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Where the rainbow ends - the collapse of civilization?

Anne Glyn-Jones spent nine years researching how civilizations decline.
Ivan Tyrrell talks to her about her alarming conclusions.

Ivan Tyrrell: In your book, Holding up a Mirror - How Civilizations Decline, you describe our culture as one which "has run its course, which is morally, aesthetically and spiritually bankrupt." You also stated that our woes are the direct and logical result of the belief that the physical universe is the only reality that does or can exist: and that truth resides solely in the analysis and understanding of that 'reality'.

    Well the woes are what therapists are usually trying to deal with in one form or another, which is why I thought our readers would like me to interview you.

Glyn-Jones: I foresee a problem. As a therapist, you surely would approach this topic from the point of view of the individual, whereas I approach it with a predominant interest in society as a whole, and that might make our discussion difficult.

Tyrrell: Surely it shouldn't. Just because there is more than one way of looking at a topic does not make the different approaches mutually exclusive. One great human trait is our ability to change focus in space and time. Surely a greater understanding of the whole picture helps us understand the individual and vica versa. Therapists are trying, after all to deal with a rising tide of anger, anxiety and stress-related disorders - depression has seen a tenfold increase since 1945. ln my experience all good therapists are interested in the larger picture too - anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy and, above all, in meaning. How could it be otherwise?

Glyn-Jones: Society is composed of individuals, but not all equally - there are dominant, opinion-forming individuals and groups, and sheepish people and groups who go with the tide. It is the former who determine the society's cultural evolution.

Public taste for explicit sex and violence is evolving with all the enthusiasm of the Roman amphitheater. And it's spilling onto the streets.

Tyrrell: Yes, which is worrying. As you pointed out, when Lloyds launched Access cards in October 1972, they used the slogan "Access takes the waiting out of wanting", which disturbed people who had been led to believe that an inability to postpone gratification was one of the hallmarks of a psychopath! As a culture, we now seem out of control. We waste energy and time chasing possessions, money, power, sexual gratification and ever more extreme forms of emotional excitement. All natural enough perhaps, since greed is built into all living things, but we seem to have discovered how to override nature's checks and balances.

    In your book you show vividly how the 'arts' and the entertainment and advertising industries today use great ingenuity to gratify an apparently insatiable greed for stimulation. And you also describe how expressions of pornographic depravity and cruel, mindless violence have rapidly become commonplace in films, plays, books, magazines, computer games, in playgrounds and on the streets. You describe how this is one of the symptoms of a particular type of society. Another symptom is that social responsibility becomes more and more subsumed to individuals' desires, however base those desires may be, and however much stress this causes. Is there a pattern in all this? I've long suspected that this has all happened before, which is why I found your book so interesting. Can we start by describing the pattern you believe you can see?

Glyn-Jones: My approach was inspired by Pitirim Sorokin who experienced at first hand social theory in action in the Russian Revolution, which, incidently, nearly cost him his life. After various traumatic adventures he managed to escape to America where he devoted the rest of his life to working out his own interpretation of why societies change.

    Sorokin, who founded the Department of Sociology at Harvard, disagreed with the founding fathers of sociology, like Max Weber, who believed that if it were to qualify as a science, sociology must strictly avoid value judgements. On the contrary, he considered that an understanding of human societies could not begin without an assessment of what people cared about, and how that influenced their activities. He sought to analyse the dominant temper of the age across many different civilizations, from ancient Babylon to twentieth-century America.

Tyrrell: The great problem with that, surely, is that research into what makes a society tick cannot take place in a laboratory like the physical sciences can.

Glyn-Jones: That's true, his type of hypotheses are tested through the process of statistical correlation. This requires the amassing of a vast quantity of factual data. Sorokin recruited an army of collaborators and with their help analysed the manifestations of the human spirit in different periods and among different peoples, as revealed in painting, sculpture, literature, architecture and music - not in aesthetic terms but in terms of social content. For instance: were the subjects religious or secular? Aristocratic or common people? How was nudity portrayed - erotically or aesthetically? What social priorities did literature express - duty or comfort? He worked through developments in philosophy and politics, in science and technology, and he looked at the way changing attitudes were reflected in changes in the law and in the delineation of crime. And he also examined the scale and intensity of wars and civil commotion. These vast labours provided the material for his Social and Cultural Dynamics. The whole work runs to some 3,000 pages.

    Before publication was complete, however, the Second World War broke out and, by the time it was over, there was not much interest in sweeping analyses of society at large other than Marxism, a creed for which Sorokin accurately foresaw only a limited future. Sorokin's work was soon forgotten. But it doesn't deserve to be. In the 50 years since his theories were first published, events have justified his predictions at every level.

Tyrrell: As I understand it, his idea was that civilization changed, ultimately, because of what its opinion formers believed. Isn't this a very different idea from all those theories that depend on climate, trade, race and all those other aspects that could be influencing and changing societies?

Glyn-Jones: Yes. Sorokin became convinced that what people ultimately believe about what is true finally filters through every aspect of their civilization. Moreover, every civilization which swims into our ken can be understood more thoroughly when we understand what they fundamentally believed. And he classified the type of beliefs in three ways.

    In the early stage of civilizations, for example, men and women were very dominated by anxiety and the need to placate whatever the unseen powers were that seemed to them to be ultimately responsible for their lives. Their anxieties were very basic ones: would the crops ripen, will the river flood, will the children look after you in your old age, or will disease, drought, famine or enemies destroy the village. I think that is why those civilizations were deeply religious. Everything was sacred - stones, streams, rivers, trees, sacred groves - all belonging to the gods who must not be upset. They were trying to keep the peace with the ultimate dynamics of the world.

The foolish shibboleth of universal happiness has bred a population raw with frustration and resentful rage.

Tyrrell: Was this, do you think, why their moral codes were so black-and-white?

Glyn-Jones: Yes. Their religion was largely ritualistic and propitious. They felt they must not put a foot wrong because if they did, the whole tribe might suffer. So the morality was strict and the art symbolic - the gods mattered all the time and you couldn't portray them as human beings. you could only portray them in symbolic form and there is no art other than that. Art was seen purely as a form of worship.

    Such a society Sorokin called "ideational", where people tend to describe the experience of the senses as illusory, believing instead that reality is immaterial, transcendental, eternal and unchanging. In an ideational society truth comes through revelation: its interpreters are the priests and prophets. Proposed changes to the existing way of doing things are tested by reference to sacred books and traditions. Men and women do not feel restricted by supposed biological limits, for there is a strong belief in the power of mind over matter. Fire-walking or yogic demonstrations such as remaining alive without food or air are products of this point of view. Miracles are taken for granted - they are a logical outcome of such attitudes: and sick or distressed believers will place much more faith in miracles than in medicine. Where the 'other' world counts for so much, frugality in daily life, even asceticism, is admired and emulated.
This is not a very comfortable society to live in. There are contemporary examples of this extreme model such as fundamentalist Islamic societies and similar Christian cults that emerge from time to time.

Tyrrell: What then is the second evolutionary stage of a typical culture?

Glyn-Jones: Gradually people become more humane. They begin to value the material world around them more. They still think the world is a really dangerous place to live in but they also develop a certain capacity to manipulate it.

Tyrrell: In fact, rigidity starts to break down.

Glyn-Jones: It does. Sorokin called this the "idealist" phase where people develop a more humanistic attitude to one another and, at the same time, begin to take a bolder approach to manipulating the natural world - which they no longer see as entirely sacred. They become less worried about 'unseen powers', but still believe firmly in them - and those powers are the arbiters of their morality, values and aesthetic ideas.

    Then some of the best minds in the community start to question this natural world and how it works. (They called it "natural philosophy" in the old days. We call it science.) They are no longer totally absorbed with the question of the right relationship with the gods. They're looking at the world around them as well. Such a society is less worried by a sense of impotence in the face of occult forces and more confident about its ability to control its environment. It can dare to relax and enjoy the material world. Then attitudes towards human aspirations become more gentle. The unseen powers begin to be seen as positively benign and human happiness becomes a legitimate objective, though they still believe it is only achievable within the moral framework established by the transcendent world.

Tyrrell: So, the material world begins to be valued for its own sake, for its beauty and bounteousness, and its potential begins to be explored.

Glyn-Jones: Yes. But while the material world becomes accepted as real and important, it's not seen as having any authority in the realm of values, either moral or aesthetic.

    Idealist art expresses unchanging qualities of permanent serenity. It dares to express the unseen world and humanise it. That's why you find, in the twelfth century Christian madonnas, for instance, a beautiful, but not erotic, woman. She is not an abstract symbol. Byzantine paintings, for example, are very, very still. They take you beyond this world. They were not intended to be life-like depictions. You're invited beyond, into another world. That's the message they are trying to get across.

    This "Idealist" world was, of course, Sorokin 's favourite because he felt it was a beautiful blend of the material and non-material.

Tyrrell: How do you mean?

Glyn-Jones: Well, such societies have the technology to put up the Parthenon in Greece, for example, or raise the exquisite domes on Islamic mosques or build the great Gothic cathedrals, but, at the same time, they retained the powerful feeling that what ultimately matters is God.

Tyrrell: What is the third stage?

Glyn-Jones: The "sensate" phase. As confidence grows, and human self-consciousness and enjoyment of the material world grows, so the sensate, as Sorokin calls it, side of life becomes more and more important.

    By sensate he meant two things. One, as you would expect, is what we enjoy and experience through our senses. The other, and more important, revolves round the idea that all truth is apprehended only through the five senses - what you can see, hear, smell, taste and touch - and the use of reason. At this stage of civilization we are urged on to invent all sorts of ways of extending what our senses can do, whether it is with a microscope, telescope or, as in our own times, the exploration of radio and electromagnetic waves, and so on, which previous civilizations couldn't do.
Reason is a very powerful influence in idealistic societies too, but much less so because superstition may still reign supreme in the general population. In idealist societies human reason is brought to bear and their philosophers are very keen that it should be.

    In a sensate society, however, there is a move towards, not merely the use of reason, but a reliance on rationality to the exclusion of everything else. That means that, ultimately, reason, working from what the five senses input, is seen as the only avenue to truth that anybody is prepared to accept as valid.

Tyrrell: And where does that lead us?

Glyn Jones: To the sort of society where 'gut' reactions, intuition, prophecy, revelation, sacred books, tradition, what our ancestors valued and said, become less and less important and, eventually, are discarded as forms of superstition.

Tyrrell: What does that mean, for example, to the world of medicine?

Glyn-Jones: When society becomes mainly concerned with what human beings can manipulate in the environment, medicine virtually stops asking ethical questions. Perhaps that's going a little bit too far to make a point here, but, in modern medicine, we have examples of things that science can do for us that we have progressively accepted.

Tyrrell: I don't understand.

Glyn-Jones: Well, for example, initially there was discomfort about heart transplants but, once it was shown it could be done, then it was done. And people forget that, once upon a time, not so long ago, society believed that every heart transplant involved a moral decision.

Tyrrell: Yes, I remember that. There was a time when heart transplants were first possible, perhaps only a few months though, when people were saying, "Should we be doing this or not...?"

Glyn-Jones: Yes, and, in a purely sensate society, people almost cease to ask that question. We have gone progressively through artificial insemination by a husband, that was all right - then we said, "well, if the husband can't produce a baby, let's go for artificial insemination by donor." And that raised a great many ethical problems but we overcame them. In effect we now say, "If we can do it, it must be all right."

    That has taken us to where we are at the moment - in-vitro-fertilization and the proposed use of aborted foetus eggs to generate new life. There are already voices in the scientific and medical profession saying it is absurd to stop here. The argument goes that, by using these eggs, women who would not otherwise have the joy of giving birth to a baby, because there are not enough donor eggs around, can achieve happiness. And that is a demonstration of how the dominant criterion of what is right action has changed from what the gods want to what we want.

Tyrrell: I see. The question, "What is it that will make human beings happy?" is a completely alien idea to either an ideational or, substantially, to an idealist society, where they would be more preoccupied with the duty owed to something greater than themselves.

Glyn-Jones: Yes. In a fully sensate society that idea has completely gone. You get an idea of this if you compare the old catechisms, "Why am I here? I am here to do my duty to God." "What is my duty to God? To love him to serve him," etc. These old catechisms are completely superseded by the dominant document of the modern age, which is the American Declaration of Independence, where God gets a little look-in, but not very much, because he has given us the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is a tremendously significant document, but one which has had results that I think have led to a great deal of unhappiness. This, I know, is of concern to therapiststrying to deal with individual distress or breakdown.

    The reason why the American Declaration of Independence misdirected us is partly that, the more you pursue happiness, the less you find it. You discover happiness only as a by-product of pursuing something else.

The doctrine of human rights has set human being against human being with more vehemence than ever before.

Tyrrell: I can see that the three types of civilization you describe, the ideational, idealistic and sensate, is a useful way of studying the history of cultures but, in reality , is it as simple as that? When animism and shamanism, for example, are superseded as cultures become more complex and organised religions develop, we find that, what we normally like to think of as "higher" civilizations and religions are really no more than a veneer. Primitive, magical forms of thinking still survive underneath into the modern world. Much behaviour seems to me to be still largely governed by primitive beliefs, magical thinking and animal reactions.

Glyn-Jones: No society of any size or complexity is a pure manifestation of any one of these world views. Exponents of all three, and variants of them, exist in all societies, though unevenly distributed among different social groups and different historical epochs.

Tyrrell: People, especially representatives of institutions like bishops, judges and politicians, are happy to pontificate about civilized behaviour - "this is civilized" and "that's uncivilized" - but I don't think it's that simple. It's all mixed up. The apparently most civilized among us can, when the context is slightly manipulated, be shown to behave like primitives. Likewise, truly advanced people can live in a sensate society like ours and remain invisible to the people around them.

Glyn-Jones: Yes, and we also change our usage of the word 'civilized'. There were very great civilizations in the past which were based, for instance, on slavery. But, by today's standards, we would say they were uncivilized because we now believe exploiting slaves is not civilized behaviour.

Tyrrell: What do you think about institutions as a mark of civilization?

Glyn-Jones: What kind of institutions were you thinking of'?

Tyrrell: Well, the churches, monarchy, parliamentary institutions, legal and educational institutions. Many people are proud of these institutions, trust them, boast about them - a politician's stock-in-trade phrase when an institution is being criticized is to say something like, "our legal/parliamentary/ educational system is the envy of the world." But, in a way, our institutions are a symptom of failure, not of civilization. Institutions are only in place because people are not civilized. They are the social equivalent of barbed wire that's used to contain wild animals - they are there to stop us being completely degenerate, destructive and out-of-control. That's how I see it.

Glyn-Jones: That's very interesting.

Tyrrell: Institutions evolved in an attempt to contain our excesses, just as prisons are needed to contain dangerous, anti-social criminals. Institutions are only in place because most people can't be relied on to be honest, fair and humane towards one another, or act from a body of real knowledge about how to behave.

Glyn-Jones: Yes, I think there is a lot of truth in that. And the fascinating thing is that it's a very old intuition. When the ancient Greeks, in the third century BC, entered their sensate phase, the Greek Stoics, who, against the grain, were trying to promote calm, quiet, dispassionate, reasoned and humane behaviour, said the same thing. They looked at their Roman conquerors, who were pretty incorruptible, didn't take bribes, were disciplined and loyal, and compared them with their fellow Greek citizens who were the exact opposite - untrustworthy, effete, immoral, taking back-handers whenever they could and so on. The Stoics wondered why the Romans were so superior and came to the conclusion that it was the Roman religion that made Romans behave better. This was because, at that stage of their history, Romans were actually rather afraid of the gods and what would happen to them if they didn't behave. Now, although the Stoics didn't believe in the Roman religion, having strong institutions in the collapsing Greek civilization all around them. They came to the conclusion that religious institutions are necessary because people are such tempestuous mobs who can't govern themselves - and so they've got to be governed.

    Today the doctrine of human rights has set human being against human being with more vehemence than ever before. People feel now that they have a 'moral' justification for whatever they do, because they are all now referring to what they consider to be their rights as individuals.

Tyrrell: Yes, and of course it falls down horribly because you can't have rights for individuals overriding rights for larger groups of people.

Glyn-Jones: Exactly. That's what we have lost. And this extreme individualism is a major component of the breakdown of culture.

    When we talk about the influence of religion on society, we have to remember that there are many different religions, doctrinally. Sorokin's "ideational" society is simply one in which people feel they owe an overriding obedience to an immaterial authority greater than themselves. The specific commands may be, in the eyes of another religion, horrific, like the Aztecs ripping the beating hearts from sacrificial victims to ensure the sun rises tomorrow. Or the current Taliban closure of schools that educate women in Afghanistan - religion used, as it so often is, to consolidate some group in secular power. Nevertheless, my analysis shows that, once the sense of obedience to some Greater Good goes, and people live for themselves, hedonism takes over. Even in Russia, where for 70 years the whole system preached a gospel of service to the cause of the workers, it became obvious with the collapse of 1989 that it was only repression that had maintained a semblance of social cohesion. No compelling loyalty to any unselfish obligation was being inculcated, and problems of self-indulgence, crime, drunkenness, family breakdown and so on were already evident before 1989.

    I doubt, though, if in any society a majority has had a lively, personal, living awareness of the transcendental realities in which the "ideational" and "idealist" civilizations claim to be grounded. What really influences people is the accepted popular culture, 'the done thing', particularly as encapsulated in the society's laws and traditions. It was much easier for people to feel part of this culture when it was grounded in festivals celebrating the seasonal round. But urban people have no such anchor. Once the opinion formers - philosophers in the long run, artists in the quite short run - lose their faith, and embark on the obvious temptations of the pursuit of individualism and its associated relativist morality, the collapse of the old order, both in conduct and in law, is quite rapid, especially when it is accompanied - as in later materialist societiesit usually is - by extensive settlement of outsiders whose social 'myths' as to 'the done thing· are rather different.

Destruction and the inflation of suffering is now seen by many people as pleasurable.

Tyrrell: Can we talk more specifically about our society today. A lot of people who read The Therapist are engaged in dealing with stress-related problems of one sort or another - family breakdowns and so forth - and are concerned tounderstand about modern day pressures. What stage do you think it's at now?

Glyn-Jones: Well, fairly late. Fairly late in terms of the dynamics of degeneration. But we should remember that a society can be degenerate and unpleasant to live in because of the levels of crime, insecurity, unhappiness and uncertainty, but, at the same time, if it can keep its economy going and is not conquered by an outside group, it can struggle on for quite a long time. Greece didn't struggle on for very long because it had Rome on its doorstep disliking the Greek anarchy and piracy that was affecting Roman trade. The Romans just decided to stamp down hard on them and knock them into shape as it were.

    But then, of course, Rome degenerated. However, it managed to stagger on in a highly decadent condition for a remarkably long time while the barbarian tribes organized themselves.

    I was surprised as I looked at different cultures that having a superior technology does not save a sensate culture from collapse. Greek technology was superior to Roman and Roman technology was superior to the barbarians. But they all fell. And we can see a hint of that today in the way our Western, technically superior, cultures have been expelled from Somaliland, Afghanistan, Vietnam and so on. Despite considerably more advanced Western technology, our sensate cultures couldn't cope, obsessed with individualism as they are, with an idealist enemy prepared to die for a greater good.

Tyrrell: So, we can hang on for a long while, despite being so degenerate ... ?

Glyn-Jones: Yes, as long as we don't find ourselves up against a highly disciplined, cohesive enemy, and at the moment it looks as if we're not.

    At present the threats to our existence are internal rather than external. We can go on for a long time without a revolution that causes something new to happen. That's not to say we will be living in a particularly estimable level of civilization. Our art may become so degenerate that future generations will be completely uninterested in it. Life may becomeincreasingly insecure. But the great threat to us is that we have a society which is devoted to the pursuit of happiness, seen largely in material terms - economic well-being - and we shall fail to deliver the goods. I'm not even talking about other sorts of happiness now, but just economic goods.

Tyrrell: How come? We've never had so much materially.

Glyn-Jones: Because the financial costs of policing, arson, vandalism and family breakdown destroy the very raison-d'etre of materialist societies, namely, rising living standards. That's always happened in the past. Down here, where I live in the South West, there is a hospital which has just had to switch £80,000 into security fencing, which it would otherwise have used for patient care; there are umpteen examples like that. I read just the other day that the cost of crime to small businesses in the last 12 months was £1.5 billion. They have already reached the stage where the expense of screens to stop ram raiders, burglar alarms, in-store closed circuittelevision to combat shop lifting, store detectives and so on is at such a high level they can no longer make a profit. They can't even pay for insurance, the cost of crime is so great, particularly in the inner cities. The cost of more policing and prisons is crippling.

    Look at what's happening in the schools! The amount of finance they are now having to put into security is enormous - all over the country. Down here in Exeter, four years ago, the Municipal Mutual Insurance Company went broke. Overnight local authorities found they were uninsured. Fire engines and ambulances had to be shut up in their stations. They couldn't risk putting them on the streets uninsured. And what broke MMI was mainly insurance claims for school theft and school arson. One in eight schools are being set on fire every year by out-of control children. And computers and other electronic equipment are disappearing from schools at a rapidly increasing rate.

Tyrrell: Yes - even our little village primary school had its one and only, brand new computer stolen within 24 hours of it being installed.

Glyn-Jones: That's now typical. You also have a vast amount of fraud and theft going on in high places, and not just fraud by company directors that average citizens may be practising, but huge fraud in government, in the National Health Service, the Civil Service, in Pension Funds, in City institutions - many being fined for malpractice now - and the cost of all this corruption comes out of people's hard earned income and savings. Even pension funds aren 't safe.

    The degree of theft from churches, National Trust property, from people's cars, boats, houses, gardens - all of this is economically diminishing because, although you may be able to afford to replace stolen or destroyed items, or claim insurance money for it, the insurance puts the premiums up and we all have to pay for that. It's got so bad now that many people think nothing of regularly making false claims on their insurance!

    All this makes it more difficult to achieve the economic advance that governments like to promiseus, quite apart from all the other problems we are up against now.

Tyrrell: It's as if we're running faster and faster but just going backwards.

Glyn-Jones: Moreover, going backwards on the down escalator! Another reason we shall fail to deliver the goods is permissiveness. For instance, state welfare payments for single parents are going up and up. When people say that this doesn't matter, "people are just not bothering to go through the marriage ceremony but are mostly living in pretty stable relationships", it just isn't true. Recent research showed that now 60 per cent of unmarried single mothers have never lived with the father of their baby.

    There's a vast level of costs involved. We just don't know to what extent the disturbed and delinquent children of broken families are adding to our costs, the costs of looking after them and paying for the damage that they do to other people.

Tyrrell: And are these all signs that the majority of us are living for immediate gratification of the senses?

Glyn-Jones: Yes. And we see this everywhere. For example, nobody is expected to be able to control themselves sexually any longer. If you fall in love, that's it. You can do anything you want. But at the beginning of this century there were millions of women across Europe left single after the First World War. Nobody expected them to go off and break up other people's marriages just because they hadn't got a man of their own. And yet now anybody who hasn't got a sexual partner of their own finds another one, and if they happen to 'fall in love' with someone who's married, never mind what damage it does to the husband or wife or children left behind. Love is now supposed to be a completely irresistible impulse. Well, the Greeks of the classical period considered that sort of love a disease - a form of madness.

Tyrrell: I'm quite sure it is. Love is a trance state. "Love is blind," as they say. Of course this is where the arts and entertainment draw much material from because relationships endlessly fascinate.
How do you see the three different views of the world reflected in the culture of today? I'm intrigued whether you think that the arts actually help to create the sensate society or whether they just reflect it.

Glyn-Jones: It depends what art it is. These three different views of the world can be traced in the evolution of law and custom; in the relationship between religion and science; in attitudes to technology and to the way we exploit the material world. It's also observable in the dominant philosophies - political, moral and metaphysical; and in the way in which different societies behave. But, above all, they are made manifest in the arts.

    Controversy over whether dramatic entertainment is simply reflecting life; responding to a market in sensational taste; or initiating value changes that are impinging on real life, is raging now. I think that the visual arts, particularly film, television and theatre, very readily put a stamp of approval on behaviour. They validate actions and behaviour in a much stronger way than if you only read about them. Now we see the public taste for explicit sex and violence evolving with all the enthusiasm of the Roman amphitheatre. And there is no doubt this spills out onto the streets.
The emotional damage done to victims of criminals, muggers, rapists and murderers is incalculable, a state of affairs which victim support groups try to ameliorate; but some sufferers are destroyed by the loss of their trust in fellow human beings. An 86-year old woman, though unhurt when her handbag containing only £4 was snatched, never smiled again and in a month she was dead. It's the elderly who remember a very different social atmosphere who are probably the most affected. The philosopher Leopold Kohr died in February 1994 a broken-hearted man shortly after the fourteenth burglary of his Gloucestershire home that left all his papers ransacked. "They have finally murdered my career," he said, "I do not think I can begin writing again."

Tyrrell: Some people say, though, that it's fear of crime, not crime itself, that is the real enemy.

Glyn-Jones: Yes. I've noticed The Times, in particular, never ceases to point out, each time the Home Office releases the latest crime figures, that conditions are far worse in other countries; that the apparent increase in crime reflects unreliable statistics rather than real increases; and that in any case the statistical likelihood of being a victim of violence remains low. Whilst it's true that Home Office surveys reveal a huge discrepancy between crime and reported crime - not, in itself, a particularly consoling discovery - leaving open the possibility that apparent increases may be due largely to more reporting and recording, anecdote and personal experience convince most people that they are in greater peril than they used to be.

    A low statistical risk influences perception less than the extreme nastiness of the incidents that do occur. For example, householders faced with minor vandalism in their localities hesitate to protest, remembering the couple on a South London housing estate who, in 1989, perished in the flames when their flat was set on fire following their complaint about their neighbours' loud music. A train passenger who had the gall to remonstrate with fellow passengers for putting their feet on the seat upholstery was stabbed through the heart. A father-of-three, who challenged 20 young vandals on a Cardiff estate in June 1993, was kicked to death. In Christchurch, Dorset, a month later, a 56-year-old man who asked a group of teenagers to quieten down had his teeth knocked out after being kicked to the ground. A man trying to stop a burglary at a neighbour's home near Portsmouth had his leg broken in 6 places; his assailants included a 13-year-old girl. I could go on.

    In 1993, three appalling crimes confirmed, in many people's estimation, the connection between the collapse of civilized standards and the influence of popular entertainment. The abduction, slow sexual torture and murder of two-year-old James Bulger by two ten-year-olds held up to the British public a stark and brutal reflection of what sort of conduct the nation was now breeding. Both perpetrators were video addicts whose first port-of-call after the murder was a video shop. A number of details in the case reflected incidents in a 'video nasty', Child's Play 3, which was known to have been seen by the father of one of the murderers, though it was denied that the child had seen it. Shortly after their conviction there was a trial of 6 adults accused of the torture, sexual and otherwise, of a 16-year-old girl whom they finally disposed of by setting on fire. Unexpectedly the victim lived long enough to give police details of her tormentors. Child's Play 3 featured overtly in the torture. In neither case did the police impugn the video, though others did. Police did, however, link the kicking to death of the man in Cardiff who remonstrated with the gang for vandalism with the American film 'Juice', which the youths had been watching. Commentators tend to describe such violence as "mindless", but it is no more 'mindless' than enjoying a pint of beer. Destruction and the infliction of suffering is now seen by many people as pleasurable.

    The argument about whether saturation in a depraved culture produces adult or juvenile criminals, lances criminal propensities. or is a symptom of wider influences which are just manifesting themselves in our culture, will go on and on no doubt. But, if the cultural celebration of criminality is primarily a symptom, it does not follow that it should not be subjected to controls, just as medical symptoms are. But it does mean that, unless the underlying dynamics of the disease are confronted, the controls will be no more than plasters on a sick organism. Violence and pornography are beamed from satellites, filter by phone line along computer networks and seep through computer games sold to children. This is very nasty material indeed, and it is more prevalent and much easier to find than most people imagine.

Tyrrell: This is quite different than the effect of stories from the oral traditions, which are often quite lurid, or the power of Classical Greek theatre, isn't it?

Glyn-Jones: Yes. It's interesting that the Greeks would not even allow on-stage violence. They dealt with the most appalling atrocities in their drama, but they were always reported from offstage. The audience didn't see them acted out in front of their eyes.

Tyrrell: Your work is primarily concerned with the collapse of the social order, and this is precisely why I think it relates to our interest in therapy for disturbed and unhappy people. What do you think about this?

Glyn-Jones: I didn't specifically explore this in my book, but my highly unfashionable standpoint is implicit in it, if not explicit. My own belief, and it is one I've come to through harsh personal experience, is that we grossly overestimate our own importance, and make our situation much worse by talking the language of rights, which can only leave us resentful, dissatisfied and in conflict with others.

    One of the few things on which I agree with the Marxists is in regarding the language of individual rights as corrosive of social cohesion, as well as being productive of much personal distress. Of course that doesn't mean I condone the system of oppression, the Gulag, in the USSR or anywhere else. But I try to phrase all statements about conduct between human beings - or human beings and animals, come to that - in the language of 'duties'. Old-fashioned Christianity used to talk about the Vale of Tears', and this at least helped people to accept such misfortunes as bereavement and acute disappointment. Today, with the foolish shibboleth of universal happiness, we've bred a population raw with frustration and - yes - resentful rage. And modern Christianity, with its overemphasis on how important each one of us is in the sight of God, and how much he loves us all etc., totes faggots to the fire ...

Tyrrell: ... adding the stench of hypocrisy to the tyranny of individualism. Do you see any hopeful signs that we might come out of this sensate phase without a complete collapse?

Glyn-Jones: The current Green movement is interesting in throwing down the gauntlet to materialism and hedonism - well, two gauntlets really. One is from those talking the language of expediency: we must control ourselves in order not to wreak damage on ourselves and our descendants. The other talks in transcendental terms about the ultimate unity of all living things, an attitude commanding us to regard creation as a sort of sacred trust. The first proposition brooks dispute - "I've no children ... why should I forego pleasure on behalf of other people's descendants?" etc. The second is absolute, and to me much more compelling.

Tyrrell: The trouble is, talking about "the ultimate unity of all living things" often makes people feel they are doing something without them getting any nearer knowing what can and needs to be done.

    It seems to me that, unless we bring our acquisitional instincts under conscious control soon, we face extinction. We have no choice but to learn to be economical about satisfying the base greeds that largely motivate us and determine much of our behaviour. This is quite different from saying, as conventional religious people so often do, that we must "eliminate all desire" or "own nothing". The important thing is to satisfy these basic needs with the minimum gratification necessary in order to free ourselves. Then perhaps we can begin to operate in other ways.

    But, at the moment, these basic drives - all aspects of greed - dominate our lives. We are not in charge of ourselves while these powerful instincts are running riot, causing chaos and destruction wasting our time and energy. We are making our own and other people's lives miserable or impossible. You describe this so well in your book - how we become cruel and insensitive as our greed blinds us to other people's needs.

    If we have a destiny, this is not the way to fulfil it. And the first step to improving the situation must surely be to bring these instinctual drives under control, in other words - to gain freedom from them.

Glyn-Jones: I'm afraid my reflections will probably only reveal how little I understand about the real problems psychotherapists are dealing with. If so, I can only apologise, and revert to the excuse that in my work I am intent on observing the evolution of the whole civilization. When all's said and done, though, Sorokin's message is: it is people, and their choices, that determine what happens.

    I read a book which included the phrase "between the stimulus and the response comes the space", and went on to explain that it didn't matter whether the stimulus was genetic or environmental, we have the capacity to determine our response. This is contrary to most modern assumptions. Day after day scientists, especially biologists (physicists are more circumspect) on radio, TV and in the Press express their conviction that everything is materially determined.

    I have just been reading David C Korten's 'When Corporations Rule the World', and rather unexpectedly towards the end, he distinguishes "Transcendental monism, which holds that matter arises from consciousness" with "Materialist monism, which sees consciousness as arising from matter." He sees in the former the only hope of a transformation of consciousness which will empower humanity to combat the destructive forces of materialism now rampant in the "global economy". It's much what Sorokin was saying when he declared that our vision of where Reality ultimately resides, whether wholly in, or beyond, the material world, determines whether a civilization prospers or declines.

 

Anne Glyn-JonesANNE GLYN-JONES read PPE at Oxford and then worked in Geneva for the World Health Organisation and Ottawa for the National Film Board of Canada. She also spent 5 years acting and stage managing in repertory and television. She was research archivist to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in the preparation of his memoirs and then was for 12 years Devon Research Fellow at the University of Exeter where she published a number of reports and articles on aspects of public policy. Her book, 'Holding up a Mirror - How Civilizations Decline' is published by Century.

 

"The Therapist" Volume 4 - No. 1: 1996

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