Thinking, overthinking, unthinking

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates (1787); the philosopher thinking at the point of death

In an opinion piece in The Guardian, Mark Rice-Oxley has made a succinct diagnosis of many of our problems: ‘Thinking is what gave humans ascendancy. But overthinking is threatening to bring us down.’ His argument is thoughtful and interesting. Overthinking, in Rice-Oxley’s view, is one of the roots of individual unhappiness and the wider social malaise that has led to Brexit and Trump. This overthinking takes the form of agonizing over past and future (whereas other animals, so far as we can tell, think only in the present, humans are unique in their ability to extend thought backwards and forwards in time) and ‘destructive’ introspective thinking that ‘is in thrall to the rigid, judgmental thoughts we think about ourselves’ and leads to ‘impossible expectations… [and] disappointment’. Our constant self-evaluation, and the self-laceration and disappointment that follows, ‘embeds personal misery’ in a soil of excessive rumination, distorted and exaggerated ideas, and the sense that our lives do not match up to those of others. Hence it is that in ‘the richest, healthiest, most prosperous era we have ever known’, so many people take the short step from unwarranted personal disappointment to blame and protest.

Rice-Oxley proposes that ‘we need a completely new relationship with our thoughts’. This would involve taking the world and ourselves as they are, not as we think they are, and the development of habits that favour observation over thinking; ‘it should be compulsory in secondary schools’, he writes, to learn the ‘psychological flexibility’ that helps us to ‘cultivate our observing selves, rather than our thinking selves’. In conclusion, Rice-Oxley urges us to let go of judging and worrying about ourselves and others, to limit our thinking to areas over which we have control, and to accept and celebrate things as they are. The influence of meditational ideas, in particular the practice of being present in the moment, are clear in this argument. As a whole, Rice-Oxley’s argument is reminiscent of quietism: quietist thinkers have argued that philosophy and reasoning have tended to sow confusion and disturbance, and that mental tranquillity can be achieved by learning to accept the universe we inhabit and who we are rather than to question them.

There are undeniable virtues in this argument. Learning to accept the things we cannot control, to cultivate a less judgmental and hypercritical evaluation of ourselves, to embrace experience rather than agonize about it: these are healthy practices that almost certainly improve mental well-being. By definition, like over-anything, overthinking is problematic: an excess of anything—put the word ‘over’ before eating, stimulation and working, for example—invariably results in negative outcomes. The pertinent question, however, is not whether overthinking is bad, since I can accept that overthinking, unlike thinking, is rarely helpful. The important questions (and perhaps I am overthinking it) are whether Rice-Oxley is right in his understanding of the distinction between thinking and overthinking, and whether his proposed solution to the individual and collective problems of our time is the correct one. The answer to both those questions is, in my view, that he is wrong. If there is a problem in our time, it is not that we overthink things; it is that we think badly, or we don’t think at all.

Consider, for example, Rice-Oxley’s view that we are ‘prisoners of the sinewy web of cogitation that tells us we are strong, clever, important, unassertive, patriotic, hopeless, old, fat, hard done by, forgotten’. But in so far as people obsess about these things, and become miserably trapped in narrow, impossible and harmful labels, is this really the result of overthinking? More likely it is that we engage with these categories, labels, standards and expectations in unthinking ways. We let social media or the judgments of others or the opinions of crowds or the mantra of ‘commonsense’ do our thinking for us; our response is too often uncritical and bereft of serious thinking. It is not that we should stop thinking about ourselves, or about our identities and our position relative to other people and the world, but rather that we should learn to think about these things more skilfully and perceptively. The worries, agonies and unhealthy self-criticism that beset so many people stem not from overthinking, but from not thinking enough and from not being equipped to think well. Rice-Oxley likens all the thoughts we encounter to being pulled under by ‘a busy stream’: repeatedly submerged, we should learn how to pull ourselves out so that we can ‘sit undisturbed’ and simply notice the stream. There are certainly times when it is good to do this; but life is a multitude of rushing streams, and we would be better off learning to become strong swimmers, able to survive and thrive in the streams, than to yearn only to sit on the bank observing the stream flow by.

Rice-Oxley provides several concrete examples of the tendency for overthinking to lead to an unhealthy temptation to compare oneself with others, and then onto personal unhappiness; one is ‘the employee who feels insecure because she thinks the boss blanked her on the stairwell’. Rice-Oxley’s argument seems to be this: the employee is giving too much thought to an incident that does not warrant it; she should instead accept the incident, not worry about it (and hence no longer feel insecure) and move on. This is based on the important (and correct) point that the way we think things are is generally not the way things actually are. In this case, although the employee ‘thinks’ the boss blanked her, it is just as likely (in the absence of any other evidence) that the boss was distracted, or absent-minded, or caught up in his own (over)thinking to notice her. The best advice to the employee in line with Rice-Oxley’s argument is therefore: don’t overthink it, simply observe the incident, and the feelings it prompted, then let it flow by.

But this sounds both idealistically simple and impossibly unrealistic. A relevant philosophical point here concerns the distinction between the way things are and the way we think things are. While reality certainly exists outside our thoughts, our only access to that reality is via our thoughts. At the heart of the human condition is the fact that we are bounded (or ‘trapped’ to put it more negatively) by our thoughts. We can never grasp reality as it is; the best we can hope for is to grasp reality as we think it is. Rice-Oxley seems to suggest that if we stopped thinking we might come to see reality as it is—an argument that seems to me both mystical and mysterious. Without thought, how would the employee ever get close to the reality of the blanking incident? If she successfully manages not to think about it, she will be none the wiser about the true nature of the incident.

Of course, that may be the point: the incident does not deserve either thought or the feeling of insecurity that supposedly follows from thought, so there is little to be gained from attempting to understand its reality. It presumably follows that whenever we are apparently blanked by somebody—be it boss, friend, family member, colleague, or a shop assistant—we should not give the matter any thought. But is that either practical or desirable? While the individual who manages to treat all such incidents with serenity and unconcern may be admirable, these things are important and deserve our attention. A great deal hinges on our interpersonal relationships, and they require more than unthinking acceptance of the way they appear to be; they demand careful thought and work. We may not be able to control how others think of us, but we can influence it: for example, we can address problems, smooth over tensions, and seek clarity about relationships. But in order to do this we need not only to observe but to think about what we observe.

In so far as Rice-Oxley’s insecure employee has a thought-related problem, it is not that she is overthinking the incident but that she is not thinking about it with sufficient acumen. She is guilty of faulty thinking: she is leaping to unjustified assumptions and catastrophizing the incident on the basis of little evidence. Of course, her insecurity may derive from a wider context; for example, her boss may have been critical of her work, and she may have heard convincing rumours that her company was planning to downsize. But let’s assume in the absence of that context that there is no reason beyond the incident itself why she should feel insecure. Her best approach is to consider the incident thoughtfully, critically and rationally. She might examine why it made her feel insecure; she might question whether the incident was all that it seemed; she might challenge her initial assumptions about it; she might, after a careful assessment of the incident, her perception of it, and her feelings about it, decide on an appropriate response—which may be to recognize it as inconsequential and not a reason to feel insecure, and hence to accept it and move on. It will take more than an observing self to get to this position; it will take a well-cultivated thinking self.

The relationship between thought, emotion and behaviour according to Cognitive behavioural therapy

While learning to cultivate a more observational and accepting approach to life through practices such as meditation and mindfulness makes a valuable contribution to mental health, a more solid foundation is offered by the principles underlying Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). A therapeutic approach with proven success at treating problems such as anxiety, stress and depression, CBT not only focuses on resolving faulty thought processes (for example, by learning to identify and challenge all-or-nothing thinking, catastrophizing thoughts, unfounded assumptions, unwarranted self-criticism, and so on) but also offers a better model for understanding human nature than that implied by Rice-Oxley’s article. The latter treats the relationship between thoughts, feelings and behaviour as unidirectional: for example, someone who thinks other people are better off than him will feel miserable, and this unhappiness will lead him to express his disappointment (perhaps by voting for Brexit or Trump). It is this model which underpins Rice-Oxley’s main argument: if we cut down on thinking we will feel less miserable (and hence not do stupid things like vote for Brexit or Trump). CBT’s model is also based on thoughts, feelings and behaviour, but understands the relationship between them as constituting a loop in which each element both influences and is influenced by the other two. According to CBT, therefore, the trick is not to replace thinking with acceptance but to recognize how our thoughts impact on our feelings and behaviour and and vice versa. In this feedback loop, well-being is achieved not by attempting to reduce one of the elements but by cultivating healthy practices in all three. Learning to calm one’s feelings, to alter bad behavioural habits, and to correct faulty thinking work together as a mutually beneficial package.

Nevertheless, Rice-Oxley is right to identify overthinking as a problem. But overthinking only superficially involves an excessive quantity of thinking; the real cause of overthinking is poor quality of thought. The solution to the problem is not, therefore, to counter overthinking with observation but to counter it with better quality thinking. Indeed, the most insidious problem today is more likely to be the poor quality of much thought, which extends to unthinking. The individual made miserable by her Instagram feed, the person demoralized by the success of others, or the hypochondriac forever convinced that he is dying (all examples from Rice-Oxley’s article) are arguably not guilty of overthinking but of not thinking enough—and certainly of not thinking with sufficient quality. It is precisely the failure to cultivate the thinking self that lies at the root of these problems; to argue that the cultivation of the observational self is the answer is to miss the point. Mindfulness will provide one useful form of self-protection, but the person who has not developed the thinking skills necessary for insightful self-understanding and rational and critical engagement with others will lack the mental resources to weather the type of buffeting we all receive from social media, the actions and judgments of others, the expectations of marketing and media, and the daily disappointments of the news.

Finally, perhaps the most disquieting conclusion of Rice-Oxley’s article is the suggestion that we should aim at a passive acceptance of ourselves and the world. The argument that people should celebrate what they have and stop being disappointed at what they don’t have is always easier to make from the vantage point of having more things than the next person. In a world of gross inequality—an inequality that is staggering even within apparently prosperous countries such as the UK and the US, and an inequality that is as much to do with unequal life chances and opportunities as it is to do with economic disparities—a habit of observing and accepting these inequalities rather than thinking about their inherent unfairness (and doubtless feeling justifiably unhappy and angry as a result) serves only the interests of those who benefit from inequality. Disappointment and unhappiness are vital driving forces for both personal and social change. If we all learned to ‘simply take as we find’ and to ‘accept that some things will not always go as we wish’, then there would be no resistance to social and political wrongs—and, moreover, there wouldn’t be the impulse to make personal improvements. The moment we embrace only those things we can control and influence, and give up thinking about everything else, is the moment we abandon our wider connection to society and the world. A life spent observing the stream of thoughts rather than immersing oneself in them is a life of disengaged quietitude.

It is not mindful observation and acceptance that should be compulsory in schools; it is psychology and philosophy. In ancient Athens Socrates devoted his life to going beyond observation and acceptance into thought. His cultivation of the thinking self was inspirational to his many followers, but deeply troubling to the state. So he was put on trial for corrupting youth; he was accused of encouraging them to embrace thinking (or overthinking in the eyes of the authorities) that led to impiety. After he was convicted and sentenced to death, he is supposed to have uttered his most famous dictum: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ But Socrates would not have wanted his followers simply to observe and accept this dictum. He would have wanted them to think about his trial and execution, and to ask: Should one prefer the refusal of Socrates to abandon thinking, or the insistence of the Athenian state that he and his followers should learn to observe and accept? It’s a question that deserves a lot of thought.


The charmlessness of Utopia: Channel Four’s Naked Attraction


Illustration to a 1730 edition of Thomas More’s Utopia

Once, on a first date, I had an interesting exchange along the following lines: my date mentioned in passing a spreadsheet that she was using to track and rate her dates. I assumed she was joking, and said as much. But no, she insisted, she was being serious: she had an entire spreadsheet on which she calculated according to various categories how attractive a man was. I laughed. ‘Why are you laughing?’ Ms. Spreadsheet asked. ‘Because that’s not how attraction works’, I replied, ‘it’s not something that can be reduced to numbers. It’s not a science that can measure things; it’s a mystery, like the way the best poetry or the best art is a mystery.’ But she responded by telling me (a) that I was wrong, attraction is a science, no more, no less, and (b) that I was scoring quite well according to her Excel calculations. Ms. Spreadsheet was an enjoyable date.

Naked Attraction, Channel 4’s new dating show, purports to take this scientific approach to dating and reduce it right down to its basic, logical extreme; spreadsheets aren’t involved, but if they were they would contain categories such as ‘legs’, ‘penis’, ‘vagina’, ‘bottom’, ‘breasts’ and ‘face’. By dissecting humans down to their constituent and naked physical parts, it suggests that we can get closer to finding the real basis of attraction. The programme is rooted in two ideas: first, that attraction is a (literally) nakedly physical matter; second, that there is a core person or self beneath all the clothing, jewellery, small talk and movement we are socially obliged to display, that these are just so many ways of concealing who we essentially are. Both these ideas are fundamentally wrong.

The concept of the show is remarkably simple: six naked participants are gradually revealed before one clothed participant; the latter whittles the six down to two based on their physical attractiveness before joining the remaining two in full nudity and selecting which of the two to go on a date with. It sounds dull; in reality it is duller than it sounds. When the most exciting moments consist of brief bits of rubbish pop science (‘some scientists think that men with symmetrical faces have healthier sperm’—that sort of profundity) then you know that the concept is terrible. Many viewers will doubtless watch Naked Attraction in the hope that it is mildly sexy or erotic. All bar teenage boys will likely be disappointed; they will find more sexiness and eroticism if they turn over to BBC2 half way through to watch Newsnight (and no, I do not have a fetish about Newsnight).

The participants in Naked Attraction gamely try to justify the programme by using words such as ‘empowering’ or ‘new-found confidence’, and offer Twitter-size arguments that the show delves to the deeper core of dating. On the evidence of the first episode a rather different conclusion can be drawn. Naked Attraction is tedious, dispiriting superficiality. This is dating for the empty-headed consumer generation who think they are being edgy, bright and liberal but are in fact being boring, stupid and constrained. It is dating for those who do not understand sexuality and the erotic, who think that the dismal mechanics of pornography amount to erotica. At one point a participant is described as having a body like a figure from Botticelli—I suspect the person offering this comment was confused about her artists, since the body was nothing like a Botticellian figure but a lot like a Rubens nude—but the gulf between the eroticism of Botticelli (and Rubens) and Naked Attraction is immense. Tellingly, the Rubenesque/Botticellian participant was the first of the six to be rejected.

We can, however, find in the Renaissance an interesting historical and philosophical ancestor to Naked Attraction. In Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) there is the following account of a social custom among prospective brides and grooms on the fictional island:

When they’re thinking of getting married, they do something that seemed to us quite absurd, though they take it very seriously. The prospective bride, no matter whether she’s a spinster or a widow, is exhibited stark naked to the prospective bridegroom by a respectable married woman, and a suitable male chaperon shows the bridegroom naked to the bride. When we implied by our laughter that we thought it a silly system, they promptly turned the joke against us.

            ‘What we find so odd,’ they said, ‘is the silly way these things are arranged in other parts of the world. When you’re buying a horse, and there’s nothing at stake but a small sum of money, you take every possible precaution. The animal’s practically naked already, but you firmly refuse to buy until you’ve whipped off the saddle and all the rest of the harness, to make sure there aren’t any sores underneath. But when you’re choosing a wife, an article that for better or worse has got to last you a lifetime, you’re unbelievably careless. You don’t even bother to take it out of its wrappings. You judge the whole woman from a few square inches of face, which is all you can see of her, and then proceed to marry her—at the risk of finding her most disagreeable, when you see what she’s really like. (Thomas More, Utopia, trans. by Paul Turner (London: Penguin, 2003), p. 84)

Utopia is a description of an ideal society. If it really existed it would be the dullest and most oppressive place on earth. The Utopians have reduced everything to worthiness and reason; they set no store by gold and jewels; they see no point in fashion; they do not gamble; their leisure consists of improving pursuits such as mental games and study. Everyone is equal and no-one is idle: ‘There’s never any excuse for idleness. There are also no wine-taverns, no ale-houses, no brothels, no secret meeting-places. Everyone has his eye on you, so you’re practically forced to get on with your job, and make some proper use of your spare time.’ (p. 65) North Korea is probably the country that has come closest to realizing More’s utopian fantasy.

Naked Attraction is not, of course, the first step on the way to a nightmarish North Korean future. Judging from its first outing, my guess is that the only place Naked Attraction is heading towards is the long list of programmes that are so dire they never get a second series. I am confidently hopeful that this is the case. If I am wrong, if Naked Attraction actually resonates with viewers as a telling and zeitgeisty shows that reflects their own thoughts about dating, attraction and romance, then there may be grounds for some despair. For, if the show really does tap into our sexual and human values, what would it be telling us?

It would be telling us that imagination, subtlety, mystery, complexity and the erotic are on the way out. It reduces attraction to dreary talk about the shape of someone’s penis, the amount of body hair they have, or whether their nipples are good for flicking. (I guarantee that it is more exciting reading the previous sentence than watching these things being said on the programme.) It would be telling us that those keen on metrics—things that are measurable and quantifiable—are triumphing over those who prefer immeasurable qualities. But I’m confident that not even Ms. Spreadsheet, my former date, would have taken metrics to these extremes.

Above all, Naked Attraction would be telling us that many people have a fundamentally misconceived notion of the self. In normal dating, when clothes are worn and movements are observed and conversation is exchanged, we are telling interesting stories about ourselves. Naked Attraction is obsessed with the idea that all these things—clothes, movement, social interaction—are just so many ways of concealing who we really are, that beneath all the layers can be found the pure, true self. In fact, it is the other way round. The self is something we put on. We reveal ourselves through what we wear, the way we move, the things we talk about. There is no self beyond that; there is just an invariably quite dull lump of uninteresting physical matter.

Naked Attraction unwittingly confirms this truth: what makes the show so unsexy and unerotic is its fixation on nothing more than the naked body. It demonstrates that the truly erotic is to be found in the way we transform our dull bodies through movement and clothes, adornment and conversation. Sexiness is the way we all tell stories about ourselves through what we wear, do and say. Attraction is to charm each other through these stories. It is the absence of that which makes the unadorned nakedness of Naked Attraction so unattractive and charmless.

Flying Ant Day: The Myth of the Myth

Here’s how to make yourself seem clever by pretending that others are fools. First, make up a belief which is provably wrong. Next, ascribe this belief to others by informing everyone that it is a belief commonly held by laypeople. Finally, explain how people are wrong to hold this belief. If successful this method will ensure that most people seem like idiots badly in need of the sort of enlightened knowledge you hold.

Flying Ant Day: just another excuse for a party

Yesterday, while browsing for information about swarms, I came across something I had never previously heard of: Flying Ant Day. The opening paragraph to The Guardian article on this topic refers confidently to ‘what’s known as Flying Ant Day’ as having fallen ‘this year’ on Sunday 2 August. I’ve been around for a few years, during which time I’ve come across a number of strange ‘days’—Pi Day and Valentine’s Day immediately spring to mind—but I’ve never encountered Flying Ant Day. Despite a familiarity with the phenomenon of flying ants, no relative, no friend, no stranger has ever uttered those words in my presence. Have I lived in a bubble for the past forty years, somehow oblivious to something known and spoken about by most people? So I did some research for ten minutes to find some answers.

An article in the science section of The Independent from last year similarly begins with some confidence, informing the reader that the thousands of ants witnessed the previous day ‘was because we are in the throngs of what some call “Flying Ant Day”’. The author gets bolder: ‘most people have grown to accept that there is one day every summer that will see ants inevitably turn up in their thousands and then quickly disappear again’; and then bolder still: ‘“Flying Ant Day” is the layman’s term for [this] time’. So having stated that the majority of readers hold this belief, the article then shows them all to be wrong to do so. In answer to the question ‘When is “Flying Ant Day”?’ the author for the first time mentions (and notice the disappearance of capitals) ‘a “flying ant day”’. And then at last we are told that ‘Despite the notion that the appearance of flying ants is for just one day a year, scientists have proved that this is in fact a myth’. Yes, there may be several days of the year on which ants fly. Of course the real myth is that anybody believed in this notion of the grand Flying Ant Day in the first place rather than in the fact that every now and then there is a day on which conditions are just right for several colonies of ants to go mating.

The Guardian article similarly tells us that ‘Flying Ant Day is actually a bit of a misnomer’ and ‘a myth’. But no doubt if a story is run annually claiming that people do in fact believe in Flying Ant Day (and, so far as I can tell, science journalists have been running this Flying Ant Day myth since 2012), then eventually we will believe not so much in Flying Ant Day itself but in the notion that most other people believe in Flying Ant Day (even though they don’t). We can then happily conclude that most other people are idiots who need a little scientific enlightenment (even though they don’t). And we can marvel at the myth-busting power of science and journalists (even though it was the scientists and journalists, or maybe even greetings card manufacturers who think Flying Ant Day is an untapped market, who invented the myth in the first place).

I did learn something fascinating from these articles which thankfully (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective) does not seem to be a myth. When the male ant mates with the queen his purpose in life is over and he quickly dies. Cause of death: his genitals explode inside the queen.

On Swarms

220px-The_SwarmDavid Cameron recently described migrants as ‘a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean’. The context was events in Calais, otherwise known as the ‘Calais migrant crisis’, a ‘crisis’ that owes much to an inventive construction by media and politicians: the attempts by a few hundred desperate individuals to enter Britain has been turned into apocalyptic warnings of a ‘flood’, ‘migrant madness’ and an ‘invasion’. The Prime Minister’s own linguistic contribution to the issue has been condemned by the Refugee Council and others as ‘awful [and] dehumanising’.

The best defence of Cameron’s phrase is that it was an uncharacteristic ‘slip’. But there was no subsequent apology from the Prime Minister or his office, no acknowledgement that this was careless language he would now like to retract. It is more likely that his choice of words was deliberate. Cameron’s tendency to cloak himself in a few garments of the far right has developed into a habit. In particular, over Scotland, immigration and the EU he has not been shy to sprinkle among his more apparently rational pronouncements the scaremongering, divisive and xenophobic language and ideas normally associated only with extremists. It is, one can only assume, a deliberate but risky strategy to encroach on the ground of the far right as a matter of political and electoral calculation: an occasional raid on the far right may keep the extremists in his own party in check as well as adding a few more Tory voters to the cause. A strategy as fast and loose as this is bound to have unpredictable consequences. But feeding a few more hostilities between England and Scotland and between England and Europe, and prompting an increase in racist abuse and attacks, are probably deemed an acceptable price to pay for the wider political gains Cameron hopes to make.

deadly-swarmAnother defence of Cameron’s reference to ‘swarms’ is the attempt to suggest that criticism of the Prime Minister is simply contrived fuss over language that is innocently appropriate. This tactic is generally adopted not by professional commentators but by the anonymous keyboard warriors writing below the line on media articles; it’s the defence of the ‘I’m not racist but…’ brigade. Surely, they argue, ‘swarm’ is simply an objectively accurate description of the behaviour of these migrants. Swarming is an observable characteristic throughout the natural world: it is exhibited by numerous species of insect, bird, bat and fish, and applies merely to any dense, mass, aggregate behaviour. Set aside the fact that the primary dictionary definition of the noun ‘swarm’ refers explicitly to insects, and that the word is used only transfiguratively of any other type of multitude, then it might be supposed that to liken migrants to a swarm is to use language entirely neutrally. Are such commentators right? Or do they have an extremely dull and simple-minded conception of language? Or is this the disingenuous argument of the subtle racist?swarmed

In the early seventeenth century the migrant issue of the day was the prospect, upon the accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England, of Scots seeking their fortune south of the border. The Scots were likened to a swarm—and the comparison was hardly a detached, neutral, objective observation. Mark Kishlansky relates how the ‘English élites feared “swarms of tawny Scots” who, locust-like, would devour office and wealth’ (Kishlansky, A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603-1714 (London: Penguin, 1996), p. 78); the brilliant puritan author Lucy Hutchinson, wife of one of the regicides of Charles I, numbered among the ills that arrived in England with the accession of James I ‘the swarms of needy Scots the King had brought in to devour like locusts the plenty of this land’ (Hutchinson, Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson (London: Everyman, 1995), p. 64). Indeed, the word ‘swarm’, whether applied of insects or humans is invariably used in a hostile, fearful, disparaging and negative way. In the Book of Exodus in the King James Bible God, through Moses, threatens Pharaoh with ‘swarms of flies’ (Exodus 8.21), and the Bible is replete with nightmarish visions of divine retribution taking the form of ‘swarms of locusts’. A ‘swarm of flies’ which descended upon London in 1675 was not met with equanimity but ‘wonder’—in the sense of something so removed from human experience that it elicits incomprehension—and ‘consternation’ (Relation of the most miraculous swarm of flies, 1675). A seventeenth-century mayor of London alarmingly described the prisons as full of ‘swarms of loose and idle vagrants’. In Macbeth, the treacherous rebellion of Macdonwald which begins the play grows from the way ‘The multiplying villainies of nature / Do swarm upon him’ (Macbeth, I.2).

black-swarmThe fear of swarms has provided an interesting sub-genre of horror movie that plays on the terror of killer bees, wasps, ants and other insects. Several films have ‘swarm’ in their title; not one of these films portrays the swarm in question as something to be embraced with stoic calm or affectionate interest. Irwin Allen’s 1978 killer-bee film The Swarm, starring Michael Caine and described by the Sunday Times as ‘simply the worst film ever made’, has a typical template: the swarm has to be stopped, the bees exterminated, since it’s kill or be killed. Deadly Swarm (2003), Swarmed (2005) and Black Swarm (2007) explore the same sophisticated ideas. In reality there have been occasional human deaths from killer bee attacks, although they are extremely rare. The bee colloquially termed as ‘killer’ resulted from American cross-breeding of European and African honey bees; interestingly the subspecies has been given the name ‘Africanized honey bee’ (not, of course, that we should imagine scientific nomenclature ever contributes to racially pejorative thinking and language…).

shark-swarm-posterThe right-wing media and politicians are not slow to point out the African origin of the Calais migrants (even if they have yet to describe them as ‘Africanized migrants’). That the Prime Minister should describe these migrants as a ‘swarm’ fits neatly with the broader agenda of de-individualization and dehumanization. When Katie Hopkins likened migrants to ‘cockroaches’, the similarity with the language of genocide-justification was obvious. (Hopkins has subsequently, and laughably, implied that her use of the term was a compliment—another example of the disingenuous faux-naiveté of the extreme right.) Cameron’s use of the term ‘swarm’ amounts to the same adoption of pro-genocide language. He may not want genocide, but he’s happy to stoke up a little genocidal emotion for his own political ends. Either that or he is a clumsy, thick-headed user of language. Historically and culturally swarming is distinctly non-human, alien behaviour; a swarm has almost always been something to be feared for its propensity to kill and devour; a swarm is something to be exterminated and can be done so with a clean conscience, since the constituents of a swarm are not individuals in any human sense. But my guess is that Cameron’s Eton and Oxford education has equipped him to understand the historical and cultural resonances of such language.

The ending of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), the apocalyptic nightmare evoked by all talk of ‘swarms’

‘Fear travels in packs’ states the poster for the 2008 film Shark Swarm. It is this natural fear of the swarm, which goes back to the locusts and flies of the Old Testament and which has become a cultural topos, that Cameron and the media want to play on. The nightmarish image they want to conjure up—however deliberately fanciful and without any grounding in reality it is—is not far removed from the conclusion of the greatest of all ‘swarm’ films, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Melanie Daniels and the Brenners, having barely survived the final attack by the swarm of birds, abandon their once-idyllic community which has now been completely taken over by the swarm. It is surely no coincidence that alongside their coverage of the events in Calais, and their eager description of it as a ‘migrant crisis’ demanding tough measures such as the use of the army, the media have also been devoting much space and comment to ‘killer gulls’ blighting Britain’s coastal towns and the need for a cull. The language of ‘swarms’, invasions and culls is attempting to prepare the ground for even nastier rhetoric, and its consequences, ahead. Cameron knows that and, even if he does not genuinely want it, he is cynically prepared to play with the nastiness.