Category Archives: Community

Non-violent language

There are times for violence of course, when it is the only means to protect yourself, and when it is the only way to prevent harm. In our everyday lives, violent language is common, and well meaning people use it without considering what it might do. By violent language, I mean language intended or likely to threaten, to humiliate, to silence and frighten people. Non-violent language may be neutral, and in instances of conflict intends to engage, educate, enable and empower.

No one is persuaded to change their views by being attacked. Approaches that depend on abusing someone over their appearance or nature persuade no one. They may shut down the recipient, or they may entrench them in their position and further fuel the conflict. Non-violent expression talks about ideas. The non violent approach would look like saying ‘here is the evidence I find persuasive’ and not ‘everyone who thinks differently from me is an idiot.’

It’s worth noting that violent speech is often also ableist speech. It tends to use words suggestive of intellectual impairment. Language that attacks disabled people is often used to attempt to humiliate the people on the other side of the argument. Violent speech can be fat-shaming – we saw this a fair bit with Trump. It can be sexist – attacking men and male-presenting people for being feminine in some way. Whether this is seen by the target or not is uncertain, especially online. It’s worth remembering that any such comments will however be seen by your friends, some of whom will be hurt by this kind of language.

How we use language, matters. This is a basic tenet of the bard path. I get really frustrated when people say things they don’t mean, lash out carelessly in anger, and hurt their own causes by alienating others with divisive language. Writing in anger it can be all too easy to perpetuate injustice in the ways I’ve described above. The best way to avoid this is to practice non-violent language in a deliberate way at times when things are less loaded and fraught.

Consider the impact of saying ‘we’ over saying ‘you’. If I’m talking about an issue and I say ‘we need to do better than this’ the odds are you aren’t going to feel attacked. You might feel uncomfortable, but you know I’m talking about something we all need to work on to change. I’m careful around making it explicit when I want to undermine systems. So I’ll talk about patriarchy and dismantling it. I want to talk about what we can do together to dismantle white supremacy. I want us to replace capitalism with something kinder. I want to inspire you to feel that you can help fix things, not attack you for being part of something that wasn’t your fault. I want to expose how privilege works, not attack you for the privilege you did not know you had.

This is an area of constant learning for me. I’m particularly interested in figuring out how to talk in ways that allow people to go into difficult topics and uncomfortable spaces in order to make real change. I’m also giving serious thought to what I do with people who deliberately or carelessly use violent language to dominate conversations and shut other people down. Or, I think in some cases because they wrongly imagine they are being brave, championing their cause and being good allies. Aggressive allies often cause more harm than good. It’s important not to tone police people who are in distress and experiencing rage, but at the same time this is too often used as an excuse by people who claim to be allies but whose main function is to hut and disrupt, and deepen divides. At present I have little idea what to do with this except to flag up that it exists.


Inside the comfort zone

The edge of the comfort zone is reputed to be the most productive place. It doesn’t mean you could, or should aspire to live there. And yes, pushing your limits can be good and exciting, but if you have to do it all the time it turns out to be relentless and exhausting. There should be no shame in seeking comfort and in wanting to be comfortable.

It is worth asking what comfort means. For me, these are the experiences that give something to us, gently. Comfort is nourishment, it soothes and affirms us. Our bodies need time to rest and recover. Learning requires downtime for us to digest and process. We actually grow more, improve more if we have downtime to consolidate that. None of us do our best anything when we are out at the edges all the time.

Comfort is highly personal and depends a lot on needs. For one person, comfort might be an afternoon of baking. For another person, it might be the ready meal that means you get to eat when you are otherwise barely coping. 

Comforts may take the form of things that look trivial to other people. We should be less judgemental about this. I note that the kinds of things women find comforting – romance novels and soap operas for example – tend to be treated as trashy. Taking comfort in watching sport and drinking alcohol is assumed to be manly and often gets treated with a lot more respect. The pleasures of the wealthy tend to be treated with more respect and admiration – yachts, horse racing etc than the pleasures of the poor – beer, cigarettes TV, etc. We’re far quicker to defend the rights of the wealthy to their planet-killing leisure activities than we are to defend the rights of poor people not to work themselves to death.

We all need time to be lazy. We need time to heal, reflect, regroup, recharge. People whose comfort choices seem problematic from the outside are often people who are suffering from a lot of pressures and a lack of resources. Exhaustion and poverty are going to impact on what you can do to comfort yourself. 

Rather than judging people for their lifestyle ‘choices’ I’d like to see a greater move towards considering what shared resources we have, and improving that. Green spaces, sports facilities, libraries, and cultural spaces can all offer comfort and opportunity, where we invest in that for the benefit of all. We need to recognise that poverty is stressful and that there are consequences. We need to stop treating hard work as virtuous and wealth as a measure of whether you should be working hard.

Everyone needs comfort. Everyone needs rest. I wonder what would happen if we started discussing comfort redistribution, and health redistribution, rather than focusing on money. Perhaps that way there would be more collective understanding of the implications of wealth and poverty.


Giving each other permission

I talk a fair bit about the idea of healing needing to be a community project. Often this is because of things that are systemic – so much suffering is caused by poverty, racism, sexism, ableism, lack of resources and the places where these things collide. Tackling that in small groups isn’t much easier than tackling it alone.

One of the things we can do for each other, is to give each other permission. Here are some examples…

Whatever you feel is valid. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else and you don’t owe anyone an explanation.

Being different does not make you wrong. The failure of systems to accommodate your difference is their fault not yours.

It is ok not to feel ok. You do not have to pretend to feel ok to make me feel more comfortable.

We can give each other permission to rest, and to take care of ourselves. We can remind each other that being productive isn’t always the most important thing. We can remind each other that it makes sense to do what we can do and try not to worry about what isn’t possible right now. We can give each other permission to go back to bed and try to get some more sleep.

Being held to other people’s standards can be impossible and damaging. It can be something that is done to people as a deliberate project to control and demoralise them. Emotional punishment for feeling how you feel teaches us that our most fundamental selves aren’t valid or welcome. We can counter that for each other by being overtly accepting of difficultly.

Perhaps the most generous thing you can do for someone you care about is give them permission to make it all about them, sometimes. Tell them that they are allowed to put themselves first in whatever way they need to. Tell them that you do not expect them to out you first all the time. There will be people who have never heard this from anyone before. It’s a powerful, pain easing, comforting, empowering thing to do.


Loyalty, community, ethics

I worked out as a teen that friendship was going to be key to my ethics and that I would start from an assumption of loyalty to my friends. It’s still the place I start from when dealing with conflict or difficulty and it’s become a more pertinent issue with social media.

If someone is upsetting a true friend of mine, I will ditch them in a heartbeat. 

Of course there are all kinds of issues around this. I think the majority of people probably act from this basis but not necessarily having considered it. We defend our friends, but at what point is a line crossed? When do we admit that we may have misjudged them? How much do we need to hear to admit that the friend we’ve been loyal to is a bully, an abuser, a rapist?

It doesn’t reflect well on us if our friends turn out to be terrible people. It means either we might be terrible too, or we might be foolish, easily hoodwinked, or poor judges of character. There’s a loss of self inherent in admitting that someone you were invested in is actually a bit shit. From experience, it’s easier to do this when you aren’t the only one. A community ejecting a person can be a lot stronger and more confident than a lone individual doing it.

But then we have to ask questions about scapegoating. We have to check very carefully that the person being pushed out is the person who should leave. Bullies can be really good at playing the victim, and this kind of conflict can turn out to be a popularity contest. The confident attractive, powerful, socially able person is likely to win if they go up against a nervous, fragile, awkward person. Bullies can be charming for the benefit of their supporters, and they know how to pick a good victim.

Staying out of a conflict is always supportive of the abuser, if there is one. Assuming it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other always supports the bully, if there is one. Assuming that our friends are good people can make us wilfully oblivious to the harm they do. If we don’t police our communities, we give opportunities to bullies, abusers and predators. If we do police our communities, we run the risk of supporting the charismatic psychopaths at the expense of victims who have been chosen because they weren’t socially attractive in the first place.

There are no simple answers here. Blind faith in each other is dangerous. Being too quick to believe the worst of someone destroys relationships. There will always be haters. Who are you going to trust? Whose behaviour is going to be part of your reputation? Where do you draw lines? At what point do you decide that a friend is in fact a problem?


Pride – being an ally

It’s Pride month, and you might be a straight person who would like to be an ally and support your queer friends. This is not an exhaustive or definitive list, just some things to think about.

Don’t centre yourself – if this is about looking good, or cool or wanting to go to events you aren’t really helping much. 

Don’t police the language queer people use to talk about themselves, and don’t demand that queer spaces be adapted to make you feel more comfortable. Amplify your queer friends. Put your pronouns on your social media profile, if you feel comfortable doing that. Listen, and learn. Building insight and understanding is a really meaningful thing to do.

Don’t treat LGBTQA folk like we’re all one thing. We are not a coherent entity with a single set of opinions, feelings and needs by which we are all tidily defined. We don’t all agree with each other about all kinds of things. What you’ve picked up from one queer friend, or one queer celebrity you follow on Twitter isn’t the whole story. Don’t assume you know enough to speak for people – because no one does. Not everyone who is (by my reckoning) queer would be comfortable with me using the word ‘queer’ to describe all queer people because not everyone identifies this way. But, it’s my blog, I’m using my preferred term and I’m not going to spend the whole time flagging up the language complexities. It’s ok that we don’t all agree about everything. Diversity is good.

Don’t buy Pride merch from corporations. It’s just commercial exploitation. Putting a rainbow on something is pretty flimsy support, and does very little to support LGBTQA people. If you want to spend money on having cool gay things during June, then look for the independent creative folk who are making Pride stuff because they are queer creators. Supporting them is a much more meaningful use of your money, and will do all kinds of good.

Don’t lose sight of what Pride is about. It’s not a celebration, not really. It’s an assertion of presence from a marginalised group that is subject to abuse, and in some places, at real risk of death, injury or imprisonment. Pride started as a riot, and continues as a protest. It’s about people coming together to support each other, and raise awareness. It isn’t just a party. It isn’t about the corporations who want to co-opt it because they reckon they can cash in on the gay pound, the lesbian dollar… It should not exist to comfort the comfortable.

There are of course invariably people who respond to Pride by wanting Straight Pride. If you want to take on any work as an ally, this is a good one to go after, especially if you catch people you know expressing this idea. Straight people don’t need Pride events because they are not at any risk as a consequence of experiencing hetrosexual desire and love for people of the opposite sex. Pride in no way makes it unsafe to be straight. There is no shift towards a world in which the currently dominant majority will suddenly find it has the love that dares not speak its name. That’s not what this is about. More rights for everyone does not mean that the people with the most advantages have something taken away from them. 


Matters of Pride

Coming out isn’t something you get to do once. It’s something you may have to repeat, many times, always with some anxiety about how people will react to you. It doesn’t help that it’s the people who get close that you will most need to come out to. The people you need to have understand you, and who may be impacted by the way you are and the kinds of relationships you have. It’s high stakes and a lot to lose if they don’t turn out to be ok with who you are. But, how close can you be to someone if you have to hide significant parts of yourself?

I take great comfort in my queer friends, and my kinky friends, and the folk I know will not judge me or think less of me on account of who I am. The people I am close enough to that I can be honest with them about the other people I am close to.

I get off fairly lightly. There are far too many people in this world who are not free or safe to love the people they love. There are too many people who are not free or safe in expressing themselves sexually in consenting ways with other adults. The consequences of coming out, or worse still, being outed, can be dire. Sometimes fatal.

Many human cultures have stories about who is allowed to do what with whom, what is moral, what is evil, what is acceptable to various gods, what’s abhorrent. Those stories are based on value judgements and priorities, and some of those stories are cruel, and toxic. If it seems more appropriate to kill someone than to let them love who they love, something has gone badly wrong.

Love is good. Love is always good. No one should be afraid of loving whoever they are moved to love. Sex is a good, beautiful thing and anyone who wants to do that in any way that works for them should not have to be afraid of how other people will respond. That there are so many people who are more horrified by what consenting adults choose to do together than they are by rape does not say good things about us as a culture.


Contemplating Promiscuity

We’ve been taught that promiscuity is bad – especially for women. Men might be able to be dashing and exciting while putting it about, but anyone female-seeming who is sexually available and enthusiastic can find themselves slut shamed. They can find that if they are raped, people will say they were asking for it. Is there anything inherent to promiscuous behaviour that justifies this?

Obviously the more sexual partners you have, the higher the apparent risk of getting and spreading an std. However, unsafe sex in fairly committed relationships can also do that. People who aren’t sexually responsible don’t need to have a lot of partners to harm themselves or others by spreading disease. Only having a few partners does not guarantee your safety. Disease is not an inevitable consequence of promiscuity.

Promiscuous people might be seen as greedy, but so what if they are? Financial greed is killing the planet, sexual greediness actually won’t do that. The desire for pleasure isn’t harming anyone.

It’s not really the case that promiscuity will destroy society, even though that’s often the fear. Small family units are not the only way of having a stable society. The idea that small family units are the basis of society does a lot of harm to LGBTQ folk. It excludes anyone not breeding. There is a relationship between breeding and capitalism, and people who have sex for fun may not be busily making extra workers, or extra believers for your religion. The failure of people who have sex for fun – especially queer sex – to breed workers and believers is why capitalism and religion alike tend to frown on this.

Promiscuity is only a moral failing if you believe that monogamy is a moral virtue. There’s nothing inherent in either state that makes them good, unless you are obsessed with making ‘stable’ units for baby raising. See above. A promiscuous person can be honest, and honourable. They can enter into sex with clarity about their intentions and are not necessarily going to hurt anyone.

What promiscuity does, without a doubt is to undermine the idea that the goal of our lives, is a faithful one man one woman baby making unit. If there are people who seek sex for fun, no strings attached, it makes it harder to convince people that they should stay in unhappy and unsatisfying situations. Queer sex and acceptable promiscuity might have women questioning whether being units of production for capitalism and/or religion is really the point of their lives. Destroying the underpinnings of capitalism, patriarchy and religion would not actually destroy society, it would just requite us to cooperate with each other on different terms.

Sex is always about power. It’s about how much power your state has to dictate who you can have sex with and on what terms. There is power intrinsic to how much say your culture has over whether you are allowed to be comfortable with your own impulses. It shows us whether we live in freedom, or whether we live in the shadow of imaginary evils that have been pinned to activities that don’t actually hurt or harm people.

Promiscuity is morally neutral. So is monogamy, and polyamoury, and chastity and being non-sexual. These are not morally informed states of being, they’re just different ways of being in the world. The only moral bit in all of this is how we treat each other, and that includes whether we shame and hassle people for being different.


Mental Health Awareness

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week. One of the things I wish to make people particularly aware of, is that for many people, mental health problems are not some kind of tragic accident. There are people for whom wonky brain chemistry is to blame, but for many of us, mental health problems have causes.

Trauma causes mental health problems. This should be pretty obvious. Consider (or look up) the figures for domestic abuse, and sexual violence. Have a look at some of the definitions of borderline personality disorders and ask how those might relate to traumatic experience.

Work stress causes mental health problems. You can’t run people like machines and expect them not to break down. Inhuman work practices (Amazon, I am looking at you) destroy mental health.

Poverty causes mental health problems. Firstly because poverty and insecurity are immensely stressful. Secondly because if you are poor, you’ll have less access to resources that might help you. There will be no money for sport and fitness – activity often being recommended to help with mental health problems. You’re less likely to have a garden or to be able to access green space. Your poverty diet will undermine your physical and mental health. You may be socially isolated as a consequence of poverty. In societies that punish poverty, your self esteem and confidence will be harmed by the stigma of being poor.

If you are disabled, your long term condition may well also be undermining your mental health. Further, being physically disabled radically increases your chances of being in poverty, see above.

We have seat belts and safety rails, lifeguards, firemen, laws about smoking, workplace health and safety to reduce accidents. We take the protection of bodily wellbeing reasonably seriously. We don’t have the same attitude to mental health. We treat it like an individual problem, and not like something that could be damaged by the crimes and negligence of others.  We treat poverty as a personal failing, not a societal one.

Please be aware that mental health problems are not tragic accidents suffered by the unfortunate few. It’s not weakness, or lack of resilience. Unless we take stress and poverty seriously, we’re going to make ourselves ill. Until we deal with abuse in our societies, we will make people ill. When we shame people for being poor, we promote poor mental health.


All my relationships are queer

One of the biggest problems I have with hetronormative approaches, is what the assumption of ‘normal’ does to relationships. If you think relationships have a ‘normal’ shape there’s an awful lot you’re never going to talk about. However, if you are queer, polyamorous, kinky or otherwise complicated, you know you can’t afford to assume anything. You have to talk, and figure things out and negotiate. This makes for better relationships with fewer assumptions.

By ‘relationships’ I’m not just talking about sex, or romance. Part of what hetronormative thinking does is makes people focus too much on that in the first place.  It applies just the same to friendships and working relationships. I note that my queer friends are often the ones most willing to talk about how the friendship works, what we might expect from each other and where the edges need to be. By contrast, I’ve had far too many rounds of straight men who want to flirt but are totally resistant to talking about where the edges are. That never goes well.

For the person who thinks that relationships happen along a narrow selection of default lines, there are going to be issues. I’ve dealt with men who were sure that they could not be friends with women – and I’ve seen how badly that impacted on their romantic connections because they had no idea how to be friends with their lovers.

There’s a lot of diversity out there in terms of how people think, what they feel, and what they want. Most of us do not fit neatly into pre-designed relationship shapes. I suspect a lot of the chafing I’ve experienced trying to deal with heterosexual folk has had everything to do with them not fitting into their boxes either, but not being able to talk about it. If you think there’s a normal way of doing things, your own not fitting in that must be highly uncomfortable.

It starts so often when we are children. Who is allowed to be friends with whom? What games are you allowed to play? What sports are you taught? Schools can be a hotbed of reinforcing gender difference and encouraging people to divide up along gender lines. Many people will also grow up with clear messages at home about what their gender means for their interactions with other people. The rules about gender, normality and relationships tend to be absorbed unconsciously. Those of us who really don’t fit are more likely to notice that we don’t fit, and that’s greatly to our advantage.

Those of you who know me well may be wondering what happened and why this is on my mind. The way in which we negotiate relationships is on my mind because I recently had an involved conversation about a creative relationship. How committed is it? How faithful are we going to be to each other?  We’re both people who thrive on certain kinds of interaction so being too focused on each other would be stifling, but we do also both need the commitment, and that shape is going to require care and attention.

There are relationships you can’t have and can’t develop if it isn’t possible to talk about who you are, who they are, and how that might work out.


What if we celebrated more festivals?

Your typical mediaeval peasant got more time off than your average modern worker does. Mostly this was due to the number of holy days and festivals in the calendar. What would happen if we celebrated more holy days and festivals?

At the moment in the UK we get time off for Christmas, Easter and New Year, and we get a few secular bank holidays. Imagine having an extra day off every month and how much good that would do!

Imagine a shared calendar that acknowledged festivals from a range of faiths, not just Christianity. Most of us don’t celebrate Christmas and Easter as Christian sacred days – they tend to be about food and family get-togethers. Having more holy day holidays would not require anyone to show up for festivals outside their faith. (I can almost hear the wilfully angry frothing at the mouth as they announce that they are being forced to celebrate… )

It seems massively unfair to me that we only celebrate festivals from one faith group. It would be much more fun to have more of them. It would no doubt be lovely for people from other faiths to have one of their own festivals off work each year.

It might bring other benefits. It might encourage people to find out a little bit more about other cultures and religions. This would be a good antidote to racism, fear and prejudice. Getting a day off on the basis of someone else’s festival might encourage people to feel a bit more positive about other religions – who doesn’t like a holiday? Those who are determined to froth at the mouth would no doubt keep doing that, but you know they’d take the day off and roast an animal.

As a Pagan living within a Christian calendar, I’d rather enjoy having more diversity. It would also be feasible to have a Pagan festival in that mix. I suspect it would be Beltain because that already has a bank holiday associated with it in terms of timing.

At time of writing it is hard to imagine the UK changing in this way. However, change comes from people imagining it, and there’s a lot to be said for imagining unlikely things.

This blog post owes a lot to my son James, who did most of the speculating for me and was happy to have that made off with.