Living Blamelessly

Sunday Times March 15th 2009

Open Minds: Why have we stopped being responsible for our own actions?

At school we all envied Sammy.  When we were splashing through freezing slimy puddles, spattering our legs with foul smelling mud, he was warm in the library clutching his “note” perpetually excusing him from the cross country.  In fact, having been diagnosed with mild dyspraxia, Sammy’s note was continually updated by his concerned parents, who excused him from all sports for his entire school career.

Today, the envy has gone.  Sam has lived as if he always had a note excusing him from any of life’s adventures.  At thirty-eight, his circumference has been multiplied by pie; chronically obese, he suffers from continuous vertigo, countless phobias and desperately unhappy singleness.

Had he been born twenty years before, or to a less privileged class, his dyspraxia would have just been called “clumsiness”, for which there was no known note.  Possibly, the habit of exercise and a modicum of practiced coordination may have been acquired at an early enough stage to save him from such a waisted life.

Perhaps Sam was genetically “programmed” to end up like this but I have a terrible feeling that it wasn’t his genes or his dyspraxia that did for him, it was his “note”.

But don’t we all have, or long for, our own notes?  The desire for something that will excuse us, or our children, for acting as we do – rather than as we imagine we should – seems an almost quintessential human urge.  Each advance in the human sciences is a step towards that Holy Grail: The Universal Excuse Note.

From Humanism to Phrenology, social theories and the genome project, we have quickly hijacked each philosophical, sociological or scientific finding to furnish more excuses for our own uncivilised conduct.

Personally I have, I think we all have, a “note” constantly lurking in my brain, waiting for the moment I’m caught being me, and not being the someone I know I really ought to be:

To whom it may concern.

Please excuse Marius’ borderline racism today; he is just trying to conform to the social pressures of his background.  Please will you also excuse him from any punishment for cheating on his wife – I’m sure you understand that he is merely a hostage to his selfish genes vying for survival. Lastly, if you catch him picking his nose, please will you excuse him as he is, after all, only a slightly evolved chimpanzee.

In the last few years, with advances in electroencephalograph (EEG) scanning, the brain and its workings have become the latest fodder for our universal “note”.  The Scientific American publishes a monthly magazine devoted to the brain, the Science and Self-Help sections of bookshops are bursting with brain books and you can tell when something has become truly ubiquitous – there’s a “Rough Guide” to it.

As our understanding of the workings of the “normal” mind, and the chemicals that are released in the face of various stimuli, improve, lawyers – and parents – are armed with an ever more sophisticated arsenal of mitigating and evidential factors.  Today, a murderer influenced by the chemical surges of pre-menstrual tension, though an apparently normal part of body function, is not a murderer.  Or, as I recently had to explain to the parents of two of my son’s school mates, “My son’s not actually an aggressive bully with a proclivity for sticking heads down toilets, he is suffering from melatonin underproduction and struggling to manage his teenage testosterone spikes.” I could tell from their contrite gawping that they quickly understood he was just as much a victim as their own little oiks.

If we, apparently, cannot control the chemicals and processes of our minds and bodies that effect our behaviour, are we actually responsible for anything we do?

At what point will we recognise that “my” brain, “my” rushes of adrenalin or floods of pheromones, is “me”?  If, when healthy, we can’t or won’t, even take responsibility for our own brains – and by association our own minds – then we are in danger of losing our identities, our individuality, ourselves.

Perhaps the question shouldn’t be why are we looking for excuses, but why do we feel so guilty in the first place?  Before humanism, we saw evil, or vanity, or stupidity, we did awful or idiotic things, but we had the ultimate “note”, “The devil made me do it.”

Now, though we’re still reaching for excuses, albeit more “scientific”, to apparently act like the venal selfish animals we are, the very fact that we’re looking for a “note” means we also recognise when we’re failing to be what we aspire to be: better. There’s hope!

The danger of the “note” will always be that we start to believe it and allow ourselves to stop striving; as Sam did.

Sammy’s parents, concerned for their child, gave in and encouraged Sammy to do the same.  Dyspraxia is, after all, a neurological disorder.  Had they looked deeper at neurological findings, they would have discovered that brains, especially young ones, have a phenomenal ability to “rewire” themselves through familiarity and conditioning.  It’s called “learning” or, if you prefer, “the process of creating new synaptic pathways in the brain”.

It seems counterintuitive to take the punishment, to run the race, to pound through the stinking puddles rather than find an excuse, but tearing up your own “note” might just be the best thing you’ll ever do.

Storm – Tim Minchin

This is brilliantly funny poem which just reminds me I’m not alone in my scepticism.