Category Archives: Philosophy

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.


Druidry and Justice

“And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it” is one of the lines from the Gorsedd prayer. Justice is very much a consideration for modern Druids. Unfortunately, righteous indignation and attention seeking along with other ego-orientated activities are all very tempting and can make performing as a giver of justice addictive. Real justice – restorative justice that actually makes things better – takes time and work. Using your power to attack someone else is easy, satisfying and unhelpful.

Justice is often complicated and requires taking the time to understand what’s happening. It’s easy to tell people off for appropriation, it takes a bit more time and effort to find out whether you are talking to people engaged in a living tradition that is part of their own culture. It’s all too easy to centre yourself and end up speaking over the people you are supposedly speaking for. This can result in misrepresentation, in hiding what the real problems are, and in creating bad feeling. People who feel we have to ban Christmas things so as not to offend minorities largely contribute to the prejudice against minorities, for example.

I recall one justice-preaching Druid a few years back who was blithely explaining that accessibility is all about building design, it’s not about problems in the bodies of disabled people. Except, if pain and fatigue are your main issues, you won’t make it to the building, or the late starting meeting. For some disabled people, what happens in their bodies is limiting and no amount of refitting a building will change that. Speaking over disabled people with an inaccurate story is really unhelpful.

There’s nothing like righteous anger to make a person feel powerful and important, and I’ve seen Druids doing their justice on these terms and it isn’t pretty. Standing up to someone, calling them out, telling them off – it can feel really powerful doing this. But, did you have more power than them all along? Did you come in on the right side? One of the most popular tricks abusers and bullies pull is to play the victim and enlist people to help them attack the person they have been mistreating. There is no justice if you are misled into helping a bully torment their victim.

Justice requires us to take the time, to listen and to understand. Start by policing your own behaviour. Look at your own words and deeds first. If you’re going to call people out, make sure you know what’s going on – don’t call out indigenous people for following their own paths. Don’t assume you can tell who someone is by looking – mixed race people exist and you won’t know who they are from a casual glance at a profile picture.

If something makes you angry, don’t act in the heat of that anger on a ‘justice’ crusade because the odds of getting it wrong are high. Take the time to reflect. Look at the situation properly. Think about what would be most helpful. So yes, call out your racist family members – you know what their background is. But be careful calling out people you don’t know when you also don’t know what’s going on. It is better to amplify the voices of people who are disempowered – it is a good and useful thing to do, and won’t mean you perpetuate misunderstandings. Listen, lift people, make space for them, encourage other people to listen. And if someone invites you to join a crusade against a person, look carefully at the evidence and the existing balances of power. Tread carefully.

If you care about justice, it has to come second to any desires you might have to feel powerful, or important or to put yourself centre stage.


What is a child?

What we think a child is will inform how we treat them, how we teach them, and relate to them. What we think children are, and what we think childhood means is intrinsically wrapped up with what we think humans are.

There are those who see all children as innocent, and those for whom children are monstrous little barbarians who have to be humanised and civilized. Here the science is fairly clear. Children by nature have a pretty good sense of fair play (sorry, no links, but this stuff isn’t hard to find).  It appears that the more selfish and unpleasant behaviours are the learned ones, not the innate ones.

However, if we believe children are uncivilized monsters by nature, what we have to do to ‘break them in’ and tame them becomes an issue. This doesn’t tend to go with gentle, child-centred learning. It does tend to go with colonial mindsets and beliefs that ‘uncivilized’ people are inferior.

When it comes to education, it’s been popular to think that children are blank slates, or empty vessels and that filling the child with ideas is the job of the educator. This isn’t supported by the available evidence – children absorb impressions and ideas from the moment of arrival in the world and by the time they get to school they definitely aren’t empty vessels. They learn naturally through messing about and exploration – something the entire western approach to education ignores in favour of making them sit still and learn to do as they are told.

One of the most pernicious stories about childhood is that children do not know what they want or need and must have adults make those decisions for them. A child who is allowed to develop and hold opinions will have no trouble doing so. A child who is never allowed to learn through their own mistakes or evolve personal preferences won’t know how to do that. It’s not about what children are capable of, in this area, it’s about what they are allowed.

Do we think children need to be punished for mistakes, or educated to do better? Do we raise them to be questioning free thinkers, or do we want them to be quiet and obedient? Do we consider them capable of genuine malice? Do we look at their behaviour and ask where they have learned it? Do we think they should be sitting down quietly or do we think they belong outside? Do we assume they will automatically be natural in nature, or might they need some guidance?

It is so easy to project personal values and assumptions onto children. They aren’t well placed to resist. They are malleable and informed by their environments, so what adults decide is true and real for them can be imposed and made real, often. Treat a child like a monster, and you may well end up with a monster. Or a child who is anxious and can’t function properly. Treat a child like they can’t think for themselves and they won’t learn how to and you’ll get teenagers who cannot function. Treat a child like they can do things and they will – there’s a great deal of evidence from indigenous peoples around this one.

A child is not an empty thing waiting to be filled or shaped by adults. When we treat them like people, they have a much better time of it.


Seeing the future

One of the best tests of any information source is how well it predicts the future. This might seem obvious when thinking about divination, but it applies to all forms of knowledge. I think this is highly relevant at the moment as we have so many beliefs and opinions dominating conversations. I remember when the idea of the UK leaving the Single Market and Kent becoming a lorry park were labelled ‘project fear’ only now that seems to be happening…

Predicting the future is of course a tricksy business, and the future is full of surprises. No one really predicted this virus malarkey. However, the international vulnerability to a pandemic was known – the way we travel, the lack of joined up thinking between countries and the way we invade wild spaces where new diseases are lurking, were all known factors suggesting a particular trajectory.

The thing to watch for is how close your knowledge gets you to being able to make useful predictions. If your knowledge source doesn’t take you in roughly the right direction, what you’ve got isn’t knowledge, it’s a belief, an opinion, a fantasy. When you’re really invested in something that doesn’t match up with reality, putting it down can be really hard.

When it comes to prayer, and magic there may be other factors to consider. Are you getting what you asked for, or are you getting what you need? What time frames are you working on? Do you need more practice? In fact that practice question is pertinent across all areas – if you’re trying to study the world in a rational way to predict what will happen, that also requires skills and knowledge and it may take you time to get it right. Knowing where to push to make the changes you want is a big part of getting anything done, and that might not be apparent at first.

There’s a lot to be said for cross-referencing between different kinds of knowledge. Intuition certainly isn’t an irrational source – we take in far more information than we can consciously process, so what rises up from intuition can be a consequence of processing information. The trick is telling between intuition, wishful thinking and fear. Here again the cross referencing helps because information from other sources can clarify which is which, and over time you can build a  better sense of what is emotional reaction and what is processed information.

Misguided beliefs and opinions don’t allow us to make good predictions. The longer we hold on to  them, the more distorted our relationship with reality becomes. That means having to create ever more complicated stories to explain why what we ‘know’ and perceived reality aren’t matching up. That way lies madness. However unsettling it is to put down a belief, it can be far better to do so than to build layer upon layer of cognitive dissonance. There should be no shame in making mistakes or trying things that don’t work – the important bit is knowing when to give up on an experiment in light of the evidence it generates.


A good death

She was old, her time had certainly come. She died at home, quietly and in her own time, in the company of people who loved her. It was a good death. We did well.

I don’t think we talk enough about good deaths. We’re quick to offer condolences when people die, but we don’t congratulate them on having done a good job for their families, and loved ones, and I think we should. I’ve started doing it.

That’s led me to thinking a lot about what constitutes a good death. First and foremost it is the freedom to die on your own terms. That often means getting to do so at home and with the people you love. Not always though – best not to assume. When we’re talking about death, we should talk about whether people got to die in a manner that they would have found acceptable. It’s a good thing to ask – that you hope they had a good death on their own terms.

When a person gets to die is obviously a big issue. When accident and illness takes someone who is too young, it can be hard to accept that as a good death. It may in fact be a bloody awful death and need identifying on those terms. Not all deaths are good. To honour the good deaths we must also acknowledge the terrible ones. To suffer greatly, to experience humiliation to be undignified and denied what you want at the end of your life is to have a really bad death. To go suddenly but to leave well has some redeeming features.

What we’ve done in our lives to that point, no matter how old we are, will frame our deaths. To live well is a significant contributor to having a good death. To have lived fully, to have loved and done good things with whatever time you had, to have been loved, to have had rich experiences – no matter when you go, with this kind of life, you can die well.

She was nineteen, which is old for a cat. Some cats like to go off and hide, but she didn’t, she was very clear about wanting us with her. As she started to fade in the morning she was still calling out to us for fuss and responding to being stroked and cuddled. We stayed with her, taking it in turns to sit with her on our laps. James sang her the many songs he has mangled to turn into cat praise songs. She faded gently, and was in no pain so far as we could tell, for most of that process. When death came, it was quick and she was on Tom’s lap.

It’s the best we could have done for her. Tiggy had a happy 2 years with us, and a good death. We will all miss her greatly, but there is nothing to regret in all of this.


What is love?

It might be more obvious to talk about love in terms of emotion, but it’s a subject I think benefits from a more philosophical approach. What is love? A body chemistry event that gives us the desire to seek pleasure with another person. The chemical bonding effect that enables us to parent small children. It is easy to reduce love to evolutionary functions.

We tell stories in which love is rare and scarce and you are supposed to only really love the one person, forever. We can choose to love. We can choose who and what to invest in emotionally – people, places, creatures, ideas, objects… there are no limits on how diversely we can love or how much we can love. There are limits on the time we have to deploy, but that’s all.

Love as a feeling can just evaporate, especially if we treat it as something that happens by magic. When love is what we choose to do, it doesn’t mysteriously go away, because we do things that sustain it. The everyday choice to love brings feelings of love to a person in a way that they have a lot of control over.

The stories we tell about love tend to focus on events and drama. In practice, love has far more to do with the small, everyday choices. It’s what we do in our lives. It’s how we approach other people, or places, or beings. Love is taking your litter home and picking up someone else’s. Love is what we have when we take care of each other and make a point of being kind to each other. Love is the decision to invest time, care and energy somewhere – and that can include ourselves. There’s certainly nothing wrong with including our own bodies, lives and feelings in how we take care and put kindness into the world.

You don’t have to be able to love yourself to love others – that’s a lie that kicks people who are already down. But, one of the things you can do for the sake of love is model how you want people to live, and not beating yourself up can be a gift you give to others. If people care about you, then taking care of yourself is an act of kindness to them. When we make networks and communities of kindness and mutual support, we hold each other, lift each other and help each other.

Love in moments of drama can seem intense and important. Without the day to day stuff, it is more fantasy than reality.