I have always been fascinated by human errors – especially fundamental blunders that are so readily accepted by society, go unchallenged more or less indefinitely, yet ultimately help alter the course of human destiny – for better or for worse. The things that intrigue me most about these errors are the speed at which they embed themselves as irrefutable beliefs, the unintended consequences they bring about, and the alarm and hostility with which any question of their legitimacy invariably elicits. Detractors are written off as crazy, foolish, heretics – or worse.
I myself have always been accused of being a heretic. Even as a young man my voice was most often categorised as a stirrer, a somewhat precocious rebel whose views were just beyond the bounds of convention and political correctness. For example, I recognised from the age of twelve that ‘the truth’ is temporary and consequently everything I was being taught at school must be bullshit if it did not reflect and embody my own individual experiences of the world. Later on I was thrown out of the Royal College of Music for confronting the authorities on what I regarded as the poor quality of the teaching there; not a wise thing to do at a time when ‘customer feedback’ was a term that had yet to be invented! Its been that way as far back as I can remember. Relentlessly curious, able to perceive and be comfortable with at least three points of view, I have never been able to accept passively other people’s versions of the truth, even when it might have led to a much quieter life!
My first book, published in 1993, was called The Management Myth. There I identified some of the more harmful assumptions – and subsequent mistakes – made by human beings when they attempt to design organisations, work flows, and management practices. There are many of them of course, some of them very funny and almost all of them ludicrous in their own distinctive way. But management is not the only realm for finding flawed ideas. Far from it. They flourish almost everywhere a universal order is decreed: philosophy, religion, science, politics, commerce, education and even the law (come to think of it especially the law) are fertile ground for such bloopers. These are not errors of judgment or of action, mind you, but of flawed thinking and the mumbo-jumbo stemming from their creation that gives them even more credence.
The great English philosopher Francis Bacon pointed to four categories of human error; he associated these with the cave (individuals), the tribe (human nature), the marketplace (human interaction), and the theatre (philosophical dogma). I tire very quickly of inactivity. I am always on the go. Faced with the prospect of an entire evening devoted to doing absolutely nothing while on vacation recently in North Eastern Thailand I thought it might be amusing to try and pinpoint the most erroneous and damaging myths, the big lies if you will, in each of these categories. So, at the risk of offending almost everyone on the planet in some form or other, including my family and friends, here are my top ten in descending order of importance.
- Human behaviour can be predicted
In the name of a supposedly ‘scientific’ criterion of knowledge, scholars are berated for not predicting the end of the cold war, the rise of Islam, 9/11 and much else besides. Yet many natural sciences, including seismology and evolutionary biology, cannot anticipate with accuracy either. Human affairs themselves, even leaving aside the matter of human intention and volition, allow of too many variables for such calculation. At the moment it is impossible to predict with certainty the outcome of a sporting contest, the incidence of revolutions, the duration of passion or how long an individual will live. It is a delusion to think that we can. Perhaps artificially super intelligent beings will be able to. But that is some time in the future.
- The world is speeding up
This, a favourite mantra of globalisation theorists, passionate technocrats, pop futurists and management gurus, confuses acceleration in some areas, such as the time it takes to transmit knowledge for example, with the fact that large tracts of human life continue to demand the same time as before: to conceive and bear a child, to learn a language, to grow up, to digest a meal, to enjoy a joke, to read a poem. It takes more or less the same time to fly from London to New York as it did forty years ago, to boil an egg or publish a book. Some activities – such as driving around major cities, getting through an airport, or dying – may actually take much longer. This error also muddles, quite dangerously I think, the time needed for decision-making and action-taking by compressing both into an omnipresent ‘here and now’. Wise decisions about complex or systemic issues take time for reflection, whereas action can, and often needs to be, rapid.
- Markets are a ‘natural’ phenomenon that allow for the efficient allocation of resources and preferences
What utter bullshit. And how harmful such a view has become! Markets are not ‘natural’ but are the product of particular societies, value systems and patterns of state relations to the economy. They are not efficient allocators of goods, since they ignore large areas of human activity and needs that are not covered by monetary values – from education and the provision of public works, to human happiness and fulfillment. In any case the pure market is a total fantasy; the examples of the two most traded commodities in the contemporary world, oil and drugs, show how political, social and cartel factors override and distort the workings of supply and demand.
- We have no need for history
In recent decades, large areas of intellectual and academic life – political thought and analysis, economics, philosophy – have jettisoned a concern with history. Yet it remains true that those who ignore history repeat it; as the recycling of unacknowledged cold-war premises by the Bush administration in Iraq has devastatingly shown.
- The spread of English as a world language should be welcomed
It is obviously of practical benefit that there is one common, functional, language for trade, air traffic control, and the like. But the actual domination of English in today’s world has been accompanied by a tide of cultural arrogance that is itself debasing: a downgrading and neglect of other languages and cultures across the world, the general compounding of Anglo-Saxon political and social arrogance, and the introverted collapse of interest within English-speaking countries themselves in other peoples and languages. In sum, a triumph of banality over diversity.
- The world’s population problems can be solved without the use of condoms
This is not only the most dangerous, but also the most criminal, fallacy of the modern world. Millions of people will suffer, and die premature and humiliating deaths, as a result of the policies pursued in this regard through the United Nations and related aid and public-health programmes. Indeed, there is no need to ask where the first mass murderers of the 21st century are; we already know, and their addresses besides: the Lateran Palace, Vatican City, Rome, and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC. Timely arrest and indictment would save many lives.
- The world is divided into incomparable moral blocs, or civilisations
This view has been aptly termed (by Ernest Gellner) ‘liberalism for the liberals, cannibalism for the cannibals’. But a set of ingrained common tenets is indeed shared across the world: from notions of social equality, justice and rights, to the defence of territory and belief in the benefits of sound economic management. What I refer to as the modern civilisational worldview has also accommodated the ideas of a ruling elite with a different function from those that serve this elite, beliefs in higher forms of intelligence, the employment of almost unlimited conflict to defend assets, and an acceptance that we can plunder the planet in order to find food and fuel. The implantation of these tenets (the world-system) differs in all cultures – but not the core tenets themselves, which have become a shared construct – divorced from geography, history and ideology. The issue of greatest concern for us must be whether our modern worldview can possibly remain relevant with the global population rapidly approaching 7.5 billion people, and whether the tensions that will undoubtedly arise from our diverse interpretations of the worldview in the future can be contained. If this proves to be impossible, then reform of the worldview itself will become vital.
- Diasporas have a legitimate role to play in national and international politics
I realise I am on dangerous ground here. But the notion that emigrant or diaspora communities have a special insight into the problems of their homeland, or a special moral or political status in regard to them, is wholly unfounded. Emigrant ethnic communities play almost always a negative, backward, at once hysterical and obstructive, role in resolving the conflicts of their countries of origin: Armenians and Turks, Jews and Arabs and various strands of Irish, are prime examples on the inter-ethnic front, as are exiles in the United States in regard to resolving the problems of Cuba, or policymaking on Iran.
- The only thing ‘they’ understand is force
This has been the guiding illusion of hegemonic and colonial thinking for several centuries. Oppressed peoples do not accept the imposition of solutions by force: they revolt. It is the oppressors who, in the end, have to accept the verdict of force, as European empires did in Latin America, Africa and Asia and as the United States did in Iraq. The hubris of ‘mission accomplished’ in May 2003 has been followed by ignominy. It was inevitable.
- Religion should again be allowed to play a role in political and social life
From the evangelicals of the United States, to the followers of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, to the Islamists of the Middle East, claims about the benefits of religion is one of the great, and all too little challenged, impostures of our time. Religious beliefs are a sophisticated form of superstition, nothing more than a sad fallacy, a form of insanity – except there are few people standing by to point that out. For centuries, those aspiring to freedom and democracy, be it in Europe or the Middle East, fought to push back the influence of religion on civic life. Secularism cannot guarantee freedom, but, against the claims of tradition and superstition, and the uses to which religion is put in contemporary political life, it is an essential bulwark. With the exception of Buddhism, which is in any case a philosophy, religion has been the greatest cause of tragedy, conflict and distress in this world. It should not be encouraged but allowed to die a natural death.
This is sheer indulgence. I wrote this piece over Easter almost exactly ten years ago – before I had any regulars following The Hames Report. I have edited the original version lightly to allow for changes that have occurred. But most of the original text is unaltered. Normally I have no desire to re-visit or re-write earlier work – and the examples here are obviously very dated. I blush, too, at some statements. But I find it fascinating that while my thinking about certain matters has become more sophisticated, much of it remains firmly of the same view. Perhaps that is an illustration of how difficult it is to upgrade one’s most inner convictions, or to reject one’s ingrained cultural mindset.