Category Archives: Philosophy

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?


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.