My first up-close view of depression was from the plastic seat of my sixth-form classroom. Psychology IB offered me a bullet-point guide to what this mental illness involved: mood, sleep, appetite etcetera. Although this clinical course did give an insight into the nature of the condition, my true understanding of it was still somewhat stinted before I arrived at university.
This comprehension however was not one provided by the academic opportunities of Oxford. As the Royal College of Psychiatry dictates in their report Mental health of students in higher education the geographical and social displacement that going to university involves often leaves young people in their transition from adolescence to adulthood more vulnerable, and at times more susceptible to mental health problems. On top of this, with Oxford being one of the world’s leading universities, not to mention the detrimental effects of the competitive atmosphere, there is also evidence to suggest that outstanding intellectual capabilities could be associated with mental health issues. A study conducted by MacCabe et al in 2010 for example, suggests that individuals with high-achieving academic results were fourfold more likely to develop bi-polar disorder than those with average academic results. With this in mind, simply belonging to the Oxford University student population made me more at risk of being exposed to mental health problems; whether they were my own or of those around me.
Statistics and speculations aside however, it was through the latter that my experience of depression took form. With a person close to me being diagnosed with depression early on in their academic career, as an emotionally involved observer, I was also slowly dragged through the snares within the Oxford system. It wasn’t however the lack of support opportunities that struck me as the major problem; it was, bearing in mind the effects depression has on both will power and motivation, the difficulty with which an individual could even begin to address the issue. First and foremost making use of the collegiate referral systems: Welfare officers and peer supporters; all of which as peers within your niche college community, would require a large degree of confidence and self-awareness of the problem to be able to confide in them. Perhaps even if they were in some way involved in the system themselves. Secondly, the option of the college Chaplain which although a detached figure from college life, would have neither the expertise nor the authority to manageably aid the individual. Lastly, and most importantly, the college doctors, nurses, and counselling service, which either work limited hours a week, that with difficulty comply with the density of the Oxford timetable, or that making an appointment is in itself a lengthy and stressful task that can take up to weeks to come to fruition.
With the constant pressures and hurdles of the Oxford lifestyle it is not the ideal environment for a student to deal with, accept and recover from mental health problems. What needs to be done is to tackle the problem at its root, as well as improving the facility with which people can seek help. This means aiding individuals in recognising that they should not feel in any way stigmatised by their condition, as Joe Miles admirably and bravely states in his pioneering article written for the Cherwell in April 2013. Just as importantly however is teaching the people around them not to misunderstand them, and this is the purpose of this article. That the recognition of mental illness goes deeper than simply rejecting the stigma that the label wrongly implies, it means fully acknowledging the mental and physical struggle that the condition incurs: from the journey of personal acceptance of the issue to the problematic practicalities of the side-effects of psychotropic medication. As someone who has witnessed this toil, I would like this article to push the importance of tackling perception and provisions for mental health into the limelight, offering my own hope and support for both the student body, and the individual I am writing this for.
“Sooo…. what did you get?” Cue my fellow course mate, whose burning curiosity about my Prelims performance proved too much for more than two and a half days of tactful discretion on Facebook chat. Actually no, scratch that – because truth be told I’m censoring his twattiness. To quote, what he said instead was this: “Hey, I got a first, and my tutor suggested that I send the academic admin an email to find out how high I ranked in the year. Oh, and by the way, what did you get????? (followed by that obligatory but ironic trail of ‘xxxxx’).” Before anyone typecasts this vignette of cyber interaction as an ‘(ahem) bitter much (ahem)’ scenario, I’m just going to put it out there that the grade classification is beside the point in this discussion. Instead, what I take issue with is how the culture of competitiveness at Oxford creates psychological screw-ups, fosters intellectual snobbery and perpetuates feelings of inadequacy. Having achieved the milestone of ‘Halfway Hall’, I feel ancient enough in the Great Undergraduate Chain of Being to invoke the phrase “in retrospect” without sounding too presumptuous, and in (objective) retrospect Oxford has proven to be the place where the diligent/bright thrive and the dense/slothful go to die. Anyone who complains about workload, work pressure or anything work-related should have already come to terms with the fact that this academic Gargantua is what you bargained for, and if you applied simply with the wish of bagging bragging credentials, well then commiserations – but tough. In this intellectual boot camp, making an effort is less a qualified merit than a stipulated prerequisite, because 99% of the people here are self-trained workers accustomed to toiling away on a regular basis, with the remaining minority being either born geniuses who do the bare minimum and still excel, or posh dandies who got in mostly courtesy of Brideshead prestige. Weekends are a non-existent concept for your average Oxford student, because a Monday essay/problem sheet deadline basically means spending Saturday and Sunday cooped up in everyone’s favourite social hub – the library. Come weekdays, and we plunge straight back into that venerable and vicious cycle of (insert work-related verb and multiply word exponentially). Before long you might even fall victim to that phenomenon which the Japanese call “Karoshi”, which literally translates into “death from overwork”. Such is the saturated presence of work guilt in our lives, which is likely to be compounded when one finds him/herself pitched against a swarming mass of overachieving Einstein 2.0s. Yet given that this status quo is here to stay, what are we to make of this culture and psychology of academic rigour?
Google “Oxford classics mods”, and you’re guaranteed to find “Why do Oxford students commit suicide?” coming up as one of the top search results. This is the headline of a 2009 Telegraph article written by Andrew Brown, and despite the demagogical hyperbole in its connotation, the title nonetheless affirms a sinister, albeit tenuous, relationship between work pressure and psychological health underneath the idyllic façade of the Dreaming Spires. According to a nurse at one of the colleges, 1 in 5 students suffer from some form of depression or anxiety disorder, and I personally know of at least 10 people who have struggled with mental health issues ever since the start of Michaelmas 2013. While one should obviously be wary of pinpointing academic work as the prime culprit behind such a complex problem, there can be no denying that the hectic schedule and taxing demands of the course only serve to aggravate latent feelings of insecurity. The short and intense terms amplify the weight of an already heavier than average workload, and save for chickening out point-blank by asking for a deadline extension, there really is no easy way out when it comes to getting your work done. And being Oxford students, it is unlikely that you would settle for a crassly produced piece of work that cites only Sparknotes and Wikipedia as your bibliographical sources, which brings us back to a fundamental ‘chicken-and-egg’ causality dilemma: Does stress emanate from the demanding and competitive environment of Oxford? Or is it instead our perfectionist impulse and natural high-strung bent which give rise to this climate of stress?
Such a situation is not helped by the quasi-bizarre and almost archaic ‘gown hierarchy’, and the idea that being more academically adept entitles you to publically swoosh around in a flowy gown, make a nominal claim to ‘scholardom’ and rub it in the face of your less-well-performing peers simply boils down to a kind of glorified intellectual smugness. When you come to think about it, the only occasions that call for gowns to be worn are formals and exams, both of which require no intrinsic need for sartorial distinction among students. Your formal pudding will not taste better with flappier sleeves (although it might well be more annoying with them constantly sliding off your shoulders), and to be honest, the last thing you need in an examination would be an empty ego booster or a looming shadow of anxiety that reminds you of how well you once did and hence must not cock up for face’s sake. In short, the gown only functions to inflate and foster feelings of superiority and inferiority in gown- and non-gown wearers respectively. Even if one were to argue that a visual registration of academic difference could serve as an incentive for improvement, I fail to see the value and sustainability of diligence induced by anything less than self-motivation. Indeed, one need not look further beyond Hobbesian materialism to expose the impossibility of that Zen-ish injunction to “stop comparing yourself to others”, and when naturally competitive beings (i.e. Oxford students) are thrust into an insular ‘survival of the fittest’ environment, psychological havoc will ensue as we come to realise that ‘best’ is relative and that there will always be someone more intelligent or knowledgeable than you out there somewhere. A friend of mine once told me in blunt honesty that “the gown is the one thing that makes him feel slightly better about himself”, and as far as I’m aware he is diagnosed with severe depression – a brilliant, but perpetually miserable soul. His case perfectly encapsulates the problem with Oxford’s intellectual stuffiness: what you achieved in Mods/Prelims does not determine your academic capability, and if you measure your self-worth against as arbitrary and nuanced a yardstick as the cut-off line between a First and a 2:1, then you seriously need a healthy dose of perspective. The fact that you’re well-versed in metonymic contiguity or modality concord does not mean that you are more superior, but merely that you’re good at certain parts of your degree, and while acknowledgement of merit per se should definitely be encouraged, the necessity for academic haloisation is questionable, as it only spawns forth a strange breed of ‘first-public-exam well-performers’ – a phrase that means nothing more than what it says.
All of this leads up to the ultimate burning question: Why do we bother with working hard? Are we motivated by intellectual passion, work guilt, or a desire to outperform others so as to prove ourselves to be ‘better’? While there is no doubt that most people here must have applied with at least some degree of enthusiasm for their subject, one can only take so many footnotes and jargons before the appeal of their degree becomes bogged down by dull pedantry. Indeed, some may even assert that studying what they love paradoxically kills it for them, and that the notion of applying postmodern structuralism to a Middle English text such as Piers Plowman amounts to little more than anachronistic farce and academic flash. The concept of work guilt is more ambiguous, and it often emerges more from the fear of not living up to one’s personal standards rather than that of facing the wrath of a tutor. This is especially so for a humanities or an arts student, as there could potentially be no limit to your reading list, given that the mandatory primary text is often only the springboard to an amorphous world of secondary criticism. One only has to survey the shelves at the Rad Cam to recognise that there will always be a limit to our knowledge capacity, which is why if we feel inadequate because someone did better than us in one collection or exam, we might as well wallow in perennial inadequacy, because there are always going to be souls smarter and savvier than us. Yet it is perhaps an equally powerful, if not more fundamental, drive that compels us to make a beeline for the library every day, and that is the competitive streak so endemic to our sense of being and worth. Ultimately, competition, while necessary, should never consume us to the extent of obsession, and if you ever find someone else’s achievements to be the motivating factor of your diligence, then you might as well die hard trying or just give up altogether, because you’ll always be inferior to some other person you have yet to (but probably cannot) trump.
Last week something miraculous happened. For most women, the arrival of your period isn’t really a jumping-for-joy occasion, despite what tampon manufacturers would have us believe. Aside for a lucky few, there’s no such thing as a happy period, and those few days every month are best spent in the company of a hot water bottle, BBC iplayer and a justified dose of self-pity. However, last week, in the History Faculty toilets, I experienced a rush of menstruation-elation. My library located joy probably surpassed that of the Oxonian who interpreted certain illicit substances as exempt from the no food or drink rules in the Bodleian.
It had been eight months since my last period, and the disruption of my menstrual cycle had marked the decline of my healthy body into a shape I no longer recognised. For me, starvation had not initially been about aesthetics, and as much as my horrified friends might tell me that I would look better for gaining some weight, it wasn’t a warped image of myself which led to my illness. I had been suffering with depression, and my unhappiness worked itself out as an obsession with food, initially that it must be healthy and delicious, and ultimately that it must not be eaten at all.
Before my depression, I had always had a healthy relationship with food. I had never been on a diet for more than a day, and while I might have enjoyed the thought of being thinner, I wouldn’t have passed up the opportunity to be prettier, cleverer or funnier either. When I was travelling I (obnoxiously) sent my parents a list of the food I wanted to eat upon my return a month in advance; finding it now it reads like an elegy to all the meals I once enjoyed without worrying about their effect on my body. Birthday celebrations always took place in restaurants; I shared dessert with my mum when we ate out, and at mealtimes I ate until I was full, or admittedly quite frequently past the point of satiation.
Having gone to a highly pressured girls’ school where eating disorders were rife, the signs of anorexia were not alien. The jutting shoulders and knobbly knees of the girls who sat in the canteen with glasses of water in front of them might not have been an unknown sight, but before my illness I could never understand how they could eat so little. Didn’t they get hungry? My fourteen-year-old self didn’t understand the ability of the body to cope with deprivation, and normalise hunger. Like the furtive eating habits which anorexia fostered, the ‘I’m too broke to eat out’ or filling up on water instead of food, the disease is subtle and insidious. After a few weeks of depriving myself, although I wasn’t even aware that this was what I was doing at the time, the food I would eat became increasingly restrictive, and I came to understand the mind-set of those painfully thin girls at school. It became more tempting not to eat, and while I indulged in talking about pasta, cakes and steaks, my diet consisted rather less indulgently of salad and low fat yoghurt.
After five months self-imposed starvation, I had never been so ill, and yet I didn’t feel ill at all. Anorexics often speak of the ‘high’ they experience from emptiness, and indeed that feeling of control in my energy-deprived mind gave me a sense of almost purity. I felt that I had transcended the necessity for sustenance, and yet while nothing passed my lips, I was consumed by thoughts of consumption. I spent hours on recipe websites or reading menus for restaurants I would never have the courage to visit. Elaborate meals were prepared for my family, and one of the few pleasures I found was watching my friends enjoy the food I had prepared, while claiming ‘I ate earlier’. I began to log my caloric intake, and if I hadn’t calculated exactly what I was eating I panicked. My unhealthy attitude towards my self was perpetuated by my sense of disappointment that my thoughts were so basely occupied. I was lucky; I could eat whenever, I wasn’t going to starve. Surely this privileged position should afford me the opportunity to think about things besides where my next meal was coming from, what it would involve, and whether it had been prepared with any oil.
I arrived in Oxford at one of the lowest ebbs of my illness, acutely conscious that I was about to spend Freshers’ Week eating in hall after a summer of meals consumed in increasing isolation. Having never seen me anything but skinny, the people I met would probably notice nothing wrong, but sitting across from a plate of salad topped with one slice of ham had to give a reasonably definitive impression to anyone with any awareness of eating disorders. I was petrified by the thought of what assumptions might be made, and afraid that slipping up at university would threaten any fragile eating equilibrium I managed to achieve.
In fact, Oxford turned out to be the jolt and distraction needed to force me to address my problem. Away from the fear of disappointing my old friends and around new people who had no idea about my illness, I wanted to return to being a person whose world didn’t collapse at the thought of food prepared by someone other than themselves. Of course, recovery is slow and arduous, and some innocuous foods remain unthinkable for me. Nevertheless, the significance of the transition from lettuce to lentils should not be underestimated. Easter eggs might be beyond reach this Hillary, but my twenty-first birthday offers a goal in the near future. After a year of grappling with myself, I’m hoping to be able to have my cake and eat it too.
PHOTO/Rebecca Ann Spencer
Last summer, between my first and second years at Oxford, I had a manic episode. Before this, my only real exposure to bipolar disorder was Season 1 of 90210, where Silver becomes manic. Now, coping with my extreme moods has become a part of my everyday life and will remain so for the forseeable future.
My memories of the whole incident remain extremely hazy, and the exact order of events is a blur, but I will try and piece together my experiences and explain what it was like. I’d like to say first out that although the (3 month!) recovery was extremely arduous, isolating and scary, the week I was manic was most definitely the best of my life, and nothing will ever be able to compare. Mania is essentially the exact opposite of depression: you feel extremely euphoric, have endless reserves of energy and are suddenly interested in everyone and everything. Experiencing this exuberant passion for life after three dark and agonizing years of severe depression was more amazing than words can describe. Being ‘high’ is addictive…but also potentially dangerous.
It all started when I was on a family holiday and fell really ill. I lost my voice and thought I was going to die, but remember remaining extremely calm and composed and having a realization of what was most important to me: my relationships with other people. I spent the last few nights of the holiday awake all night, having terrifying lucid dreams of my closest friends and family members dying, one after the other, and me speaking (in rhyme) at their funerals and playing the piano in commemoration. I then became obsessed with TED talks and started to watch them all day, everyday. When I reached London, I hadn’t slept for over 36 hours, yet continued to stay awake. I saw a petition on Facebook about disabled people getting access to polling stations that a girl at my old school had started, and immediately became obsessed with it, and started messaging tons of people to get them to sign it. I was consumed with the idea of making a 6-second viral ad to advertise the cause and started to get in touch with people I know who are ‘creative’, messaging them incessantly.
The next few days went by in a blur, and I got involved in many, many more campaigns. I was convinced that radio was going to be the way to connect the whole world in one unified campaign for social equality and justice. I would stay up all night, every night, whatsapping friends in different countries and asking them to be my representatives from each country. In the daytime, I would go on long walks and 5-hour runs, as I was so full of energy, whilst emailing and texting- which led to few close calls when crossing roads, as I was so distracted. I probably had a maximum of one hour’s sleep every night that week, and never felt hungry so ate very little. I rapidly lost weight- around 6kg in the space of a few days.
I realized something was maybe wrong when I would randomly burst into tears for a few hours at a time, feeling precipitously low, and then would bounce right back up and continue dancing through the streets. I also wasn’t sure if I was in a dream or if life was real as I had such bad sleep deprivation. The episode had turned slightly ‘psychotic’. By this point my family was beginning to notice something was up, and after talking a family friend who is also a 6th-year medic, I convinced them to take me to the GP, who simply prescribed me sleeping pills. Even after taking a pill, I woke up after around 6 hours, with the racing thoughts continuing to plague my mind and new ideas sprouting forth left, right and centre. I really felt like I had had an epiphany and discovered my final purpose in life. Everything seemed to fall into place in some predestined, beautiful pattern, and everyone I’d ever met now had a clear role to play in my life. Eventually, on the advice of friends, I called NHS Direct, who told me to come to A&E immediately. From there, the painful road to recovery began. I was discharged to go home, and was seen twice daily by nurses and doctors. I wasn’t allowed to leave the house or see friends for a few weeks: all I had to do was ‘relax’. The manic episode turned ‘mixed’ so I would be ‘high’ for a few hours, then crash and feel suicidal for a few hours. Being forced to relax when you are hyperactive is really not a very relaxing experience! My attention span was around two minutes, so I used to watch each episode of New Girl in ten chunks- longer than this and I would be assaulted by racing thoughts and connections from the show and would write down random words connected by arrows.
Although experiencing euphoria and feeling like you’re soaring through life is spectacular, being high can also be extremely isolating and lonely. You’re operating at an entirely different speed and plane to everyone around you- everything is too slow, too boring- you need more, want to do more, want to talk more. Although you have tons to say and become EXTREMELY extroverted, as well as flirty, you have so much to say that it can be quite stressful, and you don’t let anyone else get a word in edgeways- known as ‘pressurised speech’. The anti-psychotic I was prescribed meant that I would have extremely vivid nightmares all night, every night, so I would dread sleeping, and wake up crying many times – not ideal as sleep necessarily forms a huge part of getting better.
Another interesting aspect of mania is how it dramatically heightens your senses. I would often have to turn off the lights as my eyes became so sensitive, and I’d think everyone was shouting at me when they were speaking at a normal volume. Someone brushing my skin would feel extremely painful. The best part of mania was how much better I became at playing the piano- I could sightread much better than I normally can, and I felt that 100% of my emotions were effortlessly transferred to my fingertips. I would play the same piece, Debussy’s Premiere Arabesque over and over again, for 8 hours a day at the worst of times. I would also hear music- beautiful melodies I’d never heard before- in my mind, a lot of the time.
Although mania is fun to some extent, it can get dangerous. As you feel invincible, uncontrolled mania can lead to you doing risky things, like jumping into a river. You also often impulsively spend large amounts of money – I remember one afternoon randomly buying £400 worth of Primark clothes (a LOT of clothes, it turns out!) My short-term memory was also badly affected: I remember some scary days early in my recovery where I couldn’t remember what I had done earlier that day, or even what day it was, as I was so out of it
To be honest, there are many days now when I really miss being ‘high’ and am nostalgic for the summer, and the week where everything seemed to perfectly fall into place. Feeling like I was friends with everyone, as well as being super confident all the time was an amazing sensation. I also miss how easily words came to me- I could type out a couple of pages of text in a few minutes as opposed to a few days, although looking back at the hundreds of Facebook messages I sent to people is pretty embarrassing. The worst part of the whole experience was the inherent unpredictability in my moods. Although I still get low, and high, getting diagnosed was the first step to a happier, healthier and more stable state of being, so was definitely a positive! Summoning the courage to share how you feel is often the greatest hurdle to getting better from a mental health issue- but it does, invariably, always get better.
“Of course – I’d be delighted to give an interview. But could we do it over some wine? There’s nothing like a drink after the adrenaline rush of giving a talk.” Seeing him perk up at the suggestion that we conduct the interview in the bar, I follow Blackburn down the stairs in the direction of the Union’s plush leather sofas, and perch myself on the edge of one as he sinks back into another. Merlot in hand, Blackburn is ready to philosophise. It’s a nice clue of what is to come – this is a philosopher ruthlessly committed to the rigorous pursuit of truth, but also to maintaining the levity, humour and theatre that have made him so popular.
Blackburn writes philosophy books for the general public like Think, Being Good, Lust and Truth. The first of these, Think, is an accessible exposition of the issues and arguments which have made up the philosophical canon since Socrates. It is also tremendously popular, on which point Blackburn wryly remarks: “When I’ve had to interview candidates for philosophy at Cambridge, it’s been somewhat embarrassing to have my own words thrown back at me”. In fact, we are at one point interrupted by someone who thanks Professor Blackburn “for getting [him] into Oxford”. Like most people who know of Blackburn, I found him (and the rest of philosophy) through this book, and I might have expected him to take some pride in popularising philosophy. But he balks when one questioner describes him as a “populariser” (as most people probably would). “I don’t popularise philosophy,” Blackburn insists. “I don’t bring philosophy to people; I bring people to it. I’d be mortified if anyone could show that in any of my work I’d said that anything was ‘simple’.”
He may not like the label ‘populariser’, but he nonetheless talks with some excitement about philosophy getting more popular. When I ask him whether he thinks he and his peers have had any success in bringing this about, he allows himself a little cautious optimism. “Statistically, there’s evidence that it’s working,” he says – but this was not always so. “I remember the first time I ever spoke at a literary festival, there was this huge queue and I thought: ‘Good Lord; there’s so much interest in philosophy from the general public!’ It turns out the huge queue was actually for Norman Mailer who was speaking in the next tent, and the queue for me was rather small”. Suspecting that many in his audience had got lost on the way to Mailer’s talk, he quips that he had to break the news to a modest crowd of disappointed festival-goers that that he had “never slept with Ernest Hemingway or bought ten rounds with Marilyn Monroe”. (He has evidently had some pretty intimate chats with Norman Mailer though).
Blackburn’s commitment to writing for the general public goes hand in hand with a little apathy towards the world of university academia. After 21 years teaching at Pembroke (Oxford), he resigned his post in 1990 – somewhat ironically, he felt like his increasing interest in education “was pretty much incompatible with living the life of an Oxford tutor”. Though he found himself unable to keep out of Oxbridge academia for very long, assuming a post at The Other Place in 2001, he is at his most vituperative when talking about academia and academics. Writing a few years ago about the arbitrary ways in which journals grade submissions with “stars”, he mused: “What kind of star would Socrates have got? He never wrote a thing. No measurable output at all. Rubbish.” A similar sort of wry sarcasm emerges when he’s quizzed about problems in contemporary philosophy. One questioner asks: “Would you redirect the train”? He’s referencing a Philippa Foot’s classic trolley problem: there’s a train hurtling towards five people tied to the track, and you have the option to redirect it to a track with only one person tied down. In a more extreme version, you have the option to push a fat man in front of the train, inevitably killing him but also stopping the train from killing the five lucky people strapped to the track ahead. For Blackburn, the question bears so little resemblance to any real-life situation as to render it trivial. With a mischievous smile, he quotes Elizabeth Anscombe: “I’ll blow up the track and kill the lot of them”.
Whilst he doesn’t talk with great affection about philosophical academia in its present state, he is keen not to shrug off its weightier elements. The zombie problem is a philosophical issue that became important in the 1990s: how do I know that those around me are conscious beings and not automatons that behave just like conscious beings – how do I know they’re not zombies? And if it’s conceivable that they are zombies, what is it about me that makes me conscious whilst they are not? When I ask Blackburn about this, I expect him to brush it off as a colourful distraction that modern philosophers have constructed to give them new publishing opportunities on a familiar problem. But he won’t hear of it. “I think that there’s a very deep human and potentially catastrophic side to that problem,” he says. “It’s not just a kooky puzzle for the intelligentsia. I’m prepared to believe that of some philosophical problems. But the zombie problem calls into question our sense of ourselves amongst other people, and that can go catastrophically wrong.” But, as in a number of issues we discuss in the course of the evening, he finds the answer not in new literature but buried in the canon. “I think Wittgenstein made what is still very under-appreciated, and the key contribution to that problem, which is to say: ‘If you’re worried about other people being zombies, why aren’t you worried about yourself yesterday?’”.
Whilst Blackburn will talk with some deference about certain philosophers, he is unashamedly caustic about the attempts of some popular scientists to close the book on philosophical questions. In his talk, he reserves his best material for Richard Dawkins. “The more noise scientists make denigrating philosophy, the worse they are at it. As a work of philosophy,” he says, “The Selfish Gene is absurd. The idea that we can ‘teach ourselves to be nice because nature has made us nasty’ is a completely insane view of the relationship between mind and body. To say whether I’m selfish as a result of my genes, you need to know history, anthropology, philosophy – biology can’t tell you shit about it.”
As Blackburn is, by his own admission, pretty well aligned with Dawkins on the God question, I’m expecting a more sympathetic response when I ask him if he identifies as a ‘New Atheist’. His reply is almost stern: “No. The whole framework in which Dawkins presents the philosophy of religion is misguided, and was shown to be misguided by Hume. For Dawkins, religion is a matter of false beliefs about what exists. I don’t think that’s adequate to either the sociology or the psychology of religion. Anthropologists – I’m thinking particularly of Durkheim – have a much subtler understanding of what religion actually means in people’s lives. It’s a set of activities (often with a very sinister aspect, like death or sacrifice) that are very effective at welding people into units of congregation. The essence of the thing isn’t about making you believe in something or other.” Now he turns his analytical artillery to one of Dawkins’ own favourite philosophical tropes: Russell’s teapot. The idea is that you can no more easily disprove the existence of God than the existence of a celestial teapot between Earth and Mars, but nobody would require a disbeliever in the latter to present any evidence. “Well yes,” says Blackburn, but belief in the teapot alone is a “simply observed scientific belief.” Suppose instead that the teapot takes on a religious significance – it becomes “a focus of morality, a ritual, an object of sacred texts and so on. After that, it doesn’t matter a shit whether there’s a teapot or not.”
Blackburn is not shy about maligning other thinkers – the attack on Dawkins is the fourth time in the evening he declares that an author’s question or argument “doesn’t matter a shit”. But he somehow seems to get away with being quite so rude about other writers just by being quite so rude about them – it comes with such a sense of good fun and sardonic theatre that it’s difficult not to feel like you’re on his side. Crucially, though, he also makes you think you’re on his side – his arguments are precise, his illustrations powerful and his approach thorough. When he takes on the objective of persuading the masses to get interested in the philosophy, it’s easy to see why they’re convinced. So when I see a Union committee member give me the smile and thumbs up to signal that our time is up, I slip in, almost apologetically, the obligatory last question: “any advice for aspiring philosophers?” He simply replies: “Follow your nose”. For those philosophy students whose nose also leads them straight to the bar, this endorsement can only be good news.
“What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?” asks Dylan Farrow in her recently published open letter. Annie Hall, Manhattan or maybe Sleeper? Instead of offering her choice or an analysis of his filmography, Woody Allen’s adopted daughter goes into the details of what is alleged to have occurred at their old family home in Connecticut. This publication, which appeared in the New Yorker, is the culmination of a Twitter campaign by Mia Farrow and a number of her children. Their problem: Hollywood’s continued support of a man they accuse of being a sex offender.
With Allen and Farrow’s separation in 1992, a custody hearing was brought forward to decide on the visitation rights for their adopted children. Allen was denied any access to Dylan Farrow. With this decision, Farrow decided to drop charges against Allen which alleged that he had sexually abused the 7 year old Dylan on a number of occasions. The decision led a very public shouting match between the ex-lovers – Allen accused Farrow of brainwashing their child out of spite for his new relationship and Farrow continued claims of child sex offences. It was Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, an adopted child from one of Farrow’s previous relationships and the basis for their separation, that occupied our long term attention instead of Allen’s possible offences.
Dylan, in her letter, explains that this abuse has caused a life time of damage. Self harming and eating disorders were a large part of her early years – additionally, she mentions the pain of ignorance that has persisted. This ignorance is back into play. Most articles are now focussed on Allen renewing his claims of Farrow’s brainwashing or how the resurgence of these allegations will affect Cate Blanchett’s chances of scooping an Oscar for her role in Blue Jasmine.
The allegations against Allen mirror those of fellow auteur Roman Polanski. Polanski’s case is a lot more widely known – “Roman Polankski rape” is the first suggestion on typing the director’s name into Google; Woody Allen gets “Woody Allen films”. The French-Polish director fled from the United States to France in 1978 after he left a mental health clinic. Previous to this, he had admitted to “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor”, a crime which took place after his photo-shoot with the 13 year old Samantha Geimer. This charge was just one of the six that originally stood against Polanski – the prosecution had agreed a deal to only go ahead with this one charge.
Since fleeing, Polanski has made 10 films, the most notable of which was The Pianist. It went on to win Best Film at Cannes, the BAFTAs and the Césars, and Polanski himself scooped the Best Director award at the Oscars, BAFTAs and Césars. Ostracised only by location, Polanski has managed to stay within the Hollywood circle. He has had no trouble finding people to work with and has been defended with great passion by numerous stars. One of the most noteworthy was the previously mentioned Mia Farrow, who came to Polanski’s defence in his libel case against Vanity Fair in 2005.
Along with Polanski, R Kelly is the most famous cultural icon with accusations of child abuse hanging over him since the early 90s. Jim DeRogatis, an investigative journalist based in Chicago, has been one of the most vocal opponents of R Kelly. While working the Chicago Sun-Times, DeRogatis received two videotapes showing the Ignition star engaging in sexual acts with underage girls. The journalist went on to interview dozens of people and receive more and more information on one of America’s biggest stars. He came to the conclusion that R Kelly was a serial sex offender, who had ruined the lives of numerous young, black girls, before paying off them or their families to silence the crimes.
The crimes of R Kelly are not always so hidden. While working as chief producer and writer for Aaliyah’s debut record – Age Aint Nothing But a Number – he developed a relationship with the then 14 year old child star. The pair married in secret after the release of the record in August 1994, when Aaliyah was just 15 – claiming she was 18 on the marriage certificate – and stayed in matrimony until February of the following year. One of the main differences between R Kelly and Polanski is that R Kelly does not avoid the subject – the main focus of all his output has been sex. On his most recent record, Black Panties, he proclaims himself a “sex genius”, while on the cover of the album he is playing a naked woman with a bow – an alternate version shows a fully clothed R Kelly surrounded by similarly naked women.
In a recent interview with Village Voice about his investigation into R Kelly, Jim DeRogatis puts forward that the blame for the continued popularity of R Kelly is not the fault of the individual. He points the finger of blame to the corporations and companies that have supported R Kelly throughout his career. Should Pitchfork be put under scrutiny for making him a headliner of their festival last year? Should we also question Universal Studios for distributing The Pianist? Or can we simply separate the artist from the awful crimes they may have committed?
None of the artists mentioned have been convicted of the crimes they are accused of committing. However, the attitude difference between these artists and other suspected sex offenders is gaping. Our forgiveness, or ease to forgive, probably stems from society’s need for artists. We are more willing to forgive those who provide something positive to our lives and the artists mentioned do so for so many people. Is this right? I don’t know.
Last week Luke Lewis, editor of Buzzfeed, came to talk to some of his most avid users; Oxford students. For those of you who don’t spend all your time procrastinating on this great website, Buzzfeed is an online news site, who produce articles like ’21 Pictures Of Politicians In Wellies Staring At Floods’, ‘27 Middle-Class Problems’, and ’26 Very Good Reasons to Fall In Love With A Northerner’. Starting in 2006 in the US, in March 2013 Lewis and two others began Buzzfeed UK; “it was all pretty low key”. They’re now up to a team of sixteen, have 150 million users and are in a position to recruit new employees.
Asking Lewis what the key to Buzzfeed is he cites ’27 Middle-Class Problems’ as “a real break for us”. It was basically “people on Twitter winging about really inconsequential things” and it was then that they realised “self-depreciating humour is something we do, it’s a very British thing”. For example, Buzzfeed did a quiz entitled ‘How Much Of A Wanker Are You?’ which Lewis himself did and received the flattering response, ‘You Got: A Collosal Wanker’. Aside from this humorous approach, Lewis explains that “the whole ethos of Buzzfeed” is “to make things shareable”.
This doesn’t always mean that articles cannot be serious. One of Buzzfeed’s most shared articles recently was entitled ‘36 Photos From Russia That Everyone Needs To See’ which was created in response to the difficulty the LGBT community is experiencing in Russia and depicted bloody photos from a recent gay rights march; many photos show police beating activists to the ground or detaining them. Lewis laughs, “I’m pretty unused to serious journalism. Well I used to be a music journalist…which isn’t really journalism” but says that this article is an example of serious journalism that does work on a site like Buzzfeed.
After all, “Buzzfeed makes big lists” which you wouldn’t always think lends itself well to serious journalism. But, explains Lewis, David Knowles who works for The Economist and recently did a Buzzfeed article – ‘15 Facts That Reveal The Utter Insanity Of Britain’s Housing Market’ – was “bold-over” at how well the format worked for serious journalism. Lewis explains “this wasn’t intended, it was just accidental”. He has been asked at many conferences whether he would like to make Buzzfeed a site for more ‘serious’ journalism: “people want us to say ‘we used to be about cat gifts and now we’re about news’, but I’m really loathe to say that because it’s a bit like saying ‘fuck you’ to all the talented people that have worked for us”. Moreover, “it’s really important to have writers that have the freedom to just make themselves laugh”.
This humorous approach began when Jonah Peretti, an employee of the Huffington Post, began Buzzfeed back in 2006: “I don’t think he ever intended Buzzfeed to be this huge thing, it was just something he could play around with in his free time”. Indeed, “it started as an experiment: initially, it really was just a pet project”. Lewis’ own route into Buzzfeed was equally casual. At the end of 2012, he “was just a really big Buzzfeed fan” and without Buzzfeed advertising for a UK editor, he simply emailed them, having “mocked up how the UK homepage would look”. “They didn’t have to advertise or anything – I came to them. Since then they’ve been really hands-off – I think they realise that it has to be distinctly British”. This involves some of the self-depreciating, distinctively British humour that is often missing in US Buzzfeed; often the stories that go viral there are very straight whereas more often than not in the UK the stories that are most shared are funny or ironic – one of the most shared articles was ‘9 Shocking Photos of the Devastation Wrought By the St Jude Storm’ mostly depicting garden chairs blown over. Lewis explains “we try and get people to share things that make them feel good. There is obviously a limit to this – you can’t only write about things that make people feel warm and fuzzy”. On the other hand, Lewis ends modestly, “I’m not in a position to tell people how to do journalism”. Instead, he welcomes freelance articles so those who have some good ideas for Buzzfeed articles simply email Lewis on Luke.Lewis@buzzfeed.com!
Way back in the autumn of 2010, I went for my first proper rowing outing. I was excited to be in Oxford, and rowing was one of the first activities on my list of ‘must tries’. (To reassure my regular readers – the second thing on the list was much less nerdy and probably the result of going to an all-boys school since the age of seven).
I enjoyed the camaraderie, and the near death experiences from having an inexperienced cox really just brought us closer together as a team. The skin tight lycra was almost flattering in my opinion, and I thought a pleasant weekly outing on the river would become a regular part of my Oxford life. The odd massive trophy would also be a nice souvenir of my time here.
However things started to go a little wrong after the Christchurch Regatta, which was reserved exclusively for new rowers. That was good natured fun, and the wild swerving down the river was probably as close as I’ll ever come to being part of a bobsled team. But once that was over we were no longer novices. We had entered the brutal, testosterone fuelled world of ‘senior’ rowing, where young adults actually seem to deeply care about how many ergs they could pull or whatever. Since I am no longer in school and having to endure being shouted at by hairy men with whistles where their ties should have been, I did not feel the need to attend what were essentially P.E. lessons but with less softball and more rowing on machines. This lead to the coach becoming distressed with me, and telling me I had to ‘want it more than the other team’. The truth was though, I really didn’t want it more than the other team. They were welcome to it.
We had all been grouped into one huge New College Rowers collective, from which the first and second boats would be chosen. This meant that the same rigorous training schedule had to be obeyed by everyone, and when I inevitably fell short of what was expected for a future Olympic rowing captain I was made to feel ashamed. Not helping this of course was the sudden downturn in temperatures, which had actually frozen the boat into one huge lump of carbon fibre infused ice. The outings changed from pleasant afternoons to cruelly early mornings, with thousands of little daggers of freezing sleet worming their way under the four t-shirts and 2 hoodies that I wore to every outing. This was also a source of amusement for the Übermensch captain in his conspicuously not-thermal baggy shorts and vest, icicles dangling like pointy earrings from the sides of his head. Clearly the abundance of clothing meant that I wasn’t rowing hard enough, and had nothing to do with the Plutonian temperatures causing lumps of air to fall around us in solid lumps.
There seemed to be no place in the rowing community for anyone who just enjoyed it as an activity. It was a constant contest to pull the hardest, to attend the most sessions and to arrive earliest at the training camp. None of these things sounded particularly fun, and I realised one day that I was actually happy when an outing was cancelled. Which raised the obvious question – why was I signing up for them at all? I was volunteering large chunks of my day to be frothed at by a dodgeball-esque coach maintaining that my back wasn’t straight enough, or one of a dozen other complaints that were humiliatingly yelled my way across a crowded and noisy stretch of river.
My only remaining option is to become part of a ‘beer boat’. These are normally the third or fourth boats in a College team, and are made up of rowers who just want to have fun with just one or two practices before the race. These are great fun, and definitely go some way to catering to those for whom rowing is not such a calling. Unfortunately they are very irregular, usually only happening a couple of times a year, and so aren’t really the solution if I just fancy an outing on a pleasant day. Many people have been driven away from rowing by all the alpha male chest beating and in-jokes, which is a real shame for an institution which probably prizes rowing above most academic subjects.
I am glad I tried rowing, and sorry that it didn’t work out. I guess actually enjoying the sport for its own sake doesn’t translate well into Oxford-speak.