Friday, August 13, 2010

Remember that Inheritance is a Metaphor

I've recently met a girl who thinks nothing of coming into a room when I'm reading, and turning the radio on without asking [3].

This strikes me as intolerably rude. Much much worse than, say, coming into a room where someone is reading, and pissing in the sink.

Initially this made me boilingly angry. Being English, of course, I sat on this anger so that it came over as very mild irritation.

But the thing is, I don't think that she's doing it to be rude. She's a nice person in all other ways. Intelligent and educated, and I'm sure she wouldn't just do that sort of thing for no reason. If she wanted to start a fight surely she'd try other methods of irritating me as well?

So I started wondering why I thought it was such an evil thing to do.

Obviously it stops me concentrating. All I can think about is this bloody drivelling DJ and his monotonous music (I'd probably quite enjoy the music if I wasn't trying to read, but I've never understood what DJs are for.)

I find that I'm reading the same paragraph over and over again.

There's a simple answer to the problem. I could stop reading.

But I don't think she's trying to get me to talk to her. She's usually at her computer when she does this.

I think she doesn't think she's doing anything that impacts on me at all.

And so I wonder why it is that I think this is such an offensive thing to do?

I remember as a child, when I was about twelve years old, my parents bought me a little clock radio. They were a new thing then. I loved my radio, and played it constantly. [1]

One thing I do remember is my father bursting into my bedroom in utter fury one evening, and trying to turn the volume down. He got the tuning control instead, and it took me ages to put it right for some reason. In retrospect this is funny. But all I can remember from the time is the anger. I'm sure that my father got angry a lot. But he usually tried to hide it. This was quite open.

We sulked at each other for hours afterwards. I remember thinking how unfair it was, since I could sometimes hear the television in my bedroom when he was watching it, and I'd never minded.

But of course I never tried to read in my bedroom. I always read in our study. Or in the dining room in front of the fire, with the door firmly shut so I couldn't hear the TV.

And it wasn't like they watched much TV anyway. Apart from the news, it was more of a guilty pleasure that could be indulged in occasionally but not to excess.

I remember that, back in the days when I knew people who didn't have degrees from Oxbridge, I would sometimes go round to the houses of school friends and find that the TV would be on whether anyone was watching it or not. It seemed to be more of a companion, or camp fire, to be watched just in case something interesting happened.

My parents would just not have allowed this to happen. The television was turned off when you finished watching it.

And I'm just suddenly wondering what it would be like to grow up in a house where the TV was always on.

You'd never be able to read a book. You wouldn't understand it well enough to be interested.

You might be able to do your school homework, if you forced yourself. I used to do my maths homework in front of the television occasionally. But that was usually very easy. But you'd never get to the point where you started to think about the ideas that you'd just rehearsed. And that would mean that you didn't assimilate them properly. And that would mean that you wouldn't understand the next lesson, if it tried to build on that. And that would mean that you'd find something as simple as O-level maths 'hard'.

Which I know a lot of people do. But what I mean is that even if you would otherwise have found it easy, you might still find it hard.

And so now I'm worried.

People who really should know have told me that there's such a thing as general intelligence, which is measurable in many different ways and stays constant after a certain age. And they have told me that it is strongly heritable.

I'd always just assumed that stupid people were mostly poor because they were stupid, and their children were mostly stupid because their parents were stupid, and so their children were mostly poor.

And when people claimed that the children of the poor were being held back by old class prejudice, I remembered the efforts that the University of Cambridge makes to attract children from poor areas in spite of the fact that they don't do that well in their exams. I mean that they really bend over backwards to do the opposite of what everyone seems to think that they do.

My grandfather's family were poor, but he was very clever. His parents couldn't afford to keep him at school past 14, so he became a steelworker and was active in the trades union movement. When he was about 65, I managed to teach him calculus in an afternoon. This is a clear case of class holding someone back. Such things happened between the wars. [4]

His daughter was clever, and she should probably have gone to university, which would have been free for her [2], but she took a job as a librarian, which I think was one of the few careers open to clever women in the early sixties. And this is a clear case of sex holding someone back. But she married a clever man. And her son was me, and I have no complaints.

Strongly inherited characteristics are not fate. Clever children are born to poor families.

But what is it like being the clever child of a family where the TV is always on and there is no escape?

Where you can't read. Where you can't think. Where everything they try to teach you at school is a baffling mystery that everyone else seems to have no trouble with?

I have never been hungry. And I have never grown up in front of a television.

So I don't know what I am talking about. But if I had to make the choice now, without any further information, I would rather starve in the quiet.


[1] I even remember my favourite station, Laser 558. As well as the cringe of embarrassment when I asked the friend who'd introduced me to it what frequency it was on. I looked it up on Wikipedia now, and apparently one of its big selling points was a comparative lack of DJs.

 [2] Back in the old days, the British Government would not only pay the tuition fees of the lucky minority who went to university, but also pay a maintenance grant. Being paid to study was excellent, but even at the time, when most students thought of their grants as a basic human right, I used to feel guilty about the people who had to pay for my three year drinking spree in paradise, while their own sons were probably having to find their own way in the world.

These days half our people go to college, and that system has been retired in favour of a loans scheme, which means that anyone can afford to go, but they have to pay for it themselves eventually.

[3] In a comment, someone asked whether this was my private space or a shared space, and whether I was the first one there.

I'm talking about a shared space, where I was there first.

There appear to be several ways of looking at this.

There's a big difference between talking and putting on a radio or television. I've got no objection to people talking in a room where I'm trying to read, even though it might make reading a bit harder. But with an electronic squawking-device, the noise is relentless, repetitive, and changes constantly in volume in an attention-attracting sort of way. You can't concentrate at all.

If being in a room first doesn't give you some sort of priority, and it's OK for someone else to turn on the radio, is it then OK for a third person to turn on a second radio? Or a TV?

If whoever puts on the first radio wins in terms of the ambient sounds to be enjoyed by the company, would my best strategy to be find a radio station that didn't annoy me much, say a talk radio station in a language I don't speak, and put that on very very quietly whenever I was trying to read? What sort of madness would this lead to?

I think everyone realises that if you go into a shared room where someone is listening to something, you should ask their permission before doing anything to spoil that for them.

We might even generalise that to 'if someone is already doing something, you don't interfere and spoil it'. And I think that would have to be a widely accepted principle, because otherwise the world would be in a constant state of petty violence.

I think that my revelation might be that some people either don't consider reading or thinking to be activities at all, or that they don't realise that they're things which radios and TVs can spoil.

There are occasional newspaper reports of people who have lost it and got into terrible disputes because of their neighbour's music and blaring TV. I'd always just assumed that the noise-makers were plain evil.

But maybe they're not. Maybe noise as an assault on someone else is a matter of taught morality. More like copyright 'theft' or careless driving or littering, whose moral status varies from person to person and society to society, than actual theft or unprovoked violence, which everyone considers wrong, and which all historical societies had laws against.

Maybe from the noisy neighbours' point of view, the fact that their music or TV can be heard through the walls just isn't an issue. As long as it's not so loud that the neighbours can't hear their own television, which they can always turn up.

Perhaps quiet in which to think is not a thing which everyone likes, but a special thing which stuck-up ponces and miserable old bastards care about for no explicable reason.

And the thing is, when you put it like that, I can't see why one person's right to think trumps another person's right to listen to music as loud as they like in their own home.

Except that if that was commonly believed, life wouldn't be worth living for me.

Maybe I should put my long-cherished dream of moving to a council estate on hold for now.

[4] In fact, I remember that there was once a feeling that free university education was a plot against the poor, because if the clever people that would have been trades union men were educated and became middle-class instead, then the poor would have no one to lead them in the revolution that was coming. This plot seems to have worked well.


  1. I appreciate that this is at a tangent to your main theme, however you haven't described the nature of the space in which you were reading when the girl turned on the radio. Is it your personal space or a shared space? Are you able to claim it as yours by virtue of being there first? The rules - and the extent to which you are entitled to be furious - will vary with the context.

  2. Excellent point. Will address in main article.

  3. Got quite long. Added as footnote instead.

  4. Your counter-strike example is illuminating. To turn on the TV or radio while another is playing in the same room would universally be acknowledged as controversial - and likely to result in some fist-to-mouth resuscitation given the right conditions. In a shared space, a 'TV not radio', or 'R5 not R4' desire on the part of the newcomer would generally be subject to negotiation with the incumbent - amongst reasonable people. However I suspect silence is percieved as void available to fill, rather than a soundtrack in its own right. The fact that society creates shared places where silence is the rule (e.g.a library) suggests that there is some justification for seeing it this way. Also, silence is an easily disrupted, high maintenance state. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect it to be maintained in a shared space not intended for that purpose. It's too demanding. On a more practical level, the digital bird song channel could have been the answer to your situation - this would have at least prompted the negotiation - but I think it's no longer broadcast. I have similar issues at work. The democratisation of the workspace means no-one has their own desk yet alone an office, and the place is full of people 'broadcasting'. Furthermore, the workplace library went years ago. I generally resort to headphones - or work from home..