Category Archives: The quiet revolution

Breaking free from what’s normal

When something is normal, it is all too easy not to notice it. To change something, we have to know it could be changed – that it is not inevitable, or inherent, or intrinsic to how the world works. The things we think are normal are the hardest ones to see or do anything about. This is why people who are normalised to abuse stay in abusive relationships. It’s why changing our lives to be more sustainable is so difficult for many people. It’s why making the most useful personal changes can be so hard.

So, this is a story about overcoming something that was normal. I’m sharing it partly because it’s what’s going on for me at the moment, and partly because it illustrates how powerful normalness can be and how hard it can be to resist what we think is just the way things are.

In the last few weeks, I’ve had a major breakthrough and have started using supports, splints and making other changes to reduce the pain in my hands while I’m working. That all sounds obvious – you experience pain, you do something to alleviate it. Except… my hands have hurt for as long as I can remember. Learning to write, I couldn’t hold the pencil properly because it hurt too much. I found a work-around and spent my childhood being told off for my bad handwriting and bad pencil hold. At 11 I spent time in remedial classes where someone tried to teach me to hold a pen properly. That it hurt me to do so never came up and I never mentioned it because it had never seemed important.

Hand pain was there when I played the piano, and when I held a violin – the bow and my little finger especially. It’s there for typing and crafting, long stints working with the mouse are painful. Last year there were pages I coloured while crying because it hurt so much, but I didn’t stop doing the work, and I didn’t look for workarounds because for most of my life, hand pain has just been part of how the world works.

In the last few years I have, thanks to friends sharing experiences of hypermobility, started to realise this is something I need to take seriously. I have a massively hypermobile body – this is no doubt a large part of why so much of me hurts. My hands are intensely hypermobile. I can spread my fingers wider than is good for my knuckles. I’m now using hand supports, and taping to stop this happening. I’m using a splint when working with pencils so that I don’t push the knuckle on my right hand sideways. It’s a bit of a faff, but the difference is huge.

I am inevitably feeling a bit foolish for not having got into this sooner, but for me, hand pain was just normal. I did not believe that it could be changed, so I ignored it as best I could. What’s shifted for me in the last year is I think a consequence of doing Tai Chi and learning to better manage the hypermobility in my ankles and hips. Learning to make changes there, and getting so that I can walk longer distances without ankle support from a boot, has opened me up to change. That I have tackled the problems with my ankles makes it thinkable to change how things work for my hands. That’s changed how I’m able to think – which was the block to changing what I do.

One of the best ways to identify and challenge apparently normal things, is to talk about them. When we test our experiences on other people, we get a chance to query what might seem intrinsic. I’ve got to where I am because someone else talked about hypermobility and I realised the same things were true of me. What had been normal suddenly looked rather different. This works across the board. When we talk about coercive behaviour and abuse, there’s scope for other people to realise where they are. When we talk about cultural ideas that trap us in certain ways of living, there’s scope to break out. Dismantling what we think is normal is hard, and also key to making radical change and it is a project best undertaken collectively.


Of Cars and Celebrations

New Year’s Day was wonderful. I walked into town in the morning to go to the cinema, and there were almost no cars on the road. It was so much quieter. I could hear bird song. Roads that normally have too heavy a flow for me to cross were suddenly safe to saunter over. The whole atmosphere of the centre of town was massively improved. Usually the roads around the middle of Stroud are full of cars at that time of day.

As the majority of people had partied into the early hours the night before, they were at home, sleeping it off. By the afternoon, the roads were still significantly quieter than usual.

We need, for our own safety and the wellbeing of the planet to drive less. Air pollutions kills something like 40,000 people a year in the UK alone. Car accidents kill. The climate crisis kills. Sedentary lifestyles kill. Social isolation is an epidemic. More people walking and fewer people driving would have an impact on all this. However, people are reluctant to give up cars when they see them as necessary to daily life, or intrinsic to their quality of life.

So I’m thinking we need more parties.

Imagine if we had more regular festivals (8 a year? One a month?) when it was socially expected that you would party. Many people enjoy parties and the social engagement is good. And then we have the day after the big party when it is socially expected that most people will sleep until midday and then not do much. Meanwhile anyone who wants to live quietly can give the party a miss and have a wonderful quiet and much safer walk on the day after the party.

Part of the reason we’re struggling to make radical lifestyle changes to avert climate disaster, is the stories we have. Car = freedom. Driving=adventure. Happiness comes from owning possessions. If we had a party culture and it was normal to be involved in a huge community party each month and then sleep it off the next day, then the party could be the exciting, liberating thing, not the car. We’d have a day each month when driving wasn’t the thing, just as currently happens on New Year’s day. One day a month of change isn’t enough, obviously, but I bet we would see a culture shift.

Obviously this is a silly idea. Obviously more partying won’t happen. Obviously in our work-orientated culture, the idea that parties might be what we need, is preposterous. Having a good time is not the most sensible approach to making radical change. Because we’re so bought in to our work-earn-buy-consume narratives that it’s hard to imagine anything else.

If we’re going to change everything, we do in fact need to radically re-imagine things.


Imagine a World…

Imagine if the work we did was primarily about making sure everyone had all of their basic needs met. Imagine if wellbeing was considered more important than profit.

Imagine how we’d live if we gave high priority to sustainability and the viability of the planet. If we took no more than the planet could support and shared that out equally, what would have to change?

Imagine how life would be if we all considered exploitation to be disgusting, and those who took far more than they needed were treated as failures, rather than being celebrated? What would happen if the most socially reinforced expression of wealth was giving away what you didn’t need?

Imagine how differently politics would work if the main priority was that everyone be happy and healthy. Imagine what would change if that was more important than ideas about who deserves what. Imagine what it would mean if being alive was enough to qualify you for care and respect.

Imagine if we valued green spaces and wild things and did not require them to directly benefit us in some way. Imagine what would happen if we considered beauty important in a way that wasn’t about selling products.

Imagine what life would be like if you had the leisure time, energy and resources to do whatever interested you. What would you do? Does it in any way resemble what you are doing now? Imagine what would happen if you lived in a society where the priority was to have the most enriching personal experiences. Imaging what would happen if we agreed that living a peaceful and fulfilling life should be the most important goal, individually and collectively.

Imagine getting to live in the way that would make you happiest, and being entitled to figure out what that meant so long as what you were doing didn’t compromise anyone else’s scope to live a happy life.

Now ask why we don’t do any of that.

 


What does poverty look like?

You can’t see it, not reliably. Not if you don’t know what to look for. Many working people are in poverty. Many young people trapped in expensive renting situations and unable to get mortgages, are struggling with poverty. For many, it’s not where you end up all the time, just something you fall into the month there’s an unexpected bill or a setback. A person can have a good coat and not be able to afford to eat this week.

Our stories about poverty are often othering. They’re about people who are not like us, who live in almost Victorian conditions that they have brought upon themselves – it’s a mad sort of story, but there we are. People horrified by refugees and homeless folk with mobile phones, because they don’t fit the story. People oblivious to the folk around them who are marginalised, because when you sound educated, you don’t fit the poverty story.

We need to be kinder to each other. If we put down our assumptions about how poor people look, dress, and spend their time, we might more readily see what’s around us.


Politics and abusive relationships

Why do people stay in abusive relationships? This question has never been more pertinent, because politically speaking, a lot of people in the UK are choosing to do just that. Let me start by saying that if you decide it is a person’s fault for staying with their abuser and that they must be stupid to stay – you’ll help keep them there.

Loss of self esteem is key to keeping people in abusive relationships. You stay because you think there’s nothing better out there for you. You may even be persuaded that you are so awful that no one else but your abuser could put up with you. Consider what’s happened in the last ten years or so to blame the poor for poverty and to crush the self esteem of anyone who is struggling, and to suggest that nothing better exists.

If someone is persuaded that they don’t deserve nice things, and that their suffering is their own fault, they stay. Telling a person it’s their fault they will go hungry as they’re sanctioned to meet targets is a similar process to telling a person it is their fault you hit them. If you’re subject to blame for long enough, the odds are you will internalise it. If you think you are too clever, too self aware, too well informed to succumb, let me tell you that you are wrong in this, and that minds are fragile and break in certain circumstances. Everyone has points at which they would break and things they cannot resist. Pray you never get to find out where yours is, but don’t imagine you are ‘above’ all that.

You do not save people from abusive relationships by trying to tell them how awful their abuser is. This can cause victims to dig in, defending the one person they are convinced could even tolerate them. You don’t get people out of abusive relationships by shaming them, making them feel responsible, or making them feel stupid because this reinforces everything their abuser has been doing. We do this around politics a lot. It’s not helping.

The only way to help someone break out of an abusive relationship is to re-build their shattered confidence and self esteem. If they can feel better about themselves, they can better see what’s being done to them. The person who finds they are loved, valued, supported and cared for by someone who is not their abuser, can consider the ‘love’ their abuser shows in a new light. It takes time and patience to put back together someone who has been taken apart, but it is the only thing that works.

When people vote in a way we consider self-harming, we have to stop responding like this is because they are stupid. It is exactly the same as telling a battered wife that she is stupid to stay – women in such circumstances already know they are stupid and worthless and that life would be even more terrible if their abuser wasn’t there to sort things out for them. This is exactly the same, just on a much bigger scale. Only when we stop victim blaming can we help people believe they are worth more and should be able to have nice things, and that the way to have nice things is to get away from the person who keeps telling them they cannot have nice things.

It is of course much easier to be cross with people for staying, and to blame them and feel like you have the moral high ground for not being in that mess yourself. I’ve been there. I’ve been broken, robbed of my confidence and convinced I was so worthless that I should be grateful to the person who constantly mistreated me. I felt stupid, and useless and could not imagine I deserved any better. Being treated kindly and being valued got me out of there, eventually. Lifting each other up gets amazing things done. Blaming and shaming keeps people thinking they deserve no better.


Two Party Politics

The UK and the US both suffer from having political systems dominated by two parties. There are a number of reasons why this doesn’t lead to good democratic outcomes.

Firstly it gives us something adversarial in nature. Us versus them. Polarised tribal politics with little room for co-operation. We’d be better served by compromise.

Secondly, most issues have more than two sides to them. If you aren’t represented by the two sides in an argument, you’re stuck.  More parties means more breadth, depth and diversity.

Thirdly, if you then feel unrepresented you may well see no point voting. This is part of a narrowing down, as the two parties go after the people who do vote, they may move closer together, representing fewer people.

Fourthly, it is difficult to shift back and forth between two parties. If they are at all different and you agreed with one, the odds of that changing at the next election aren’t that high. Democracy works better when we’re offered a range of options that might be relevant to us and we get to decide what we think is best.

When there’s a bit more diversity, there’s more room to look at the individual qualities of candidates. How honourable they are, whether they keep their election promises, how they treat people, what kind of results they get and so forth. If you’re stuck with two viable candidates and one of them is unthinkably awful, you may feel moved to vote for someone who is simply less bad. More options tend to improve quality.

Unfortunately, the two party system serves the people who are in the two parties – the only people with any real power to change that system and open it up. So, little wonder that they don’t, usually.


The ethics of working for free

I do a lot of voluntary work. It can feel like having the abundance to give freely of your time is always going to be the ethical choice, but it isn’t. Here are some things to consider if you’re working for free.

Is this a commercial activity? Should it be the sort of thing that can pay you? If you are able to work unpaid, are you denying someone else the opportunity to earn a living, and are you supporting an enterprise that would just rather not pay people? If it’s commercial but can’t pay, are you propping up something unviable and is that really the best use of your time?

Exposure is not payment, usually. If the company could afford to pay you, they should not be treating you like they are doing you a favour by offering unpaid work. If the company cannot afford to pay you, there is no gain for you in working free for them, it will not turn into a paying gig. It is a different consideration if you are looking at a charity, a social enterprise, or a community project which may not be economically orientated and may well be worth contributing to for the value of its goals.

Are you supporting a culture of unpaid work? Many people end up working unpaid when they don’t want to, and most should not. If you are on salary, your hours may be vague but the pay should be fair. If it is in your contract that you may have to do unpaid overtime in emergencies, that’s what you’ve got, but your overall pay should make that ok. If a company is constantly demanding little extras unpaid, that’s not ok or healthy. The major thing to watch for is this – does unpaid work take anyone below minimum wage payments? If so, the company is breaking the law. If you can comfortably afford not to be paid to work, you might be able to afford to stand up against this sort of thing. People on minimum wage may be too fearful and vulnerable to resist this kind of exploitation.

Fear of losing your job is the thin end of the wedge that has people working unpaid in insecure job situations. For the freelancer, the zero hours contract holder, the casual labourer, job insecurity can mean feeling obliged to say yes to working for free sometimes. The thick end of this wedge, is modern slavery, where people are working unpaid for fear of punishment. Tolerating a culture of unpaid work makes it easier for the extreme end to carry on. If unpaid work is normal it becomes harder to see full blown slavery. And of course there are degrees of exploitation in between that are even harder to identify.

If you can afford to work for free, take the time to ask why you are being asked to work for free. That is a gift of your time that you can give to people who are more vulnerable than you and who may be unable to speak up against exploitation.


The Revolution Must Be Inclusive

I’m not a member of Extinction Rebellion and it’s a movement I have mixed feelings about. There are a lot of people I like and admire who are getting involved. There are a fair few people co-opting it for self promotion purposes, or to further other personal projects. That it is getting attention for climate crisis is important. That its means do not align reliably with its intended ends is a problem for me.

I am absolutely in favour of gathering in Trafalgar Square to speak truth to power. Protesting in the right place, in the faces of those in power whose minds need changing, is a good idea. Not all of it goes this way, which I think is counter-productive. I’ve seen a lot of it locally and there have been too many actions that alienate people rather than engaging them.

To radically change our cultures, our behaviour, our laws and politics, we needs as many people persuaded as possible. That makes the question of who to inconvenience, and how, an important one. An inclusive movement draws people in and persuades them. There is going to be discomfort for people whose lifestyles are not sustainable, and there will be pushback, but if people feel too uncomfortable, they’re more likely to dig in and resist change, which does not help.

I worry about the way in which many Green activities look like middle class hobbies. It suits certain areas of the media to push that message, because persuading most people that it’s snobbery and hypocrisy and not for them is an effective way of maintaining the status quo. Activists need to think carefully about this because we need more people engaging, not being put off. It is important not to price people out of participation. Protesting in ways that hurt people who are already struggling isn’t an appealing look.

I’ve been in a lot of spaces where I was the youngest person in the room, as a middle aged person, conscious that an even younger person might have had a much harder time of feeling comfortable there. The assumption that you are retired and can afford the time is a big assumption, and a common one. I’ve been in so many spaces where the assumption of middle class affluence was a real problem for me, and I’ve heard people say some pretty awful things about ‘the poor’ in those contexts.

It isn’t easy for people who feel themselves to be normal, to see who is missing from the room. All-male spaces don’t notice the lack of women as an issue. All-middle-class spaces don’t notice the lack of working class people. All-white spaces don’t notice the lack of ethnic diversity. Able bodied groups do not notice the lack of disabled people. And so on. Invariably, it becomes the job of the first person in the room not to fit to try and make that space. Which is exhausting and difficult and thankless. We should not be making disadvantaged people fight to get into the room and fight for a space at the table. We should be smoothing the way whenever we can.

If you think ‘those people’ aren’t in your movement because ‘they’ don’t really care about that sort of thing, please rethink this. If you’re treating a demographic as all being the same, you are going to be making terrible mistakes. If you’re participating, and seeing someone else’s lack of participation as them not being the sort of person who would, you won’t change anything. When you ask what you can do to be more inclusive and to enable more people to get involved and see green movements as for them, in their interests, and spaces where they would be welcome, you can make changes.

A non-inclusive revolution won’t work. A revolution for the middle classes won’t tackle many of the ways in which poverty and environmental problems go hand in hand. A revolution that isn’t for everyone, isn’t going to work. It will take maximum engagement to really change things. It should fall to those who are most able to help people get involved. If something is easy for you that doesn’t mean it’s easy for everyone.


False Equivalence

Creating false equivalence is a gaslighting technique that I’m seeing all too often on social media at the moment. Here’s an example – The British PM is called out by MPs for using words like ‘surrender’ over Brexit because this kind of talk inflames hate and increases the death threats, and presumably, the risk of death for MPs. On social media, random people start comparing this to the left saying ‘bollocks to brexit’.

False equivalence often works because at first glance it looks plausible. People on the left say mean things, people on the right say mean things, if you’re on the left and you complain about the right doing it you’re not just mean, you’re mean and a hypocrite. Saying ‘bollocks’ to something doesn’t incite violence in the way that moving into militaristic language does, and we’ve seen some people talking about ‘getting the knives out’ and using overtly violent language around politics.  It’s not equivalent.

When you see a single example of gaslighting, sometimes it is obviously rubbish. It works through repetition and reassertion. If you keep hearing the same lies, expressed with confidence and certainty, it can start to erode your confidence in your own stance. This is very much an issue in the domestic sphere. For example, if you’re living with someone who reacts as though you’ve punched them if you say no, or that you don’t like or don’t want something, you’ll probably start to feel like you’re doing something awful. I did. Repeatedly being told that expressing distress is exactly the same as someone expressing anger by punching you, will undermine your reality.

Gaslighting is an evil sort of process, designed to drive people mad. For some time now, we’ve been treated to the techniques of gaslighting from people with power and platforms. It’s there in the tabloids, and it impacts on everyone involved. For the person persuaded that ‘bollocks to brexit’ is just as nasty and dangerous a thing to say as talking about getting knives into the opposition, reality is also being eroded. Perhaps more so.

We aren’t wholly logical beings. Often our emotions get the steering wheel. Gaslighting techniques bypass logic, and tie it in knots in order to have an emotional impact. When you feel something keenly, it isn’t easy to be reasonable about it. Whether that’s feeling hurt or diminished or justified or empowered, our emotions colour our perceptions. Equally, if you are persuaded by gaslighting, you are a victim of it, even if you are apparently on the same side as the people dishing it out. Even if you become one of the people dishing it out. A broken reality, is a broken reality no matter how you got there, and there is absolute equivalence between people who have been messed up in this way.

If you’re dealing with false equivalence for yourself, focus on the reasoning and go through things in as calm and logical a way as you can. If you are dealing with someone else’s false equivalence, bear in mind that anything escalating the emotions in the situation will increase the effect on them, not decrease it. Arguing with them may make it worse. Avoiding putting emotional energy in is essential, and better for you as well. If you lash out – however righteously – you will play into the stories about how there is no difference between sides. You will make true the false reality they have been sold. That doesn’t help anyone.


Clothes, poverty and identity

Sighted people read each other visually, and that means for most of us, how we look will have a huge impact on who other people think we are. People will judge you if you don’t look clean and smart – neither of which is always easy if you’re dealing with extreme poverty. If you are presenting as poor and you don’t look poor enough to the people judging you, that won’t go well for you, either. Many social groupings expect people to conform to visual standards – you have to look the part if you want to belong.

Like many people, I grew up wearing hand me downs and clothes from charity shops. I did not get to choose how I looked, I had to wear whatever would do the job, and fitted. In my mid teens, I started taking scissors and needle to clothing in the hopes of finding something that felt like ‘me’.  I was seventeen when I bought my first new dress, with my own money. I liked how that felt.

I’ve never had much cash to spend on clothes, and I’ve mostly bought in sales and I still buy second hand, and I do a lot of upcycling. Being able to choose how I’m going to look is something I really value. I feel more in control of my self, my body and my life if I can choose what I really want to wear rather than having to make do with what fits. As a tall and broad person I’ve struggled to find second hand clothes that fit. It is not a happy thing having to wear clothing you despise because that’s all that fits you.

I’ve talked to other people about this and I know it isn’t just me. There’s an emotional impact in being able to choose how you look when you’ve grown up, or spent much of your life unable to do that. While we’re talking about the impact of fast fashion on the planet, I think we need to talk as well about how the long term experience of poverty can impact on people’s clothes choices – and not in the best way. When you have very little control over your life, cheap, throwaway clothing means you do have control over how you look. Not wearing things until they are ragged means not looking poor. It takes a certain middle class confidence to wear worn and patched clothes – if you’ve got money and don’t need help, you won’t encounter the same problems around this.

To deal with the impact fast fashion has on the planet, we need to identify and deal with the things that make it attractive. My guess is that control is a really important part of this. It’s a rare thing that you can control with very little money, and that might give a person with very little joy in their life an emotional boost. New clothes give people confidence and help them feel better about themselves, and unless those needs are met in other ways, fast fashion will remain attractive.