Sunday, 20 October 2019

Harry Potter and the Beast of Brexit

The People's Vote march yesterday was a good opportunity to catch up on family news with my brother, Owen, as we shuffled along from Hyde Park to Parliament Square. We were joined by my colleague Amy Orben, appropriately kitted out in blue and yellow.

Amy and Owen, People's March, Oct 19 2019
As with previous anti-Brexit marches, the atmosphere was friendly, many of the placards were jokey, and the event was enlivened by the presence of unexpected groups who reinforced our view that the UK is a friendly, inclusive, if somewhat eccentric place. I saw no signs of aggression, except right at the end, when a group of thuggish young men stood outside a pub by Trafalgar Square, shouting insults at the marchers.
Morris not Boris dancers
But the underlying mood was sombre. There was a sense of inevitability that Brexit was going to be pushed through, regardless of the damage done to individuals and to the country. Propaganda has won. The 'Will of the People' is used to justify us accepting a bad deal. The phrase is seldom challenged by journalists, who allow interviewees to trot it out, alongside the mantra, 'Respect the Referendum'.

But it's nonsense, of course. The deal that Johnson has achieved respects nothing and nobody. It bears no relation to what the 52% voted for. Many people now realise they were conned by the pre-referendum propaganda, which promised a Brexit that would fix all kinds of problems – underfinancing of the NHS, immigration, housing, jobs, even climate change. As Sadiq Khan memorably said, nobody voted to be poorer. And few people would think the break-up of the United Kingdom is a reasonable price to pay for Brexit. It would take just 5% of Leavers to change their vote to Remain to change the outcome to favour Remain.

Even so, I'm not confident that another Referendum would lead to success for Remain. The problem is that Johnson and his cronies use dishonesty as a weapon. I feel like a character in a Harry Potter novel, where the good people are put at a disadvantage because they take ethical issues seriously.  That's why it's so important to hold our politicians to high standards: we have the Nolan principles of public life, but they lack teeth because they are just ignored. Meanwhile, those who want to preserve the country that we were proud to be part of – the one that came together so magnificently for the London Olympics in 2012 – aren't good at propaganda. Imagine if we had someone with the talent of Dominic Cummings fighting on our side: a propagandist who, instead of promoting fear and hatred, could manipulate people's opinions to make them feel pride and pleasure in being part of an inclusive, intelligent, peace-loving nation. Instead, those opposed to Brexit are divided, and show no signs of understanding how to campaign effectively – always put on the back foot. When we discuss the contents of Operation Yellowhammer, we are told this is Project Fear: an official government report is dismissed as Remain propaganda. Rather than making a pro-active case for remaining in the EU, we are manipulated into defending ourselves against preposterous accusations.

Despite the jokes and banter, the people marching yesterday were angry. We are angry to see our country wrecked for no good reason. I could put up with taking a personal hit to my standard of living if I could see that it benefited others – indeed I regularly vote for parties that propose higher taxation for people like me. The thing that is hard to stomach is the absence of coherent answers when you ask a Leaver about the benefits that will ensue after Brexit. I'm a rational person, and Brexit seems totally irrational – harming so many sectors of society while benefitting only the vulture capitalists. Meanwhile, on the international stage, our competitors and enemies must be enjoying the spectacle of seeing the EU being weakened, as we engage in this act of self-harm.

In the right-hand column below, are potential benefits of Brexit that have been put forward by the few people who actually engage when asked why they want to leave. In the left-hand column, I list risks of Brexit that are, as far as I am aware, adequately documented by people with expertise in these areas. Some of these, such as supply problems, are more relevant to no-Deal Brexit; others apply more broadly. There are dependencies between some of these: damage to farming, social care, NHS, science and Higher Education is a consequence of loss of EU workers: both from reluctance to live in a xenophobic country, and from legal restrictions on their employment here.  Disclaimer: I'm not an expert in politics and economics and I'd be glad to modify or add to the table if people can come up with well-evidenced arguments for doing so*.
My analysis of risks and benefits of Brexit
*Owen has commented on this (see below)
J.K. Rowling was prescient in her novels, which vividly described the triumph of propaganda over reason, of violence over peace, of the bully over the meek. With the Beast of Brexit, exemplified by Boris Johnson and his cronies, we see all these themes being played out in real life.

It is particularly galling when politicians argue that we have to have Brexit because otherwise there will be riots. In effect, this is saying that those who marched yesterday are to be ignored because they aren't violent. Of course, there are exceptions: I gather that it was not only Remain politicians who had to run the gauntlet of an angry crowd yesterday. Jacob Rees-Mogg was also verbally abused by a group of Remainers. I'm glad to say I have seen nobody defending such behaviour by either side. But politicians should not underestimate the genuine anger that is felt by Remainers, when people like Rees-Mogg claim in the Spectator that 'Everyone is saying “Just get on with it.” Moderate Remainers and Leavers alike are saying: “For goodness sake, please just finish it off.”’ One would hope that the thousands of moderate, peaceful marchers yesterday might disabuse him of that idea, yet I'm sure he'll continue to make these specious claims. Meanwhile, we are excluded from 'the People', are told we are undemocratic because we want a vote, and that we'd only be taken seriously if we started rioting.

I was particularly depressed to hear that some politicians had said they would support Boris Johnson's deal because they had received death threats from constituents. Have we really come to this? Are politicians saying to the people who marched yesterday that we'll only be listened to if we threaten to kill our opponents? Once we get to that point, we have lost all that is great about Britain. It is feeling perilously close.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

The sinister side of French psychoanalysis revealed

Peak pseudoprofound bullshit* from Jacques Lacan; a proof that Woman does not exist
Sophie Robert, who created controversy in 2011 with her film 'Le Mur', has now produced a sequel, 'Le Phallus et le Neant'**, which extends her case against the dominance of psychoanalysis in French culture. In brief, the film makes the following points:
  1. Psychoanalysts enjoy a celebrity status in France as public intellectuals. 
  2. Their views are based heavily on writings of Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan and Fran├žoise Dolto, and are not intellectually or scientifically coherent. 
  3. They promote ideas that are misogynistic and homophobic, and view small children as having erotic interest in their parents. Some of their statements appear to justify paedophilia and incest. 
  4. They do not see their role as helping cure psychiatric disorders. 
  5. They have a financial interest in maintaining their status quo. 
  6. Some of them work with vulnerable populations of children in institutions, which is especially troubling given point 3.
Le Mur focused on psychoanalytic treatment for autism (transcript available here); the new film has some overlap but is more structured around developing points 1-6, and raises further questions about the popularity of psychoanalysis for treatment of adult mental health problems in France. Although Robert notes at the outset that there are good practitioners who can help those who consult them, the overall message is that there are many analysts who do active harm to their clients, while charging them large sums of money. There appears to be no regulatory oversight of their activities.

Le Phallus et le Neant is a 2 hour-long film, and I recommend watching it in full; I started by finding the analysts merely irritating and pretentious, but as the film developed, it became increasingly disturbing. The last quarter included interviews with women who had suffered sexual abuse as children, and who were told they should not see themselves as victims.

Here are just a few clips to illustrate the content of the interviews with analysts.

Much of the first part of the film focuses on the negative views of Woman proposed by Freud and Lacan. Penis envy is taken extremely seriously.
Relationships between parents and their children are seen as complicated and problematic:

A cheerful and positive attitude to sex seems unattainable:

Regarding homosexuality, the film notes the influence of the late Andre Green, who according to Wikipedia was 'one of the most important psychoanalytic thinkers of our times'. Green regarded homosexuality as a psychosis. Confronted with evidence of well-balanced and contented gay men, he claimed they were psychotics-in-denial, apparently healthy but likely to fall prey to insanity at any time. Sophie probed her interviewees about this, and they looked cagey, particularly when asked if there were any gay psychoanalysts. The idea of gay couples as parents has been highly contentious in France: if we believed the psychoanalysts, this would be a disaster. In fact, as shown by the work of Susan Golombok and colleagues, it isn't anything of the kind.

If you argue against the views of the analysts, by saying you never wanted a penis, you had a loving but unerotic relationship with your parents, and you find adult sex fun, then this is treated as evidence of the depth of your repression, rather than evidence for the invalidity of the theory.

The late Fran├žoise Dolto had a major influence on psychoanalytic thought in France. Her claims  that children have desire towards adults, and trap them because of this, were reflected at several points in the interviews.
And given these provocative children, it seems that a father who commits incest with his child is really only doing what comes naturally:

A final point is the mismatch between the expectations of clients and what the psychoanalyst offers. One assumes that most people go into analysis with the expectation that it will help them: after all, they invest a great deal of time and money in the process. But that does not seem to be the view of the analysts. Their attitude seems to be that the human situation is pretty hopeless, because what people want (sex with a parent) is not possible, and the best they can do is to help us come to realise that:




* This term is taken from Pennycook, G., Cheyne, J. A., Barr, N., Koehler, D. J., & Fugelsang, J. A. (2015). On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit. Judgment and Decision Making, 10, 549-563.

**A version of the film with English subtitles is publicly available on Vimeo at a cost of €4 . Conflict of interest statement: I contributed to the funding of the film, but I will donate any royalties to charity.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Attempting to communicate with the BBC: it's not just politicians who refuse to answer questions

A couple of weeks ago there was an outburst of public indignation after it emerged that the BBC had censured their presenter Naga Munchetty. As reported by the Independent, in July BBC Breakfast reported on comments made by President Trump to four US congresswomen, none of whom was white, whom he told to "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came." Naga commented "Every time I've been told as a woman of colour to 'go home', to 'go back to where I've come from', that was embedded in racism."

Most of the commentary at the time focused on whether or not Naga had behaved unprofessionally in making the comment, or whether she was justified in describing Trump's comment as racist. The public outcry has been heard: the Director General of the BBC, Tony Hall, has since overturned the decision to censure her.

There is, however, another concern about the BBC's action, which is why did they choose to act on this matter in the first place. All accounts of the story talk of 'a complaint'. The BBC complaints website explains that they can get as many as 200,000 complaints every year, which averages out at 547 a day. Now, I would have thought that they might have some guidelines in place about which complaints to act upon. In particular, they would be expected to take most seriously issues about which there were a large number of complaints. So it seems curious, to say the least, if they had decided to act on a single complaint, and I started wondering whether it had been made by someone with political clout.

The complaints website allows you to submit a complaint or to make a comment, but not to ask a question, but I submitted some questions anyhow through the complaints portal, and this morning I received a response, which I append in full below. Here are my questions and the answers:

Q1. Was there really just ONE complaint?
BBC: Ignored

Q2: If yes, how often does the BBC complaints department act on a SINGLE complaint?
BBC: Ignored

Q3: Who made the complaint?
BBC: We appreciate you would like specific information about the audience member who complained about Naga's comments but we can't disclose details of the complainant, but any viewer or listener can make a complaint and pursue it through the BBC's Complaints framework.

Q4: If you cannot disclose identity of the complainant, can you confirm whether it was anyone in public life?
BBC: Ignored

Q5: Can you reassure me that any action against Munchetty was not made because of any political pressure on the BBC?
BBC: Ignored

I guess the BBC are so used to politicians not answering questions that they feel it is acceptable behaviour. I don't, and I treat evasion as evidence of hiding something they don't want us to hear. I was interested to see that Ofcom is on the case, but have been fobbed off just as I was. Let's keep digging. I smell a large and ugly rat.

Here is the full text of the response:

Dear Prof Bishop
Reference CAS-5652646-TNKKXL
Thank you for contacting the BBC.
I understand you have concerns about the BBC Complaints process specifically with regard to a complaint made regarding Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty and comments about US President Trump. 
Naturally we regret when any member of our audience is unhappy with any aspect of what we do. We treat all complaints seriously, but what matters is whether the complaint is justified and the BBC acted wrongly. If so we apologise. If we don’t agree that our standards or public service obligations were breached, we try to explain why. We appreciate you would like specific information about the audience member who complained about Naga's comments but we can't disclose details of the complainant, but any viewer or listener can make a complaint and pursue it through the BBC's Complaints framework.
Nonetheless, I understand this is something you feel strongly about and I’ve included your points on our audience feedback report that is sent to senior management each morning and ensures that your complaint has been seen by the right people quickly. 
We appreciate you taking the time to register your views on this matter as it is greatly helpful in informing future decisions at the BBC.
Thanks again for getting in touch.
Kind regards
John Hamill
BBC Complaints Team