Devil in the patterns


Beast face in the bark

We say the devil is in the detail, but we forget it’s also in the patterns. Solutions can be found by looking closely but also by zooming out in our perspective. Humans are hardwired to home in on things that nurture us, things that we can use and eat. We see faces in anything, or we like shiny reds because they’re like berries. But, in more complicated or threatening situations, we have to develop capacities to recognise patterns, and to make use of things that are unfamiliar.

There are so many stories in the news right now that frustrate because they are framed in such limited ways. A small detail is picked and is blown out of proportion, or generalised away from its context to become meaningless. These annoying stories are, at least, helping me think about how to structure problem-solving and decision-making activities so that there is a synthesis of effectiveness and benefit.

Some of the stories I’ve noticed are about:

Young people’s mental health in relation to their exposure to content in social media: Psychiatrists are being urged to routinely ask CYP about their social media and device habits. This builds on years of reports, initiatives and media panic. The problem is the silo-isation of many studies, which focus only on one or two aspects of wellbeing rather than looking at impacts of lifestyles in combination. There are certain impacts that are consciously articulated because the vocabulary for them is practiced across society, and certain impacts that are hidden, that remain under-studied and therefore are not articulated by the subjects of study.

There are some promising signs. Two days ago, a study that was more interdisciplinary, the first of its kind in this field, was published although you may not have heard about it. This study is looking at all the factors of urban living that might cause psychosis in young people. Findings suggest a strong association with Nitrogen Oxides (from air pollution) but this has to be seen in combination with other factors. Of course, social media content is sure to be a big factor too, but it shouldn’t be isolated from factors of body and brain.

Ethical sponsorship of culture: Several cultural organisations have broken ties with the Sackler Trust, who have now frozen all UK donations, over the US opioid scandal (highly addictive Oxycontin painkiller). This has led to a rash of articles and debate about the general issue of corporate sponsorship, ethics and public funding of culture. A typical example is BBC’s Moral Maze programme on Moral Purity. The framing of this failed to explore politics in any depth. It did not – with the exception of witness Chris Garrard from Culture Unstained – hold up the crimes of ecocidal and arms industries in distinct comparison to those companies or institutions that might less consciously depend upon, normalise or benefit from harmful exploitation or destruction. It drew on the opioid scandal without explaining that the Sackler fund derives from 1987, before Oxycontin was produced. The programme conflated all kinds of corporate sponsorship and did not allow consideration of context. The debate’s framing leapt from the general situation of corporate sponsorship to a binary set-up between “an inspiring translation of principles into action predicated on equality and justice for all. Or perhaps such thinking is a new form of secular puritanism which is intolerant and dangerous”. The bias of the panellists was strongly towards the latter accusation.

It almost goes without saying that another story is the impasse we’re in with Brexit. This exposing the inability of Government and Parliament to deliberate in ways that analyse causes, envisage scenarios and prioritise benefit over power. This derives from its archaic structures and protocols, the lack of a democratic voting system, the dominance of two parties and binary format of the debate, and the short-termism of planning in electoral cycles.

To have any chance of meaningful debate and decision-making around these and other complex issues, we have to collaborate to build massive ‘wall-charts’ of causes and possible impacts and interventions. And we have to embed time and space for ethical discussion. Who is hurt most? Who should benefit most? Who should make reparations? What action is likely to cause most benefit? How can these decisions align with existing moral codes, and if they can’t, how can these moral codes shift with the times?

By benefit, I’m thinking of an expanded definition that is further reaching than the generic meanings of advantage, profit, or a good deed. See my last post for a set of mindsets that lead to beneficial outcomes, compared to harmful ones. I’m thinking about decisions made by anyone in roles of ‘public good’ or responsibility (which is most of us, but the more assets or privileges you have, the greater your responsibility). I’m thinking, too, that in a context of emergency, our responsibility to conceive and carry out beneficial acts should increase in response to the scale of the crisis.

The background crisis to all crises (mental health, failures of democracy, food prices etc) is the Climate and Ecological Emergency. In the face of this crisis, we might see only devils and blame everyone. Or we see only small details in our local patch because this is the only way to cope with such an overwhelming situation. We need to have intellectual courage and expand to see the patterns, and I really hope I can help just by thinking about how we can do this.


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