Amnesia – the magic tip-ex of forgiveness

We all have things we’ve done in our lives that we’d rather forget. Honestly, think about it, we’ve all made mistakes, we all have regrets.

I loved the story about the Miss World competition a few years ago. The presumptive winner was this stunning, if a little stupid, Philippino woman. In their jovial way the judges asked her a plethora of silly, cute, questions just perfect for her to give adorable answers to. She was just meant to win but… when hit with the question “what’s your biggest regret?” she answered in “honestly I can say that I’ve never made a mistake in my life!”

… so of course, she didn’t win. She was reviled for it and lost hopelessly to a more humble contestant. The righteous anger amongst the judges and audience was intense, they were indignant, “how dare she say that!” … “she’s not perfect!”. Ironic really for a competition who’s remit it is to seek out perfection. One that rewards and champions idiocy but tries to hide it behind a thin of veil of questions that you can give answers like ‘World Peace!’ to.

So, if you were her, what would you have said? Now I’m not suggesting she should have broken down on stage and revealed that she’d changed her dying grandmother’s will in her favour but… you know, she could have at least tried!

What’s the one thing you’d go back in change? If you weren’t being asked by judges, and no one would know that it had ever happened. Like you could take the tip-ex to your biography and just, edit stuff out.

Maybe you’ve got more than one. I know I have, tonnes of it.

Would you do it? Grab that magic tip-ex and get erasing!

Ok, for the sake of argument, let’s say this tip-ex wasn’t quite so advanced, it was still going through clinical trials maybe. Maybe it was a little trigger happy (look, lots of mixed metaphors!) and erased more than one or a few events, what if it took years or even decades away?

The old saying goes, perception is everything. So what is this tip-ex just took away your recollection of those events, those moments or decisions you’d rather forget. Would you still use it?

Let’s think of it this way, what if taking away your memory of, and the way you’ve been shaped by those events, was all you needed. Does that change things? Maybe, if you don’t remember it, what does it matter? Are you absolved?

Why not, if you have no idea what your past transgressions were, you can’t realistically be held responsible for them.

Is a sort of selective, partial, amnesia a way to wipe your history slate clean? Both how you recall it and the way other people have been affected by it.

Wouldn’t it be great. A break with the past, the chance to reinvent yourself, forgiveness from yourself above all else, then perhaps from others. Perhaps if you’ve forgiven yourself by forgetting, isn’t that what’s most important? Would this forgiveness be given though? We’ve heard about people who commit crimes in their sleep, they’ve been acquitted too. Or how about diminished responsibility, people who cannot be reasonably held responsible for their actions because they were sick… It’s possible.

Does your being unaware of something, make it irrelevant? We can’t consider things we’ve never heard of it, is this any different?

Peace – Neocolonialism or just doing it right?

Unrelated, but a nice sentiment

As part of my degree I spend a lot of time worrying about developing countries. Lying awake at night wondering if a well-meaning NGO has nearly bankrupted a rural community with bizarre unwanted projects. Or pacing my flat muttering ‘governance fail’ and ‘misplaced aid’.

I’m a practical person, so I naturally start thinking of solutions. I climb back into bed and think, ‘what can I do to help?’

I must admit that in my slightly sleep deprived state I’ve considered some odd remedies. I think my first one was something along the lines of…

“I’ll win the lottery and set up a trust with some sound investments, I’ll offer microloans for community infrastructure projects and develop a scheme to detect, develop and reward good governance at the local level”

Or… “I’ll find a genie and get a wish, and wish for the IMF to forgive it’s loans and the Security Council to give up their veto power” That one was a keeper you know, there’s tonnes of genies in Leeds.

But, I think this is my best one to date. It started out as a pie-in-the-sky idea but, it’s been firming up in my head. I’m serious about this one.

I want to run a developing country. Myself. Now I don’t mean Brazil or India or something, they’re doing fine, I’m talking about Somalia or Sudan or something.

I don’t want to live there, I don’t want to be their President and run for an ‘election’. I just know that the single biggest problem facing the poorest countries of the Global South isn’t war or famine or disease (although these are significant and of course interlinked) it’s bad governance.

In the study of peace building, that is the post conflict physical and otherwise reconstruction of the state and society from the individual level to the international, the greatest danger is a lack of coordination. Efforts fail because there are a multitude of actors all pursuing worthy goals but with no central, coherent vision or strategy. That’s what we’re missing, something or someone to hold it all together. Now I’m a huge fan of democracy and I firmly believe that when a decision can be taken democratically then categorically it must be. However the evidence is against us. Democracies, especially in Africa, are by and large not working. They produce weak governments with no control that resort to, in the worst case brutality or, in the best case, neglect.

Look at South Korea, in the 1950s it was an impoverished state with no infrastructure and no resources. Until the 1990s it was ruled unquestioned by a succession of benevolent dictators and now it’s one of the most developed, modern, wealthy countries in the world. This is in thanks partly to unimaginable quantities of American aid but also shrewd economic decisions taken by people who didn’t have to be populist in their decision making. Come on! It makes parts of the European Union look 3rd world! Most importantly, it is now a democracy, autocracy was a necessary but undesirable, temporary, state.

These democratic but failing states are barely worth the title ‘state’, they tend to be strange coalitions of tribal elements with no commonalities. A state must do 3 things to be considered functioning and therefore a state in the first place. 1) it must have the monopoly of the use of force in it’s boundaries. 2) it must have clearly defined boundaries and be able to enforce them and 3) it must protect and serve the people who live within it. If they can’t do that, they aren’t states.

Let’s look at Somalia, their government, the custodian of the state, hasn’t got anything close to a monopoly on force, they cower before the fabulously well armed tribal groups who run the country in tiny fragments. It’s boundaries are known to no one, it is roughly bordered by Ethiopia and Eritrea but these are vague and useless for anyone else but map makers. Finally Somalia doesn’t have a proper army or police force to defend it’s people, so the population rely on the tribal warlords, it doesn’t provide even basic healthcare, schooling, roads or railways. It is not a state.

It isn’t just them, there are a few of them by this definition. I really don’t consider some tinpot dictator a head of state when he’s holed up in a compound in the capital with his henchmen while his people in the countryside die in the most abject, miserable and frankly intolerable poverty imaginable. Broadly a final test of statehood is international recognition. Usually via the UN, although this isn’t exclusive, Taiwan is a modern, liberal democracy that our comrades in the People’s Republic of China refuse to recognise and veto their application to join the UN, but isn’t internationally recognised as a country.

So, back to running a country, why do I want to do this? I know the challenges and I know that if I had a chance, I wouldn’t do a half bad job. Mostly I just want to help, flooding them with money and well meaning NGOs has failed. This probably smacks of neocolonialism but there is a precedent. There are a total of 16 non-self governing territories in the world. Not a single one of which actually want to become independent. How foolish and patronising would it be if we forced them to accept self determination against their will? That’s not democracy. This is the same sentiment that some NGOs go into developing countries with. The ‘we’re from the Global North, we know what’s best’. We ought to be careful we don’t appear the same.

I remember a taxi ride I took in Mumbai in India in 2005. I was having a conversation with the driver about the British rule of India. He had some really interesting opinions. He joked that “50% of Indians think the British left India 50 years too late, the other 50% think they left 50 years too early”.

Can you imagine what India might be like if it was run by the UK until this year? From my perspective I think it might be in a better position domestically but Britain would never have allowed to acquire such geopolitical significance.

So, how would I run a country? It’s about numerous factors and people coming together. Lots of them are already there, community groups, religious figures, NGOs, other countries’ interests, businesses but they lack any central direction. It’s about balancing the infrastructure of the state with strong investment action on a local level. Quite simply it’s about not buying guns and building a hydroelectric plant with your IMF loan instead. It’s about not building yourself a palace and having champagne imported and spending the money on training nurses instead. It’s about forfeiting your individual embassies in other countries and sharing them with your neighbours and spending the cash on paying school teachers and having unemployment benefits instead. It seems simple right? It’s about subsidising mobile phones and investing in the infrastructure so your people can talk to each other and you can can talk to them. It’s about letting people own the land they live on and sell it as they wish. It’s about lowering taxes on people who earn less than a dollar a day (the fact they are taxed at all is madness). It’s about letting your people grow the crops they need to survive rather than growing the ones the Global North wants. It’s about having a centrally run government funded HIV/AIDS programme that coordinates NGO and WHO efforts for a single, unified approach.

These seem so simple but that’s the problem, the approach of the Global North for so long has been that we assume that developing countries are doing this already or have tried it, and it hasn’t worked.

Families – Now you can choose for yourself!

I feel bad for people who don’t ‘get on’ with their families. They’re missing out. Mine are great, if a little eccentric. They have their flaws and I have mine and a big part of growing up is to sit back and go ‘huh, so I guess my parents can’t solve every problem I have, they’re just human’. Some of my friends at University used to believe they were figments of my imagination, the stories I told were so ludicrous.

Of course if you sincerely don’t like them then so be it, I have absolutely no time for people who say things like ‘oh I have to love them because we’re related’ … why exactly? What is about the few extra genes you share (in comparison with, for example, the post man) that insists that you love them dearly? Forget it, that’s some greetings card from the 1930’s with Mom and Dad and 2.4 kids.

I’ve been thinking about the family a lot recently. Not for any particular reason, just lots of questions on my mind. Before we get to that, I’ve done some research and had a few conversations with people.

I came across an article which looked at the role of the family in helping people recover from eating disorders. Patients were four times less likely to relapse if put in family therapy, experiencing their recovery as a family. Recovery time was also cut up to 43% in the group attending family treatment.

Families at the early stages have such a huge impact on us as a person, for the rest of our lives, they can make or break someone. There’s even been some speculation, put before a Common’s Committee this year, that dysfunctional families, broken families, can actually slow down or interrupt a child’s normal brain growth.

I had a Twitter conversation with some friends and colleagues looking at what the family was, and whether it was a good thing or not. Not unsurprisingly the consensus that good families (unlike the ones included in the evidence submitted to the Committee above) were good things. Surprise!

So, some questions…

  1. First and foremost, what is the family? What constitutes it, is there a criteria?
  2. Are families really that good? They can generate the most well adjusted, supported, happy individuals. Or they can prolong the vicious circle of under education, poverty, disadvantage and criminality through the generations.
  3. If families are a good thing, should we be encouraging them to stay that way? For more families to become a more obvious and successful unit of society?

So, now an attept at some answers…

  1. Desmond Tutu said “You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.”  … Sorry Archbishop you’re wrong. I cannot abide by the idea that this unit that has so much power over you, is out of your control. How dare anyone tell me who I can and can’t include in my closest circle of people. This leads on to something I’ve alluded to before. Why are your genetics so important? I didn’t choose my genes, I didn’t have a say on who I was born to, which siblings I had or who my grandparents were. Why the hell not? I am a human being, I have free will, I refuse to allow tiny particles of nucleic acid control this, one of the most important aspects of my life. I see no reason as to why we can’t add to, or subtract from, this unit, the family. It should be the individual and the people around them who make this decision, ‘we are going to be a family’, your genes can’t stop you and the state shouldn’t try, god help it if it tries to tell me who I can and can’t have in my family. Let’s go further there should be no regulation on the number, composition or nature of the inter-relationships of a family, that is senseless.
  2. I’m going to say yes. Families are there for you, they are part of your support mechanism, they are your ‘home base’ … the place you can feel safe. They are a key part of your identity. Babies learn ‘who they are’ by asking questions about themselves and the world around them, it’s part of our learning process, we begin to build up a picture of our reality and our place in it. We couldn’t do this without our families. This is confined to good families only. Bad families pervert this process, painting over the blank canvas of a child’s psyche with neglect and a doomed future.
  3. We enter some dangerous territory now. If we’re going to avoid regulating our new social unit, the family you choose, then are we going to define what makes them good? Some sort of test? Immediately I’d say no, but it would be a means to an end. If we had some way of telling if a family, either chosen or not, was beneficial why not reward them for this? We could incentivise people to be better family members, or induce more people to try and join them.

This is pretty current stuff, the Tories at their Party Conference have announced plans that they plan to cut child benefits to families with big families who live off the welfare state. They indicate it’s a matter of choice to have lots of children and the tax payer shouldn’t subsidise that. I have mixed feelings about this, my inner libertarian jumps for joy at the promotion of individual responsibility but, all in all, I think it’s a mistake. In fact, if anything, we should be spending more money, on the children and per child, in families living on benefits. We just shouldn’t give the money to the parents. We should fund more social workers or better after school clubs, in fact just better schools, things we know can help to break that vicious circle.

Edna Buchanan gave that much used quote “Friends are the family you choose for yourself”. She’s right, we’re human beings and we should be allowed to make our own decisions. I see no logical reason why we shouldn’t be able to decide who constitutes our family, found a beneficial and loving family, and be rewarded for that.