.  I do not believe in the reality or even the concept of evil.  The world is what it is and people in it are what they are.  Things go wrong when people stop behaving in a caring, socially aware sort of way.  The opposite of good is not evil, it is apathy. The opposite of doing good is doing nothing. I have not spoken to everybody on earth so I cannot possibly demonstrate this idea.  It is merely a belief and I realise that it conflicts with the beliefs of others and as such must be a pretty weird thought in itself.  And how can I defend my cognitive bias when I can lay into that of the conspiracy theorists?  Well, the test is simplicity, adherence to factual evidence as far as I can observe and gather it and that fact that... well, I am right.

And what I believe is that we could construct a world in which it’s possible for the majority of people to become engaged with humanity again.  To take notice of what’s going on and react to it.  Not hide away and wait for someone else to do the worrying for them.  I feel I ought to use my skills as a writer to help find simple channels to engage however and wherever people can, through science, through the arts, through politics.  The theatre is the greatest tool for this process.  It alive, it is immediate.  We see emotions and thoughts played out within touching distance.  We can see the sweat on the actor’s brow.  We can smell the sweat. And we playwrights have this great sword in our hands and we should be prepared to wield for the benefit of all.  I believe that as playwrights, we need to grasp our cognitive bias firmly and hug it ourselves until we are proved to be utterly wrong.  And even then we can mark its existence and still play it like a trout on a line.

To write a play or compose a piece of music is to appear naked on the stage.  However distant the style and subject might appear to be, in the end it is you up there and if any part of the experience needs to be authentic than that part needs to be you.

We need to convince directors, actors and producers to be bold and to give writers the resources to be as brave as they can be.  If a writer is prepared to engage with their characters on stage in a bizarre ritual of cruel truth-telling and thereby show up their own foibles and weaknesses then they need to be supported by the arts establishment and given the means to attract a whole new engaged audience.

So I’m going to cling to my bit of galloping cognitive bias for the time being and, agree with me or not, I hope you will trust me enough to stay with me for the ride because the next chapter develops the real reason why I’m banging on about cognitive bias and conspiracy so much.

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