UKIP’s new billboard campaign is pretty awful, but for the love of God, please stop using the R word.

I take a fair interest in politics. I feel it is important to be informed about the world around oneself, yet I am also interested in politics as I am interested in what makes a good or well-justified argument, and politics is so littered with utterly terrible ones. To me, politics as a field seems to be almost defined by the phenomenon of people having very strong opinions on things that they actually seem to know very little about. So many standard political debates seem like textbook examples of how not to form an argument or conduct a debate. So many political arguments are based on fallacies and emotion, not solid logic; the British media’s latest furore over the United Kingdom Independence Party’s new billboard campaign, launched at the start of this week, seems to be no exception to this.

Comprising 4 different billboard designs, UKIP’s electioneering push for the 22nd of May European Parliament Elections contains some rather dramatic imagery, and even more dramatic assertions about the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union. One billboard in particular utilises a gargantuan pointing hand, a stock symbol of political imagery, with the claim: “26 million people in Europe are looking for work. And whose jobs are they after?”. Predictably, and dismayingly, the campaign has been derided as “racist” by at least one Labour MP and the R word has been shunted into multiple headlines reporting the campaign in the media. Here, both UKIP and their detractors are conducting poor political debate.

It could be YOU!

It could be YOU!

Bad Debate #1: overreliance on emotive terms like “racism”

The overuse of the word “racist” in regards to the United Kingdom Independence Party’s billboard campaign is misjudged. First of all, if we go by the most pedantic, dictionary-precise definition of the word, accusing UKIP of “racism” can easily be refuted by pointing out that nothing in the campaign has anything to do with the colour of people’s skin. Yes, the campaign does capitalise on a fear of the Other considerably with its hyperbolic imagery and u vs. them mentality when it comes to issues like jobs and money, yet it is generally agreed that “the UK” vs. “Europe,” or even “British” vs. “non-British”, is not a racial distinction. A more technically accurate word to use may be “xenophobic”, a fear of the Other or the unfamiliar. However, I would warn against using this too because, in addition to technical or literal meaning, words also constitute social and emotive currency. (known to linguists as “connotation”). “Racist” is a powerful word in our society and, as I have written previously, powerful words lose their potency from overuse. When you throw the R word around left, right and centre, people will become desensitised and eventually stop taking you seriously. On the other hand, powerful words also engender emotive responses, emotive responses that subvert the ability of all involved, regardless of which side they take, to discuss an issue in a logical or reasonable way.

Secondly, likely against the wishes of though who use it, liberal use of the word “racism” actually works in UKIP’s favour: it feeds an established narrative of “those who want to talk about immigration and Europe are branded racist because the establishment are running scared.” It is obviously not racist to talk about immigration, even with concern, and 5 minutes on the Daily Express’ website will show you that people actually do such a thing quite freely all of the time. However, this does not change the fact that a good part of the public does subscribe to this narrative, rightly or wrongly, and the proclamations of the likes of Labour’s Mike Gapes only seek to validate this subscription. Above all, playing the racism card is a red herring: it doesn’t actually challenge the arguments made by UKIP’s billboards in any meaningful way. In fact, it doesn’t challenge them at all; it offers no refutation of the facts contained therein. What should really be done is to challenge UKIP over specious arguments and factual inaccuracies, which isn’t even difficult because…

Bad Debate #2: misleading arguments and crap statistics.

UKIP’s billboard posters themselves are full of really awful claims. Take, for example, the assertion that “75% of [UK] laws are now made in Brussels.” There is no source whatsoever that supports this assertion. It is false. It is utter rubbish. The “75%” figure comes from a mistranslation of a speech former President of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Pottering. What Pottering actually said was that 75% of all laws passed by the EU (and not within member states themselves) were made by a specific part of the EU: the European Parliament. He never said that 75% of laws that applied to member states were made by the EU. When you think about it, claiming that this corresponds to “75% of the UK’s laws come from Brussels” would be an absurd assertion anyway, because the only way you could logically infer that “75% of the United Kingdom’s laws come from Brussels” from “75% of laws in EU member states come from Brussels” is by assuming that every one of the EU’s member states passes the exact same amount of laws nationally (so the German parliament passes the same number as the UK parliament, as does the French parliament, etc.) which has practically zero chance of actually being the case. Here we have a political point based on a statistic that is not only completely false, but patently ridiculous.

Karl Pilkington, a straight talking Englishman.

Karl Pilkington, a straight talking Englishman.

Another billboard design sports the claim “The UK pays £55 million a day to the EU and its Eurocrats.” This isn’t quite as preposterous as the first statistic, but it’s still pretty misleading: £55 million is actually a high end estimate of a gross payment. This means it does not include any money that the UK gets back from EU membership, either directly (through rebates) or indirectly (through jobs created by membership, for example). I should take care to point out here that I am not trying to argue that EU membership is good value for money for the UK, it may not be, or that Brussels’ influence over UK legislation is not excessive, it may in fact be so, I am merely pointing out that UKIP’s arguments to the contrary are just not particularly good.

The last two billboards both focus on UKIP’s pet beef with the European Union: immigration. These posters play into the tendency to frame immigration as an “us vs. them” situation. Superficially, the logic displayed by UKIP seems to make sense: more immigrants taking jobs in the country means less jobs for British works. However, the simple truth is that things are never simple: jobs only exist in the first place because of demand for goods and services. Demand for goods and services comes from people, so how would firms deal with an increase in demand caused by an increase in the number of people? Well, one solution is to create more jobs! In this regard, immigrants can potentially create jobs just as much as they take them; the tendency to think of the jobs market as a zero-sum game is known to economists as the “lump of labour fallacy”. Of course, firms could just meet extra demand through offshoring or automation instead, but if there were no immigrants coming into the country at all, who’s to say that they wouldn’t do this anyway? Framing the shortcomings of our economy in regard to immigrants only focuses on what is a narrow part of a very complex subject: lack of demand, cautious lenders (particularly after the banking crisis), skills-shortages and lack of investment in infrastructure (“creaking hospitals and schools”) are as much ways of framing economic debate as is immigration.

Perhaps one the reason why the immigration debate seems so confused and emotive is because actual research into the effect of migration on British citizens economically seems so contradictory. As Fullfact points out, there seems to have been little actual relationship between overall employment of British nationals and the number of migrants from the EU entering the country over the past 17 years. Migration Watch purports there to be a link between rising youth unemployment and immigration, yet without conclusive evidence, this could easily be attributed to skills shortages or, as the Economist speculates, an aging workforce instead; it is not a political vogue to talk about the economic consequences of more old people like it is the consequences of more migrants however. Studies are similarly contradictory on issues like the effect of immigration on wages, as The Migration Observatory shows, and the overall economic effects of migration can be either positive of negative depending on industry, the skill sets of the migrants themselves, how “migrant” is defined, and the methodologies of the studies carried out.

Given that the economic impact of immigration upon British workers is so complex, it quickly becomes clear why the emotive and simplistic arguments of UKIP are unhelpful at best, and downright irresponsible at worst. It may, in fact, be better to focus more on the social consequences of immigration on the UK rather than the economic ones, of cultural clashes and communication disjuncts in British towns and cities; yet this is a discussion that must be considered and sensitive, not emotive and illogical, which brings me to my final point…

Bad Debate #3: being a bunch of massive hypocrites

It is not just the reckless employment of overly emotive arguments and contorted logic that belongs in, not so much Airstrip One, but Wonderland that our mainstream political debate lays bare, it is also the sheer hypocrisy of so many political positions. It is on this point that UKIP fail the most with their billboard campaign. UKIP’s almost entire brand image is manufactured on the premise of being the “straight talkers” of the British political scene, yet they have established themselves as all too happy to push hysterical imagery and disingenuous arguments on the electorate. This hypocrisy demonstrates the worst kind of pulling the wool over one’s eyes: appealing to fear and emotion at the expense of reasoned or even factually accurate debate in order to win public favour. It is a special kind of hypocrisy, a metahypocrisy if you will, in that so much of it rests solely on projecting one’s opponent as a hypocrite. It is pointing out the log in your neighbour’s eye whilst hoping no-one spots the Amazon in yours.

Whilst I agree with the United Kingdom Independence Party in that much of the political establishment has failed to grapple with sensitive issues such as immigration in a productive way, UKIP have shown themselves in being incapable of doing so either: preferring to shout superficial soundbites, misleading arguments and oversimplified factoids in regards to what is actually a very complex cultural and economic issue. Wanting to talk about immigration in an honest way is not racist at all, but accusing others of skirting around the issue then doing the same yourself, only from the opposite ideological direction, is hypocrisy.

Eurocrats like Nigel Farage MEP?

Eurocrats like Nigel Farage MEP?

UKIP’s hypocrisy will not go completely unnoticed: although it is admittedly a low blow, I have already seen a few pass comment on the party’s equating EU bureaucrats with lavish, “celebrity” lifestyles whilst Nigel Farage MEP swans around the country giving theatrical speeches and having lots of photographs taken a quaint village pubs without the slightest hint of irony. For me, both UKIP’s greatest strength and biggest flaw is their willingness to found an entire political image on the notion of “common sense” which, as I have noted before, is a toxic concept in the complex world of politics. Common sense leads to political positions that may be superficially appealing, yet poke a little deeper, and you find nothing but vulgarity and inconsistency. Let’s call UKIP out on all of this but, please, stop calling them racist.

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Three unusual insults that should be more well known.

This is the first image Google returns for "douchebag".

This is the first image that Google returns for “douchebag”.

It’s been a long time since I posted anything on here. I’ve been busy getting a full time job, my own place and, consequently, having considerably less free time than 6 months ago. So here I am attempting to get over some of the inertia I have been struck with in regards to some of my vocational pursuits, including my blogging. In order to overcome this inertia, I have decided to begin by writing about one of the greatest components of human communication: the insult; particularly, some of the more unusual and interesting insults I have encountered.

The act of making a good insult is an artform. A good insult is both insightful and incisive; it obeys all of the conventional rules of good creative language: colourful imagery, composed diction and clever wordplay, but a good insult is one that cuts right through the defences of the target and straight to their core. A truly great insult tears down the social pretensions the individual, and reveals them for what they are, shivering and naked, eloquently and mercilessly.

Insults also seem to be subject to the laws of supply and demand: say one too much and you will devalue its meaning . You should avoid using the word “fuck” in every single sentence, not because it is morally depraved, but because doing so diminishes the awesome power of the word. Powerful words should be reserved for special cases by the virtue of being powerful. It is for this reason that I have titled this blog “3 Unusual Insults that Should be More Widely Known” and not “3 Unusual Insults that Should be More Widely Used.”

Too many insults thrown around in popular discourse are banal and unimaginative. Consider the word “douchebag”: it is a go-to description for almost any kind of even remotely unpleasant person. There’s nothing  special about being a douchebag. Here I set out to identify some more special insults, talk a bit about their etymology and why I find them particularly compelling.

1) “Walking Abortion”

On a purely visceral level, the potency of “walking abortion” as an insult is obvious: abortion is an unpleasant and, in some societies, controversial topic. The mental image of a walking abortion is particularly unsavoury, yet the etymology of the term is fascinating: it seems to have originated from raging misandrist radical feminist, Valerie Solanas in her 1967 “SCUM Manifesto”. In SCUM Manifesto, Solanas,  probably best known for her attempted assassination of Andy Warhol a year after writing the text, proclaims:

“It is now technically feasible to reproduce without the aid of males (or, for that matter, females) and to produce only females. We must begin immediately to do so. Retaining the male has not even the dubious purpose of reproduction. The male is a biological accident: the Y (male) gene is an incomplete X (female) gene, that is, it has an incomplete set of chromosomes. In other words, the male is an incomplete female, a walking abortion, aborted at the gene stage. To be male is to be deficient, emotionally limited; maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples.”

“Emotional cripple” seems to be the key phrase here. We may call an intellectual cripple a “moron” or an “idiot”, someone whose lack of intelligence is painfully inconvenient to others. Similarly, a walking abortion is someone who is painfully inconvenient to others through their lack of emotional intelligence. To be a walking abortion is to be foolishly callous, to routinely piss on the best works of others through sheer lack of self-awareness. A walking abortion is this kind of person who vandalises a newly renovated public park, the kind of person who posts naked photos of their ex to a public Facebook group, the kind of person who regularly posts comments under Youtube videos.

I would argue that a walking abortion is not necessarily the same as a sociopath: a sociopath is at least intellectually aware that others may have emotional needs and that empathy is necessary to a functioning society, they just choose to completely disregard this. A walking abortion, on the other hand, is one who is genuinely and chronically ignorant of the inconvenience and suffering their actions bring upon others, an utter, total emotional moron.

Valerie Solanas

Valerie Solanas

Given Solanas’ use of the term, one may take the concept of a walking abortion to be inherently misandric; I disagree, to be a chronic emotional cripple is not necessarily a gender-specific affliction. My own encounter of the term actually comes from the one of my favourite albums ever: Manics Street Preachers’ the Holy Bible, specifically, the track “Of Walking Abortion”. Here, lyricist Richey Edwards allows for a more liberal and inclusive use of the term: “we all are of walking abortion”. That’s not misandric, that’s completely misanthropic.

2) “Cloaca”

I first encountered the term “cloaca” as part of a campaign amongst parts of the blogosphere to popularise its use a few years back. Specifically, the term was to be directed against notorious Daily Mail columnist and professional troll Richard Littlejohn, who is paid a seven figure salary by the Mail to rant about the decline of “British values” from the safe vantage point of his huge home in Florida. Littlejohn’s writing is of little intellectual value, amounting to barely anything more than crude stereotypes and thinly veiled xenophobia, homophobia and misogyny and consequently, he has become the butt of many generic insults across social media and the blogosphere. The reasoning behind employing the word “cloaca” against Littlejohn is that many traditional insults that we direct at others simply fail to do such an odious individual justice. A special word had to be brought into use, just for him.

What actually is a cloaca? The term is zoological in origin, and is defined by Wikipedia (WARNING: do not click link if currently eating) as thus:

“In zoological anatomy, a cloaca is the posterior opening that serves as the only such opening for the intestinal, reproductive, and urinary tracts of certain animal species. The word comes from Latin, and means sewer. All birds, reptiles, and amphibians possess this orifice, from which they excrete both urine and faeces, unlike placental mammals, which possess two separate orifices for evacuation.”

In others words, a cloaca is simultaneously an anus, a female reproduce orifice and a pee-hole. There is also a birth defect known as “persistant cloaca” (again, reader discretion is advised when Googling this condition) in which these three openings in humans become fused. It is a particularly unpleasant insult for a particularly unpleasant person.

Above all else, pejorative use of  the word “cloaca” is a triumph of economic efficiency: it takes at least two of the worst things you could ever call someone, and does the work of both.

This isn't just any old cunt...

This isn’t just any old cunt…

3) “Dunning Krugerite”

In order to understand what a Dunning Krugerite is, one must first have some understanding of the Dunning Kruger effect, a hilarious and terrifying psychological phenomenon. Roughly be summed up as follows: the Dunning Kruger effect states that people who are incompetent within a given discipline tend to vastly overestimate their competence within that discipline, especially in relation to those who possess actual competence. The theory behind this is that those who are incompetent are unable to recognise that they are incompetent, out of the simple fact that by being incompetent, they have no appreciation of what it actually means to be competent. In other words:

The Dunning Kruger effect is when you are too stupid to even realise that you are stupid.

A Dunning Krugrite is more than an ordinary moron, a Dunning Krugerite is a turbo-charged metamoron. It’s as if they’ve managed to turn the very concept of moronity in on itself into some kind of fuckwitted Moebius strip. A Dunning Krugerite is not just horrifically stupid or ignorant, but insufferably obnoxious in their stupidity and ignorance, this is because the lack of awareness of how limited their understanding actually is gives them an enormous sense of overconfidence. It is insufferable to try and reason with Dunning Krugerite because they are unable to even entertain any idea beyond the cascade of shite that regularly spews from their own oral cavities. It’s a bit like trying to explain what purple looks like to someone who totally colour-blind, or playing chess with a pigeon.

Dunning Krugerite’s are well recognised throughout history, William Shakespeare proclaimed: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool” whilst Bertrand Russell wrote “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision”. Dunning Krugerites are easy enough to spot, for one they tend to be opinionated, yet due to due to their incapacity to engage in even remotely critical thought, these “opinions” tend to be little more than stock populist sound bites, often played out between other Dunning Krugerites like some kind of migraine-inducing Moron Symphony.

The Dunning Kruger effect in graph form, as illustrated by SMBC

The Dunning Kruger effect in graph form, as illustrated by SMBC

A Dunning Krugerite is someone who proclaims that a 5 year old could paint like Mark Rothko.

A Dunning Krugrerite is some who dismisses all electronic music as “talentless pressing of buttons on a laptop, not real music”.

A Dunning Krugerite is someone who proclaims that “evolution is just a theory” and that “the climate has changed before, therefore anthropogenic global warming is a hoax.”

Richard Littlejohn displayed strong Dunning Krugeresque tendencies when he described his critically panned novel To Hell in a Handcart as “much more complex than Tolstoy”

As an insult that should be more well-known, the case for raising the profile of the Dunning Krugerite is that of its sheer ubiquity; there is just so fucking many of them. That girl on Facebook who regularly posts incoherent and reactionary political statements with utterly atrocious spelling and grammar? She’s a Dunning Krugerite. Your absolute cloaca of a manager? Possibly also a Dunning Krugerite. Almost every tabloid newspaper columnist ever? Oh boy…

It may seem to call out people on such ineptitude, but I believe that by outing Dunning Krugerites we perform a service both to the public and to themselves. If you’re not aware of your own ineptitude, what will ever motive you to improve?  To paraphrase Socrates, to achieve true knowledge is to recognise the extent of one’s own ignorance.

Youtube's Comments Board: where walking abortions, cloacas and Dunning Krugerites come together in some kind of surreal scatological orgy.

Youtube’s comments board: where walking abortions, cloacas and Dunning Krugerites come together in some kind of surreal scatological orgy.

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The murder of Lee Rigby – or why radical Islam and far-right groups are two sides of the same coin

Ministry-of-Defence-undated-handout-photo-of-Drummer-Lee-RigbyOn Wednesday 22nd May 2013, the United Kingdom was shaken by the brutal murder of a British soldier, Drummer Lee Rigby by two alleged Islamic fundamentalists Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale. In the aftermath, much of the mainstream media and internet have taken to trying to construct an explanation and identify possible causes for how two otherwise apparently normal young men could be driven to committing such a horrific act against another human being. Generally, there seem to have been two main recurring ideas, which I will set out here:

1) “Islam, as an ideology, is specifically susceptible to inspiring acts of violence within its followers.”

2) “Muslims, as a group, are angry with British foreign policy and the West’s military involvement in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and this incident is really a bubbling over of that anger.” This was allegedly the reasoning given by the perpetrators themselves.

I don’t think either of these statements can be dismissed outright; there is probably some element of truth in both of them. Taken in isolation however, they both beg the same question: logically, if either statement were taken to be true, then why hasn’t the entire Muslim community, or at least a considerably larger proportion of it, resorted to similar measures? Statistically, about 0.0008%, an improbably tiny number of British Muslims have been convicted of terrorism related offences since 2001*, demonstrating that the overwhelming majority are not terrorists. Even if certain verses in the Qur’an can be taken to condone violence against and killing of non-Muslims in times of war, then why do the vast majority of Muslims in the U.K. disregard this?

As with any religion, it’s a question of interpretation. Religious scriptures tend to vague at best and self-contradictory at worst. But what causes most British Muslims to observe their religion in a peaceful way and the likes Michael Adebolajo or Abu Hamza to interperate its teachings so violently? The answer must lie in social and cultural conditions outside of the ideology itself. The foreign policy argument presents an additional conundrum: if these men claim to be railing against the injustices committed against “their” people and “their” country, then why, as British-Nigerians hailing from Christian families, do they identify with predominantly Islamic nations in the Middle East as opposed to Britain or even Nigeria?

In-groups, self and social alienation

Humans are necessarily social creatures, we literally cannot survive without banding together with others. Psychologically, our sense of self is constructed in relation to the social bonds we form and the groups within society in which we belong. The groups that you consider yourself to be a part of are known as ingroups and are always typified by set of cultural customs and norms. Most people belong to multiple in groups at once: you can be a doctor, a Conservative Party supporter, a footballer, a metalhead, an Oxford Alumni, British and Muslim all at once. Most of the ingroups we belong to generate relatively little friction within mainstream society. The case is no different for moderate Muslims:they do not just see themselves in relation to their religion, they see themselves in relation to their job, their family, their hobbies, their musical taste and how they partake in the mainstream political process. On the whole, this does not differ that much from the accepted norms of British society.

However, what is to happen if someone becomes disconnected from and disenfranchised with most of the established ingroups around which they are situated? This is known as alienation. Alienation can have multiple causes including, but not limited to: poor socioeconomic status, family breakdown, discrimination and substance abuse. As with lots of social phenomena, these things tend to be systematic and mutually reinforcing. In the case of Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, both men came from devoutly Christian backgrounds and experienced extensive problems with drug abuse, which would’ve likely alienated them from their families. Both men also dropped out of university and Adebowale experienced bullying at school, likely producing alienation from peers.

When people become alienated from mainstream groups and orders in society, they lose their sense of self. This is a profoundly unpleasant phenomenon to experience. When the status quo fails us in the validation of ourselves, we veer towards more fringe cultures and groups for validation, fringe groups that often extol extremism, tribalism and violence. This is the same reason why inner-city youths plagued by family breakdown, lack of positive role models and poor economic opportunity become beholden to violent gang culture and why cults seek to socially isolate their members. In the case of Adebolajo and Adebowale, the remedy these men would’ve turned to deal with alienation via family breakdown, drug abuse and loss of educational prospects would be radical Islam. This is consistent with a statement by Maajid Nawaz, from anti-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation that a disproportionately high number of Islamic terrorists are actually converts as opposed to being born into the religion. Hate preachers like Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri understand this, and as such deliberately prey on the disenfranchised and alienated within our society.

Two sides of the same coin

The most ironic thing of all may that radical Islam is but one product of social alienation; another would be right wing extremism. Groups like the BNP and EDL may claim to be in opposition to Islamic fundamentalists, but in reality such groups are two sides to the same coin. BNP and EDL supporters have become socially alienated from a political order that they see as aloof, out of touch and self-serving. Both groups, for various reasons, have become disillusioned with the customs, values and beliefs of mainstream liberal, globalised, consumerist society and have sort refuge in ideologies that define themselves in a distinctly oppositional “us vs. them” way to this society.

Two Sides

To say fringe ideologies, whether they be radical Islam, far-right nationalism or gang culture are the “cause” of violence and social atrocity is a simplification. What is a more accurate thing to say is that these ideologies serve as something of a rationalisation for already angry people to commit atrocities with greater conviction, fanning the flames as opposed to being the spark. Psychology shows that when people hold a deeply hold sense of belonging to a clearly defined social group, they will be considerably more likely to attack members of oppositional groups, even if the group distinction is something as trivial as sports teams at a holiday camp. With its strict and clearly defined customs and norms, Islam is especially powerful in its clasping of the rational individual into tribalism and groupthink, but if it didn’t exist, a billion and one other ideologies, no matter how innocuous on the surface, could take its place. Religious fundamentalism is not completely a cause of social breakdown and atrocity; it is as much a symptom.

There seems to be a fashionable current of secular thought that “religion is the cause of all conflict in the world” but religion is really a proxy for human tribalism, which is manifest in all kinds of ways. In terms of tackling the problem of Islamic fundamentalism, rationally opposing its ideologies, going after those who seek to indoctrinate and preach hate and asking difficult questions about British foreign policy are all helpful. Yet it takes one to listen as much as it takes one to preach, and we must address the complex factors that cause so many disenfranchised young men to turn to such extreme cultural stances. Furthermore, we should be suspicious of those who seek to stereotype and criticise groups of millions of people, as such acts only entrench division and alienation further. Regardless of religion, race or political belief, within the right social conditions, anyone can become an extremist and a killer.

* The statistic I have given here is based on 283 people being convicted of terrorism related offenses from September 2001 to March 2012 in the United Kingdom (page 14). It has been assummed that about 75% of these people self-indentify as Muslim, based on that proportion appearing in reports I found on the number of convicted terrorists in British prisons both in 2008 (p. 25) and 2012 (p. 40). This gives us 212 Islamic terrorists, which was then calculated as a proportion of all 2.7 million Muslims living in the United Kingdom, giving 0.0008% or about 8 in every 100 000.

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Song Review: John Grant – GMF

John_GrantI haven’t reviewed a single song before, but every once in a while I come across a piece of music so interesting that I feel like I just have to poke it with a stick to understand it better. GMF by American singer-songwriter John Grant, an alt. rock ode to chronic narcissism, has been stuck in my head a lot recently, partially in thanks to its sweet music and witty, cynical lyrics and partially because of BBC Radio 6Music playing a radio friendly version of it an awful lot. In consequence, I thought I would get out my notepad and try and figure out just what, for me personally, makes this song so enjoyable.

I believe great lyrics are an underrated virtue in popular music, so that’s probably the first appeal of GMF for me. In the first person, Grant describes what sounds like a narcissistic, pedantic know-it-all who is excruciatingly aware of his own insufferability. He is the greatest motherfucker that you’re ever gonna meet, and boy does he know it. I’ll admit that I know little about John Grant the man so I don’t know whether he’s being autobiographical here or just playing a part. I’m going to hazard a guess that it’s a bit of both, and it’s fucking hilarious: Grant’s turns of phrase at the end of every other line are genuine comedy, whether imagining his conception of life as a movie in which he is the underdog protagonist or laying down the principles about his own sexuality. I won’t spoil the exact details as comedy is as much about delivery as it is about content, but this song delivers on both sides.

Musically, GMF has a warm, lush feel that harks back to great 70’s pop acts like the Carpenters, but with a dash of psychedelia that, apart from a slightly arresting synth solo, remains subtle in the form of Grant’s spacey, echoing vocals (aided by Sinead O’Connor appearing on backing vocals) and whooshing background guitars. The chorus of the song, the real hook musically, is given a hint of spice with the way that Grant juxtaposes a soaring melody with the pedantic, long-winded meter of the lyrics: “so go ahead and love me, while it’s still a crime, but don’t forget, you could be laughing 65 percent more of the time,” creating something catchy and memorable, but ever so slightly off-kilter.

We enjoy music that we can relate to and I can imagine that everyone, at some point in their life, has had to deal with an insufferable egotist who, as far as they are concerned, has the Sun shining out of his or her arse. Yet I can’t help but feel that Grant is actually touching at a deeper truth here that, whether we openly admit it or not, the greatest egotist in all of our lives is actually the one looking at us in the mirror. We all hold necessary delusions about ourselves: we are smarter, kinder, better at our job, more rational and less open to suggestion from others than the average person and this belief keeps us sane and positive in a difficult life. Grant is taking this unspoken, and seldom even considered delusion and laying it right in front of us, warts and all, amongst a soaring melody and lush chord progression. In spite of all his cynicism, the protagonist of GMF’s rare candidness and self-awareness is reassuring and even heartwarming.

Certainly an artist whom I will be paying more attention to from now on.

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I Can’t Sleep

They say that with time, things become clearer and more becoming to objective, considered analysis but I don’t know if this is true. Throughout the 20th century, things only seem to have gotten bigger, more complex and more chaotic. When one sets out to make an earnest attempt to understand the world and its deepest workings, universal truths become empty dogmas and informed future predictions become wishful thinking, as if our society is built more on quicksand than any real stable foundation. Our economic system is one of a bus that will explode if it drops below a certain speed limit, only that speed limit is always getting higher and the next brick wall is always just around the corner. They say that the best and most rational way to live our lives is to fulfill our individual wants and to leave our own mark, yet our individual marks are ever more rapidly destroyed, replaced and remade as an ever more globalised social order ranges on and spreads its influence to all four corners of the globe.

Perhaps the supreme parodax of our time is of how individual choice and identity and the atomisation of society are seen as the ultimate ideal yet we continue to perpetuate a political and economic order that makes us totally, utterly dependent on one another: a housing market crash in the U.S. can destroy the livelihoods of thousands of people thousands of miles away. We’re like flotsam being thrown about in a Pacific hurricane, always fighting to keep our heads above the water, and the weather is getting more extreme. As we stare into the deafening darkness that is what the 21st century will bring to our species we can be nothing less but brave beyond belief, resilient beyond reckoning and compassionate enough to hold on to one other.

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What’s It Really Like to Study an Architecture Degree?

            Since embarking on the professional route to becoming a qualified architect in the United Kingdom, one of the things I have frequently noticed whilst discussing my intended career choice is how little most people actully know about either the architectural profession or the education process one must go through in order to enter it. More pressing still, I have come to appreciate the extent of my own ignorance in the matter before embarking on my own undergraduate degree in architecture and the subsequent risk of many intelligent, talented and enthusiastic 18-21 year olds entering the field without any real idea of what they’re actually getting themselves into. I’ve written this post in order to describe my experience so far of the route to becoming an architect in the UK, specifically the RIBA Part I undergraduate degree in architecture, and to hopefully impart some wisdom upon those who may be considering a career in architecture.

“7 years”

 One the first misconceptions people seem to have about an architecture degree is that it is “7 years long”. This isn’t the full story: the traditional route to becoming professionally qualified as an architect in the UK consists of a 3 year undergraduate degree (known as RIBA Part I) followed by a minimum of a year in professional practice. This is then followed by a two year diploma or “masters” course (known as RIBA Part II), beyond this, Part IIs (as they are known) are required to work another minimum of one year in architectural practice before becoming eligible to take a professional practice exam and qualify as an architect. There are some variations on this model: Bath University combines Part I and the year out in practice into a 4 year sandwich course whereas the Welsh School of Architecture substitutes 2 years in university for one studying, one more in practice at Part II, but the basic model remains the same.

The professional route to becoming an architect in the United Kingdom

The professional route to becoming an architect in the United Kingdom

Based on these details, a more accurate assertion than “7 years to become an architect” would be “minimum 7 years to become eligible to become an architect”. Most people don’t qualify after just 7 years due to simply not having enough practical experience from just 2 years in the workplace (not to mention the fees one must pay to take the exam). From I’ve heard from others in the field, it might in fact be better to say: “it takes 8-10 years to actually become an architect”. The point here is that by just beginning to train as an architect after leaving school, you’re potentially dedicating a rather substantial proportion of your young adult life to the programme and it pays to take some time to research the implications of doing so.

The undergraduate degree

            The three year Part I undergraduate course in architecture isn’t like other degrees: whereas most “traditional” degrees are largely based on series of lectures and seminars with learning assessed via coursework and exams, an architecture degree tends to be split down two halves. The first half consists of traditional “lecture based” learning on various academic aspects of architecture including theory, history and technology. The second half, virtually unheard of outside of creative courses, consists of a strange, unruly beast that is known as the “studio”. Here, students design architectural projects to briefs set by tutors to be ultimately assessed in the form of a design portfolio at the end of the year. It is this second half of studio-based learning that deserves special attention and what I am going to focus a lot of my writing here on. The studio seems to be the one thing that catches a lot of unsuspecting first year students out from simply not being informed of the true nature of the course and what it will demand of them before embarking on it.

Never enough time

The first thing to understand is that studio work is extremely time consuming. I really can’t emphasise this enough. Unless you are a time-management virtuoso, you are going to lose a few nights sleep on this course. There seem to be a few reasons for this. First of all, you have to assimilate an extremely broad range of skills to succeed in architecture: you must be creative yet logical, convicted yet open-minded, aesthetically sensitive yet technical and very good with your hands. Many of the basic skills you must learn in order to survive on the course include: drawing, computer literacy (particularly on CAD programs such as AutoCAD and SketchUp), creative thinking, the ability to present and pitch your ideas, ability to respond appropriately to criticism of your ideas (more on that one later) and the ability to take your own initiative. You will also need to have a basic understanding of how people psychologically perceive buildings and space, how buildings are physically put together, how the general creative process works and the social, political, cultural and environmental impact of the built environment. This is a lot to take in and no-one can expect to become an expect in any of it from three years of coasting in university. In fact, you’re not going to become an expert after three years of a grafting like mad but just to even grasp the basics, that is often what you will find yourself having to do.

Burnt_OutWhen I attended an open day at one university before beginning my degree, I remember one lecturer saying to me: “there are two university courses in which your secondary school grades are a poor indication of whether you’ll actually be any good at them, medicine and architecture”. This seems broadly true and in my experience even the best and the brightest at secondary school will have to work hard on this course. A possible reason for this may be that the modern world tends to demand that we become compartmentalised in our talents: “this person is a creative person”, “this person is a technical person” and so on. An architecture degree demands that you be all of these things at once. For example, I’ve seen highly aesthetically and spatially sensitive people struggle with the abstract academic theory and long essays demanded by the degree’s lecture based modules whereas highly technical people tend to struggle with the lateral and creative thinking demanded by studio work. Whatever your weaknesses are, this degree will find them out and will beat you down for them.

The next reason why an architecture course will eat up so much of your time is that of the physical objects that you will have to produce for assessment. Models and drawings of your design proposals simply take a long time to produce. The RIBA’s President’s Medals website is a good illustration of some of the sheer quality of craft in the drawings that architecture students produce and these simply can’t all be accomplished in one night before a deadline. I’ve literally spent a solid week working on a single drawing and at least 2 weeks figuring out how to build a 1:50 scale model, though as implied above, this is as much about lack of experience in these tasks as it is about the tasks themselves. You’ll need to be proficient in a good range of drawing and modelling techniques from rough, conceptual pieces at the beginning of a project to pristine, detailed scaled drawings and models at the end to illustrate concrete resolution and deep, atmospheric renders to convey experiential feel. Furthermore, with lots of big drawings and models comes lots of logistics. In addition to actually working on them, expect a lot of time to be given away to carrying around and setting up workspaces for your creations. We all know of that one student who has spent days on a beautiful model only for it to be destroyed by the wind/lift/cleaners before submission. Take control of how your stuff gets moved around and life will become a fair bit easier.

Big logistics

Big logistics

The third issue I have identified is the alien nature of the teaching and learning process within architecture to students straight from secondary education. I personally think that this is a shortcoming of compulsory primary and secondary education systems and not of the architecture degree itself. Throughout most of our schooling, we are taught that there are definite “right” and “wrong” answers, and that these answers generally come from a specific authority, e.g. a teacher. Design studio is not like this at all, no one is there to hand you the “right” solution to a project on a plate. The purpose of tutors is to act as guides, not absolute authorities and in my experience this is a difficult thing for those whose intellectual experience is limited to the compulsory schooling system to come to terms with. Architecture is not as much about finding the right answers as it is about asking the right questions. In design projects, questions come in the form of what your project is choosing to respond to: the physical composition of the site you propose to build on, the social context of the neighbourhood in which it’s situated, some kind of manufacturing process that takes place within the building, these are just a few examples of an innumerable number of agendas that you can pursue within a project. The best projects don’t find definite right answers, because they don’t exist in architecture, they find the most appropriate answers within the context and situation at hand. It’s not enough though to just have an appropriate design, you must be able to communicate this design to other people visually and that’s where the craft and graft previously mentioned comes together here.

Rendered perspective of my final undergraduate project 'Activism and Awareness Hub', this project sought to respond to the social activity and spatial from of its urban surroundings along with the political context of the wider City of Sheffield.

Rendered perspective of my final undergraduate project ‘Activism and Awareness Hub’. This project sought to respond to the social activity and spatial form of its urban surroundings along with the political context of the wider City of Sheffield

A possible fourth reason for the architecture degree’s special difficulties is its placement amongst the broader tests and rituals of university. With its long hours and irregular learning processes, architecture is largely at odds with the stereotypical partying filled nights and hangover filled days of university life. If you’re after the stereotypical “uni experience”, then this course is probably not for you. Furthermore, most students will be juggling living away from home and managing cooking, cleaning and finances (or not) for themselves for the first time ever. For the uninitiated, these can be difficult and stressful things to deal with even without the often strenuous demands of the architecture programme.

Money talks

Beyond the sheer amount of time demanded for studying an undergraduate degree in architecture, there are a few more caveats that should be addressed. Many students will be managing their own finances for the first time ever, often in the form of the paltry student loan (it isn’t enough to live off) and this once again tends to be anathema to the demands of the degree itself. You will be expected to spend hundreds of pounds on printing costs, modelling materials, field trips (to foreign countries in some universities) and administration costs for work placements on top of the normal student expenses of rent, takeaways and vodka. In fact, Sheffield School of Architecture project Pavilion of Protest has estimated that, with new tuition fees now in force, it could cost up to £89,000 to qualify as an architect in the UK, that’s both the undergraduate and diploma degrees, Part III professional exams, accommodation costs, basically everything. Given that this is a field where the average salaries are actually wildly different to what the general public believes them to be, you should think long and hard about whether the potential personal and social rewards of becoming an architect are worth the financial hardship you will more likely than not experience.

A CRITical point

            An aspect of studio culture that must be mentioned, and is particularly special to architectural education, is what is known as the “crit” or “review”. Before the final submission of your design project in the form of a portfolio, you will be expected to pitch your project to an audience of your peers and tutors. This consists of a verbal presentation of the project accompanied by a visual presentation of the beautiful drawings and models you have created to portray your proposal. After this pitch, the audience will give comments and questions based on your project, the point being that debate and challenge of your ideas will build you up as a designer and teach you how to pitch your design proposals to potential stakeholders in your future. For many entering architectural education, this may be the single most frightening aspect of the entire course, a lot of people don’t like giving public presentations of their ideas in the first place, never mind having those ideas challenged and debated. Out of all the ways architecture drops you in the deep end, I think that first review is probably the deepest of all and something that seems to really catch the naïve first year off guard.

Although crits are intended to provide helpful feedback and develop your ability to sell your projects to others, they often feel much more like an ordeal than a benefit. Crits are often oppositional in nature and reviewers are quick to pounce on any shortcomings and inconsistencies in your project. You must be prepared to take often harsh criticism of something that you have spent months painstakingly working on. It’s important to remember that there is a distinct line between harsh but valid criticism of a project and just being plain insulting but it is difficult for the inexperienced to perceive this line. In fact, it’s probably difficult for both experienced students and tutors to perceive it too out of the simple virtue of being human. One of the greatest frustrations of architectural academia is that although a successful project is one that eloquently displays an appropriate response to a formulated design problem, it is extremely difficult to pin these criteria down in concrete terms and it often feels more like a good project is one that actually plays into one tutor’s preconceived biases than any real objective evaluation. Although I’ve had tutors at my own university insist that there are specific criteria for what constitutes a good project, what these actually are in concrete terms largely remains a mystery. Sometimes, you just won’t get the mark you thought you deserved for a project, in this case it’s important to remember that getting the most out of an architecture degree does not mean getting high grades, it means making sure you’ve always learnt from your project. Every failure is a life lesson and if you recognise this, they will become less frequent.

Some of the different types of drawings and models produced for my project Activism and Awareness Hub including a rough sketch section, a series of development models and a final section showing construction and experiential qualities.

Some of the different types of drawings and models produced for my project Activism and Awareness Hub including a rough sketch section, a series of development models and a final section showing construction and experiential qualities

Studio CULTure

Given the long hours and unique learning processes of an architecture degree, the discipline seems to be particularly susceptible to academic Ivory Tower Syndrome. In the design studio, students are often pushed into designing fantastic and outlandish projects that actually bare little resemblance to the day to day realities of architectural practice, with some schools more notorious for this than others. Although the argument can be made that such projects are intended to encourage students’ creativity and that some universities are now introducing measures to reconnect architecture’s 150 year old educational model with an ever more rapidly changing world, the often solipsistic, self-absorbed nature of an architecture degree is largely cultural and cultural habits are difficult and take a long time to break. Any young person hoping to enter architectural education and later practice will to do well to take heed of the often strange cultural norms of the architectural profession and try to understand when it is appropriate to conform to them, and when it is not.

Cultural norms of outlandish, fantastical projects, disconnect from the real world and perpetual one-upmanship within architectural education are all too easily perpetuated by tutors wrapped up within their own academic fetishes and bolstered by students all too eager to play up to their school’s expectations, but for the astute student they do not have to be completely inevitable. Within in architecture degree, and indeed within architectural practice, it is important to always be able to keep sight of the bigger picture. To prevent yourself from becoming trapped in the academic bubble, keep interests and contacts outside of the studio and even if you struggle to find the time to make serious commitment to these, don’t abandon old friends and hobbies completely. Architecture degrees tend to cram a lot of work into relatively short term times (my own university always finished at least 2 weeks before other courses) so you often have long Summers to pursue things such as part time jobs and committed hobbies. It is possible to hold these things down in term time, but again, you must be really good with your time management. Finally, real world experience does not just keep you sane within architecture school, when you get out into practicing in the real world, it actually makes you a better designer. Architecture is about understanding how the built environment works for people, people whom architectural students and tutors only represent of an extremely small proportion of.

So, why bother?

            Given the caveats presented above, it’s probably worth discussing why anyone would ever want to study an architecture degree in the first place! An architecture degree gives a fantastic and diverse range of skills that do not necessarily have to be applied strictly within the world of architecture. Creative and holistic solving of complex problems and three-dimensional, spatial intelligence are the principle ones, but there is also the ability to communicate your ideas, both verbally and visually, the ability to debate and defend ideas, time management and organisation and the ability to learn from your experiences quickly and continuously. The course content itself is genuinely fascinating and immersive, which may also contribute to the long hours culture and the sense of personal accomplishment when you hand in your completed portfolio of beautiful drawings and models after 9 months of back breaking work is unrivalled. Of course, on a prosaic level, the ultimate goal of the RIBA Part I and II university courses is to be legally able to call yourself an architect in the UK, but in an ever more competitive and turbulent job market within the profession, the other things the degree offers outside of this should be seen as just as valuable within themselves.

If you are considering enrolling on an RIBA Part I undergraduate degree in architecture, question your motives for doing so. Don’t do it for the “uni experience”, don’t do it because “it looks kind of interesting and I can’t think of anything else” and please, please, please, don’t do it for the money. Do it because you’re genuinely passionate about the subject and hopefully, becoming an architect. Even if after 3 years of undergraduate study, you decide you don’t want to continue your professional training, you will have a broad and unusual range of skills that can serve you well both in and out of the workplace.

If you do decide to take this challenging but fascinating academic path, here are a few of my own words of advice:

1) Get skills – Particularly drawing and computer skills. Learn CAD and creative software like AutoCAD, SketchUp, Photoshop and Illustrator. Practice model making, it’s something you will only get good at by doing it again and again.

2) Treat it like a job – If you can work hard and smart 8 or 9 hours a day, everyday, this will minimise all-nighters and panics as deadlines approach.

3) Get stuck in – Don’t procrastinate, a lot of difficulty in the creative process comes from getting over the initial inertia you will face at the start of a project. You are given several weeks to work on a single project for a reason.

4) Get a hobby – Have something to take you mind off architecture every now and again such as a musical instrument or a sport, even if only a few times a week.

5) Set up a workspace – Be disciplined about where you do your work, have a space for model making, a space for sketching, a space for computer work and make sure you can easily switch between these. Architecture is meant to develop your spatial intelligence so apply it in your day to day work.

6) Get informed  – Read architecture journals and books, read non-architecture, journals and books, watch TED talks and RSA Animates, attend lectures outside of your prescribed timetable. Always challenge your established worldviews and patterns of thinking. Ignorance is a dangerous thing.

7) Don’t chase marks – The more you do, the more difficult they will come. Instead, focus on making your project the best it can be within its own terms.

8) Eat, sleep well and exercise – The mind and the body are one, if you abuse the body, the mind will suffer too. So many students struggle on architecture courses from getting stuck in a negative cycle of not looking after themselves because they have too much work and not having the energy to work well because they haven’t looked after themselves.

9) Manage your finances – You will spend a lot of money on printing, modelling materials and portfolios. If you can get smart with your budget and minimise and reuse things where necessary, you’ll be able to feed yourself and pay rent as well.

10) Talk to people, listen to what they say and, if necessary, completely disregard it – No two people will have the same point of view on a project, if you talk to others about your work they will raise issues and suggest ideas that you never thought about before. That being said, there’s also the chance that they don’t have the slightest clue what they’re actually talking about as well.

11) Don’t get stuck in the academic bubble – Pursue interests outside of architecture, keep in touch with old friends, get out of the city every now and again. Experience of the real world makes you a better designer.

12) Pursue projects that personally interest you – Sometimes you will feel like your tutors are trying to push your projects in a certain direction. Although their opinions are generally well informed, it’s your project and you will find the work infinitely more enjoyable if it aligns with your own passions.

13) Everything is a potential inspiration – Keep your eyes and mind open.

14) Learn to juggle – Don’t work sequentially, switch between things. If you’re struggling with one aspect of a project, try something different or take a step back and look at the bigger picture. As a lecturer of mine once said: “architecture is like spinning plates and gradually you’ll begin to add more and more.”

15) Anticipate that the working world is very different to the degree – A figure I’ve heard thrown about a couple of times is that practicing architects only spend about 5% of their time doing what is actually done in the school studio. With university projects, you are afforded the luxury of being able to pursue outlandish design concepts without having to worry about pesky things such as procurement, budgeting, planning law or health and safety. This can be construed as either a good thing or a bad thing, but that’s a debate for another time and place.

Phew! That’s an awful lot to take in isn’t it? By writing this post, I’ve been able to put down a few things I’ve wanted to say for a while now and I hope that I’ve imparted some insight onto anyone who has taken to the time to read it. I particularly hope that this is of use to anyone who is hoping to or is about to start an RIBA Part I degree in the future and has more likely than not not been given a clear impression of what the course actually entails from their school careers advisors. Hopefully, sometime in the future, I’ll be able to come back and write a similar post on the architectural profession itself.

Further reading:

Mo Zell’s the Architectural Drawing Course provides an easy to read guide of the more specific type of work produced within the studio, great for beginners.

Matthew Frederick’s 101 Things I learnt in Architecture School is another great reference book that is useful to both the complete novice and more experienced architecture student.

More relevant to Americans, but Bob Borson’s blog Life of an Architect contains some pretty comprehensive descriptions of the architectural training process as well as life within the actual profession.

Architecture Apple is a website made by architecture students for architecture students, essential reading is Alastair Parvin’s How to Be a Good Architecture Student? Be Bad which takes a critical look at the architectural education process and highlights many of the issues in relation to school culture that I have only slightly touched upon here.


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On “Happiness” and of how Western Society’s Conception of It is Mostly Flawed.

In Western culture, through various media such as schooling, advertising, TV and movies, we are imparted with pretty specific definitions of how to achieve that one truly elusive emotion than everyone strives for: happiness. However, in spite of all of this, we still seem to have a lot of difficulty in personally pinpointing how to achieve such a state of mind: how often have you find yourself working toward acquiring something only to find yourself washed over with a great feeling of anticlimax upon actually getting there? I’d say this happens because, culturally, our conscious conception of happiness is largely based on two flawed premises:

  1. Happiness is achieved by “getting” and “having” something: a mortgage / a dream boy or girl / a new pair of shoes.
  2. Happiness is some kind of emotional endgame, an end of personal history. Consider how we insidiously impart this belief onto children: “…and the Prince and Princess lived happily ever after”.

You’d don’t have to look far for evidence that these definitions are problematic. How many rich and famous pop-singers and movie stars, who with their masses of material possessions and social validation, have reached the consensual endgame of Western aspiration, degenerate into drug-fuelled self-destruction and erratic public behaviour? It soon becomes apparent that a belief in happiness as acquired through amassing more riches, possessions and fame is not based on any real understanding of how the human spirit is actually fulfilled.

In reality, like most things in Western culture, our conception of happiness is mostly an economic necessity. Our current economic system is calibrated toward the goal of perpetual growth through ever increasing GDP and profit margins and this must be achieved by any means necessary. The impact of this dictum on our collective happiness is threefold. Firstly, over the past 50 or so years, business has found that one of the easiest ways to achieve economic objectives is through the mass consumption of material commodities: designer clothes and shoes, cosmetics to make you beautiful and find you the perfect partner, prime real estate to get you onto the property ladder, and so on. “Happiness is acquired through amassing stuff and status.” The spiritual emptiness of this first point leads us onto the second point: in order to escape the fact that there is that much drudgery and vacuity in our everyday lives through the scramble to get more and more stuff, we end up buying into elaborate fantasies for escape: fairy tales, blockbuster movies and reality TV shows where the protagonist “lives happily ever after”. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly enjoy the occasional fantasy film here and there, but the dominance of these creations over our everyday cultural reality is truly astounding.

The third point is probably the most important, as it begins to point us towards to true sources of human happiness. As psychologists and many great spiritual leaders have identified, humans do not achieve happiness by “having” or “being” things, they achieve happiness by doing things. The human brain is hard-wired to derive satisfaction from working towards specific goals and constantly striving to better itself. If you stagnate, you become unhappy. We are necessarily creative animals and it’s not what we consume that gives us the greatest satisfaction, it’s what we produce. Unfortunately, the economic system again serves to obfuscate and obstruct this truth as it is largely one of compartmentalisation and segregation: manager is separate from worker, creative department is separate from technical department, producer is separate from consumer. For so many people, their productive energy is channelled into the 9-5 grind of repetitive, rigid tasks with little room for personal expression or creative freedom, leaving free-time to be given over to consumption: gorging on TV, designer brands and branded food. Of course, creative, autonomising jobs do exist, but historically for a lot of people they have been the exception rather than the norm.

So, what’s the answer? If society in its current setup is never going to sell us happiness on a plate, the only thing that remains is to create it ourselves. Next time you’re feeling a bit down, don’t just curl up in front of a weepy rom-com or go out on the dreaded “retail therapy” and expect it to make everything better. It’s ok to indulge ourselves from time to time but indulgence alone does not bring any good in the long term. Instead, write a poem, take up a musical instrument, start training for a marathon, call up some friends and arrange a day trip. In other words, get a hobby. Happiness is not some magical endgame to our lives; it’s a continuous process that we can never stop striving for.

In my own experience, some of the most unbearable, out of control people I’ve encountered are the ones who have no real passions or vocations within their personal life. The human need to expend creative energy is channelled into creating pointless drama, conflict and gossip. Finding productive, creative uses for one’s free time doesn’t just make us happier, it makes us more interesting as well.

Further study:

Alan Watts on the unsettling truth about life (animated by Trey Parker and Matt Stone):

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