Archive for the ‘society’ category

We’re learning to disrespect respect, and it’s not good.

December 11, 2018

Back in the 1980s I remember watching a political debate on television, in which two well-known politicians engaged in robust disagreement. Just a few hours later I was on a plane from the city in which they had been arguing, and found to my surprise that the same two politicians were sitting next to each other engaging in what was clearly very friendly banter. A good thing, or a bad thing? Were they, in a sort-of-private setting, subverting the integrity of their political disagreement by being friendly to each other? Or was this a sign of maturity and civilised human interaction?

Of course we can still sometimes see this sort of private bonhomie between political opponents, but not so often. Recently the UK Labour Party’s Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, suggested that he could never be friends with a member of the Conservative Party. What this kind of approach suggests is that politics is not so much about choices, but about ethics: whatever political frame of reference I hold is the only valid one, and therefore if you don’t agree with me, you are not so much wrong as evil.

Respect, baby, as Aretha Franklin might have said, is at the heart of civilisation. We lose it and we’re all on skids. Of course we should have principles and we should argue our case, but if we come to believe that our opponents are our enemies and are hateful evildoers, then we become incapable of persuading our entire society to believe in a cause, because we hold many of its members in contempt as enemies of the people. It’s what has characterised the Brexit debate, or Mr Trump’s America. Trust me, this isn’t the way to go. Don’t disrespect respect.

PS. If you’re sharpening your quill to tell me it was Otis Redding and not Aretha, save yourself the bother. I prefer her version, which is subtly different. Though I totally love Sitting on the Dock of the Bay, which by a happy coincidence is playing in the background as I write this.

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Going electric

November 27, 2018

Nearly three months ago, I made a major change: I bought an electric car. Not a hybrid, but a fully electric vehicle without an internal combustion engine and therefore without any fuel tank. In some ways the change might not seem massive. I still put my foot on the accelerator pedal to get moving, or on the brake to stop. The steering wheel moves the car to the left or to the right. I indicate when I intend to turn. And so forth.

And yet, this is a fundamentally different experience. The car moves more or less noiselessly. It is heavily computerised, and almost every control is operated not by a lever or button, but on the touchscreen. You ignore filling stations, but spend some time planning your journey (if it’s a longer one) so that you know where you will charge the car. It feels like being part of something quite revolutionary, even when so much of it is the same.

And yet, is this the future, or just a staging post to the real thing? Will we soon be in an era in which we won’t drive our own cars at all any more, but call an autonomous self-driving vehicle that takes us where we want to go and then moves off somewhere else? Or indeed will we still take it for granted at all that we can travel at will from A to B?

Transport habits can change at a certain tipping point with extraordinary speed. In this image you can see New York’s 5th Avenue in 1900 and 1913. In these 13 years the traffic changed from almost entirely horse-drawn to entirely motorised. What will happen between 2018 and 2030 is not at all clear, but there is every likelihood of fundamental change; and there should be, not least because we need to stop urban air pollution.

So maybe I am taking part in something important. Or maybe it is just a very minor step towards something that will, in a short space of time, be quite different. We’ll see.

Supporting peripheral regions

October 30, 2018

Earlier this year I visited Orkney, to be briefed on a significant project that Robert Gordon University is undertaking there, in partnership with other institutions. I was struck by the very unusual nature of the topography, its rich history and the creative approach of the people. I will certainly want to visit the islands again.

As some may know, Orkney was not always part of Scotland. Until 1266 it was a Norse settlement; as was the adjacent Northern corner of Caithness. Now, this past weekend, I visited this area for the first time. The landscape immediately reminded me of Orkney, as did the very unusual thin stones (described as ‘flagstones’) that you see everywhere in walls and buildings:

But unlike Orkney, Caithness feels much poorer and, perhaps, a little neglected. Its most significant employer was probably, until a few years ago, the Dounreay nuclear power plant, which ceased operating a while ago and is being decommissioned. The North Coast 500 tourist rose offers significant potential, but more will need to be done to create facilities along the Caithness coast. I really liked Caithness, and was wholly enthused by its coastline, its topography, and its people.

But what exactly do we want our peripheral regions to be? Do we want them to be thriving, regenerating, renewing? Do we want them to have sufficient attractions to keep young people there, or persuade them to return? This is not an issue for Caithness alone, or indeed Scotland, but it is a vital one as we chart the future for diverse and balanced communities. Orkney is going fast in the right direction. I hope Caithness is also given that opportunity.

Complex belonging

October 22, 2018

So here’s my dilemma. I was born in Germany – or more precisely, what was then West Germany, or then as it is nows the Federal Republic of Germany. My father’s family was at one point Polish, originally from the Kashubian region. Several of my ancestors were soldiers in various armies, latterly Prussian and German. I have French ancestors. As for me, I have lived in Germany, Ireland, Britain (England and Scotland). I have both Irish and German citizenship.

I read literature and poetry of Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland and France – and in translation of other countries. I am highly interested in European, British, Irish and American history – right now I am reading (again) about the American Civil War and its political, social and cultural implications.

Why should you be interested in any of this? Well, there’s no compelling reason why you should be. But a background like mine raises several questions relevant to current political and cultural debates. After an era in which multinational identities were celebrated, things are somewhat different now. Politicians in a number of countries are calling their voters to the flag, to identify emotionally with their country of residence and citizenship. The American  concept of ‘exceptionalism‘ is itself no longer particularly exceptional, as other countries also see themselves as occupying a special place in global affairs. Nationalism, if not of the 1930s variety, is back in vogue and is visibly affecting geopolitical developments.

I do of course accept obligations of loyalty. The country where I live and work provides me with a variety of benefits and protections, and I owe it a duty of support. The countries that issue my passports have a justifiable expectation that I will show some allegiance. But I also see myself as a member of humanity, not entitled to look away when people in other countries are in need, and certainly motivated to know about other nations and cultures.

It is still my belief that the world has gained immeasurably from the retreat from nationalism after World War 2. It was never a total retreat, but still a defining aspect of later 20th century thinking. But in our current era of conspiracy theories we are now told that this was only ever the preference of political, social and economic elites, who employed it to abuse their power.

Nationalists are right in this sense – that human progress still requires a sense of belonging. Losing that produces dysfunctional and unstable societies. But losing a global outlook carries with it the risk of a return to the tensions and suspicions, and indeed the quest for grandeur and superiority, that wrought such destruction in the last century. That is a risk we should not take.

A tale of two cities on bicycles

October 1, 2018

Recently while driving in Aberdeen I stopped at a red traffic light. A cyclist came up to my car and knocked on my window, and when I opened it he pointed out I had moved just a little on to the space just in front of the lights reserved for cyclists. I apologised. He smiled, and we all moved on when the light turned green.

Two days later I was driving in Dublin on a visit there, and again stopped at a red light at a busy intersection in the city. As I waited for the lights to turn green I observed no fewer than seven cyclists merrily cycling across the red light on to the intersection, in one case narrowly missing both a bus and a pedestrian (who was in his case also jaywalking). It occurred to me that none of these Dublin cyclists would have accosted me in Aberdeen because they would have been too busy cycling across the red lights.

I raised this issue on this blog some years ago, and when I did so received a significant amount of hate mail in response, asserting that cyclists were put-upon and victimised road-users. One suggested to me in a somewhat tortuous argument that the only way he could protect himself from vicious motorists like me was to ignore traffic laws. I imagine he also felt that cycling at night without lights gave him better protection. Of course some motorists behave irresponsibly, but that doesn’t mean cyclists should in much greater numbers do the same.

I enjoy cycling myself, so this isn’t a biased attack on the pedalling community; though mind you, I wouldn’t be seen dead in some of the velcro outfits. But it is time for cyclists to be responsible road users, and to show consideration for others, and indeed for themselves and their own safety. This seems to be better understood in Aberdeen than in Dublin, and I hope it stays that way. In Dublin the Gardai (police) made a short-lived effort to enforce the rules of the road against cyclists and then gave up when there was an outcry. I think the outcry should go the other way.

The academic life – student emails

August 27, 2018

When I began any lecturing career in 1980, in the days before the internet or even mobile phones, it would have been totally impossible for a student to reach me outside of normal working hours. By the time my active teaching came to an end (in 2000), I was beginning to get both emails and phone calls into the night; though this was still a relatively rare thing, and almost always the students were polite when they reached me.

It became clear to me how much had changed when a colleague from another institution contacted me recently to ask me for advice, as he was seriously stressed with the number of student emails he was receiving; in particular because many of these were, he claimed, insistent in nature. He showed me some of the offending messages, and indeed it might almost be said that a small number of them adopted a bullying tone.

It’s not a unique problem, and some academics – such as here – have suggested guidelines for responding to student emails. One has to strike the right balance of course. Higher education teaching and learning is an interactive process, and we should not be discouraging students from using contemporary methods of communication. Universities should be student-centred institutions.

Equally learning how to use emails or other online tools appropriately should be part of the student experience, and academics should not be hesitant to point out where it is not being done to good effect or in an offensive manner. Students, like everyone else, may not always realise how their online communications come across to the reader.

But those academics who become stressed by their experience should do what my friend did: contact someone who can advise and perhaps offer practical help. Responding irritably or even aggressively is almost certainly never a good idea. Get help.

Oh very young

August 22, 2018

At a recent meeting with some students I was admiring the close coordination between two of them as they explained an issue to me, and complimented them by saying they were the Simon and Garfunkel of the gathering. They, and indeed everyone else, looked blank, and I suddenly realised that no one there knew what I was talking about.

I was reminded of this when I read the latest ‘mindset list‘ of things that today’s young people do not know or have not experienced, or in some matters take for granted. I rather think that my generation in particular always thought that our experiences and cultural preferences defined the age, not just for us but for younger generations sharing the planet with us. But we kid ourselves, and those of us who still manage to stay with the times do so because we have become followers rather than leaders in these matters. What was modern in the 1970s definitely no longer is.

But I will say this. I was surprised, and still am, that no one at my gathering admitted to knowing Simon and Garfunkel. If they had claimed the same ignorance of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, or Elton John, or Rod Stewart, or even Cat Stevens, I might not have believed them. Our music at least is still out there somewhere in 2018, as the music of 1918 most definitely was not in 1968. We win on that one.

But overall, our influence is here today and gone tomorrow. And that goes for today’s youth too.

Oh very young, what will you leave us this time
You’re only dancin’ on this earth for a short while-
Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?