What does it take for people to change their mind? This is a much deeper and more complex question than at first appears. As the whole world seems to polarise, changing your mind comes to mean changing sides and that can be literally life-threatening. And so, people double-down and further entrench their pre-existing views.
Let’s go back to Tim Noakes’ trial in South Africa. The charges were trumped up by a dietician who claimed that Noakes was giving dietary advice via a tweet. In fact, beneath that surface accusation, this was a case of mobbing by several universities, universities that have still failed to admit what they did, let alone address it. The trial was essentially a show trial to persuade people not to do what Prof Noakes did. Even though it was rigged, it found no case against Noakes. The authorities appealed their own verdict and failed again. The whole process lasted for four abysmally stressful years.
Claire Julsing Strydom was the dietician in question. Amongst other things, she has a website called the True Health Initiative. Often a title gives a lot away, like the Taxpayers Alliance in the UK which is nothing of the sort. The True Health Initiative celebrates the work of the “Yale academic” David Katz who we met in a previous blog, debating with Naomi Teicholz. You can check up on the messages really easily, basically vegetarian propaganda, but the point we want for this blog is simply that, having failed in an exhaustive and exhausting four year trial that cost many millions of South African Rand, Strydom learnt precisely nothing and did not change her mind even a tiny bit, despite all that evidence.
I find a certain poetic elegance in a trial that tried to destroy a really lovely and genuine man, who changed his own mind about diet in order to successfully deal with his own diabetes, in the face of pretty blatant food industry funding of advice known to damage human health. Even to the fact that the so-called advice Noakes offered via a tweet was to a nursing mother trying to decide what to wean her infant onto.
Being a South African story, there is a racial dimension to it. There, the babies of poor black people are typically weaned onto fortified maize meal porridge. The paternalistic white dietician view of the world is that to advise people that maize porridge is not the best diet, when it is all they can afford, is the same as having a reason for telling people it is good food.
The bottom line here is that Claire Julsing Strydom and many, many dieticians around the world, especially the English-speaking world for some reason, think it is in their gift to pronounce on what people should eat. If they get paid by the food industry to plant ideas about diet, so much the merrier. When people say they have evidence that True Health is actually long-term sickness there is literally hell to pay. What price changing your mind? Never even on the agenda.
Since I used to work in the area of social enterprise, not actually registered with the Charities Commission but working alongside organisations that were, I can report on the culture of such organisations. It tends to be poisonous, and the umbrella organisations that work across charities are even worse. People are vicious and callous to each other, and the more crucial the work they do the more this is the case — which is not to say there are not saints amongst them.
I also had some experience with housing associations, the CEOs of which tend to be selected from among the great and the good. What a disaster, what a millstone.
My working theory is this: when the work of an organisation is literally a lifeline to its clients, then a moral judgment looms into view. I must deliver to these clients come what may, and if there are internal differences of opinion and worse, those impediments to action are evil because they obstruct the work. It is a short step from there to believing colleagues are evil because they personify those clashes. There is a long and sometimes comedic history of course of left-wing politics being fractious, iconically portrayed by Monty Python as the dispute between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea.
Using Beer’s POSIWID, the Purpose of a System is What it Does, we can see that the determination to deliver crucial service, say rescuing migrants from the Mediterranean, the stated purpose easily slides into something else, especially when, as in this case, governments around the Mediterranean frustrate the ability to disembark rescued migrants. And the populist fascists behind that frustration know just how to play their cards to create internal strife in the rescue organisations. What price changing your mind?
We have many times peeked under the lid to look at what science actually is, and perhaps we can remember again William Bateson, Nora’s grandad, who gave up his Cambridge Professorship and his Fellowship of the Royal Society because his chosen field of genetics, in those days became entwined with eugenics, the purification of races to enhance their intelligence and nobility. Anything he did was going to get used for fascist propaganda and cleansing, no matter what the evidence he produced actually said. These agendas are with us again and we need the proper archaeology of David Wengrow to remind us that the stories we tell about the past are largely reflections of these simplistic (wrong) views of ethnicity. Just like the border of Northern Ireland that goes along the middle of roads and through houses, there have never been simple and obvious dividing lines between peoples.
The wars that can ensure from this sort of thinking don’t need rehearsing and then we are talking not so much life and death but genocide.
The demagogues I am complaining about here are parasitic on a political life that has lost its ability to hold onto evidence and to change its mind when it needs to. They are a life form and they will disappear when healthier growths occur, and only when that happens. They are feeding on decay, and more flourishing forms of life will outperform them necessarily. Life doesn’t hang around for a resolution in terms of the problem as it originated, it consumes itself and reinvents itself.
The demagogues are not viable as a life form that can propagate itself: they are part of a process of decay and disintegration, and they are viable only in that desperately uncomfortable niche. People put up with endless lies and deception because they so much need a story that appears to protect them from the unfurling catastrophes. The undoubted fact that, through buying in to the deceptions, they hasten the catastrophes is just the irony of the situation.
When we speak of hastening our own end, we are in the territory of myth and maybe of Greek drama. If there is more plastic in the oceans than fish, if plastic fibres are found in abundance in the snows of high mountains and the Poles, then we do not need a detailed mechanism of exactly how we will suffer, we need a myth about hubris and overstepping the mark. It was an over-rational and over-literal culture that got us here: it cannot also save us at this late stage. This is about who we are when the chips are down.
One of my heuristics is that we can expect evil forces to pick up on advances in technology and understanding before they are used by sane people. So, the disaster capitalism that looks to make a few billion out of a corrupt and manipulated Brexit is simply the vanguard announcing that elections no longer work to support democratic processes. They know that first and they know how to pull the strings. They use it in a mindlessly destructive way to make a pile of money that becomes increasingly less able to buy anything worth having.
This is the same argument that what is happening is a parasitic growth that has no viability. Which does not mean that it might not kill its host, only that nothing actually alive and beautiful can come out of it.
The utterly ridiculous Boris Johnson comes from a tradition of education epitomised by Eton that consists of Mental plus Sports. It is an education that allows luxuriant growths of mental fantasies that never have to be lived. Mental masturbation. People end up quite literally believing and saying anything that puts them at a political advantage.
The opposite is the tradition of embodied mind. In embodiment what the mind works with is the physical abilities of a body fully engaged in the world. There is no separation between body and mind because this tradition recognises their complete integration. Think of Thomas Edison, self-educated on a farm where everything was practical and hands-on. You can recognise public school education and its state school shadow precisely by their attempt to avoid this (for them) inconvenient truth.
Emptying our loft recently, we unearthed a massive switchboard designed to control a big model railway layout and hand-wired from the most basic components by my youngest son. I can remember my own head-scratching while he bottomed out the principles. He continues to be self-taught, first in producing pioneering sound recordings and now in producing and maintaining software systems that perform very practical tasks.
If we take a pressing area of concern like climate change, how many people from our universal education system can think in a grounded way about its nature and how to respond? We almost all rely on experts and committees of experts to translate for us what is going on. One of my daughters went to explore part of Greenland on a BSES expedition and to measure part of the ice melting. She now finds it heart breaking to see the news from Greenland and largely avoids following reports.
The grounded healthy thinking that will supplant our sick politics can only come from people who are embodied in their thinking, who haven’t been trained to disregard the bodily aspects of their minds. We need to accept that what we call education has led us to a crisis: not from lack of education but from a huge excess of damaging education: from anti-education. Anti-education of course claims that it has the answers. Changing our minds starts with understanding the terrible habits we have been trained into.
You don’t get much more bodily than food unless it is sex and gender. The mis-education provided by Claire Julsing Strydom and David Katz (to arbitrarily single them out for concreteness) is not just a local disturbance of what some people are taught and the destruction of a few people’s health. It is part of a widespread pattern of undermining peoples’ ability to think for themselves through their own bodies. We believe in vitamins before we believe in our own thriving. We become cut off from our own bodily intelligence.
To invoke POSIWID again, the purpose of the education system as enacted is to destroy our ability to think for ourselves. That is what it does. With this lens you can look at research of all kinds and ask does this support me in my bodily perception of the world or does it distance me? Our current global crisis means that this question is THE question. Changing our minds can only be changing how our bodies are in the world. Lots of people say we need to change how we act and almost no-one says that only by living our bodies differently will that happen. We will only get healthy politics again when we know who we are and how the world works, a sense that we have allowed people to destroy in the manner of disaster capitalism: for short term mindless gain.
The crisis allows us one crucial opportunity: it is to realise in a grounded way that more of what got us here be it education, nutrition advice, attempts to control other peoples’ sexuality, disenfranchisement of all kinds will only lead us into more acute crisis.
 In property development too, the name of the thing often represents what had been destroyed in order to create the new buildings. Examples near to me: Elm Grove, Webster Gardens, The Park.
 A good visual is the border between Belgium and The Netherlands, perhaps at Baarle-Nassau, which contains pockets within pockets within areas of areas that are formally governed by one country or the other.