83. Bandwagon for sale, very low mileage.

A concrete windswept piazza, early in the morning, before the philosophers arrive.

I tried to warn the Liberal Democrats about the negative halo effect that occurs when anyone talks about mental illness in the media. As soon as the talk gets round to mental health, people become upset and change channel, without even knowing why. Not only that but they get grumpy and choke on their pop tarts. The reaction is deeply intuitive, like a brain stem reflex.

The Libs banged on about mental illness affecting one in four of us and needing to be put on the same footing as physical illness services, eliminating suicide etc, just as though they hadn’t read this blog. They didn’t listen and now they are a burned out ruin on the hard shoulder of politics.

Though the halo effect has been known for more than 50 years, this has not stopped a succession of doomed public awareness campaigns such as ‘defeat depression’.

We know that mental health information is perceived as toxic, but no-one has adequately explained why.

Since Shirley Star’s studies of public opinion in fifties USA, the consistent findings have been that people with mental illnesses are regarded as dangerous and unpredictable. Presumably, so too are violent criminals, but they get massive media coverage and scrutiny. Most likely, the ingredient that puts people off dealing with mental health is having to try and understand it. Once you start to think about it, even if you’re in the business, there’s a large parcel of mental work to be done before you can process the information.

For instance, drawing the line between unhappiness and depression, separating personality disorders from illnesses from disabilities, let alone facing the mind brain problem. We’re pretty quickly into Melvyn Bragg territory, but without his panel of expert communicators.

It’s exactly the same for other specialists. A motor mechanic recently tried to explain to me – in some detail – about what had gone wrong with the car’s air conditioning. I remember the phrase ‘wobble plate’, but to be honest that’s the only thing I can tell you about it now. I’ve had to abandon any smug pretensions to knowing my way round a Compressor. Though I will, soon, find an opportunity to say the words ‘wobble plate’, somehow or another.

I’d compare the negative halo to the effect of encountering a protest demonstration in a shopping centre.  First instincts are to avoid it, not particularly in case of violence, but more in case you are called upon to examine a complex issue, like whether a remote area of a foreign country has been shabbily treated. Thinking is the last thing you want to do in the Arndale Centre. But it’s the kind of thing you might do by listening to Radio 4 at about 8pm, alone in your car on a smooth stretch of highway. But then that’s your choice, if you’re in the mood for mental activity.

Outside the police station, a large sign reads PRIDE. I’m going slowly enough to recognise that PRIDE is an acronym – after each capital letter is a smaller word. Subliminally, I perceive the words to be: Pride, Respect, Integrity, Dedication and Empathy. Are these virtues (or sin, in the case of pride) really top of our list of desirable qualities in a police service? Surely, these are not the words you want to hear when the machetes are waving and the AKs start popping.

Having said that, I’ve had no success in weaving an acronym from the words, Taser, Cuffs, Tear-Gas, Smith, Wesson, Court and Prison.

Doubtless the police have their reasons for presenting themselves as social workers, such as the diminished number of real social workers. And obviously they have to try and maintain the moral high ground. Nevertheless, my brain stem reaction to the PRIDE sign was: misguided PR campaign. People are proud of the police because they stand up to horrible people, not because they are empathic. Bad Boys 3 will not be subtitled Good Boys.

The negative halo effect cannot be countered by dressing things up. On the contrary, we are set on guard most acutely by any hint of deception. Very large and fast neural systems are devoted to spotting trickery. It takes a lot of considered reflection to counteract such defences, which means weighing things up carefully. The very thing that stresses out the wobble plate.


48. Tuning in to the sound of sharpening knives.


An architect taking a quick personality test

It’s a clear, bright evening in Yorkshire. A man in a Volkswagen Golf stretches both hands behind his head, steering for a while with his knees. He is observed by police safety cameras and later charged with dangerous driving. Not only does he get a year’s ban, 100 hours community service and a fine of £685. In addition he is vilified on the evening news by a sanctimonious policeman. In a moment he has gone from ordinary bloke to public enemy number one. The moral of the story is that any pretence that Yorkshire had to be ‘the Texas of England’ has completely evaporated.

The deeper moral is that sanctimonious people are much more dangerous than careless drivers. It’s not that long ago – the eighties? – that people were put in pillories and stocks and burned as witches. More recently the tabloids have taken over the hunt, bringing down celebrities whenever they can.

I am sure the bible covered this very issue, in the episode about casting stones at the adulterous person. Clearly, hypocrites have always existed. The practice of scapegoating existed in Ancient Greece, where they used to throw a beggar or a disabled person out of town whenever there was a natural disaster. They could have used a goat, like the Israelis, but maybe it suited them better to exclude a person, in terms of reducing the social security budget.

If the storms and floods continue I suspect we will have to blame a football (or cricket) manager and cast him out. It would be all too easy to mention a name or two.

It probably suits the police to pretend they are fighting crime by video. But a casual inspection of the local town centre reveals significant criminal activity. Lots of drivers are using mobile phones, parking on yellow lines, eating sandwiches and smoking cigarettes. All at the same time, in some cases. It wouldn’t take me long, if you made me a crime-fighter, to find people riding bikes without lights, on pavements, or even without hands on the handlebars.

Higher up the criminal food chain, complex laws are also enforced selectively, from drug possession to tax evasion, depending on the whim or policy of the CPS. The EU Commission even has an article in its constitution stating that it will pick and choose what it wants to enforce.

Suffice it to say, there seems to be a lot of luck involved in falling foul of the law, certainly more than your history teacher explained on the Magna Carta field trip.

I suspect the recent legislation banning fox hunting with dogs reflects an acknowledgement that all of us might have a deep rooted and nasty tendency to join a baying mob, which must be guarded against.

Scapegoating is a process found in dysfunctional groups and families. It is viewed as an unhealthy defence mechanism that, nevertheless, serves some purpose in preserving the group’s existence. Scapegoating often seems to occur in group therapy, where it can be interpreted, or even better, treated. With jazz.

Today’s paper reveals that jazz has infiltrated the public sector and has been applied to NHS managers, senior policemen and the department of transport. Alex Steele, musician and founder of ‘Improwise’, states that the NHS, in need of radical change, has called in his jazz quartet several times ‘to help with leadership’.

A police chief is quoted as saying the situation in his organisation was best explored through ‘parallels with the world of jazz’. Comedian Alexei Sayle famously observed that Jazz had no natural enemies or predators, but it seems he was wrong.

The Department of Health ’rounded furiously’ on the jazz workshops, stating that taxpayers will be ‘rightly appalled’.

So, jazz, intended to help groups function better, itself becomes the scapegoat. But Jazz cannot be blamed for careless driving. Hands off the Wheel was grunge, not jazz, and Asleep at the Wheel are Country. From Texas, not Yorkshire.