How imagination could save the nation

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The Independent Culture
I once fell wildly and suicidally in love with a woman whose favourite observation was: "People can handle anything providing they know the truth." The remark has stuck in my mind ever since, and the fact that, when I finally decided to tell her the truth, she gave me the abrupt and unequivocal shove, has not diminished my faith in the maxim.

Indeed, it seems more appropriate now than ever before. Give a man a gun and sooner or later he'll use it; give him the power to mislead and, before you know it, he'll be lying his head off, almost by reflex, as if he would only tell the truth if a lie failed to rise to his lips in time.

Whirly-eyed apologists for the Information Society like to look back upon a dark age, destitute of modern communications tools like television and the Internet, as a time when people buggered around in a sort of fog, too ignorant to realise that they knew damn-all. But I wonder whether we, too, dwell in a fog, but a thicker one: a fog of words and statistics and images, almost all of it false but we can't quite tell the part that isn't. Yes, we have marvellous communications; yes, the amount of information circling the electronic globe is astounding; but they're still not telling us the truth. They're just telling us, and telling us, and telling us.

Politicians, of course, do it all the time. They've always done it. I used to believe that politicians were, at root, motivated by the desire for power, but perhaps telling lies is the primary urge for politicians, as venery is for the pander.

They've always told lies; but there was, before the Information Age, a time when they mostly did it to each other. Occasionally the newspapers would pick up a particularly startling whopper, but in general, the only time we had to listen to the buggers at their abominable trade was when they turned up for the hustings. Now we are flooded with information about everything, all the time; and the politicians comment on it all the time, and most of the time they lie without any variety of scale. The economy in an appalling condition, the country crushing mass human potential and individual human lives on a scale far greater than Passchendaele? The politicians tell us that everything's fine and not to worry. A foolish little story appears about almost unmeasurably low phthalate levels in baby-milk? The politicians tell us that everything's fine and not to worry.

And, led by the politicians, everyone else lies too. The England football team are said to have half-heartedly trashed part of their aeroplane, and a horrible little man tells us not to worry: everything's fine. Privatised public utilities lie about investment. Privatised railway companies lie about services. Estate agents lie about house prices. The tabloids lie about everything. We live in a culture of mendacity and then wonder why nobody seems able to do anything about our troubles. People can handle everything, providing they know the truth. Except... who knows the truth, now?

But, just recently, I've been beginning to wonder if lying is really the central problem, or whether it's just a symptom of something worse. As always, it was a tiny incident that brought it into sharp relief.

Last week, a friend got a letter from the Benefits Agency. A form letter, the blanks filled in in a semi-literate hand. "We need your order book back," it said. "Please send back your order book or books. Why we need your book back:" No explanation. "When to send your book back: Please send your order book or books back to us at once. Do not get any more money out." No Dear Sir. No Yours faithfully. No courtesies at all, but you don't get courtesies when you have committed the unforgivable sin of being poor.

But think of it for a moment: that brusque letter must feel like a death- warrant for someone with no other possibility of subsistence. No More Money. Bugger off. Tell you why? We don't have to tell people like you anything. Simple courtesy? Screw that, pal. Simple courtesy doesn't come free, and you? You're broke. You're not entitled. The contempt implicit in the letter is obscene, but, like the lying, it is a symptom. A symptom of what? How about: of a failure of imagination.

People talk of a "compassionate society", but compassion and empathy are no more than specialised uses of the imagination; and when imagination fails, we lose the two things which differentiate us from every other species. We lose the ability to imagine the world being otherwise than it is. And we lose the ability to put ourselves into someone else's shoes.

Failure of imagination leads to the failure of national life. Political short-termism. Institutional investors who cannot see beyond a two-year return. Rude, contemptuous officials. Businessmen who live by taking as much as possible in return for as little as they can get away with. Pouchy, disgruntled anti-Europeans, terrified of strangers. The abominable, snotty manifesto of public life: I didn't get where I am today by using my imagination.

Our public and private institutions - media, commercial, financial and political - have become like aspiring writers, crippled by believing the foolish advice to Write About What You Know. Nonsense. All great works - literary, political, scientific, whatever - begin as constructs of the imagination. Even courtesy begins by imagining how the other person might feel, while the endemic lying demands just the opposite, a contempt for the other person which you could only feel if you lacked the imagination to put yourself in their position.

Time, I think, for Imagination training to be put high on the school curriculum. Time for politicians and businessmen to stop spending money for courses on How To Lie When Cornered On TV and start taking Imagination Training. It could transform our national life and fortunes; but of course it will never happen. Why not? Simple lack of imagination. !

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