The Hopes We Had (November 2017)

Last week I ventured into highbrow poetry – this week I return to the genius of pop-music to illustrate my thoughts: I shall be entwining them with the words of a German pop-group: the band is called Freiheit and the song is their 1988 hit “Keeping the Dream Alive”. The name of the band is worth a brief digression - during the second world war there were resistance groups in Germany fighting against the Nazis and in 1945 one of these groups took control of a radio mast in Munich to send out messages of freedom. After the war the square on which this mast stood was renamed Munchener Freiheit – Munich Freedom and it is from this square that the band take their name.

Back to the song - the key lyric is:

"Tonight the rain is falling, full of memories of people and places, and while the past is calling in my fantasy I remember their faces. The hopes we had were much too high, way out of reach but we had to try, the game will never be over because we’re keeping the dream alive."

The joy of Euro-popstars is that it’s never quite clear what they’re talking about – I mean the smart money’s on romantic love but you can never be sure. This is what we’ll lose when Brexit comes around – but more of that later – for now I’d like to take the line “The hopes we had were much too high, way out of reach but we had to try” and run with it because my theme for today is empathy and understanding and my hope is for a society in which we all try to empathise, to understand each other a bit better.

I was inspired to this topic by a couple of conversations I had with some of you last week and by a rather odd piece of writing put together to develop an imaginary world created by one of the internet’s collection of strange but talented comic artists. This is by Jeph Jacques who has imagined a Mr V Vinge speaking to a UN Commission on the rights of Artificial Intelligences

“The fact is, we cannot come to a consensus regarding consciousness- either our own, or that of artificial intelligences. We simply do not have the data required to define it. The core of human interaction is that if I say that I feel I am a conscious entity, and you say that you feel the same way, we agree to take each other’s word for it. Those who do otherwise are called sociopaths- or philosophers. And so if an artificial intelligence makes the same declaration, and if it demonstrates the same level of complexity as the human mind- if we cannot determine precisely where the programming gives rise to the cognition- then we have no rational excuse not to take it at its word.”

I love the depth of imagination that has taken place here, the effort that has been made to colour the world – if the idea of creating wonderful, vivid, impossible worlds appeals to you and you prefer to do so in company rather than alone on the internet (not that I am promoting one course above the other) then I suggest you go to the Dungeons and Dragons society on Tuesday in the Map room.

In Jacques’ world intelligent robots live alongside human society and the question of electronic consciousness is a live issue whereas it is not for us (yet). What we have instead are arguments about relative rights and protections of human intelligences based on sex, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, disability and so on and we are faced with the question of whether we can empathise with someone who is fundamentally different to us, whether we can understand each other well enough to discuss important issues meaningfully. This is a big question but if we answer yes then we are left with the even bigger challenge of doing so.

That the answer to that question might be “no” was not one I’d seriously considered the until conversations I had last week and I’d like to say thank you for making me think properly – scrupulously and critically – about this issue and I’d like to invite further discussion: stating my views in this public and one-sided forum does not mean that I consider the matter settled. The details of the discussions are not important to today’s assembly (although, of course, they are intensely important to the discussions themselves – Sir Peter Bottomley reminded us on Tuesday that the precise wording of a proposition is key to understanding the debate: we have to be scrupulous in our argument). What is important is that it is less obvious than I’d assumed that we can empathise with others very different from ourselves.

On Saturday I read an article in the Times – oh joy of an exeat – which made me think about how this question is both harder and more important than I’d thought. Janice Turner wrote about Brexit and how this apparently political issue has divided the country into two halves that seem unable to understand or empathise with each other. She was railing against the remainers who have taken to using Brexitty as a pejorative adjective as in “it’s a nasty little Brexitty town” but that there is such ill-will on both sides was confirmed by the Sunday morning radio in which Anna Soubry described the death threats she has received since being on the front page of the Daily Telegraph as a Brexit mutineer.

There are real differences between those who would like to stay in the EU and those who are glad we are leaving and this is an important national decision that seems likely to have a significant impact on all of our lives but the discussion has descended into ad-hominem attacks and abuse. It seems to me that it is quite reasonable to object to Spanish fishermen, having fished their own waters into sterility, subverting the Cornish fishing industries attempts to be sustainable. I think that you can argue that the economic differences between parts of the EU are too big for complete freedom of movement to be practical. You can’t just reject the assertion that the bureaucracy is inefficient and so ideological that David Cameron’s concerns were thrown out rather than considered. Thinking these things does not make you an idiot. Meanwhile there is evidence that increased freedom of trade tends to make countries richer and that sharing skills and resources of a wider pool of people could be good for productivity. It’s also not unreasonable to point out that we can’t close our eyes to differences in living standards across the continent or the question the process of making a vote on principle rather than detail (and we’re back to Peter Bottomley’s comment here). Asking these questions doesn’t make you an elitist snob blind to the issues of the real world.

These are discussions that should be the subject of scholarly debate, not mud-slinging but for that to happen scholars need to engage with each other, to acknowledge differences and to try to understand them but in the Brexit debate that ideal seems to have been lost. And, if we can’t empathise with people who are just the other side of a political argument how are we to make sense of the challenges faced by those whose genetics, choices and culture make their lives very different from our own? Perhaps we can’t but I won’t leave it there because if we can’t then we’re doomed to watch civilisation fail, doomed to stand on our own individual rocks waving sticks and shouting “You don’t understand me” at everyone else, because the bottom line is that every one of us is different – whatever our similarities – each one of us is an individual: if the Brexit debate tells us anything it’s that the ethnicity “White European” is about as much use for creating harmony as a chocolate teapot is for firing cannonballs.

The rain is falling but I remember people and places - I think we can empathise. I think I can understand a bit about what it’s like to be you and that you can understand a bit about what it’s like to be me and that when I get it wrong and when you get it wrong we can listen to each other and understand a bit more. To paraphrase Mr Vinge, the core of human interaction is that if I say that I feel something, and you say you feel something else then we agree to take each other’s word for it. The hopes I have – to misquote Freiheit – may be much too high, they may be out of reach but I really think that we have to try and actually I see so many of you trying – and succeeding every day.

The questions that you pose and discuss in your societies about gender, ethnicity and sexuality are hard questions: they are things that it’s difficult to have a rational discussion about but within our idiom of intellectual challenge, within our community of scholars where we expect to be challenged to be scrupulous about what we say and critical of our own biases we have a way of debating these things, of generating empathy and of reducing the hatred that comes from fear and ignorance. At open morning Annie got asked several times what the best thing about Harris Westminster is and her answer was that the best thing is the enormous variety of people here. The worst thing is the stairs, but the best thing is that opportunity to try to understand people who are culturally, physically, socially very different to yourself. It’s an amazing answer and I think she’s right. The game will never be over because we, you, the wonderful scholars of Harris Westminster are keeping the dream alive.