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Sunday, 30 November 2008

An angry God breeds an angry man

In the late 17th Century, England and America were pretty tough places to live. Aside from the political turmoil, their quality of life was not something to write home about. However one interesting aspect of what people were writing about was the casual violence of civil society, from the beating of wives, children and servants, not to mention duels, fights and thrashings. That these would even involve the clergy was not seen as in any way shocking.

Can you imagine our clergy being violent today? There are few images today that would correspond. We may smile at the notion of the boxing priest training the kids in the inner cities of Ireland and America, or recognise the liberation theologians of Latin America taking up arms in defence of the poor, but in these cases the violence is strictly disciplined and codified. Basically, our priests and ministers do not brawl in the streets.

But so it was, according to historians like Carol and Peter Stearns, quoting from diaries and letters of the day in their book 'Emotion and Social Change: Toward a New Psychohistory'. It is fascinating to see how so many diarists of the day did not recognise anger in themselves and it is only as the century draws to a close that a self awareness burgeons and that the same behaviour begins to perceived through an angry lens. The act of writing appears to have helped foster a clearer reflection of our nature.

Amongst the wonders such a spyglass through time brings is the appearance of a relationship between how God was perceived and the society that worshiped him. In the 16th Century the Christian God was in many ways a wrathful figure, and any transgressions and misfortunes were widely seen as the justice of a Lord angered by even trivial misdemeanours.

An angry God and an angry population. It does not surprise to see such a correlation. Nor does it surprise to see that when preachers tempered God's wrath with his mercy, that there appeared a decline in casual civil savagery. Particularly when allied to the greater self reflection of a more widespread written word.

Of what use is such insight today? It is harder to see things in such monolithic terms today as our notion of God has become refracted through innumerable lenses and society's values appear on the surface atomised. And yet it is undeniable that those aspects of the Christian and Muslim faiths that are fundamentalist - that seek a more literalist approach to their sacred texts - are in many ways angry creeds. Theirs is the call of violent jihad (as opposed to the more peaceful definitions of jihad) or the threat of hell to all sinners.

Is it any wonder that an angry God begets violence in its believers? Any jealous or intolerant God will give rise to such emotions and we must suffer their impact under the banner of a righteousness that is entirely debatable. If those Gods are Gods of love and compassion their followers might do better to emphasise such things for the benefit of all who must endure the casual civil savagery of our societies.

It may not be the sole cause of violence in our world, but all causes must be tackled at their roots.

Friday, 28 November 2008


Something a bit further north this time. Suilven in Sutherland is something special, a solitary sentinel in the bleak wilderness.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

myths, morals, and emotions

It is a wonderful thing to look at a place in time, a place underneath this canopy of vapours and say 'there was a moment when we took a real step forward'.

When we mastered fire, learned to write, or stepped upon the moon, one can look and say there was material, real progress encapsulated in a moment.

When can one say such things about our emotional development? Was there a moment when we learned to love unconditionally as individuals and as communities? A moment when we learned (or relearned) a wider compassion? Have all those moments then been lost again?

From the world of myth i believe we can consider some possibilities. In Karen Armstrong's 'A Short History of Myth', she speaks of several critical periods in our relationship to myths and how they served our emotional and moral needs.

Since the beginning of the written word and the foundation of cities, the stories of Gods were of wresting order from chaos and of the power of those deities through nature. Mankind was trembling and fragile in the face of the world. Our emotional lives would I believe have reflected this fragility. Then as cities grew and life became somewhat more secure, those myths lost resonance and new myths were needed. Around this time (800-200BCE) several major religious figures sprung up across the globe in Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tse (or the writings attributed to him), Zoroaster, the Judaic prophets and others.

This was also an emotional revolution, expressed though myth and played out through our morality. No longer were Gods to be appeased by superficial ritual or controlled by a priestly caste. It required an internal attitude change in every individual, something that would also require a massive change in our individual emotional responses. If we were to live morally, our emotions needed to pay heed and ultimately homage to our morals. This is a revolution we are still feeling today.

There has, according to Armstrong, been another revolution, in the Enlightenment. However I am still sceptical of this as i think of that period as being about trying to effect return to axial values through reason rather than an attempt to generate something entirely new. Though perhaps it is like Chou En Lai's famous opinion on the impact of the French Revolution - 'it's too soon to tell."

In the West our material lives have changed beyond all recognition, giving an opportunity for knowledge and wisdom almost beyond the dreams of avarice. Our emotional lives on the other hand seem as much a struggle now as they were when Job was lamenting the cruelty of his fate.

Is it perhaps time for another leap forward in our hearts?

Emotional Progress?

Is humanity's emotional history a story of maturity, of improvement to the self, community and environment? Is our emotional narrative moving us away from destructive impulses towards a framework that improves our well being in the world and the world itself?

One would certainly like to think so, but I fear it is not so straightforward.

Almost certainly we have learned at some points in our history that some emotional norms of behaviour are no longer suitable and we have evolved our emotions in part to deal with our fast changing world. Many of these involve dealing with the consequences of the emotions we consider 'negative'. For example our desire for revenge is in some ways curtailed by the removal of the death penalty. Society is 'civilised' by the curtailment of anger and its corollary, violence. Our emotional responses change, and no longer is anger sated by watching a man swing for the theft of a loaf. Disgust has risen to combat anger as such sights become abhorrent.

Can one say the history of the West is the history of increasing emotional restraint?

One essay recently caught my grey eyes on such things. 'Worrying about emotions in history' by Barbara Rosenwein, a professor of Medieval History at Loyola University in Chicago. She damns the notion of a simple grand narrative based on a flawed notion of emotions as wild humours that are either controlled or uncontrolled, when they are of course so much more than that. It doesn't help that our language is filled with expressions to describe them in such terms - one can be overwhelmed by rage, or hold back one's fear, or overflow with love - but our emotions are more sophisticated that such expressions suggest.

To quote Rosenwein:
"...emotions are part of a process of perception and appraisal, not forces striving for release. Denying that emotions are irrational, cognitive psychologists see them as resulting from judgments about "weal or woe"—that is, about whether something is likely to be good or harmful, pleasurable or painful, as perceived by each individual.

As such, any notion of progression is rooted in a flawed understanding of our emotions as things desperate for release. That means we will fail to understand our past if we imagine it to be largely nasty, brutish and violent. Whilst the past may have been those things in part, it has much more to tell us.

Our emotions are not going forward then. Or at least in a straight line.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Anger is an energy

In Jean Briggs' book, 'Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family', the anthropologist described her time with a tribe of Inuit called the Utku in Northern Canada.

One of the most striking features of her descriptions is the absence of anger from their society. Through reinforcement of emotional norms and discouragement of others, anger and its effects very rarely appear in their behaviour.

This comes up when Jean acts as an intermediary between some outsiders who wished to borrow the second canoe of the tribe (which had only two canoes), having already damaged the first one they had borrowed. Jean wanted to refuse the request on behalf of the Utku (and her Utku host did not appear to want to lend the canoe.) However the request came and her host agreed to lend the canoe as he would not publicly say no to any request.

Given the importance of the canoes in such a precarious environment as the Arctic and the previous misuse by the visitors, we can understand Jean's anger at the outsiders abusing such generous hospitality. However, the Utku discretely shunned her because her anger, albeit on their behalf, was deeply unwelcome beyond any abuse of hospitality.

In any precarious and intensely challenging environment anger is recognised as being immensely destabilising and potentially life threatening for an entire community. Therefore it is extremely important to find ways to control and minimise it.

In any precarious and intensely challenging environment reciprocation and sharing are crucial when one may need the resources and goodwill of anyone in the surrounding environment.
Therefore it is extremely important to find ways to encourage it, even at the risk of disadvantaging oneself.

Does this mean the Utku are entirely non-violent, that anger's control and suppression have created a peaceful society? They are a hunting society, so violence is enjoyed in that context. Murder occurred within Inuit society and so alas it does not mean a pacifist northern light shines in Baffin Bay. And yet compassion and generosity exist in abundance in an intensely caring society.

The removal of anger is sadly not enough to create a Utopia. However, the Inuit can deal with such tensions by creating ritualised patterns of behaviour such as the song duels and their modern equivalents on community radio stations. The Inuit have done an impressive feat in channeling anger away from their behaviour to the benefit of their society.

Indeed, by careful use of jokes and conflict management, fear and suspicion are allowed to exist without spilling over into outright hostility which could do much wider harm than to the individuals directly involved. indeed they are used to reinforce that necessary social harmony.

To look at our society is to look at a society obsessed with violence and its common emotional sources anger and revenge. A glance at our movies shows us being bombarded by images of revenge
as the wronged and the otherwise just seek retribution in their anger for whatever has been trespassed against them.

Our psychology is concerned with the proper and free expression of our emotions to maintain our optimal well being. Is an untrammeled emotional expression truly the best way to well being? Do our emotions, like our reason and bodies, need education?

In our temperate climes, we lack the Utku's restraint, and arguably to our detriment.

Some more interesting stuff quoting Jean Briggs here.

Friday, 21 November 2008

the Storr again

More from the Storr on Skye and from Ian Cameron who published one below . I need to find out who this guy is again. The light is lustrous and i am filled with wonder at such sights.

Lanark and the price of love

For some reason my mind keeps coming back to this quote from one of my favourite books, 'Lanark' by Alasdair Gray.

"The Thaw [the main character] narrative shows a man dying because he is bad at loving. It is enclosed by [Lanark's] narrative which shows civilization collapsing for the same reason"

Can a society and a civilisation collapse because of an inability to love? If so, then where is our history of public love that can show us where we lost it and how we might bring it back? Or even create it for the first time in our human story?

I believe it can and is happening in all capitalist societies, Western or Eastern, Northern or Southern. There is love out there in abundance, certainly, but it is not truly pervasive throughout the fabric of our society. The monotheistic revolution of the axial age has failed.

Where is the love in the market? A market requires profit, and without an overarching structure to regulate that market, then a market will always maximise profit above all else. In this world love is an extravagance unnecessary for business and is not part of that regulation.

Love is given freely and cannot be sold. In a world of finite resources, the market will always devour everything and will not give freely. It will not love.

Even public services are bound now by a loveless market and there are no economic quantifiers that tell us of the benefit or profit in giving love. Can schools be graded by how much love they give?

Our economic system is now facing up to including carbon and its emissions into its equations to understand and deal with climate change, and rightly so. But if overconsumption is part of the problem, can the economics of a carbon conscious market adapt in time? Oil becomes cheap again and so development into green energy slows again.

It may sound hopelessly drippy, but can an economy exist sustainably without love? Love does not exist in isolation but it seems more necessary than ever as our planet warms and we as a species harm our own children's futures.

But this is where a history of the emotions can help. To improve our understanding of ourselves and the depth of our natures and the actions that come out of those natures, we can include it in the account of our nature and make sure we profit from its addition, not suffer from its loss.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

One of my favourite places

i'd love to say this was my photograph but the pleasure belongs to a man called Piotr Zycki . There's a large seal colony on the rock's in the bay down towards the bottom left. The walk from Elgol is hazardous, the boat ride anything but...

Monday, 17 November 2008

pilgrimage to a better place

One of things i loved about the year of anthropology i did at university was that it taught about how institutions and social conventions can be stretched by practice and necessity to deal with the wonderfully wide range of human nature.

If one looks carefully you will see the same actions through a thousand social lenses. One activity that has always fascinated is that of pilgrimage, both religious and secular. It serves many purposes, social, personal and more besides. However, notwithstanding Catholic pilgrimages to Lourdes and the like, much of western society has lost the structure of a formalised pilgrimage and it is no surprise to find many of us filling in the gap with our own myriad forms.

These days any trip to any place that holds any degree of importance to any one can become a pilgrimage.... and yet aren't we missing something here? Pilgrimages were never just about the destination, they were about the journey and the difficulties faced along the way. These trials gave us questions and challenges to our selves and became in our own small way hero quests, when a person leaves their home and sets out through a series of trials to gain knowledge and wisdom to bring back for the benefit of the self and the community.

We have diluted the pilgrimage and lost some of the essence that was of such great benefit. Journeys are all too often too easy, involve no hardship and sacrifice that serve as such deep teachers. Even travelling to the four corners of the world does not necessarily represent a struggle. What matters is how the journey is done and what can be learnt along the way.

Can the pilgrimage be revived to serve our emotional needs? Amongst other things it can deal in part with emotions like loneliness, it can be used to teach compassion, something so sorely lacking in this world. It can teach almost anything if framed correctly. And we need not limit ourselves to one pilgrimage, but many to fulfill certain roles for the community and its individuals.

One caveat to a wider concept of pilgrimage would be scale - the nature of mass action means economies of scale both material and spiritual come into play. The Islamic Hajj is a prime example, though it still retains much force for Muslims. The pilgrimage has become an industry and it is a testament to Islam that some of the spirituality that can benefit pilgrims survives.

I think a pilgrimage should be a decentralised, localised affair, and dare one say it, but possibly one that requires the pilgrim to travel solely by foot... they are not meant to be easy, for no lessons would be learned. But they can be rooted in their communities and made relevant to the communities needs.

Friday, 14 November 2008

how many heartbeats do we have?

A quote one from of my favourite authors, Theodore Zeldin (lifted from here though)

"The wider the choices before them [in this case dissatisfied wealthy French people but in truth many more of us] and the more numerous their desires, the less time they had to give each one. Leisure has become organised, and so full of opportunities too tempting to miss that it does not necessarily offer freedom. The wish to live as intensely as possible has subjected humans to the same dilemma as the waterflea, which lives 108 days at 8' Centigrade but only 26 days at 28'C, when its heartbeat is almost four times faster, though in either case its heart beats a million times in all. Technology has been a rapid heartbeat compressing housework, travel, entertainment, squeezing more and more into the allotted timespan ..."

Do we have a limited number of heart beats? If so, is it better to live, as the saying goes, one day as a tiger than a thousand as a sheep?

Does the search for meaning in intensity miss the point of life? Which is not to say one should sleep walk through life, but will we still have time to hear the grass grow as we hurtle along at the hyperspeed of modern life?

Strangely i feel pleased that we may share something with the humble waterflea....

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

a midnight moment on skye

the photo was shot by Alan MacAteer, the event was the NVA production, the Storr took place in August 2005 and was one of the most amazing things i ever went to. Sounds and lights rolled down the mountain at midnight as walkers trailed through a wonderland.
though it being skye, the night i went up the rain hammered down in biblical fashion and the return was somewhat heavy going....

Monday, 10 November 2008

language and the world

How does our language shape our thoughts and feelings? If a language had a thousand words for despair would it tend towards being a more melancholic society? The old debate about language and the world came up again the Guardian this morning.

There was an article about an ex-missionary called Daniel Everett who had claimed that the language of an Amazonian tribe called the Pirahã had no recursion, ie the ability to include a an extra clause within a sentence. An example of recursion is extending the sentence "Daniel Everett talked about the story of his life" to read, "Daniel Everett flew to London and talked about the story of his life".

The point being that recursion was seen by most linguists as being part of an innate and universal grammatical framework ( a theory developed by Noam Chomsky) that we have hardwired into our brain. Obviously if the Pirahã did not have it then the theory is flawed as it would not be innate in humans. Either Daniel was right and Chomsky was wrong about innate grammatical structures in the brain or Daniel had just missed the use of recursion in the Pirahã language went the debate.

The article didn't suggest that either Daniel or his critics had considered the possibility that recursion may have been possible in Pirahã but that for other reasons it was not used in the language. Though to be fair I am not sure if it is possible to have a linguistic structure could be found in the brain but not used in the language.

But there were some other interesting aspects highlighted. Apparently the Pirahã have no socially lubricating "hello" and "thank you" and "sorry". They have no words for colours, no words for numbers and no way of expressing any history beyond that experienced in their lifetimes.

One can only wonder what this does for the ability to describe and feel emotionally. how much of emotion is contigent on the ability to express it. Could the Pirahã ever have the blues?

It reminds me of the Benjamin Whorf hypothesis that our view of the world is related to the language we use and our range of expression, both emotional and intellectual. Whorf suggested that the Hopi Indians of the southwest USA had no tense referring to time in their language (in the way we have past and future tenses) and that this must profoundly affect their relationship to the notion of time and therefore to the universe.

as the writer, Jeannette Winterson put it:
"The Hopi, an Indian tribe, have a language as sophisticated as ours, but no tenses for past, present and future. The division does not exist. What does this say about time?"

If one sees the past and future as part of a timeless continuity rather than seperated by the junctions of past/present/future then amongst other things perhaps one might act with more respect towards the environment as one's relationship to one's unborn descendants would be closer if they were seen in the same time frame and not some distant and less connected unrealised future.

Sadly though, Whorf's otherwise fascinating idea was based on some dodgy research - he had made his claims based on conversations with one Hopi speaker miles away from his homelands. Those conversations didn't cover how the Hopi do in fact use time distinctions and what linguistic forms they have to express such ideas.

But the seed of an interesting idea remains - how does one's language affect one's ability to feel. we casually talk of having indescribable emotions but this is often a linguistic cop out. what if it were true though - without a word for love we could not love as deeply as we do?

Do we need new words for different loves to comminicate our feelings more clearly? perhaps a return to eros, philia, and agape?

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

the joys of drink

not so much emotions but as a repressed scotsman, drink is always a good conduit to emotional expression, some titbits from a review of Iain Gately’s book, Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol.

In sixteenth-century Japan, it was an insult to your host to stay sober, so guests who couldn’t drink would pretend to be drunk and even hungover “by sending thank-you letters deliberately late, written in shaky characters.

Aztecs liked fermented sap, but had a legal drinking age (52) higher than their average life expectancy—although every four years they’d hold a New Year’s festival called “Drunkenness of Children,” at which all citizens, including toddlers, were required to drink.

And Egyptian wine connoisseurs rated their drinks by stacking up the word nfr, meaning good (the best was nfr nfr nfr).

another highland pic...

whenever i start a new job somewhere i normally find a good pic of the highlands and set it as my background on the desktop.
this one came from here. The place is buachaille etive mor near glencoe and is one of my favourite places...

Monday, 3 November 2008

wonderfully strange

i found this talking about a conference on emotions in Russian history that took place last April:

"Catherine Lutz in “Unnatural Emotions: Everyday Sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll and Their Challenge to Western Theory “(1988) showed how Ifaluk males cried profusely not as an expression of grief, but rather as a means of marking status difference: the higher up in the social hierarchy his interlocutor, the more tears an Ifaluk shed."

how gloriously alien. not that they are aliens of course, i am sure many of my responses would be just as alien to them. however, it just makes me happy to think we have not homogenised our emotions and their responses into a western model that limits our range of what it means to be human.