6 October 2012

74 Old Tiverton Road

Memories from a shared student house: 74 Old Tiverton Road, Exeter (1982-83).

In 1980 I left my parental home in Haslemere in Surrey to take a three year degree course at Exeter University. By far the most memorable year was my last, 1982-83, in which I shared 74 Old Tiverton Road, Exeter with seven other students. This short article was originally written in May 1998 with some small amendments made in October 2012.

He, that his whole youth denies,
Is surely dead before he dies.

From a poem by M. Dewar

Milan Kundera once said that there was no future or past, only the present. As far as the past is concerned, there is a process of remembering and forgetting; we remember individually, or do so with others through mutually reinforced myths, but always seeing the world through the tinted spectacles of the present. Even if we don't distort, we select; and those events from the past which do not bear on our current worries and concerns are largely forgotten.

The selective and distorted memory pictures from our past are bound together to form personal myths – what we believe about ourselves. We would like to believe that these narratives form continuity in the form of an unfolding and blossoming of our lives and that they have a meaning which forms the basis of our life, and therefore the foundation for our immortality. If we believed that our lives were merely a series of disconnected and irrelevant events, our immortality (i.e. ourselves as an idea) would be impossible.

The memories of our youth are highly significant here. Most of us, unless we were extremely unfortunate in our youth, tend to idealise that period, stretching from puberty to our launch into the adult world, as our personal Garden of Eden, which existed before age and compromise dented us mentally and physically. While it is axiomatic that the past determines the present, the chequered path of material causes is forgotten in favour of a narcissistic adoration of our youthful period. Our memories tell us that the summer nights were longer, warmer and more beautiful than now; and it is because of such adoration for youth that the 'growing up' novel is so popular. Often such is the strength of our memories of youth that they bring forth the sickness and delight of nostalgia.

Our personal myths consist of defining moments in the form of events or series of events which changed our lives. Both now and at the time I felt that the year 1982-83 which I spent at 74 Old Tiverton Road was one such defining moment.

We were eight university students, 20-22 years old, living in a shared house: six men and two women. We were human science students studying politics, psychology, ecology, law and drama. But in those ten month there was a semi-conscious drive to forge a new set of values, the effects of which have remained to some degree with us to this day. Some of us were more involved in that process than others; and no doubt the role that Old Tiverton Road plays in our personal myths varies between the people involved. But that time was important for all of us.

In the first place our lives were a deliberate reaction against the then prevailing values of lower middle-class Thatcherism. Despite most of us originating from just that lower middle class, we rejected Thatcher's individualism, Puritanism, materialism and aggression in favour of co-operation, hedonism, self-recognition and pacifism.

The most significant example of co-operation was the cooking rota. Without fail the person whose turn it was always bought the food, did the cooking and washed up. It always surprised me how among so many other students (or indeed other people living together) each cooked for himself. Shared meals bring people together and it brought us together.

Hedonism was endemic. If somebody didn't hurt somebody else, then s/he was free to do as s/he wished. Thus much of the house had a pleasure maximisation design, subtle lighting, large low beds, beanbags and wall hangings. The demarcation between sleep and consciousness, work and play, and sex and friendship was narrowed.

If the world outside was becoming more materialistic - what you had was more important than what you were - the reverse was true in the house. Scorn was poured on material possessions; and value placed on 'being.' To that end whole nights were taken up with mutual introspection with the purpose of self-understanding, the removal hang-ups and self-improvement. It was largely through the desire for self-improvement, rather than employment, that we interpreted the education we were receiving and giving ourselves.

The external world was aggressive - both individually and collectively - with speed, profit and aggression destroying slowness and understanding. By contrast our self-realisation was based on sensation and comprehension and could not be centred on an individual physical or materialistic conquest of the external world.

These values, plus other thoughts and experiences, became the spectacles through which we saw ourselves and the world. Now we have forgotten much; e.g. how dirty was the bathroom basin? We can't remember because it was not important and it doesn't define us. Yet, it was with 74 Old Tiverton Road in our heads that we were launched into the adult world. For some of us that adult world was so ugly that we withdrew from it into the world of receiving social security payments in order to live, and in rejecting Thatcher's universe, we tried in vain to create a community based on our values. We failed, but learned and moved on. Yet those values remain with us and we evaluate so much with them in mind.


1 October 2012

Offensive opinions: challenge but don't censor

Labelling an opponent's argument offensive does not win an argument

It is becoming increasingly common to find commentators both on the web and in face-to-face discussion arguing in the following way. A point is made with which they disagree – for instance one critical of religious belief or concerning the definition of rape – and the commentator feels that his or her opponent’s argument can be dismissed simply by labelling it offensive.

What the commentator is de facto saying is that the “offensive” argument simply shouldn't exist. The logic is that if the allegedly offensive argument, which contradicts his or her own views, is taken away, then the remaining argument is strengthened and legitimised. That is not so.

No argument can be deemed illogical, incorrect or morally wrong simply because somebody else finds it offensive. Labelling an argument “offensive” only says something about the people using that label, namely that they don’t like it. It does nothing to qualify or demolish the allegedly offensive opinion.

At one time people found it offensive to suggest that the world was round, or that the earth circulated the sun; their feeling of offence couldn't change a fact. At one time a majority of people found homosexuality offensive, but their bigotry couldn't prevent the development of the idea that human beings, whether gay or not, should have rights.

Nobody should be prevented from saying something simply because someone else finds it offensive. Offensive opinions (and of course they exist) need challenging, but that is not done simply by labelling them offensive.