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Graeme Archer: Only Connect

Look at your hand a minute (then come back to this!). Think of all the carbon atoms in it, formed at the same time as our solar system. So much of the very matter which gives us our form, and therefore our function, is common to all of us, so very, very much. Ancient and fundamental. We are all made of stars, in the words of the song.

Of course we’re not all the “same”. There are visible differences between human beings. Most of these differences, though, are accidental: unplanned outcomes of evolutionary bifurcations, and in the scheme of things they are tiny. Even the most visible biological human variation, that between men and women, is of little material weight, if you think about it, if you calculate that biological difference as a percentage of the biological total of “male” compared to “female”. For a relatively small proportion of our lives, that difference manifests itself in an important way (in terms of biology, not psychology): but I think it’s a category error to believe that men and women are hugely dissimilar. Psychology is a man-made construct we use to describe our “intentions” as phenotypes of the human species: but the biology came first. I think this applies a fortiori to other manifestations of human groupings.

(A question often posed of unbelievers by our religious friends is: Where is the beauty in your God-less Universe? I read lots of valid-sounding answers: it’s in Mozart, it’s in the sunlight dappling the shoreline of Sussex, it’s in the faces of a mother and father gazing at their newborn. I agree with all of these but I think there’s a deeper response. The wonder of the Universe, for me, resides in the fact that humanity can see past its near-undifferentiated biology and manages, in the tiny, tiny gaps available, to find the beauty within each individual. We must have the most amazing eyesight in the Universe to see that which differentiates us one from another: but we do. It’s easy to say “celebrate diversity”. It’s only when I think about how small a space that diversity has to live in, that I feel a sense of wonder and joy. This is probably as close as I can get to comprehension of religion.)

Cherish that which we have found to make us distinctive; but do not fetishise it, or over-state its importance. I called it a “category error” to over-emphasise the distinction between men and women, for example: but some people have crafted a well-remunerated career from just such categorisations. Assigning people to pre-labelled boxes allows endless conjecture, nearly all of which is ultimately pointless (in the scientific sense, because there is no “not-Earth” available to the sociologist with which to make any valid comparative inference). One of the busiest columns on the Guardian website this week has been a discussion about whether or not men can ever label themselves as “feminist". 

And some people, of course, have gone much further, with a deliberately malign intent (unlike the well-meaning academic theorists). Some people have crafted a political career from the fetishisation of categories. Boris Johnson’s most devastating charge against Livingstone is that the latter has deliberately balkanised Londoners into their different categories of box, plied the self-selected leaders of these groups with public money, and turned a blind eye to the resultant corruption. Predictably, such an approach is not even coherent, because there’s no-one alive who has a single Identity (beyond the fundamental truth that they are made from the exact same stuff as the rest of us). In our diversity-gaps we exhibit a multitude of glorious identities. Thus Livingstone’s politics leads to that which to an alien observer would appear ludicrous: a contradiction between support for two of the boxes saddled up to the Mayor’s wagon (evidence: Stonewall, Qaradawi).

What happens when we focus on the (arbitrary, random) differences between us? Not to repeat myself from last week, but the politics of identity leads to balkanisation, which leads to suspicion, which leads to hate, which leads to death. I’m sick of this feeling that everyone who is not-me is slipping further and further away from me, that we’ve already reached the point where I’m not able to so much as start a conversation with someone who is not-me without fearing socio-legal repercussions (or “hate crime”). I want a politics of Only Connect. It’s not possible for me to be 100% aware of the inner life of not-me; but it’s possible to try. It’s always better to try. It is absolutely vital to try. See the beauty in the difference but do not derive a law of political consequence from it.

And that, in my humble opinion, is the best reason on Earth for voting for Boris on Thursday.   


The train to Harlow on Tuesday morning grumbled to a halt, in the gap between Hackney and Tottenham, an area of surprisingly verdant wetland. The driver came onto the intercom: Sorry for the delay to your journey, ladies and gentlemen, but there’s a swan on the line just ahead of us. Obviously we can’t get on our way until he decides to move, so please bear with me while I do my best. A few minutes of hand-clapping and whistle-tooting and the swan allowed us to pass. I hope the driver knows how much his passengers admire him. 


Friday morning and I’m queuing to buy my ticket. The man in front of me is asking for a railcard discount to which he is clearly not entitled, and an argument takes off between he and the ticketing assistant, with the queue behind me growing angrier and more vociferous. Finally he storms off and I take his place. I look at the saleswoman and we blow out our breath and relax. Then we’re laughing at each other. Don’t worry, she tells me, it’s gonna be a beautiful day. And it is.


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