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Apr 15

2024

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Helen Whitten

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About a year ago I was listening to a programme on BBC Radio 4 where a teacher was being interviewed about discussing transgender with school pupils.  “We must be led by the pupils,” she said, and I thought hang on, that turns education on its head.  Surely it is usually teachers who lead pupils not vice versa, so why were the grown ups abdicating that role in this particular issue?

And now looking at what has been taught in schools and the whole “gender-affirming” policy that seems to have had little or no research behind it, this approach is all the more troubling.  Why were/are adults so loathe to have these conversations with children to explain that it is very few people indeed who feel they want to change sex – which has only been possible anyway in recent decades – and that even if they did go ahead and decide to do so they would risk becoming infertile and have to undertake painful surgery that could also render them unable to have an orgasm.  Indeed, that such a decision would likely be irreversible in any practical way.

Instead, countless adults, politicians, institutions, schools, universities and the NHS went headlong into affirming any child who was unsure about their gender, as if that child knew what it was talking about.  But of course a child doesn’t know anything much at all about sex, sexual attraction, or what relationships are like as they grow into adulthood.  It’s up to adults to help them to wait, to mature.  As Hadley Freeman wrote eloquently in The Sunday Times yesterday, 14 April, “teen life is scary” and young girls in particular have to deal with many physical and emotional changes and challenges.  The fact that girls seeking to transition ended up outnumbering boys by six to one should surely have waved many red flags for those responsible for supporting them? And now countless schoolchildren have been exposed to ideas that they could be the “wrong sex” and how will that impact them as they grow up?

And how is a child supposed to listen to the concept of “I was born in the wrong body” and make sense of it?  Why, indeed, has this concept become normalised?  When I was growing up there was no idea that your sex was a decision. You were born male or female, full stop. People are not, it seems, saying they feel they were born in the wrong skin colour, or if they do have issues around appearance or identity then in the main a therapist’s role is to help them accept that we are all different and all unique and valuable in different ways.

But importantly, where are the philosophical questions around this concept “I was born in the wrong body”?  Where are the religious leaders to analyse and discuss what is a mental model rather than a physical reality? Where are the conversations about soul and whether someone has a male or female soul or whether the idea is quite simply a psychological perception that someone might grow out of?  After all, the priests wade in when there is a conversation about abortion, suicide or assisted dying, raising spiritual points for people to consider. Unless I missed something, I believe they have been pretty silent on something that seems to me to impact mind, body and spirit. But most certainly life and how it is lived.

Where were the checks and balances?  Obviously sorely missing from the medical profession, the NHS and biological research.  Within seconds everyone was changing the language, deleting the word woman, mother, breastfeeding from medical literature that specifically related to women. Trans women were transferred to female prisons, where some women were assaulted. Rapists were called “she” when the act of rape requires a penis. And in business HR and DEI departments insisted that people use pronouns even when the majority of people thought it a nonsense as they had no questions about their identity. All to placate a small minority, who deserve to be protected but not at the expense of other’s rights and freedoms.

Any women who legitimately questioned this trend were immediately silenced with insults such as TERF, gender-critical, fascist, far right, as if this has anything to do with politics.  People lost their jobs, their mortgages, their friends, their reputations for “mis-speaking” in the terms of the trans-lobbyists.  Words, such as those by J K Rowling, were taken out of context. Others, like Milli Hill, fighting bravely to maintain the word woman and mother within maternity care rather than ovary-owners or some other nonsensical label, were cancelled with no recompense. So the real bullies were those who silenced others, who refused to have a proper debate.

It has been a kind of madness, has it not? Where children were given puberty-blockers or had healthy breasts or penises removed because of an idea that had not been properly researched? Where was the risk assessment that these young people deserved?  As adults, parents, teachers we know that children, especially teenagers, get confused about life, about sex and about maturing into adulthood.  They needed to be heard, yes, and of course the young will always have some new ideas from which we can all benefit, but in the main we adults are there to help them work out the risks, to converse and help them see different angles of a situation before they decide on something life-changing.

We have all become jibbering idiots within this conversation, terrified of saying the wrong thing, using the wrong pronoun. We have been the victims of ideological capture where people felt they could not even advise a child that it might be better to wait a few years before taking radical and mutilating options. Of course there will be a small number of children and adults who really do feel uncomfortable and it is imperative that they are supported but their mental health needs to be explored before blockers or surgery, surely. Not just deciding that because a girl likes Thomas the Tank Engine or climbing trees that they are probably a boy.  The examples given have been horrifyingly antiquated and stereotypical.  But I fear the lobbyists may want more children and adults to trans to make themselves feel better, to normalise the situation but this is cruel to those children, teenagers or young adults who may just be going through an unhappy or confused stage of their lives. Or are captured by a trend.

As J K Rowling wrote: “Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?” Or, I would add, inflict irreversible surgery and hormones on a vulnerable young person? No, surely not.

Let’s ensure that the Cass Report opens up the debate at last so that people can speak openly about a problem that is impacting countless people’s lives and freedom of speech. Let’s make sure that the medical profession does not again steam headlong into action before proper research has been carried out and let’s make sure that any person, young or old, who is questioning their gender is given all the information available before they go ahead.

Let’s wake up from this groupthink and make this a turning point where the adults, experts, doctors, teachers, HR professionals and politicians walk right back into the room and start protecting young people by speaking factually and honestly.

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I speak for myself but I think my generation are a bit confused by the burgeoning problem of mental health amongst the young.  We were brought up at a time when our parents had just been through the Second World War and our grandparents had been through two wars.  Our everyday concerns probably seemed thoroughly petty in comparison. If we were shy before a social event or anxious before exams there was pretty much an attitude of ‘so what, that’s pretty normal, just get on with it.’  The concept of not feeling safe because someone didn’t agree with your opinion on something, or the idea that a teacher should give us a trigger warning before we read Macbeth, King Lear or even Of Mice and Men would have confounded us.

But that is not to say I don’t feel compassion for those who are experiencing these concerns, for who is to measure one person’s anxiety or depression against another’s?  Surely these things are hard to measure in a really scientific way. They are emotions that are experienced subjectively so it is perfectly possible that younger generations are experiencing heightened emotions. Professor Jonathan Haidt, whose books The Coddling of the American Mind and The Righteous Mind I would urge you to read, is putting this down to Social Media.  I haven’t yet read his new book The Anxious Generation but I understand he has studied the impact of social media in great depth and is recommending that children are not given a smart phone before the age of sixteen, unless for medical purposes. This is because the endless competition can be damaging to self-esteem and he also argues that the intensity of interaction with a phone is reducing a young person’s ability to communicate, socialise, play, or learn to take risks.

I’m not convinced that there is more to worry about now than there was in our youth.  We faced potential extinction through nuclear war with the Cuban Missile Crisis and were given ridiculously inadequate advice about hiding in the cupboard under the stairs (like that would save us!).  But there was a more optimistic energy in the air.  The lifestyle in the 1950s was thoroughly basic but all of a sudden there was Elvis and then, as the 60s arrived, the Beatles and the whole pop and fashion scene that gave us teenagers a distraction from real life and actually boosted the economy too.  There was that essential ingredient to life – hope. And there wasn’t social media, nor were there any 24/7 misery-news channels. We got outside and chatted and played and most certainly took some risks.

So what do we do about a large group of the younger generation lacking the resilience to manage life’s challenges?  I fear we have not helped them to understand that life is tough.  Perhaps they have seen too many photoshopped images of people looking amazing and happy and successful and feel inadquate.  Companies report that the younger generations are entering the workplace expecting to go into senior roles, unhappy if asked to do the photocopying or make the coffee.  I guess we had been raised to expect less.  Certainly we women had been, and we had to fight to get taken seriously. But expectations have to be set within a context – go for an optimistic outcome but accept that things may not work out the way you want –  “I would rather my TikTok post gets lots of likes but I can manage it if it doesn’t,” or “I would rather I get this job but I can manage it if I don’t” style of thinking.  This way your emotions won’t fall off the edge of the cliff if you don’t achieve your goal but you are going for the goal nonetheless.

But we also have to give people hope, remind them that history unfolds in patterns and what seems hopeless one moment can be replaced with good news in the next. I think what may have been missing from the message in the self-help literature of recent decades is that success doesn’t happen in a vacuum overnight, it generally comes from working very hard and it’s only the very lucky few who have any kind of overnight success.  But of course now one gets 13 year old influencers who are making pots of money on TikTok and I am certainly confused by that as I personally don’t think we know anything much about life until we’re over 40.  But no doubt I wouldn’t have believed you if you had told me that earlier in my life!

So how do we address this problem of mental health?  Well, as I have written before, it is good that the conversation is out there but it seems to me that we are over-pathologizing some of these cases and forgetting that teenagers always have trends and, as emotions are infectious, if one is feeling something then it’s more likely that two, three, four, ten, or a hundred will feel it quickly too.  Look at my generation screaming at the Beatles – that hadn’t happened before but it soon became the way girls behaved at concerts, just as the heavy mascara, short skirts, pvc macs and the rest became a fad.  We have to be careful not to pathologize a whole generation but to be able to spot those who really are suffering or require a specific diagnosis.  When I read that GPs have given out 500,000 prescriptions for anti-depressants I question whether they have had time to explore the symptoms adequately in their ten-minute appointments, or whether they have pointed the young person to lifeskills or, indeed, philosophy as an option.

For Cognitive-Behavioural approaches were based on the Greek philosophers and I am a great believer that philosophy can indeed give us consolation.  My father gave me some philosophy books when I was a teenager that helped me think about myself and my responses to life.  That’s not to say I didn’t get a lot wrong, certainly was shy in particular situations then and now, and got and still get anxious before exams, interviews or presentations as this is pretty normal stuff, but I had some mental tools to overcome those feelings so that they didn’t capsize me.  We can talk our anxiety up or create self-talk that boosts our confidence and sense of calm in a realistic yet optimistic way. Thinking is key.

Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living”, suggesting that we should spend some time in reflection and self-observation.  In this we can learn to accept that we are each unique mentally, emotionally and physically and that we can respect ourselves and others in the right to have different responses and opinions to situations. We can learn to focus on what is joyful and what we can be grateful for, but not shy away from the difficult emotions such as anxiety, sorrow, jealousy, resentment for these are part of the human condition and feeling them can ultimately make us stronger.  But there is a point where any one of these can, indeed, become a problem that requires psychological support should they overwhelm on a longer-term basis.

We all get into habits of thinking. We can get into the habit of being pessimistic or seeing the world from the perspective of the glass half-empty but equally the brain is plastic and, just as we can learn a language, manage a new mobile, or how to control a new software programme, we can also learn new ways of thinking that bolster our resilience and mood. A useful one is to question whether one’s thought is logical, whether others might respond differently – which opens up lateral ways of approaching a problem – or whether one’s thought is actually helping one manage the situation one faces.  If not – change the thought! This will change the emotion and therefore the action one chooses to take.

I hope these younger generations will develop the skills to manage life more easily and I would suggest that reading philosophy can be helpful. So I shall finish this article with some words from the philosopher Epictetus about not shying away from difficult situations: “The greater the difficulty the more glory in surmounting it. Skilful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.”

Books on cognitive-behavioural approaches

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Mar 04

2024

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Helen Whitten

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Can you imagine what it was like to live under Nazi occupation? To have every word and action observed by a hostile enemy with their own ideas of what is right and what is wrong?  To be unable to be sure what might happen tomorrow, whether the business one has built up with such love and hard work will continue to exist? Whether one’s loved ones are safe or not?

This is being brought home to me as I watch Apple’s excellent series The New Look, set during the German occupation of Paris, from June 1940-August 1944.  The main players in the series so far (I’m on episode 4), are Coco Chanel and Christian Dior, uprooted from their very sophisticated and luxurious lifestyles, their alliances challenged, the betrayals, large and small, pulling them in one direction or another.

It makes me think about Eastern Ukraine and what the Ukrainians are fighting for and what other European countries should be seriously preparing for in terms of protecting their ways of life from Putin’s ambitions. We have become complacent.  We thought that war was a thing of the past, that the human race had reached a point beyond violence, a point where we discussed things rather than fought with armies for territory, religion or ideology.  We were wrong and we need to wake up to the fact that we have to pull together against a bully like Putin.

It is over eighty years since the UK was under threat from invasion in World War II, nearly 400 years since our civil war, some 900+ years since the Norman Invasion. We had thought ourselves safe on our island, the sea and our fleet protecting us.  But we are less likely to be protected from cyber or drone attack.  Do we have the metal to defend ourselves, I wondered, as I watched how the citizens of Paris divided into those who joined the Resistance, those in denial, those who collaborated with the Nazis.

We cannot know how we would respond in such dire circumstances. We cannot know if we would betray a friend or colleague’s name were we to be tortured.  We cannot know if we would take the last loaf even if our nextdoor neighbour’s child was elbowing us in the queue.  As Christian Dior says in this series “war is chaos. All you think about is survival.”

I hope we never have to experience these situations.  Hope with all my heart that we don’t, but my parents and grandparents generations had to fight for what they believed in and I was reflecting that the one way we can empathise with them and with the Ukrainians who are having to live at the end of the barrel of a gun, is to really consider and identify what it is we care about.  Would we fight for our home, our religion, our justice system, our values, for our way of life, even if we are not naturally British by blood but live here? Would we fight for our country and its values and freedoms?  What is it that you value and care about here?

It’s not such a crazy thought – we know Putin will not stop if he wins over Ukraine and he has many more troops than we do, for sure. As I cover in my novel No Lemons in Moscow the West thought that Russia in the 1990s was turning towards us yet how wrong we were. And, as Alexei Navalny’s widow is pointing out today, how little successive governments have done to complain about what happened to Navalny or to Vladimir Kara-Murza when they were locked up, or, indeed, to stop the stream of Russians who set up homes here to protect their money – as my character, Eve, in the novel benefits from as an interior designer.  Look at Iran, it was a country where women were free to uncover their hair until the Ayatollah came into power.  Someone was talking on the radio this morning about living in North Korea where everything one says or does is monitored and there are no freedoms. Technology makes this all the more possible.

I was joking with some friends the other day that it will be “Dad’s/Grandparents’ Army” who go out to fight if we are ever under threat as it seems that younger generations are struggling with their mental health and find simply being in a room with someone who says something they don’t like can set off a panic attack.  I am not without compassion – I have panic attacks too in certain circumstances and we need to equip these young people with the skills and resilience tools to manage life more easily.  But right now I can’t see them putting themselves forward to protect our country should the need arise, in the way our grandfathers did.

In order to make ourselves stronger in the face of the Putins and bullies of the world we need to identify what it is we care about in this country – is it freedom of speech, public libraries, state schools, the NHS, cricket, our democracy, our justice system, our welfare system, our creativity, our entrepreneurs, our neighbours, our homes, our gentle countryside, our pubs, our sport, our churches and religious buildings, our diversity, our music, our art, our national treasures, our constitutional monarchy, our access to incredible theatre, ballet, concerts, castles, museums, city parks, the freedom our girls and women have to excel and contribute to our society, our acceptance of differences of many kinds?  Remember, nowhere else is perfect, every country has some racism, some prejudice, some poverty and inequality, so don’t underestimate these things because what you don’t notice you can lose.  It does help to read more about other countries in order to get the context and perspective of what we enjoy here.

Watch The New Look on Apple if you can, or read Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise or other books to see how quickly life can change – look at how Eastern Ukraine and the world was surprised by Putin’s army despite the warning flags.  Start to consider what you value about this country because there’s nothing that Putin likes better than that we are weak and divided. Let’s not give him the satisfaction of achieving such division.

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Feb 17

2024

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Helen Whitten

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Alexei Navalny died yesterday fighting for democracy. We must fight for ours too and not take it for granted.  Reports show that the younger generation want a ‘strong leader’.  Well, I hope the death of Navalny opens their eyes to what happens when you get a strong leader: you lose free speech, and can be imprisoned or assassinated if you speak up against a President, their government, or the unjust wars they embark upon.

There have been attempts over the last decade to divide us and weaken our Western societies.  I have written about this before and suspect Russian bots are responsible for much of the propaganda that questions or attacks Western values.  It certainly suits Putin and our other enemies to undermine the belief we have in our society and, ultimately, in democracy.  Without cohesion we leave ourselves vulnerable.

So isn’t it time for our own political leaders to speak up more vociferously for the benefits of Western values? Isn’t it time they contrasted the freedoms we have here with the restrictions that people face in Russia, China, North Korea, the Middle East and elsewhere?  Isn’t it time they demonstrated to younger voters that they would not be able to march on the streets, drink, dance or be gay in quite a large number of other countries? Isn’t it time they woke young women here up to the amazing freedoms they have in the West that they do not have in other places?  In fact isn’t it time for them to re-emphasize how fortunate we are living here because if we rubbish our own ways of life we weaken ourselves and, believe me, we would not wish to live under a Putin-like regime!

But our political leaders are not doing a great job of standing up for our way of life.  They flip and flop and apologise and insinuate that life is worse today than it has ever been – take people back only a few years and they might realize that life was appallingly difficult for the majority of people in previous centuries so let’s celebrate what we have, where we have got to now.  Yes, of course there are difficulties and challenges but the poverty and hardship of only a century ago in our own country was real before the welfare state, before equal rights and the incredible developments of science, technology, medicine. We have come to take our freedoms and rights for granted and forget that to uphold our democracy we must also accept that rights come with responsibilities towards our society and that includes voting.  But I foresee electoral turnout as being a major problem in the next election.

I am not alone among my friends in feeling totally disenfranchised. Recent by-elections showed that people did not turn out in their droves to vote. Unless Sunak, Starmer and Davey (for a moment I couldn’t even remember his name!) tell us what they really stand for they will weaken our democracy.  People are turning away from the Conservatives but the worse part is that they are not sure who to vote for and I don’t blame them.  We are unsure whether either Sunak or Starmer are actually capable of leading because leadership means giving people a vision and a vision needs to be achievable and based on principles that can be understood by the electorate.  We need to know that Starmer can control his far-left faction and Sunak his far-right faction.  At the moment I am not convinced that either of them can and I really don’t know what Davey stands for. And so, in these gaps, Reform did quite well in Wellingborough…

Whichever party gets into power will have the same challenges to face and these are similar to the challenges being faced in other countries, such as an ageing demography, health services under strain etc.  We must value what we already have if we are to protect it and build on it further to improve life even more.  Life is tough now with the cost of living but it isn’t just tough in the UK – read about life elsewhere, even in Europe and the USA, to make comparisons before becoming so critical or complacent that we lose what we have.

The winning party will need us to play our part in remedying these issues and it may not be comfortable but I, for one, would prefer they treat us like grownups and are honest about (a) the problems we face and (b) how they intend to tackle them. No empty promises or magic money trees.

Democracy is flawed, as is every kind of political government, but it is the best we have.  Navalny died fighting for it.  He was extraordinarily courageous to do this when he knew he risked his life to stand up for what he believed in, including his fight against corruption. So far in this country we would not be assassinated for speaking up against our leaders but we are already seeing people cancelled and losing their jobs for speaking up for principles or facts they believe in.  Antisemitism is on the rise.and surely it is unacceptable to blame schoolchildren living here for the perceived sins of their leaders. Protest but do so in a fair and peaceful way as bullying crowds are making our politicians’ lives so unpleasant that people are starting to turn away from being MPs.  And we need our elected representatives in order to function as a democracy. 

Anyone who has lived under a regime where they are not allowed to vote, or where they know that their vote is pointless will tell you this: a vote is a precious right. Let’s be responsible enough to value it. Let’s stand up for what we have built, for free speech and for democracy and ensure we get off our sofas and vote when the time comes.

I just hope that by the time of the next election our political leaders have shown us clearly where they want to take our country and specifically how they plan to do so, so that we feel motivated to get down to the polling booth when that time comes.

RIP Alexei Navalny

A friend has just pointed out that I should mention that the way Russia relates to democracy is one of the themes of my novel No Lemons in Moscow …  just in case you’re interested!

 

 

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When I was writing my novel, No Lemons in Moscow, it was in the midst of the tragic scandal of the Shrewsbury and Telford NHS Trust’s record on maternity services.  I used the research to form one of the themes of the book as the protagonist, Kate, has lost a baby son due to lack of care during his birth. Last week we read of similar tragedies occurring in Gloucestershire NHS Trust.  Before that, in 2015, it was Morecombe Bay and the regulator was reported as saying that most maternity units were not “safe enough”.  How many more years will it be before real action is taken to protect mothers and babies?

I hear doctors talk of birth as a “natural process” as if they didn’t really have to think about it further, despite the fact that for centuries women and babies have died in this “natural process”.  In addition women with problems such as endometriosis or fibroids are fobbed off for years as their GPs don’t take the conditions seriously, yet these symptoms cause pain and prevent a woman enjoying quality of life.  I read this week that only 2% of the NHS budget is allocated to such problems but we are talking of our future generations at a period when our birth rate is falling, so isn’t it time to take more action?

But a death, whether a miscarriage, stillbirth, or a child who only lives for a short time, is something you never fully get over.  You adapt and get on with life, because that is what you have to do, but that child, or would-have-been child, stays with you for life. We lost our son of a cot death at nine weeks and thinking about him nearly 48 years later can still bring tears to my eyes. And it impacts the parents’ relationship too.  I weave into my novel the fact that men and women, fathers and mothers, may grieve differently and this may draw them together but can, also, push them apart. I have no statistics on same sex parenting, but the misunderstandings of response could still play its part in how they relate after death or disability.

So why can’t midwives, doctors, consultants, nurses and managers get their acts together in these NHS Trusts and work as a team to solve the problems? Can they not put aside their cultural differences, their power struggles, their defence systems, to put the lives of mother and baby first? For it isn’t always the child who dies. There have been too many cases of mothers dying too, which is a loss for their partner and may well deprive other children of a mother.

I believe I was fortunate in the maternity care I received in that I had an excellent consultant, though there was pressure from the NCT to have a natural childbirth, so I felt like a failure in some ways when I was rushed to the operating theatre for a Caesarean section. But my child was healthy so what matters more, the statistics of a natural birth for a hospital or a live baby?  We were encouraged to breastfeed but the nurse in the hospital where I had my first son was really bitchy when I found this difficult, despite the surgery inevitably making this more complicated.

I believe most women simply ask for compassionate and supportive competence.  They don’t want ideology. They don’t want a midwife who is loathe to refer the case up to a consultant and they don’t want a consultant who shrugs off the fact that a mother senses something is wrong. It is such a vulnerable time. You are absolutely dependent on those around you.  You don’t want a nurse to fob off the fact that you can’t hear a heartbeat by saying something like “the baby is probably sleeping”, which is a case I have heard.  You don’t want to be left alone unable to move, with no one coming to your aid. You want to feel held by your consultant, nurses, midwives and the system itself. Yet the admin of the NHS is appalling so notes get lost or previous history not passed on.

When our first son died my consultant decided he would take no risks and give me Caesareans for my next two sons.  I wasn’t “too posh to push” as the media seem to love to scream.  I just wanted a healthy baby, having obviously run into difficulty with my first, though the cot death was nothing to do with his birth.

In my novel I am able to write about such things and enable Kate to set up a charity in memory of her dead son.  I read this week that novelists can be egotists because by writing about things they can control them. So yes, in my novel, I am able to ensure that Kate’s charity is successful, that she creates a maternity home where women are treated with care and respect and competent medical treatment.  It is my dream, too, as I have watched the younger generation of mothers receive such poor care and lack of continuity that I have wished to make a fortune in order that I could leave behind me a maternity home such as the one I describe in my novel.  On paper I can do it, of course! And sure, that is a nice feeling, to bring my dream alive even if only in a book.

Surely now, after all these tragic cases, the consultants can pull together their teams to work together to make the changes necessary to put the safety and health of mothers and babies first?  Please?

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It’s a long time now since I did my history degree at King’s London but I have been thinking about Hegel often over the last few years.  In particular his theory of thesis, antithesis, synthesis with its message that in order to hone the best ideas, perceptions and solutions one needs to have one’s theories tested through conflict, through listening and considering another or the opposite perspective.   Through this, one can develop the best synthesis of a solution, sometimes referred to as the “becoming”, or a moving forward that unifies, casting off that which is no longer useful.

He felt, if my memory serves me right, that this process, whether in state institutions or individuals, would result in the continuing enlightenment and development of humankind and how we live, through the combination of individual freedom of thought and government.  His term was ‘a community of individuals’. Therefore individuals who thought independently but nonetheless felt themselves to be a community.  Sadly I think he might be disappointed in our current situation of polarity and division where our sense of community appears to be under attack.

However much we have in common on a human basis we seem always to find ways to divide ourselves. Whether it is Brexit, Ukraine, gender, race, religion, empire, Trump or the Middle East, the reality is that groups have moved so far into their ‘tribe’ that they accuse everyone else of being wrong.  And not only wrong but also potentially stupid, ignorant, bigoted, racist, transphobe, fascist or any other unpleasant label that can be attached to justify their own point of view and shut the others up. So the result is that people just refuse to listen to any opposing arguments put before them, however much they are based in fact or historical context.

For what I am seeing and experiencing is that people don’t want to have their minds changed. They are often hesitant to have these conversations with friends or family in case it leads to conflict and equally are not willing to accept that they might have got some things wrong or put a bet on the wrong horse. It takes maturity and confidence to listen and learn and not get defensive or aggressive.

Watching interviews of those on recent marches it was distressing to observe how ignorant people were even of the banner headlines they were carrying, not understanding what ‘from the river to the sea’ or ‘social intifada’ means and having no initiative as to how a ceasefire or peace might be achieved. Watch:

It doesn’t help that the social media platform algorithms are set up to bombard us with posts that simply reinforce our own already biased perspective.  Surely X, Facebook, TikTok and others could learn from this dysfunctional situation and throw in the occasional post that is totally opposite to what the person usually ‘likes’?  It can’t be beyond the means of these IT experts to start to do this now.  If not, we are simply going to end up in increasingly polarised little echo chambers.

Another polarising factor is that there is a cynicism about the main media these days.  The BBC, ITV, CNN are all accused of being biased in one way or another or of giving erroneous reports.  So people go to the internet, to smaller providers and it ends up that masses of people are developing their own ‘truth’.  Quite possibly this is also because with 24/7 news channels we have the whole globe to cover and the complexities are enormous so it is inevitable that however hard the main media stations try they will never be able to cover it all.  I, for one, am interested by how much news I pick up on Twitter/X that is never covered on the BBC.

And this is leading to conspiracy theories because with Deep Fake and other faked videos one can’t necessarily believe anything one sees.  This is incredibly dangerous, I think, because we are having our minds totally confused by one propaganda source or another, such as the idea that October 7 never happened, or that the Israeli Government allied with Hamas rebels to make it happen, or to questioning whether any of the footage coming out of Gaza or Israel is true or simply concocted as part of this propaganda war.  I personally learnt a lot about the context of this war from Norma Perry’s insightful series The Fifty Years War on BBC Iplayer where she interviews all players with a view to not taking sides but to demonstrating the context of so many years of upheaval.

What gets forgotten in all these arguments is that there is more that we have in common than these disagreements. For we are a community of individuals but also of families, of friends, work colleagues, villages, counties, states, neighbours.  We may have differing political viewpoints but ultimately the majority of people want to live a peaceful life where they can bring up their children in safe surroundings and earn a decent living. Whether you are an Israeli or Palestinian most of their citizens want a simple life that reflects this goal – as do those who are marching for one cause or another.  They are, in the end, all marching for peace and for the end of the suffering of little children and private citizens. Well, I say ‘all’ but of course it isn’t all as some people do want intifada or wars of one kind or another – religion, class, race, gender – but I posit that the majority of us don’t.

Whether you vote Labour or Conservative, ultimately all parties aim to provide good education and an efficient health service.  Where they differ is in how they reach these goals but the ultimate goals are often the same. I’m not saying these differences of political perspective and approach don’t matter.  Of course they do. I’m just suggesting that they don’t have to polarise us in the way they do. It doesn’t have to be a war.  We can listen and learn from other opinions rather than block our ears to them because if we don’t remain curious to other perspectives we will surely never achieve that synthesis of which Hegel wrote.

To solve world problems, or, for that matter, any problems, we must define them accurately. Then we can develop a potential solution, the thesis.  From here, we can really benefit from opening our minds to the opposite conclusions, the antithesis.  As Einstein said “We cannot solve a problem from the same state of mind in which it was created”. Within this process we have the possibility of checking our original premise and of learning to look at things differently.

The problems we have in the world today require new thinking, in my view. We need creativity to solve what we face and we need to realize that the majority of us are on the same side, seeking peace, humanity, civilisation.  So we need to put on our problem-solving hats and work together, listen and discuss options, imagine a different world, develop lateral perspectives through collaborative debate, brainstorming and negotiation. This must be our best option.  We have, as human beings, the capacity to do this.  Can we create the will to do so?

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