Think again – right now is wrong

Opinion :- By Jim Hopkins

London’s violence shows time’s up for the old ideas, and we need to change the prescription.

Everything we are is between our ears. That’s all there is to us. The nerveless lump of stuff that never stops is the alpha and omega of our identity. Our brain is our being. It enables us. It disables us. It determines who we are and who we aren’t. It’s the attitude factory that takes us into the world and brings the world into us. Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. And I am what I think. (I think.)

The brain is the host in the machine. It’s the nub of our matter, the rhyme or our reason. Our attitudes are the only things we ever really own. Everything else is an effect. Or something we can’t control.

We can’t control the world. Canute proved that. We can’t control our selves; our sex, our height, our race or our propensity to chilblains. We weren’t visited in utero by a nice social worker with a clipboard, politely inquiring if we’d rather be Brad or Angelina, Sachin or Venus, Chaplin or Macbeth, Groucho or Karl.

What we are is genes wrapped in skin.

But who we are is is what our brains or, more precisely, what our minds allow. Our minds are our make up. And we make up our minds.

That doesn’t happen in isolation. Freud was right. So was Marx. In the womb and the world, things impinge upon us and affect how we feel. Maybe Dad’s a drunk. Maybe Mum’s a concert pianist who played us Mozart in the womb. Either way, it shapes our clay.

But the extent to which it does is something we ordain. It’s either that or determinism, and determinism is a closed shop. If everything we think and feel and do is a done deal, hard-wired by evolution, there can be no right or wrong, no good or bad, no better or worse and we’re all mere automata doing as decreed.

The neuroscientists may say that’s all we are – albeit that conclusion itself must then be pre-determined – but most of us choose to believe that change is a possibility we control, not only for ourselves but for our communities. The whole history of human thought manifests that assumption.

Just as we believe that people can change by reconfiguring the way they think, so we believe it is possible for societies to make the same kind of transformation. That’s why we vote and why some of us campaign for causes and why others prescribe remedies to cure all social ills.

For most of the 20th century, two prescriptions have dominated our thinking. Freud and Marx are our arbiters. What they thought has shaped what we think. And what we’ve thought for decades is that repression is bad and class is all. We think our past owns our present and society maketh the man. Exhume the past, change the social order and all will be well.

Except it won’t. If it was, there’d be no violence on the streets of Britain and 25 per cent of New Zealand’s 19-year-olds wouldn’t be unemployed. Utopia would be here. True, some say it isn’t because we haven’t had enough Freud and enough Marx. But we have.

The fact is, they were wrong. They were right too. But not right enough; no reformer ever is. Every solution is a problem in embryo.

Every remedy brings its own unintended consequences. And all ideas have a shelf life. Karl and Sigmund’s time is up. Sorry, lads, time’s up. You’ve done your dash. You’ve had your day. We need to change the prescription. We need to change our minds.

David Cameron was on the telly on Wednesday night, speaking of the riots. What we were seeing, he said, was “the worst of Britain”.

He said parts of the country weren’t just broken, they were sick. And he’s right. They are. So are parts of New Zealand.

What he didn’t say was why they were sick. Because, in theory, they shouldn’t be.

In theory, the shrinks and the states between them should have sorted the sicknesses, cured the afflictions, put all the wrongs to right. In theory, decades of expert opinion and state intervention and billions and billions of dollars or pounds should have fixed everything. But they haven’t.

David Cameron also said “the mindless selfishness” was the result of people thinking that “rights outweigh responsibilities.” But again, if that’s the case, it’s an inculcated belief, one fostered by the prevailing social wisdom. It is a view long promulgated by the academic and political elite. No matter that it it’s wrong and that the two must travel in tandem, they’ve made it the core of a thousand laws. Now they’re reaping the whirlwind.

And so are we. We need to rethink attitudes, Mr Cameron said, and look again at things like “family life and discipline in schools”.

Well, no, we don’t. You do. Parents have known for years that discipline in schools is a crock and a curse and running sore. It’s the politicians, here, there and everywhere, who need to look at “discipline in schools” and much, much more besides.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. We all know that now. It’s time to think again. And the first leader who does will own the next decade.

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