Sunday, 25 October 2009

The 'paradoxical response'

You may not have seen the current government advert warning about global warming and exhorting us to action. If you haven't (and don't want to), it shows a father reading a bedtime story to his blond-haired little daughter. The story, broadly speaking, relates how the world is being destroyed by man's carbon pollution and in order to save it we householders need to amend our polluting ways by turning the thermostat down a bit (Its emphasis is a bit skewed here - I don't think British householders are statistically significant versus industrial development in India, China, Brazil, etc).

I need hardly say it takes a highly emotive approach: "The children of the land would have to live with the horrible consequences" intones the father over pictures of cartoon dogs drowning, "Is there a happy ending?" asks the child in her lisping voice.

The bedtime story is directed at adults, which is just as well as it might terrify a child. But I don't need all this explained to me as if I'm a child. It's a glimpse into the mind of its sponsors: we're unruly, self-indulgent children who need their wise guidance to put us on the path of righteousness.

Taking the advert on its own terms, the message I take from it is: The problem is massive on a barely comprehensible scale and disaster is imminent. The solution, as presented, is laughably inadequate if you know anything at all about the subject. But let's commit ourselves wholeheartedly to this futility: your children's lives are on the line, never mind your cartoon dog's.

It brings to mind a couple of superb paragraphs in an essay by Hans Magnus Enzensburger, the German poet and essayist. They're concerned with the images of disaster in foreign lands that are piped into our homes nightly, but I think they're applicable here:
The theory that our sensitivity to a given stimulus can be heightened by gradually increasing our exposure to it is at best naive. On the contrary, the likely effect will be psychological and cognitive overload rendering the spectator immune to every stirring of conscience. He feels incompetent and powerless; he curls up into a ball and switches off. The message is repelled or simply denied [that word again]. This form of internal self-defence is not only understandable, it is unavoidable...
Beyond this denial lies what a pharmacologist would call the 'paradoxical response' which happens when a substance is used incorrectly or in the wrong dose and has the opposite effect on the patient to that intended. When the oral demands made on an individual are consistently out of proportion to his scope for action, he will eventually go on strike and deny all responsibility. Here lie the seeds of brutalisation, which may escalate to raging aggression.

The quotation is from 'Civil War'. Its concerns are a bit dated as it was published in 1994 but as you can see it contains some stimulating and still pertinent thinking. Hans Magnus is eighty next month. Alles Gute zum Geburtstag!

8 comments:

Brit said...

Oh God yes -I saw that ad and thought "This is where it all went too far".

worm said...

ditto!!! What a ridiculous advert. And even more galling is the knowledge that we've paid for it.

Interesting too that the government keeps telling to to turn off things on standby, when in general they use approximately 0.1 KWh, yet the government doesn't say anything about the use of washing machines and electric ovens, which use about 250Kwh. The focus on standby lights has no real logic

Sean said...

We do seem to be having some excellent springs and Autumns these days, although summers of late seem a little changeable.

I have a theory that all this global boring business is all tied up with the British obsession with the weather, afterall we seem to have kicked the whole thing off.

Gadjo Dilo said...

With all due respect to Hans Magnus the idea doesn't seem that original: for instance one can get bored of a favourite piece of music after playing it too much, and the same idea of immunity to stimulus rather than the reverse was gone over in Clockwork Orange published 30 years previously. I kinda think it would be good for British householders to do their bit so as Britain will not too hypocritical when telling China etc to to ease up on the emmissions.

Gaw said...

Gadj, I didn't make any claims as to the originality of HME's idea, and I'm not sure he would. I just haven't heard it expressed in this way or so well before.

My point is that drawing a direct linkage between turning the thermostat down and global catastrophe (not to mention your dog drowning) is misleading, alarmist and also self-defeating for the reasons expressed in HME's quotation.

I'm not sure about the 'setting an example/taking a lead' idea. I don't believe the demonstration effect has any traction in power politics 99% of the time. And although you haven't expressed it in this way, this argument can sometimes come over as if we're the school prefects setting the junior boys an example. A bit of a patronising colonial hangover. China will do what's in its best interests and will observe our efforts with amusement, puzzlement and incredulity.

Hey Skipper said...

Taking the advert on its own terms, the message I take from it is: The problem is massive on a barely comprehensible scale and disaster is imminent.

Which begs the never asked question. Granting the proposition, now what?

Gaw said...

By 'now what' do you mean 'now what, over and above all the thermostat business'?

Gadjo Dilo said...

My telling use of the word "telling" does rather betray my colonial hangover! (Though it was for their own good, as I'm sure you understand.)