77. Imagine there’s no Santa.


The UK version of Village People.

In Buxton, Derbyshire, Father Higgins is in big trouble this week, for telling the kids that Santa isn’t real. Sections of the media pretended to get upset.

Father Higgins doesn’t like fakes. He thinks we should be judged on what we do rather than what we say. He’d rather see people carrying out charitable works than mumbling prayers over their rosary beads. People say to him, ‘I’m not a religious man but…’ and he interjects ‘neither am I really’. Father Higgins has a tendency to go off message at times, but there is no Bishop in Nottingham in post at present to tell him off. And besides that, he’s of an advanced age, he’s been at Buxton, Derbyshire for decades and he knows very well there’s a drastic shortage of priests in the UK. No Martin Sheen character is going to set forth up river to finish him off like in Apocalypse Now. He’s just not expecting the Spanish Inquisition.

Religions have to be careful about debunking mythology, not just because of the pot -calling – the – kettle proverb. Reality is too harsh to tolerate full on, so we have to create a buffer zone of fantasy around it. Some fantasies are shared, like talking animals, royal families and Santa, while some are highly specific to individuals. Mark Chapman fantasised about killing John Lennon for a long time before carrying out the act. Allegedly, Chapman was a fervent Christian and Beatles fan, and had come to regard Lennon as a kind of false prophet. He was influenced by the character of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, who hated phonies, yet was something of a phoney himself. It takes one to know one, or as a psychoanalyst might say, it takes one to project one.

Since Lennon had taken the trouble to call his last album ‘Double Fantasy’ rather than say, ‘Double Truth’,  Chapman’s reaction was harsh, to say the least. He should have paid more attention to another contemporary New York musician, Billy Joel, who wrote ‘Angry Young Man’ as something of an antidote to political protest.

Despite that song, which seemed to punctuate an ‘end of history’ moment for over-righteous indignation, people still queue up to denounce perceived hypocrisy. Just think about the Critical Psychiatry Network, who stay up at nights raging about made-up illnesses and pretend drug therapies. Just think about the people who hate the Band Aid single, just because it sometimes snows in Africa and nearly every African person knows it’s Christmas time.

Could Holden Caulfield find anyone around today that he could believe in?  I suspect he’d have to settle for a pet dog. He’d never find a human being he could tolerate. People are intrinsically irrational and hypocritical and contradictory. It’s the way the mind works, isn’t it Mr Spock? In acknowledgement, we have seen a shifting emphasis in therapy away from ‘rational / emotive’ towards ‘acceptance / commitment’, the acceptance being that humans have messy wiring diagrams. We are all phonies now – get over it.

The problem seems to occur not so much when someone creates a fantasy world around themselves, but when they create the wrong alternative reality. In the news today we hear that pets are getting more likely to attack their owners, supposedly because they are not given enough exercise. People are getting dogs that are much too large to live in ordinary homes. Bonsai dogs have been around for a while, but they are not popular. When you buy a dog you are buying a fantasy companion, not an ergonomically-correct domestic appliance. Not that you would really want an appliance whose main function was generating and randomly distributing hair and faecal material. We have an old Dyson for that job.

Though the media have profited greatly from the expanding market in fantasy, the main losers appear to be those bastions of rationality, maths and science.

A large number of our children don’t understand that 85 is a smaller number than 90. If you ask them, ‘if I buy an orange for 20p and an apple for 15p and I pay with a pound coin, how much change will I get?’, they will answer £1.35. But then we do have a thing called Quantitative Easing, which means they are probably right. And what’s more they can all sing all the songs from Frozen.






9. The Optional Illusion.


Facing my inquiry panel.

It is bank holiday weekend and I am waiting for the news to show the usual rioting in Brighton, as rival gangs of philosophers – down from ‘the smoke’ – fight each other with motorcycle chains. The battle between Positivists and Constructivists continues more ferociously than ever.

It’s all to do with the way you like to see Reality. The R word is an issue for mental health specialists, since mental disorders are loosely defined as a breakdown in reality testing. Positivists like to measure reality with a ruler, whereas Constructivists like to feel it through their sensory experiences.

Positivists are quite certain you have a dining room table made of wood, whereas Constructivists aren’t even certain they are in your house at all.

Having watched the Matrix, there has to be a chance that we are all just brains in buckets being fed information via the higher number Sky channels.

There are times when Positivism is essential, like measuring the dose of insulin and checking the blood sugar level, or flying a jumbo jet. When it comes to appreciating a restaurant or a book, it is probably better to judge the overall experience than rate it with a star scale.

Consider this experience: a car goes past you. There is a large dog sitting in the passenger seat, facing forwards. The dog has the window slightly open and a serious look on its face.

Why is that funny?

The humour is at the expense of the dog. It thinks its a human. It probably thinks it is driving the car. Sadly, the dog probably does not possess ‘theory of mind’. It is happily oblivious to its station in life, which is having no rights whatsoever and certainly no vote, not even for the European parliament.

Pets are big business in the UK. How much of the supermarket is devoted to pet food? How much greenhouse gas is produced by pet related activity?

What are pets actually for, if we exclude working sheepdogs and guide dogs?

OK, horses are arguably a form of transport. And I believe ferrets play a vital role in carrying cables through underground pipes. I think there are mites that play a role in cheese production, oh yes, and the little worm that goes in Tequila, though I’m not sure what it does.

I ask just to get some comments from pet owners and tequila experts.

If the answer is ‘for company’ then I’m thinking do pet owners display the same kind of obliviousness as the dog in the passenger seat?

Treating dogs and cats as people is a strange distortion of what animals really are. But in a way, we are all like the dog in the passenger seat. We construct a view of the world, but the view has many blind spots, illusions and distortions.

If the world was presented to the senses in a completely clear and unfiltered stream, it would probably seem unbearably harsh. Nature can appear very cruel if we don’t give it a bit of positive PR, which is when it becomes all things bright and beautiful.

You would like more friends so you create an imaginary friend in the shape of a grey cat. It has a droopy moustache and its name is  Zorro.

How many movies, how much merchandising, has gone into ‘anthropomorphism’ – projecting human characteristics on to animals?

The brain seems to have a tendency to attribute human like characteristics to natural phenomena and even inanimate objects such as steam engines and curling tongs, so its not surprising that creatures with two eyes and four limbs are treated as though they had finer feelings.

How much are you really empathising with a dog if you regard it as your loyal friend?

By now you have guessed that I just don’t ‘get’ animals as pets, and not much really as food. Some time soon I hope the genetic engineers will be able to make fillet steak from cell culture on a giant loom in Milton Keynes, and our cows (and horses) can relax again.

Animals have a key role in the eco system and they are incredible in how they can look and behave. They are magnificent creatures. I nearly said they are magnificent pieces of machinery (they are). I love Disney films, and Tom and Jerry, but I think I have placed these firmly in the Fiction section.

I just don’t think Toads can really buy motor cars and get put in jail for dangerous driving. Not even in Hartlepool, where they allegedly hanged a monkey having mistaken it for a French spy.

Just to leave the pet lovers alone for a while, let us turn our attention to motorcycles. From a positivist perspective we find that these accelerate very fast in a straight line. They are very cold and noisy, don’t really go round corners as fast as cars, use more petrol and tyres than cars, and are quite dangerous.

That’s if you actually ride them outside their safe operating radius of one mile from Cafe Nero. As a form of transport they get only one star.

But to counteract this, using a constructivist method, we temper our initial experience of noise, cold and danger with a range of romanticised imagery borrowed from Marlon Brando, Bruce Springsteen and Ewan McGregor, that sets motorcycling into a grainy black and white arts movie with a working class hero.

So Pets. And Motorcycles. The fantasy does not match the reality. We use ‘sentimentalisation’ to reduce the discord between the ways things are and the way they really ought to be. War has probably been sentimentalised more than pets, and slightly more dangerously.

And luckily, there is an absolutely huge industry whose job it is to help us not see things correctly, spanning politics, advertising and business. Advertisers construct chains of feel good imagery and attach them to our perceptions. Yogurt and Skiing, for instance.

In the motor industry engineers try to reduce what they call ‘NVH’, noise vibration and harshness. Sentimentalism is a defence against NVH in the personal environment. It’s a cosy room with cats and cuddly toys, where Liberace plays Candle in the Wind.

Consider this statistic:

Of the 26.4 million households currently in the UK, 7.6 million – or 29% – are made up of only one person, with the growth in single occupant households owned by the middle aged creating extra demand for homes.

There are many reasons for this social trend, but it seems we are becoming increasingly intolerant of living with other people. This trend has also been termed ‘schizoid society’, where we all inhabit a little bubble, and our only contact with others is as spectators.

Such a process was well anticipated and described by Isaac Asimov, in his novels about the planet Solaria. People, in proximity, just cause too much NVH. People – most people – just wouldn’t fit in the yogurt commercial.

Some of the most attractive, well thought out and effective types of therapy have devoted themselves to seeing the world more carefully and sensibly. Some nice examples include rational emotive therapy, now called REBT; personal construct psychotherapy, and Karl Rogers’ person centred therapy.

Interestingly these were all developed in the 1960s and 70s. Sadly none of them are really available much now, not in a pure form at least, though they continue mainly through strands of CBT and counselling.

I don’t think anyone has invented an anti-sentimentality tablet. Nor can I find a sentimentality rating scale to measure its effects. The lifestyle advice is relatively simple however.

Avoid sending cards for anything apart from birthdays and Christmas. Better still, avoid sending cards at all. Avoid most of Steven Spielberg’s output, and anything with James Stewart in it. Rationalise your yogurt buying to the 1000g ‘Eridanous’ pots from Lidl.

Sentimentalism is a kind of emotional clutter. There is a lot written about ‘decluttering’ your house, most of it rather obvious. First order a skip, then rescue ten things you really need.

Not you Tiddles.