Category Archives: The quiet revolution

Who am I responsible for?

Without a doubt, any time we ignore abuse, hate speech and prejudice, we support it. We let the person carry on doing what they were doing. We let them believe we agreed with them. They will infer our tacit support from our silence and inaction.

Every time we ignore someone who speaks from a place of ignorance and misinformation, we’re letting things stay as they are, contributing to things that are wrong.

The trouble is that like everyone else, I have finite energy and I get emotionally knocked about when I step up to these arguments. I could spend all day every day on twitter, challenging haters, bullies, bigots and abusers. Well, in theory I could, in practice I reckon by lunchtime I would be a weeping wreck.

Who am I responsible for? It is not an easy or a comfortable question. I know some activists have become very clear that people should educate themselves. I understand why – advocating personal responsibility is a good idea. Demanding education is a way of sucking up energy and time, and derailing people. But equally, turning around how someone thinks is a massive and difficult process, if I can help someone do that then I’d like to. It’s partly about spotting the scope for change and trying to see who is for real and who is a time waster. I’m not that psychic, I don’t always know.

My primary areas of concern have, for some years, been mental health and domestic abuse. The former gives me some scope to speak more widely about disability issues, the latter gives me insight into the mechanics of abuse in all forms. I use that knowledge where I can. I care about everything but there are plenty of issues I don’t have the experience to really get into details. Faced with an online argument of that ilk I feel the most useful thing I can do is offer support for and agreement with the people who have the experience to speak.

It is so easy for well meaning people to get this wrong. It is so easy for people who are not well meaning to hide behind activism and take unfair pot shots at others. I am reminded of the feminist reviewer who called a mixed race author with a complex social background out for appropriation. I don’t think the reviewer had any idea who the author was. When we’re challenging each other, knowing the limits of our insight is essential, or we end up calling out the wrong people and hurting those we should be helping.

I like blogging because it isn’t an argument. It’s a chance to put forward thoughts and ideas, and to share experiences around the things I know about in a way that hopefully makes it easier for others to understand. I believe that we need to share our truth, tell our stories and speak of our experiences. And when we run into other people who are doing that, a bit of support and recognition can go a long way. So much of it comes down to ignorance, so much could be solved with better understanding.

It’s all well and good talking about punching Nazis, but I couldn’t usefully punch anyone, not with these hands. The clever thing would be to get to them before they become Nazis, but of course if it works you can’t even tell that it works. Keep talking keep supporting each other, keep doing what you can do. None of us can fix everything, or everyone.

Anxiety, Depression and Self Esteem

On the whole, anxiety and depression are best tackled with self care. Rest, moving away from the sources of distress, not being outside your comfort zone too much, good food, sleep, exercise… All the obvious things that contribute to good health are needed to bring a person back from mental difficulty. Some (many?) of us who suffer from anxiety and depression have terrible trouble taking proper care of ourselves.

The person with poor self esteem struggles to believe that they deserve basic, essential things. Getting the job done thus seems more important than being well. Being useful is more important than being well even if being useful in the short term may compromise your longer term viability. For me, for a long time, the idea of self-care was itself a panic trigger and if people suggested it, I’d get even more distressed. I think I’m not alone in this.

When poor self esteem underpins poor mental health, the odds are a person has internalised a lot of crap from other people. We do not come alone to the idea of being worthless, useless, and that we deserve to suffer. We may believe we’re lazy, making a fuss, a nuisance – because we’ve had prolonged exposure to people telling us these things. We believe that we aren’t really ill, that the problem is that we aren’t trying hard enough. If only we made more effort to be more positive, we’d be better people. Getting a person to believe the bullshit of positivity logic can be one of the cruellest ways of keeping a mentally distressed person trapped in cycles of ill health.

Getting out of this is not a solo project. I know this because I can look back on my own journey and see when things started to change. Wind the clock back seven or eight years and I did not see myself as a real person. I was a thing made of straw and only my usefulness mattered. If I struggled, I’d push harder, beating myself up – physically and emotionally – to keep moving. I’d name call and shame and ridicule to make myself keep going, keep working, keep doing all the things. Running on internalised hate, I’d use the energy of that to keep my broken self moving.

There have always been people happy to add to the inner hate pile, and then to humiliate me as someone who ‘just plays the victim’ on top of that. I have taken those words into every burnout with me. I’ve listened to well meaning people online telling me I needed to take better care of myself, and I’ve been afraid to do so. As though being kind to me would turn me into something even more horrible and unworthy than I’d already been told I was.

I’ve been able to change because my environment has changed. It has taken time. Support and kindness at home, for years, has had consequences. Good friends who treat me with warmth provide an antidote to the poison others have poured into my ears. Support from fellow travellers has helped create a context for looking differently at these things. I could not have done this alone.

It’s a thing about mental health that needs saying and saying again. Most of us do not fall apart on our own. We fall apart for reasons that are outside our heads. Trying to find a personal solution to this is often futile. If environments are sick, the people in them will become and remain sick. Where people exploit each other, treat each other as worthless, expendable, or mock visible suffering, things only get worse. Collective solutions are the only workable ones, and in treating each other better, and being kinder to each other we can overcome so much more. Individual positivity can’t heal much of what’s wrong. Collective determination to change things really can make a difference.

Where do we stop?

Sometimes it is important to ask where something is going and where it will stop. Politicians tend to erode rights rather than taking them away in massive, easily spotted slashes. Selling off our assets bit by bit. Where will we stop when profit is more important than planet? Where will we stop with pollution? When there’s an obvious trajectory and a run of small moves along it, asking about when we stop is a very good idea.

However, where does this stop can also be a derailment tactic. I’ve seen it used repeatedly in this way. What happens is that the trajectory imagined is not a logical one – take Jeremy Irons’ bloody stupid suggestion that allowing gay marriage would mean fathers could marry their sons. This is ‘where will it end?’ logic. Pick a ridiculous outcome that will make people feel uncomfortable and pronounce it as the logical conclusion of letting the thing happen.

Then, rather than talking about the real issue, you have to deal with the derailment. You have to explain that this is not a logical progression. Further, these derailments often have a sting in them – note how the Irons unpleasantness creates a link between being gay, and incest. The derailer will often have a go at invalidating the centre of the argument by such associations. What next, giving the same rights to animals? (Because this lot are so close to animals that I see it as a logical progression…)

The other thing the derailer may do is to make some issue of theirs centre stage, or some imagined fear. This distracts from the actual issues. Take for example, the suggestion that we should be licensing acid to make it harder to buy. This is because throwing acid in the faces of people has happened a lot in London this year. Response: Where will it stop? Are we going to ban all dangerous chemicals? What about my drain cleaner? (I paraphrase). Now, to my mind, the right not to have acid thrown in your face should quite obviously be more important than the right to pour dangerous chemicals into the water system. The freedom of the person who is not directly affected by anything at this stage should not be more important than the wellbeing of people who have already been hurt, and the people who realistically will be hurt in the future. How much are we inconvenienced if buying chemicals for home use requires jumping through a hoop or two? Far less than we are by having those same chemicals used as weapons.

Of course what complicates things is that oppressive governments play with this in sinister ways. Fear of terrorism is a popular way of getting a population to accept monitoring, loss of privacy, restriction of rights and so forth. There’s never going to be a tidy answer here.

On the other hand, are we looking at a restriction of personal freedom that represents social progress? The loss of freedom to privately assault one’s spouse is a loss I think we should all feel good about. The loss of the right to keep our data private is an example in the other direction. Very little good can come from it, and in the wrong hands it can do considerable damage. I think the only answer is to look hard at what’s at truly stake, and pick your fights carefully.

Work does not save us

Today is not going to plan. Pain and other issues in the night kept me from sleeping, and it’s not the first time in recent days this has happened. Normally I’m working by about 7 in the morning. Today I took the decision to start later in the hopes my body would cope better. It’s not a choice everyone has the luxury of being able to make.

This leaves me wondering what life would look like if health and wellbeing were social priorities rather than work and profit. Wealth without the health to enjoy it isn’t a great deal of joy. But then, the people with the wealth tend to be healthier, the people without as much money tend to have poorer physical health. The stress of poverty causes mental illness.

Working when ill isn’t very efficient. I’ve noticed that in the last year, where I’ve been taking more time off and resting more. I work faster. I get far more done in far less time. The idea of work as an inherent good is not upheld by exploring what happens when I work less. If we’re measuring quality or quantity of output, less time working equates to more and better work done.

Yet we treat more work as the answer to all social problems. We treat it as the answer to poverty, even though the single biggest issue is rent costs and unaffordable mortgages. In the States, the crippling cost is health care, often. Most of us can’t hope to earn our way out of those traps no matter how long or how hard we work. Here in the UK our government seems to have decided that work is also the answer to disability and chronic ill health. Make people work and they will magically get over it. I’m not sure which planet they come from, but I do wish they’d go back there.

We all need the space, time and resources to be kinder to ourselves and kinder to each other. Relentless work doing nothing of much use, just burning up finite resources, is something we need to get rid of. Making things that benefit no one, half of which go rapidly towards landfill, is not an answer. A marketing culture of disposable everything where you throw it away to get the newest one is eco-suicide, and it’s also make-work. There have to be better ways.

What’s in it for me?

To be honest I blame my Church of England primary school. I spent my formative years being told to serve, to help others, to put others first and no one ever really talking about when it might be ok to put a hand up and say ‘I am the person who needs helping’ or when it might be ok to prioritise personal need. I internalised the lot. As a consequence I have a long history of giving more than is good for me.

The question ‘what’s in it for me?’ is one I need to be asking. Not least because there’s a significant percentage of people who just don’t value what’s freely given. I may be trying to do gift economy, but if I deal primarily with people who aren’t, then I end up giving, and giving, and giving more whilst being treated like something of lesser worth because I haven’t put a price tag on it. This is not clever. I’ve done it repeatedly, persuaded that my work is needed and it’s totally reasonable to have nothing come back to me.

I spent time in a space some years ago that had a mantra of service. Give, and give more. Give and don’t ask for anything in return. Don’t ask for recognition, or support, or status, don’t ask to be acknowledged or valued because that’s about ego. Give. Keep giving. I ended up exhausted, broken and useless.

What’s in it for me? It doesn’t have to be all about the money although it’s nice to be able to afford to live. I have to remind myself that I’m as entitled as anyone else to be paid for what I do. However, many of the things that need help have no budget. So, I’ve been working out what has to be in it for me if I’m not being paid for what I do.

I have to believe in the project. I have to see its innate worth and see why there’s no funding, and that it’s fair. If I’m inspired enough, that is enough to get me moving and keep me viable.

I have to feel that the work I do is useful and valuable. Not someone else’s hollow vanity project, not pointless effort for the sake of effort, not being set up to fail to do impossible things for someone else’s amusement (yes, I’ve done all of that and worse).

I need to feel valued and respected. If I am reduced to my utility and not allowed the space to be a person, it’s not good for me. If I am treated as worthless because I’m unpaid, it’s not a good space to be in.

Something should be flowing back to me. That might be opportunities, exposure (I know, it’s often what we die of) chance to do things around the work that will enable me to earn money (as with contributing to events). It might be that what I get out of it is companionship and the chance to do cool things with awesome people. It might be inherently good fun, or something I haven’t done before where the experience will be interesting, or will teach me something valuable. It might allow me to do something I want to do as a trade off.

I hold some responsibility for what’s in my history because I’ve been slow to recognise unfair setups. I’m not good at holding the idea that I deserve better. I have been easily persuaded that I’m so useless, so worthless that I should be glad people want to bother with me enough to exploit me. I’ve dealt with people who, rather than thanking me for the effort, told me I should be grateful for having been given the space. No more. There are better people out there, and better ways of getting things done.

The politics of madness

Political choices are causing mental health problems. This isn’t going to be a properly referenced article, but everything I’m talking about is out there in the public domain and easy to find if you want to poke about.

A great deal of psychological distress is caused not by something going on inside the sufferer, but by external things. We tend to place the blame on the sufferer, and most interventions focus on what the sufferer can do to sort themselves out, not what needs changing to make their lives bearable.

Twenty years ago when I studied psychology at college it was known that stress causes mental health problems. It was also known that your ability to resolve the problem is the major factor in how much stress you feel. Powerful people with great responsibilities do not feel anything like as much stress as poor people with no control over their lives.

Political choices are increasing poverty and insecurity. Zero hour contracts, precarious renting arrangements, threats to the NHS, to families and business and local environments all piles stress onto people who can do nothing to resolve the problems. The actions of our politicians are increasing mental health problems.

At the same time, funding for mental health care is abysmal, and the system that should take care of anyone too sick to work is such a nightmare that getting into it is likely to cause a person significant mental distress and lead them into anxiety and depression.

To be well, people need to feel reasonably secure and passably in control of their lives.

Poor diet has a negative impact on mental health. You can look at prison research into increasing vitamins in the diet and how that changed things for people. You can look at anything at all about brain chemistry. A person needs protein to build serotonin, and this chemical is key to feeling ok. Anyone on an impoverished diet will have impoverished body chemistry, with consequences for their mental health. That would be everyone depending on foodbanks.

Exhaustion, sleep deprivation, lack of rest and lack of fresh air and exercise all impact on mental health. Everyone I know is tired. We know we collectively have a sleep shortage problem. Noise pollution deprives us of quiet and traffic deprives us of clean air to breathe. Traffic deprives us of safe places to walk. Anything making our bodies ill will also impair our mental health because it’s all one system.

The trouble is, most of us are just statistics. There are more people than our government feels it needs, and so we are a disposable commodity, easily replaced. Why waste money taking care of people when you can throw them away and get new ones? It is, quite simply, the politics of madness, devoid of kindness and humanity. We are being normalised to it, and told any other way of being is naive and unrealistic. We are told all the things hurting us are in our interests – because it all comes down to money and growth.

All the while, the people pedalling this, who have to recast failure as success, the well meaning as traitors, the good as the enemy, the vulnerable as villains, are slowly driving themselves round the bend with cognitive dissonance.

Tips for angry arguments

Politics doesn’t bring out the best in people, and angry political exchanges can put strains on otherwise viable friendships. What to do if someone you thought was ok starts spewing hate, insults and what looks to you like madness?

  • Don’t respond in kind. You’ll just cause them to dig in and may confirm their prejudices.
  • If they respond to facts and evidence with insults and unfounded belief, you won’t shift them by hitting them with facts. Instead, ask for their facts and evidence. Ask for the underlying philosophy of their stance. The odds are they are regurgitating unconsidered propaganda. By asking them politely to explain it, you force them to look at it, and this can be rather effective.
  • People project. If greed and self interest are their major motivators, they may be unable to imagine that anyone else has other motivations. Thus it is normal for anyone defending the welfare state to be told that they, personally want a handout and that’s their only motivation. It is worth saying if you are secure and altruistic, but don’t expect them to believe you! Try asking how they picture their old age, how they feel about their own health care prospects, how confident they are that their families can pay the bills for them in an emergency. Keep it focused on them if that seems to be all they can think about.
  • Don’t rise to the insults, and don’t reply in kind. Insults can be undermined as conversation weapons by agreeing with them – I’ve told many an antifeminist that yes, he’s right, I am fat and ugly and that doesn’t bother me at all. When recently told I lived in a swamp I enthused at length about how fantastic swamps are for water management and wildlife. You get the idea. Laugh at the insult and say you’ve heard it before and they need to try for something more original if they want to cause offence. Give them points out of ten for creativity. Treat it like a joke. If they cross the line into hate speech, report them, but otherwise laugh until they lose the will to abuse you. This includes being called stupid, naive, gullible etc – don’t defend your politics to them, it doesn’t work. ‘I’m sure it comforts you to believe that’ is more effective.
  • Sometimes on social media you’ll meet someone who is working from a script. They may be a hired troll. They may be part of a group with unpleasant intentions. Their main aim may be to suck up your time, energy and hope. Unless you know them personally, I advise stepping away because they’re a waste of your time. Here’s some signs to take into account – no discussion, only insults. Incoherence – dropping things like ‘ah, the sweet taste of liberal tears’ in where it makes no sense, referencing irrelevant things (still banging on about Hillary Clinton for example) responding to all questions by calling you butt hurt…. if there’s no real exchange, there’s not much point and they may not be a real person anyway.

It is always ok to walk away from people. Even people you know in real life if they become unbearable to deal with. We are not obliged to try and save other people from themselves. There are some big, social conversations that need to be won, but we don’t win those by echoing the behaviour of angry trolls, or by getting lured under their bridges to play their games.

The people who sneak into your home

Modern technology means we’re letting a lot of people into our homes, into intimate spaces where they can talk to us without interruption and we can’t question them or answer back.

If you give a poem, one person to another, on a card, in an email, it becomes personal. It hardly matters what the poem says it will seem like there must be some kind of personal message in it. At the same time you can put a more personal poem in a public space and unless you’ve made some unmistakable references, most readers will not assume it’s about them. People don’t tend to take it personally if you give them poetry collections, also, unless perhaps it’s all handwritten and manifestly about them.

Poetry itself is a delivery method which suggests the personal – something I’ve blogged about before.

It’s worth thinking about the things that we allow into our homes to speak to us personally and directly. Who gets to stand in your living room (on a screen) of an evening and tell you how it all works? Who is on your phone, in your hands, talking directly to you? Do you feel like their message is for you? One of the things many broadcasters seem to do on radio (I don’t watch TV, I can only speculate) is create a sense of intimacy, it’s just you and them in a small, dark cupboard (maybe that’s just me!). Having dabbled in making youtube videos myself, I know how to do it, how you talk to the camera as though it was a good friend. It’s also how I write the blog, aiming for a specific kind of tone, a feeling of closeness and complicity…

Now, if a person presses a handwritten poem into your hand, that’s a rare event and it stands out. The people who come to whisper to us in our own homes are there more days than not, and familiarity can have us paying less attention. It’s worth paying attention to how these curious guests make you feel, and if they make you feel uncomfortable, turfing them out and not inviting them back is always an option. I don’t have a television because there are too many people I don’t want to invite round of an evening.

Every book imagines its reader. Every speech imagines its audience. In part because it is hard to communicate well without imagining you are talking to someone. It helps to know your audience and to pitch the language accordingly. But at the same time, anyone who has studied writing, or speech making or any other kind of presentation soon learns things about how to make the recipient complicit. How to make them feel involved, and like this is very much for them and about them. This blog, it’s just between you and me, dear reader. When you read it, you read it alone, and sometimes I strike a chord and you may feel I wrote it just for you, and maybe… I did.

Like any tool set, these skills can be used well or badly. Communicating in a way that develops insight and understanding has to be a good thing, but I don’t think that’s what mostly happens at the moment. If the glimpses I get of mainstream media are indicative, then the intimacy of the voices we let into our homes is not doing us much good, collectively. It’s discouraging empathy, feeding feelings of powerlessness, making us wary of each other, and inclined to blame each other and not looking for who or what is moving on the other side of the curtain. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain…

A Druid on election day

I made the decision during this election not to campaign for a specific party. I’m Green, to the core, but aware that this is complicated. Hand on heart I believe nothing is more urgent than dealing with green issues – clean air and water, sustainable energy, food security and the long term viability of our species. I like and value the NHS, but if we can’t breathe the air, health care won’t save us.  At the same time, a Labour government would be a good deal better to press on this than a fracking-obsessed Tory outfit, and I have every sympathy for the SNP, and think independent candidates are an important part of the mix.

I’ve invested time in trying to persuade people that they should vote. I think non-voting is a massive issue. No matter why you do it, those in power will see it as apathy. They will see it as a blank cheque to do whatever they like. In all parts of the country, if non-voters  showed up, everything could change. If all previous non-voters voted Green, we’d have a Green parliament tomorrow. That’s a lot of potential power going to waste.

I want people to understand that their voting does make a difference and can change things. That even if you don’t get your candidate in, your support for them can still help shape national politics. I want people to realise that every single aspect of their lives is shaped by politics, and that not being interested means it is done to you, perhaps without your knowledge, likely not in ways that are in your interests.

There is a lot more to democracy than voting in general elections. There is a lot more to politics than newspaper headlines and dubious BBC reporting. It is not inevitable that things will stay as they are.

More than this, I want people to look around them, at the land they live on and the society they live in and vote for something better. Not the politics of fear, hate, and greed, which we’ve seen a lot of recently. Not the politics of who can give my family the best deal for the next five years. A proper look at who we want to be and how we want to live with an eye to the long term.

We have to ditch austerity. It doesn’t work on its own terms even – government borrowing is up. Austerity doesn’t deliver economic growth or prosperity for any but the very richest.

We need long term thinking so that our species can survive and thrive without wiping out everything else.

We need to care about each other, and care about our shared resources. We need to ditch the politics of the personal grab and face up to our collective responsibilities for each other. We need to be a good deal more civilized, and some enlightened self interest would go a long way. Any one of us can be knocked down by bad luck, and ill health. Most of us will be lucky enough to get old and need looking after. We have to stop pretending that the good things in our lives are earned and that our ‘hard work’ insulates us from misfortune and start recognising that anyone can get in to trouble, and build systems that are kinder, and fairer.

What I want from politics

I write this a day before a general election, conscious that the things I am most concerned about are not on the agenda for mainstream parties. Here are the things I wish were major election issues. There’s no priority order here.

Climate change – real commitment to tackling the causes and preparing for the uncertainties of the future. Recognition that poorer countries and the most vulnerable people are likely to suffer most as a consequence.

Recognition that capitalism is a snake eating its own tail, that we are exploiting finite resources and cannot have perpetual growth. As automation replaces jobs we need a radical rethink about the structure and purpose of society.

Exploitation – both on the domestic front and internationally. We drive down prices by oppressing others, exploiting finite resources and exploiting workers in other counties. There are many international forms of slavery still functioning, including debt slavery.

Recognition that we all need clean air and safe, drinkable water and that these issues do not respect borders. Recognition that we need to co-operate internationally to safeguard these essential things and to work for long term food security for all as well.

A proper look at the causes of terrorism, and most especially the financing of terrorism, with actions to change this that do not simply involve killing more civilians. Recognition of the role of the arms trade in terrorism. Recognition that no matter how great the imagined benefit of profit from weapons sales, selling weapons is fuelling international violence.

An end to habitat and species loss, with recognition that trying to turn everything into fleeting profit regardless of the long term cost just isn’t clever or good. Stopping killing the oceans.

An approach to humanity that recognises common dignity and basic rights rather than seeing the many as a resource to be used and abused for the benefit of the few. A rejection of all political and religious grounds for dehumanising others.

Recognition that war, terrorism, oppression, exploitation, and the consequences of climate change and resource loss are the reasons for mass human migration at present. This will not be solved by closing borders, but by facing up to the causes.

We have the resources, the knowledge and the means to deliverer a fairer and more sustainable way of life for everyone. While we reject that in favour of short term profit for the few, we make ourselves ever less viable as a species.