Letter of the Week: Human exceptionalism

A selection of the best letters received from our readers this week. Email letters@newstatesman.co.uk to have your thoughts voiced in the New Statesman magazine.

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In his review of Mama’s Last Hug by Frans de Waal (The Critics, 1 March), Mark Cocker writes that the author accuses Western society of having been guilty of “emotional exceptionalism” since the 17th century, when Descartes concluded that animals were “automata devoid of reason or feeling”.

Sadly, many still revere this so-called philosopher. Philosophy should be about thinking carefully about issues and then forming a moral judgement as to whether certain actions are ethical. Descartes fails dismally. One doesn’t need to be a scientist to realise that other animals have emotions.

Many philosophers and scientists understand that having power over other animals does not give us the right to abuse and exploit them. Not only that, one cannot extrapolate the findings of experiments on other animals to test how or if drugs will benefit humans. Many researchers and scientists recognise the folly of doing so, for example Dr Neal Barnard, founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. 

Man’s arrogance is the main stumbling block to recognising that other animals have emotions.

Sandra Busell
Edinburgh

Bragg the master

Kate Mossman’s insightful profile of Melvyn Bragg (8 March) picks up on the lack of serious critical engagement with Melvyn’s novels: “This is a bugbear: he keeps writing them – 22 so far, and he’s busy – but people hardly mention them.” Part of the problem may be that he is just too well-known as a broadcaster of phenomenal talent, whether on television or radio, for people to take him seriously as a major novelist. But that is precisely what he is.

My 2014 critical study of Melvyn’s “Cumbrian” novels shows that they occupy an (almost) unique position in representing a contemporary faith in the value of region, local place and community as celebrating the essentials of national identity and the very notion of Englishness. Importantly, this sequence of 15 novels stands as the nearest we have to an autobiography of Melvyn’s journey from a working-class home in Wigton to Oxford and London, a journey that charts the postwar changes brought about by educational and social reforms.

This range and depth is apparent at nearly every turn of the page, but so engrossing is the storytelling that the many textual and historical references may go unnoticed. A Time to Dance, for example, is a contemporary rewrite of William Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris (1823) in which we find Melvyn bravely dealing with the appropriate use of language to convey the joys of sex, in a setting that mirrors DH Lawrence’s sexual passion crossing class boundaries.

New Statesman readers should jump at the chance to read Autumn Manoeuvres (1978), an overtly “condition of England” novel, and one of the very few, if any, contemporary novels to examine in knowing detail a general election campaign as seen from the grass roots.

Well, we all know how frustrating it is not to have our work talked about. Hence this letter.

John Shapcott
University of Keele, Staffordshire

Costing nothing

Sophie McBain writes on the toll “emotional labour” puts on employees (Observations, 8 March). But is it really that stressful to treat people with courtesy, respect and perhaps even friendliness?

I used to work in a university hall of residence kitchen, doling out hundreds of meals and cleaning up afterwards. Some of my colleagues would focus on efficiency, which often manifested as rudeness. They became miserable clock-watchers who hated their jobs.

I found that having a natter or sharing a smile helped the day go by quicker. And the customer satisfaction was higher. Anything else is surely emotional laziness.

Joel Salmon
Via email

Rights watch

Elif Shafak (The Diary, 8 March) is quite right to claim that, “Those used to living under liberal democracy tend to take their freedom for granted.” Do they not also take for granted their lack of freedom?

Can we be said to be free in a state that, for example, shows no compassion for Shamima Begum or leaves Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to rot in prison for three years as a pawn in some diplomatic game with Iran? Do we not imprison without due process? On a different note, are we not far too accepting of the
inequalities of neoliberalism? The list goes on.

Elif Shafak warns us against indifference to what’s happening elsewhere. But home is where the heart is and it is at home that compassion begins. “We have entered,” she says, “a new age in which we all need to become activists for human rights.” Let us put our own house in order first.

David Clarke
Witney, Oxfordshire

The German model

The most efficient and socially effective economy in Europe is that of Germany. I would recommend that Grace Blakeley (“The next crash”, 8 March), the Labour Party and the Independent Group take a much closer look at this model. It has enabled the German people to steer a remarkably stable course since the late 1940s. As the Federal Republic of Germany, the country pointedly and deliberately established as its foundation the concept of a social market economy (effectively rejecting the US model of corporate takeover capitalism). This is underpinned by a system of proportional representation that has sustained a cohesive social structure under governments and parliaments of various colours and combinations.

It should be noted that this was achieved despite all the tensions and crises associated with the Cold War division that cut the nation in two. As for the “democratic” (socialist?) model offered by the German Democratic Republic, possibly its most distinctive feature was that its secret police informants constituted a higher proportion of the East German population than the equivalents in any other authoritarian state at the time or since. Its leaders claimed to be serving a particular version of socialism and socialist economic control.

Given the choice, East Germans overwhelmingly chose the form of social democracy that they were eventually able to share with the Federal Republic. Incidentally, I wonder whether Grace Blakeley ever travelled on the Deutsche Bundesbahn (former nationalised rail system) or more recently on Deutsche Bahn, its privatised successor.

The Germans have demonstrated the ability to make both systems work effectively and introduced the privatised version without major political confrontation or disturbance, it being a relatively straightforward and pragmatic development of the previous system, unlike the privatisation of British Rail.

David Slinger
Highnam, Gloucestershire

A new paradigm

George Eaton (“Slouching towards centrism”, 1 March) asks “if the mould cannot be broken now, then when can it?”

This will only happen through a complete political paradigm shift of the type described by Thomas Kuhn. Politicians trading the same old attitudes and analyses in different political groups, only
amending their approaches in piecemeal fashion, will transform nothing.

No, what’s needed is a complete refocusing of our political perspective. We need to see the role of government as the promotion of human and ecological well-being, and the aim of our economic model as the fair distribution of resources and wealth necessary to bring this about.

Dr Kelvin Clayton
Green Party, Bridport, Dorset

Roads to nowhere

Jason Cowley (Editor’s Note, 1 March) recalls the approach to the First World War. When the BBC’s Ed Stourton interviewed the historian Christopher Clark a few months ago about his book Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, they touched on that very theme. He asked if there was a parallel with Brexit, and Clark said there was, insofar as there was an obsession with process.

It seems to me that our parliamentarians, and associated media, are making this error. The Queen suggests we should be aware of the bigger picture, which is that the whole country and parliament are divided, let alone the two major parties – hardly the right conditions for a great change of direction. The proper course of action, after the failure of the “meaningful vote” should have been to call a halt to the Brexit process by revoking Article 50, allowing a pause of some years for the country to rethink its relationship with the EU.

Daniel Beck
Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire

Jason Cowley’s Editor’s Note discussed Charles Masterman and his concern in Edwardian times at imminent change and whether we are at a similar point now. In Masterman’s day the “broken” political landscape led to the Liberals largely vanishing, replaced by a socialist Labour Party.

I wonder whether today, given the intrusive and dominating presence of the media, anyone will have the strength to take a new or existing party in a new direction. Chuka Umunna stood for the Labour leadership in 2015, along with Jeremy Corbyn, but stepped down because of media intrusion into his personal life. I wonder whether David Miliband has put off a return to politics for similar reasons. How different the current landscape would be with one of them leading
the Labour Party.

Martin Eade
Saltdean, East Sussex

I agree with Jason Cowley’s comment about the gloom of an East Anglian winter but feel I should remind him that Essex is a Saxon county and not historically within the bounds of our fair Anglian counties of Suffolk and Norfolk. The sooner we cobble both the A12 and the M11 the better!

Rick Lewis,
Middleofnowhere, Suffolk

Captive audience

I am a new reader of your magazine as a consequence of an offer dreamed up by your marketing department. The latest issue has just landed through the letterbox. I am the original captive audience today, chair-bound with a knee ligament injury. I read the magazines from back to front and today I stopped at every page. Somebody somewhere
is getting it right for me.

Rodney Palmer
Via email

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This article appears in the 15 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, She’s lost control