Category Archives: Behaviour

The power of “But…”

“But” is a particularly powerful word. Deceptively so. I remember hearing someone describe it as essentially a way of sounding agreeable or interested before saying, essentially, “What I said just now doesn’t count; the important bit of what I’m saying is coming up right now.” One word lets you say “ignore what I’ve just said.” Ever since, I have tried, and usually failed, to reduce my usage of “but”, particularly when I’m debating or arguing about something. Of course, in the heat of the moment, it sometimes gets forgotten, but my point is that I try. Hearing other people use it only strengthens my resolve, and a particular episode last week struck me as the power of “but” to negate an argument or to turn a positive into a negative.

Listening to The Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster on one particular morning – not something I do naturally – a man phoned in to comment on the findings of the Saville Report. Lord Saville conducted a 12 year investigation into the deaths of 14 people, shot by the British Army in Northern Ireland back in 1972, known as Bloody Sunday, and a particularly divisive episode in this little region’s history. History has disputed the situation in which these 14 people died – families and supporters claimed that they were innocent victims, participants in a banned Civil Rights march that turned ugly following a heavy handed response from the police and army; the army claimed that they had come under attack from the IRA and that they had been shot at first. An official inquiry in the immediate aftermath – the Widgery Inquiry – largely exonerated the army and found that many of those killed had been armed in some way. The families disputed this vehemently.

My point, however, is not about the Saville Report, which found that all 13 victims were innocent, and established that there was a complete loss of control and discipline amongst the members of the 1st Paratroopers Batallion, nor about Bloody Sunday itself. Rather, it is about the continuous offerings by ‘ordinary’ people in Northern Ireland that they “want to move on, but…” This is usually followed by a tribal and partisan rant about a specific grievance around something that the ‘other side’ did and has yet to atone for. I can’t remember the specifics of the point raised by the caller to the Nolan Show, other than that he opened by saying that he had no problem with the findings of the Saville Inquiry and that all he wanted was that people in Northern Ireland, from whatever side of the divide, forget the past and “move on” before going on to dig up an episode from the past and say that Northern Ireland’s people would not be able to move on until the grievance in particular was addressed. In terms of disclosure, the caller was unquestionably a unionist and his grievance had something to do with Martin McGuinness, now Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland, formerly a senior IRA officer and who was found by Saville to have “probably” been in possession of a sub-machine gun on the scene, on the day of Bloody Sunday.   

Yet, nationalist callers could have a litany of complaints and grievances of their own to raise. Par example, “We need to move on, but Unionists need to…”; “We need to move on, but the British Government needs to…” and so on, and so on. I’m not sure if anyone is particularly aware of the irony of saying look to the future and then dragging up the past to say why they in particular are not willing to move into the future. There is no doubt in my mind that very many great hurts and terrible crimes were committed in Northern Ireland during the Troubles over the course of the past 40 years. We will not, however, “move on” until everyone recognises that every single person in Northern Ireland can claim a grievance and until the past stays in the past.

I once had a conversation with a leader writer for The Times on the steps of Stormont. Looking out over Belfast on a starry spring night, she asked me about my take on what was causing a particular hold up in some negotiations at the time. I remember uttering, in what I thought was some earth shattering realisation that would appear in a Times editorial the next day, that “the problem is everyone wants to mould the future in their own way.” Banality aside, I think maybe the problem has become that everyone wants to mould the past in their own way. Not unique to Northern Ireland at all, but if people are not willing to let go of the past and move on, then maybe the new motto of Northern Ireland should be “But…”


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Filed under Behaviour, Future, Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Politics

“I have zero concept of how I’m assessed in the world.”

Caitlin Moran is spread over The Times as though she is that newspaper’s version of a Page 3 girl: the thinking man’s temptress. But at least she’s funny. And much, much more articulate than most Page 3 girls. Her interview with Lady Gaga in today’s Times is gut wrenchingly hilarious, if only for the introduction where she uses 500 words to tell us about missing a flight –

“It’s not so much that I am now almost certainly going to be fired. Since I found out how much the model Sophie Anderton used to earn as a high class call girl, my commitment to continuing as a writer at The Times has been touch and go anyway, to be honest.”

Later in the interview, part of which is conducted in a sex club in Berlin, Lady Gaga tells Moran that she has “zero concept of how I’m assessed in the world.” My left eyebrow travelled upwards slightly upon reading this statement. But not quite as far upwards as when I read, “Perhaps uniquely among all the journalists in the world, I can now factually confirm that Lady Gaga does not have a penis. That rumour can, conclusively die.” My neighbours thought I was having a fit in the back garden by this point.

However, I don’t mean to get caught in a discussion, or otherwise, of Lady Gaga’s lack of appendage. More, I got to wondering about how some of us mere mortals get caught in being so worried about what the world thinks of us that we are paralysed by our own fears, when someone of Lady Gaga’s worldwide fame couldn’t give a blinkers. Perhaps it is what marks her and other (actual, as opposed to reality TV) celebrities out for their success. And not just celebrities in the movie/music/politics worlds. I mean even ‘celebrities’ within their own sectors and industry – business, journalism, academia, teaching, nursing. Or, more simply, successful people.

Myself included, I know far too many people who stop themselves from doing something because they’re afraid of what someone with whom they have no connection, or at the most a passing sense of acknowledgment, think of them or what they’re doing or what they’re wearing. I’ve wanted to write for a long time. I’ve managed to write one or two short pieces that I’ve always liked, but that I’ve shared with a total of two people. My sense of worry of how my writing will be judged has been worth more than my desire to do something that I think I might be good at. In virtually every other sphere of my life I (mostly) fight the urge to worry about others’ thoughts and opinions on my actions, my dress sense, my dancing, my likes and dislikes. In my professional career, I am paid to challenge convention, yet on one of my biggest ambitions and desires, I’ve been held back for too long by what my head thought others would think.

Nor am I the only one. I can look to the example of many of my peers and see the same sense of paralysis. These thoughts were also prompted by the delightful example of Johnny B. Truant. Sometimes this paralysis is all consuming, preventing the forming of basic social relationships and sometimes it is more subtle and, as in my own case of writing, or one or two others that I can think of, it stops us from doing something that we at least feel we would be good at because the perceived thoughts of others amount to more than our own sense of self-worth. The kicker in all of this – those perceived thoughts are just that. In all honestly no one really cares about us, at least no one beyond our tightest circle of friends and our family. And everyone else? Well they are simply too concerned with what we think of them to be worried about what they think of us.   

My point, thanks to Caitlin Moran and Lady Gaga, is that no one ever got to the pinnacle of anything by worrying about what others thought of them. So, I’m taking a leaf out of the Lady’s book – if you don’t like what I write, that’s your problem. Just don’t read it. More importantly, the central point of this posting is simply a plea to stop worrying about what that guy/girl who you sometimes see at the coffee shop or in the library or in the bar thinks of what you’re doing. He/she probably doesn’t even notice.

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Filed under Ambition, Behaviour, Entertainment