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Free Thinking : The nation

From the UK, philosopher Jonathan Rée

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Thanks and invitation

  • Freethinking
  • 9 Jan 07, 01:47 PM

The 2006 Free Thinking bloggers have all posted their last weblog.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to these blogs and made them a place of lively debate.
If you'd like to continue to explore ideas important to how humanity lives now and will live in the future please pay a visit to the BBC's Ethics and freethought messageboard.

You can still listen to and comment on the debates broadcast from the Nov 2006 festival weekend.
The BBC's Free Thinking Festival will return later in 2007. Hope to see you again then!

Best wishes,
Southendian - Radio 3 Host

Recent entries

  1. Last post

    • Jonathan Rée
    • 9 Nov 06, 02:04 PM

    The Freethinking Festival is over, for this year at least. It wrapped up with a big bash in Liverpool last weekend, featuring dozens of public talks, debates and discussions, most of them recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3.


    The idea behind the whole project was, I guess, to thow open the bedroom windows and let a bit of fresh air into the speech output of Radio 3, though some observers may also have been reminded of George Orwell’s famous description of the BBC as ‘halfway between a boarding school and a lunatic asylum’ (actually he said ‘girl’s school’ but never mind).


    So how did the experiment go?

    Continue reading "Last post"

  2. Why bad news pleases

    • Jonathan Rée
    • 3 Nov 06, 10:01 AM

    Very intertesting points about good news / bad news. I would like to give the question another spin though, especially as my next post to this blog is going to be my last. (As you probably know, all the Freethinking blogs are going to be put to sleep shortly after the Freethinking Festival in Liverpool this weekend.)

    The basic problem is this: most of us accept that on the whole the world is a better place now than it was a few decades ago or a few centuries ago, and yet when we consider day to day events, we are always inclined to think that more bad things are happening than good. So a form of prejudice seems to be at work here – another enemy of genuine freethinking: a prejudice in favour of bad news. How can we account for this prejudice?

    I see what William Cope means when he says that people in power are always giving us false good news, and I understand the implication that we should welcome bad news because it restores the balance. But I do not quite agree: it seems to me that there are several forces at work – vested interests if you like – that tend to generate a prejudice in favour of bad news. Three in fact.

    Continue reading "Why bad news pleases"

  3. Good news / bad news

    • Jonathan Rée
    • 25 Oct 06, 07:58 PM

    What I said about people who are more receptive to bad news than good was far too simple, as several of you have pointed out. And the suggestion that people who think of themselves as progressive in their politics are more likely to be optimistic than people who think of themselves as conservative was too crude as well.

    Matt has a good point (if I follow him) when he suggests that it might be the other way round. Conservatives think that we should be content with the way things are (‘don’t knock it: it’s all we’ve got and it could be an awful lot worse’), whereas progressives think the current state of affairs is intolerable (‘things can only get better’). So who is the pessimist at this table?

    What was missing from my earlier discussion was any reference to the element of comparison. Those with a taste for cliché may remind us that politics is the art of the possible, but we need to remember that it is also an art of comparison. Politics, you might say, is always comparative politics: to think politically is to put two different situations (two real, two imagined, or one of each) onto the scales of political justice: Athens or Sparta, Paris or Geneva, Canterbury or Rome, Socialism or Barbarism, Washington or Moscow.

    And in the politics of the last two centuries (that is to say, since the invention of the concepts of ‘left’ and ‘right’) political comparisons have always involved a reference to time: they have been comparisons, essentially, of the present with the past and of the present with the future.

    The classic right-wing conservative can then be defined as someone who will always welcome good news about the past because it heightens foreboding at any changes that may lie in the future. And the classic leftist progressive will welcome bad news about the ‘old immoral world’ (as Robert Owen called it), because it dramatises the contrast with the good news to come.

    Let us stay with a classical leftist for a while.

    Continue reading "Good news / bad news"

  4. No news is good news

    • Jonathan Rée
    • 19 Oct 06, 06:18 PM

    Many thanks for some very pertinent comments about my last post. You're right: I was indeed overlooking the fact that optimism and pessimism involve our practical involvement with the world as well as our theoretical appraisal of it. (From the point of view of practice, you might say, the optimist tends to be reckless, while the pessimist is generally risk-averse.)

    But for the time being let’s stick to pessimism as a theoretical attitude. It is, I think you would agree, pretty prevalent in our times. In politics in particular, people tend to be more receptive to bad news than good. In fact if you took what people say seriously, you would have to conclude that they think everything in society has been going from bad to worse for at least a century, if not since history began.

    But we know it’s not true. In Britain in the last century, for instance, there has been a vast expansion of literacy, and of intellectual attainment in general, and mutual tolerance, and stunning improvements in health and longevity; but who wants to talk about that when they could spin a story about a failing school, sectarian violence, or deaths from hospital-acquired infections?

    But why are we so unreceptive to good news?

    Continue reading "No news is good news"

  5. Trust me, I'm a pessimist

    • Jonathan Rée
    • 13 Oct 06, 02:40 PM

    Do we have a prejudice against good news? Or at least an inclination to put more trust in pessimism than in optimism?

    I suspect we do, and will come back to the point in a later post. But here’s a preliminary concern:

    I’ve never understood what people think they’re doing when they describe themselves as ‘optimists’ or ‘pessimists’. Assuming that they’re not engaged in a high metaphysical argument about Leibniz’s Theodicy, all they seem to be saying is that they have a personal disposition to look on the bright or the dark side of things. In which case they are just confessing to a bias and we ought to take heed and avoid relying on their judgments. It’s like someone who says ‘I always put too much vermouth in the martini’ or ‘I always overcook the vegetables’: the only sensible response is not to trust them when they offer to mix you a drink or cook you a meal.

    If you say, ‘I’m an optimist, so I think the problem of climate change is going to solve itself’ then surely you’re undermining your persuasiveness: the fact that you have a sunny personality is not going to help prevent global warming. And equally, if you say ‘I’m a pessimist, I think we’re all going to fry’, you’re making a bonfire of your credibility once again: you’re implying that you have chosen your analysis not on the basis of evidence or arguments, but simply because you’re an old grump – which could be true, but is hardly relevant.

    But that’s not the only paradox about optimism and pessimism.

    Continue reading "Trust me, I'm a pessimist"

  6. The prejudices of self-display, once more

    • Jonathan Rée
    • 6 Oct 06, 02:18 PM

    The prejudices of self-display, as you may remember from my last post, can be defined as the kinds of hasty judgements that we are led to not by base self-interest but by a desire to look or sound good. (I am still not sure that self-display is the best word: perhaps vanity would be better, or self-love, or self-regard, or sanctimoniousness, or narcissism or amour-propre).

    The prejudices of self-display are, I suggested, amongst the vices that dance attendance on progressive politics, rather as the prejudices of self-interest are typically found amongst the vices of conservative politics.

    But we need to push the analysis a little further.

    Continue reading "The prejudices of self-display, once more"

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