Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Summary of interview with Professor Janet Reibstein

Professor Reibstein, one of the UK's most established psychotherapists and a professor at Exeter University, kindly made time for me on a day when she was in London to see private patients. She is originally from the USA and has lived in the UK for most of her professional life. Through her research, clinical work, lecturing and her body of published work, Professor Reibstein has built a reputation as a specialist in relationships - what they mean, their value to us as individuals and to society as a whole, and how to make and maintain positive, constructive relationships both personally and professionally.

For Professor Reibstein, virtue is about doing good for others. She freely admits she finds it difficult to think about virtue without the context of relationships because her learning and thinking have led her to believe that constructive relationships put one in the state of being open and desirous of doing good for others. For Professor Reibstein, to be in a constructive relationship, thus to be in a state of wanting to do good for others, "feels marvelous": it is personally satisfying and it affirms her belief system. Love, for her, is the highest state of virtue and it is something she thinks about actively and consciously every day of her life because she knows that when we are in constructive relationships we feel good about ourselves and seek to contribute to the maximum of our capabilities - whether it is in our personal or our professional lives. The opposite is also true: when we have been injured or hurt - even by a stranger and even in a tiny way - it causes us to freeze up and withdraw in order to protect ourselves. Luckily, we only need one constructive relationship at any point in our lives to transform ourselves and give us some of the resilience we need to weather fear and uncertainty and withstand hurt.

Although she believes that the average person is somewhat empathic in nature, she also sees that the average person may not have the vocabulary to think about virtue in a conscious way. As a result, they may not seek to work at building constructive relationships simply because they may not necessarily understand that it is constructive relationships above anything else that will benefit them. She observes that people tend to think about themselves and their needs in terms of "this is what I want" or "why am I not getting what I want" rather than "what can I do for others that will return something meaningful to me"?

One of the barriers to embedding virtue more widely in society is that the current culture of competition fosters individualistic and singular behaviour - behaviour that is "by myself" and "for myself". At an individual level this can lead to selfish and rude behaviour where the needs of others are not considered and the "rights" of the self are paramount. At an institutional level, many leaders are emulating the culture of the "master of the universe", currently celebrated by the media, in order that they themselves are recognised as being powerful. This conflation of "power", "singularity", and "leadership" has resulted in the situation in which many people in power are irresponsible and do not reflect on the impact that their power can have on others. In actual fact, the best leaders (as measured by popularity and improved share holder value) are those who create the circumstances where good relationships are formed and fostered and who reward others for doing the same.

To embed virtue, therefore, we must all work at our relationships and seek to build more positive relationships with our intimates, and more courteous relationships with strangers. Institutions must develop leaders who wield their power in a constructive and even benevolent way by enabling and encouraging people in their organisations to be in constructive, benevolent relationships. Changing one's behaviour, she concedes, feels odd and even fake at first, but rapidly becomes a new habit which feels "marvelous". Wouldn't that be great?

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

For related links about Professor Reibstein please see:

Societal harmony depends on the rule of law being upheld -

Maybe I am really naive but I always thought that the legal system was independent - that although many people would like to influence a legal judgement and will bring pressure to bear, we have to trust in the rational decision making capabilities of our lawyers and judges and trust that their influence is given due weight in any political decision such as the one made by the Scottish Justice Minister last week.

The law is not there to be "fair" it is there to be just. There is a body of precedent and cases are judged against it. There are plenty of cases that hit the news and generate a national or international outcry. I can cite the one of the couple who got divorced and he wanted all of their frozen embryos to be destroyed. He won. He won even through he could get re married and have children of his own and his ex-wife had no more eggs and thus no chance at children ever again. Nobody can think that is fair. However, it is the law and the law was upheld regardless of public outcry.

The release of the Libyan terrorist on compassionate grounds is clearly offending people and making them unhappy - and I am talking from the position of having a friend of mine, whom I saw two days before the event, blown up on that plane. However, the Libyan's circumstances matched the body of precedent and so the judgement was made to release him. The Minister’s decision was made over a long period of time during which he would have considered every angle thoroughly and had an opinion given to him by legal experts. It is highly disrespectful to the legal experts to even hint that they were unduly influenced by political pressure over any other consideration. I will be horrified and disappointed and lose trust in the legal system if that turns out ever to be proven.

We cannot let public opinion or political pressure sway our legal system. I choose to believe we did not let that happen in this case and cannot let it happen in the future. The fall out is complicated but the law was upheld.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Escapism is not so very bad...and benefits the locals!

There is so much to debate in Julian Dobson's latest amazing blog post that it is hard to know where to begin. I could debate "why people read" or "what people read" or "I bet the locals are happy to have the tourists' money regardless of what they are buying"or "who says history is more factual than fiction"? I love it! Get in on it!

Our Man with Rats wonders whether we are "bored and uncomfortable with the real stories that make us who we are" and that is a complicated question which brings to mind recent blog-bates about virtual reality versus reality, for one. Certainly fiction is a form of escapism, allowing the readers to enter into worlds that may be completely different from their own. An enjoyable and relaxing break from their day to day lives (like a holiday?).

Without thinking too deeply just at the moment, here is my light hearted and shallow response:

1. There is so much choice now about where we can go and what we can do on our holidays (and it is easy to go places) that people probably use books and films/tv to help them make their choices.

2. Many people are not that intrepid and may want to go and visit places with which they are a bit familiar - albeit through books or film/tv. The place is less alien and less threatening and this may be important to the traveller, especially if the destination is in another country.

3. Some people have a preference for fiction over history and others have a preference for history over fiction. Most blokes I know maintain they prefer to read history and most women I know say they prefer to read fiction. (Maybe women are the ones choosing the holiday destinations about which Our Man with Rats writes?) However, reading a novel often inspires people to learn more about the period and the place in which the novel was set - thereby inspring them to read some history and/or visit the place in which it was set and maybe pick up some history along the way (and spend some money, thus benefitting the locals).

4. Clearly an accurate understanding of who we are and where we come from must come from history (at least, that is what my head mistress told me when I wanted to opt out of history) but then again that argument is fraught with difficulty: whose version of history is the accurate one?

That's another good topic for a blog post....

Monday, August 10, 2009

Bad trip to the dentist? Why doesn't that surprise me?

I had to laugh (not in a mean way) when I read Rob Greenland's post about his trip to the dentist. In one fell swoop he reinforced two of the national stereotypes with which foreigners paint the British. The first is bad dentistry and the second is lousy customer service.

Let's face it, dentistry has never been a core competence of the Brits. All the articles this past week end on the recent history of dentistry in the UK prove this point (read: lots of false teeth). Whilst those residing in other Western countries have had flouride in the water for decades, have visited the dentist twice a year for the whole of their lives, and have prioritised expenditure on expensive orthodauntists to coax their teeth into straight lines with no over bites, Brits have prided themselves that their wonky teeth and tobacco-stained smiles provide them with individualistic charm.


Although tea drinking, gardening, satire, and rambling all rank among things in which Brits truly excel, spending good money on straight teeth and healthy gums (not to mention the resulting avoidance of severe and chronic halitosis) until very recently, has not. To that end, it is not to be expected that dentistry is at the forefront of Things Brits Do Well (yet).

Let's also face it that Britain is famed for the provision of bad value products coupled with poor customer service. Fawlty Towers, need I say more?

My advice? Protest! Vote with your feet! Make a stand! More Brits need to refuse to patronise British dentists and join the other Brits who have defected to Poland, Germany, or Hungary to find competent, cheerful, professional dentists who do not over-charge. Your carbon foot print will be higher but your blood pressure will be lower.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Summary of the interview with Nigel Seed, QC

I met Nigel in his chambers at 3 Paper Buildings at The Temple. I had never been to The Temple and was delighted to go there and to get a chance to see it and to meet him. A reserved and thoughtful man, it turns out that this seeming pillar of the establishment was a real rebel in his youth.

For Nigel, virtue is more than mere goodness. Virtuous behaviour is honest behaviour, by which he means being truthful to oneself and others. He sees that dishonest behaviour takes many forms including outright lying or cheating but also trying to cover up the truth or not tell the whole truth. One aspect of dishonest behaviour that particularly strikes Nigel is when people make a mistake and follow elaborate (and usually dishonest) steps to try to cover it up or make out there was no mistake in the first place. Behaving honestly is difficult because it requires the strength of mind and character to resist the temptation to fabricate or embellish and this, in turn, requires genuine self confidence. When Nigel sees someone behaving virtuously (honestly) he feels warmly toward that person, is inclined to trust them, and would seek to get to know them and re-engage with them. Similarly, when he sees someone behaving without virtue he feels immediately that they are not to be trusted and he goes out of his way to avoid them, both socially and professionally. They make him feel angry and irritable.

Attempting to behave virtuously is not something Nigel thinks about consciously. It is like breathing. Interestingly, Nigel does not remember developing his understanding of virtuous behaviour from positive role models, but rather from negative ones. Growing up, and as a young barrister, he came across behaviour he actively chose not to emulate. Whilst this may have isolated him from certain people and blocked certain avenues, he does not regret the choices he has made and it is clear that he could not even consider living in any other way.

Sadly, he sees that there is a lot of dishonesty in the world. He sees so many people who try to get away with as much as they can, pushing the limit until they get caught. Regulation has not helped, indeed it is hugely interfering, removing individual accountability and peer pressure for virtuous behaviour. Nigel is a criminal barrister but his observations are not limited to his work at the bar. His professional and personal interests take him into a variety of places and he interacts at a senior level with people from different professions, many of whom have begun to "believe their own press", hiding behind the authority of their office or profession. This is particularly troubling because people in leadership positions are influential and should be setting a good example rather than using their authority to serve themselves and their own interests.

In order to embed virtue he thinks that we all need to take a good hard look at ourselves and the groups and organisations to which we belong, analysing whether we are being truthful to ourselves, in our jobs, and with the people around us. Dishonesty is a habit which we need to work hard to break and he suggests everyone starts by resisting, at least once a day (for starters!), the temptation to tell a little lie. We'll survive and, in the end, be better off.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related links (profile of Nigel Seed, QC): http://www.3paper.co.uk/profile/72/group/3/64