Category Archives: Community

Learning and criticism

The conventional wisdom is that to learn, you have to be open to robust criticism. I’ve been teaching various kinds of creative and spiritual things for a good twenty years now, and I’m increasingly convinced that the criticism approach doesn’t work that well.

What does work, is drawing people’s attention to their own successes. Tell someone what they do especially well, or what makes their work stand out. Tell them what you like about what they do, or where you can see progress. 

People who intend to learn and grow are often really harsh critics of their own work. They mostly don’t need other people to pick holes in it as well. If you’re in a position of being able to offer feedback, praising the stuff that works is really useful. It boosts and encourages the person, and you can learn a lot from hearing about what you are doing well. Criticism, on the other hand, can be demoralising, and if it doesn’t come with solid feedback about how to improve, it might not help a person in the slightest.

It is easier to rubbish someone than to lift them. It takes more skill and insight to feedback to a person about their strengths and very little insight to say ‘that’s crap’. Positive feedback boosts the other person, negative feedback does more to assert the authority and superiority of the person making the criticism. The idea that you have to be able to take harsh criticism to survive as a creative person can push out gentler and more sensitive people. 

The people who can take brutal criticism are often the ones who pay no attention to it. People not interested in learning from others or convinced that they have no need to develop can deal with harsh feedback by simply ignoring it. As a consequence, harsh criticism can mean selecting for people who ignore feedback at the expense of the people who genuinely wanted to learn and improve.

Unsolicited criticism can be really counterproductive, even when you’re in a teaching role. It can come across as asserting dominance and it can be more about the teacher’s ego than their being useful. Critical feedback is best given when it’s actually sought. If someone says ‘I’m not happy with this but I don’t know how to fix it’ that’s the time to come in and talk about what, technically can be improved on, and how. It’s also worth noting that if you don’t know how to improve something, you aren’t especially well qualified to comment on how good it is.

It’s also important when teaching or feeding back to recognise the difference between whether or not you like something and whether or not it is good. All too often, unsolicited harsh criticism is just people asserting that they don’t like a thing. Maybe it wasn’t made for you. It’s ok not to like a thing, but always worth thinking carefully about whether the person who created it needs to hear about that. Good critical feedback tells a person how to do a better job of the things they were doing. Useless feedback tells them that you wanted them to do something else. If you aren’t supporting a person to be themself, you aren’t supporting them at all.


Dances with Algorithms

Social media can be toxic for the individual user, and there’s a growing school of thought that some of it is harmful to society as a whole. However, social media is a significant percentage just people, and as people participating in it we get to contribute to how it all works.

I’ve spent many years doing social media professionally for various companies, organisations and individuals. This means I’ve spent a lot of time having to think about how various platforms work, and how to get people to engage. A lot of engagement tactics are unethical – clickbait, and more problematically, outrage bait. Make people feel something and you are more likely to get them to engage with you. Outrage is pretty easy to invoke and channel because when people feel it, they often don’t think calmly or clearly and become easier to manipulate.

Social media algorithms are informed by engagement and speed of engagement. That which gets a lot of reaction fast, travels and becomes more visible. So, if you don’t like something and you engage with it, you’re actually helping to move it around.

The internet is an attention hungry toddler and is best treated as such. It craves your attention because that’s how it makes advertising money. Attention hungry toddlers don’t care what it takes to get your attention, they just keep doing the thing that gets most reaction. If that’s you losing your shit, the toddler learns to wind you up. Sometimes, the most effective way to teach a toddler is by being boring and disinterested. Algorithms are the same.

If something makes you angry, don’t respond to it. Don’t comment on it, don’t argue with people on it, don’t share it to express your anger. Screenshots don’t send traffic or energy back to the source of the problem. If it’s bad enough to merit a report, a block or an unfriending, do that quickly and move on.

Facebook in particular will show you more of what it thinks you want to see. It judges this based on what you interact with, and what your friends interact with. If you spend a lot of time arguing with people, you’re going to see more content featuring the key words you were arguing with. Your social media experience thus becomes more angry and unhappy.

You have to teach the algorithm what it is you want to see. I mostly see adverts for cat related things and cute cat videos and a fair amount of queer news. I curate hard on sites I use, and I don’t stay friends with strangers whose posts make me cross. I don’t live in an echo chamber because I actively seek all kinds of information. I don’t make myself available to people who are going to make my life miserable. 

I’m active about sharing nice things, because I think we could all do with nice things. Sharing warmth and beauty is also political, and seriously radical, and all about the kind of world I want to live in. If I need to argue, I do so as gently and politely as I can, and if I am concerned I can’t stay gentle and polite I get the hell out. I leave likes and loves and hearts on things that cheer me, for the greater part. I do a bit of political critique sharing on Twitter, but I stay away from anything that is abusive or divisive.

Most days, my experience of social media is positive, cheerful and adds richness and delight to my life. No site has to be a hellspace, you just have to tame it and bend it to your will.

There are people who are nourished by your outrage, and who will starve for want of attention if we just ignore them. Don’t name them. Don’t engage. Undertake to be bored by what they do, and direct your energy towards what’s good and interesting instead.


Invisible disability

For many years now, people with chronic illness, mental health problems and other apparently ‘invisible’ disabilities have been campaigning to raise awareness. Recently, I’ve seen a shift away from explaining and towards questioning, and I realise it’s long overdue. Most illness isn’t visually self announcing, and the bigger issue is around what people individually, and society as a whole prefer to ignore.

I have read so many stories about people having their disabilities minimised and ignored by others. This happens a lot to younger folk who are dismissed as too young to be disabled. It happens so often around mental health – the minimising, the dismissal and denial.

“You don’t look like you’re in pain’ is the most common form this takes. This is because when you live with pain all the time, you learn how to not have that on your face. It’s a necessary social skill if you’re going to do anything other than scream all the time. I got most of the way to being ready to give birth with medical professionals not taking me seriously because I wasn’t exhibiting enough distress. This is not an unusual thing to have happen. 

The problem isn’t invisibility, it’s the ways in which people habitually read each other’s bodies and faces. It’s the refusal to accept that a person can both need a wheelchair and be capable of standing up. It’s hearing a person talk about how crippling their anxiety is and then just assuming they are being flakey when they don’t make it to your party. Undertaking not to notice or recognise a problem is not the same as it being really hard to notice.

It doesn’t help that representations of ill people in film and television are written by able people, for the greater part. This tends towards stories full of drama, heroism and/or tragedy. The grind of living long term with a limiting disability doesn’t feature much. Alongside this we have a government and media inclined to shame and blame ill people as scroungers who want something for nothing. Unless it affects you directly, these are likely your key points of reference for thinking about what other people experience.

I’m not that difficult to see. I carry a cushion when out because my circulation is poor and hard seats do terrible things to me. Getting out of seats is seldom a smooth or graceful thing for me. I can’t always get in and out of clothes without help – this can be entirely publicly visible with coats sometimes. I get tired far too easily and it impacts on my concentration. But I still get people responding with massive surprise when I explain how much should mobility I’ve lost, or that I really can’t handle a late night.

Illness isn’t always about obvious drama. Long term illness is something people tend to learn how to manage, but this doesn’t mean that anyone who appears to be managing doesn’t have a real problem. The issue is not really one of visibility at all, it has far more to do with what is noticed, taken seriously, respected and remembered.


Social identity and not fitting in

I’m trying to make sense of myself to figure out how to navigate life in ways that are more comfortable for me. In recent years, I’ve had quite a few people suggest to me that I might be autistic, and it’s something I’ve been looking at, because there are certainly areas of overlap.

I struggle with social situations. As a child I could see there were rules for interaction but had no idea what they were. As a teen I did a bit better in geek spaces, and favoured spaces where music or dance dominated, because these are things I can do. I’m fine if the structure is overt – as in a class or a folk club. I’m fine running a space because then I know who to be and what to do. Curiously, the social spaces I don’t find stressful are steampunk ones, and that may have given me the key to unlocking this, because at the same time, spaces dominated by straight women terrify me.

I have never known how to perform femininity. I wasn’t taught how to do it as a child, or given any of the usual props – no pretty shoes, no toys targeted at girls etc. My mother and grandmother did not perform femininity either so I didn’t learn it from my environment. All of the gender based aspects of social interaction made no sense to me as a child, but I also didn’t know that was something I was struggling with. I also wasn’t a tomboy, I didn’t have any idea how to perform ‘boy’ either. 

Many of the unspoken rules for social spaces involve gender performance. Those performances change over time for young humans, especially around how your gender is supposed to interact with the other gender. The child who cannot perform gender appears weird and incomprehensible to the children whose sense of self already has a strong gender identity wired in, and a strong binary sense of what gender means. I didn’t want the things little girls were supposed to want, or the things the little boys were supposed to want. I had missed all the gender stereotyping memos. I had no idea how to interact with anyone else.

Steampunk spaces are remarkably uninformed by gender. People wear what they like, enthuse about whatever they like, there’s not much social performance of gender, no expectation based on apparent gender. You might think with the dresses and corsets that there would be, but mostly, there isn’t. How I present socially actually works in a steampunk space.

I recognise and empathise with things autistic people say about navigating neurotypical spaces and the stress this causes. But I think for me the issue has been the way in which so much social interaction is underpinned by the expectation of, and performance of binary gender identities. I never understood what the rules might be, to be honest I still don’t really get how any of it works. I have no idea whether social interactions based on gender binaries are intrinsic for some people, or just constructs that they get along with – and perhaps it doesn’t matter. What I need for my own wellbeing are the spaces where gender performance isn’t a key part of social interaction, and if I’ve got that, I’m good.


Who do we sacrifice?

As a younger human, I was fairly hardcore when it came to rituals. I’d go, no matter the weather and no matter what sort of state I was in. Pain and fatigue are longstanding issues for me, and when I was younger I was more in the habit of just pushing through. 

It didn’t help that I absorbed a lot of fairly toxic notions around sacrifice within Druidry. I had a strong feeling that I needed to put the Druidry first, and that complaining about my body or stepping back when I wasn’t well, wasn’t ok. I’ve had heatstroke doing rituals. I’ve been problematically cold, which makes me hurt more. I’ve pushed through exhaustion. I’ve done rituals that left me emotionally burned out and unable to function for days afterwards.

It was worse during the period when I was leading rituals because I felt obliged to show up, to not let people down. This was all voluntary, all given in service, and I was working alongside it and had a young child.

A culture of service and sacrifice can really hurt you if you aren’t well to begin with. I look back at a lot of my early experiences of Druidry and I can see how the ableism was hard-wired in. I can see my own, internalised ableism, and I can see how I unwittingly perpetuated it.

A real community doesn’t break its members for the sake of a seasonal celebration. At this point in my life I am much more aware of the importance of not demanding more than people can safely give. I reject the idea that sacrifice is a spiritual good or a social good. I’m deeply in favour of compromise and negotiation, but when some people have to sacrifice themselves for the ‘good’ of the community, you will tend to find that it is those who have least who end up giving most. 

Sacrifice is often what we do when power and responsibility aren’t equally shared. When there is fairness, equality of sharing and ownership, we shoulder the hardships together. We bear the hard things together, those who can do most help those who most need help. We give, to each other, to the land, to what we hold sacred but we do not ask anyone to suffer. Community is fundamentally about taking care of each other and that means it has to be safe to say no. 

The demand for high levels of commitment in Pagan groups tends to be ableist. Either those who cannot commit are excluded, or they are pushed into harming themselves. It has to be ok to not show up when you aren’t well.

So, for the autumn equinox I ended up leading by example. I found I was too ill to run a ritual, and I cancelled it. At the moment I don’t have other people who could take over for me, but I will aim to develop those skills in others so that it doesn’t all depend on me.


Rethinking Romance

One of the many things that bothers me about hetronormative depictions of romance, is the way it’s all supposed to happen by magic. Great sex just happens spontaniously when two people who are attracted to each other get into bed. People are supposed to magically know what other people want in this and all other contexts. Failure to magically know what the other person wants is romance-fail.

At the same time we get repeatedly exposed to the idea that women are strange, incomprehensible creatures whose wants, feelings and needs can never make sense to a man. “What’s wrong,” he asks, in all innocence. “You should know,” she says, or maybe she tells him she’s fine.

Why do we hang on to this curious belief that not communicating is somehow romantic and that the proof of love is not needing to tell someone stuff? 

For kinksters, this just isn’t an option. You can’t assume anything about what the other person wants, you have to talk. If you’re queer, plural, trans, nonbinary, assexual, or doing anything else that falls outside the narrow scope of hetranormative romance, you can’t assume much and you have to talk. This is such a blessing and an advantage. It’s one of those rare areas of concern where being cis and straight really doesn’t give you privilege, it gives you a monstrous weight of toxic cultural baggage.

Good relationships depend on communication. If you go in expecting other people to be different from you, then you’re going to be more open to finding out who they are and how they want to do things. The assumption of similarity is a barrier to talking. There have been enough cis-het people in my life for me to be confident that most people are complicated. To feel obliged to play along with social stereotypes is to have unmet, unspeakable needs. I think a lot of apparently normal people experience a lot of feelings of loneliness, isolation, maybe even freakishness because they aren’t really as normal as they think they should be.

I’m not convinced ‘normal’ is even a real thing. I think it’s just a social construct to keep us tame and limited. It’s much more romantic to talk. It’s sexy to communicate. Relationships based on exchange are much more interesting than ones based on fear and assumption.


Love is not difficult

People are not hard to love. Children especially are really easy to love and in many ways we are biologically programmed to respond warmly to children. Humans find round faces with big eyes cute and appealing and this isn’t any sort of accident. Or at least, many of us do.

I’ve never met a person whose woundedness made them unloveable. I’ve never met someone who was too badly hurt to be worth caring for. Some of the people I love can be hard work, because of what they’ve been through and how difficult it is for them to trust, or open up, or accept help. There are quite a lot of people on this list, and they aren’t hard to love, they just don’t always know how to let anyone do that. 

Along the way I’ve also met the people who complain about how difficult other people are. How difficult I am. People who have told me I am hard to love, or too difficult in other ways. These were often people who wanted things from me – my love,  my work, my energy, my support… but were very clear about why it wasn’t reasonable of me to expect anything in return.

It took me a long time to stop thinking that the problem was me. 

The issue isn’t about whether a person is hard to love, the issue is more often about whether you are able to be open hearted. What is hard to love is coldness, selfishness and disinterest. I hit my limit when it comes to deliberate cruelty as a sport. I can stay in for people who do dysfunctional things because they are hurt and not handling it well. I can love people who find it necessary to test me, although that can be complicated and it isn’t ideal. 

If someone tells you that you are hard to love, consider that they have just confessed something important about their own insufficiencies. Ask them who they think it would be easy to love, if you’re feeling equal to challenging them. Deliberate cruelty is the only trait worth outright rejecting a person for. Anything else is just the messy consequence of being alive and dealing with the shit that brings. A person can be messy, complicated, challenging and difficult and still not actually be hard to love, because love is a very natural response between people who are involved in each other’s lives.

Love is also not the same thing as having the skills or resources to properly support someone who is struggling. You can love someone without being able to help them. You can love someone and need your own boundaries for your own reasons. The person who tells you that you are hard to love has some serious issues, and you may not be able to help them with that. If you love the person who cannot love you, don’t be persuaded that the problem in this is you, because it probably isn’t.


Helping your depressed friend

Most days I see someone on social media encouraging their depressed friends to ask for help. Would that it were that simple! There are reasons depressed people don’t seek help that have everything to do with the nature of depression. Depressed people don’t generally ask for help.

Asking for help can lead to pressures to do the things the other person wants you to do. It can result in being told to take up yoga, pay for therapy, get on anti-depressants right now… as though you’ve never considered doing anything that might help. If the depressed person’s reasons for not doing something are ignored, or rubbished, that’s not helpful. If pressure is applied to seem happier so that the person you asked for help can feel validated and helpful… you don’t ask for help. Go a few rounds with such responses and you stop risking being put through all of that.

Depression can make it hard to think, and hard to make choices. Rather than telling your depressed friend to ask for help, try offering them specific forms of help and then helping on the terms they would find helpful.

Offer to listen. Be very clear whether your friend needs someone to hear them or if they actually want advice. If you have first hand experience of depression  you may well have useful insights, but if you’ve not been through it yourself it is better to assume that you don’t know anything useful about how to deal with the depression itself. Unsolicited advice based on assumptions is the opposite of helpful.

Look for the practical things. Does your depressed friend need a hand with the housework? Could you pick up some shopping for them or cook them a meal? Depression can make it very hard to do the things that would take care of yourself. Stepping in to do simple, practical things can make a lot of difference. You don’t need to do emotional heavy lifting to help someone who is depressed. Helping them overcome the problems depression causes can be worth a lot more.

Can you do something to lift their spirits? Can you do it while being ok with however they seem? If you can take someone out for the day or do something nice for them without needing that to instantly magically fix them, then get in there. Don’t offer if you’re going to get cross when your one intervention doesn’t instantly fix everything. 

Often what seems to happen is that well people offering help mostly want to make themselves feel more comfortable. This may sound harsh, but I’ve seen it too many times. The people who get angry when you explain why their magic solution wouldn’t work for you. The people who get angry when you don’t want to go on antidepressants, or take whatever wonder-substance they think you should take… this is not about making the depressed person better. It is about the comfort of the person who wants to be seen as a saviour.

If you’re offering anyone help, think long and hard about what kind of help you can really offer and how you think that will play out. If it’s all about you, centre stage as the marvellous hero, then you might do your depressed friend more good by just leaving them be.


Invisible Prejudice

Often what makes prejudice invisible is that people who are not affected by it don’t want to see it. Truly, it is impressive what can be invisible for people who don’t want to look. If you’re ever tempted to tell someone you don’t think their problem is real because you’ve never seen any evidence of it, consider how little that really proves. People who refuse to see what is inconvenient to them are part of the problem.

As a Druid, working for justice means that you have to be able to recognise injustice. To recognise it, you have to listen to people whose experiences differ from your own. This may make you uncomfortable. It is ok to be uncomfortable and it is often key to how we learn to do better. That we cannot see something is not proof that it does not exist. When we don’t recognise a problem it is all too easy to become complicit in continuing it.

If you find you are getting things wrong, it is vitally important not to double down. Recognise the mistake, own it, apologise and do better. Never try to justify or excuse your prejudice when it has been exposed. Never try to minimise the impact of what you’ve got wrong and don’t suggest anyone is overreacting if you’ve upset someone in this way. Take any distress you cause seriously. Don’t blame the people you have made uncomfortable. Don’t prioritise defending yourself. Sometimes such situations can turn out to be complex or more nuanced for all sorts of reasons, but the above still holds – whatever else you may need to do, never double down on the things you were wrong about.

Your discomfort at getting things wrong does not make you a victim. Being called out for prejudice, and asked to do better, does not make you a victim. Being called to account does not constitute a witch hunt. 

We all make mistakes. We’re all informed by the cultures we grew up in. We all need to learn and we all have more work to do educating ourselves about the challenges other people face and the way in which prejudice has been normalised and made invisible to us. No one is going to get everything perfectly right all of the time. The important thing is to do better, to try, to listen, to read, to care. Doubling down on mistakes and poor judgements only increases the misery it causes, and makes the person doing it look like an insensitive ass. 

There have been some serious issues with the UK publishing industry recently. Publishing house Picador has been slow to recognise its mistakes. The doubling down in some quarters has been hideous to behold, and the racist abuse this has caused has been inexcusable.


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.