Mara Naile-Akim - Some examples of axiomatic beliefs

I have talked before of axioms, beliefs people accept without question and usually defend with circular logic. Here I will discuss two very pervasive yet less obvious axioms, ones that have penetrated so deep into their respective communities or societies that most people use them without for a minute doubting they are true.

Individual action. My child recently came back from school and said they had a class about the threat of plastic to nature. You can probably picture it: the usual images of islands of rubbish in the Pacific, littered beaches, choked seabirds, the lot. You really cannot fault them for instilling environmentalism into the next generation. But then we asked: what action did they suggest as a remedy for this? Did they say that one had to lobby the government for tighter regulation on manufacturers? Stopping foreign plastic-heavy consumer goods at the border? Collectively lobby large corporations to change their ways?

Well, not so. The solutions put forward were all based around individual action, around consumer pressure and recycling. Highly laudable aims both, but historically that has not been enough. The more powerful alternative of organised action is not mentioned. The implicit axiom behind this call for individual action (encountered often among the British middle class) is that ‘individual action is enough’, that as long as you ‘do your bit’ by modifying your own behaviour you can just sit back and rest and ‘it will all eventually happen’. An alternative form of it is the statement “I should do X to solve a certain worldwide problem Y because if everyone did X then problem Y would be solved”.

Aren’t we all, the story goes, powerless to change the world? Isn’t each of us a speck, drowned out in the polls by the sheer size of the electorate, dwarfed by the magnitude of multinationals, too weak to stand up to powerful interests? So we should just keep our head down, do our bit and not lose too much time and energy trying to do much else because, even if all the life is choked out of the oceans, we will have that fuzzy feeling that our own consciences are spotless.

Proponents of the individual choice axiom defend it in those ways. They attack people who suggest it might not be enough, that either communal action or substantial legislative change is needed, by accusing them of trying to force other people or organisations to make certain choices. Lead by example, they tell you, others will see how great an environmentalist you are and will follow suit. Don’t try to force people into compliance (let alone, God forbid, forcing businesses into compliance), let them see the light themselves. Let weird people form pressure groups, lobby politicians, attempt to bring about change… you just do your bit.

(ii) Unchanging national character. Whenever discussing Anglo-Russian relations with patriotically-minded Russians you will come to discuss history. I am not talking recent history here — rather anything up to and including World War Two. Here’s how it happens: you are discussing contemporary events and end up, as you do, on a recent contentious issue. Suppose this is the Skripal poisoning, although it needn’t be. Naturally, they think that Britain did it, at which point you observe that Britain is not really known for false flag operations, whilst Russia and the Soviet Union have had a track record of poisoning people abroad and an even stronger track record of assassinations at home.

It is at that point that they start talking about the British Empire and World War Two. The argument goes that Britain did horrific things in the past and therefore we are ‘still at it’ now. We are guilty of Salisbury because of the famine in Bengal, because of what we did in Ireland, even because we agreed for Silesia to be given to Poland and for all the Germans living there to be driven out. Those historic events mean we cannot be trusted, even though most of the people responsible are long dead.

It sounds crazy, but this is an argument one hears all the time. This axiom behind this is an idea of a national character that is in some way constant, so that, despite the massive changes Britain underwent since the days of the Empire, despite the societal changes that occurred in the UK, deep down we are said to be the same. In particular, our Establishment is assumed to be the same and therefore capable of the same levels of callous conduct as it was back then.

This joins up with a different narrative, that of the British establishment harbouring a deep Russophobia, a historic, deep-seated dislike for the Russian state. Once again, this is justified with historical examples — going as far back as the Crimean War. In the age of the Great Powers, it is of course not difficult to make the case for any of them absolutely hating each other, and then invoke the assumption of ‘nothing having changed’ to relate this to the present day. And then of course there was the Cold War… However, given the tight financial links between the UK and Russia, given that the money from the latter has been pouring into the former since 1991, this is all the more egregious an assertion to make.