Sometimes I get angry about stupid things. Not the usual stuff writers get angry about. You know, “your” instead of “you’re”, Oxford commas and all the other inconsequential nonsense that passes for English on Twitter these days. No, these are passing clouds on an otherwise glorious day.
I’m talking about STUPID things. Things that are literally so stupid that the mere idea that somebody believes it makes me angry.
(Disclaimer: If we’re being honest with ourselves, there are a whole raft of things that aren’t conventional scientific or rational beliefs that we accept because we choose to believe it. And if that makes you uncomfortable, dear reader, then it’s not going to get any better; you’d better go and make that eleventh cup of coffee if you’re a writer.)
I’m going to try to steer clear of politics, as much anger has been generated in the past year by the deeply partisan decisions that have rocked the British and American cultural landscape. But the root of much of that anger has a similar origin. You see, what makes us angry is not that our own beliefs are not universally accepted; it’s that someone else dares to hold an opposing view when we absolutely KNOW they are wrong. (I’ve put KNOW in caps because I’m aware of the irony in many cases that it’s not possible to “know” if somebody’s belief is empirically wrong or not.)
I was browsing the internet (first big mistake – I know I should have been finishing my latest book, but hey) under the guise of researching a side project. One of the unrelated comments under the main article I was reading stated in all seriousness that the earth is flat, Antarctica is an ice wall around the continents, and space isn’t real. I had a bit of a chuckle and even posted it to Twitter with an ironic aside of my own. Hardee-ha-ha. What a moron.
I should have just walked on, but something about it caught my eye. It was the confidence with which this person brazenly posted such a bizarre opinion-expressed-as-fact on a public forum devoted to engineering and research. Were they mentally ill? Or was the confidence inspired by that most deceptive and misleading social construct – agreement?
You see, even the most unfashionable and offensive of viewpoints can be confidently expressed if the speaker knows there are numbers of people that agree with them. In my lifetime, I’ve known blatant and rampant racism almost disappear from daily life in my corner of Britain because society at large decided it wasn’t acceptable. My kids have grown up not knowing it. When they have witnessed isolated racist incidents, they and their peers have been universally appalled. Racism still existed during that time, of course, bubbling under the surface of our culture, but it wasn’t expressed publicly except in the whiney, faux-victim moaning of the odd individual: “But you’re not allowed to say that anymore, are you?” (To which I would always answer, ‘Yes, you are, it’s just far fewer people will agree with your small-minded opinions, making you feel isolated.’ Aw, diddums.)
Sadly, since the Brexit referendum (and of course the rise of Trump in America which has inexplicably fuelled xenophobia in Britain), racism is back. Openly expressed, intimidating and, depressingly often, violent, it’s started to become “okay” to abuse people of non-white appearance again. And, since racists don’t discriminate among people of different cultures, it’s become okay to target Jewish, South Asian and Afro-Caribbean people as well. Again. The particular variety of fear-fuelled racism encouraged by the media in our country isn’t purely about ethnicity either; white Europeans are as much at risk for speaking in their native tongue.
The point is, ideas become infectious when more people start believing them. And stupid, abhorrent beliefs become actual culture when a majority of people believe them, and begin to teach them to subsequent generations.
With that in mind, I decided to research this flat earth thing. How prevalent is it? What chance is there for this odd idea of actually gaining traction in our modern, scientific world? I was ill-prepared for the answer.
I was pointed by three sources to a particular YouTube video (watch at your own risk) which was 95 minutes long. I claim credit for my dogged determination as I managed to grit my teeth through almost 80 of those minutes, painful as it was. I began by trying to listen open-mindedly to these arguments. Yes, the science is questionable, and most of the “proofs” seem to be of the ‘But you never see them in the same room at the same time, do you? Coincidence? I think not!’ variety. But give them a chance, right? That’s what us fair-minded, emotionally-balanced people do, isn’t it?
Then came the bit that turned me from ironic detachment to full-blown fury. They began talking about airline routes and flight times. Now, I know a bit about these. I spent the first 15 years of this century flying all over the world. Like Han Solo, I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but there’s nothing I’ve seen that would convince me the Earth is flat. Far from it. But the film began making some outrageous claims about air travel that are patently NOT TRUE. If they are making stuff up about the things I know about, it makes me rather suspect that they treat many other disciplines with the same level of respect (i.e. none).
And that’s where I began to get angry. Not that these people were ignorant. Anyone can be ignorant, by accident or by design. Not that the ideas were stupid. Plenty of stupid ideas have shaped vast swathes of our television output. No, they were using these blatant untruths to deliberately deceive and convert people to this specious belief system. And that made me angry. For hours afterwards.
I know how to defend ourselves against this kind of fakery. But many don’t. Ideas like this have ensnared enough people to make them “a thing”. There are many “things” that severely annoy me, like various conspiracy myths and the lie that foreign culture is a dangerous threat. The sad thing is that it causes people to question what is right and sends them into the hands of charlatans who are only too happy to sell them a giant pile of bullshit which subsequently sounds “right” to them.
And that’s why I’m angry. We can choose wrong for right. Falsehood for fact. And the only qualifying factor seems to be how many people believe it. We have to arm ourselves with truth, facts and proof, no matter how much it clashes with our personal belief system. Because we cannot afford to regress back to the Dark Ages again.
We stand at a genuine pivot of history. Let’s use what we have to stop the darkness of ignorance and populism turning us backwards. Fight falsehood with fact, even if it hurts. Quash lies with truth, and never stop calling out ignorance. You’re doing culture a massive favour.
One thing I love about Britain is the astonishing diversity of trees. You might be forgiven for expecting an island that occupies the same latitude as Hudson Bay, Labrador, Vladivostok and the Aleutian Islands to be a bleak and unforgiving landscape, interrupted by conifer forests.
Yet just a short drive from my house lies some of the most diverse forestry I’ve seen, even as a veteran traveller of over fifty countries all around the world. When I used to fly for a major airline, it was one of the trick questions we would ask newbies – what’s the most northerly destination we serve on the long-haul network? The answer, London, came as a big surprise to most.
Thanks to the warming effects of the Gulf Stream ocean current, Britain doesn’t have the same bitter winters of the rest of the 50-54N club – this allows a very tree-friendly climate. An amazing array of native and introduced trees cover the whole landmass.
The forests of Britain have stood against the ravages of storms, social upheaval and industrialisation, preserved by national governmental bodies and royal patronage. That we have such an extraordinary diversity and permanence of both native and foreign varieties that have thrived an intermingled is a reflection of the centuries of Britain’s colonial and imperial history. Many varieties of tree were purposely introduced when colonial staff and explorers encountered them abroad. Thanks to Britain’s benign climate, many tropical and other types thrived and became accepted and common. Their diversity and character have been indelibly incorporated and intermingled with the native soil and flora of the island, their beauty admired and their negative aspects tolerated.
It’s a source of sadness to me that the same tolerance didn’t extend to the children of the old Empire for as long; if the current xenophobic spirit is allowed to prosper and increase, we may never reap the benefits of the same diversity of humanity that our island has become famous for; the human diversity is as wondrous and owes as much to Britain’s favourable social climate.
Some want to uproot whole cultures after they have become so indelibly intertwined with the “native” culture. Start with the trees, and see how much, or rather how little, you can afford to lose.
Everyone’s got a favourite word, right? Surely people who work with words for a living should have a few they keep special, like a tradesman’s tools or an artists’ brushes?
The joy of writing is that you have an almost limitless, inexhaustible pile of words to choose from. Even if you run out of “everyday” literary and spoken words, you can run to the esoteric worlds of science, engineering and specialist professions to find some more.
You can borrow from foreign living languages, and ancient dead ones. You can even make up your own, as Shakespeare managed to do with astonishing success.
But every now and again you stumble across a word that is so perfect, it makes you love it. A word that is so beautifully suited to its function or meaning, that you can’t help but applaud its audacity for existing.
Therefore, I submit to you Exhibit A:
floccinaucinihilipilification. n. the estimation of something as worthless, nothing or trivial.
A word that is known to be one of the longest in the English language, made from four different Latin root words, all of which mean exactly the same thing. Nothing.
It is the word that sums up most of our national problems in the most apposite way – a lot of words hammered together when there is a much simpler alternative, an absurdly time-consuming and complex pronunciation; and in the end it doesn’t add up to any value at all.
The other day, I worked out that in the past 20 years or so, I’ve visited 58 different countries on six continents. I’ve seen some amazing sights, visited some of the most iconic locations on earth, and had a great time doing it. Best of all, I was being paid a lot of money to do it!
It’s been two years since I last got paid to travel, so I haven’t been very far since then. But today I had the opportunity to visit a part of my own area that I’d never been before to visit a friend where they work.
It was a beautiful area. It’s still winter and pretty cold, but the sun was out and the landscape had that uniquely English look, especially with the ruins of a 15th century monastery in the foreground.
It just reminded me that the world is vast, mysterious and beautiful, and invites us to explore it; but some of the best places are right on our doorstep.