You are currently browsing the daily archive for February 14, 2008.

 Just before Christmas I met, for the first time, one of the first people to kindly comment on my blog.  He is, amongst other things, a speech writer for Mary Robinson, the former Irish President.  I remember a fascinating and optimistic discussion with him about racial and religious prejudice and its deep roots, informed by experiences in Ireland, and how children can point a way out. 

Mary Robinson was UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002 and has recently been appointed one of Nelson Mandela’s 13 wise “elders”.  She was interviewed last week in the Guardian, and I was inspired by her words concerning the role of women as leaders and the different voice that they will often use.  I find that my measures of success or failure are frequently “male” measures that I have unwittingly adopted for my own, and that words such as “power” and “leadership” are construed in a male context that is uncomfortable with women.

Part of the interview is reproduced below, the remainder can be found here:

“Another commitment Robinson has taken on is as one of the Elders, a group of 13 global senior citizens including Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter (plus a chair kept symbolically free for the detained Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi) who hope to use their moral authority to intervene in crises around the world. She was sceptical about the Elders until they all met Mandela. “I wondered about the idea. Was it not a very arrogant concept? Then we had our planning meeting with Nelson Mandela, who I’ve met many times. He has such an incredible power of bringing out the best in people and from that moment on we knew our responsibility was in ‘eldering’.”

The word was invented by Tutu, whom Robinson clearly adores. He is full of wise words and so witty, she says. “He gets us to call him ‘the Arch,'” she says, smiling.

Robinson sees typically “female” leadership qualities in some of the male Elders – Tutu and the economist Muhammad Yunus are two who come to mind – but wants high-profile women to push for a new style of women’s leadership. “There are two types of women who get into high positions,” she says. The first she describes as “very talented” women who do it in a traditional – male – way. Like Margaret Thatcher? “Yes, and fair dos: to get through is not always easy. A lot of women in business accept that model. But there is also the other model I would very strongly advocate and this is equal to the contribution of men but different, complementary, exciting and innovative.”

It is this approach that Robinson hopes to harness in her role as chair of women world leaders (new invitees include the presidents of India and Argentina and the prime minister of Ukraine). She calls it an “enabling collective women’s leadership”. It’s a horrible piece of jargon, which she explains as a coming together of women from politics but also from the worlds of charity, business and the arts in order to change lives. She argues this approach is fundamentally different from male leadership in terms of women’s empathy, ability to work together and problem-solving skills. Traditionally, she says, women have been a bit defensive about exercising power but this has made them more reflective. “Women leaders are often more analytical and self-critical and more honest about it than their male counterparts. It’s as if they are still asking the question ‘Am I doing well enough?'” she says.

Most crucially, Robinson wants this women’s leadership to be directed beyond the traditional fields of health and education. “We deal with health and education, and empower women and girls, but are actually not crunching on the key issue,” she says. This fundamental issue is “security” and her mission is to reclaim the word and define it as most women would; not in relation to the war on terror but in terms of ordinary families; security, in other words, from poverty, climate change, abuse and discrimination.”

I’m posting below a YouTube clip to reflect her idea of “security”.  It seems relevant today when Darfur makes the headlines again, if only because it threatens to disrupt sport.

The clip is French in origin, hence the spelling of Darfur as Darfour.  The images are accompanied by music from Martha Wainwright.  I first heard her music accompanying an art exhibition in disused buildings on a former USAF base in the UK.  I waited until the room was empty, then sneaked a look at the CD playing.  I play her CD as much as any other music I can think of, though I have to check who is within earshot as the language on one of the tracks is obscene.

A few years ago, when Lola B was not quite four, I became a student again.  One eccentric lecturer thought that pubs were more conducive thinking places than conventional classrooms, especially since cigars could, then, still be smoked in them.  Our small group of a dozen or so students met in a variety of drinking places to study the workings of the European Court of Human Rights and to help the lecturer prepare to take on the British Government in a case brought by the families of members of the IRA killed by the British security forces in Northern Ireland in 1987.  The case resulted in a second landmark decision for this human rights maverick against the United Kingdom, Kelly and Others v UK.  The Court found that the UK had failed to properly investigate the deaths of IRA members at the hands of the security services, whilst the earlier judgment condemned the use of a “shoot to kill” policy by security services operating in Gibraltar. 

We felt enormously connected to the fight not least because we mocked up the hearing before it happened – in another pub somewhere in Cambridgeshire.  Together with another student, a keen military expert, it fell to us to “represent” the families of the terrorists.  I can place my fellows students now as a chief state prosecutors in Norway and Egypt, a UN lawyer in Geneva, a lawyer drafting judgments in relation to Turkey at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, human rights activists in Hungary and the former Soviet bloc.  I was lucky to have met them all.  I remember one particular sunny day, sitting on the tables that sprawled outside an ancient pub by the waterfront, as a moment of pure bliss.

Now every Tuesday I go back to the same waterside village to attend a philosophy class.  Our group is somewhat bigger and considerably older, and we meet instead in the local sailing club.  Our long table stretches along the floor-to-ceiling windows that open out onto the river wall.  I often take my terrier with me and take him for a run along the river wall before the class begins.  The river is prone to spilling its banks and so there is a marshy area behind the river wall, full of tussocky grass and ponds, over and around which my dog practises Harrier-like leaps and mad runs when his rigid tail takes on a right-angled bend and nothing will deflect him.
Each term we have a new subject.  This term it is, loosely, Consciousness, or Arguing about the Mind.  One half of the class will never speak, whilst I am locked in mortal combat with one half of the remainder.  We rarely divide along traditional, predictable gender lines, but along the analytical/Continental fault-line that divides philosophers.  I have long given up any hope of seeing the world as the analytical scientists do.  Each week this term we have four or five articles to read and discuss, usually by living philosophers, but we have read extracts from Descartes, and will read articles by doctors too.  As a fitting finale to the course, we hope to attend a confrontation between Daniel Dennett and Lord Winston entitled “Religion is the greatest threat to scientific progress and rationality that we face today.” 

Naturally we are concerned not only consciousness but also with the entity we called the “self”.  Absent a self we cease to exist or, certainly, descend into madness.

Daniel Dennett has written his understanding of this ghost-like being.  He is an exceptionally eminent American philosopher and a committed atheist, often spoken of in the same breath as Richard Dawkins.  I suppose it is relevant to his atheism to mention here that his father died when Dennett was five in an unexplained plane crash.  It is irrelevant but interesting to mention that he claims credit for having introduced the first frisbee into England whilst a student at Oxford University.  He is a “materialist“, convinced that there is no duality between the body and the soul, but that science can offer an explanation for everything.  Materialists have become the dominant force in the philosophy of the mind, dismissing dualists as religious self-deceivers, and trying to explain consciousness.   Almost always the materialist will fail to explain two other ideas which are connected to consciousness, and which present even more problems, namely “intentionality” and “free will”.  Consciousness is enough of a problem, and even here the world-class materialist, Dennett, is less than convincing. Daniel Dennett is sure that “We are all, at times, confabulators, telling and retelling ourselves the story of our own lives, with scant attention to the question of truth.”  We are “inveterate and inventive autobiographical novelists.” Our autobiographies are our “selves”. Our self does not exist in any more meaningful way than as a fictional character like Sherlock Holmes, for example.  A fictional character is very different from something that actually exists in fact, in reality.  In respect of real things it is possible to ask any question and for the answer to be either “yes” or “no” (the principle of “bivalence”.  Ask whether a particular car has four wheels and the answer is either “yes” or “no” depending on how many wheels the car actually has. Our “selves” are different, unlike motor cars.  You can ask whether my eyes are blue and the answer will be “yes” or “no”, but you cannot ask such a question about my self.  My self if a bit like a centre of gravity.  We treat a centre of gravity as existing in the sense that we know where we situate it, but we cannot see it, or touch it, and its situation is conditional upon other things existing in a particular form.

Our selves are dependent upon the information they receive from our bodies.  Things that happen to our bodies happen immediately afterwards to our fictional selves.  If you hit my body, my fictional self records that it has been hit.  My body is like a robot.  It does not choose to feel or not. It simply records in its brain what happens to it, though it is capable of a randomness that appears as unpredictability.  The record takes the form of a fictional novel.  It is, moreover, a fictional novel that can be rewritten over and over again, and parts can be refined with more detail added after the event.  The “me” after rewriting is different from the “me” before rewriting, a phenomenon which would be “utterly mysterious and magical” if my self was anything other than an abstraction.

Why would we tell ourselves these stories?  If I believe that science will be able to explain everything,  I will look for an evolutionary explanation.  Daniel Dennett is a confessed adaptionist, and what follows is his evolutionary explanation.

Before we were conscious (before we had given our “self” a name”) we communicated with each other but only in instinctive ways, blurting out information without any filtering at all.  When we had problems in this primitive state, we would blurt out a question to those around us and we came to be designed so that we provided answers when thus provoked by a question.  Then one day somebody asked a question but there was nobody around to answer it, and then an answer came to him from a part of the brain separate to the part that had asked the question.  After a while this talking and listening and responding got shorter until it all happened in the brain without the thought having to be vocalised by one part, heard and responded to by another part.  Conscious verbal thought had arrived.

It is a non-question to ask what the self is, since the self is an abstraction that does not have any real existence except as a work of fiction.

My self is made up of my stories, but, being a lawyer, I usually try to check them for veracity against all available evidence and to keep my self-delusion to a minimum.  I hope they are not fiction, and that I am more than the sum of my own confabulations.


Dennett, Daniel, ‘The self as a center of narrative gravity’, in Arguing About the Mind.

Searle, John R, Mind, A Brief Introduction, OUP, 2004