How contagious are opinions?

I like to think that, as I go through life, I learn from the experience. I observe and listen to the people I meet, I consider the various texts that I read on all mediums, I evaluate my responses and question if I should be adjusting my point of view. I wonder though how much of this is within my reasoned control. I wonder if all opinions are contagious.

Let me try to explain what I mean. I consider myself fortunate in being surrounded by intelligent individuals both at home and amongst my wider sphere of friends. These people come from differing backgrounds and often have strong views which they can back up with carefully presented examples and facts. They are capable of arguing their cases calmly and cogently even if they come to differing conclusions amongst themselves. They consider those who do not agree with them to be at best deluded, but more often foolish. They each appear convinced of their own rightness.

I am rarely convinced of my absolute rightness. Apart from my views on religion, which are based on a belief born of many personal experiences, most of my views have been built up over many years and are not fixed. It is not that I am swinging wildly from one side to the other, but rather that I am not so fixated on any particular argument that I am unwilling to consider that I may need to take some outcome into account that I had not previously considered.

I wonder how much I am influenced by impressive oratory skills and how much by the opinions presented. How blinkered are the views of those I listen to?

In an attempt to learn more about why people think as they do I follow quite a few political activists on line. I read a great number of comment pieces and consider historical outcomes based on principles argued for that, too often, didn’t quite work out as anticipated. The more I learn the less clear I am about any side’s rightness. I do not understand how my friends can be so unquestioning in what they argue for.

Yet I do believe that their opinions are contagious. Once they have put their thoughts into my head I cannot forget them. The thoughts sit there, waiting to offer a rebuttal to the next opposing point of view. By trying to be receptive and fair in my own opinions I am considering conflicting conclusions drawn from the same finite well of facts. How am I to know what to think?

Let me put down some questions to consider. Do we encourage the government to spend huge amounts of money on developing so called renewable energy when the resulting environmental benefits are questionable? Do we ensure that nobody goes hungry by increasing the availability of welfare for the needy when this acts as a sticking plaster rather than addressing the cause which is often not enough access to decent jobs? Do we invest in encouraging enterprise to create jobs when this also benefits the wealthy? Do we increase taxes on the wealthy when this will encourage them to move to a country that is less punitive, thereby removing their investment from the economy? Do we nationalise to keep profits within the economy when this has, historically, led to gross waste, lack of investment and inefficiency?

The previous paragraph is obviously simplistic and the causes/effects questionable. However, I have listened to many arguments that both back up and refute each of these examples. The result of these assaults on my reason is that I have no clear answers, I do not know what to think.

Yet in each of these cases I do think something, I cannot help but have an opinion. Often this is based on what I would once have considered to be common sense, yet that is invariably biased and based on views I have been exposed to rather than facts I can be sure of. Of course I do not wish to see any citizen of what is still a wealthy country go hungry, but if the hungry choose not to buy food because of an addiction should we subsidise that? I wish the ill to receive quality healthcare, but if their illness is not life threatening then should they receive whatever treatment they desire? Always there is an opposing argument, an extreme case to be cited, statistics that show how many or how few cases exist. There are statistics to back up every argument and a slippery slope for the opposition to take advantage of. How far do we go with the finite resources available?

I am not attempting to offer answers for any of this but rather to put forward for consideration this idea that our thoughts, views and beliefs are influenced so strongly by the arguments that we are exposed to. I would argue that, with difficult and complex situations to consider, nobody can be absolutely right.

One of the things that I find quite depressing is that some of those I know are so willing to mock opposing points of view in an attempt to sway opinion. They come across as patronising rather than convincing. In the public sphere this is also the case, an example being in the climate change debate. Eminent scientists on both sides offer biased and incomplete arguments, dismissing the opposition with accusations of being under dubious paymasters and therefore not trustworthy. There is little open and reasoned debate. It is hard, as an observer, to be sympathetic to either side when it is clear that this issue has become such a money spinner. Big oil may finance the sceptics but agreeing with ‘the consensus’ appears to be necessary to retain a job in the field. Science suffers as trust is lost amongst the spin and hyperbole. Information is hidden, opposing opinions derided, the public patronised.

I will continue to attempt to learn but have become much more cynical as I have observed how my own response to difficult questions can be altered by a well researched article or debate. Where is the balance between being too easily swayed and stubbornly digging in when a position becomes dubious as previously unknown facts come to light? Difficult questions rarely have easy answers.

I find it depressing that papers such as The Daily Mail are still influential, the mainstream media reports only news that it knows will sell, headlines mislead and memories are short. Too few seem interested in paying attention, preferring to believe the popular sound bites and shock tactics employed to sway public opinion.

Even when I do not agree, I can respect other’s right to hold opinions based on critical thinking. Perhaps some may consider themselves better than others, a conceit that is unlikely to be conducive to open and rational thought, but if they can back up their opinions when pressed, whatever their prejudices, then I can learn from them. Who knows, perhaps over time some of my opinions may even be caught by those I know. I suspect that some may be horrified at such a thought.



Weekend thoughts

I have been immersed in my book for much of the weekend. I will talk more of this when I have reached it’s end and have had time to process the many threads of the plot, the ideas explored, and have decided if any of the characters are to be liked or admired as seems to be expected. Too often I find that an author writes in a weakness, a flaw, that changes my perception of an otherwise admirable person. Their life’s work is tarnished by their inability to be faithful to those who were close to them and trusted them.

I lay great store by how a person treats those who support and rely on him. Academic ability, commercial success, even a great contribution to society will become less impressive to me if the person has not treated his family and friends as they deserve. As the world mourns the death of Nelson Mandela I find myself holding back. How must his family have felt when he put his country’s needs before them? Perhaps no great things would ever be achieved if there were not men willing to do this. Perhaps his family were supportive and proud that he did not give up on the apparently impossible dream that he helped make come true. I did not know him. I do not know if he was a good man, only that he achieved remarkable advances for his country.

I am sceptical of those in the limelight. I wonder who supports them unseen to enable them to climb to such heights. Have they shown due gratitude for the support, or trampled on those who got in their way?

My social media feeds are full of mixed messages today. The government of this country appears to be outdoing itself with it’s wasteful spending alongside withdrawal of financial support for those most in need. Cogently written comment pieces abound yet the policies of suppression continue. Perhaps we too need a powerful figurehead to shake up the establishment and orchestrate change.

Alongside these depressing, political postings are the photographs of friends as they enter into the spirit of the festive season. When I declined the various invitations that I received I wondered how I would feel, if I would regret missing out on the dinners and parties. For this year at least I find that I am deriving enjoyment from afar. My lovely friends look so fine and happy in their party dresses, but I am not wishing that I were there to join them.

On Friday evening I had a fun filled few hours at home. My husband has recently acquired an amplifier and new cables that allow our old turntable to be linked into the digital music system that runs through our house. I put on a few vinyl records and started to compare tracks against the digital recordings we have stored. I was amazed at the depth of the sound. My old vinyls may crackle under the ancient needle, but the quality of the music is rich and fabulous. Beside this the digital recordings seemed clean but void. It amused me that my teenage children complained that I was playing my music way too loud.

It was good to be home, surrounded by warmth and love. I am happy for those who are posting photographs from interesting holiday destinations, from seeing friends enjoying their outings dressed so beautifully, but I am glad not to have to face the crowds myself. I can be content with my family gatherings at home.

Perhaps today we will deck the halls, play our corny Christmas music, try to capture a little of the joy of the season. I still have much to do to ensure that expectations are met, but we are getting there. I find that I cannot close my eyes to the selfish evil and lies that our leaders perpetuate, but I can derive pleasure from the happiness of those closer to home.

It is sickening that those same leaders who will order the violent suppression of dissent at home are singing the praises of a man who fought for freedom and won; a man who was imprisoned as a terrorist yet inspired a nation and much of the world. I wonder can they even see the vainglorious irony of their words and actions.

English: The prison cell where Nelson Mandela ...

There and back again – ghosts

The original inspiration for our recent trip to Berlin was an expensive school trip that my son was eligible for as part of his GCSE history curriculum. Normally I will stump up for these trips if the children wish to take part as they provide experiences that I am unlikely to be able to provide, such as skiing or exchanges with foreign students. However, with the outstanding offer of accommodation at my friend’s Berlin flat, I was able to take the three of us to the city for less than the cost charged by the school for one student.

It turns out that we visited the same tourist sites as the school and a lot more besides. Whereas they had some down time activities such as bowling, we spent just about every waking moment making the most of the unique aspects of Berlin. It is, of course, much easier to do this in a small group. Nevertheless, I am glad that we opted to eschew the school’s offering and do it for ourselves, not least because I personally got so much out of the trip. Despite not being with friends, my teenage children enjoyed our time away too.

Berlin has so much interesting and educative history to offer. This includes but is not limited to the politics and conflicts of the twentieth century, which my son is studying in school. We visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Jewish Museum and Sachsenhausen concentration camp. I was particularly keen that my children should experience this last place for themselves for several reasons.

When I was a student in my early twenties I spent a month travelling around Europe by train, including a visit to Munich and the Dachau concentration camp. Although I had studied twentieth century history for O Level I was not prepared for the impact this place would have on me. The profound sense of despair that I experienced; the understanding of humanity’s ability to inflict such horror on fellow human beings; these have stayed with me through the intervening years. I wanted my children to comprehend what can happen if governments are allowed to impose their will whilst good men look the other way or deny, perhaps even to themselves, that these things are happening.

I cannot say if I believe in ghosts, but these places retain a shadow of the horrors that were perpetrated within their walls all those years ago. I have no wish to indulge in some sort of macabre sight seeing; that these things happened is appalling, but it is the potential for it to happen again that I find truly disturbing.

In 1933 the Nazi party enacted a law which allowed for the forced sterilisation of the mentally deficient. In Britain today, the secretive Court of Protection has the power, under law, to force the mentally impaired to undergo sterilisation or have terminations if it is believed to be in their best interests. The court may also impose “experimental” treatments on mentally impaired patients without their consent. I guess there may be some who benefit from this court’s workings, but there are many who do not (see Court of Protection — Anna Raccoon for more on this). Personally I would never be able to fully trust a secretive, government agency to act in anyone’s best interests.

The Nazi party used propaganda to incite hatred against minority groups. The British media regularly runs stories suggesting that the current economic problems that our country is facing can be partially blamed on minority, immigrant groups. When times are hard there are too many looking for scapegoats to take the blame for their pain. The Nazi party rose to power because it enacted policies that initially improved the lives of many at the expense of a few. That it all went so horribly wrong should be remembered.

As well as the Jews, Sachsenhausen housed homosexuals (recent Russian laws are starting to criminalise this group’s activities) and the work shy. The British media does love to run negative, hate inducing stories about the long term unemployed. These articles generally ignore the fact that most long term benefit claimants are actually in work but are so badly paid that they require subsidies in order to survive.

Economic policy is complex and convoluted with no easy answers to the mess that has been allowed to develop by political parties of all persuasions over many years. I believe that visiting somewhere like Sachsenhausen is of value in gaining an understanding as to why we should never just go along with the soundbites and propaganda of governments who seek to control the way we think and then turn us off from thinking too deeply by distracting us with entertaining pap.

I am fortunate in having intelligent children. I think it is important that they should be exposed to political tactics and the lessons that can be learned from history. The four hundred inmates of the barracks hut that we visited at Sachsenhausen, built to house one hundred and fifty and the scene of unimaginable torture and violence, were classified as undesirables by their government but were as human as you or I. We need to consider people as individuals, not numbers; we need to look at their stories, not judge them on biased statistics.

The next British general election is scheduled for May 2015 by which time my daughter will be eligible to vote. Choosing a candidate in our skewed system is always tricky, but if she considers the aims and track record of those standing at least she will be thinking for herself. It is important to stay engaged with how the country is being run, however much it seems that we cannot influence decisions made. We owe at least that much to those who died because others chose to look the other way.


“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Secret lives

I can’t seem to get myself worked up about the fact that a government agency may be monitoring my phone calls, reading my emails, and keeping itself up to date on my social network posts and internet searches. Or is that only happening in America? Not that I really believe that all individuals are being investigated in this way. Sure, it is as likely as not that data is being gathered, but I very much doubt that it is being looked at in detail. I think just cause and a court order are still needed for that.

If, for whatever reason, some intelligence gathering agent did happen to stumble across something apparently worrying in my life and decided to look further then what would he find? He could uncover the kit list that I was sent last week for my son’s upcoming Scout camp, read the title of the next book to be discussed at my Book Group, or spot that a shoe shop I once foolishly gave my email address to is having a sale. I suspect he would very soon stop being interested and move on. I would not feel that my privacy had been invaded.

A quick look at my recent internet searches would expose my lack of confidence in my ability to spell certain words correctly, I am interested in books by favoured authors, in the names of actors in local stage shows, and in train timetables at the weekend. Even if I believed that this information was being made available I would not feel violated. If the snippets that I post on my social network sites were closely guarded secrets then I would not post them.

What does bother me though is CCTV. I mean, who monitors the images that are captured in public places? I have this distasteful image of a small, windowless room with a large number of screens showing street scenes. Watching these is a badly paid man who sits alone and bored, amusing himself by following good looking young girls like my daughter and her friends as they go about their business, unaware that they are being observed. That I find creepy and invasive.

I also dislike the lengthy forms that government agencies demand that we fill with data that should be no concern of theirs; the last census form was a case in point. Page after page of data was demanded that I just know will be misused to justify some future pet project funded by tax payers money that will make the mates of whichever government is in power millionaires. Invasive form filling and box ticking mines data that I have no wish to disclose but am forced to do so by law. For the good of myself and others? I don’t think so.

Intelligence agencies have long had the power to monitor activity, tap phones and request information from phone companies and banks. The internet allows more data to be captured but most of it will never be accessed. It is not that I trust these powerful organisations but more that I cannot imagine ever appearing on their radar. Even if I did, I cannot see how any information that I generate would be of interest to them.

I worry far more about the powers held by the small, local agencies with performance targets to meet and prejudices to feed. When my daughter broke her arm at home by overbalancing and falling over a plant pot trying to remove her riding boot, the nurse who treated her at A&E asked at least half a dozen times what had happened, how and if anyone else was involved. The looks I was being given made it quite clear that I was a potential child abuser. I find that attitude worrying. Social Services have the power to destroy families and are as unaccountable as any organisation.

I do not trust governments, have little faith in the justice system and resent the way my lifestyle is picked over by the education and health services. In these areas I feel that my life and privacy are invaded and I deeply resent the intrusion. I do not, however, fear the secret intelligence gathering of mega organisations at an international level. They have limited manpower and I am just not that interesting. I guess I am a little surprised that some people are shocked by the recent expose being covered so widely by the media. I would have been more surprised to discover that readily available data was not being gathered.

Governments do abuse power and use information inappropriately for their own ends. Legislation is slipped through under the radar when the public is distracted by some unrelated event. Our civil liberties have been eroded over many years; our right to a private life increasingly denied, always under the guise of being for our own good and the good of society. It has always been this way.

I would like to live my life in peace and privacy. I do not consider the gathering of the information that travels to and from my computer as a major threat to this aspiration. The personal questions asked locally by health and education professionals, and the potential fallout should I not conform as they demand, could have a much more worrying impact on my peace of mind and quality of life.

Broken Liberty: Li-ber-ty, Istanbul Archaeolog...

Active kids

Newspapers often carry articles discussing ‘studies’ into methods of parenting. These are generally written in a critical style and will, over time, offer contradictory advice. This weekend there were reports of a government advisor who believes that children whose parents enrol them in too many organised activities lose the ability to think for themselves and are therefore unable to cope with living independently when they are older. I sometimes wonder if these advisors have children themselves. I can see that, taken to extremes, any method of parenting could be detrimental. However, most parents listen to what their kids want and offer gentle encouragement or admonishment. If a child is active, whether through organisations or free play, it is likely to be because this is what the child wants.

Over the years my three children have tried so many different sports and activities that it can be hard to remember all the things that they have done. They have attended regular training sessions for ballet, gymnastics, swimming, football, horse riding, hockey, cricket, golf, taekwondo, judo and archery, They have joined rainbows, brownies, guides, beavers, cubs, scouts and explorers. They have attended weekend drama schools, taken piano lessons and joined badminton and ping pong clubs. There have been activity camps with climbing, kayaking, raft building and caving. They have even chosen to go on week long residentials where they could race karts and quad bikes. Some of the regular activities were enjoyed for a year or two before the time was needed to fit in the next interest, others they still attend regularly.

There have been periods when they were younger when it did feel as if we had no time to sit down and just relax. The logistics of getting each child from school to activity after activity meant packed teas eaten in the car and homework being done as they waited for a sibling to complete a lesson. I did not, however, insist on them doing any of these things apart from the swimming lessons (they had to keep these up until they could swim a good distance with a strong stroke). All activities were started because they heard about how amazing it was from a friend. They would try a couple of classes and, if they wanted to continue, would be enrolled for a term. Once paid for I insisted that classes were attended regularly, but when the bill for the next term came in they were always given the choice of continuing or leaving. Over the years we have accumulated a lot of uniforms, kit and sports equipment that is no longer used.

Alongside these organised activities we did a lot of walking and cycling as a family. We also went swimming together each weekend for many years. Our village abuts the estate of a large house with grounds open to the paying public and a large, exciting adventure playground. We would buy season tickets for this each year and the children would regularly meet up with friends to play. They were always free to go out around the village but more often chose to have friends back to our garden which we had turned into a mini playground for them. Quiet moments were rare.

Far from taking away their independence the experiences they have gained from taking part  in so much has given them the confidence to face new situations and challenges. They know that they can have a reasonable attempt at most sports and are used to going to new places and working with people they do not know. It has not always been logistically possible (or necessary!) to drive them everywhere so they have got used to travelling under their own steam and, as they have got older, have learnt to use public transport. My eldest child is now capable of organising herself.

I do not hover over my children constantly but I do like to know where they are and what they are doing. I also like to support them in their interests and encourage active participation in support of clubs they belong to. I take an interest in their lives and feel they will be happier if they leave their laptops regularly and participate in something more active and sociable. They are of an age where this cannot be forced and they value free time so it is particularly pleasing that they still choose to take part in a good number of activities.

To suggest that parents should organise less for their children and allow them to play free or get bored ignores the alternatives available to the modern child. When the majority of houses contain multiple computers and televisions a child is as likely to switch on and tune out rather than run around outside. There are also fewer and fewer parents who are happy to have their child run free. I have lost count of the number of parents who have voiced concern to me over the years that I have expected my eight or nine year old to walk the few hundred metres home from school or the village hall unattended (even in the dark!), or who has complained that my child was being noisy, boisterous or engaging in rough play whilst out with friends. When my son fell out of a tree he learnt a valuable lesson. Yes, he could have broken his neck, but that could happen on the stairs at home.

My hackles will always be raised when unasked for criticism and advise are offered. If parents are to do their job then they must be allowed to make decisions based on how their kids are and how best to encourage them to be good citizens. There will always be extremes – parents who ignore their children almost entirely and those who make every decision for them – but most parents that I know encourage but do not force. I think that my kids are amazing. I hope that most parents think that of their kids. They are also individuals and will react in different ways to the same treatment, just as adults will. If the government is trying to parent the nation then I would advise them to learn a few lessons in parenting themselves.