Dogma, in religions and other places

Most people are familiar with the dogmas promoted by powerful religious institutions such as the Roman Catholic church, evangelical protestant churches and some branches of Islam. The institutions claim they have sole possession of the truth, direct from God, and that anybody that does not agree is a heretic, someone to be avoided, and who may be punished.

Dogmatism is annoying, anti-social and causes a great deal of misery, both for people growing up under the power of the institution proclaiming the dogma and for some of those that interact with them.

It’s also pretty well recognised. One need only mention religious dogma and heads start to nod. People know what you’re talking about.

Despite the negative connotations the word has for most people, the leadership of the RC church does not object to the term and still uses it as a core part of its teachings. They invented the term, and use it without shame to describe propositions that the church says RCs are obliged to believe. When I was an RC I never thought to ask what happens if one does not believe a dogma. It seemed too impertinent. But now when I research it, the answer that appears fairly consistently across different RC sources is that it is not a sin to disbelieve the dogma, as long as you don’t say so aloud, because that might encourage somebody else to disbelieve it. That would be heresy, which is a grave sin, punishable by an eternity in hellfire. A few centuries ago, the punishment was lighter – a mere burning at the stake.

Although the RC church invented the word ‘dogma’, it is not the only institution to proclaim dogmas. There are plenty of dogmas in evangelical protestantism, and some variants of Islam are heavily dogmatic. Perhaps non-RCs would reject the application of the word ‘dogma’ to their essential beliefs, given the pejorative sense in which the word is mostly used these days. But it would be hard to argue that concepts such as ‘biblical inerrancy’ or ‘justification by faith alone’ are not dogmas for some protestant sects.
It would be a mistake to equate dogma with religion, because most religions are not dogmatic. It is just our misfortune that the three most dominant religions of our world: Roman Catholicism, Evangelical Protestantism and Islam have many adherents that assert an obligation to believe the relevant dogmas.

I am not aware of any pre-Christian religion that had obligatory beliefs. Judaism had many rules, but they were about practices, not beliefs. Even for worship, the injunction was to not worship other gods, or idols in particular. As long as you didn’t bow down or offer sacrifices to golden calves or statues of Ba’al, it didn’t matter whether, in the privacy of your own thoughts, you really believed Yahweh was the greatest god. In fact the Torah says nothing at all about obligatory beliefs, so far as I recall. Other pre-Christian religions, like Buddhism, the many variants of Hinduism, Mithraism, Zoroastrianism and the ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian religions also appear to set no expectations about their members’ beliefs.

Dogmas appear in places other than religions. Just as some protestants, while abjuring RC dogmas like the Immaculate Conception or Trans-substantiation, insist on their own dogmas, people who are opposed to all religions – the so-called New Atheists – can be as dogmatic as those they criticise. Classic New Atheist dogmas are things like ‘it is wrong to believe anything that cannot be proven to be true’, or ‘for all questions and human challenges, science is the best means to an answer’. For some militant atheists it even seems to be an item of faith that adherence to any religious belief at all must be a sign of stupidity. I know these dogmas because for a while I was a born-again atheist and subscribed to them. I used to listen to podcasts of debates between Christians and atheists about whether God exists, cheering on my side and hoping for the unconditional surrender of the other. Looking back, it seems such an odd thing to do. Neither the debaters nor their supporters in the audience ever changed their views one iota. Each side had their dogmas and stuck steadfastly to them. They may as well have both been shouting into the wind. But really I suppose they were just playing to their supporters. I believe such debates can never get anywhere because it is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of a god, and any attempt to do either relies on presuppositions – usually unstated –  that one side will accept and the other will not.

I have not completely forsaken atheism. I am still atheist on Mondays and alternate Wednesdays. But I have forsaken the dogmatism that accompanies the more aggressive variants of atheism.

Dogmas manifest in wider circles than the theological and anti-theological. Other areas where they crop up are philosophy, politics, economics, psychology and sociology. People debate whether there is such a thing as objective morality, whether equality is more important than liberty, whether wealth really does ‘trickle down’ in a capitalist society, and whether most psychological disorders can be traced back to early childhood experience. Debates between evangelical christians and militant atheists seem mild and friendly compared to the vicious passions unleashed in a debate between a Berkeleyan Idealist and a Materialist acolyte of GE Moore about whether a tree that falls in a forest makes a noise if there is nobody there to hear it.

I’m not suggesting that none of those things matter. It matters very much what political and economic theories are adopted by governments. They affect many people’s lives. Even some sorts of philosophy have huge effects. One can trace the roots of many important social movements to the ideas raised by philosophers, such as the influence of Enlightenment philosophers on the American and French revolutions. It’s hard to see how the ‘actual existence’ or otherwise of impossibly distant galaxies could affect our lives, but other similarly meaningless topics, such as whether the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son, or just from the Father, have led to wars, the rise and fall of empires and many burnings of people that had the misfortune of siding with the wrong opinion.

The common element of dogmatic claims is not their capacity or otherwise to affect our lives, it is their total immunity to proof, disproof, or experimental testing of any kind.

There is no dogma about the law of gravity, no dogma of quantum mechanics or a doctrine of the periodic table. A good biology teacher will not demand that her class believe that cells of mammals have a nucleus containing bundles of DNA and little packets of RNA. A good mathematics teacher will not demand that the class believe that the method being taught for long division works. The teacher is saying: “Here is a method, or an approach to understanding something. Most people find it useful in getting important things done“. The teacher could add – but generally doesn’t bother – “If you don’t like what I’m teaching and want to go and invent your own method of long division (or theory of the elements), be my guest! I’ll still be here to help you learn this method if you change your mind.

It is both ironic and predictable that the claims about which we humans get most dogmatic are those about which it is least possible to be certain. When there is a high level of certainty – as with Newton’s Laws of Motion – there is no need for dogmatism. You can take it or leave it. More fool you if you leave it. But when there is little to no certainty available, as with doctrines of neo-liberal economics (or, to be fair, Marxist economics), doctrines of the nature of the Holy Ghost, or proofs and disproofs of the existence of god(s), people generally ramp up the dogmatism and turn the volume to eleven. They use dogma and noise to make up for their lack of confidence and inability to provide any concrete evidence for the proposition.

This has led to my strongest philosophical position being anti-dogmatism. No matter what proposition somebody makes, be it about religion, ontology, economics or politics, and regardless of whether I sympathise with the belief being promoted or not, I now instinctively react against it and look to debunk it, if it is made dogmatically. That doesn’t mean I don’t hold any opinions on those topics. I have loads. Some of them – mostly the political ones – I hold very strongly and am prepared to march the streets, donate to a cause and publicly argue to try to persuade people over. But I hope I never get to the stage of believing that I am unquestionably right about something and that those who disagree are unquestionably wrong. That seems a poor way to live. I have sometimes been like that in the past, but I think I am not now and hope I won’t be again. For me, unquestioningly accepting a dogma is the coward’s excuse for not thinking for oneself.

That is my opinion, which I acknowledge may be mistaken.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, April 2019


Getting Ready

I was watching the BBC dramatisation of Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’. It was the execution of Ann Boleyn – a grim scene. She was determined to see it through bravely, despite clearly being terrified. Her chin and cheeks were shivering uncontrollably, the poor lass. She had been a thoroughly dislikeable character throughout the series, but nevertheless one felt overpowering empathy for her in this cruel moment.

Apart from the fear, what struck me was how prolonged the process was. She had to climb steps up to the scaffold, receive a blessing from the vicar, say goodbye to her ladies-in-waiting, kneel at the block, have the blindfold fitted – and on it went. Did the prolonged process make it more, or less bearable? I don’t know. But serious, frightening processes more often than not take a long time.

Many years ago I went through a short period of being afraid of flying. I don’t know where it came from. For the rest of my life, before and after that time, I have enjoyed flying tremendously, except for the excruciatingly long, boring flights between Australia and Europe. But at that time, I was afraid of dying in a crash, and I dreaded the takeoff.

It took so long to get ready for takeoff, it seemed as though it would never happen – in which case there was theoretically nothing to fear. First you had to get to the airport. That took a while. Then you had to wait in a queue to check-in (no internet check-ins or touch-screen check-in kiosks in those days). Then you had to line up for the security checks. They weren’t quite as bad then as in these paranoid times. The main thing airline operators were worried about was planes dropping out of the sky because their computers broke with the Y2K bug – not something you can prevent by checking people’s baggage.

Then you had to go to the gate and wait for the flight to be called. Once it was called you had to wait in a queue to board. Once you were on board it was still slow going to get to your seat and get settled in. Then you had to wait for everybody else to be seated, all the pre-flight checks to be completed, the safety drills and announcements. Next, the pushback, the reversing. Then you had to wait what seemed forever while the plane pusher detached and the aeroplane prepared to move forward under its own power. Then the taxiing, which seemed to take forever. Finally the wait to move onto the runway, with sometimes as many as three or four planes in front.

Once we were on the runway, the process accelerated rapidly. We adopted the take-off position, facing down the runway from dead in the middle. I presume the pilots just did a few last-minute checks: flaps out, auto-brakes on, runway lights on. After no more than ten seconds for this they suddenly went VRRRROOOOOOOMMM and we were all slung back in our seats as the behemoth charged down the runway and hurled itself into the air.

It may have been only ten to fifteen minutes from boarding to take-off, but it seemed like an eternity. Even sitting in my seat and watching the safety drill, the take-off seemed so far-off and unreal that it was silly to worry about it.

Yet, somehow, it finally happened.

It wasn’t the take-off I was afraid of though. It was cruising so high up in the air. I just felt that at any moment we would start to drop like a stone. Little did I know that take-off is the most dangerous time in a flight, because power is at a maximum and speeds are higher than at landing. Or that jets can glide an awfully long way without engine power, and landing with no engines is a drill regularly performed by pilots in simulators. At any point in a flight the pilots will always know where is the nearest airport at which they can land.

There are so many things that are a bit, or a lot, frightening. Some of them take a long time to get ready for.

In my early thirties, I was unwell and had to have a bone marrow biopsy. I had been told they were painful. I went to the hospital on my own, had the biopsy and came home again. I remember it vaguely as being painful and frightening, but there are no details. I do remember that it took a long time to get ready. I don’t know whether the awfulness of it that I remember was the pain of the extraction itself or the anxiety of waiting during the preparation – curled up on my side while people in gowns did things to my back to prepare (I think they take it from one side or other of the pelvic bone – near the sacro-iliac joint, with a huge syringe).

More mundane events, that are not frightening at all, sometimes seem to take a long time to get ready for. Going to work and coming home from work are two of these. I am habitually late in leaving for work and late in leaving for home – at least since my children grew up. When they were little and we had a nanny that had to be relieved at a quarter to six I was out the door like a shot at the same time every day. But these days, with the kids all grown up, I dither about doing other things at both ends of the day, and am regularly late in commencing my journey. When I finally make a move to do so, I am constantly surprised at how long it takes me to get out of the door. Both leaving and arriving at work I change clothes in the change room, and I wonder at the large number of steps there are in that process. I feel a bit impatient in either direction – to get to my desk and start writing, or to get on my bike and start pedalling home. It is an opportunity to practice trying to be zen – something I am so pathetically bad at. I try to absorb myself in the intricate details of each movement – tying my shoelaces, putting on my reflective ankle bands, putting my work shoes back in my locker, etc, etc , etc. It works a bit to dissipate my impatience, but I’ve a long way to go before I have a black belt and can levitate or put myself in hibernation.

Some things are almost immediate, like scratching one’s nose or whistling a tune that is stuck in one’s head. But for many things, it takes a long time to get ready. Sometimes that seems a good thing, and sometimes it’s an annoyance.

Andrew Kirk


Bondi Junction, February 2019

Thoughts about Death

I am on a coach that has just left Sydney, travelling towards the town where my parents live. I might say where my father lives, because I am travelling there to attend the funeral of my mother.

My mother died of a combination of advanced dementia and dehydration, as she had reached a point where she would not or could not take anything orally any more, be it medicine, food or water. Whether it was would or could, we did not know, because her brain had deteriorated to a state in which she was mostly unable to communicate. Dementia is a cruel illness. We know that, if she could have formed and expressed coherent wishes in her last months, she would have asked for assistance to end her life peacefully, because her advanced care directive states that in very clear terms. But our government, like many, is cruel – with heartless rules that forbid any such mercy, kept in place by theocratic politicians wishing to force their own dogmatic religious rules on others, and medical lobbyists who have been trained to, and train others to, see every patient death as a black mark on their career scoresheet, regardless of how much it might be wished, or how great the harm that is done to the person by prolonging their life, or the fullness of the life they have behind them.

But let us speak no more of policy at this time. My mother is now at rest, beyond the possibility of further harm from patriarchal, preaching politicians or scorekeeping medical lobbyists. For that I am thankful. Her last few days were peaceful, a contrast to her torment and confusion of the last few years. She finally came to a calm, dignified stop in silence, with no struggle. Keats’ wonderful phrase ‘to cease upon a midnight with no pain’ seems so apt, except that it was shortly after lunchtime. I was not there at the end, having had to leave her bedside to return to Sydney two days before her death. But three of Mum’s immediate family were there and were able to tell the rest of us how it went.

What moved me to start writing this note was looking out of the bus window, at the deep blue sky, an overpass soaring majestically over our road (yes, overpasses can soar, it is not compulsory to view them as ugly!), the bright-coloured lorries and cars, and the restful forests ahead. The thought presented itself to me that, though I am going to the funeral of my much-loved mother, life goes on and is full of beauty and sometimes even flashes of joy. She would be glad that I am appreciating the beauty of the day, feeling comfortable and content, at least at this moment, if not always.

Almost instantly I felt transported to the consciousness of somebody, a son or daughter, or a friend, travelling to my funeral, at some time in the future, and experiencing similar feelings. Yes, life will go on after I die and, there will be beauty, purpose and occasional joys for those that survive me.

And so it will continue, to the end of this world. But even then, it will not matter that this world has ended, because there will no doubt be other worlds orbiting other suns, some maybe even in other universes.

These expressions are inept, of course. I am so often too long-winded. I would do better to just say that I felt, in some inexpressible way, that this, this moment, this experience, is fitting, and that there will be similar fitting moments in relation to and after my death and for most other deaths.

Death is nothing to us. Then again it is everything, because without death there can be no life. It is a cliché to say so but nevertheless I will swallow my pride and admit that it is only the finitude of our lives, of our consciousness, that makes life meaningful.

My mother was a very good woman. But stay – I disdain the habit  of classifying people as good and bad, so let us instead say that she was a woman who did much good. In so many ways she enriched the lives of those around her. It is a great blessing that she has lived. So it must also be a blessing that she has died, because without dying she could never have lived. That’s looking at time backwards, but why should we not do that? Time is, after all, just a dimension, and the popular metaphor of the “arrow of time” that compels forward motion is much too militaristic for a peacenik like me

I will always remember her. In fact, since she died I have been flooded with memories, some that I didn’t know I still had. Perhaps in the later stages of her dementia my mind protected itself by blocking earlier memories of her, because the comparison between the person she had been and the state to which she was now reduced was too painful. But now those comparisons are gone and the gates have been opened. Mum is free at last. And now my memory has been freed and most of the memories are warm, strong and ….. just good.

It is fitting.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, August 2018

Post Script: If my memory serves me correctly, this is the first essay I have written about death. I expect it will not be my last. Death is a subject that interests me greatly, and which I often think about (but not usually in a bad way).

Post Post Script: The featured image for this essay is of the character Death from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. The image is copyright but I doubt Mr Pratchett (RIP) would have minded, as he had progressive views about death. I very much like the character Death in Discworld, because he is portrayed as being compassionate, which is how I think about death.


I love Peanuts.

There’s a double entendre.

It could mean that I love ground nuts. I do, very much indeed. I can’t imagine living a life without nuts, especially without peanuts. They are the food of the gods.

Or it could mean that I love Charles M Schulz’s comic strip featuring Charlie Brown, Snoopy the beagle, Lucy the bossyboots and others. That is true too. I have some old books of Peanuts comic strips that I have had since I bought them at second-hand markets decades ago, and which I still really treasure.

One sequence of strips I was thinking of recently is when one of the characters – Linus, I think – was telling the others about haphephobia, which he explained in his overly earnest, nerdy way, was a fear of being touched. In one of those strips somebody accidentally almost touches Snoopy, who instantly leaps up metres into the air as an instinctive over-reaction.

I recalled this as I have been thinking recently about touch as a means of non-verbal communication, and how some people tend to touch others when they talk to them, while others assiduously avoid it. I’ll call the former ‘touchy’, pausing only to note that this has nothing in common with the occasional use of that word to mean short-tempered.

When I think about the people I know that are touchy, It seems that most of them are women. The most usual touch is on the forearm, or sometimes the elbow. I know one person who rubs the side of your arm around the elbow when you talk to her – a gesture that I find unusual, but heart-warming.

What do these touches mean? They seem to communicate reassurance, goodwill, perhaps an indication that, right at this point in time, you have their full attention. Whether that is the intended meaning I don’t know. Quite possibly there is no intended meaning. Touchy people seem to be more instinctive than others. Their words and actions stem from their un-self-conscious connection to the great cosmic flow – what Daoists call Wu Wei – rather than from premeditation.

In Anglo-Celtic culture, not many men touch, but some do. In my experience those that do tend to be matey about it, and are more likely to pat on the shoulder or the back than touch the forearm or hand. And they generally only pat other men.

I have habitually been a non-toucher. I don’t quite have haphephobia, but I have been known to flinch slightly when somebody unexpectedly touches me, or even comes close. I don’t know where it comes from. Freud would have us look to our childhood and, like almost every child growing up in the sixties and early seventies, I received plenty of corporal punishment when I was judged to have been naughty. My punishment was considerably lighter than that which many of my school friends told me about, and my parents never struck me on the head or anywhere that would cause any damage other than redness that lasted an hour or so. But nevertheless I can remember cringing before the blows that a parent was – with all the best intentions and believing that they were morally obliged to do this no matter how much they disliked doing it – about to deliver. Perhaps I cringed because I had a nervous disposition, or maybe my disposition became more nervous because of the punishment. I can’t tell. I do know that many of my contemporaries seemed to be less physically nervous than I, so I Imagine my genetic predisposition played at least some part in it.

Whatever the reason, I have not been good at being touched and have certainly not been a toucher. But recently this has been changing. Perhaps I have been listening to too many philosophy podcasts about ‘authenticity’ and about how relationships with others are the only real thing in the world. Whether with conscious effort or just because one tends to relax more as one matures, I have become more capable of tolerating unexpected touch without flinching.

But wait, there’s more!

I have, to my immense surprise, started to become, every now and then, a toucher. At first I surprised myself by, on occasion, gently tapping a forearm or a shoulder. Never on skin of course! We Anglo-Celtics need the reassurance of a shirt or jumper beneath our hand in order to feel that one is not being improper. Maybe some of the later taps were deliberate. It’s hard to tell. But even though some taps may have been pre-considered, the overall trend is not. There is no plan.

The forearms and shoulders that I find myself tapping or patting are exclusively those of men. I think that is partly deliberate and partly instinctive. I have had it so soundly drummed into me that any uninvited touch of a woman other than one’s life partner is not acceptable, that I have big unconscious barriers against ever doing that. In any case, in the current climate it seems wise to proscribe such actions to avoid the possibility of misinterpretation. It seems a pity, but that’s just one of many ways that the Harvey Weinsteins of the world have made things so much worse for others. I wonder what other people think about that, and whether it will change with time. At least many women feel no constraint against touching men to whom they are talking, as well as, of course, other women.

I have been surprised too, about how non-frightening and positive it can be to do a simple tap or pat. It is such an efficient way to communicate goodwill and support and, unlike supportive words, it doesn’t seem to run the risk of being interpreted as sarcastic. There’s so much sarcasm in the world. We don’t need people inferring it when it’s not there.

This gradual opening to the possibility of touch seems a good development. But there’s one Anglo-Celtic reservation I have that I don’t think will ever change. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to tolerate a massage. It just creeps me out to much, people poking around in my neck muscles and such like. There are too many fragile parts in there that I feel are on the verge of getting damaged. And it’s too close to being tickled, which I never was keen on. I don’t know whether the childhood cringing from imminent punishment plays a part in it as well. Massages are supposed to make you relax but, for me, they do the opposite. Still, plenty of people like massages, so me not having any just means there are more for the rest of you.

A cynic might say ‘What’s the big deal? People touch skin to skin all the time in the business world, when they shake hands at the start of a meeting!’ That is true and, being in the business world, I do that as well, with nary a thought. But it doesn’t count, and you know it doesn’t count, you cynics! Shaking hands is a meaningless stylised ritual that has long passed its usefulness. They say it was originally invented in order to show somebody you met that you weren’t holding a weapon (an urban myth?). Except when visiting or living in the USA, I think that these days we can take as read the weaponlessness of those we meet. Plus it spreads germs. I sometimes wonder ‘What if I’m about to break out in a cold? I’d hate to give it to somebody else.’. We all know that the most infectious period with a cold is just before you realise you have one – or is that another urban myth? I admire the Japanese, who bow when meeting people for business, and then present business cards in a pleasingly formal way.

The point is that it’s the voluntariness of the unbidden touch that can make it so scary to do, or to receive. There’s nothing scary in what is mandated, as handshakes before business meetings are. Or, for that matter, the compulsory ballroom dancing lessons we had in senior high school, where we boys had to hold girls’ hands as we marched to and fro, then twirled them about, or twirled about them, whichever it was (I wasn’t terribly good at ballroom dancing). We were mostly too terrified even to talk to the girls at school, let alone touch them (we outnumbered them five to one so it seemed presumptuous to assume any of these rare and special humans would wish to hear anything we had to say), but when the dancing mistress fixes you with her beady eye and snaps ‘Take positions! Join hands! Go!’, you just obey.

This essay at one point had the word ‘sashayed’ in it (can you guess where?). But now it doesn’t. I think that’s an improvement.

Andrew Kirk
Bondi Junction, August 2018

On Beauty

The other day, as I was walking down the street on my way to a meeting, I saw a young man walking the other way that I thought was a person that works in my office. He works on another floor so I don’t often see him. I was about to say hello when I was struck with uncertainty as to whether it was him, and held my tongue. I ruminated for the next minute or so, and finally decided that it wasn’t.

Why did I find it so hard to work that out?

Part of the reason was that I’m not so good at remembering the faces of people I don’t see regularly. But that didn’t seem enough to explain my confusion. There are plenty of people that I don’t meet often, but whom I can still recognise fairly easily.

In the end I decided it was because the person in question has very regular features – what you might call ‘clean cut’. You know: symmetrical face, unblemished skin, non-knobbly nose, average size of all main features and dimensions (nose, mouth, eyes, ears, forehead, chin), not fat, but not very thin either. The sort of face that might appear in an ad for razors or toothpaste.

People whose faces have lots of symmetry, conformance to averages, and lack of blemishes and knobbles have fewer distinguishing features. Take it to the extreme and a face becomes a featureless sphere. Adding two eyes, a mouth and a nose reduces the symmetry somewhat but, since nearly all humans have those, it doesn’t narrow down the field much. It’s only when the characteristics or location of those features differ materially from the average that we find something worthy of telling the police artist – thin lips, broad nose, close-set eyes, high forehead. What would the Identikit officer do with information that the burglar had average lips, average nose and average eyes?

It is sometimes said that human beauty has much to do with symmetry. Does that mean the reason I didn’t recognise my colleague is because he’s good-looking? Perhaps. Supermodels seem to score highly in the bodily symmetry stakes. I don’t think I could name one for whom I could identify an asymmetry. Although, to be fair, that may be because I would have trouble naming any supermodels at all. On my scale of rating the hundred things that interest me most, they don’t.

But are supermodels beautiful? Or are they just pretty, and if so, is that because they are too symmetrical, too featureless?

The American actor Ryan Gosling seems to be a popular heart-throb at the moment. His features are mostly pretty regular, but there’s something unusual about his eyes. I’m not sure what. I think they’re either unusually close-set or a little asymmetrical – perhaps a combination of both. But is that slight irregularity part of the reason that he is considered so desirable? Would he be less alluring if his eyes were evened up and spread out a bit – more average?

When I think of women that were considered very desirable amongst my peers over the last few decades, I see images of people who all had something slightly unusual about their features: Nastassja Kinski (big mouth), Emma Stone (large eyes), Sophia Loren (long nose). In my recent attempts to get better at speaking French I have been watching many French movies, and have noticed that many of their female stars in romantic roles have unusual features, a disproportionate this or that, or asymmetric something elses.

Could it be that featurelessness is the key factor in mere ‘prettiness’, so that pretty people (perhaps including my poor, blameless work colleague) all look fairly similar, whereas beauty is a complex melange of (just enough) symmetry with provocative asymmetries, irregularities and other distinguishing features?

People seem to love looking at pictures and videos of cute fluffy cats and dogs on the internet. Generally these animals are symmetric and healthy. One rarely sees people cooing over a scrappy, moth-eaten old dog or cat. Yet if one has had a scrappy, moth-eaten dog or cat as a pet for a long time, it will have a much stronger pull on our heartstrings than a pretty puppy in a tissue commercial. The irregularities (some might say flaws) become markers of recognition and triggers for affection, rather than items of deficiency or regret.

I wonder whether this phenomenon also displays itself in the field of moral beauty. There’s am unfortunate culture trope about the girl who only goes out with boys that treat her badly, and has only contempt for the ‘nice guys’. Perhaps there are some such girls around, but I haven’t observed the phenomenon to be widespread. It seems to me that nearly everybody likes to be treated with at least a modicum of respect and affection.

But there’s another trope out there – especially in movies and literature – about the person who feels repelled from their partner because they (the partner) are too good. The argument often runs along the lines that the partner is impossible to measure up to, and often makes the protagonist feel morally inadequate – bad. The kinder and more tolerant the way in which the ‘good’ partner reacts to this, the worse the divide becomes. I saw another example of this just last night – the character played by Gillian Anderson in the movie ‘The Last King of Scotland’. Her husband, working as an MSF-type doctor in a grossly under-resourced rural Ugandan hospital, was such a kind man that she felt tempted towards infidelity simply because she felt she couldn’t live up to the level of virtue exemplified by her husband. Be not distressed though, dear reader. So far as I know, Ms Anderson managed to resist her impulses, and her relationship survived the danger. But I can’t be sure, because I was unable to watch the second half of the movie for fear of the cruel violence that I knew would engulf most of the characters once the murderous Idi Amin got into his stride.

I have made no more observations of this in real life than of the other trope. There are very few true saints around, and I think I have met hardly any of them. But it somehow feels more plausible than the other trope. It just seems to me that, while nobody wants to live in the constant presence of cruelty and contempt, perhaps many, without even realising it, value the (hopefully fairly minor) character flaws of their partners and friends, and are even quite attached to them.

Or maybe not. I wrote this while on holiday and it is all just idle speculation.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, May 2018


The Violence of Movement

Roads in English towns and cities seem so much safer to me than their equivalents in Australia. They also have less deep kerbs, as a result of which cars can easily park with two wheels on the footpath (sidewalk) and two on the road, an opportunity they often make us of on roads that are too narrow to accommodate normal parallel parking.

Yet I feel safe.

Why do not I, as a pedestrian, feel threatened by having a more permeable barrier between the cars and the pedestrians than I am used to? Why doesn’t it make me feel less safe on an english footpath than on an Australian one?

Perhaps it is this: barriers work in both directions – they prevent things coming in but also prevent them going out. Skin protects infectious agents from getting at one’s innards (which is why cuts in the skin often lead to infection), but it also prevents the innards from losing moisture and other precious bodily fluids – from dessicating. And it is as important for prison walls to keep people out – who may be carrying phones, drugs, weapons or escape tools – as it is for them to keep inmates in.

So what does the kerb, as a barrier, prevent from going which way? The obvious answer is that it deters cars from going onto the footpath. A secondary answer is that it makes pedestrians think twice before stepping onto the road. But on an emotional level, it also acts as a barrier between the peace of the footpath and the violence of the cars on the road.

Because cars are violent. Moving a ton and a half of metal at speeds of 60-100 kilometres per hour is a violent activity. One does not notice this so much when one is sitting inside the hunk of metal. They are specially designed to mask the violence, to provide an illusion of serenity. They do this by sound-proofing, vibration-damping and engine-quietening. That’s why ads for luxury cars are often shot from the perspective of inside the cabin, to a soundtrack of blissful classical music: “See, there’s no violence here. It’s all beauty and grace”.

But the illusion is shattered when the car whooshes past a pedestrian or cyclist too closely or worse, when it collides with them, or with something else. The classical music appropriate to that is not so much Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (which, for the non-classical music lovers, was considered so shockingly violent when it premiered that the audience rioted in protest).

Indeed, the fast movement of heavy objects is unavoidably violent.

A brief digression: a visceral demonstration of this violence can be obtained by getting off a train in Europe at a station which high-speed intercity expresses pass through but do not stop. One has to take a non-express train to get there (or a bus, or walk or cycle) but it’s worth the effort. The express trains come past at speeds between 200 and 300 kilometres per hour, and the experience of having those thousands of tons of people and metal rush past only a metre or two away is unforgettable. Although they are not supersonic, one does not get much of an audible warning before they are upon you. Then there is a slam into a scanty few seconds of thunderous rush as the long line of carriages zooms by. The tail zaps by, you then dare to peek out over the track after it and there it is, already far away, dwindling into the distance at an amazing rate. The thought of what such a juggernaut would do if it struck something doesn’t bear thinking about.

Cars are neither as big nor as fast as express trains. But they still make an awful mess of a human body when they collide with one at any speed over about 30 km/h. The road is indeed, relative to the footpath, a place of great violence.

Back then to the barrier between peace and violence. In England, the barrier is less than in Australia, so why do I feel less afraid? I think it is because, rather than the violence of the road invading the pavement, the peace of the pavement starts to permeate the road! This is not an airy-fairy, metaphysical sensation. It can be measured objectively in car speeds and driver behaviour. The cars rarely drive faster than 30 km/h, are generally cautious and alert for, and respectful of, pedestrians and cyclists, and rarely use their horns. One just feels fairly safe, walking down an English street, including when one crosses the road. It is as if having only a flimsy barrier between pedestrians and motorists makes the motorists more aware of the violence of which they are capable, and influences them to be more cautious and respectful than they would be if the barrier were greater. In contrast, Australian drivers tend to accelerate to 60 km/h at every opportunity, regardless of whether that is a safe speed or even of whether it would shorten the expected journey length.

I am not suggesting that the flimsy barrier is the sole reason for the difference. I expect cultural norms built up over many decades, perhaps aided by laws that place greater responsibility for safety on motorists, contribute as well. But what is undeniable is that the urban terrorism of Australian motorists just doesn’t seem exist in the England, and maybe not even in most of Europe.

It makes walking or riding around town just so much more pleasant. I suspect maybe it makes driving more pleasant too. It is sometimes nice to feel one is not in a war zone.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, March 2018

PS The featured image for this essay is a shot from the 1974 Australian horror comedy movie ‘The Cars That Ate Paris‘. Get hold of a copy if you can and watch it. It sounds brilliant!

Thought Association

I was jogging on the beach, trying to think of something else because the last couple of days had been rather upsetting. I settled on thinking about an essay I am trying to write about The End of The World. Very soon I found that I had the REM song It’s the end of the world as we know it running through my head on repeat.

After a while I noticed somebody running along next to the concrete promenade, where the sand is softest because it is furthest from the water and almost never gets wet from the sea. The sand was pretty soft where I was, about halfway between the promenade and the water. But maybe it was softer over near that other guy. In any case, we’d had heaps of rain recently, so if water makes sand pack together harder, presumably where I was would be just as water-hardened as next to the promenade.

But then maybe seawater has a different effect. Perhaps it makes the sand stick together better than rainwater does. If so then the sand next to the promenade really would be softer, unless the sea ever gets up to there.

That led to me wondering about whether, in the wildest sorts of weather, the sea ever came all the way up to the concrete wall below the promenade (about fifty metres from the high tide mark).

Thinking of stormy weather made me think of the scene in the movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman where the female lead stands at the end of a long jetty in a storm, only a metre or two above the rough sea – a precarious position, deeply evocative.

That led me to wonder whether it is sexist to refer to the character as somebody’s ‘woman’, thereby seeming to suggest ownership. That led to my thinking about the reverse phrase ‘somebody’s man’, which led me to think of the Tammy Wynette song Stand by your man.

And without any conscious decision to do so, there I was, jogging along the beach, mentally humming Stand by your man instead of It’s the End of the World as we know it.

Thought association.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, April 2017

Featured Image is from the 1981 movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman, showing the jetty called ‘The Cobb’ at Lyme Regis UK.