Friday, 5 February 2021

The aim of argument is not victory, but progress (aka, how to disagree better)

© Stuart Duffin 2021
Have you ever thought that no one really wins an argument? Often it seems there are only those that lose it more and those who lose it less.

So, is it only me, or is it still hard to find carefully reasoned argument or discussion on much of the social media outlets? While it’s good thing that such outlets have empowered people, many now see the alternative media universe on social media as representing them more than the established newsrooms that have long ago gained a respected creditability.

The reason for this seems to be the filter bubbles that personalised (news) feeds create for us, forming places that serve to confirm our already preconceived worldview. There is a higher chance of misinformation or misleading “reports” spreading more quickly. I’ve blogged about this before.

The rise in believing that “alternative facts” (as former President Trump councelor Kellyanne Conway called them) actually exist without comprehensive proof, can make it harder for two sides to engage.  Alternative opinions exist of course but a proven verifiable fact isn’t altered just because I don’t believe it.

So here’s an old fashioned term I was reminded of recently. It’s called “critical thinking”. And we can use it to disagree better because disagreeing isn’t so much the problem, it’s how we do it! We can actually agree to disagree. That means we don’t have to aim at “winning” an argument.

First tip I read, and in my online experience it's a vitally important one. Cut the insults and dial down the rhetoric. No-one has ever been insulted into agreement.

Secondly, listen to what the other side is actually saying. Empathy is about taking in what the other person says, even if we disagree. They too have a right to express their opinion.

Third tip. Look for points of conflict then listen with compassion (not passion but compassion, don’t mix them up) and that means showing a willingness to put the other person on a par with ourselves.

With a bit of critical thinking we can at least identify the difference between fact and opinion. An opinion after all is a consideration or perspective to be weighed up against available evidence and not a weapon to be used on our opponents.

Lastly, and this tip is aimed very personally at myself. Do the above!

A bit about the new (kinda topical!) artworks...

"Abolition +/- Escalation" (above image) is my response to the developing legacy of the last US administration led by Donald Trump and culminating in the shocking invasion of the Capitol building and it’s consequences. The central image of the globe with its nails, looking very virus-like, is indicative of a denial of responsibility, a denial of reality and the results of such. The three lower panels contain (left) an image of the DNA double helix, (centre) armed crowds outside the US Capitol and (right) an illustration I made using matches of the effects of social distancing during the pandemic, like a fire break. 

"The Golden Age of Malfunction" (above image) is a further comment on what I was just writing about. The central circular image represents the division between old knowledge (the left-hand side) and the new reality of the current or post pandemic world (the right-hand side). At one extremity is a hand with a dove and holding an olive branch while the other hand at the other side is holding an incendiary weapon. Hope in an increasingly polarised world.

"Good Guy/Bad Guy *delete as appropriate" (above image). It's back in the news here in the UK although it never really went away. So here's the updated and finished version of this work. The big debate is wether to get rid of Colonialist statues, street names and the likes, or retain them for use in further understanding the issues involved. Either way we absolutely need to have a way of educating ourselves and our children in facing up to our responsibilities and making sure they don't just repeat our mistakes. Those who forget history are bound to live through it again.  History is not there for us to enjoy the nice bits and deny the nasty stuff. It's there for us to learn from and to better ourselves.

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Still as Statues (or good guy? bad guy?)

We are lucky here in the British Isles. 

We take so much for granted. We have been born in a wealthy country.

But as comedian Frankie Boyle succinctly pointed out, we have not been born in a wealthy country, we have been born in a getaway car and the victims have been chasing us ever since.

Our conscience is finally catching up with the consequences of our colonialist history.

In facing up to it and trying to make amends, we will have to make decisions about retaining or removing our colonialist statues and street names among other things.

Some of us may not be too happy if a decision goes against what we had hoped for. Therefore we need to be prepared to work together to continue educating both ourselves and our children about racism regardless.

If we remove the statues for example, what would be the best way to prevent our children and our youth from forgetting our history and just repeating the same old mistakes later in life like we did?

If we retain them, can we erect statues of our black and ethnic leaders and activists right alongside those of Colston, Dundas, Robert E. Lee, Rhodes and the likes? Would this counteract the racist attitudes that many of those problematic historic statues represent; one root of the problem being glorification of that history, not recognition/denial of it?

Remember. This is our history and we forget it at our peril.

What I have seen in the Middle East is that it’s often within the younger generation that fundamentalism and racism on both sides is resurfacing. A friend of mine who has been living and working in Croatia since before the start of the 1990s Balkans war and the breakup of the former Yugoslavia has said much the same thing. It is among "those who are too young to remember what happened” that intolerance is taking hold.

I have a colleague whose teenage daughter had recently started an online petition to ensure racism awareness is taught in schools. She said that in all her high school years she had not one single lesson or lecture on racism. The UK media (BBC) reports that racism is still “alive and kicking” in our primary (junior) and secondary (high) schools.

“History is here for us to remember our faults and learn by them. We [historians] are not here to erase the nasty history and leave the good stuff to remember.” (Lenny Low, historian). It’s when we remember our history, no matter how painful it may be that we, and our children understand and learn from past mistakes.

The wheels are coming off our getaway car. Let’s make a good job of crashing it productively, with respect and understanding, a bit of dignity and with a smile.

New Work launched for Summer 2020.

Still as Statues - mixed media collage 37x30cm

Citizens of Peace - mixed media collage 36x30cm

Good Guy? Bad Guy? - digital composition 36x30cm


Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Business as NOT usual

How do artists and creators respond to something like (well...nothing like, really...) the Covid-19 pandemic? 

Many of us who are still managing to create under lockdown have responded in different ways to the life changing, even civilization changing Covid-19 event of the last few months. You may have seen Anthony Gormley's bleak clay figurines, Banksy's stencilled rats causing chaos in his bathroom ("my wife hates it when I works from home"), or David Hockney's sunny iPad drawings from his garden.

Some, like veteran indie musician Momus wrote an entire new album of songs about Covid-19 whilst suffering from the symptoms. Others like artist (and friend of mine from Jerusalem Print Workshop) Andi Arnovitz, finished a body of work called Epidemiology that was actually started last August. And I have just recently realised that the mezzotint I sent to the Royal Scottish Academy annual exhibition earlier this year has as part of the image, a bio-hazard symbol. Coincidence? Probably, but as someone said in Andi Arnovitz's case, "prophetic"?

Either way it does make me realise that what Momus said rings true. The pandemic "puts us all in the same state of existential anguish". Artiste, shopkeeper, delivery guy, health or emergency service worker, job seeker, politician, youngster, oldster or inbetween-ster, whoever. The virus SARS-CoV-2 respects no one.

Ultimately we are only as strong as our neighbour and in the face of so much disruption and suffering regardless of national or tribal boundaries, we could do well to also look out for our neighbours' well-being too.

I have noticed that in the communities where I live and work, many people are rising to the challenge. Whether that is just smiling at the person we see (from more than 2 metres away!) whilst out exercising, or being encouraged by friends and colleagues at Glasgow Print Studio who are volunteering their creative skills and facilities to make much needed PPE's on our laser cutter for front line health and emergency service workers.

Trying not to be too introspective, I wonder if my interest in science will be rekindled by all of this. Coincidentally, I was already thinking of it. As an artist it often takes me quite a while to distil experiences that influence my work. So, for me (and for you too), we'll just have to wait and see.

A bit about the new works including.............

"of Conflict and Resolution" 

"of Conflict and Resolution II"
Although these two versions of the same idea re-use some of my familiar images and themes, the line "peace starts with a smile" has perhaps once again become very poignant. The Covid 19 pandemic has shown the fragility of life, whether human or planetary, and that it can hang by a thread. 

The angel in the new work seems to be waiting for our collective response to the pandemic. We have the opportunity to review and renew our relationships with others and with the world in which we live. Ahead lies the post C-19 path of conflict, confrontation and business as usual.  But ahead also lies a path of resolution, of genuine progress, one that recognises that the world is not the same place it was and that business as usual may really not the smartest option after all.

Top image: detail from the mezzotint "Where Hope Still Burns"


Monday, 20 January 2020

Stop! Look! Listen!

I wonder if as a species, we human beings are losing our powers of observation along with our capability for information recall?

I ask this because recently a friend of mine had visited an interesting tourist spot and I asked him what he thought of it. "Here, I'll show you" he said, and whipped out his smart-phone. 

Me, being a smarty-pants said "I don't want you to show me, I want you to tell me what you though of it". For a minute or two all I got was a sort of blank look from him.

Perhaps we too have set up a photo opp in a second or two without really looking at the subject or content only to move on rapidly. In our instant and accessible world, that memory has been digitally recorded to be dealt with later.

Are we really happy enough with remembering the recorded version rather than living one grounded in observation and experience, interacting with the real-time event?

Although memory is highly personal, subjective and in fact very malleable (what we re-member may or may not have been what actually happened) I do think easy, personal digital storage of this sort has implications for the way in which we view the world around us. Our unwillingness, or growing inability to observe and appreciate events "in real-time" may wrongly colour our understanding of both the present and the past, whether that's our own memory of events or our perception of history and the lessons to be learned.

Furthermore, failing to realise that past cultures had, over millennia developed a significant capacity for profound powers of information recall and therefore memory, could lead us to judge their story telling traditions as mere folklore rather than dedicated transmission of important information; information which often had life or death consequences.

We judge other cultures outside of our experience to be somehow primitive and inferior to our own as viewed from our 21st century, first world perspective without understanding the circumstances around such traditions as story telling/information recall.

And here perhaps lies a very real and insidious danger. Relying on Internet algorithms for delivering information about the world around us increases the chances of our being fed through the filter bubble of selective news feeds and targeted influence, reinforcing what could already be our preconceived, misinformed or manipulated opinions. This will only serve to further diminish the breadth and depth of our understanding and appreciation of major political, moral or social issues that face us.

What can I do about this? Well, over the last few years I have been checking myself regarding my response to what I read and see on-line that might make me annoyed or angry. My first reaction now is to stop and ask the following simple, but effective question.

"Why is this making me angry or emotional?"

If I take my time over answering it, looking out for the subliminal use of suggestive words, terms and photographs, all to often the answer reveals that it is deliberately aimed at manipulating my emotions and anxieties on a subconscious level while potentially trying to bias my opinions. Knowing this, I am more prepared to take a step back, avoid the Internet equivalent of an instant road-rage response and do a little bit of rational thinking and research.

Try asking yourself the same question next time it happens to you. Take a few minutes to analyse the less obvious aspects of the content. You may well be surprised at how considerate your response is.

A few notes about the new work including .....

A Random Act of Hope - etching with mezzotint panel

In Memoriam - Homo Deus - computer graphic image

Hope in Shifting Shadows - mezzotint with etched panel

Some of what I have written above is definitely present in the new works. As always with my artworks that have the word hope in the title, in the one called "A Random Act of Hope" we read the words "The Reactionary's Palimpsest...contemporary trends for the waging of war on peace". It's a reference, on one hand to the (deliberate or otherwise) manipulation of our anxieties, fears and preconceptions through our own narrow-mindedness. On the other hand, the olive branch, the smile and the doves sitting on the logos War and Peace offer an alternative route to the well-being of our own humanity, individually and collectively.

In the digital triptych titled In Memoriam - Homo Deus, the center panel has text that proclaims "And Man said "Behold, let us make god in our own image, so that we can be sure that god hates all the same people we do"". Visually it has placed "self" at the very center of the work with all power leading to, and flowing from the self centered individual. But there is also the suggestion that doing so is ultimately self destructive as indicated in the left and right panels. Divided between them, they contain the phrase "In Memoriam, Homo Deus".

In the mezzotint, "Hope in Shifting Shadows", it is the raven that unexpectedly takes the initiative by offering the doves an olive branch. Yet this occurs in front of graffiti on the wall that states "It is forbidden to proceed beyond this point". The initiative therefore is rendered null and void. As  British street artist Banksy recently stencilled on the Palestine/Israel separation/security wall "PEACE on EARTH *terms and conditions apply" However negative this seems, there is always hope as the raven, who has cropped up in other works of mine just keeps trying.

"To wage war isn't [usually] a purpose, it's a [defensive, preconditioned and often unconscious] threat reflex. We should be trying to think our way out of this mess" 1.

See the full selection of six new works launched on my website at

1. From the novel "Salvation" by Peter F. Hamilton with  my own additions in parenthesis and italic emphasis 


Sunday, 11 August 2019

The Future is Now

"We must recognise the integrity of our opponents and include them in our embrace" 1.
It's easier said than done isn't it? Recognising the integrity of our opponents and including them in our embrace. 

And it's even more difficult when there are times it seems that those with whom we disagree are significantly lacking in integrity; moral, social, political, personal. That is when we must, without a moments hesitation fall back on the default setting, the fundamental human right of respecting the dignity of that person.

Respecting their dignity is something we must do regardless of who they are or whether we personally feel they deserve it or not. It is not up for negotiation. And if we find we can't recognise much integrity in them, we must still treat them with at least the basics of dignity and work to include them in our embrace.

This has never been more urgent. You will be aware as you read this, that right-wing parties across the globe are gaining credibility, influence and power by restricting their countries borders based on dubious ethnic/religious criteria, clamping down on human rights and controlling cultural activities that do not conform to, or promote their agenda. We have entered an era where an international network of politicians, lobbyists and figureheads who have formerly been viewed by the demographic at large as extremists, now feel comfortable enough to reveal their connections across the continents.

It's not only coming from the political right-wing. There are many people from a range of political persuasions, and none, who are just as angry and aggressive.

Do I recognise the integrity of any of the aforementioned people? Difficult. Can I respect their basic dignity even if I don't think they deserve it? I have to. Because if I don't, the alternative and it's consequences do not even bear thinking about. These, then, are the people that we must continually seek to engage with respect, and work hard to include them in our embrace.

 Saffiyah Khan confronting the English Defense League...with a smile. I don't own the copyright on this photograph. If there is an issue please get in touch and I,ll remove it.

A bit about the new artworks on-line including:

If Angels Cast Shadows..., mezzotint

Echoes in the Street, mezzotint and etching

Fish on a Plate, etching

There is certainly something of what I have just written above in the new artwork.

I read recently that political videos with aggressive titles are cropping up with increasing frequency both here in the UK and abroad. Although not exclusive to politics, they are an example of growing international trends for videos with confrontational titles. "The trend for videos where someone "schools", "beats", "takes apart" or even "destroys" their opponent appears to come from America's polarised political culture" 2.

Although punchy headlines have long been one of the most important skills in journalism, on the internet this seems to translate directly into on-line success. If it makes people angry they will be more likely to click, like, share and therefore spread it's message. With aggressive, negative and destructive videos "we are pushing people to hate, attack and humiliate each other. That's good for watch time but bad for society...we have a natural tendency to pay attention to fights and this only encourages video makers to emphasis confrontation over collaboration" 3. Of course, all of this masquerades as freedom of speech while failing to accept our responsibilities that come with such freedom.

Each of the new artworks is permeated (visually) with words like "coexist" "peace/war" and "shalom/salaam". One includes the line "in a lawful, moral society it is the responsibility of the rich to make sure the poor do not starve, it is the responsibility of the strong to make sure the weak are not preyed upon".

Instead of destroying our opponents, can we engage them with dignity whilst aiming to include them in our embrace? Peace after all starts with a smile.

1. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. BBC Newsnight interview. 
2. Joey D'Urso, BBC News website. 
3. Guillame Chaslot, former YouTube engineer, BBC News website.


Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Science vs religion - The Imaginary Divide

Some of you may already know, or have guessed from previous posts, that I am a bit of a science enthusiast and I am also a (religious) believer. And that's why, several years ago I started to think about the twin themes of Reason and Revelation; "the world of reason or the world of revelation - the world of the philosopher or the world of the mystic". 

That’s a phrase I coined to help me understand our faiths and beliefs, where belief can lead to conflict but also where a lack of faith can leave us without foundations.

In the West, the conditions that allowed the scientific/social enlightenment of the 18thC started to develop ideas which claimed that an expansion of our knowledge would bring about a rational understanding of our old superstitions and beliefs. That God Himself would be explained away in the reasoning that followed.

And interestingly enough, the conflict between science and religion/faith is a conversation that has been popping up again and again for me over the last wee while. My neice Esther (O'Connor, singer/songwriter with Ashton Lane) recently introduced me to a sermon on line called "The Imaginary Divide". Of the many points that were made, one thing that did stay with me is that faith, not specifically the religious kind, can take us beyond reason and doesn't have to contradict it.

It was the French writer and philosopher Voltaire who said "Faith consists of believing when it is beyond the powers of reason to believe".  A theoretical scientist for example, has to imagine a place where they have never been before. It is so true of science that many of the greatest discoveries were, and continue to be made possible by an audacity of imagination: a leap of faith. I think therefore we can question the wisdom of an exclusively reasoned and rational world- or universal-view, by saying that intuition and faith are as essential as logic and reason. Perhaps Einstein was fairly close to the mark when he said "religion without science is lame, science without religion is blind".

Now, most of us accept that there is a balance to be found between science and religion. They are different ways of expressing different perspectives of the same universe and our place within it. "What is a scientist after all?" said Jacques Yves Cousteau. "It is a curious man looking through a keyhole, the keyhole of nature, trying to know what's going on." If that's the case then what is religion? I'd say it is when a curious man is looking through a keyhole, the keyhole of experience, trying to know what's going on.

And that leads me back to what the wonderful Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said in a BBC program here in the UK a few years ago. He said "Science takes things apart to see how they work, religion puts things together to see what they mean".  Dead on!

A bit about the new works...

"Like his earlier mezzotints and etchings, Duffin's newer work reflects his inner journey through philosophical and scientific matters...through form, symbol, colour and texture...the iconographic vocabulary of gargoyles, angels, doves, guns and bombs being intuitive to the Western viewer."

"Though pondering matters of war, hatred and disruption Duffin reiterates a phrase often integrated in his work: "Peace starts with a smile" reminding us that the most powerful weapon we hold as individuals is a smile. It seems however, that the power which Duffin himself holds as an artist is to raise the difficult subjects which permeate contemporary society and reflect them back to the viewer in a thought-inspiring way. What he seeks across cultural and religious divides is the humanity that connects us..." 

Isabelle Thul, ArtMag UK.


Sunday, 12 August 2018

Fight Conflict

We can spend a lot of time debating what civilisation is or isn't. But when its opposite shows up in all its brutality and cruelty and intolerance and lust for destruction, we know what civilisation is. We know it from the shock of its imminent 
loss, as a mutilation on the body of our humanity.1

A friend of mine who is a Pastor gave a talk one Sunday morning where he began by saying "I could stand up here and deliver a sermon with, let's say, ten bullet points. Perhaps you agree with nine of those points and disagree with one. Guaranteed it'll be the one point you disagree with that you'll remember! Why!?”

What is it about the current condition of the human psyche that wants to seek out that one point to argue about yet apparently fails to celebrate and build on the ninety percent of stuff we agree on? As one negotiator's maxim puts it "there is probably more that unites us than divides us".

Can we think of a better starting point than that?!

Yet we continue to see the polarising of extreme views, even within our own neighbourhoods; views that refuse to tolerate anything other than their own narrow mindsets. The clash between the religious and secular spheres for example has to be seen as indicative of a wider, interconnected conflict of global ideologies, religions and geopolitical power struggles alongside the marginalisation and persecution of minority opinions or lifestyles.

However, if we look at the situation on a global scale we will in fact see that it isn't as hopeless as we perhaps assume or perceive it to be. For although it seems that democracy is on the back foot and that the age of the strongman is on the rise, history has shown us that human nature is not on the authoritarian’s side.

The BBC’s foreign news editor John Simpson recently pointed out that two hundred years ago there were only handful of democracies around the world. Even by the 1970’s there were still only 20 or so. “Today, despite the continuation of Chinese and Russian authoritarian regimes, there are well over a hundred….for every example of democracy fading out or finding itself under attack, there are countless examples of democracy and democratic activists moving forward and finding solutions” 2. Also it is surprising to learn that deaths from terrorism were statistically much higher in the 1970’s than now! Although on the increase, we are not yet back up to 70s level! 

Stephen Pinker in his book Enlightenment Now demonstrates at length many statistics that support a considerable rise in our level of well-being and security within a range of societies. And although not all-pervasive it is widespread, showing that any negative perception of humanity in a downward spiral is essentially inaccurate.

Despite our impatience for wanting speedy solutions in an age of rapid change where democracy by nature is slower to deliver, and when so-called strongmen such as Trump, Putin or Xi Jinping tout their ability for instant response, humanity at heart still abhors Authoritarianism.

Democracy is not perfect. It is subject (as is religion) to abuse and manipulation and was called by Churchill, the worst form of government, except for all the others. “Forgive its failings, and work to improve them as long as it’s core institutions further civil rights, guarantee rule of law and are subject to the will of the people” 3.

“Want to fight religious extremism? Then don’t push secularism. Marginalising religion, asserting that you can’t be part of mainstream society without being secular, pushes both alienated Muslims in Europe and Jews in Israel [and I would add Christians in the US and elsewhere] towards isolation and extremism”4.

Fight social and economic inequality, engage with the marginalised and disenfranchised and teach our children the critical thinking skills to separate truth from lies.

In short, although it may sound paradoxical, fight conflict!

Top Image: © Stuart Duffin 2018 "The Paradox of Prophecy" (detail)

About the new work...

"On the Making of Errors" - mezzotint

Charlottesville lawyer Charles Weber who is fighting to retain the cities confederate statues said in their defense “it’s not in the US DNA to deny its history”. And with respect, that is a valid point. Those who forget history are bound to live through it again. The problem is not about denial, but essentially with the glorification of that history. Perhaps a considerate solution would be to allow statues of civil rights heroes such as Martin Luther King alongside those of Robert E Lee; this too is our history, let’s not forget it. The mezzotint “On the Making of Errors” relates (coincidentally) to this while also playing on title of one of the 19th century’s standard treatise on the art of etching called “On the making of Etchings” by Frank Short RE (published in 1888 and of which I own a first edition issue). It is in the lower panel that we read the giveaway subtitle “the long awaited return of history”.

TERMINVS” - collage on panel

In relation to what I wrote in the post above, I am also launching a new working of the “TERMINVS” collage. It includes the Latin phrase terminus post quod non licit; no going beyond this point. On the left there is an image of confrontation (here and no further). The right hand image speaks of the opposite (here is the starting point). Jerusalem, represented by both the fragmented graffito and the old city panorama taken from the roof of my studio is in the center. The work is of course “not about Jerusalem, but relates to it in it’s many forms” as Arik Kilemnik wrote of my work many years ago. This collage with its call for something beyond tolerance and resolution remains central to much of my new developing work.

“Bang goes the theory” - mezzotint

One of the significant images in “Bang goes the theory” has a dove sitting on the barrel of a gun. Believe it or not, this actually happened. While a television crew were following a squad of soldiers in the Middle East in Adam Curtiss’s documentary Bitter Lakes, a dove did indeed land on the barrel of one of the soldiers guns while lying in the undergrowth on patrol. The look of utter astonishment on the soldiers face on film is a wonder to behold. And it only goes to show that anything is possible.


1. Simon Schama on the destruction of Palmyra. Civilisations, BBC.

2. and 3. James Stavridis, 4-star Admiral and 16th Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, Time Magazine.

4. Gershom Gorenberg, Israeli journalist writing in Haaretz.

Top Image: © Stuart Duffin 2018 "The Paradox of Prophecy" (detail)