Life through a distorting lens

I find myself faced with something of quandary. I can’t decide quite who it is I dislike more; bureaucrats or ideologues.

I’ve spent more or less the last ten years working in either of the public or the voluntary sectors, which I suppose should tip the balance in favour of loathing bureaucrats simply because I tend to run across them far more often, particularly that curious sub-species of official functionary; the ‘meeting dweller’, that appears to exist nowhere outside the confines of formal meetings, conferences and ‘networking’ events. It’s long been my suspicion that meeting dwellers are not even real people with real lives and real homes to go to at the end of the day; that somewhere in the bowels of every Council House, NHS hospital and Civil Service office there is a secret storage room where the meeting dwellers are put away at night and recharged ready for the next day’s round of meetings.

Still, unless you’re unfortunate enough to caught up in the red tape personally, bureaucrats tend to offer no more than a persistent, low-level, form of nuisance, a subliminal hum of irritation akin to mild toothache that’s barely noticeable so long as you can find something else to keep you occupied.

Ideologues, on the other hand, tend to provoke an immediate and often violent reaction that leaves you reaching for the nearest blunt instrument and calculating just the right trajectory needed to apply it to the side of their head.

I had the misfortune to encounter just such an ideologue while at university – in a regular politics seminar, which is always the worst possible situation to encounter them. She was a feminist, a lesbian (allegedly – most the bona fide lesbians on the course had her down as ‘straight, but trying to make a political statement’ and steered well clear) and from a mixed ethnic background. All in all a rather unfortunate combination as it afforded her too few shoulders on which to mount all the chips she routinely carried around with her.

Conversation with her, when it became unavoidable, was an experience I’m in no particularly hurry to repeat. She was the kind of person who didn’t talk to you but at you. Everything she said was littered with ‘isms’ and ‘ists’ and all possible conversational roads led inexorably to the subject of ‘oppression’, which she professed to having experienced like no one else on Earth. In reality the only real oppression anyone experienced came in the form of the inability of the seminar group to hold a rational discussion about anything while she capered around the room riding whatever hobby horse she’d decided to get on at the time.

As I recall, we took a vote at the start of the third or fourth seminar of the course and decided that she could find herself another group to bother.

The problem with ideologues is that they invariably possess a monocular view of the world. Whatever pet theory they espouse seems to be the sole means through which they are capable of trying to make sense of the world. There are two sides to any argument; theirs (right) and everybody else’s (wrong), which wouldn’t be quite so problematic were it not reinforced by an obsessive need to make absolutely sure that everyone knows that their side of the argument is the only right way of thinking – anything else, well that’s just more oppression.

We all have beliefs, of one sort or another, which help us at least make an effort to understand the world around us. However, for most reasonable people, beliefs are things tinged with an element of scepticism. We may believe certain things to be either true or untrue but we are also open to evidence and experience, life teaches us that there are times when beliefs must, of necessity, be re-evaluated, modified and sometimes even discarded in the face of evidence which offers us a new and somewhat different understanding of the world.

Think of some of the minor fictions we tell our children in order to stimulate their imagination; the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus et al. As a matter of routine, we encourage our children to believe in the ‘truth’ of these fictional characters, we use them to enrich their perception of the world while young and open their minds to the realm of possibilities offered by the imagination. And, as parents – if, like me, you have children – we all must, eventually, face the day when reality must intrude in our children’s lives and it becomes time to tell them there is no Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny or Santa Claus, there’s just mom and dad (or mom, or dad, or mom and mom, dad and dad, or any one of the other variations on the basic theme of family) who care enough to want bring a little ‘magic’, a little bit of fun into their children’s lives.

In the act of telling a child that there is, in reality, no Santa Claus (et al) there are important psychological processes at work. We introduce the child to an important lesson about the nature of belief and the fine distinction between that and truth. Beliefs should, and are if dealt with rationally, be considered to be mutable things, a form of hypothesis that assists us to make sense of the world but which may be subject to change as evidence and experience teach us that what we believe may often be rather different from what is actually real.

It’s this process which fails to function in ideologues.

Faced with a situation in which belief and reality fail to mesh, there beliefs act as a distorting lens and cause them to attempt to change reality to fit their beliefs rather than adjust their beliefs in light of their experience of reality. When the world doesn’t measure up to expectations their instincts are to try to change the world, or at least disregard that part of the world which fails to match their beliefs, rather than change themselves.

But that’s enough musings on psychology for the moment.

What triggered this particular train of thought is this article by Kwame McKenzie (The Times, 13th December 2005) in which he attempts to put forward the view that Peter Jackson’s recent, and critically successful, remake of King Kong “feeds into all the colonial hysteria about black hyper-sexuality

  • Marvellous.

    “Ideologues, on the other hand, tend to provoke an immediate and often violent reaction that leaves you reaching for the nearest blunt instrument and calculating just the right trajectory needed to apply it to the side of their head.”

    Never were truer words spoken in blogland. Sadly, never has a place existed where such words are so reoccuringly relevant.

  • I can assure you that there are plenty of Meeting Dwellers in the private sector – firms like Anders*koff*Accenture basically exist to propagate MDs and parasitise other companies with them.

    Oh, and who’s ‘mom’?