Category Archives: Philosophy

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?


Not everything can be fixed

Small things can be fixed. Small injuries can heal perfectly. Small injustices can be put behind us. Not everything can be healed. There are wounds that come to define us, experiences that shape who we are, illnesses that don’t go away and griefs that cannot, honourably be ‘got over’.

There is a big industry around the idea of perfect wellness. There’s a lot of toxic positivity out there that will tell you it’s not ok to be carrying something, or defined by your wounds, or still grieving. Not everything can be fixed, and it’s important to push back against the toxic positivity.

The idea of perfection can be a barrier to doing whatever healing might be possible. It’s better to learn how to carry grief. If all you hear is a message about getting over it, you might not be able to find the tools that allow you to move forwards, with your grief. Some losses define us. Some losses are too big and too important to ever let go of or move on from. But it is possible to make peace with the grief you are going to carry.

It’s much the same with the kind of illness that won’t heal. There is peace to be made. Compromises can be found, adjustments made. Sometimes it’s about learning how to make the best of the situation you’re now in. The notion of total healing can be a massive distraction from doing the things that would actually help.

It is better to put down the idea that everything should be fixed. It’s not a helpful idea. It can burden us with a quest for solutions that aren’t out there, or leave us feeling inadequate. Genuine healing can be much more about adapting and managing. Being able to cope is a good place to be. Doing the best yolu can with what you’ve got is the only measure of success worth caring about. Getting the hep you need to continue on your own terms is so much more valuable than being held to impossible standards of wholeness.

Some things can only be lived with. Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably trying to sell you some expensive bullshit intervention, or is simply in denial about their own potential fragility. 


The considered life

It’s good to pause and take stock. Ask yourself what you are doing, and why. How much is unavoidable? How much just seems unavoidable because you haven’t had time to stop and rethink it? Making the space to stop and examine your life every so often is a really good thing to do.

It’s so easy to become trapped in things because they seem normal. Everyone else is doing it… but on closer examination it may become apparent that you don’t have to do it, it isn’t obligatory. We get trapped in our own habits and routines, and whatever seems most normal can be hard to even  notice. How do we use our time? What are we doing with our lives? How many hours are lost to the mobile phone, to the commute, to things that give no joy and serve little purpose…?

Sometimes what traps us is systemic. It’s illness and poverty and the rules of our governments and unfair and prejudiced systems. It’s important to be able to see those things, to know what you have little power over, and what might be sorely limiting the people around you.

I don’t believe we can all manifest whatever we want. I don’t believe we can all suddenly turn our lives around to make them perfect. Grand leaps of faith into happier ways of living are only really possible for the person with no responsibilities, and a safety net made of money. Following your dream is easier if you have the cash to fund your dream. 

Even so, there may be changes to make. There may be small wins to go after. And yes, sometimes it does feel a lot like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. But, why not? If the ship is going to sink anyway, why not have the best seating you can while you can. Why not have some goodness and some hope wherever you can find it. That doesn’t mean compromising your future for the sake of a few short term kicks, but it also doesn’t mean compromising the present moment when there’s no real reason to think doing so will improve your future expectations.

A considered life always has more options in it than one where we are just going through the motions.


Identifying Privilege

One of the trickiest things about squaring up to your own privilege is that the very nature of the thing makes it hard to spot in the first place. Privilege is the stuff we assume is normal and take for granted and don’t realise other people might not have. Many of us won’t see ourselves as privileged because we see all too well the ways in which we are struggling.

Recently I discovered just how much toilet privilege I normally have, and this was an eye opener. A couple of health issues combined to make it hard to get on and off the loo. Managing your own continence is such a basic thing, so easy to take for granted and not notice. But for many people, that’s not a temporary problem, that’s daily life. Those of us who can use the loo independently and with little trouble won’t see that as privilege because it just seems normal. Most of it works this way, give or take.

However, having more privilege does not mean any kind of increase in the ability to spot it. Those who have most seem to take for granted their level of wealth and comfort. The idea that what we have is fair, deserved and appropriate becomes really problematic when we’re talking about people who have far more than their fair share. Rather than see themselves as advantaged, the richest amongst us seem to see those who have least as failing in some way and personally at fault for their circumstances.

The more you have, the harder it may be to empathise with anyone who has less. People who have experienced hardships and losses of the things they might otherwise take for granted at least have some basis for understanding what others may be going through.

We have people with such extreme wealth that they could personally fund the solving of the world’s biggest problems. They could end hunger and homelessness and sort out climate chaos. I find it hard to imagine that a person could have that level of privilege and fail to see it.

For most of us, an exploration of privilege is going to mean thinking about things we take for granted that other people don’t automatically have. It’s a useful subject to explore, especially on your own and when there isn’t someone who is suffering and being obliged to educate you. Any setback is an opportunity to think about what life is like for someone who is stuck with those issues all the time.

Ideally, the process of understanding privilege is about finding ways to give more to those who have less. For most of us, it’s not going to be about reducing our own privilege, but seeing how we can extend those same privileges to others. There comes a point however, where a person has so much wealth and privilege that what they’ve accumulated is actively harming others. Rather than celebrating extreme wealth, we need to start challenging it, and recognising that there have to be limits to how much privilege a person should have.


Snow White and other problems

Content warning – consent issues.

Recently there was a controversy over a Disney ride including a depiction of the non-consenting kiss at the end of Snow White. I’ve watched this with interest. I note that for people who are ok with it, the notion of love and romance is key. That he kisses her to save her life, that the kiss is ok because she wakes up and isn’t horrified.

As an aside, the prince kisses Snow White when he thinks she is dead, and having never known her as  a living person. I prefer versions that change these details. Yes, it’s very normal to kiss your dead loved one, less so to kiss a corpse when you’ve never spoken to the living person.

It’s romantic because he is young and good looking and she isn’t horrified. What would happen to this story if the kiss came from an older, less desirable person? I have a suspicion that if our prince wasn’t an attractive young white guy, the interpretations of romance would be undermined for some people. Through this story, we teach children that being kissed by a stranger is ok, in the right context. We suggest that love follows violation – and this is a theme that comes up far too often in stories that purport to be romance. Girls who fall in love with their kidnappers and abusers are on my list of stories I think we’d be better off without. There are still places in the world where children are made to marry the men who rape them.

So much hangs on the idea that the whole setup is ok because Snow White falls in love with the Prince. But, we’re not talking about a real, autonomous person here. We’re talking about a fictional character, and it worries me how often that’s ignored. She doesn’t have autonomy, she isn’t choosing, this isn’t true love. It’s a story suggesting that a certain pattern of actions are ok. I see this other places too – male comics artists defending highly sexualised depictions of women on the grounds that the female characters are expressing themselves. It’s empowering, apparently, for a fictional woman to wear highly sexualised clothes and pose a lot in positions that draw attention to her sexual qualities. As though these were real women able to make real choices on their own terms, and not the creations of men.

Just because something is old, doesn’t make it right, or good, or useful. It’s also important to remember with fairy tales that these aren’t fixed. There are versions of Rapunzel where the young lady falls pregnant before her boyfriend is discovered. There are pregnant versions of Sleeping Beauty, with all that implies. I prefer the Snow White story when it’s handled as a 15, what with the eating of hearts, the attempted murder and the implied necrophilia. And I’m not convinced we really need to tell children stories about how women might want to kill other women in order to be considered the prettiest one.

It may be tempting to think that the story is ok because yay, the kiss brings her back to life! But once again I point out that this isn’t a real person, this is a story, in which a person has been put in a pretty unlikely situation precisely so that the tale can have this sort of ending. No real people get to live because of this non-consenting kiss, but quite a lot of real people seem to have been persuaded that non-consent is fine, in the right circumstances. It might be fun to imagine being kissed to life and wakefulness by a beautiful stranger… but what if they aren’t the gender you find attractive? What if they aren’t beautiful? What if you don’t open your eyes and fall instantly in love with them? It doesn’t take much for the dream to look like a nightmare.


The Performance of Beauty

Last year at Stroud Theatre Festival I saw a woman perform beauty. It was in the context of a one woman play in which that one woman was playing many different roles. The character she started out with was quite dowdy. I watched her create an impression of beauty and glamour with just a few minor costume tweaks. The rest was all body language and attitude. Part of me remains convinced that it was also witchcraft.

That a person could be captivating, charming and irresistible because they have chosen to present themselves that way, is a thought I have wrangled with rather a lot. Having seen the contrast between the dowdy character and the glamorous one, I have to concede that appearance might be a very small part of what we register as beauty. It also suggests that beauty is not an inherent quality some people have. It’s not something you have to starve yourself for, or buy expensive clothes for. It’s a way of being in the world.

Advertisers invest a lot of time and money in persuading us that we aren’t beautiful unless we have their products. Most of us never get to feel good enough as we are. We don’t imagine that a presentation shift – even If aided by a few modest props – could be the key. I’ve seen it done.

To perform beauty is to deliberately draw attention to yourself, to your body, your face, your presence as a sexual entity, the possibilities of you. We can be persuaded to admire the people who present themselves as worthy of admiration – I’ve seen it done on a few occasions by people who were, to my eye at least, not especially beautiful. But then, what I find beautiful in a person has everything to do with kindness, soulfulness, and the bodily quality I most reliably find beauty in, is the voice.

I’ve never set out to do beauty as a performance. I can’t really imagine doing it. Where I’ve seen people doing it effectively, I’ve often felt uncomfortable with it. I acknowledge that envy is part of that, but I also have a deep unease about using that kind of glamour to entrance people. I’m not at all sure I like how that works or where it goes. I’d like to think that if I believed I could perform beauty in that way, I wouldn’t do it. Mostly it seems to be about getting attention, and I’d rather get attention for making something beautiful – be that my clothing, or my song, my stories or my dance.

I’m increasingly persuaded that beauty is created by what we do and has precious little to do with appearance. Sometimes it means performing in-line with other people’s expectations about beauty, and that tends to be the territory that makes me most uneasy, because currently the performance of beauty is so often about women performing for the male gaze, which is narrow, and restrictive.


Resilience and Efficiency

Efficiency tends to make people think of saving money and doing the most for least. The trouble with supposedly ‘efficient’ systems is they don’t have any slack in them, so as soon as there’s a problem or a setback, there’s trouble.

In workplaces this can mean having to work overtime if something goes wrong with a project or someone is ill. In healthcare it means not having the beds or staff to deal with something out of the ordinary. Like a pandemic. In education it can mean things like teachers not having the time to comfortably adapt to changes – as we’ve seen in the last year. In the short term, this kind of efficiency can seem cost effective. As soon as circumstances change, it doesn’t work and the cost can be high.

Resilience means being able to adapt. It means being able to afford to take time off when you’re ill, and not having to work people to exhaustion to make up the gap. Resilient approaches are also kinder, gentler ways of working. It assumes you should have options and scope for flexibility and that maybe short term profit isn’t always the most important thing. Assuming you’ll need the option to cope is a good idea, rather than just demanding more from people in times of difficulty.

Efficiency can also result in the normalising of crisis. You set something up so that it is running at capacity. You know perfectly well that things never run smoothly all the time, so the whole approach assumes that the answer it to pile on more pressure in times of difficulty. Once things become difficult, crisis becomes normal because there’s really no room for recovery or getting back on top of things This leads to people always having to work overtime, feeling constantly pressured to skip breaks,  and other such toxic things. Quality of life is undermined by work systems that are designed in this way. What is put forward as efficient can often turn out to be exploitative.

Other kinds of efficient systems require people to work like machines, operating at rates that leave no time for being sociable, or thinking about anything, or anything else human. We shouldn’t be asking people to work like machines – and in the long run this also breaks people, which isn’t efficient for us as a society. It certainly isn’t resilient, either.

The idea of resilience may be a good way to counter toxic narratives around efficiency. Resilience suggests pragmatism. If people aren’t prepared to treat other people kindly, they might be prepared to consider that resilience is a better strategy than short term efficiency.


What if we worked less?

The idea of four day working weeks is something many people have considered, and some businesses have even tried. How different would our lives be if we could afford to only work four days a week? What would change for us? How would we be impacted by other people working less?

Larger businesses can undoubtedly afford to pay workers the same money for four day weeks, and take on more workers to fill the gap. This would improve employment rates. In any sizeable business, there are management people and shareholders making a profit out of the work being done. A bit less money for them and a bit more investment in the people doing the work would make this possible. What evidence there is from people trying four day weeks is that you get a more motivated, healthier and more productive workforce, so it’s not really much of a sacrifice for the would-be profit makers.

I’m self employed so there’s no company that could treat me better than it does. But, if more people had more time off, I would benefit. More books would be read and more people would have energy to invest in leisure, which would probably improve my situation in turn.

More time off means having the scope to do more than just rest, recover and sort out your domestic stuff. More time off means more opportunity to enrich your life. What would you do with that extra day? You might study, or volunteer. You might invest more time in your physical health, or develop hobbies and skills that enrich your life. You’d have more time to meditate, contemplate, get outside, maybe grow your own food. Perhaps some of the less sustainable things you have to do out of time poverty could be changed.

How much of your life is currently organised around being time poor and tired from work? How much time do you even get to think about how you are living day to day? What would change if the people around you had more spare time? What would become available, emotionally and socially that isn’t possible at the moment? Who would you spend more time with?

What would it do to the economy if there was far more employment available, and people also had far more time to enjoy themselves? How would our spending choices change? What would happen to our towns, our communal spaces, and our green spaces if we had more time to use and appreciate them?

Poverty is stressful. Open up more working options, and many people would be in a far better state psychologically. Overwork has long been identified as a source of mental health problems. Stress and exhaustion make us sick, and exacerbate any illnesses we have. How much more well would we all be with a four day working week?

How would education change if a four day week was normal? How much more flexible could we make it, how many more options might people of all ages have around opportunities to learn and develop?

Asking what if we worked less also means considering some fundamental questions about what our lives are for and who they should benefit. Having more time for ourselves would make our lives much more about our own happiness and wellbeing, and that would be a truly radical shift.


Why we need to take celebrities seriously

It’s easy to dismiss celebrity culture as trivial and irrelevant, the new opium of the masses and beneath anyone who is invested in being spiritual. However, I recommend taking them seriously because celebrities are symptoms of our culture and also inform it. If we don’t engage with that, there are consequences.

How do we think about mental health and how do we support people who are suicidal? If a high profile person is dismissed as attention seeking, what does that do to all the regular people who see that happening? If you are suicidal, and you see people you might have turned to talking about how attention seeking this celebrity is… will you feel able to talk about your own struggles?

There’s a high profile couple out there with some serious domestic violence issues. Who do you believe and who do you dismiss? How does this impact on the family member who is dealing with increasing violence at home? Are you making it easy for them to ask you for help, or are you saying things about celebrities that might distress them into silence?

It’s not just what we say ourselves, either, it’s what we allow to go unchallenged. It’s every time we don’t say something to the friends who express white privilege in face of a racist book. It’s every time we don’t say anything about an article objectifying and sexualising a high profile woman.

And yes, it’s relentless and yes its exhausting feeling like you have to talk about everything that goes wrong, and no, you wouldn’t keep up with it even if it was your full time job to try. But you can still try, and show up where you can, and be alert to the ways in which celebrity culture impacts on wider culture.

Celebrity culture is culture. It shapes what people think is normal and acceptable. It holds a mirror up to us collectively and tells us what we think is ok. Even if you don’t think it impacts on you, it probably does through the small drips of information you can’t avoid if you are online. It’s so easy to end up thinking ah yes, another vacuous airhead selling her body to get media attention – because slut shaming is so normal, because women who don’t play the right games around appearance don’t get the same opportunities, because we assume that being sexual and being clever aren’t compatible in a woman. If you can’t do anything about celebrity culture anywhere else, keep an eye on what happens in your own mind when these figures go by, and check on what you’ve been taught to think about them.

Watch out especially for the things you are persuaded that someone deserves because of how they have been presented by the media, and how they function as a commodity in our consumer society. We really shouldn’t be consuming people in the first place, it’s not healthy.


Do your own research!

There’s nothing like someone telling you to do your own research to flag up that they don’t understand science. Or research. Or the internet. Research is something that takes time, evidence and scrutiny. It might be fairer to say ‘educate yourself’ if you’re trying to challenge someone – that’s often the response of weary activists faced with people who want stuff explaining to them. ‘Educate yourself’ is a good idea. ‘Do your own research’ is usually the expression of someone who is buying into drivel.

It is true that historically, people doing the cutting edge thinking were often reviled by their peers. You can find it in many different disciplines. However, there has been some learning from all of this – which is why we have peer review, why results are tested, why we question assumptions as much as we can. It is not the case that being a lone maverick, rejected by the wider community means that you must be right.

It doesn’t help that conspiracies certainly do exist – and in our recent history that’s meant covering up the harmful impact of sugar, smoking, and fossil fuels amongst other things. It is always worth asking who benefits, and where the money goes. Science, research and thinking all exist within a market economy and so much depends on what you can sell, and for how much, and who thinks it might be worth funding.

If you want to educate yourself, here are some things I can recommend.  Be wary of anyone making very confident claims about ‘facts’ – this is not the language of science and research. More cautious sites are more plausible. ‘The evidence suggests’ is the tone to look for. Ideally, any site offering you conclusions about research will offer links to the studies it refers to. They might be beyond your reading capacity, but often will have a summery that a non-expert (like me) can make some sense of.

It’s also worth checking out ‘experts’ by sticking their names in search engines. An actual expert will likely have a publishing record, and a bunch of people who agree and disagree with them, and you can quickly get a sense of how they are perceived. It is easy to announce that you are a professor at a leading university – I could tell you that I am. I’d be lying, and you could easily find that out, but only if you looked. If my argument was the one you wanted to hear, you might not feel like you had to check out my credentials.

We’re likely to be more persuaded by theories that fit our existing beliefs, and likely to reject ideas that don’t sit well in all of that. Pushing past that is hard. If you want to be on top of an issue, it might not mean you have to listen to all sides of the ‘argument’ especially if some of that is coming from unqualified people, based on misinterpretation or wilfully misleading. There aren’t always two real sides to a thing. Asserting that there should be a debate is not proof that there should be a debate. It is possible to be open minded, and able to change your mind, without having to be swayed by every ill-formed opinion. If you find you need to form an opinion on something important, don’t ‘do your research’, educate yourself about what’s going on.