Category Archives: Philosophy

Stealing the language of distress

If kindness is part of who you are, then the last thing you’d want to do is add to someone’s suffering. But, how do we tell between people who really are in trouble, and people who steal the language of distress for other reasons? It’s a really hard call to make.

I have no doubt there are people who permit themselves to be fragile rather than face down their problems. I can’t easily tell by looking who has real issues, and who isn’t prepared to deal with the grit and shit of life and shoulder their share of responsibility. Not at the first glance, although over time it gets more obvious.

People dealing with real issues will have things they can’t deal with because body and/or mind just can’t, but otherwise will tend to do the best they can with what they’ve got. People with genuine issues often hate being seen as victims (but not always). People who have survived massive doses of crap tend to have courage, determination and backbone – at least some of the time.

If someone is obviously financially secure, and obviously more well than not, and educated and resourced then I may be a little less inclined to see fragility as something to respond to with care and support. I am especially wary of people who use the word ‘triggered’ when they mean discomforted, and people who talk about being bullied when I can see what happened didn’t have that shape. Being told no, is not automatically bullying. Being disagreed with is not necessarily bullying. People with a lot of privilege who get entitlement issues when told they can’t have things their way, can be quick to claim victimhood, and to use the language of disempowerment to try and get their own way. It’s important to take a long, hard look at how much power people have.

One of the things I will do is help people get stuff done. The person who can make use of that help and use it to get stuff done, I will keep helping. The person who wants me to do things for them – and we’re talking things they clearly could do for themselves – I am not going to indulge.

It is hard for victims to talk about bullying and abuse. It is hard for people with mental health problems to talk about vulnerabilities and triggers. It can be really difficult for people with bodily health issues and physical limitations to flag up what they need. Privacy, and dignity are big factors here. For the person who just wants to have it all done for them, privacy and dignity aren’t issues in the same way. However, by using the language of triggering and disempowerment, what these people do is make it that bit harder for people with real problems to get taken seriously. That makes me cross.

There are also people who take this language and use it deliberately to further disempower those who are already in trouble. Take the ‘all lives matter’ response to ‘black lives matter’ as a case in point here.  Take the people (I‘ve met some) who can say without irony that they think middle class white boys are the most prejudiced against group there is. Take the Christians who see any kind of equality for other faiths and people as an attack on their rights and freedoms. Take the man who is fighting for the right for a grown man to walk into a comics store and not be forced to buy a copy of Squirrel Girl (he was on twitter).

There are no easy answers here. Precise use of language goes a long way. If we let people who are basically fine take over the words needed for talking about large and serious problems, then we shut down whole areas of conversation. And when we do that, we keep power in the hands of those who had it all along, and keep silencing people who need to be heard.

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Zen stories

Mindfulness as a practice mostly turns up these days stripped of its context. While it is possible to make something work out of context, I can’t help but feel uneasy about this. I’ve long had a gut feeling that mindfulness, and the Zen Buddhist tradition it comes from are not for me. Some of that is underpinned by how I understand Buddhism in relation to the world. For me it’s always seems like a path of transcendence, where the idea is to overcome the world, move beyond and above to free yourself. As a Pagan, I consider myself of this world, and I have no desire to transcend it.

This summer I read The Spirit of Zen, by Solala Towler, and reviewed it for Spiral Nature. You can read the review here – http://www.spiralnature.com/reviews/spirit-of-zen-towler/

I learned more about the history of Zen in the introduction to this book that I’ve ever picked up from the casual New Age mindfulness material out there. It did not change my opinion that Zen would not be a good addition to my Pagan world view.

The Spirit of Zen is for the greater part a collection of Zen stories, or koans. These are fascinating. I think in the west we’re used to the idea that teaching stories come with their message writ large and easy to spot. Christian parables do not make you work to figure out what you should learn from the story. Koans, by contrast, are not easy to understand. The meanings are obscure, not self announcing. What they say loud and clear to the casual reader is that you need to spend years working with these tales to come to your own understanding. As many of the tales feature teacher/student scenarios, the casual reader can see that right understandings exist, and that the whole point is to work for them.

Mindfulness is part of the Zen process. So are the koans. I expect there are other things too that as a casual observer, I’ve not picked up on. This is a path towards enlightenment, one that must be worked hard for and yet at the same time cannot be attained by working hard at it. Here there are clear overlaps with Taoism, and at the points of overlap I almost felt I knew what was going on. However, there was a violence in these stories that I found unsettling, and did not understand, and do not know how to respond to. As this is not my path, I’m ok with that, but it makes me wonder about how we bandy Zen about in western thinking and whether we’d still do that if we’d all read the story about the monk who kills a cat to make a point to his students which as far as I can make out, the students don’t actually get.

The question is, what happens when you take part of a process and use it in a way it was not intended for? Clearly it isn’t going to work in the same way that being part of the true process would. How much power does an activity lose if taken out of context? How much meaning does it have? How much is the breadth and history of a tradition important to following it, in whole or in part? How much can you ignore and still say you are doing the things? Modern Christians cherry-pick all the time from their traditions and their sacred text. To some degree this is both necessary and normal, but to what degree?

I don’t have any answers here, but I think the questions are important.


Working with the system

Most of the systems that countries depend on rely on our engaging with them. The police are a good case in point here. There are generally not enough police in most countries to apply law by force, and if people don’t consent to be policed, they stop being effective. People who consider the police to be fair and reasonable will consent to being policed. When people think their police are corrupt, unjust and unreasonable, they won’t cooperate.

The same can be said of tax systems, border control, customs and excise duties, benefits systems and so forth. Give people a fair system and the vast majority of people will deal fairly with it, will self-report fairly, and so forth. Give people a corrupt or unfair system, and many more people will be inclined, or obliged to try and cheat it.

If the system appears to be unfair, cheating it can feel like justice. If you can’t trust the system to treat you fairly, there’s no incentive to cooperate with it and every reason to try and fudge things so that you get what you need. Why should I pay my tiny amount of taxes (this is a rhetorical question) when big companies who owe millions, don’t?

However, it’s noticeable at the moment than many systems in the UK are skewed towards trying to catch out what had been a tiny minority of cheats, and do so at the expense of fairness to the majority. By this means, many more people are moved towards not co-operating, and as a consequence the whole thing becomes ever more corrupt. Our benefits system pushes people to the edge and over it all the time. Survival depends on playing the system, taking cash in hand work, and for some people, theft. Given the beliefs and attitudes of our current government, a punishment-orientated, ever less fair system is likely to result from this.

Treat people as though they are good, decent and likely to do the right thing, and the vast majority of us will. Treat people as though they are suspect, make it hard for them to sort out what they need, and you give them little choice but to cheat you in order to get by.


Being Female

For months now I’ve been seeing a lot of posts online that express the simple thought ‘Trans Women are women’ and a smaller number of more complex posts that take issue with the idea. It’s not a conversation I’ve waded into, because my own position has me feeling that I am in no way able to speak for anyone else in this, and my own body/gender identity issues leave me short of language.

From a certain perspective I’m a cis-gendered woman in that I live presenting as a woman with a body that has bled, made a baby, and made milk. I don’t feel any sense of femininity on the inside, but I don’t feel anything else clearly enough to justify trying to make my body look like some other gender either.

It strikes me as an irony that for the feminists who consider being born with obvious female genitals the only way to be female, I count. My body counts for me.

There are plenty of people who appear female who were born with ambiguous genitals. There are women who, for a whole host of reasons, cannot carry children, do not even have wombs or ovaries, cannot produce milk, do not develop breasts or hips to any great degree. There’s a lot of variety in the apparently female form and its ability to conform to gender stereotypes. So at what point does one woman get to say to another ‘you are not biologically female enough for me to feel comfortable with you identifying as a woman’? Can we talk about the erasure of women who are not a neat match for biologically narrow perceptions of what women are ‘supposed’ to be? Ironically, by focusing on penises, there’s a strand of feminism that is treating as non-existent a whole array of female experience.

When you get down to it, who is allowed to say that someone is or is not something, is a big and loaded political issue. Now, this to my mind is where it gets interesting, because part of the issue here is the idea that people who are born men and have male bodies are able to then use their privilege to dictate what does and does not count as female. That’s a real issue, isn’t it? Having someone else tell you who is allowed to be female and what it means to be female. But, this is with us all the time in so many forms.

Because of the way I’m wired, I can’t help but suspect that a big part of gender is a social construct. Let’s pause to consider how ideas of femininity are constructed by the media, the film industry, the fashion industry, the cosmetics industry, the porn industry, and so forth. Last time I checked, these were all fields with significant male influence, if not male domination, constructing femininity for the male gaze. Massive pressures to look and dress in certain ways come down to us from these large, powerful forces that really haven’t woken up to gender equality at all. The female body is something they can exploit for cash, simply.

Imagine a world where women were not under constant pressure to conform to ‘beauty’ norms. Imagine a world where most of the women you see on the screen were not speaking the words put into their mouths by men to conform to outmoded ideas about what women are. Imagine pornography made by women for women if you want to go really radical.

Of course trans women don’t always ‘pass’ they don’t always fit easily into the female gender stereotype as constructed (I think) by historical male preference. Too tall, too hairy, too muscular. I’m tall, hairy and muscular. I can’t help but think that the gender stereotype might be what’s wrong here. I also want to ask who a person is being feminine for, whose permission and acceptance they need to present as they want to. How much do we need our gender identities affirmed by those around us, how much power do we give them? How much is gender identity just a question of what you’ve got in your pants, and if you were in a car accident and what was in your pants no longer looked the same, would your gender identity change?

I wonder sometimes if the main reason I can’t identify with my body identity is that femininity is too narrow a social construct. So for entirely selfish reasons, I’m interested in broadening the definition of what female is, on the off-chance it turns out there is space for me after all.


The Tao of Earthsea

I started reading about Taoism somewhere in my early teens. I don’t remember exactly when, but I do remember the powerful sense of familiarity. I hit it again when reading my first version of the Tao Te Ching: I knew this stuff already, on a deep level, and could not explain it.

Recently I’ve re-read the first four of Ursula Le Guinn’s five Earthsea books. I first read them when much younger – I was in single figures when I started with The Tombs of Atuan, which isn’t the first book in the series. I’d never read anything like it.

On this read, it struck me how much the wizard Ged talks about doing and being, doing nothing, and the duties of the king in regards to his people. I recognised whole speeches as being reflections of the Tao Te Ching. Of course there is an Ursula Le Guinn Tao Te Ching, which I’ve got, and in it she talks about having read, re-read and lived with the core Taoist text for many years.

It was a potent reminder for me of the way in which fiction, things we delve into only to amuse ourselves, can have profound impact. Whether you wonder about the underlying philosophy of a book or not, you still let it in. We are shaped by our environments, and there’s nothing in us that is designed to respond to our psychological and emotional experience of arts and entertainments any differently from lived experience. When we pick what to watch, or read, or play, we pick our environments and those environments have the power to turn our genes on and off.

I stay away from torture porn films. I do my best not to look for too long at images of real life horror offered by the media. I’ve got room in my life for erotica, but not for pornography. I’ve never read any of the Game of Thrones books, nor watched any of it. Often I’m going by age rating and other people’s reviews, and a gut feeling about what I don’t want to have inside my head informing my body about what it needs to deal with the environment I live in.


Reblog – floating

Not so long ago I suggested people could flag up posts to re-blog, and I’ve had this lovely suggestion to share a post on – Evie Patterson’s  Floating from A Light In The Mist. As it’s a blogspot site, I can only emulate the reblog function, so I’ll give you the first couple of paragraphs as sample, and then the link across. Enjoy!

Floating

It’s amazing what a release of strain it can be to move with the undercurrent of life. Not being swept away by it, not being tossed in opposition to it, but genuinely moving with it.

This is not to say the undercurrent holds only hues of negativity. Strain can follow in the wake of the positive just as well, but often people can become so caught up in the sense of difference from the more easily recognizable negative that they cling to it. Though a relief, this mental and emotional intoxication can also blind and numb the perception of reality that may be necessary for the placement of the next sure step.

The positive and the negative should be able to move in and out of life with the same ease as inhaling and then exhaling. Like breath, these moments are necessary to move forward, to think, to feel, to live. However, if you held onto any of these beyond their necessary purpose, like holding a breath, it can become toxic.

Who needs strong and stable?

‘Strong’ is one of those words that can have many meanings. It can of course be a good thing, especially when we’re talking about physical capabilities. The strength to endure, to survive, to continue – that can be good too. Although in some circumstances, if strength isn’t tempered with wisdom, it can become pigheaded stupidity. All too often I’m seeing the media use ‘strong’ to mean uncompromising, unwilling to negotiate, dictatorial, domineering. These are not the qualities of a great leader, these are the qualities of a tyrant.

Strong can mean strong enough to hear the counterargument and to take onboard the flaws in your plan. When we’re talking about strength, we need to consider the difference between brittle, hard strength and a softer, more flexible strength. That which can bend a bit does not break so easily, and not breaking is certainly a form of strength.

Strong can become a way of saying unmoveable. It can be a cover for stasis, for a lack of ideas and an absence of innovation. If strong just stands there being big and solid, it may not be able to grow, adapt and change in ways that are necessary for the circumstances. Flexible and adapting can turn out to be a lot more enduring than merely ‘strong’.

Like strength, stability can also imply immobility and lack of the means to bend and transform when necessary. Balanced can be a good thing, but balance isn’t always what’s needed. Stability can all too easily stay still when all around it is moving in chaos, but it may miss the sudden leap of progress, becoming stuck and irrelevant.

I’ve seen others point out on social media that there are connotations in ‘strong and stable’ that have a lot to say about how we value the weak, the vulnerable, the unstable. The Tory government so keen on the strong and stable line, has been increasing the risk of death for those among us who are not strong, and not so stable. To pinpoint these two ways of being as the best virtues is a bit sinister when viewed that way. It’s also a very narrow way of being. Soundbites are not good models for existence. Strength needs to know when to yield, when to allow humbleness and vulnerability into the mix. Stability needs to know when to get out of its rut and make serious changes.

We live in changing, uncertain times. I for one am not looking for strong and stable leaders. I’m looking for wise, flexible, innovative leaders who won’t be afraid to change direction in face of new evidence or circumstance. I’m looking for people with more than hollow soundbites to offer, and people who are willing to dig deep and think hard about what might be needed from them.


Atheists, God and asking the wrong questions

Not all atheists, obviously – but too many – obsess over God. They ask religious people what their proof for God is, the religious people invariably reply that they are happy with their personal proof that God(s) exists. The atheist says this evidence is inadequate. No one is changed as a result of this exchange, in fact it may serve to entrench people in their positions.

As a Maybeist I find myself well placed to annoy deists and atheists in equal measure. As someone whose primary spiritual focus is finding inspiration sacred, I don’t fit the assumptions many atheists and deists have about what belief even means.

My personal belief is that I couldn’t care less who anyone does or does not worship, or why. I am in no place to judge what they get out of it, although I remain concerned about the devaluing of women in many of the world religions, attitudes to LGBTQ folk, and attitudes towards the wellbeing of the planet – sexism, racism and ecocide are just as likely to come from believers as non believers, I suspect. However, these are all things that can be dealt with by considering the words and deeds of the (non)believer, with no reference to any external agency.

We need to hold each other responsible for what we do, and do not do as a consequence of our beliefs, politics and prejudices. At the same time, we could also try respecting each other for the good things we may be inspired to do by our various beliefs.

I, for example, find the atheist habit of making it all about proving the existence of God both boring and at best useless. It distracts from the issue of discussing what people do and holding people to account. On the other hand, I celebrate atheists who’ve stopped with this pointless game and are asking much more interesting questions about the role of religion, the political power of religion, the things people do with religions that need examining. I have huge respect for Alain de Botton, author of Religion for Atheists.

We should be asking about the financial power of religions, about the prejudice religion can fuel. No religion should consider itself above the law or not obliged to hold up the rights and dignities of all humans. When we’re demanding proof of other people’s Gods, no matter how we frame it, we take attention away from what humans do in the name of their God – and those responses are diverse. Not all Muslims are terrorists. Not all Christians hate LGBTQ folk. Not all Satanists are evil – in fact from what I’ve seen, many are excellent examples of humanity when you look at what they actually do. It pays to ask better questions.


Hoarding and Gifting

We live in a culture where wealth is expressed through hoarding, and through the ownership of prestige things – big houses, yachts, aeroplanes etc. However, this is not the only way to express wealth and power. Many of our Pagan ancestors were much more into the idea of showing off your wealth by ostentatiously giving it away. The underlying psychology of the two positions is fascinating.

Hoarding is what you do when you fear scarcity. You create a big pile to sit on, so that you, and you alone can benefit if things get tough. Hoarding is the response to an unfair, unkind world that will turn on you and take away your good fortune. The pile is never big enough to let the hoarder feel truly safe.

Gifting assumes that you have the power to generate more resources. You can give away everything, because there will be scope to make new. It assumes your own prowess is equal to whatever the future throws at you and comes from a place of optimism and confidence.

There are things about both stances that create feedback loops. If you hoard, then you will generate jealousy and resentment in those around you. Your bigger pile may increase their feelings of scarcity. Hoards invite theft, and in an every man for himself scenario, people won’t help if things go awry. The gifting approach by contrast creates loyalty and support. These are the people who will cheerfully go on the next raid with you, plant the next season’s crops for you, pull out all the stops in an emergency because when times are good, you share it around. When it’s their turn to be the one who can give ostentatiously, the odds are that they will. And thus the person who can gift well and reliably has every reason to expect help when they float some crazy new project out there.

Hoarding takes resources out of use. Gifting keeps them moving towards where they are needed. Hoarding leaves the hoarder fearing the jealousy and theft of others. Gifting lets the gifter feel bountiful and in control.


Questioning free speech

Too often over the last year I’ve seen ‘free speech’ used to silence argument. Most problematically, those of us who defend human rights are told we have to be inclusive and tolerant of hate speech, or we aren’t really tolerant at all and the left is one big hypocritical lie. Or we’re told that by being inclusive we’re supporting Muslim fundamentalists, as though there is no scope for nuance in any of this.

“I may not like what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

Now, when it comes down to ‘like’ I’m fine with this. I don’t need to like anyone else’s ideas or agree with them. You may favour a different actor to play Batman. You may hate a book I loved, support a different political party, etc etc. But there is a line, and on the other side of that line is speech that isn’t ok. Not matters of taste and preference, but talk aimed to destroy the rights, freedoms and lives of people. You don’t like gay porn? Fine, by all means say so and don’t watch it. You don’t like gay people? I find that weird and prejudiced, but there we go. I won’t like you, and we’re still at the ‘like’ level. You announce that gay people should be punished for being gay? We now have an issue over your ‘right’ to free speech. Feel free to swap in any minority group, women, any pro-abuse or pro-exploitation talk, and any talk of eco-suicide being somehow desirable, or other living things being expendable for human profit, and I’ll take issue.

What we’re talking about here isn’t just hot air. ‘I don’t like’ is free speech – it may be vile and uncivilized, but it is just speech and personal opinion. As it happens, I don’t like right wing supporters. As soon as that speech becomes a call for action, it changes. I don’t want to see people lose their rights, dehumanised, made more vulnerable. There’s a lot of other hateful outcomes I don’t want either. If someone is calling for an action I would fight against, I’d rather fight it at the talking stage – it’s better that way. Human rights do not award a select few the ‘right’ to diminish others. Refusing the idea that some should have the right to dominate and punish others over matters of difference is not an attack on the ‘rights’ of a would-be oppressor and I’m tired of seeing it suggested otherwise.

Free speech doesn’t mean a right to be listened to, taken seriously or supported. It does in fact mean that anyone else who wants to challenge what is said has the right to speak it. However, I think we need to deal with the idea that speech is somehow safe, that it’s ok to say things that would lead to destroying lives. Speech that calls for action needs treating in line with the action called for. This is why we already have laws about inciting violence and hate speech.

Free speech may be a key part of democracy, but it doesn’t work without responsibility. Use that freedom to express ideas and intentions that would damage democracy – crushing the opposition, denying rights to specific groups and the such – and as far as I’m concerned, the person doing it has lost any right to hide behind the ideas of democracy to protect their toxic thinking. Use free speech to undermine freedom and equality, and there has to be a robust response. Democracy is a collection of values and ideas, using one to undermine the others is not legitimate.

Faced with haters who want to harm others, we will not have the luxury of being able to uphold every last good principle we possess about peace and inclusion. I’d rather we try to head this off while it’s more a question of hate speech than violent action, because that is the road to least harm. And on reflection, I don’t think we should allow hate speech to qualify as free speech, and should challenge and reject it accordingly.