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  • Mike and Helen

Toxic Matter

Eating peanuts and other foods can be deadly activities for some people. A new book by Professor Alex Edmans reviewed in the Observer last Sunday warns that some ideas may be equally deadly for our world. The book is called May Contain Lies.

In his review of the book, the social commentator, Will Hutton, extracts from the book some useful skills to guard us against toxic ideas especially in the face of elections in the UK and the USA this year.

‘Learn to entertain a thought without necessarily accepting it’ – Aristotle said that particular skill marks an educated mind.

‘Stay open to the thought that you may be wrong  and test your ideas against those who think differently’.

‘Beware anyone who claims to have found the Holy Grail in any field. They usually haven’t!’

Look at the credentials of the ‘line-spinner’ – what incentive do they have not to be truth tellers?

All of these skills are vital. We have learned the truth of some of them the hard way!

But if pressed too far they can produce a kind of cynicism about everything.

One man who for us, credibly discouraged the drift into cynicism was Jonathan Sacks, formerly Chief Rabbi of the UK, who died in 2020, Just before he died, he published his last book, Morality. Sacks argues that we can move towards ‘restoring the Common Good in Divided Times’ (Morality’s subtitle). We may have very different ideas. We may argue fiercely about what is good for us all. But we can nevertheless share the idea that there is some notion of the Common Good which it is worth striving for, and that it is possible to do it peacefully.

Sacks held on to this conviction even against the background of so much abusive talk and violence in the world, not least that directed against his own people. He held on to this conviction because he had witnessed so much human generosity displayed in times of adversity, so much unity of spirit shown in distressing times. There was the astonishing selflessness shown by medical staff during the worst days of Covid. There was the immense courage shown by firefighters in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. He argues that such commitment to the Public Good is on display on a small scale every day if we just look.

This week we heard an interview on Channel 4 News with another Jewish commentator - one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s former advisers. ‘What do you think is Netanyahu’s strategy in his war with the Palestinians?’ asked the reporter. ‘Simply to perpetuate his own political power’, said the Israeli advisor.

So what difference can we make in the face of lies and fake news from politicians like Netanyahu? They have no interest in truth or the public good. Only in the triumph of their own toxic narratives. Only in power for themselves and their cronies.

We all know times and places and people where, in the face of external political threats human beings can become their best selves and work together. People like Edmans and Sacks have used their different skills to keep alive the conviction that some values and ideas are true and good. The more of us who can find the courage to use our own gifts, our time, our energy and other resources like everyday conversations and social media, the greater will be the antidote to toxicity.

The alternative is to capitulate to the tide of a self-absorbed relativism and cynicism.

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May 12

Thanks for this - - I thoroughly enjoyed 'Morality' by Sacks - what a loss ! In a very similar vein I'm currectly reading "Humankind" by Rutger Bregman. His theme is that people are generally good. That the theory which we all follow (that civilisation is only skin deep and will disappear in the face of adversity - a la Lord of the Flies) is completely false and without any credible proof whatsoever. So far he is doing quite well at debunking all the myths about man's frail moral state that we hold so dear. Jolly good read !!!

Mike and Helen
May 13
Replying to

Thanks for the recommendation, Colin....sounds like we need a bookclub meeting!

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