Sunday, September 19, 2004


I’ve just finished reading John Windham’s speculative fiction novel, The Day of the Triffids. In it, there is a cynical and hard-boiled but far from loveless character called Coker. He’s successfully survived the slow apocalypse which has brought much of the rest of the world to its knees and as a result of his struggle for survival in the novel’s post-civilisation world, he has become an intensely practical man and grown to deplore the pretentious, the aesthetic and the religious. While an extremist in most respects and a born-again utilitarian, the character of Coker can be employed as a metaphor in order to help illustrate what contributors to ‘Practical Philosophy’ might stand for.

Coker is troubled by laziness, by indifference to social issues and by those who refuse to learn until only desperation commands them to do so. Moreover he demonstrates to us that people can be made to see; that change can be sought and that the masses can be inspired by the humble few.

He and the story’s main character, Bill Mason, happen across a commune of chance survivors: their number consisting entirely of middle-aged Christian women. The women are afraid to deviate from God’s familiar commandments or the respectable 1950s social etiquette despite the concepts of God and Society essentially being killed off along with the rest of the world. For weeks these women have been fumbling around in a darkened mansion until Bill and Coker show up and use their petrol reserves to fuel an electricity generator. The women are astounded at the ingenuity of the men - a prospect which only angers Coker:

“If you had just taken the trouble to start the engine,” Coker said, looking at her “if you wanted light why didn’t you try to start it?”
“I don’t know anything about engines or electricity.”
Coker went on looking at her thoughtfully.
“So you just went on sitting in the dark,” he remarked, “and how long do you think you are likely to survive if you carry on sitting in the dark when things need doing?”
She was stung by his tone.
“It’s not my fault if I’m no good at things like that.”
“I’ll differ there,” said Coker, “it’s not only your fault, it’s a self-created fault. Moreover its an affection to consider yourself too spiritual to understand anything mechanical. It is a petty and very silly form of vanity. Everyone starts by knowing nothing about anything, but God gives him - and even her - the brains to find out with. Failure to use them is not a virtue to be praised: even in women it is a gap to be deplored.”
She looked understandably annoyed. She said:
“That’s all very well but people’s minds work on different lines. Men understand how machines and electricity work. Women just aren’t interested in that kind of thing as a rule.”
“Don’t hand me a mess of myth and affectation; I’m not taking it,” said Coker , “you know perfectly well that women can and do, or rather did, handle the most complicated and delicate machines when they took the trouble to understand them. What happens is that they’re generally too lazy to take the trouble unless they have to.”

Where Coker talks of the ignorance of the Christian women, we write of the apathetic population (as explained by Atum in his initial outline). Where Coker speaks of an understanding of electricity and physical mechanics, we write about the awareness of social issues and desire to push for change. Now more than ever, people must take the time to develop this understanding if the world is to resist being pulled into a pit of stagnation by the tentacles of consumerism. This understanding can be developed if one turns to philosophy and the social sciences, but it's far easier not to take an interest at all and to rather accept at face value whatever daily slants are puked out by the tabloids and what important issues are forgotten about when the media spotlight turns once again to the cute and the trivial.

“You can’t say any longer ‘oh dear, I don’t understand this kind of thing’ and leave it for someone else to deal with. No one is going to be muddle-headed enough now to confuse ignorance with innocence now - it’s too important.”

And he’s right. There are no innocent bystanders. Only ignorance - a conscious and deliberate one - allows the third world to continue starving and prevents justice being brought to greedy corporate criminals.

“The engine just happened to be a symbol. The point is we’ll all have to learn not simply what we like, but as much as we can about running a community and supporting it. The men can’t just fill in a voting paper and hand the job to someone else.”

The only risk I think we run is of preaching to the converted. Did the efforts of developing a "people's philosophy" (Grayling, DeBotton, Blackburn et al) really help? I'm not even sure how 'Fast Food Nation', 'Supersize Me' and 'Shopped' and Michael Moore's stuff changed many things. Having said that, I think 'international world peace day' came about as the reult of one man's efforts and someone has already mentioned the origins of Greenpeace on here. It's important not to keep on trying: if you throw enough shit at a wall, some of it's gotta stick.


Blogger News is Good said...

"Only ignorance - a conscious and deliberate one - allows the third world to continue starving and prevents justice being brought to greedy corporate criminals."

Was the failure of the women in Wyndham's Triffid's really their fault, or a sad outcome of their formation within a male-controlled society? And is the ignorance of the 'common person' really simply down to their stupidity?

I'll be presenting that point tomorrow in a follow up to my first post - in "Distortions: the fault of the mirror-makers!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"



9:15 PM  
Blogger Bobocop said...

No, I don't think it's down to their stupidity (either in the case of the metaphor or amongst the real-world apathetic). They just aren't encouraged to think outsida da box.

9:37 PM  
Blogger News is Good said...

That seems something of a retraction. Is not "[t]hey just aren't encouraged to think outsida da box" at odds with the "conscious and deliberate" ignorance previously descibed?

Your original post seems to use the Coker example to argue that people are wilfully ignorant and they are fully responsible for this and no argument is possible. Do you now think that people are not "encouraged to think outside da box" and therefore the fault lies elsewhere?

Or are the post and your comment actually compatible in some way I miss?

10:19 PM  

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