What is in a Title?

Picking the title of a book is almost as difficult as writing its blurb and it is at least as important. There is no real agreement what makes a good title. Do they have to be catchy, original, outlandish, common, full of key words or simple?

Of my fiction books, two have a title that is common. I get at least one Google alert a day for those titles and they are never about my books.

My science fiction series has titles nobody else has, because I made those words up. I get no alerts.

I have two fiction books with original titles, but no indication that those get more or less attention than the common titles.

My non-fiction series has as its series title The Music of Life. This has resulted in it being put in the music section of some book shops, although the title is a metaphor and the books are about psychological types. The last of that series is just released, but the title for it had been created (and announced in the other books) at least six years ago.

I am not sure whether I would have picked a different title if I had to choose again. Personally, I tend to feel attracted to that which is different and am more likely to pick up a book with an odd title, just to see what it is about. But the the first thing many people say is,

Homological Composition! What does that even mean?”

Indeed, what does it mean? Does it mean that people are going to turn away, scared off by the title, or attracted to it, exactly because it is different?

Since the book is about psychological types and the theory explains why people react so differently to everything concerning information, I am pretty sure that there will be both reactions to the title, depending on the type of the person reading it.

And that goes for any title.

The reason I chose it is because “homology” refers to our common evolutionary origin that is expressed in similar, yet diverse, psychological human types, and a composition is an artistic or intellectual creation. Not only is the book an intellectual creation, but humanity with all its diversity is the composition that makes intellect and artistic expression possible.



Why Soup and Bread

With only a week left before the presentation (or book launch) of Soup and Bread, I want to write a series of posts to explain some of the happenings in the book as well as discuss its social and psychological background. This is the first of these posts.

Soup and Bread, a novel for teens to adults, deals with two of the most pressing problems our children are faced with today: bullying and eating disorders. The book respects the idea that young teens are equally capable of understanding these complex issues and it also addresses the emotions of the involved adults, because neither adults nor kids can solve these problems alone. In that respect, the book is about children growing up, not in the “coming of age” sense – which, in books or movies today, is invariably about young teens having sex for the first time – but in the sense of taking on adult issues and taking responsibility for their own behaviour. That is what growing up means.

At the start of the book, Vonnie, in her final year of primary school, is a happy girl with a “lucky body”, a best friend and a tolerant family. Sure, there are some things she doesn’t like, such as Mum complaining about what she eats at every meal  and the teacher always scolding the whole class for what only the bullies do – but she’s very good at ignoring them. Vonnie is a bystander to the bullying. She doesn’t think it is right, but the bullies are a group of popular kids, and Vonnie doesn’t believe there is anything she can do about it; bullies simply belong to school, like PE, and just like Mum complaining belongs to dinnertime.

But then two things happen that upset her happy routine: Mum’s had enough of fussy eaters and starts making soup and bread for every meal, and a new boy, Frank, comes to Vonnie’s class and he starts to confront her about being a bystander. Suddenly Vonnie finds that she has no choice but to respond, so she rebels at home – she goes on hunger strike – and through Frank she meets a number of other children with health and food problems, which makes her wonder whether it is right to call herself “lucky” and look the other way: Is doing nothing the same as supporting the bullies?

During a climactic weekend outing with a group of kids, Vonnie learns that she doesn’t need to be a bystander; that she is strong enough to make a difference, not only by standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, but also by standing up to the adults and initiating a change at school.

I should start by saying that, although the book is critical of the current approach to these problems and the way the education system handles them, the book does not put blame with any individual children, parents or teachers. In each of these three groups, there are some negative characters and some who are (sometimes after consideration) more tolerant. The main premise of the book is that every person wants what is best, that nobody is to blame and that the way people respond is a result of their experiences, which, in turn, are a result of their inborn personality type. The problems therefore, are problems that come from the way people live together; they concern all of us and can only be understood (and solved) in the light of group psychology – which I will discuss in the next post.

Now, psychology is highly abstract and the unconscious processes that influence the way people respond to each other or feel about each other, are invisible. So, how to explain to readers as young as eleven that these unconscious differences in people exist and that they form the underlying causes of bullying, eating disorders and all of today’s ‘mental’ problems?

I hope to have done that with the use of metaphor and analogy. As Vonnie puts it: “Looks don’t matter, but there’s something inside people that can’t be seen, but it’s why people feel attracted to each other or not – like falling in love, I guess, only with bullies it’s about hate.”

Soup and Bread is not just the title, referring to the object of Vonnie’s rebellion, but it is also a metaphor. “Soup” is not one specific sort of food. Depending on the ingredients you put in it, the soup will taste differently and have a different nutritional value. So with people; we each have different ingredients, our inborn psychological tendencies, and those make for the variety we see in people. And just like once you put something in the soup, you cannot take it out again – that particular soup will have that taste – so every person is born with their ingredients and those cannot be changed by will or on advice of teachers or counsellors. But soup and bread together make for a wholesome meal and so all people together make up the variety of skills and insights needed for humanity as a whole to progress.

A third metaphor I use is the idea of soap bubbles. I also use this in my other books, but in this case, the children literally play with bubble blowers and so learn to ‘see’ that concrete objects and words resemble the soap of a bubble – they are more or less identical to any observer – but abstract words and inner senses are like the air inside the bubbles and cannot be taught or understood exactly the same by different people.

Understanding the unconscious is usually a question of an intuitive grasping and not of intellect and therefore much less dependent on age or education than on personality type. This means that some children and some adults will “get it” and some will not (yet). Some people will not accept any of this until an authority agrees with it. This authority can be the popular opinion or the academic experts, neither of which acknowledge personality types at the moment.

But as Carl Sagan so famously said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. Just because there is no scientific proof, does not mean it doesn’t exist. Scientists cannot find what they are not looking for, and, currently, they dismiss inborn personality types in favour of observable superficial behaviour, hormones and neurology, because those are simpler.

Let me draw a comparison to medical science. Most people today accept the “holistic approach”. The vast majority of people are agreed that we can no longer treat people as a collection of detachable organs in order to heal them, which was the twentieth century reductionist approach; we need to treat the whole person.

Yet in psychology, the trend is going in the other direction: the study of psychology is becoming more and more a ‘hard’ science, focusing single-mindedly on the brain or the neural networks and with very little regard for the whole person, which would mean dealing with the uncountable variables that make us human. The reasons for that are explained in The Music of Life and are too complex to repeat here. Suffice it to say that everything people do is a result of their personality type and that includes the jobs they choose and the way they go about these jobs. This applies to those studying human behaviour as much as to any other field and as long as they dismiss their own personality influences, these scientists are unconsciously judging the people they observe from their own inborn biases, and medicating or labelling them accordingly.

And as a result of this general attitude and our blind trust in “scientists”, virtually every book that has been published about bullying in the last ten years has focused either on the bully or the victim – blaming upbringing, bodies or superficial behaviour. The same causes are assigned to eating disorders, suicide and other acts of self-harm, the incidence of which are expressed in younger and younger children. Clearly, the current approach is not working and we desperately need to wake up to the reason for that or we’ll lose even more children – that is why Soup and Bread is written.

The book provides as many as possible examples of the different responses (both positive and negative) to the individual “being different” and shows that this difference is not related to external traits. The children in the book talk about “insides and outsides” – the things you say, do, or choose versus those that are part of you; what you are.

There is nothing in this book in the way of actions or words expressed by teachers, that I have not personally either heard or observed a teacher do or say – I am not saying all in the same school, or even in the same country – and similarly, the behaviour of the bullies comes from first-hand accounts of those who were witness to such behaviour, either as a victim or a bystander.

The messages of Soup and Bread:

  • that bullying is based in natural (instinctive) behaviour, but it is not okay
  • that bullying is not a problem of individual kids; it’s a problem of a judgemental society
  • that no external features, race, religion, behaviours or physical traits are either the reason or an acceptable excuse
  • that other problems (such as eating disorders) are rooted in the same core differences and therefore immediately related, but not the cause
  • that nobody is to blame, but that we can nonetheless change our collective attitude and reduce the problem
  • that values education and advice such as “get tough” or lessons to that effect, cannot work and have made the problem worse, because it introduces double bind situations that leave the victim no way out
  •  that trying to deal with the symptoms is missing the bigger picture and the underlying causes
  • that most schools are bystanders and in some cases even accommodators and that “good advice” is covert bullying
  • that teaching the right and wrong of behaviour is ineffective unless accompanied by actions that demonstrate it
  • that teaching adults or children to deal with the problem can only work if they also have an understanding of the depth psychology that lies at the core of interpersonal relationships

In light of that, the book asks

  • schools to take responsibility and not point the finger at brain chemistry, disorders or other easy excuses that make the child feel ‘faulty’; we need to attack the behaviour instead of the person
  • children and parents to stand up for their rights, to get honest about the real issues and not accept patches, blame or being dismissed for not being experts
  • bystanders to get actively involved and collectively stand up for the victims
  • those types of personalities that naturally end up on the receiving end of bullying to connect together and support each other
  • politicians to listen to the voice of all people and not hide behind votes or bureaucracy

It is simply not good enough that in countries that are not at war, thousands of children have to be afraid for their life, harbour thoughts of suicide and self-harm, or feel not worthy enough to eat.

One of the few who got it right

In nearly every creative writing guide, the author eventually refers to “success stories”, explaining how out of the many who want to become writers, only a few “got it right”.

I recently reread the book The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman (Fireside, 2000) and enjoyed it as I did the first time, but with the added awareness that this book is a rare specimen among its kind.

Lukeman’s book is “A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile”. In other words is it a book intended for writers about how to write books and present manuscripts.

Since it has become the “in” thing for people to become writers – and with every university offering “creative writing” degrees and producing countless ‘experts’ professing to pass on their knowledge – books like this are flooding the market, in addition to books about how to get noticed in that same market.

The latter are trying to teach writers what is not their natural talent (so they can compete), while the former are trying to make writers out of those whose natural talents may lay elsewhere.

Sure, techniques need to be learned. After all, the great painters of the past, despite having the natural talent, went into apprenticeship with a master painter to learn the techniques and the great classical composers all took music lessons. But the vast majority of such writing advice presents the techniques not as guidelines, but as a regimen. They will even add a chapter on how to behave as a writer – such as “organize your desk” and “discipline yourself to sit down for four hours each day” – or they devote an entire chapter on where to find inspiration and how to overcome “writer’s block”

But inspiration isn’t a technique; it is that what forces writers to write regardless of what is happening in their lives. Those who need to be told what to write about or have to discipline themselves to get around to writing are not natural born writers.

“The art of writing cannot be taught, but the craft of writing can,” says Lukeman  (p 15), yet “… ultimately, the only person who can teach you about writing is yourself” (p 11).

The question that is relevant today more than ever: Is the measure of an artist in the quality of the art, in the mastering of the technique, or in the success of the marketing?

Rembrandt, had he simply copied the techniques he had learned, would have never stood out as a great painter and Van Gogh is certainly not considered a great artist because he managed to make money doing so.

Many of the great composers took what they had learned and turned it into something unique, often deliberately ignoring the rules.

So techniques are useful, but they don’t make art, because art needs creative space to develop. No artist has ever become great from following techniques without experimenting.

Art is subjective; some works of the greatest artists are rejected based on taste, yet those who are born with the drive to write for the sake of the art; those with the inspiration (and even desperation), cannot be stopped. As Lukeman says, “Here lies the difference between someone writing for money and a writer.” (p 152)

Psychological type explains why some people are born with a talent for marketing (or business), others with a talent for visual arts, for musical or for performing art, and yet others with a talent for writing or for editing and proofreading. Editors are not the same type of people as are writers. The latter tend to naturally grasp the big picture and focus on the semantics, the social message or the human relationships, while the former have an eye for syntax, detail and composition. So the two complement each other and in a respectful relationship both are aware of that.

And the beauty of Lukeman’s book is that he realizes this.

Most books (or classes) on writing are condescending toward writers, proclaiming their importance because “most writers don’t know….”  – and then berating these same writers for not respecting their readers.

But Lukeman is different. His book doesn’t say “Hey stupid, here is how you should do it”. He says: I am an editor and here is what I look for when I reject manuscripts, so if you want yours to have a chance, consider the following. He doesn’t say that his advice should be followed to the letter or that his methods are right, but only that they are common.

Additionally, his book doesn’t just spit our cliché advice, like “don’t hit your readers over the head” and “show, don’t tell”, but it actually gives examples of what he means by that; what not to do.

Besides, Lukeman acknowledges that the phrase “show, don’t tell” is not very accurate. Writers need to show and tell, as long as they don’t tell what they have already shown. Telling is not the same as making statements and it has its place in fiction.

Writers (especially independent writers) experience a similar sort of being talked down on when trying to present their books to booksellers, because they don’t have the money to employ big distributors. Book sellers don’t want the trouble of having to deal with only a few copies of a title that is not guaranteed to sell because nobody knows it exists – one even told me that it isn’t worth their time in administration and book keeping to deal with individuals – yet titles need to be on display before people can notice them.

Others believe that independent writes cannot produce a product of quality. One manager of a book shop chain, without even asking for samples, picked up a book from his counter and continued to show me that books have a cover and are formatted, apparently under the impression that a self-published book consists of a number of stapled together sheets straight from the printer.

Of similar intelligence was the book seller I tried to show my science fiction to. – Okay, writers in Paris or New York may not experience the following problem, but I live in New Zealand, which only has four million inhabitants, and which has a strong national pride, so that most publishers only accept books that are distinctly local. For example, a detective novel has to be set in a local town or it won’t get published.

But considering that New Zealanders are not immune to the lifestyle of the twenty-first century, all the social issues and human emotions that affect New Zealanders are the same issues and emotions that affect people in all other countries, so that they will read books that are not local even if they refuse to publish them. And the inventors and scientists in New Zealand build on and exchange information with their colleagues in the same fields abroad – because science (and therefore science fiction) generally does not limit itself to national borders. Yet stepping into book sellers, I am told that their readers want local books and that “New Zealand readers don’t buy science fiction”.

This same shop is full of mainstream titles that are written abroad and come in bulk from overseas distributors. And that last statement is based on statistics taken from the mainstream bookshops – not counting those books that are bought over the internet (from abroad) and probably not even those that are sold in the second hand shops that specialize in science fiction (because there is a demand for it). So they refuse to put such books in their shops because “they won’t sell”, based on the fact that they have not sold any – which makes me wonder if they know what a blatant circular argument is.

So writers are stuck between the book sellers talking down on them because their work isn’t already in demand and condescending writing instructors that tell them they are never going to make it in the first place because their techniques are wrong.

Thus I wanted to mention Lukeman’s book, which is respectful in the way it approaches writers; it is not pretentious and actually gives sound advice, which makes it a rare exception that deserves to be noticed as one of the few who got it right.

And while we’re at it, there is one book shop (I know of) – Arty Bees in Wellington – that deserves a special mention for the same reason as Lukeman’s book, because it respects the writer (and science fiction).

Freedom of Belief and Human Rights

A few years ago, a relative of mine was called for jury duty. In the summons there was a clause stating that those people who had objections for religious reasons could file for an exemption. My relative had no organized religion to call her own, but she did have ethical objections to participating.

When I wanted to continue home educating my children after moving countries, I had to register with the ministry of education and give my reasons for wanting to forfeit traditional schooling. The options given were “religious convictions” or “other; please explain”.

Just the other day I read an article in the news, stating that public child care centres (in NSW) are allowed to ban children who are not vaccinated, but there are exemptions for those parents who refuse to vaccinate their children for “religious or for medical reasons”.

Now, organized religions are moral institutions with their own moral values and rules that may, indeed, require of their members that they refuse to participate in state organized activities (such as jury duty, schooling and vaccinations) if the moral values of the state differ with those of their own belief system. A state, after all, despite being a social institution, tends to have a predominant culture and that culture tends to set the moral standards. In some eras the state will be very intolerant to other beliefs; in others eras there is more cultural mixing.

Today we live on the tail end of such a culturally mixed society and in that light – needing to present themselves as ethnically and culturally tolerant – most western countries will claim religious freedom. It is based on that claim that exemptions are granted.

The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and all such documents are also an expression of moral values. A declaration is a set of moral laws that represent the belief system of the writers – in this case many countries:

Article 18

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

So, article eighteen refers to thought, belief, conscience and religion, which implies the ethical and moral values a person holds, while article nineteen refers to the expression of such values to others.

Now, public institutions (like a state, school, church or group representing a certain belief or cultural system) have these sets of moral laws because they have certain beliefs and want their members to act accordingly. If you choose to join a group, you choose to accept its moral rules and the members of the group generally reserve the right to call each other on their actions would they stray. Moral rules therefore have to do with behaviour, which can be observed.

Conscience is a belief a person holds within, usually about being good or bad, and generally not clearly definable. In other words, if you ask somebody why he considers something good or bad, he either refers to the moral laws that describe the behaviour that represents that sense of good or bad for him – he may have internalized his conscience from the beliefs of his environment – or he cannot exactly say why, “It just is” or “it feels that way”.

Conscience therefore is about ethical values (not moral ones). Ethical values are about the sense of what is good or bad in a person or what makes a good person, while moral values are about right or wrong action.

What people feel inside (their conscience or ethical sense) cannot be objectively measured or defined, but public actions usually can.

For example, if you punch somebody in the face your action will be considered wrong by many people, but others may consider your motivations and consider it right, but their judgment is about the right or wrong of the act; nobody will argue about the act itself: it was observable.

If you punch people in the face regularly, then some people may judge you to be a bad person based on your wrong actions. But there will still be others who understand your troubled youth and argue that yes, the actions are wrong, but the person isn’t really bad. This inner person cannot be objectively observed and therefore cannot be measured to any standard.

As described in my book, a number of psychological types are more inclined to equate ethical and moral values; they internalize the moral values of their environment so strongly that they equate the behaviour with the goodness of a person, while other types feel a strong distinction between the two. This is not a choice people make, but part of their inborn psychology and therefore neither viewpoint is right or wrong, but we have to be aware that the other perspective exists.

Also be aware that, as a result of the people who organize society usually being of the former types, the term “ethics” (as in work ethics) actually refers to moral values, since they refer to a code of conduct.

Apart from distinguishing between ethical and moral values, I personally also distinguish “moral values” from “morality”, in which the former refers to the above mentioned considerations of right and wrong action and the latter to the peer pressure exercised by the majority of the members of a group in order to force people with different values to comply. They tend to do this with gossip, bullying, exclusion, disdainful looks or comments and so on.

I have no issue with moral values. In fact, a group’s identity relies on them, but I strongly object to morality.

The next step after morality is, of course, legality, in which the authorities of a group enforce their own moral values using the penal system.

Now, like I said above, we still live in a culturally diverse society and the authorities claim to be tolerant to different belief systems (different moral codes) and this is why they allow exemptions for people with regard jury duty, healthcare and schooling.

But what about ethical values or principles?

Why is it that my relative had to explain in a letter that she objected to being part of a jury on an ethical basis and that being forced to participate would influence her sense of objectivity?

Why is it that I have to choose between claiming a religious belief I don’t have or try to explain an ethical sense (which by its very nature is not objective) and risk not being allowed to home educate my children, while people who belong to an organized religion can simply tick a box?

Why is it that religious institutions have the right to protect their children from vaccines that may be potentially dangerous, but I cannot do so on ethical grounds?

Why is it  that people who object to military service on principle either have to do community service or go to prison? Why is it that people who cannot claim an organized religion are being chased by the police if they don’t want to expose their child to the poisons of chemotherapy?

Why is it that people with moral beliefs based on an accepted institution are allowed such privileges or exemptions, but people who do not belong to an organized religion are expected to be without values (except those of the state)?

One explanation could be that the authorities rely on publicity and being seen as tolerant. They don’t want to risk the wrath of an entire group of people – that isn’t good for their public image – but they have little concern for the individual.

So what happened to “everyone has the right”?

What happened to “alone or in community with others and in public or private”?

What happened to “without interference”?

The other, more likely explanation is that the authorities have no clue about the difference between ethical and moral values, because of the types of people they are, so they cannot see that they are in effect discriminating against inborn personality types.

I am not affiliated with any religious order, whether big or small, traditional or new and whether western or from anywhere else. Yet I have very strong ethical principals, which are not negotiable and I want respect for those. It consider it an insult that I am expected to submit my child to mass vaccinations, send them to traditional public school and submit to the legal system, because my beliefs are not considered legitimate unless I belong to a religious organization.

Sure, if I insist – write a letter explaining my philosophy – I do get exemptions,  but I want respect for the idea that people can have moral and ethical values without any outside authority having imposed them. I want my human right acknowledged by the government of a state that claims tolerance to individual opinions and beliefs.

The Art of Begging

What do you first think of when you hear the word “begging”?

For me, growing up in The Netherlands where there was social security, it used to be the hungry children in developing countries I saw on TV.

It wasn’t until I started travelling abroad that I noticed people at night checking garbage bins for something worthwhile. Of course, it is perfectly possible that this also happened in the big cities in The Netherlands, but I had never seen it and being confronted with it in Athens, Brussels and New York – places I had considered rich and therefore capable of providing their citizens with at least enough to eat and a place to live – shocked me.

Since then I’ve learned that the wealth of a country that calls itself democratic is not a reflection of the wealth of its citizens (its voting population) and I have become somewhat used to seeing people sit on the pavement in a busy shopping area with a sign and a pot asking for money – even though it makes me uncomfortable.

But this post is not intended as a discussion of the rights and wrongs of western economy and politics or the poverty of a large part of the world population.

I want to discuss the act of begging itself.

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, “to beg” means “to ask for as a charity”, “to entreat” (plead urgently) or “to require as necessary or appropriate”.

Considering these definitions, the child begging on the street corner for a bit of money to pay for food, clothing or school books is asking for charity for himself as a necessity – not just in his own eyes, but in those of most people – and this requirement is urgent, so that it can be considered appropriate. Though it makes me sad that it is necessary for many people to beg for their basic needs of life, I have no ethical issue with the act of begging for this purpose.

What I do have an issue with is the begging that is required of western children (often those of well-off parents) in order to help pay for a communal project or a larger charity in which the interest for the involved children is only that of being the beggar – not the beneficiary or the organizer. In other words, it is not their project but a project that is imposed upon them and which they may not even know the details of or agree with. They are not asking for themselves but for a third party.

Thus,  they may be asking for a charity and this may even be an urgent need, but the individual beggar has no necessity and my issue here is to question its appropriateness.

Now there are different angles to approach this topic with and it depends on the personality type of each person how they will feel about it.

There are those who consider it a good way to instil in children a sense of community and responsibility and to create awareness of how good they have it if compared to those the charity is for – it can be a larger project like “feed the world”, an awareness project to support a minority group, a project for research (cancer charities) or a project that has to do with raising money for a local club or hospital.

The other view – and the population is roughly 50:50 divided according to personality type theory – considers this manner of begging an ethical insult on their autonomy for two reasons: firstly, the being forced to participate because it is expected (the sense of making the act of begging into a moral obligation) and secondly, the act of begging itself being presented as a legitimate way to get to your funds rather than to work for the money.

Note that (despite my own preference) I do not say that either view – “group-responsibility” or “self-accountability” – is right or wrong, since these differences are directly related to a person’s psychological type and thus to one’s inborn perspective of life.

I have defined “group responsibility” as “the sense of belonging to the community one lives in and the duty of every member to partake in what needs to be done” (Concerto for Mankind: 351). In other words, the community is expected to take priority over the individual; the responsibility to obey the moral values of the group and to do one’s duty comes with being a member of the group, regardless of whether that membership was a choice. Thus being born in a certain country or being legally obliged to attend school makes one a member with obligations.

I have defined “self-accountability” as “the expectation that a person actively chooses his membership in groups and is fully accountable for the obligations that follow from this choice” (Concerto for Mankind: 372). Thus the group is expected to allow for the views of each individual and being born in a place or a legal requirement to attend school does not make one morally responsible for participating in that group since it was not an autonomous decision.

Again, this is an inborn perspective difference that cannot be changed. Western society currently supports the first perspective and thus believes that all citizens should share this view or else be considered undemocratic, selfish, manipulative, psychopathic, antisocial and so on. Today, with the risk of pre-emptive justice based on such labels greater than ever, it is extremely important that people become aware of these different perspectives as being different expressions of normal human psychology.

Allow me some personal examples.

When I was young all the fifth and sixth graders of both public and religious primary schools were supposed to go door to door to sell “children’s stamps” – specially printed sets of postage stamps and postcards of which the proceeds went to a nationwide charity – once a year. Not only was each child expected to participate, but between schools it was a competition with some schools allowing their students to leave fifteen minutes early so as to get a head start.

I absolutely detested that project because it is not in my nature to go and ring the doorbell of a stranger to try and sell them something and because asking for money (regardless of whether it is in exchange for goods) is something I don’t like doing. Today, knowing personality type theory, I know why that is and I know that I’m not alone in this view, but when I was ten and eleven I felt forced to go to a few neighbours I knew and have my family buy the rest to prevent being berated at school by teachers saying I was antisocial, did not care for the poor people and was not helping the school win the most points.

Later, when I had my own family in the UK, the US, Australia and New Zealand, I have had children ringing my doorbell asking for money (usually in exchange for chocolate bars) for their local scout group, their local netball team or their school. My daughters have occasionally been given boxes of chocolate with the expectation they sell them – by the same schools that lecture these children about how bad chocolate is for your health.

If the child at the door was one I knew I’d usually buy something – so as not to burden them with my political views and for that same reason I gave my children the choice whether they wanted to participate – otherwise I turned those children away, especially those that wore some kind of uniform (scouts or school).

In New Zealand they regularly have high school children (in uniform) standing at street corners or in supermarkets trying to get shoppers to part with their money before buying their groceries – yet those same schools complain that parents are not giving their children proper lunches or enough milk. And as far as I know, scouts are supposed to help people in need not exploit others by putting children out to beg.

My policy with any charity is that you can send me things in my mailbox to make me aware of your existence, but if I want to donate I will come to you. The moment somebody accosts me, I feel that my privacy is invaded and turn them down on principle, regardless if what the cause is.

If a charity uses school children (during school hours), then in my view they are using class time to teach them how to beg. The key of the art involved is the use of the innocent looking and the obedient (in uniform) and the objective is to make the public feel guilty or ashamed and so entice them to donate.

This appeal to shame or guilt – if you don’t give your neighbours may see you – I consider totally unethical. Besides it being emotional blackmail, they are teaching children that it is okay to beg and that peer pressure is an acceptable tactic to force people into compliance.

Even more unethical I consider the begging we start seeing more and more on “reality TV”, where some so-called charity is offering to change somebody’s home (usually with a sob story as an excuse) but without the budget (from the TV producer or network) to actually pull it off, so they invade a local store (usually a small business trying to make ends meet) and literally ask them for free donations of material. The store owner has no choice but to say yes – after all there is a guy with a camera standing behind them, while the presenter of these programmes is no doubt getting a fat salary out of the deal, as is the producer.

This attitude, in which school children and viewers are made to believe that begging is a moral good, equates the sad truth that some people do not have enough to eat with the moral choice of asking for favours using guilt and shame induction.

To me, begging is a desperate last resort for people who have nothing and it should not be made into a moral obligation.