What do you say in response to THAT!?

What should you say when you’ve just sprayed blood into someone’s face?

As an autistic guy, I have a number of rehearsed responses to virtually every question and situation. I don’t think I’m alone in that – much of society have pre-programmed sets of words they drop into sentences to convey meaning without having to engage their brains and thus slow down the communication.

When we meet a casual acquaintance, for example, we don’t choose every word to create a sentence – we select a block of meaning, as from a drop-down menu, and send it to the mouth:

‘Hi, how’re you?’

The unthinking response is invariably, ‘Fine, thanks, how’re you?’

We do this all the time. It’s the reason idioms are so divorced from their literal meanings – catch you later, how’s tricks, I’ll take a rain check, a piece of cake, shitting bricks. Instead of thinking of each individual word, we select the meaning we want, and the particular register (formal, informal), and our brains arrange the chunks and make the sentences for us.

If we didn’t operate like this, it would take too long to say anything and too long to interpret what other people are saying. It’s as though society has consented to ignore the individual words and ascribe meaning to blocks of words – they’ve agreed that ‘once in a blue moon’ means ‘rarely’ and ‘over the moon’ means ‘pleased’, for example.

This can be a good thing for those of us on the spectrum, as it means we can fake empathy and not have to struggle to figure out what someone’s thinking or feeling. So long as we learn the rules – which can admittedly be difficult in itself – we can fit in.

For example, I’ve had to learn that when people ask, ‘How are you?’ it’s merely a means of facilitating conversation and not an earnest enquiry after your health, so you’re not meant to tell the truth (for a time, I answered with, ‘Entering the inner sanctum of the seventh circle of Hell, and you?’ just to see the reactions).

Where a context-specific response is required and I can’t tell whether a comment is serious or sarcastic (‘Lovely day, isn’t it?’) I normally reply with ‘Indeed’ or ‘Absolutely’ so that it fits both. Unless I’m tired and slip into Aspie mode, where I’ll take everything literally, overthink everything I say and consequently fail to communicate, I can normally mask my difficulties.

However, there are three situations I keep encountering that I’ve never figured out how to deal with.

There’s a lady at the school gate who keeps slipping into small talk that her eldest daughter died as a toddler. Every time she does it, it’s so matter-of-fact that it knocks me off track.

‘How was your Christmas?’

‘It was really good. We lost a child at Christmas, so we make the most of it every year. How was yours?’

‘Er, er, yeah, fine,’ but all I can think is, Should I be saying, ‘oh dear’, or ‘that’s terrible’, or ‘poor you’, or ‘what happened’?

Another difficulty is when old people look at you, groan wearily, and say, ‘Don’t get old.’ Since I live in a village full of elderly people, this happens more often than you’d think. How the hell are you meant to respond to that?

‘I won’t,’ or ‘I’m not planning to,’ sounds like you’re going to kill yourself. Saying, ‘It happens to us all,’ is a bit patronising because they’re old and in pain and I’m not, as is minimising their experience with, ‘It can’t be that bad’ or ‘It could be worse’. And giving some philosophical statement like, ‘Youth is wasted on the young,’ or ‘Any day there’s air in your lungs is a good day,’ is a little too in-depth when you’re standing in a queue at the local shop.

But the worst, the absolute worst, is when I spray people with blood.

I’ve mentioned before that I donate platelets. The way they do it is to put a blood-pressure cuff on your upper arm, inflate it, then stick a needle in your arm. Despite having normal blood pressure, for some reason I have a tendency to squirt. It’s like popping a balloon – the second the needle touches my arm, boom! Blood spattered all over their hands.

So I warn them every time. And every time they’re like, ‘Ah, I’m better than the other nurses, it won’t happen to me,’ and every time – pop – I get them.

There’s something incredibly intimate about blood, so it makes me feel embarrassed and kind of dirty when I spray it over some poor girl’s hand, or neck, or face. The girl yesterday got it all over her bare hand and up her arm, and was clearly horrified, and in those situations I have no idea what to say.

I muttered, ‘Sorry,’ but that seems on the one hand inadequate (I’ve just squirted my bodily fluids over her, after all) and on the other pointless (I can’t exactly control it, can I?). I once tried, ‘See? Told you so,’ but decided that’s rubbing salt in the wound. Likewise, ‘Gotcha!’ makes me seem like a sicko who enjoys the sight of his blood on someone’s cheek.

So I just sit there uncomfortably and squirm. Every time.

If anybody has some advice for how I can respond, I’m all ears!

Life lessons from learning cello

As a forty-year-old casual guitar player who can’t read music, I’ve embarked on a journey to learn the cello – an instrument that doesn’t spoon-feed you anything the way a guitar or piano does, and that requires time, patience and practice to play a single note. I’ve had my cello three days now, so how am I doing?

It’s going really well, actually. When you get it right and the instrument rewards you, there’s an immense feeling of satisfaction because you know you’ve earned it. And unexpectedly, I’m discovering that a lot of what I’m learning on the cello has a wider application – that the lessons of how to play are also lessons on how to live – so I thought I’d share them here.

Day One: Confront your fears

I had a girlfriend once who played the violin, and she never tuned it. ‘These sorts of instruments are too hard to tune,’ she said. ‘You have to take them to a specialist to get it done properly.’

So before getting my cello, I built up a massive complex about tuning. Since it’s a rental and came with luthier setup, I figured I’d leave it exactly how it came and be done with it.

When I got it out of the bag, and after adjusting the height until it felt comfortable, I tentatively plucked the strings. To my ear, and having no frame of reference, it sounded fine.

Being a guitar player, and thus well-versed in left-hand fingering, I ignored the bow for the moment and decided to practice some scales by simply plucking the strings (pizzicato). Since cellos have no frets, I knew the first step was to put tape on the fingerboard to mark first position, so I watched various YouTube videos explaining how to do this. They were all clear on one thing: you had to make sure the cello was in tune. Checking it against some tones I found online, I realised my cello was about one whole step down and all four strings needed tuning.

Bugger. With swelling anxiety, I read that, if you want to be a cellist, you have to be able to tune your own instrument. I knew if I left it, it’d grow into such an issue I’d never get over it, so I bit the bullet and watched a bunch of videos on how to tune a cello. With a healthy amount of trepidation and the certainty that I was going to mess up the very thing I’d been waiting for all week, I turned the first peg.

Wow. With 30-40lbs of tension in each string, the instrument makes one hell of a frightening cracking noise when you adjust the peg. And that peg is held in place by friction only, so you have to push it into the hole as you turn it, or else the moment you let go, it spins the other way and undoes all your hard work.

But you know what I discovered? It’s surprisingly easy, and once you’ve done it, your cello sounds so much better. There is no reason whatsoever to be afraid of tuning.

I spent the rest of the day plucking up and down the C-Major scale across all four strings, feeling rather pleased with myself. I’d conquered my fears and found them baseless, and was already being rewarded by my instrument.

So the big lesson of the day: confront your fears. You might just find that there was nothing to fear all along.

Day Two: Act with confidence

Since I was already building up anxiety about the bow, I took the lesson of Day One and dove right in. I wasn’t expecting much as I’d already read that in the first couple of weeks it’ll sound awful, but I wasn’t prepared for just how awful it sounded. The A-string is close enough to the violin (see my feelings on violins) that you can experience the screechy, scratchy drowning cat sound without even trying, especially if you’re fingering with your left hand at the same time. The lower strings sound better, but far from perfect. Like I said, the cello doesn’t spoon-feed you anything – instead of simply pressing a key, you have to do several tricky things at the same time to get a decent note.

Since practice makes perfect, I spent most of the day practising, but it wasn’t very good. I was nervous, which meant I was very tentative with the bow and I was trying to play quietly so I didn’t inflict the wretchedness on the rest of the family (and the neighbours).

Just when I was ready to give up for the day, I thought I’d throw caution to the wind and give it a bit of welly and – boom! – the sound improved massively. It was like flicking a switch to turn night into day. I realised that if you play nervously, afraid of the sounds you’ll make, you make bad sounds, whereas if you play with confidence, even if you’re unpracticed, you make good sounds.

That’s a great lesson for life – if you go into something worried that you’re going to fail, you will, but if you trust yourself and do it with confidence, even if it’s something new, you can achieve far more than you ever thought you could. The best at climbing trees are those with no fear of falling, after all.

Day Three: find what works for you

After two days playing the cello, yesterday evening my left wrist and right hand ached. I’ve watched more than a dozen videos and read about twenty articles on that ever-important bow-hold, and they all seem to say something slightly different. No matter which one I use, it cramps up my hand after a couple of minutes, and various parts of my body start to punish me.

Stepping back a moment, I found I was way too stiff. By trying to do everything right, and contorting my body into uncomfortable positions to fit someone else’s idea of ‘the correct way’, I was not only making myself sore, I wasn’t making a very good sound. You don’t grip the bow tightly, locking your fingers into place – you need a light, relaxed touch. And you don’t sit rigidly in the ‘correct’ posture – you need to be loose and gentle. Not all bodies are built the same, just as no people are built the same, so find what feels natural and right for you, and relax into it. You need to let go of your tension and flow, not only because it stops you getting sore, but because it makes everything sound better.

I spent today practising the C-Major scale with the bow up and down the four strings, and I’m feeling nowhere near as stiff, and not only that, it’s sounding great.

So, from three days of practice, I have these rules for life:

  1. Confront your fears
  2. Act with confidence
  3. Find what works for you

Who knows what I’ll discover tomorrow?

Is my child a psychopath?

What will my child become?

I think that question is pretty much universal among parents. Whether it’s a daily obsession or just an occasional thought, we all take our child’s current characteristics and project them into an imagined future. Will she be happy? Will she be nice? Will she be clever, confident, artistic, musical?

On other days, we worry. Will she be mean? Will she get into drugs? Will she end up neurotic, psychotic, and confined to an institution?

And on our worst days, if you’re anything like me, we wonder if there’s any possibility, no matter how small, that she might grow up to be a serial killer.

It’s not such a crazy question, when you think about it. Every serial killer was once a child; ergo, right now there are children among us who will one day grow up to be serial killers. Children whose parents feed them and bath them and dry their tears and rock them to sleep at night. Children who are innocent and cute and totally harmless. Or rather, who seem to be.

But we reassure ourselves that there are signs – there must be signs. We’d know if our child harboured a darkness within, wouldn’t we? Wouldn’t we?

In the past week, my four-year-old daughter has landed two humdingers that, while making me laugh at the time, have made me wonder in retrospect.

We were in a minibus on the way back from a family Christmas get-together when, apropos of nothing, she suddenly said, ‘Why did the clown cross the road in front of a car?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Why did the clown cross the road in front of a car?’

‘Because he wanted to die!’ she said, and burst out laughing. To be fair, we all laughed, because it was darkly funny. But it’s not exactly one for the family album.

Then, earlier today, we were watching Swallows and Amazons. When we got to the scene where Uncle Jim shouts at John, I said, ‘What a nasty man.’

‘Yes,’ said my daughter. ‘They should kill him.’

‘Whoa,’ I replied. ‘You don’t think that’s a bit of an overreaction?’

She just shrugged. With the absolutism of a child, the penalty for meanness is death. Yikes. Where does this end?

I’ve always been interested in the ‘red flags’ that might indicate future criminality. It’s perhaps inevitable, given my age: I was 13 when two 10-year-olds murdered the toddler James Bulger, close enough in age to the killers for the case to fascinate and horrify me; likewise, I had just finished school when two high school seniors murdered thirteen of their classmates at Columbine. I remember the media wringing its hands, blaming video games and movies, society and Marilyn Manson, while the man on the street put the blame a little closer to home: on the absent parents and on the killers themselves, evil oiks who should have been drowned at birth. Trying to understand why these things happen is programmed into my psyche.

Given the vast number of crime shows filling the schedules, I’m definitely not alone in wondering what makes someone a monster. Is it innate or learned? Are they born imprinted with the desire to kill, or does something turn them from well-adjusted members of society into stone cold killers? And can we ever identify those among us who might one day become murderers?

Luckily, there are multiple lists of the early characteristics of serial killers available online. Of course, children displaying these behaviours and backgrounds aren’t necessarily going to grow up to be Ed Kemper, but most Ed Kempers have them in some combination.

The big three, the trifecta, the so-called Macdonald Triad, are:

  1. Bed-wetting after the age of five.
  2. Arson.
  3. Cruelty to animals.

If you noticed any of these in your child, I think you’d be worried anyway, regardless of whether or not they’re predictive indicators for serial killing. While the first one is often indicative of child abuse or parental neglect, the three together might make you sit up and take note.

In addition, most serial killers have the following backgrounds:

  1. Troubled family life with a history of substance abuse and/or psychiatric disorders.
  2. Child abuse.
  3. Witnessing extreme violence.

While such things are just as likely to make someone a victim as a killer, these characteristics in combination with arson and animal torture, are hardly things you’d look for in a potential babysitter.

And the more subtle behavioural clues that might predict future problems:

  1. Thrill-seeking/risk-taking.
  2. Aggression.
  3. Antisocial and manipulative behaviour.

True, that seems to describe every child, but the intensity of these three, combined with the previous six, are things to look out for.

Other positive correlations between early behaviours and serial killing are:

  1. Inappropriate sexual behaviour.
  2. Voyeurism.
  3. Substance abuse.

You’ll notice that nowhere in the early signs of serial killers does it say, ‘Makes bad jokes about suicidal clowns’. Phew.

All joking aside, I don’t think my daughter will grow up to be a murderer. She’s kind and sensitive and remarkably well-adjusted for someone with two autistic parents. As a parent, I know my daughter. And that’s why I don’t believe a pair of ten-year-olds could murder a toddler, or a couple of teenagers gun down their classmates, without there being a multitude of red flags that their parents chose not to see.

If you’re wondering if your child is a psychopath, unless they’re fascinated with fire and torturing animals, odds are that they’re not. Nor does having a difficult childhood or watching some bad movies make your child a monster unless they were born with something monstrous inside them. People don’t wake up one day and start murdering – in interpersonal violence there is always a progression, an escalation, from the minor to the major, unless they have a personality-changing bump on the head like Richard Ramirez, John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz, Albert Fish and Dennis Rader – which makes head trauma another sign to look out for.

So don’t worry about what your child might become. It’ll probably be worse than you hope and better than you fear.

But if they fit all twelve of the above, you might consider talking to someone, for all our sakes!

Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Truth Era

A reader asked my opinion on a conspiracy theory currently doing the rounds that a number of high-profile suicides, such as Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, who I mentioned in my post Suicide Isn’t Painless, were, in fact, murdered. The theory, an offshoot of the Clinton Body Count and Pizzagate conspiracies, is that they were murdered to prevent them exposing a paedophile ring led by the Clintons and Jeffrey Epstein and composed of numerous politicians and celebrities. She asked why I thought people were so keen to believe celebrities were murdered, rather than committed suicide. This is my response.

I’ll start with the general and then move to the specific.

I think there are four main reasons people prefer to believe celebrities were murdered than that they killed themselves. The first is that fans tend to feel a kind of ownership of our heroes. We’ve had their songs, their movies, their images in our hearts and our living rooms for so long, and our lives have been so shaped by their words and philosophies, they’ve become our personal gods. So how could they do this to us? They wouldn’t.

The truth that we never knew them and they were never perfect and never owed us anything or actually cared about us is far too hard to accept, so we decide they didn’t leave us, they were murdered. That way, we pass the blame to an innocent party and our hero remains perfect and blameless. It’s the reason so many people claim Kurt Cobain was murdered. I mean, why would a guy obsessed with suicide, who told his mom as a kid that he wanted to join the 27 Club and wrote a song called ‘I Hate Myself and Want To Die’, go ahead and kill himself? Instead of hating Kurt Cobain and holding him responsible for the hurt he caused us, we can hate that evil Courtney Love, who had him killed because she’s a talentless hack (actually, I think there’s a lot of misogyny in these theories – it’s always the wives who are blamed, never the men themselves. Yoko Ono ended the Beatles, not John Lennon; Sharon Osbourne ended Black Sabbath, not Ozzy; Max Cavalera’s wife ended Sepultura, not Max Cavalera, etc.). And if your favourite celebrity was murdered to stop them revealing a paedophile gang, it transforms a suicide into a heroic martyr, so that’s even better.

The second reason is that, as vulnerable biological organisms, we’ve evolved to spot cause and effect in order to protect ourselves. While this has mostly served us well, we’ve developed an erroneous, instinctive belief that big effects must have equally big causes. The destruction of the Twin Towers was too big to be caused by a bunch of Palestinians armed with box cutters and led by a man in a cave, so it must have been a massive conspiracy; Diana was far too important a person to die in a simple car accident, so it must have been an assassination; our hero was too rich and famous and successful and talented to hang himself in a hotel bathroom, so it must have been murder. We don’t like to believe that our heroes are as vulnerable as ourselves, and that no matter how big and successful you are, you’re just as frail and insignificant as the next man, and could just as easily die from slipping in the shower as having a noteworthy demise.

The third reason, related to the previous and applicable to most (if not all) conspiracy theories, is that we’re terrified of chaos. Since the year dot we’ve invented gods to explain the mysterious workings of the world – why this volcano erupted or that year’s harvest failed. We want to believe that things happen for a reason, and if we can spot the signs, we can control our fate – if only we sacrificed more virgins, we could have prevented that flood, and suchlike.

I think the rise in modern conspiracy theories correlates with the decline of our belief in God – we’ve replaced a mysterious, invisible, vengeful deity with a mysterious, invisible, vengeful cabal, whether we call it the Illuminati, the New World Order or the Bilderberg Group. It’s more comforting to believe that someone, even someone bad, is controlling things – that it’s possible to control things – than accept that shit happens, there’s no grand plan behind it all and there’s nothing we can do to protect ourselves. Sometimes one man with a rifle can kill a president; sometimes the biggest luxury liner in the world can hit an iceberg and sink; and sometimes the people we look up to can kill themselves with little explanation. Conspiracy theories give meaning to the meaningless, and the illusion of control where none actually exists.

And fourthly, and most simply, I think believing in conspiracies makes people feel special. ‘You other idiots think they killed themselves, but know the truth, because I’m more intelligent, and more perceptive and better informed than you.’ You see this smug, superior mindset all the time with conspiracy theorists as they cherry-pick their evidence and twist facts to suit their political agenda – that’s why they always shout, ‘Wake up, sheeple!’ – because they’re better than us ‘sheep’. Reducing the complexity of the world into good vs evil, and aligning yourself with the forces of good, makes you a hero, and not a schmuck who lives in his mother’s basement. I can understand the appeal.

On the specifics of Cornell and Bennington, I have no doubt whatsoever that they killed themselves. You just have to look at their songs, statements, substance-abuse problems and mental health issues, and the massive death-rate among rock musicians and vocalists, to realise that their committing suicide is not particularly unlikely.

One of Cornell’s best friends, Andrew Wood from MotherLoveBone, died of drugs in 1990 (the survivors went on to form Pearl Jam), while the numbers of dead musicians surrounding the grunge scene, and therefore known to him, is staggering: Mia Zapata (The Gits), Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), Kristen Pfaff (Hole), Shannon Hoon (Blind Melon), Bradley Nowell (Sublime), Jonathan Melvoin (The Smashing Pumpkins), Layne Staley and Mike Starr (Alice in Chains), and Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots), to name but a few. It was a self-destructive, nihilistic movement. Cornell wrote loads of songs using death and suicide as metaphors, like ‘Pretty Noose’, ‘Like Suicide’, ‘Your Time Has Come’ and ‘Nothing Left To Say But Goodbye’, so his suicide isn’t that unbelievable.

Chester Bennington was similarly troubled. Most Linkin Park songs are about struggling with depression and addiction and self-loathing. From what I’ve read, it seems that Cornell was the rock that Bennington leaned on, a hero and a friend who helped him through the hard times, so when Cornell killed himself, there was little hope left for Bennington. He sang at Cornell’s funeral, then killed himself on what would have been Cornell’s 53rd birthday. Again, listening to Bennington’s lyrics, it’s not necessarily surprising that he killed himself.

Of course, the fact that their autopsy reports and inquests are a matter of public record should put this subject to bed, provided, of course, you trust the police, coroners, pathologists and jurors involved. You’d need a pretty good reason to doubt the institutions and mechanisms we’ve developed to make sure murders can’t be passed off as suicides, and you’d have to believe in an all-powerful and infallible group of people that can manipulate crime scenes, witnesses, family members, multiple law enforcement officials, medics, coroners, pathologists, courts, jurors, and the press, without leaving a single trace of themselves anywhere. I don’t think such an organisation, or even the capability, exists outside movies and the imaginations of conspiracy theorists.

Which brings me to the whole Pizzagate rubbish and the proliferation of online conspiracy theories. Back in the past, there were gatekeepers standing between nuts and a mass audience, and rightly so, because not all ideas are of equal merit or value. In the past, the crazy guy down the road who lives in a caravan and wears a tinfoil hat to stop the CIA from stealing his thoughts would just have been a harmless eccentric; now, with a keyboard and an avatar, that person can do some real damage.

The internet has been celebrated for being ‘democratic’, in the sense that nobody can monopolize discourse, the little guys disseminating their ideas alongside the big boys, but that freedom is a double-edged sword. People have been conditioned to believe that what they read is true, and this conditioning acts against them. While many content creators are conscientious, dedicated to reasoned argument, fact-checking and accuracy (I like to think of myself in this category, or rather, I aspire to it), many are not. Some are insane, some don’t realise what they’re doing, and some are deliberately untruthful. As is often the case, the extremists ruin it for the rest of us.

If you met someone in the pub who claimed that the first African-American President was actually born in Kenya, and was therefore ineligible to be President, you’d probably conclude you’re talking to a racist and dismiss it out of hand. However, if you put that in black-and-white on the internet, with some spurious but official ‘evidence’ taken out of context, people are going to believe it, particularly if it reinforces their prejudices about the kind of people they don’t like, and more so if it is ‘something The Establishment doesn’t want you to know!’

And then it snowballs. People copy and repeat the lie. They add more ‘evidence’. They link to other sites that support the same lies, making it seem as though a consensus has been reached. Then the mainstream media picks it up. Refuting it just makes you sound guilty. Like a game of Chinese Whispers, the lie takes on a life of its own. It gets so big, it seems impossible to deny.

That’s how you end up with Pizzagate. A white supremacist pretending to be a New York Attorney ‘leaks’ that the police are investigating evidence from Clinton’s emails that point to Hillary being at the centre of a paedophile ring. Before you know it, the internet is positive, without a shred of evidence, that there is a vast conspiracy of (Democrat) politicians and (liberal) celebrities running a child-trafficking paedophile ring using pizza restaurants as fronts to carry out Satanic rituals. All fun and games, until a man walked into the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington DC with an AR-15 and fired three shots while attempting to rescue non-existent sex slaves.

That’s why conspiracy theories aren’t harmless fun. They destabilise society and have real world consequences. They breed an atmosphere of mistrust. Large swathes of the Arab world deny the Holocaust happened, and accuse Jews of blood libel (murdering children and using their blood to bake holy bread). Anti-vaxxer hysteria is bringing back diseases that we’d almost wiped out. Second Amendment activists harass the parents of murdered children because they think high school shootings are performed by ‘crisis actors’ so the government can take away their guns.

And what happens? You no longer know who to trust. You no longer know what’s true and what isn’t. We live in a Post-Truth era, an age of Fake News, where people will believe and share whatever rubbish they’re told on Twitter and Facebook without checking a single fact. And when you no longer trust the government, the politicians, the media, who do you turn to?

You turn to populists. You turn to people like Trump.

The sitting President of the United States is the greatest example of the dangers of conspiracism. This is a man who kickstarted his political career with the birther conspiracy, who ran his campaign on the idea of combating a nefarious ‘Deep State’ that secretly runs America (in league with the ‘enemy-of-the-people’ news media, of course), and claimed Ted Cruz’s father murdered JFK. This is a guy who lies through his teeth while calling truth ‘fake news’, who claims that climate change is a hoax, vaccines cause autism and the Clintons murdered Jeffrey Epstein. When the head of the country tells you conspiracy theories are real, the truth goes walkabout.

And why? Because knowledge is power, and destroying the basis of knowledge – truth – destroys the currency of opposition. In a kingdom without truth, the best liar is king. And we all know Donnie’s the best of the bunch.

To quote the Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels,

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

So what’s the solution? I honestly don’t know. I’m not in favour of censorship, and I think it’s too late for that anyway. On the other hand, I think more could be done to separate reputable news sources from the blatant liars. Perhaps there could be some body set up that you can submit your work to for fact-checking, and they could provide you with a tick or a digital certificate you can put on your website that shows your article has been verified. That way, you’re not blocking anyone, but you’re creating a two-tier system of verified and unverified data. Sure, there’d be flaws in the system, but I’m just spit-balling here. Wikipedia, once an incredibly unreliable source of information, has definitely become more trustworthy over the years, so perhaps crowd-sourcing is the way to go, although such an approach tends to prioritise consensus, mainstream interpretations over equally valid but less popular ones. I’m smart enough to know I’m not smart enough to solve this.

But three things I do know: nobody is infallible; three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead; and the Clintons had nothing to do with the deaths of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington.

Why you should vote

With a General Election in the UK tomorrow that will likely change the way we live for a generation – either by delivering Brexit (Conservative) or re-nationalising utilities and transport (Labour) – most of the people I’ve spoken to have no idea who to vote for, and, therefore, have decided not to vote.

True, it’s a difficult choice – it can seem a little bit like choosing which plug socket to jam a fork into, because we’re going to suffer either way – but if you’re crippled by indecision, here are some things that might help you out of that deadlock.

The difference between left and right is one of opinion, not morality.

I am sick and tired of hearing this banal, simplistic dichotomy of left=good, right=evil; or, to put it another way, Left is right and Right is wrong. You hear all the time from celebrities, campaigners, news sources and anonymous internet users that if you vote Labour (or Democrat in the US), you’re a good, selfless person who cares about the poor and rescues drowning puppies, whereas if you vote Conservative (or Republican), you’re a selfish, uneducated, boorish racist who hates puppies and never tires of seeking out rivers to throw them into.

The world doesn’t work like that. People can’t be divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ based on their voting preference, not least because there are really (realistically) only two choices, and picking one doesn’t mean you agree with everything they say and do, just that you disagree with them less than you disagree with their opponent. Rather than being a moral choice, that agreement or disagreement is simply your opinion on how a society is best structured.

Typically speaking, the Right, whether that’s Conservative or Republican, believes in individual responsibility and the free market. They think people should be rewarded for their efforts and punished for their failings; that independence, innovation and hard work should be encouraged, while dependence should be discouraged. They think a free market with the minimum of governmental oversight will give the consumer a fair deal based on the mechanism of competition, and that tax-breaks for the rich will make them spend more money and found new companies and invest in philanthropic enterprises, so the wealth will trickle down throughout society, and everyone will benefit. Essentially, they think people should be left to their own devices and all will come good.

The Left of Labour and the Democrats believes in collective responsibility and the regulated market. They think society controls who succeeds and who fails; that hard work is not properly rewarded and that society needs to take responsibility for your failings. They think the market needs governmental regulation because the mechanism of competition does not give the consumer a fair deal, and that tax breaks for the rich only make the rich richer. Essentially, they think the only way it will all come good is if there’s someone in charge making sure it does.

And that is the difference. True, some people who vote for the Right are racist xenophobes who hate the poor, and some people who vote for the Left are dyed-in-the-wool, hardline Communists, but that’s a minority. Voting Labour doesn’t make you a good person any more than voting Conservative makes you a bad one – it simply means you have a different opinion on whether the basic unit of society should be the individual or the group.

And as someone who sees himself as a political centrist, believing in some things from the Left, like the welfare state, and some things from the Right, like government non-interference, while simultaneously opposing things on both sides, I have no home.

It doesn’t matter who you as an individual vote for

As much as the UK champions itself as a democracy, really it’s just an elected dictatorship. Once somebody is in power, they can pretty much do whatever they want for five years, and no amount of protesting will prevent them from, for example, massively hiking up tuition fees or going to war on false pretexts. ‘People Power’ is only really relevant in an election year, and even then, your voice as an individual isn’t actually important at all, especially if you live in a safe seat.

Take my constituency of New Forest West, for example. Created in 1997, it has seen the Conservative MP Desmond Swayne win every election for 22 years. Voter turnout has been pretty consistent throughout this period: between 45% and 50% of the electorate. The least he has won by is a majority of 11,000 votes, back before the millennium. He won the last election by more than 23,000 votes. It doesn’t matter where I put that cross on my ballot paper, Desmond Swayne is going to win. My political power, as an individual, is zero. My vote has never had an effect on the outcome of an election, and likely never will.

But what about marginal seats? Doesn’t every vote count? No. The last time an MP was elected by a majority of one vote was 1910. Therefore, it doesn’t matter who you as an individual vote for. It doesn’t matter if you stay in bed and don’t bother. You, as an individual, have no say whatsoever.

But you should go and vote anyway

Democracy is a collective endeavour. While it’s true that your individual vote is unimportant, the individual votes add up. It might make no difference if you don’t vote, but if your household doesn’t vote, or your street, or your town, that makes a difference, especially in marginal seats. For politics to work for the people, the people have to engage with it, even if it’s simply to sully your ballot paper as a mark of protest. And while it’s true that deciding who to vote for in this election is particularly difficult, not least because the leaders of both the main parties come across as incredibly odious individuals, if you don’t vote when you have the chance, and after people have fought and died for the opportunity, then you don’t really have the right to complain about the outcome.

My fear is that, with so many people saying they aren’t going to vote because they’re undecided, this election is going to be decided by activists, the people with the motivation to go out and vote. And I don’t know about you, but I haven’t met many political activists who aren’t extremists, running down the other side while blind to the faults of their own. Do we really want those people, whether Left or Right, deciding our future?

In judgement of humanity

Imagine that humanity was placed on trial to decide whether we’re fundamentally good or fundamentally evil. I’m not talking about nice Mr Jones down the road, or nasty Mrs Smith round the corner. I mean humanity itself – everything we’ve done as a species. All the random kindness and altruistic sacrifice, the feats of engineering and imagination, weighed up against all the selfish exploitation and sadistic abuse, the horrors of murder and genocide. The good, the bad, our crimes and potential, everything we’ve done in the past and everything we might do in the future, decided once and for all. You stand in final judgement on the accomplishments of homo sapiens.

How do you find? Are we basically good, with a few bad traits? Are we essentially evil, with some redeeming qualities? And are we collectively worthy of a pardon, or should we all be condemned?

You might think this is a rather abstract question to ask, but in reality it cuts past all the nonsense and gets right to the heart of who we are. Why do we live? Why do we keep living? Why do we have children? Why don’t we gratify all our desires, irrespective of cost? The answer, inevitably, lies in our beliefs about the nature of humanity – on whether we think people, at root, are good or evil. And only when we’ve made that judgement can we decide who we want to be and how to live our lives.

Is human nature evil?

Before passing judgement, you might consider that the question has been conclusively answered by Western civilisation, which is grounded on the assumption that human nature is evil. Whether it’s art, religion, politics, law, economics, education, industry or simple entertainment, the underlying belief is that, left to our own devices, we would rapidly descend into a hell of rape and murder. If there is one universal belief about the meaning of life, it is that there are beasts in our nature, and we must learn to control them or they will destroy us.

This pessimism about humanity’s worth is embedded in the foundation story of Western culture. Mankind was pure, and innocent, and living in harmony with Nature in the Garden of Eden. But we sinned, and were cast out to a life of toil and struggle and ultimate death. And what happened next? The first child ever born on Earth was murdered by the second. It got worse from there, until God had to destroy his creation with a flood. And we’ve been sinning ever since. The evil in humanity’s nature, and our resulting fall from grace, is the central precept of Christianity, and by extension, the whole of Western civilisation.

This fall from grace metaphor isn’t confined to Abrahamic religion, either. The Ancient Greek poet Hesiod, in the eighth century BCE, told a remarkably similar story. There was first a Golden Age, in which humans lived like gods, knowing no suffering or toil. In the subsequent Silver Age, humans were inferior to the gods, and the men had to work. They degenerated further through the Bronze Age and the Age of Heroes, until humanity completed the fall in the current Iron Age, where people are selfish and evil, and know only struggle and sorrow. It’s the same story: once, we were innocent; now we are corrupted; and there is no going back.

More recently, we’ve tried to rationalise and control the capacity for evil in human nature. In the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes argued that in his natural state, ‘every man is Enemy to every man’, and such a life was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ Society, and civilisation itself, were invented to free humanity from ‘continual fear, and danger of violent death’. In his influential model of human nature, knowing the evil we’re capable of, humans voluntarily gave up some of their freedom to belong to a society that protected them from the chaos. The idea of the ‘social contract’ between government and governed had been born.

In the early twentieth century, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud discovered (perhaps invented) the seat of human nature, the unconscious mind, or id, a place dominated by the libido and death drive that gives us an innate, insatiable desire to eat, mate and destroy. He saw his job as wrestling with ‘the most evil of those half-tamed demons that inhabit the human beast’, and that was early in his career, before a lifetime of treating patients led him to conclude that ‘I have found little that is “good” about human beings on the whole’.

We are all rapist serial killers inside, so the theory goes, and it is the ego and super-ego that, mostly, keep these desires in check. We learn to suppress these instincts in order to gain the benefits of peaceful coexistence with our neighbours, but they’re still there, just below the surface, always ready to break free, as they did to such devastating effect in the twentieth century.

Any lingering naivety about the reality of human nature was obliterated in the 1960s when Stanley Milgram’s electric-shock experiments famously demonstrated the extent to which ordinary people would murder a stranger in obedience to an authority figure. The Nazis, he showed, were not an aberration of history – they were ordinary human beings, no different from you and me. As were the monsters of Stalin’s regime, and those of Mao and Pol Pot.

So deeply ingrained is this belief in humanity’s innate evil that in 1970, the visionary director Stanley Kubrick could quite openly say that, ‘Man isn’t a noble savage, he’s an ignoble savage. He is irrational, brutal, weak, silly, unable to be objective about anything where his own interests are involved—that about sums it up. I’m interested in the brutal and violent nature of man because it’s a true picture of him. And any attempt to create social institutions on a false view of the nature of man is probably doomed to failure.’

There is a continuous line of thought running from the Enlightenment to today that argues our society is structured to control and punish the evil of human nature, either by social convention or formal proscription. Without the threat of prison, and the controlling mechanisms of society and government, we’d all be a bunch of violent monsters raping and murdering our way across the landscape.

You might think this is an exaggeration, but consider the ways this idea is codified in the widespread beliefs of our society. Under the right circumstances, it is said, anybody can become a murderer, or a rapist, or a drug addict. After all, only nine meals stand between mankind and anarchy. And every school child knows that without external controls, and a reliable food supply, the green and pleasant hills of the Home Counties or New England would turn into Lord of the Flies. Like a murderer in a prison cell, human nature needs to be caged for everyone’s safety.

Even in a society that has rejected religion, the belief in humanity’s essential evil crops up wherever you look. Think about Climate Change arguments, for example. Humanity is a virus that destroys its host, say the activists. No other organism expands beyond an ecosystem’s ability to sustain it. We’ve upset the balance of Nature, and if we become extinct it’s because we deserve it. We have selfishly and knowingly destroyed the planet and our children’s futures for short-term gratification, and we steadfastly refuse to change our habits, dooming us all to destruction. The argument has a beautifully sound clarity: Nature is good, and innocent, and pure; humanity, once a part of Nature, now destroys Nature; therefore humanity is evil. This is as similar as secularism comes to the biblical story of Genesis, though I imagine that, when pressed, most would deny it.

This is the narrative underlying Western civilisation. Some people think being cynical about human nature makes you modern, and edgy, and progressive, but such people have no idea what they’re talking about. Since time immemorial, the great and the good have characterised humanity as evil and the species as being in decline. By this token, we should conclude that human nature is evil, and we should be condemned.

But is that really the case? After all, as Plato argued, ‘Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.’

And does this focus too much on individual rather than collective responsibility?

Perhaps we should frame it in another way.

Is human nature innocent, while human society is evil?

An added complexity, and a way of delaying making a judgement on humanity’s good or evil, is to separate individual humans from the mass of humanity, and decide whether humans are themselves evil or merely ciphers for the larger scale structural evils of society.

It stands to reason that no child can be evil, in the same way that no animal can be evil. Children, like animals, don’t have the capacity to make reasoned judgements about their behaviour. Like mankind before the fall, children are innocent, and pure, and without sin.

But as they grow, the world moulds them. Their parents, their culture, society itself, shapes them into something with the capacity for evil. That’s why parents are so worried about messing up their kids. By the logic of this argument, a person who steals, or rapes, or murders, is a victim of their upbringing, a slave to their background. It is not their nature that is bad, but the environment that formed them. Society creates the evil it then punishes, and the person, the individual human, is nothing more than a pawn.

In other words, hate the game, don’t hate the player.

While this might seem like a modern idea, again it is nothing new. This was a hot-button topic in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as a reaction to Hobbes’ assertion that humanity in its natural state was brutish and violent and needed to be controlled by society. While some glamorised the ‘noble savage’ as a superior being, people like John Locke, Lord Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley-Cooper), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued instead that humanity in a state of nature was a blank slate, neither good nor evil. It was civilised man, living in society, who had the capacity for good and evil, and the verdict was almost unanimous that society tended towards evil. As the immortal opening lines of Rousseau’s The Social Contract declared in 1762: ‘Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.’ This in turn led Karl Marx in the nineteenth century and Michel Foucault in the twentieth to argue that human society is an oppressive force, using structural power to dominate, oppress and control.

Proponents of the modern Social Justice Movement owe more to these thinkers than they realise. Propped up by free-market capitalism and the patriarchy, the structure of Western society, they argue, is undoubtedly oppressive and amoral – institutionally racist, sexist, heteronormative, trans-phobic and classist. And it’s no small elite jealously guarding their wealth and their privilege as they fight to keep others down – it’s every man and woman of every race and sexuality and gender identity that accepts and perpetuates and is infected by society. The very foundations of our way of life are evil and must be torn down, to pave the way for more government, more legislation and more control over how we think and behave. It is society, and the evil people in it, who are guilty, not the inherent nature of humanity.

You might be convinced by this argument that people are innocent but society is bad, and it’s certainly easier, and more comforting, to pardon individual humans while condemning human society as an whole, but you have to ask whether it’s really possible, or even desirable, to separate the two. Human society, after all, is a product of human individuals, the sum total of our human nature. And does it really matter if the evil lies in human nature or human society when the end result – human evil – is the same?

Blaming society does not let you off the hook. You have to decide whether the collective endeavour of humanity is good or evil, and there’s no way out of it.

Or is there?

How do we decide what’s good and what’s evil?

You could always sidestep the issue and argue that there is no such thing as good or evil, except insofar as individual societies decide what constitutes good and evil. You might even claim, with some justification, that the world has moved beyond such concepts as good and evil, with their religious overtones and binary positions. This social constructionist approach is very forgiving, and seems reasonable – a religious society will have different definitions of good and evil than a secular society, after all, as will a village in medieval Europe and a city in modern Sweden. But claiming that good and evil are in the eye of the beholder, and that the constraints placed on behaviour are situational – in essence, that good and evil don’t exist – is not only amoral and cowardly, but wrong, from both a philosophical and evidentiary standpoint.

It is a fallacy to suggest, as religious people and many atheists do, that without a divine figure defining good and evil, humans will decide it for themselves. All of the philosophers already mentioned, with the exception of Foucault, while struggling with the nature of good and evil, still believed humans had an innate moral sense, a common understanding of right and wrong that transcends society and is part of our nature. This ‘moral sense’, the source of all goodness, was sympathy, or, as Rousseau defined it, the ‘innate repugnance to see others of his kind suffer.’

Where’s the evidence for this? Probably in a central idea of peoples separated by time, space, religion and culture: the so-called Golden Rule.

See if any of these quotations seem similar:

  • ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ (Christianity).
  • ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Judaism).
  • ‘As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don’t do to them’ (Islam).
  • ‘Choose thou for thy neighbour that which thou choosest for thyself’ (Baha’u’llah).
  • ‘Those acts that you consider good when done to you, do those to others, none else’ (Hinduism)
  • ‘Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful’ (Buddhism).
  • ‘A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated’ (Jainism).
  • ‘Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself’ (Confucianism).
  • ‘Regard your neighbour’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbour’s loss as your own loss’ (Taoism).
  • ‘Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others’ (Zoroastrianism).
  • ‘That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another’ (Ancient Egypt).
  • ‘Treat others as you would treat yourself’ (Mahabharata)
  • ‘Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing’ (Ancient Greece).
  • ‘Treat your inferior as you would wish your superior to treat you’ (Ancient Rome).

Even Wicca, the religion of witchcraft, says, ‘that which ye deem harmful unto thyself, the very same shall ye be forbidden from doing unto another’. This is an undeniably conclusive expression of the moral sense that exists in human nature, an injunction of how we should act, and a guide to define good and evil.

It is this knowledge of good and evil, and our capacity to choose how we act, that separates us from the animals. We do not mindlessly follow the dictates of our nature, but decide how we are going to behave in respect to our morality. This is so important that it bears repeating. Without a universal knowledge of morality, and without free will, the question about whether humanity is good or evil would be meaningless, because good and evil would not exist.

Since we’ve established that humanity knows the difference between good and evil – that this knowledge is natural and innate – we’re coming closer to having to make that final judgement on humanity.

Are humans responsible for the evil that humanity does?

Since humans have both a moral sense and free will, does it follow that they are therefore responsible for the evil that they do? Is there a difference between individual and collective responsibility? And why is it that the injunction to treat others as you’d treat yourself is so often ignored?

It could be argued that the Golden Rule is applied much more consistently within societies than between societies. In the case of war, the most obvious expression of individual and collective human evil, a soldier can continue to treat his own side as he would treat himself, and therefore be good, while killing the other side, which makes him evil. That said, the tradition of just war holds that rival combatants are morally equal – that is, the soldier on one side, by engaging in war, consents to kill and risk being killed, and the soldier on the other side does the same, meaning they are treating the other side as they would themselves. Warfare, therefore, does not constitute an evil at the level of the individual – but collectively, there is no denying the evil that warfare inflicts.

It must also be pointed out that while humans, by dint of our reason, are distinguished from Nature, we are still part of Nature. The dichotomy of Nature/good, humanity/bad greatly oversimplifies things, perhaps deliberately so. Nature is not in a state of balance – it is in a state of perpetual chaos typified by the merciless struggle for existence. Nature is cruel and brutal, red in tooth and claw. Warfare is not unique to civilisation or even humanity – the eminent primatologist Dr Jane Goodall was horrified to witness a four year ‘war’ between two groups of chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, in Gombe National Park in the 1970s, suggesting an uncomfortable continuity between our animalistic ancestors and our modern selves.

And what of individual evil? We all see ourselves as moral beings, so how is evil even possible? As individuals, the injunction to do unto others requires that we not only have the empathy to understand the effects of our behaviour on others, but we have to understand ourselves and our own power, which very few people do. Ignorance, narrow-mindedness, misinformation, misunderstanding, and dissimulation – our ability to use our reasoning faculties against ourselves to argue that black is white and white is black – are responsible for far more evil in society than deliberate intent.

There are very few people who choose evil. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It is reckoned that 4% of people are sociopaths, utterly lacking in compassion, empathy or conscience. That 4% causes untold suffering in the world, not least because they exploit the weakness that exists in the remaining 96%. Our moral sense, so obvious at rest, is susceptible to the pressures of our biological limitations, so that when we’re tired, when we’re hungry, when we’re afraid and confused, addled by alcohol or drugs, when we’re in pain and when we’re desperate, we’re less likely to follow the dictates of our conscience. We give in to our primitive needs. We’ve all done things that, in the cold light of day, we know to be wrong. We are all guilty of evil.

Intentional or not, collective or individual, that does not excuse us. We are responsible for our evil, because we know better. It therefore follows that we are also responsible for our good.

And therein lies the key to the whole issue of this debate. If we are to own our evil, we must also own our good. If our evil is diabolical and reprehensible, then our choice to do good is noble and heroic. So how do we weigh up the good against the bad?

Is there good in humanity?

The human capacity for evil is limitless – that is a given – but so too is the human capacity for good. As we’ve seen, there is a Golden Rule governing human interaction, that of respect for others, which is unlikely to exist in a species that is inherently evil. And while examples of evil are daily thrust into our faces by a media industry wedded to pessimism, you don’t have to look very far to find examples of human goodness much closer to home.

The neighbour who takes us in when we lock ourselves out; the boy who helps an elderly stranger put her shopping in the car; the hundreds of thousands of blood donors who sacrifice their time, and submit to pain, to ensure people they’ll never meet have a chance at survival. Every day, a multitude of kindnesses go unrecorded and unremarked, but if you look for them, you’ll discover that they’re everywhere.

There is no greater example of human goodness than the act of parenting. For our children we sacrifice our health, our time, our money, our security, and even our safety – there are very few parents who would not give up their lives to save their children from harm. While it is true that you can find similar altruistic self-sacrifice in the animal kingdom, the difference is that, without free will, an animal’s parenting is innate, and instinctive, and therefore it can’t take credit for it. It is our very awareness of our mortality, it is our conscious choice to sacrifice ourselves, that makes human parenting noble.

There is no reason to have a child. Logically, rationally, using our reason, the benefits to us as individuals of not having children far outweigh whatever benefits we accrue from having them. But we still have children. Why? Because we hope it’ll all work out? I used to believe that hope made the world go round, but then I realised that hope is an admission of helplessness. It’s an expression of futility and defeat. Faith is what makes the world go round. Not faith in a religious sense, but faith that things will be better, that we will overcome the beasts in our nature, and that we will never be defeated by them.

We are told, repeatedly, that we are killers, that we are destroyers, that our nature is violent. We are the worst of the worst. Yet killers comprise such a small fraction of society, it’s hardly even worth measuring. Parents, on the other hand, are everywhere. Every day, everywhere across the face of the planet, ordinary humans take the conscious decision to sacrifice some of their own vitality in order to create something pure, and turn it into something better. We talk about human evil with every breath; but our actions say something different. We believe in human goodness. We have faith in the goodness of the future, or else we would never have children.

That is the truth about humanity. We’re not as evil as we like to think, and we’re a lot better than we realise. We may be in the gutter, but we’re looking at the stars.

So what is the final judgement of humanity?

It’s time to make your decision. If you’re struggling, consider a famous story about this very thing, that of Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: ‘In each of us, two natures are at war – the good and the evil. All our lives the fight goes on between them, and one of them must conquer. But in our own hands lies the power to choose – what we want most to be we are.’

Perhaps I should answer first. It’s always easier when someone else leads the way.

Are we good? Yes. Are we evil? Yes. Should we be condemned? Without a doubt. And should we be pardoned? Absolutely.

We are a contradiction as a species. We are part of Nature, and stand above it. We are capable of the ultimate self-sacrifice, and also the most selfish tyrannical abuse. We are neither good nor evil, but both at the same time, and to deny one or the other would be to do us a disservice. It is the evil in our nature that allows us to claim the good; and the good that makes us responsible for the evil.

The evil we do is undeniable and sometimes so overwhelming that we cannot conceive of the good. But as one who came face to face with evil in the Soviet Gulags, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was under no illusions that we are either one or the other. ‘The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man,’ he wrote.

The true act of rebellion is not to embrace humanity’s evil and give way to nihilism; it is to accept humanity’s goodness. That we are not wholly evil, despite everything tending in that direction, is testament to that goodness. It is our ability to choose to rise above the evil in our nature – it is the very fact that we are redeemable – that gives me faith in humanity.

So how do you find?

The theory that explains Peppa Pig (and Mr Potato is the key!)

I’m going to be honest – I watch far more Peppa Pig than an adult should. Of course, this is because my four-year-old and my two-year-old are obsessed with the little porker, but I have to admit it’s not actually that bad. It’s not as twee as Our Family, not as whiny as Bing, and the less said about Wallybuloo, the better. It’s got plenty of subtle jokes for adults, like when the kids dress up as different UN member states and all end up fighting (‘Is this how you think the countries of the world behave?’), and Brian Blessed as an incompetent sailor-cum-astronaut is comedy gold.

But of course, as an adult, you ask questions of the material that children wouldn’t, and when you do, you start to realise that a lot of it makes no sense. And then, like most people with too much time on their hands, you see if you can come up with a theory that explains all the seeming errors and inconsistencies. And I have.

Don’t worry, it’s not a particularly original or ground-breaking theory, but given that the show was created by adults, I think it provides a coherent cosmology that ties together all the following headscratchers.

1. What exactly are they cooking on those barbecues? Pigs are people in their world. So are cows, and sheep, and goats, and rabbits. Are they all cannibals?

2. Why is there only one set of grandparents? I don’t know about you, but everyone I know has four grandparents. In the Peppa Pig world, everyone seems to have two. Taken to its logical conclusion, that might explain why everyone’s nose is on the side of their head. And speaking of irreparably corrupting the gene pool…

3. Are there laws preventing interspecies coupling? Every adult character in Peppa Pig is either single or married to a member of their own species. Why? Would Miss Rabbit getting it on with Grandad Dog result in stigma and ostracism? Is that why she’s still single and works every single job in town – to distract her from the love that dare not speak its name?

4. Why doesn’t George fit the alliterative-species naming scheme? All the children are named things like Peppa Pig, Danny Dog, Suzy Sheep and Rebecca Rabbit. So why is George just George? They never even refer to him as George Pig. Was he adopted? Is his fixation on dinosaurs because he actually hatched from an egg?

5. Why is Peppa the only one to have a unique name? Given the rest are called things like Edmund, Freddy and Zoe, did the writers invent one name and then get lazy? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to call her Poppy or Pippa?

6. Why do Mummy and Daddy Pig’s friends call them Mummy and Daddy Pig, and not their real names? Did they lose their names when they became parents? Were their identities wiped out at the same time?

7. What the hell is Mr Potato? Talking animals? I don’t have a problem with that. Everyone living on their own hilltop? Unlikely topography, but okay, it’s a fantasy. But a sentient root vegetable? It’s starch and water. How did it grow a brain?

8. How come they have a doctor and a vet? They’re all animals. The job of a doctor and the job of a vet should be interchangeable. (And as a side note, why is the GP called Dr Brown Bear? There’s no Mummy Pink Pig or Grampy White Rabbit, is there?).

9. Why are all the animals the same size? Irrespective of species, everyone in Peppa Pig is one of five sizes: baby, toddler, young child, older child, adult. There is no distinction between an adult elephant and an adult hamster. That’s pretty messed up. Was there some kind of atomic event that mutated these animals even as it wiped out every human being except the Queen?

10. Why are people’s jobs so unrealistic? Mummy Pig simply types on a computer from time to time. The extent of Daddy Pig’s architectural expertise is drawing houses on pieces of paper and occasionally mentioning concrete. Meanwhile, Miss Rabbit does a hundred different jobs, while Mr Bull seems to juggle work for the council with private contracts, ranging from digging up the road to building houses and fixing roofs. You couldn’t possibly run an economy like this. It makes no sense.

 

So how do you tie all these disparate threads together? What’s the theory that explains it all? (Don’t get your hopes up). Here it is:

All the characters are human, and everything that happens is happening in Peppa’s head. It’s not reality but her perception of reality.

Told you it wasn’t very original. In this case, however, it seems to fit.

Peppa is an infant playing a game of make-believe involving the people and situations around her. But it’s not a very sophisticated game, because she’s a kid – she includes barbecues, and doctors and vets, because she doesn’t have the capacity to think through the full ramifications of her fantasy.

The human Peppa whose perceptions we’re seeing is a typical kid, in that she thinks the world revolves around her. She thinks she’s special, she’s unique – that’s why she has an identity (a name) that is different from everyone around her. And, like most kids, she thinks she’s more special within her own family than her siblings, that she is her parent’s proper child (Peppa Pig) while her younger brother is nothing more than an adopted nobody (George without the surname).

As a typically egocentric child, she can’t conceive of her parents having a life outside looking after her. They don’t even have names other than mummy and daddy. And while they do jobs, her interpretation of them is that mummy is playing on the computer and daddy is just drawing pictures, when they should be paying attention to her.

Because she’s a child, her perceptions are black and white, without nuance or subtlety. If her house is on a slight slope, she tells people it’s on top of a massive hill. A muddy puddle is ‘the biggest in the whole world’, while all adults are exactly the same size because they’re all bigger than her. In fact, all adults look pretty much the same to her – every shop worker, bus driver, and ice-cream seller looks like Miss Rabbit, while every builder, handyman or road worker looks like Mr Bull.

Only being able to interpret the world from her own narrow perspective explains why she depicts each complete family unit as a separate species – as a child, the family is her way of structuring the world around her into discrete entities, and she is too young to understand that families can break down and the father from one family (a lion, say) can run off with the mother of another family (a gazelle).

It’s why everyone only has one set of grandparents. Peppa herself only has one set of grandparents, so she perceives everyone else as having one set too, ignoring any evidence to the contrary, as that is how she structures her reality.

And where are Daddy Pig’s parents? Possibly they’re dead, possibly they’re negligent, but possibly they’re simply unwelcome. Given Mummy Pig’s incessant, passive-aggressive belittling of her husband, we might infer that she married beneath her, particularly as her parents are depicted as somewhat posh. Possibly Daddy Pig’s parents were racist lowlifes. The evidence for this comes from the name Peppa chooses for her doctor in her fantasy – not Dr Bear, but Dr Brown Bear. Where did she get that from? Has she heard somebody, her daddy perhaps, referring to their ethnic minority medical practitioner as Dr Brown?

Which brings us at last to Mr Potato, who underscores the entire theory and shows that this is what the creators of Peppa Pig had in mind. Mr Potato has no reason to exist in the Peppa Pig universe at all. So why does he?

Because children can’t differentiate fantasy from reality. As I said, my kids love Peppa Pig, and when we go to Peppa Pig World, they seem to think that the person in the giant Peppa Pig costume actually is Peppa Pig. The same is true of the human Peppa. She watches TV shows depicting anthropomorphic versions of animals, and has met costumed versions in real life so thinks they’re real. In her fantasy, as she makes people into animals, she has to shift the animals one step down the ladder, turning them into anthropomorphic versions of vegetables. That’s why Mr Potato, the fictional TV character in the Peppa Pig universe also exists as a real character in the Peppa Pig universe. The scriptwriters are using Mr Potato to tell us, the audience, that this is not reality: it’s Peppa’s perception, a young child’s perception, of reality.

We could even go deeper. Why has Peppa had three voices during the series? Because the human Peppa is getting older, but still clinging to this comforting infantile make-believe. That’s why early episodes were centred on the town and playgroup, while later ones went to Italy and Australia –  not because the writers were running out of ideas, but because Peppa herself was becoming more knowledgeable about the world. And why is she so desperate to escape into this elaborate world of pretend innocence? How awful is the real Peppa’s life that this is her happy place?

I’m telling you, the creators of Peppa Pig are freaking geniuses. That’s why it’s so popular with kids – it’s their perspective, writ large. That’s why I bath my kids with Peppa Pig soap, dry them with Peppa Pig towels, brush their teeth with Peppa Pig toothbrushes, dress them in Peppa Pig pyjamas, tuck them into Peppa Pig bedsheets, and read them a Peppa Pig bedtime story. For breakfast they have Peppa Pig yoghurt, then they pack their Peppa Pig stationery into their Peppa Pig rucksacks so they have something to do on the way to the Peppa Pig theme park. When we forget to use Peppa Pig prophylactics we use a Peppa Pig pregnancy test. Actually, no, but there might be a day, sooner than you think, that there is no other world outside Peppa Pig.

I’ll say it again: the creators of Peppa Pig are freaking geniuses.

Or am I just overthinking this?