PurpleBeach Experience 2016

Live postcards from the PurpleBeach Experience 2016

By Richard Davies

Theodore Zeldin offers ‘long answers to short questions’

Date Posted: April, 30 2016

At Purple Beach 2016, Annemie Ress talked to Theodore Zeldin, Oxford academic and author of ‘An Intimate History of Humanity’, about individuals, couples, communities and other matters. Here are some notes from their conversation.

Has there been a shift from individuals to communities?
TZ: Recent shifts from ‘individuals’ to communities are really a step back in time. People used to live in villages, before rulers created the myths of nations, where people were supposedly united by common values. But in fact most people disagree with each other. When we listen to other people talk, we tend to accept the bits that we already agree with. It’s very hard to move away from our own accepted ideas. So we shouldn’t try to convince other people – instead we should stimulate them to have new thoughts that they didn’t have before.

On the power of ‘coupledom’
TZ: My alternative to community is about couples. Having a partner is not only about sex as it was in '60s and '70s. What we need is friendship, appreciation and understanding from another person. We want affection that forgives the fact that we are imperfect; things that only one person can give. The couple is the most important creation that we can make. The individual idea of creativity is like being God, but if we get together with another person, we can co-create an idea. In other words, one particle of me might link with a particle of you.

The changing world of work 'beyond corporates'
TZ: Each generation moves beyond the previous. Young people who can’t get jobs that suit them because they have been educated to want something better, create new forms of work. It is not a revolution but a dissatisfaction. Perhaps corporations are not the things that we need any more. A CEO said to me recently “when I hire people, I don’t ask them questions any more. Now they ask me – ‘will you allow me to do this..?’”

What kind of work can we invent? That is a great adventure of our times. Let's try things out on a small scale with limited budget and the likelihood of failure.

On mindfulness
TZ: Mindfulness is an enormous industry making lot of profit on the basis that it calms you down and prevents you from being overwhelmed by stress. The questions I would ask are these: “What are you going to do when you become mindful?” “What are you going to put in your head when you have cleaned it out?” “What you will do next?” “What are you going to do when the world is cleaner and greener - will you stop quarrelling?”

The importance of conversation.
TZ: People who write books focus on the mechanics of conversation, but that is elementary. The bigger question is what do you talk about? Idle gossip does not advance the world. I want to know what a person thinks and for that we need to have a private conversation for at least 3 hours.

It is nice to talk about the things that really matter. From my work at the World Economic Forum and with Governments in many countries, I have created ‘menus of conversations’ with 25 very difficult questions. My experience is that conversation leads to trust.

Every individual has different experiences. We interpret them differently and have memories that dominate our lives. Different parts of us live in different centuries. We may have 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th century ideas in our heads.

Why the past is the key to the future
TZ: Ideas about the future are formed in the same place that we keep memories. If we have limited memories, we have limited ideas about the future. For example, Governments are stupid because they keep having wars when we know what results from war.

Today with the power of information, it is possible to increases our ideas to include memories of all civilisations. This has expanded our possibilities and makes it possible to avoid mistakes.

On self-awareness and authenticity
TZ: People have asked the question ‘who am I’ for centuries and have always got the wrong answer. It is also boring. It is far more interesting to ask ‘who are you?’ Then at the same time, we give people the sense that they are worth knowing.

What does it mean to be authentic when you are mistaken about yourself?  The biggest thing you can achieve is to have an honest relationship with another person. How to introduce more honesty in our relationships is a great problem of our times – it is the next stage beyond authenticity.

In our modern world, around 50-70% of marriages end in divorce. Young women tell me “my partner does not know how to talk to me.” Women have to teach men to come out of their vulnerabilities – they are afraid because their lifestyle depends on impressing other people. In public life we are all the time presented with facades, but in private life we can learn how to form honest relationships.

People are never fully themselves because they are scared of disagreement, always trying to please others. Politicans like to promote the idea of consensus, but it is a mirage. The real question is how can we make disagreements fruitful?

At Oxford Muse we seek to stimulate people to be more inventive in their personal, professional and cultural lives. The results may be disastrous, but we have to have courage.

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