CategoriesInternational AffairsPoliticsThought of The Day

Voices For Burma (Wikipedia entry)

(What follows is my Wikipedia entry for the organisation which I co-founded in 2003: Voices For Burma (VFB). Wikipedia removed the entry, so I add it here for posterity. Hopefully historians of that period will locate this page, and perhaps my kids will be proud of their father. After all, Aung San Suu Kyi was regarded as a saint until 2017, but we campaigned against her 14 years before that).

Voices for Burma

Voices for Burma (VFB) was a Non-Governmental Organisation founded in 2003, closing in 2009. Founded in the UK, Voices for Burma campaigned on two fronts. First, to examine the complexities of the tourist boycott of Myanmar promoted by Aung San Suu Kyi and secondly to educate visitors to Myanmar on the need to travel in the country ethically.

Original Founders

Voices for Burma was founded by Andrew Gray, Anna Laycock and Zishaan Arshad, following Andrew Gray’s visits to Burma/Myanmar in 2002 and 2003.

Change of Leadership of Voices for Burma

As Cherie McCosker and Emily Pelter joined Voices for Burma, Zishaan Arshad and thereafter Anna Laycock stepped aside. Andrew Gray remained throughout.

Campaigning

Voices for Burma was supported by Dr Zarni of the Free Burma Coalition and several British former diplomats and Myanmar scholars. On their key message that ethical tourism to Myanmar could be undertaken ethically, Voices for Burma took the counter position to The Burma Campaign UK which had maintained strict adherence to Aung San Suu Syi call for a total tourism boycott.

Primarily, Voices for Burma educated potential visitors to Myanmar through its website (now defunct) and through Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree online travel forum. The website was created and managed by Burmese refugees living in India.

Voices for Burma was invited by Lonely Planet editors to advise on the 9th edition of the Burma/Myanmar guidebook, referenced in the 2005 edition.

Publications

In 2006, Voices for Burma submitted written evidence to the UK House of Lords on the efficacy of the tourism boycott here. Voices for Burma concluded:

“It is VFB’s stance that the UK Government’s policy on tourism to Burma is at best confused and at worst irreconcilable with its commitment under the Common Position to assist the poorest sections of Burmese society. It is not VFB’s argument that the Travel Boycott is fundamentally flawed, as VFB discourages some tourists to Burma, however the boycott policy has not been evaluated and has not engendered any positive societal shifts.”

In 2006, founder Andrew Gray appeared in the New York Times here.

“When I was in Burma, I’ve never met anyone who said that I shouldn’t be there,” said Andrew Gray, founder of Voices for Burma, another advocacy group. Mr. Gray argues that educated tourists can spend money on local businesses without government links and help average people in one of Asia’s poorest nations.”

In 2010, though now defunct, Voices for Burma appeared in The Guardian at here.

“While favouring engagement, Voices for Burma and the Free Burma Coalition urge tourists to do as much as possible to help private Burmese citizens and not put money in the government’s pocket, and in fact it is possible to do so now as a tourist.”

 

 

CategoriesThought of The Day

They f%$% you up, your mum and dad

So wrote Philip Larkin.

I blog to make sense of all the noise. And there is more noise than ever. This blog is just more noise, I know. My noise.

Whilst my children are trick and treating (which I have always despised), I thought that I would write down – in no particular order – what I think that I should bequeath to my children before they leave home. Confidently, I know that I have missed many principles and events. Do please email me with your suggestions, so that I can update this list.

My experience of parenting is that children tend to copy what they see, rather than what they are told. This list, therefore, is an aide memoir for me to tick off.

But as Phil Larkin wrote, whatever I try to do, I’ll inadvertently mess things up.

 

  1. To know that they are loved.
  2. Physically healthy, as far as a parent can assist.
  3. To be mentally healthy, as far as a parent can help.
  4. Spiritually aware.
  5. Fun-loving, with some jokes ready to deploy.
  6. To have tried a variety of activities.
  7. To be able to cook some basic meals and to shop for those basics.
  8. To be able to wash clothes.
  9. To be able to manage their finances and their “paperwork”.
  10. To have an understanding of their family origins, but not to be beholden to them.
  11. Politically aware, though with an open mind.
  12. International in outlook.
  13. Hard working.
  14. To have a number of good friends.
  15. To understand bias in news reporting and sources.
  16. Safe online.
  17. Talents and interests examined.
  18. Environmentally conscious.
  19. Experience of alternative perspectives.
  20. Sound decision-making tools, with improving judgement.
  21. Sound – though fluid – values.
  22. A belief in lifelong learning.
  23. Reproductively aware.
  24. Content with their gender and sexuality.
  25. Creativity explored.
  26. Locally aware.
  27. Some musical skills.
  28. Understanding and pride with their bodies.
  29. Ability to read.
  30. Experience of earning some money.
  31. An understanding of death and their own mortality.
  32. To have failed – multiple times – and to have picked themselves up again.
  33. To have broken some rules.
  34. Not to have irretrievably fallen out with their immediate family.
  35. Some knowledge of history.
  36. Some words in a foreign language.
  37. Comprehension of team work.
  38. To be able to advocate for themselves and for others.
  39. To have been bored.
  40. To know when to lead and to know when to follow.
  41. To create energy for others, when it is needed.

 

CategoriesLegalQuakerismThought of The Day

In Sickness and Health, in New Earswick             

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending the wedding of one of my best friends. The ceremony was in York, with the wedding reception at the New Earswick Folk Hall, to the north of York.

With my dysautonomia running wild, my recollection of the ceremony is hazy. I do recall that whilst holding hands with my wife (as we tend to do during a wedding – and only during a wedding!), I think that the vicar read the usual “in sickness and in health” line. For the umpteenth time, I felt immeasurable gratitude to my awesome wife for the way that she has looked after me during my “in sickness”, this year, whilst keeping the family running and holding down a demanding job.

Saying my marriage vows, all those years ago, I don’t recall paying much attention to the precise words: thankfully, though, my wife has honoured them. It hasn’t been easy for her, but, somehow, in sickness we have become stronger.

All of this reminded me of the law concerning the value of personal injury claims. How so, you will ask?

Because when valuing a serious injury claim, in which the injured person’s life expectancy and marriage prospects are impacted, occasionally a lawyer must consider whether the value of the claim has changed as a result of the injury. To quantify any losses, lawyers look to statistical information provided by actuaries. European statistics reveal that married men live on average 1.7 years longer than unmarried men, whereas married women live 1.4 years fewer! Yesterday’s marriage appears to be a good statistical bargain for my groom friend.

…………………………………………………………

I lived and studied in York – 2002-2004. My wife and I met in York, and we were engaged there, too, next to the River Ouse.

Although Quakerism is synonymous with York, during my time in this wonderful city, I didn’t encounter Quakerism. Only in 2007, whilst reading the book – Utopian Dreams by Tobias Jones – which explored international communes, did I learn about Quakerism, thanks to the author’s time in New Earswick with Quakers.

Although saddened to miss the wedding reception (noise is too much), I very much enjoyed sitting in the car, in a car park, for four hours, in my finest suit, watching the comings and goings around the Quaker Meeting House and Folk Hall.  What a fine place New Earswick is! Friendly, no-nonsense, communal, child-friendly and purposefully planned.

Created by the Rowntrees as a model village primarily for the workers at their chocolate factory, New Earswick is akin to Bourneville and Saltaire. Foolishly, this was my first time in New Earswick, but it won’t be my last. My wife and I would like to retire here, in sickness and in health.

CategoriesPoliticsHarrogateThought of The Day

New dictionary word: “Phillip-Allott-ed” 

Verb (transitive)

To be “Phillip-Allott-ed” is a four-staged test.

First, during a stream of consciousness, you brain-dump your most bizarre, innermost thoughts, at the most insensitive of times, in full public gaze, crushing your ability to carry out your new job. Your action reveals something particularly unusual about you that only your closest friends and family might have known, and which made you precisely the wrong person to carry out your new duties.

Second, you attempt an apology, but only make matters worse, compounding your first gaffe, drawing additional ire, ensuring that the story continues to run in both the local and national news.

Third, you try to cling on to your job, in the face of universal bewilderment, during which time you are publicly humiliated, time and again, before falling on your sword. See Margaret Thatcher’s demise, dragged out kicking and screaming.

Fourth, your unforgivable opinion expressed in the first stage of the test, ensure that such viewpoints will be forcefully tackled by your successor, thereby providing a total annihilation of the position you so publicly espoused.

Example

“That new guy at work, didn’t last long. After his tirade and his protestations, he’s eventually been Phillip-Allott-ed.”

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

N.B. All MPs, mayors, PCFCs and councillors deserve our gratitude, including Mr Allott. I know many of them: all of them want to make their communities a better place. The politician has become a dangerous profession, too. RIP Sir David Amess MP and Jo Cox.

CategoriesQuakerismHarrogateThought of The Day

Living Adventurously, in Settle

Typing this blog on my phone, in Settle Quaker Meeting House, North Yorkshire, I can hear an English language lesson taking place, one on one, in the room above. The student, I imagine, a recent newcomer to this country. I’m not eavesdropping: you cannot help but hear it.

Quaker Meeting House Settle

By some distance, this is my favourite Meeting House: simple, wooden, in a central location, and surrounded by an enchanting garden, together with a Quaker burial ground. Founded in 1678 during the usual period of Quaker persecution, it’s one of the oldest Meeting Houses.

Quaker burial ground

Interestingly, the founder of Birkbeck College came from here, George Birkbeck. He had previously founded the Mechanics’ Institute, which were adult education centres, focussed on the working man.

Soon, I will be launching a radical, consensus-building, democratic tool called Pol.is, to be hosted by the newly formed: The Crowd Wisdom Project. On this project, I work with a talented tech whizz, who lives in Ghana. He designed this website for me. Coincidentally, as I sit here, on the poster, before me, is a list of some of the Quaker Meetings around the world. One of them is in Accra, Ghana!

Quaker Post

I’ve never felt more like a Quaker: sitting peacefully, alone, at the beginning of this movement. It’s tranquil, here, yet still international, even in this sleepy Dales town.

 

CategoriesInternational AffairsPoliticsThought of The Day

Buy a Generator, Just in Case

Political nerds like me are fascinated with Dominic Cummings. So interested, in fact, that I pay him a monthly fee to read his excellent newsletter. I know: I have just lost a chunk of my audience at that announcement. (You can sign up here. Previously, I blogged about Cummings here.)

In a recent lengthy post, Cummings writes:

“If you will live in the UK over the next 6 months take steps to ensure you and your family can cope with a 4 week major disruption — e.g a cascade of logistics and energy failures. The only safe assumption is that the true situation is much worse than the media are telling you. This was true in spring 2020 and autumn 2020. It’s true now. Making some basic preparations is extremely low downside and extremely high upside. Keep in mind, some of the people I know who were most right most early on covid and other things have bought generators they can plug into their homes…”

In a more sensible media landscape, the suggestion from someone as senior as Cummings that we should consider purchasing a generator would be a major headline. But the media landscape is warped, fixated on personalities and trivialities.

Cummings is in good company, for Goldman Sachs has warned of a “non-negligible risk” of power outages, too.

With a number of energy providers having gone under in the last few weeks and with 12m people soon to get a whopping 12% hike to their energy bills, we should examine the reasons why, which, according to Deloitte, are:

  1. Natural gas prices have quadrupled over the past six months.
  2. Gas provides the UK with 40% of electricity production and 80% of the heating of homes.
  3. There is ongoing maintenance work in the North Sea.
  4. Wind speeds are low.
  5. Droughts have reduced hydropower.
  6. Unlike in Europe with their 20-30% storage facilities for gas, we stand at only 2%: there is no wriggle room.
  7. Fixed-rate tariffs and price caps don’t easily allow price increases to be passed onto consumers.

And we haven’t opened a nuclear power station since 1995. If Norway and Russia don’t increase supply, and if we have a cold winter with low wind speeds, we are in serious trouble, according to the experts.

Risk-assessing this situation, buying a generator – and the fuel if you can get any! – is a sensible course of action. If Reckless Boris says that there is nothing to worry about, then there is everything to worry about.

Think clearly, folks.

CategoriesHealthThought of The Day

Dysautonomia 2: The Sequel

When your daughter theoretically starts to design the colour scheme for my custom-made electric wheelchair (I have not ordered one, for clarity), to enable me to attend her dance performance, you know that my world has turned once more. Yes, dysautonomia is back: worse – and yet better – and as baffling as ever.

After one month of passable, acceptable health, the weirdness returned. But for how long, I don’t know. Three months on and one month off: I’ll take that.

Genuinely, I am not down about it. I’m not! Saddened for its impact on others – sure – but as the only constant is change itself, we all must adapt. Moaning about it will only make the situation unbearable. Human’s adaptability has been the key to our success.

When some months ago the likely prognosis was the horrifying Addison’s Disease, I discovered that both JFK and Osama Bin Laden suffered from it. Neither lived long lives, but they were certainly eventful. My guess is that their condition turbo-charged their ambitions. They must have known that the condition had reduced their life expectancy.

Which reminds me – most pretentiously – of a letter which Proust wrote to a Parisian newspaper in answer to this question: if a scientist proved that the world was about to end in the near future, what would happen? His answer:

“I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it—our life—hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future delays them occasionally.

But let all this threaten to become impossible forever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! If only the cataclysm doesn’t happen this time, we won’t miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X, making a trip to India.

The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.”

This condition isn’t life-threatening, just life-limiting – if seen that way. Life is random. Live each day as if it’s the last.

CategoriesHealthEssaysThought of The Day

On Wasps, On CBT, On Oxbridge, On Change   

As a six-year-old, I had a crush on a classmate. I’ll refer to her as ‘S’.

One pleasant summer’s day, our family went on a walk, along a former railway line, behind our house. After a few minutes, I spotted S and her family: they were walking straight towards us. Inevitably, our paths would cross. This was going to be so embarrassing, I thought.

Thinking quickly, unbeknown to both families, I ran up the steep, wooded embankment, crouching behind a bush. Soon, S and her family would pass by, oblivious that I had evaded them. Blushes, spared.

Breathing deeply, as S’s family passed by below, what appeared to be golden pellets fizzed into the air from under where I was sitting. It was quite an enchanting sight, like being surrounded by all the local tooth fairies.

Then – ouch, ouch, ouch. Whatever these supernatural flying creatures were, they were attacking me. And it really hurt.

With greater speed than I have ever mustered, I hurtled down the embankment screaming, running past S and her family, making it to my own. So out of breath, in pain and distressed, I was incapable of explaining what was happening.

Quickly, my parents grasped that I was covered in angry wasps, crawling all over my tracksuit, stinging me repeatedly. With S and family watching on, my father stripped me down to my underpants and began jumping on my clothes. With superhuman strength, my mother picked me up, then ran the 600m, or so, back to our house, where she put me in a bath of warm water to which she added vinegar. Whether the vinegar helped, I do not know. But it seemed like a good idea at the time.

In all, I was stung 12 times. My mother gave me 10p per sting: it felt like a good bargain. This bounty certainly cured my tears.

To this day, I have no idea what S and her family made of this hilarious incident. My bet: they don’t even remember it.

……………………………….

It wasn’t until my 20s when I realised that I was quite nervous – understandably so – around wasps. Entering my 30s, unbeknown to me, this phobia became progressively worse. Into my late 30s, I couldn’t be in a room with a wasp, generating great hilarity to everyone else and significant embarrassment for me. To defend and deflect, I would tell the tale of S and my 12 stings. It is a good story.

When lockdown struck, “normal” people spent more time in their gardens, but I couldn’t. “Normal” people would barbeque, but not me. Frustrated, my wife enquired about CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – on the NHS. After screening that my need was only during wasp season, months later, my online sessions commenced with a super therapist.

I must confess that I thought that the sessions were going to be a waste of time; however, having represented hundreds of clients who had needed CBT, I was at least intrigued to know what it was all about.

Through these sessions I realised how ingrained and life-impacting my phobia had become. As homework, my therapist asked me to look at photos of wasps on the internet. To my surprise, I couldn’t, often peering through my fingers, before moving away from my computer. Looking back, I do not possess the word power to describe my disgust and fear at looking at such images. In my defence, images of wasps on a screen are – of course – far larger than wasps in real life!

Over time, lesson by lesson, always completing my homework, I made great progress. By educating myself about the vast number of wasp species and their role in the food chain and in pollination, I learned to respect – if not to love – wasps. Yes, I now love wasps! No more do I reflexively run away at the sound of a buzz in my vicinity. My mind, reprogrammed.

So confident I am now that I often work in the garden under the wasps’ favourite bush, alongside our mini-orchard – also a favourite haunt of my yellow and black friends. With my new hobby of drawing, I even sketched one (don’t laugh – it’s below) to prove my mastery. As evidence to my therapist of her success, I sent her the below photograph of my new workstation. I think it made her day.

Recently, I took my family to the fateful embankment, and, in a ceremonial manner, I buried a dead wasp that I had been asked to study. Of course, I didn’t kill that wasp, for it was already dead. Squishing wasps is not for me: instead, I open a window, because now I can.

wasp drawing workstation in orchard

……………………………………..

Walking in the garden now, I feel – oddly – powerful. Unafraid. Although I am proud of this small achievement, what excites me most is my mind’s – and anyone’s mind – ability to change, at any age. If my neural pathways can be re-wired in relation to something trauma-caused and developed over 35 years, in just ten online sessions, then a world of possibility has opened before me. And before you. But why didn’t I tackle this defect sooner?

Though not everyone will agree, the myth that many in my generation was implanted with – and which persists somewhat to-date – is that by the end of your formal education, the quality of your mind is supposedly set in concrete. As a result, your successes will flow from howsoever far your mind managed to develop in that time. I shall call this “The Fixed Mind Myth”.

First, so we were told, your life chances were allegedly moulded by your GCSE results. Next, your A-level results laid the foundations of your future. Thereafter, so the story goes, for those who attend university, the ranking of your institution and your grade determined your life. From that point, the condition of your brain was permanently affixed, incapable of improvement, your intellectual position in society, stuck. Fail at school and your life was over.

Until recently, I imbibed that bile. But where did The Fixed Mind Myth emanate from? And is it true?

For an answer, I’ll turn to a philosopher, whose name I shall withhold for now. He wrote:

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.”

This black and white analysis was from Karl Marx. The Fixed Mind Myth – if this was, as I propose, a society-wide notion – then according to Marx, it was disseminated by the ruling class. (Like him or loathe him, Marx’s criticism of capitalism has merit, but his hazily sketched-out model for a communist utopia was flawed.) I must proceed with a warning: there is always danger in overly simplistic analysis of complex issues, but as this isn’t an academic essay and as I have no training in biology (where, surely some answers also lie), I shall concentrate on this class issue.

…………………………………………

Born in the year that Thatcher (educated at Oxford) came to power, my first 18 years were lived under Conservative rule. Unquestionably, the Tories are the party of the ruling class and they have dominated British politics. Through their control, we can thank, or not, the Conservative Party for most of the successes and failures of the British state, including its myths.

Due to centuries of the ruling classes attending Oxbridge, coupled with predominant Tory rule (there is a connection), the notion that life was fixed by the time you finished formal education, was all-pervasive, inescapable. Beneficiaries of this system had no reason to contest it. The rest of us accepted it as gospel – well, that’s my firm recollection. And with Oxbridge forever top, everyone else’s place was set by their proximity to it.

Recently, Michael Gove’s time at Oxford University – which he left 33 years ago – was reported in The Times. Joining Gove, Reckless Boris and on-his-jollies-during-a-crisis Raab, attended Oxford, so did Dominic Cummings, Rishi Sunak and Theresa May, not forgetting Tony Blair, too. Matt Hancock studied at both, infamously hiring his “friend” from university. It is no surprise that today’s ruling coterie mostly attended Oxbridge: they always have.

Perhaps today’s politicians reached their lofty positions solely because of their exceptional talents, but perhaps Marx was onto something: that to attend Oxbridge guaranteed a place in the ruling class, and that The Fixed Mind Myth was then promoted by those who studied there. Once ensconced at the top of the academic hierarchy, to maintain your position in society, it was logical to proffer The Myth, brazenly or subconsciously. The Myth would therefore make sense to those who promulgated it and to those who heard it. With most Prime Ministers having studied at Oxbridge, the evidence was compelling, so it would have seemed. In addition, as I have previously blogged, clans help their own, only making matters worse.

One of the reasons why white bread became the most popular type was because, historically, only the rich could afford it. Similarly, orange carrots became the dominant type due to their popularity with the Dutch Royal family. In both cases, the predilections of society’s top strata, influenced all below.

Certainly, those who make it to Oxbridge today had academic talent at the time that they sat their exams. These students are likely to become successful – by traditional definitions of success. However, there are countless examples where this is not so: examples of non-Oxbridge students making it; of people without a university education, against the odds, becoming successful in their chosen fields. Some of the brightest and original minds that I know did not attend university.

Having worked with hundreds of lawyers, my anecdotal evidence is that an Oxbridge education does not always lead to the production of the best lawyers. Sometimes it does; sometimes it doesn’t. And those who become successful – as traditionally defined – without an Oxbridge background, have done so in spite of their “ignorance” and impeded by this class-based myth. This is because talent is not solely determined by formal education; because the brain is malleable, capable of growth at all ages, as I experienced. Some of the best lawyers I know obtained unenviable grades.

In these observations, I make no criticism of those who attended Oxbridge. Zero. Many of my friends attended. Is there an element of envy on my part? Perhaps: you decide. I’m also acutely conscious that, for some, an Oxbridge qualification may well be detrimental, perhaps pushing people into careers that ordinarily they wouldn’t have selected, because that’s what Oxbridge graduates are meant to do. Conceivably, the sense that, by attending Oxbridge you had made it, may well deter some students from continuous self-improvement, thereby leading to a less full life. And like the writer of a one-hit-wonder, who then spends a lifetime trying to recreate that magic, attending Oxbridge might feel for some as if it was the pinnacle of their existence, with everything downhill from there on in.

Irrespective of whether you concur with my observations, I hope that we can agree that attending Oxbridge is a thing. It is the sun around which the rest of us orbit.

………………………………………..

The philosopher, Nietzsche, who taught me much, instructs us to form our own codes by which to live and thrive. Nietzsche disdained traditional values, taboos and sacred cows, recommending that we move, amongst other ideas, Christianity and alcohol to the “deleted items” box in our heads. He said we should contest all doctrines that hold people back, however prevalent they are. Nietzsche, though a precocious talent, easily capable of attending Oxbridge, would have found the Oxbridge experience and all its accompaniments, suffocating. Never would he have promoted The Fixed Mind Myth.

On the contrary, he encouraged us to metamorphose from who we presently are, to, he called it, the camel, then to the lion, eventually becoming our true selves when we finally return to being a child: unburdened by society’s strictures, living in a liberated state of creativity and play. Only few “Supermen” (and women) make this mental transition, he said. Sounds delicious to me, it does, un-stung as well, and worthy of another blog.

Nietzsche is credited with the notion that ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. Perhaps sitting on a wasp nest was, after all, worth it. Those working-class wasps had been encoded to protect the hive at all costs, even to their detriment. What they needed was Marx, CBT and Nietzsche. Until my CBT, unconsciously I have been defending The Fixed Mind Myth. No more! The mind is flexible, plastic, hungry to grow.

I wonder which other ruling class-originated ideas that I should confront, and what unhelpful mental models I need to discard.

CategoriesEducationPoliticsThought of The Day

Comment Piece in The Yorkshire Post

With the children returning to school on 7 September, The Yorkshire Post published my blog, originally entitled “Carpe Diem, Gavin Williamson” in reference to the Government’s introduction of Latin. The article was trailed on page 2 (not page 3, as my friends have suggested!).

In it, I outline some obvious changes which ought to be implemented to education. If I was allowed more words, I could have gone on, for there is so much which is broken with the system. Because we are a rich country – due to historical reasons – it seems to me that we do not often question why it is that we do certain things. Why do children have ludicrously long school holidays? Because, historically, it allowed them to harvest. There are countless other examples of such poor thinking and poor governance.

The titles of the online and print versions vary. The online version can be found here.

Page 2 of Yorkshire Post on 7 September 2021

Andrew Gray

Page 15 Yorkshire Post 7.9.21
Article by Andrew Gray
CategoriesEnvironmentInternational AffairsPoliticsThought of The Day

Us and Them

Accompanying the scenes of the Kabul evacuation, Pink Floyd’s Us and Them plays on a continuous loop in my head.

“Us (us, us, us, us) and them (them, them, them, them)
And after all we’re only ordinary men.”

In recent weeks, this troubling issue – of ‘them’ and ‘us’ – has dominated my thoughts. Why do some people matter to us, but others do not? Imperilled people at Kabul airport who have had our help, are just as important as humans in, say, sub-Saharan Africa who have not, right? Former soldier and Tory MP, Patrick Mercer, wrote in The Yorkshire Post on 29 August 2021:

“If ever there was an unimpeachable reason for offering safety and sanctuary to our friends, this is it. We need to get those people out – all of them – and help them here in Britain just as they stood by our boys when the bullets were flying over there.”

Since the invasion of Afghanistan twenty years ago, I do not recall the British media suggesting that any Afghan was on our “side”. Deaths of Afghans – either in “collateral damage” or otherwise – didn’t seem to matter much. Only the deaths of our unfortunate soldiers ever made the news. Until now. Now, Afghans who worked on our side, or who benefitted from our presence, have quickly become ‘us’ in a matter of weeks.

Perhaps we now care for some Afghans because “our” people got to know some of them, fighting and dying together. Because those Afghans picked our tribe over “theirs”, they are now friends for life, as Mercer says. Our tribe owes their tribe, goes the logic. Difficult shared experiences develop strong bonds between people.

As I hope to treat all people equally, this rapid volte face in the media, though welcome, causes me concern. And if these Afghans can quickly change sides in our consciousness, are there any useful lessons for how we could shine a spotlight on other unfortunate people, equally deserving of our help? What methodology and logic should we use for determining who deserves our assistance?

Yuval Noah Harari’s magnum opus – Sapiens – which ought to be compulsory reading for all – traces the development of our species. Like many of his readers, I now understand myself better because I recognise my DNA code. Harari spends much time explaining the ‘them’ and ‘us’ phenomenon. He writes:

“Evolution has made homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘Us’ is people like you and me, who share our language, religion and customs. We are all responsible for each other, but not responsible for ‘them’. We were always distinct from them, and owe them nothing. We don’t want to see any of them in our territory, and we don’t care an iota what happens in their territory. They are barely even human.”

A challenging read, because it is true for many people.

In 2016, at the suggestion of a Quaker friend, I travelled with him to the Calais refugee camp – The Jungle – together with some members of a Pentecostal church in Leeds. Our mission was to distribute food and other assorted items.

At that time, in the British gutter press, The Jungle had become notorious. If France was so civilised, why not stay there? – went the narrative. The gutter press’s answer: only because Britain was a soft-touch, ready to help others rather than “our own”. Charity begins at home, they intoned.

In The Jungle lived Afghans, Syrians and many other nationalities – mainly young men – who wanted a better life, escaping war and poverty. If, through fate, I had been in their position, I imagine I would have done likewise.

Here are some photos of that trip.

You might expect that such an experience would leave a lasting impression, but it did not. Rarely do I think about The Jungle, however, frequently I think about the people whom we travelled with: they became part of my tribe. Perhaps this is because I did not (frankly, because of fear), spend any meaningful time with any of the inhabitants of The Jungle: it was intense, overwhelming experience – one that I do not wish to have again. I cannot tell you any of their names of the people we helped. In my head, they didn’t enter my tribe.

Harari’s work helps humans to understand our still-primitive minds. If we are all encoded to really only care about ‘us’, if we want to break-free from such thinking, answers can be found in religion and ideology (taken as one) and philosophy.

Although religion unquestionably sows division, it is also a great unifer, by increasing the size of the ‘us’ pool, extending the size of our tribe. Don’t just care about Christians in your town in affluent Harrogate – goes the logic – care about the plight of Christians in Kurdistan, too. Furthermore, if an omnisicient creator gave all things life, assuming that humans are at the zenith of the importance hierarchy (which is quite an assumption), then religions are a helpful antidote to humans only caring about the people whom they know. For example, the Christians from Leeds, who led The Jungle odyssey, were inspired by their faith to help those in need. And for these Leeds Christians, upliftingly they did not care for the religion for those whom they helped.

Similarly, communism encouraged the working classes to care about the class struggle throughout the world, extending the working class tribe. Communism and the reaction to it certainly caused much bloodshed, but it also spawned human connection.

In philosophy, I draw great strength from Peter Singer – the inspiration behind the animal rights movement. Together with my instinctual predilection for utilitarianism, Singer’s Drowning Child Experiment has shaped how I see the world. His thought experiment goes as follows:

Imagine that you are walking through an empty village – empty except for a young child. That child is about to drown in the village pond. You are the only person who can save it. If you wade into the water, through the mud, to make a rescue, then you will permanently ruin your best clothes. The financial cost would be modest. Morally, should you wade in?

To which everyone answers – of course! Singer asks why it is, then, that most people in rich countries would not spend only a small sum of money to save the life of a child – or perhaps a few children – in a developing country, a country that we will in all likelihood never visit. Why does it matter that we cannot see, in the flesh, the child drowning in another land? Singer challenges us to ignore distance, to apply logic – a life is a life wherever it is – and to make that donation.

Inspired by Singer’s reasoning, the organisation – The Life That You Can Save – ranks charities who make the greatest contribution to saving lives. I encourage all readers to subscribe to their newsletter.

Drawing lessons from Harari, religion and philosophy, how should we, in rich countries, act? My personal recipe is to get to know one developing country – in my personal case, Myanmar – and give a fair proportion of your wealth (including your time) to achieving the maximum return. We cannot know all people, or we would exhaust ourselves. Alternatively, we could let the Life That You Can Save direct our giving, but you will never get the warm feeling of knowing the people your money helps, perhaps leading us to give to the local donkey sanctuary instead when we get bored.

Perhaps more intelligently and compassionately still, our money and time ought to be focussed on environmental matters: allowing us to be both local as well as global, acting in the knowledge that the people who will be hit worst by environmental collapse are always the most needy. This requires long-term thinking, something which does not come naturally to most of us.