[Updated 11 January. Transcript completed, except for the first three minutes, which were about accusations of racism]
There was an article at Bishop Hill yesterday
about an audio discussion between right wing journalist Melanie Phillips and left wing playwright Richard Bean. which can be found at
I joined in the discussion at BH, which I found most interesting, for many reasons, which I’ll probably develop later, (although discussion quickly got sidetracked by trolls, as often happens).
I started transcribing the discussion at 3’20” and have got to about 16’50”. As always when I transcribe for Alex Cull’s Mytranscriptbox, I never listen ahead, so I don’t know how it’s going to end.
But that’s fundamental to our philosophy, isn’t it, o fellow sceptics? A simple radio interview, like any good detective story, like the times we live in, like life itself, is interesting because we don’t know how it’s going to end.
(Unless you have a billion pounds invested in a computer model of the future, that is).
[Melanie Phillips is not really a doctor. I was hoping, for the sake of my article title, that she would have been awarded an honorary doctorate somewhere, as have many lesser journalists, e.g. George Monbiot. But alas, no.]
* * *
Melanie Phillips: Your next play; “the Heretic”, was also pretty incendiary, on a completely different topic – global warming.
Richard Bean: Yeah, well, by then global warming had basically replaced God in the public consciousness – not so much global warming, but being Green filled that God-sized hole in most people’s lives – my own as well, I have to say.
Melanie Phillips: You were a Green?
Richard Bean: I was a Green. I voted Green. I think I voted Green two or three times, never in a national election, but councillors. I got solar panels. I converted my car to liquid petroleum gas, recycled like a monk (laughs). The joy, the satisfaction, of throwing the London Review of Books in a green box, I cannot tell you..
Melanie Phillips: I would agree with you there
Richard Bean: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Then I really sat down and studied it, because I thought: “What are you doing Richard? You’re voting this”. I properly started reading the research, and I’m a scientist, a bachelor of science, in psychology – which is a little bit of a dodgy science, I accept that – but I think that helped, because I lived through my university years questioning how much of an empirical discipline psychology is, and how much of it is about social issues, and politics or whatever. And I could see the same thing going on in climate science, especially when the climate itself is a stochastic system, it’s a chaotic system, a little bit like, I can’t predict what you’re going to do in the next hour. I’ve got a psychology degree. Does that make me capable of predicting what you’re going to do? So human beings are also a stochastic system, and I could see an analogy there.
And then there was Al Gore’s movie which I sat down, and again that made me .. (laughs)
Melanie Phillips: Ok, so you approach these issues and other issues with an open mind, a questioning temperament, a background of some knowledge and understanding of facts and truth and evidence – all very dangerous stuff – so what kind of a reaction did you get to these two plays?
Richard Bean: Well of course, for ”England People Very Nice”, simply choosing to write about immigration is a dangerous thing for a white middle-aged man, even in the arts, actually. And the response from one sector of society – I don’t know how we could characterise that sector, I suppose the vernacular would be the Guardian-reading bien pensant grouping – loathed it, and considered it racist.
Melanie Phillips: Why? Why did they think it as racist?
Richard Bean: I really haven’t worked that one out
Melanie Phillips: Simply because you were talking about immigration with a clear-eyed view which, warts and all, as it were?
Richard Bean: Just because you enjoyed it Melly, it doesn’t mean that was the response of everybody. The Guardian, according to Mark Lawson, who tells me this is true, sent twelve journalists to a preview, which no-one’s supposed to send
Melanie Phillips: Twelve?
Richard Bean: Don’t… ask Mark Lawson, he told me this. And they all left at the interval, appalled, and wrote their pieces, and some of them are still writing their pieces. One of them did a piece about Nick Hytner’s career at the National, and said that he had only one regret, and that was directing “England People Very Nice”, and I saw this and I rang Nick up, and I said; “Well, what’s this? What’s this? And Nick said: “I’m really sorry Richard, this is a lie”. I rang the journalist up and he said, and I quote: “My bad”. And they’re still campaigning against a play that’s not been on for three years.
Melanie Phillips: ..which they walked out from at half time.
Richard Bean: Exactly, yeah, yeah. and actually, quite interesting. I mean, this is another common thing in the world of theatre, if anybody absolutely hates a play, you can guarantee that they haven’t seen it, or read it even, you know. But, a more interesting one, at the National we always do platforms, writers’ platforms, and there was a campaign whipped up by a Bangladeshi guy, a Bangladeshi playwright actually, living in Bethnal Green, and he charged the stage, climbed on to the stage during the platform, diuring the discussion, and he was chanting: “Richard Bean is a racist, Richard Bean is a racist, Richard Bean is a racist”. I mean, I think their objection was that the characters in the waves of immigration were stereotypical, but if you remember the play, it was a play within a play – a standard theatrical technique – and the play was being performed by asylum seekers. My point was that they’re pretty ignorant of English culture – not disparagingly ignorant, but they,in the true sense of being ignorant, they don’t understand English culture, and so they got their information from Wikipaedia, so they would klearn about the Irish immigration, and maybe they would learn that an Irish family had a pig in the kitchen, so all Irish families had a pig in the kitchen, so, and it was a cartoon comic extravaganza I think we could call it, but yeah, it’s so very very difficult to discuss these issues.
Melanie Phillips: But why is it so difficult to discuss them? Why is it that a section of our society, the left wing intelligentsia, the Guardian-reading classes, immediately pigeonholes a whole range of ideas on a whole range of issues as being, not just wrong, but unsayable, beyond the pale. You write this play, I write what I write – you may not agree, I’m sure you don’t agree with some of the things I write – that’s not quite the point – there are certain things which, if you say them in a play or in an article, there is no argument adduced against them, the facts in question are not questioned. Instead, one simply gets labelled “right-wing”. Now what is this label “right-wing”? What does it mean? Does it mean anything to you? Do you think of yourself as right-wing?
Richard Bean: Absolutely not. Not at all. I think of myself as a rather old-fashioned community socialist. And if there was anybody I could vote for I would vote for them. But I certainly can’t vote for the Labour Party because they represent the um,what you’ve just described actually, which is, it’s as if they’ve got a hope of the way that society will be and everyone has to conform to this perfect ideal that we’ll never attain. Can e talk about the Guardian? Do you want to talk about the Guardian a bit?
Melanie Phillips: Well I try not to, but all roads seem to lead back to the Guardian, so why don’t you say what you..
Richard Bean: Well, I think the Guardian punches above its weight. That’s one of the first things that’s got to be said about it. It is the BBC’s house magazine as well, so its influence is more pervasive than the relatively low circuation that it’s got. The Guardian seems to eschew both science and common sense, and yet has fantastic influence over our politicians.
Melanie Phillips: But it’s a conundrum, isn’t it. I mean, you know, we’re in the most rational era in the most rational country in the most rational civilisation ever known to man, and yet, as you say, common sense gone out the window, but more than that, there seems to me, I don’t know whether you agree, but there seems to me to be on these controversial issues an absolute refusal, or inability even, to grapple with evidence, to grapple with facts, to understand that if something is a fact, and, guess what, it’s different from an opinion, it is a fact, it is an objective truth. Mention the word “objective truth” to the younger generation and they say: “How can you be so incredibly imbecilic?” I mean, is it me? Have I lost the plot somewhere? What’s going on here?
Richard Bean: The younger generation maybe are not interested in objective truth and objective facts. And – does it go back to this God-sized hole? That they need something? I mean, the Green Revolution, the global warming alarmism? That desire for an end of the world scenario? Narcissistic though it may be, it’s our generation that destroyed the world..
Melanie Phillips: Yeah, there are amazing parallels..
Richard Bean: It’s a form of hubris, arrogance. The number of King Canutes there are out there is unbelievable. We have our own.. you know, Tony Blair started it, King Canute, Obama’s the latest King Canute. Al Gore, the king of all King Canutes..
Melanie Phillips: Holding back the tide … of what?
Richard Bean: Holding back the tide .. exactly. How are they going to influence..? And the other thing about King Canute is that he, when he stood in the waves he was demonstrating that he couldn’t control the waves. We’ve all forgotten that, because we all characterise King Canute as a loony who stood in the waves trying to stop them, and he didn’t. He knew he couldn’t stop them, and it was his followers, his court that thought he could. He only stood in those waves to demonstrate that he couldn’t.
Melanie Phillips: But there’s another factor here which you’ve briefly touched on, but which I think is worth dwelling on. It’s the sheer level of malice and vituperation. I mean, it’s one thing to say that such and such a person is wrong, it’s one thing even to feel very strongly that they are not just wrong, but so wrong that you feel upset aboout it. But this level of vituperation in which abuse is substituted for argument interests me greatly, because, ok, it’s malice, but you’ve got to ask yourself: “Why? Why are they so overwhelmingly abusive?” And it seems to me, and again I’d be interested in your view, that it’s fear. It’s a defensive postion. it’s like: “If I scream really really loudly and prevent anybody from listening to this person, this dreadful playwright Richard Bean; or this dreadful journalist Melanie Phillips, then no-one’s going to listen to them.” But why is it so important that no-one should listen? There’s only one reason to me, only one answer: – in case (heaven forbid) people should agree with you. This seems to me to suggest that those people, the left who are using this vituperation, are defensive and scared, which suggests that they are, they know that they’re standing on sand. Does that follow?
Richard Bean: I think they might be tougher on me than they are on you because I think they know I’m of the left and..
Melanie Phillips: You’re a traitor
Richard Bean: Well, there’s a little bit of that going on, isn’t there? How can someone who ostensibly is on the left, how can he be a global warming sceptic, anthropogenic global warming sceptic? It doesn’t fit. It doesn’t fit. There’s something wrong. He must be a madman, as you say. I remember there was a conference, a theatre conference, an arts conference. “How should the arts respond to a warming world?” or something ridiculous like that. And of course they needed, they needed me there, or else it’s just a club, isn’t it? So they asked me to go and speak, and I said I couldn’t because my partner was having a baby on that day, or the planned date of the day, you know, so I suggested – I won’t mention his name, very nice man, author of a sceptical book on anthropogenic global warming. The email came back, it said: “he’s a madman, isn’t he?” I said: “He’s the nicest guy. He’s a scientist. He’s an intelligent man. He’s a family man.” There’s an end to – a kind of end to listening, isn’t there? What’s that phrase, I should know it’s a social psychology phrase – “cognitive dissonance”, it’s a constant search for a congruence in your life. You won’t take on board any information which conflicts with your set view of how the world should be, not the way it is, how the world ought to be, should be.
Melanie Phillips: And it’s because the left approaches everything from a prior ideological position which can’t be gainsaid? But this is the question that bugs me. Why can’t it be gainsaid? Why can’t they tolerate any kind of deviation whatsoever? Because you know, as soon as you deviate on any of these platforms, that’s it, it’s over, you are no longer to be talked to. You become an unperson, and you can’t get back from that unless you, unless you recant, unless you put your hand in the fire. It’s like an inquisition.
Richard Bean: I’ve heard people say that about you, yes, that..
Melanie Phillips: That I should put my hand in the fire?
Richard Bean: No, that you..
Melanie Phillips: Or that I should be thrown in the fire?
Richard Bean: No, that you shouldn’t be listened to, because you’re..
Melanie Phillips: Absolutely
Richard Bean: … it’s off the radar
Melanie Phillips: So this is really terrifying stuff. It frightens the life out of me, because it means that we’re in a society which is profoundly irrational, and then, you know, you get locked into this business that because it’s irrational, nobody can see it’s irrational, because they are irrational, so what are we going to do about this? How do we get out of this? Where I’m coming from; it seems to me that out there there’s millions and millions of ordinary decent perfectly rational, perfectly commonsensical people who live in the real world, who respond to the real world, who understand that there is a difference between truth and lies, who understand that there is evidence, and that’s how they live their lives. And they’re looking at this kind of discourse that we’re talking about, this kind of left wing-run discourse, which will not allow other views, and they’re thinking: “What sort of madness is this, and where do I fit in?” And I know this, because these people write to me in droves. So the question is, what we all do about this? Because you have a set of people who are basically in control of the culture, in the theatre world, in the media, in the arts, and increasingly in government, and in law – it’s a world view.
Richard Bean: But that political class is not all left-wing, I mean, you know, we’ve talked a lot today about the green issue, but David Cameron has pushed that even stronger than Tony Blair, and the same critique that I would make of the politicians of the left, that cabal, is entirely true for the young Tories at least, I would say. We know that Nigel Lawson is spearheading a plea for reason – what was his book called? Whatever, he’s on to that. But the younger Tories are conforming – I think that ‘s an important word in this discussion – they are conforming to a set of perceptions of normality, sanity. Imagine any of those young Tories coming out and saying “I think we ought to, I really don’t think the science on global warming is settled” You know, straight away, “loony”, off, he’d be out of the party
Melanie Phillips: You see, the great puzzle for me is quite why the left has this power over our culture. I mean, in practical day to day terms, I know exactly how it works. You’re too frightened to say a certain opinion because you know that if you say that or publish it then you’ll never work again, and that’s a big downer, but it doesn’t answer the deeper question. You know, there are millions and millions of people out there who think like you and me, we may disagree about things but we basically know what common sense is. So how can it be, with all these millions of people who are clued in, we have an entire cultural class that is clued out, but controls everything?
Richard Bean: Well, I think the same human drives are apparent in that cultural élite, and, the drive to conform and obey authority. There’s a wonderful social psychology experiment by a guy called Asch, where he would sit – like a table like this actually. He would have five students sat round and a card at the front with five lines drawn on it, different lengths. And one of the lines was much shorter than the others. And four out of the five subjects were confederates, i.e. were working with the experimenter, with the psychologist. And they were told to say that line A was the same length as line F, when clearly it wasn’t, I mean it’s two foot away. And you know, something like 70% of people said that line A was the same length as line F. And what does this tell us? It tells us that conformity, keeping quiet, not saying the wrong thing, is a human drive, it’s a human drive like eating, drinking, whatever. You asked me earlier, “What can we do about this? How can we open up discourse?” and I think we should encourage nonconformity. We should encourage difference and self-consciousness, awareness of the power of conformity, is something that we can do. But you’re perfectly right. Anybody who steps out of line is shot down. I mean, in parliament of course, the whips are there to do that job ostentatiously really, they go there and they do it. But society, I mean those guys, the political class is also hugely disappointing nowadays. I mean, none of them have had a job. None of them have done anything. None of them have lived in the inner cities. I mean, it’s… what do they know? They know very little, they’re political careerists, they ran the student union didn’t they? None of them are scientists. You give them a scientific document, they can’t understand it. They don’t know how to approach it. They don’t know how to think empirically. They don’t know how to think, they don’t question. So a scientist comes into a room of theirs at the Houses of Parliament and says; “Here’s the document”, they say: “Well, I’m not going to read it.” I know they do this. You know they do this. They don’t read those documents, do they? And they ask for a summary, don’t they. And the scientist writes a summary, and then it becomes political. And all they’re ever getting, and of course we know this from anthropogenic global warming, all they’ve ever read of the IPCC reports is the summary for governments. And that is not written by the scientists who wrote the science. And that’s where the dangers creep in.
Melanie Phillips: But it’s all an abuse of power, isn’t it. I mean, you’re talking about politicians, but I’m thinking about while you were talking about the scientists who are colluding with fraudulent, sometimes openly fraudulent studies.
Richard Bean: Yes, I think science has gone into a new phase beyond Galileo, beyond Popper. There are now two branches of science I would say. There’s science as we know it, post-Galileo, Popperian, empirical, and there is – I think the term they use for it is post-normal science, which is where, when something’s unclear, you can’t actually put the facts on the table, there is an imperative to do the right thing for society, to tell the world that this is going to happen, you know, whatever. And there’s a branch of post-normal science which is, we can see that working in the universities, which is go out into industry and look for private funding for research. So what they do, within the world of science, is that they will put a lot of money in a university and suggest that they go and look at the Arctic and find out if it’s melting. And do they find out if it’s melting? What do you think? Of course they do. They don’t go to Antarctica to find out if it’s melting because they know perfectly well it’s not. And yet when the research comes back, and when this is written up in the newspapers, in the mainstream media, what we learn is that the poles – plural – are melting. And it’s laziness, it’s laziness. You and I – I’m not worried about you, I’m not worried about me. I read “the poles are melting” and I go “I don’t think they are. Antarctica is melting? Let me check that out”, and five minutes later you find out that Antarctica is not melting. And this is lazy journalism or whatever. I’m getting excited like you now, and I’m beginning to sound like you..
Melanie Phillips: Oh no, danger. Richard, back off, quickly. But I mean, this is terrifying. Post-normal science? This is like Orwellian..
Richard Bean: Yeah, the end of reason
Melanie Phillips: ..language.This is a hijacking of the language and a hijacking of thought in the most rational universe, the most rational society, at the most rational time we’ve ever known. This is beyond terrifying. What’s so terrifying is that we know that there are people who are going to be saying: “Oh yeah, Richard and Melanie, well you know about them”. And it’s not true. it’s certainly not true of me, and my goodness, it’s not true of you, a man of the left. And yet we know that this stereotyping, this caricature, this vilification is going on. But to come back a bit to your normal habitat, the theatre – I mean the theatre is where, as you yourself have used it, this is the platform, the literal platform for ideas to be vented, and ideas which take us forward and take us out of ourselves and expand our universe and all that. That is how theatre should be used. But we also know that the theatre is run very largely by people who have this kind of mindset we’ve been talking about. So here are you – forget for a moment the audience reaction or the reaction of the left wing newspapers – did you have any kind of difficulty with your kind of mindset in the world of the theatre putting your plays on?
Richard Bean: Let me correct you on a couple of things there. I think the world of theatre is often perceived as being very lefty and quite a tight parameter of ideas. In fact, artistic directors, who are the people who have power in our theatres – usually one individual, not a committee, one individual – they love it when someone’s a bit naughty, they absolutely love it, because they understand theatre. They want to challenge the audience with their views, and that really does add to the theatrical mix. I’ve had no problem really from artistic directors in writing controversial plays at all. On one occasion I wrote a play for Whole Truck Theatre Company, and the name “Mohammed” was mentioned five times in the play – nothing controversial at all, but it was straight after the cartoons, and everybody was so nervous about it. And Whole is out on a limb on the east coast, and they said: “Yeah, but we’re only half an hour from Bradford, you know, there could be busloads of people coming” and I said: “Ok, ok, ok, but I’m not saying anything about Mohammed here. It wasn’t a play about Islam. His name was mentioned five times. And I refused to change the script, and they said they were going ro pull the show. And I went to my natural home which is to the Royal Court, which is a writers’ theatre, known as a writers’ theatre, and I called a meeting, big meeting of all the writers, lots of names you’d know there, and I said: “Look, this theatre is telling me to take Mohammed, five mentions of Mohammed out of the script. I don’t want to do it. I need some support. How are we going to do this? And this rather famous and successful writer stood up and said: “You should be writing plays about how Moslems are oppressed throughout the world”, turned round and walked out. And that’s the kind of conformity, the narrowing of the thought process that you’re talking about, isn’t it? “Why did you do that Richard? Why did you step outside of the rules and…”, you know, whatever
Melanie Phillips: Thanks ever so much Richard. it’s really so good to know that there is someone else out there like you saying the unsayable, and long may you do so.
Richard Bean: Thank you.
Melanie Phillips: And especially as you are a man of the left, and it’s a great consolation to know that not all left-wingers have a closed mind, so thank you again so much for spending the time to have this fascinating conversation, and thank you.