This is our truth, tell us yours
You learn important lessons in life not just directly, face to face with your teacher, but in passing, as experiences flit by or register on your consciousness as you try to get to somewhere else. In terms of the two minds thesis beloved of Kahneman and others, it’s almost as if some peripheral events pass straight through the immediate mind to be processed in the background.
Let me give you an example. I’m a big fan of Mark Timlin’s sparse, bleak South London crime novels. In one of them Nick Sharman has a charged, feverish conversation with a wheelchair user who tells him, with no obfuscation, about how good she is at performing oral sex on men. I didn’t buy the book to get educated about wheelchair users and sex, it just happened in passing as Timlin moved his narrative towards its usual, nihilistic ending. Timlin wasn’t trying to educate me either; his purpose, so far as I can tell, was to show the reader his world in his usual unflinching, this is how bad it really is kind of way. The output of that thinking process was two fold for me; it produced an attitude, that I try to live with all the time, that I will never allow someone else’s body to tailor my assumptions about their sexual practices, but it also produced moments like one last week, when I was busy making smiles with the best lover I’ve ever had, and they couldn’t move the way they usually do because of a back strain. Holding them in my arms I realised that if they were utterly immobile, I would still desire them, that their physical ability to move was not essential to my desire for them.
That’s a long example, but it’s helpful to me, to understand that sometimes we process events that seem peripheral at the time and produce powerful insights from them. In passing, it’s also a reminder that a wall between the lessons we learn when making smiles and the rest of our lives is an obstacle, a hindrance not a help, since the processes by which we learn and understand are not magically different when we take our clothes off.
I’m not sure I gave a toss about the lives of the IRA members gunned down in Gibraltar in 1988. I’m not sure I gave a toss about the circumstances in which they were killed; I’m not sure I even noticed any of it, and if I did, I suspect I concluded that they got the result that’s likely to follow from becoming a terrorist and stepping outside the law. High principles about the state being better than its enemies wouldn’t have troubled me.
Over time of course it became apparent that not only had the three IRA members been executed without any excuse, but that British politicians had repeatedly lied about it, both in the immediate aftermath and in the witch hunt that followed ITV’s Death On The Rock documentary.
Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin were, according to this report, killed by a drone strike in August because they had plotted terrorist attacks that were intended to take place, but didn’t take place, in May and June. Suddenly, the things I background processed in 1988 become important again. How can it be self defence to kill someone in August because they might have waned something to happen in May and June?
The next phrase leapt out at me; The Sun reported on 27 June that Hussain had allegedly admitted instructing undercover reporters how to attack soldiers in Woolwich on Armed Forces Day.
The Sun is not, so far as I can recall, part of our police service. It’s sister newspaper the News of the World had an unfortunate track record when it came to criminal investigations. Anyone remember the Beckham kidnap plot? Is there a risk here that we have executed British citizens, abroad, because like stupid foolish boys will (and Reyaad Khan was only 21) they bragged about what they wished they could do to newspaper journalists and anyone else who would listen?
So you google just a little, and discover that Reyaad Khan was reported to have been killed in a drone strike in July, not August. Has he been killed twice? It’s a fair bet that he’s not going to be around to dispute the circumstances of his death.
That quisitive faculty that I barely noticed in 1988 is twitching, and I fear that history is repeating itself; that government, for political reasons, is announcing now that it has ‘done something’ in order to shift the debate about Syria onto ground it prefers to be on. Those lessons learned in passing could prove to be very useful right now.