Category Archives: Philosophy

Human rights are not negotiable

First they came for the Communists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me

And there was no one left

To speak out for me.

Pastor Martin Neimoller

The problem is that all too often people don’t act until they can see the chain of implications that leads to them. They won’t act until the threat to them is immediate and obvious. Some of us – because we’ve learned from history, and we’re anxious and we know we are marginal in some way – see how one thing is likely to lead to another. Some of us looked at the attacks on trans rights and knew that this would be the opening move leading to wider and deeper attacks on the LGBTQ community as a whole. Some of us looked at the way in which attacks on trans folk were being framed in terms of biological essentialism, and could see the dangerous implications for all women.

But it shouldn’t be about that. Supporting each other’s human rights should not be dependent on being able to see how our own human rights might be specifically threatened in the future. Human rights have to be universal – question that and the whole thing becomes unstable. If anyone is placed outside the embrace of human rights, then anyone can be dehumanised. Human rights only work as a concept if everyone has them, and they are not considered negotiable. The rights of people to live peacefully on their own terms should not be overruled by the entitlement of people who have a problem with that. Either we all have human rights, or none of us do.


Druidry and Asking Questions

For many people, Druidry is as much a philosophical path as a spiritual one. I’m all for asking questions, and for pondering things, but I think it’s also important to ask questions about the questions.

How much time should we spend on questions that we know cannot be answered? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? There are questions you can kick round forever and never answer. You might argue bitterly with people who disagree, thus adding to the total sum of misery in the world. 

Philosophy doesn’t have to be abstract. There’s no need for it to be irrelevant. One of the best and most powerful questions we can ask is the one favoured by small children – why? Why are things the way they are? Why did this happen? Sometimes it helps to carry on and wonder what it means, but not always. The quest for an abstract or spiritual meaning can be a distraction sometimes. The important question might not be ‘why did I see a thrush today, what does it mean?’ but ‘why do I not see thrushes every day?’

It’s always good to ask if things are inevitable or not. We get so used to our own human structures that we collectively take them for truths and realities. Countries are just ideas, as are currencies. The five day working week, nine to five is just an idea, it’s not our natural destiny as people. Who we include and who we exclude, what we allow and what we deny, what and who we treat as important, what and who we throw away… there are so many questions to ask.

Whatever improvements you want to make in the world, part of the process involves convincing people – yourself included – that change is possible. People can only imagine change is possible when they aren’t persuaded that the current state of things is inevitable and natural.


Crafting a Fine Death

Some years ago, I ended up writing a hundred fictional obituaries for living people, as part of a kickstarter. It made me think a great deal about what a good death is, and how that relates to our lives.

I decided as a teen that I would rather regret my actions than my inaction. I’ve lived much of my life with an awareness of what I might regret if I was to be suddenly on my deathbed, and it means that most of the time I could leave easily. I don’t have much unfinished business – and where I do, I’ve already reconciled myself to it. I have chased my dreams and followed my heart enough not to be dissatisfied with this life. I have not put off the things that mattered to me. 

I tell the people I love that I love them. When I mess up, I do my best to deal with it quickly. The things I have not dealt with were things that did not turn out to matter all that much.

Ideally, I’d like to die doing something heroic. In practice, this body just isn’t capable of much heroism, and my best shot would be to put myself between another living being and a terrible threat. I’ve reconciled myself to that. I would prefer to die with some dignity, but given this body, that may be an optimistic thought and I may have to accept it not being like that.

I’m not afraid of dying. At this point I’m not especially afraid of suffering. I don’t want to spend years being useless, but I’m pretty good at finding ways to adapt to limitations so I shall imagine that I’ll keep going with something that contributes to the world. My ultimate vision of a perfect death is to have my body eaten by wildlife. I would like air burial. I would like my bones to be turned into musical instruments.

A good death is certainly a thing to aspire to. Many of us won’t get any kind of vote on the circumstances of our passing. However, a life lived well is a meaningful way to frame your death. A life lived well means that people can celebrate you when you leave, rather than feeling awful about you. I aspire to living a life that means, even if I die tomorrow, people who knew me can feel good about what I did while I was here.

(With thanks to Karen for the excellent prompt.)


Signs you might be a goblin

You are wearing all of your favourite clothes and you don’t care if they ‘match’.

There are some really good rocks and/or stick in your pocket.

You talk to snails.

You have polished the teapot because you love shiny things, but there is something living under your sink.

You like wearing wellies. 

Mending things just gives them more character.

There will be no dusting because the spiders are your friends.

Dungarees. Possibly with wellies. Maybe put a tutu skirt over the top.

Stripey!

You get excited about toadstools.

You get excited about pretty things, and shiny things and unexpected things and things that make noises in the night. You get excited.

I’m seeing mainstream media trying to define ‘goblin mode’ or ‘goblin core’ as being a slob and not really caring about things and not making an effort. I don’t think that is it at all. I think being a goblin is about having an entirely different value system from the mainstream and a different set of aesthetic preferences. 

The photo is of me at The Goblin Masquerade, in my frog wellies. Many people had put a lot of thought and effort into how they were going to be goblins.


Being Powerless

I’ve been thinking a lot about power lately, and my own relationship with it. So, what happens when you are powerless? What do we do in face of things we have no means of changing? When do we let go and accept defeat?

I tend to be the sort of person who will bang their head against a brick wall until it breaks me – metaphorically speaking. I hate giving up. I will try everything I can imagine – and I can imagine a lot – before I’ll accept that there’s nothing I can do. Arguably, if you’re still fighting, you aren’t defeated. There’s a case to be made. But as I got older and wearier, my appetite for tilting at windmills isn’t what it used to be. I’m trying to pick my fights, and to be more realistic about when and how I might be wasting what energy I have. Sometimes it probably makes more sense to admit defeat. 

How much power we have can depends a lot on how much power we’re allowed to have. Perhaps the most depressing and frustrating form of powerlessness involves not being able to use the power you could have. Not being allowed to fix things, or solve problems or deal with a situation. This can take many forms. It can be about how we do things in this family and the impossibility of challenging that. It can be about workplace culture. Some people won’t let you fix things if that’s going to make them look bad – it may be preferable to them to pretend that the problem is impossible to solve.

Some people are afraid of change to the degree that improving things is too intimidating. Some people have been so messed about, hurt and let down in the past that they have no way of trusting what’s on offer. If you don’t believe in yourself, help from someone else can look doomed to fail. There are people who won’t accept help because they are too invested in the idea of doing things all by themselves, even if that’s utterly unrealistic. Not a lot can be done about any of this.

However, people can change. Situations change. What may be impossible to sort out this week might shift into something else entirely next week. I’m trying to hold the idea that admitting defeat is not a permanent state of being, it’s a decision about a situation, and that decision can be changed if the situation changes. I don’t need to bang my head against a brick wall to prove that I care about what’s going on. Wearing myself out trying to fix the currently unfixable isn’t a good or clever thing to be doing and I need a more measured approach. I need to be ok with being powerless.


How long should we live?

We need to be ok with the fact that humans die. It’s a key part of being alive and there is a point at which trying to delay death becomes cruel, painful and unjustifiable. 

I’m very much in favour of preventing disease, preventing accidents and enabling people to live peacefully and well. I’d like to see far more investment in both research and education to support health and wellbeing. 

I feel strongly that anyone who is alive should have the right to a decent amount of life in as good a state of health as possible. In reality, your quality of life and healthcare will most likely have everything to do with your economic wealth. So when we’re talking about interventions that ‘save’ lives we’re often talking about extending the lives of privileged people who already have better than average life expectancies. Unhoused people have far lower life expectancies than housed people in the same societies but this seldom comes up around conversations about saving lives.

I don’t have any definitive answers here, not least because I think what’s really needed is to ask questions. We need to each ask ourselves about the lives and deaths we want for ourselves and for other people. 

How long do we expect to live? For much of human history, life expectancy was about thirty.

What conditions are we prepared to live in? We may not know the answer to that until we get into difficulty, but we should keep asking anyway.

Why do we treat some lives as disposable, yet are willing to go to great lengths to keep other people alive for as long as possible?

In what circumstances would we consider death a kindness?

How do we feel about life before death? How do we consider or contribute to quality of life for those around us and those we impact on?


What is Patriarchy?

I talk about it a lot, but have never had a serious pop at defining what the term means to me, so here we go. 

Patriarchy is about systems, not about individual people. It’s about beliefs, attitudes, social structures, habits of behaviour and the like. Almost everyone living in a patriarchal system is a victim of this system – very few people actually benefit from it. Patriarchy hurts most men just as much as it hurts most women, and all gender-non-conforming people.

Patriarchy is a system based on power. It assumes that hierarchy and authority are always good and necessary. Where it gets especially problematic is that it assumes certain people are naturally supposed to have dominance over other kinds of people. That men are superior to women has been one of its hallmark notions. White supremacy over other races is part of this world view. Rich people are better than poor people, is another. Giving people power and authority based on merit is reasonable, giving it on the assumption that they should have power is as dysfunctional as it is prejudiced.

In a patriarchal system, hierarchies are enforced by threat, violence and fear. We’re not taught why something is right, we’re taught that certain behaviour will result in us suffering. It shows most clearly in how we treat vulnerable people, and especially children. Patriarchal systems demand obedience and unquestioning loyalty. Alongside this such systems glorify war and seek to replicate military structures in other areas of life.

Patriarchy is competitive. You’re supposed to fight other people for a place in the sun. Manufactured scarcity contributes to it – capitalism is patriarchal. However, patriarchal systems deny the existence of unfair advantage and the way in which every competition is already biassed in favour of those already in positions of wealth and power. 

In a patriarchal system, all relationships are based on fear, control, ownership, power imbalance and the desire to get ahead. There’s no room for gentler emotions – which are treated as both weak and feminine. The patriarchal male is supposed to cut off all feelings to concentrate on competing with other men for money, influence and power. 

At heart, a patriarchal system is one that depends on inequality in order to function. There have to be winners and losers and there have to be people at the bottom of the social pile for whom life will be hellish. Fear of becoming one of those people is a key tool for keeping people engaged in perpetrating the system. Hope of becoming a winner is also a motivator, but that’s never a realistic option for most people.

If you don’t believe that might is right, it looks like a pretty grim way to live.


The myth of normality

Many humans are very attached to the ideas that ‘normal people’ exist and that they personally count as normal people. It’s why so many people get upset and angry when faced with any language that defines them as other than normal. The very existence of language to define people who are other than normal can seem threatening to some, and they tend to push back against it and demand to know why we need all these terms.

The short answer is that if the language is normal/abnormal that means a lot of us are labeled as being wrong. The idea that there are normal people and other people is toxic in so many ways. It enables bullying, promotes misconceptions, reduces compassion… and so we need language that addresses this more effectively.

At the same time, I think the idea of normal – and the assumed attractiveness of it – could use some scrutiny.

Diversity is a good evolutionary strategy. The more samey a species is, the less resilient it’s going to be to change. One of the things that has got humans to where we are now is that we are varied and adaptable. Our diversity is a strength and it’s about time we started treating it as such. Variety creates interest and opportunity. If we were all ‘normal’ we’d be much more predictable and would soon be bored witless by each other. Difference feeds creativity and innovation, it opens us to different perspectives and ideas.

There are some rewards for fitting in neatly, being a good little cog in the machine and not attracting attention in any way. There are advantages to having people who just want to live how they are told to live, want to do what they are told to do and for whom conformity is comfortable. The desire to be normal is painfully easy to exploit. The people who exploit it are the ones who consider themselves to be better and entitled to more than average. One of the things our traditional ideas of normality supports is the idea that there are a small number of people – be they kings or billionaires – who deserve more than normal people get, and who should be allowed to control the lives of the normal people.

The idea of normality plugs us neatly into feudal systems and capitalism alike. The desire to be normal can have us suppressing parts of who we are, or afraid about the aspects of ourselves that might make us different. Clinging to normality, we can feel threatened by anything that undermines the idea that normal exists and naturally dominates. All those genders and different ways of thinking and being… must be wrong if normality is normal.

It seems to me that what we mean by normal is often bland, unoriginal, unthinking, uncreative, easily led and increasingly persuaded to fear and hate others. It’s a construct, more often than not, and one designed to control us. When we have room for diversity and difference, we don’t have to be afraid of ourselves and we’re not so readily persuaded to be afraid of other people. Ideas of normality can feed unkindness and don’t reliably bring out the best in people. We’re kinder when we’re not so hung up on what’s normal and what isn’t. We’re kinder to each other, and kinder to ourselves.


Learning and Punishment

When young children get things wrong, it is because they don’t know better. The younger the child, the more obvious this should be. They may not grasp the cause and effect issues. They may have been curious, or bored – both of which are innocent conditions. If a small child messes up, they need educating, not punishing. 

At some point, a person becomes capable of malice and deliberate cruelty. But what if we saw this primarily as an education problem, not a reason for punishment? I have no qualms about the idea of using short, sharp interventions to reduce the amount of harm or danger in a situation, (better you do something unpleasant than they tease the dog until it bites them, for example) but on the whole, what is punishing a child really about?

Are we punishing them for not having understood why something was important? Should it be their responsibility if they haven’t grasped why something matters?

Punishment has more to do with asserting authority and teaching obedience than it has to do with helping a person learn, grow and do better. Children will tend to respond to arbitrary authority either by increasing their resistance to it, or by hiding better. Punishment leads to fear and/or resentment. A child who has ‘learned’ to behave through punishment is likely to have learned about what to hide to survive, but they won’t necessarily think there’s any other value in what they’ve learned.

I think much the same is true of adults. Punishment does not discourage people from committing crime. Education and opportunity are far more effective on this score. If people don’t understand their rights and responsibilities, locking them up won’t fix that. Punishment doesn’t restore anything to the victim, either. It doesn’t actually achieve much for anyone and it has a high financial and social cost. What punishment does allow, be that at home or in a society, is for some people to have power over other people. Punishment has much more to do with the assertion of power and the reinforcing of hierarchies than it does with solving problems or fixing behaviour.

Punishment teaches that the person with the most power in a situation can dish out punishment on their own terms. The person with the least power is the person it will be easiest to punish. The rich and powerful are often very good at avoiding punishment, while any crime punishable by a fine was only ever intended to hurt poor people. What punishment leads to is the understanding that having power is more important than being right, or good. This does nothing to tackle crimes motivated by desperation. It also fuels the kind of crime that is driven by the desire to have power over others.


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?