Category Archives: The quiet revolution

Being an ally – do they know it’s Christmastime at all?

I think we all want to feel like we’re good and valuable people. Unfortunately around allyship this can mean being moved to do entirely unhelpful things. Ostensibly we rock up as allies because we want to help, but often what we do instead is put ourselves centre stage instead. It can also result in treating the people who need to be ‘saved’ like they’re inferior, and genuinely need us to save them.

If this is an unfamiliar concept, I invite you to listen carefully to what’s going on in this song (or read the subtitles) – how inaccurate and patronising it is, and how it centres the idea of rescue and doesn’t talk about international debt, exploitation of resources or the legacy of colonialism, for example.

I could spend a whole blog post deconstructing this song line by line because there’s so much that’s wrong with it.

It doesn’t really work if you’re showing up because you want a pat on the back. Being the guy that women reassure is a good guy. Being the white person who is affirmed by black people as not being the problem. Being the straight person the gays think is ok… there’s nothing weird about wanting praise and affirmation, it’s just this is a really unhelpful way to go about it. The result is putting pressure on people to stroke your ego, rather than doing anything to solve the problems they face.

Good allyship looks like talking about how we change things and flagging up issues in systems that cause oppression. It looks like educating people who are like you so as to spare the people you are supporting from having to keep doing that. Which may look like explaining about pronouns, or why it isn’t cool to touch other people’s hair without permission, or that catcalling isn’t a compliment, and so forth. Sharing content from people who are affected by an issue, and undertaking to learn from them about the issue is all good work to be doing.

It’s important to avoid speaking for people or over people – the balance can be delicate around avoiding this, while educating people like you. Care and attention are required. It is vital not to patronise the people you are supposed to be helping. Discretion is also important – if being an ally involves sharing the private details of people you’re supposedly helping, you aren’t much of an ally. I’ve seen this one done, and it’s very much about centering the ‘activist’. Again, there are balances to strike here, because stories can be educational, and talking about what you’re doing can be a good way of getting others engaged with an issue. But, keep a close eye on who and what is centre stage, and what the story is for. If you’re telling stories about how you go round heroically saving disabled people… you are the problem not the solution.

One of the most useful things a person can do is look at their own involvement in things that exclude, or are unfair and unjust. That tends to be uncomfortable. It means looking at your own complicity, and at how you might benefit indirectly from privilege. But, this is key to levelling the playing field. Wanting to ride in, the glorious knight on horseback here to save the day is part of the normal desires many of us have to feel special, powerful and important. But when we do that, we only empower ourselves.

It’s not your job to feed the world. Better to stop doing the things that contribute to hunger in the first place.

How to change things

Knocking people down is easy. Knocking people down to make yourself look good is really easy, and a low effort ego-boost if you aren’t careful. So, please hear me as tongue in cheek as I mention how those other people are doing it wrong, blogging their complaints about the greed and selfishness of others while I have the moral high ground over here talking about the importance of bigging people up.

Anger and frustration are entirely natural emotional responses. There’s certainly plenty out there to get angry with, and nothing wrong with feeling it. No emotion is wrong. But, we then get a lot of choices around what we do in response to any given emotion. Knocking someone else down can feel like power. It can feel like taking a significant, meaningful action. However, politics in recent years has demonstrated that often when you try to knock people down, they’re more likely to dig in with their position. Feeling humiliated and got-at doesn’t tend to bring out the best in people.

There are a lot of stories out there in which evil characters do evil things because they are evil. It’s one of the most unhelpful stories we habitually tell each other. People do things for reasons, and at the time they tend to think their reasons are good ones, or justified, or necessary. When people seem to be acting badly, it’s worth stepping back and asking what might be underpinning that. Often the roots can be found in fear – we live in insecure societies with most people in debt and a paycheck or two from utter disaster. Individual coping mechanisms for this can often add to the problems as well as distracting from them. Scared people seldom make good choices.

As social creatures, humans are motivated by the approval of others. When this goes wrong, it can drive a person deeper into the embrace of a toxic relationship, or for that matter, a toxic community. If everyone else is calling you stupid, you’re going to cling that bit harder to the people who tell you that you’re very clever. Cults and conspiracy theories alike thrive on this.

Knocking people down doesn’t reliably persuade them that you are right. But it does fuel the kind of anxiety that pushes people towards the things that offer them apparent uplift. A lot of populist politics depend on this. It doesn’t help that money, and the display of money through rampant consumerism is one of the few routes most people are offered towards being socially respected. It’s a precarious path, and it doesn’t get the majority where they want to be so it feeds resentment and dissatisfaction as well.

If we want to make real change – socially or environmentally – we have to persuade people to engage. People who feel belittled by a minority aren’t going to step away from a culture that promises to reward them for being selfish. It is essential to lift and inspire people rather than just criticising them. We’re all flawed, we all have things we do badly and competitive virtue signalling isn’t reliably virtuous. When it comes to making change in the world, I feel strongly that kindness and compassion are the key virtues to cultivate. Even if you do that primarily to try and impress people with your performance, it still works. If everyone is trying to perform kindness, we can get some good things done.

Kindness and compassion do not require us to be uncritical, but presentation can make a lot of odds. It’s possible to dismantle ideas without attacking people, and I think it gets more done to offer people ways of feeling better about themselves.

Be gentle for midwinter

I’ve not made much effort to be festive this year – the yule badgers were about it. Midwinter invariably finds me tired. Some years I have the willpower to push through that. This year, I don’t. 

Christmas can be a lot of work. The planning, the shopping, the packing, the food prep, the cleaning. This is all work that traditionally falls to women, and if you’re a mother you may be doing it with help from a child or three who are over-excited and going to lose it entirely at some point. I’ve been that person, although not recently, and never again.

It’s worth thinking about who we expect to do what on our behalf at this time of year. The unpaid labour. The emotional labour. The demands we make on retail staff. The low paid folk who take the brunt of frustration and shopping rage. It is not a season of goodwill to all – especially not when we’re shopping.

The idea of the perfect Christmas is something we’ve been sold. We know what it’s supposed to look like. All those Christmas related adverts showing clean, orderly houses stacked with food and gifts… it creates a lot of pressure. But then, that’s the whole point. The more inadequate you feel, the more you’re going to buy to try and make up for it.

We could be gentler with ourselves. We could be kind, and expect less of each other. We could spend less and consume less and rest more. Rest is cheap, which is no doubt why we aren’t encouraged to do it, when we could be wearing ourselves out trying to meet impossible standards. Rest is also essential and not some sort of bonus luxury you only earn when you’ve done every imaginable thing.

Access and Anxiety

Anxiety and some kinds of neurodivergence can make the uncertainty inherent in an event a real barrier to participation. These sorts of issues can be easily overlooked and can result in excluding people who could have participated with the right support. Accessibility isn’t just about whether a person can physically get into the space, barriers are not just about bodies.

I’m no great expert on neurodivergence. My understanding is that unfamiliar things, changes to routines, and other kinds of uncertainty can be immensely stressful for some neurodivergent people. Knowing things in advance so as to be able to feel prepared can make a great deal of odds and reduces anxiety.

I do know a fair bit about anxiety. Given an empty space, the anxious brain will just go ahead and plug in disasters. The more you know, the less room there is to unleash the panic weasels, and the more manageable the situation becomes.

What kind of thing a person needs to know about is probably going to be quite variable. Based on what I’ve seen around event organising, the most important thing is not to be complacent around requests for information. Don’t assume people are being unreasonable or demanding if they need to know about something ahead of time. Also, they probably aren’t going to tell you if they have sensitivity issues caused by autism, or a hard time imagining unfamiliar things, or are checking to avoid trauma triggers, or need to stop their brain from coming up with a hundred potential disasters.

If you don’t know exactly how something is going to work, tell people what you do know – try and work out what the limits are. Consider asking if there’s any kind of information they need. Make it ok for people to step out if something turns out to be too much for them. Actively support people whose psychological needs are different from your own and don’t expect everyone to be the same.

It shouldn’t matter why people are asking for information and help – in that we should not have to be persuaded they have a specific need in order to act on requests like these.

Ableism and Empathy

I think one of the things that commonly underlies ableism is not being able to feel empathy with ill and disabled people. People with no experience of pain can find it hard to imagine what it might be like living with pain all the time. People who are not frustrated by their bodies, or unable to predict what they might be able to do can have trouble understanding how that works for someone else. Crippling anxiety that stops you from doing things, depression that leaves you unable to function – it can be hard to empathise if you don’t know what it’s like.

Many people do better at empathy when they can see something that makes sense to them. Visible illness or injury is self announcing. If we see an awful bodily injury, we can make sense of it. The vast majority of illness and even injury doesn’t look like much if you don’t know how to interpret it. 

This all leads to the able person imagining that the person in distress is over-reacting, not trying hard enough and so forth. This results in mistreatment, bullying and the denial of essential resources. 

One of the best ways to build empathy is through the sharing of stories. The more we know about other people’s experiences, the more likely we are to be able to feel compassion for people we encounter. Seeking out other people’s stories is a good thing to do, and the internet makes it very easy. None of us can learn everything about all the things everyone else might be up against, but the process of learning about people living with disability, mental illness, neurodivergence, and bodily illness can give us some useful points of reference.

A happiness revolution

I was an anxious child, more fearful of the world than excited about it. I can’t remember not being aware of the threats and hazards around me and the importance of being very careful about everything all the time.  I grew up understanding that the important things were to work hard and be good, to learn and be useful. Everything I did I was supposed to do well – mostly I fell short of the mark. Wasting time, mucking about, playing – these were not encouraged. 

I have a suspicion that the knack for being happy is to a large extent a learned skill. I suspect it helps a lot to have emotional support around doing things simply for the pleasure of doing them. For children who are always supposed to be learning, practicing and improving themselves, how to be happy is a skill that might not be in the mix. For adults, much may depend on the expectations of the people around us. Are we allowed to have fun? What kind of fun are we allowed to have? Outside of sport and alcohol, the options can be sadly limited.

I’m not terribly good at being happy. There always seems to be something more important that needs my energy and attention. The state of the world doesn’t help with this and it often seems impossible to be happy when surrounded by so much suffering. The question of what I can do that would be good, or helpful always looms large.

At this point, philosophically it all gets a bit awkward. I believe that happiness is a good goal, a needful part of human life. I don’t think we’re going to save the world by martyring ourselves. No one is going to effectively dismantle colonialism, capitalism or patriarchy while working themselves to death. Joyfulness is radical and essential.

I’m fairly good at taking brief delight in small beauties – light on leaves, a moment of cat cuteness, a wildflower, a bee… I know how to appreciate that sort of thing. What I don’t know how to do is how to build a life where gentle, sustainable happiness is at the core of how you live. I’m convinced that kind of life is possible, but I don’t know what it would take to achieve it. I particularly don’t know what that would even look like for me, which is an interesting problem to have.

What is there that would be enriching without having to be focused on productivity? What could I (or for that matter anyone else) do for the pleasure of doing it? Clearly it would be good to do things that do not feel essential, are not economically oriented, and that are intrinsically rewarding. Happiness that doesn’t revolve around work or consumption, would move us all towards more sustainable ways of living. Certainly our current ways of doing things aren’t uplifting or emotionally rewarding for most people.

Punching the Inner Nazis

I’m never going to punch an actual Nazi. I’m not strong enough, or violent enough. I like to imagine that if it came to it, I would put myself bodily in the way, but that’s about all I can do.

My inner Nazi is a whole other issue. It’s taken a while to recognise and acknowledge him, but there he is, inside my head and sorely in need of punching. In recent weeks I’ve realised that I’m not the only person with an inner Nazi, and that those other ones urgently need punching too.

The inner Nazi says that your right to live is conditional on being good enough, doing enough, being  useful, productive… I wouldn’t measure anyone else by those standards because while I live with the inner Nazi, I am not a Nazi myself. I don’t think anyone’s right to life has anything to do with anything except their being alive in the first place. My only exception is me.

I watch friends with mental health problems beating themselves up for not being good enough, useful enough, not earning enough money. As though these things are the measure of a person. As though worth could be something other than intrinsic. The right to live is not something we should feel we have to earn.

I’ve found that identifying him as my inner Nazi has helped me shout him down when he kicks off. I feel more confident about coming back with the kind of verbal abuse I think that kind of outlook merits. I will punch the inner Nazi until he shuts up. I will punch him down every time he surfaces inside my head. I will keep punching him until he dies, because it’s the right thing to do in this context, and I will get out there and see what I can do to help with the punching of other inner Nazis.

And if you find you’ve got an inner Nazi who does impact on how you view and treat other people, definitely punch that one as well. Destroying bigotry, hate, oppression and intolerance is something we have to do within ourselves, and that calls for self-scrutiny and a willingness to evict anything that isn’t part of who we want to be. 

Reimagining the revolution

Imagine what the industrial revolution would have been like around the world if the aims had been different. Imagine if the developing technology had been all about freeing people from drudgery and improving their quality of life. Not children working twelve hour shifts in factories, not working humans routinely maimed and killed by machines, and not squalid slums for workers to live in. Imagine if the industrial revolution had been all about making life better for everyone.

Of course with the kind of technology we had, this would have been difficult. The city smogs were caused by air pollution from coal burning industries. The whole thing depended on human lives sacrificed for coal, sacrificed for building projects, cut short by horrific illness caused by exposure to pollutants. Around the world, industrial revolution has meant a dramatic plummet in quality of life for the working poor.

What if that wasn’t inevitable? What if that wasn’t progress? What if the ‘gains’ made for the already rich and comfortable weren’t actually worth the price so many paid for it? 

If progress meant better quality of life, we wouldn’t have people living in poverty. No one would have to choose between heating and eating. We have the resources to take care of everyone, but not the political will. What if we saw no virtue or value in tedious jobs and cheerfully handed those over to the machines to give everyone more time to live rich, full and rewarding lives? What if we didn’t create an impoverished underclass who could then be pressured into working miserably in order to barely survive? 

We could have done that with the first industrial revolution. New technology could have been harnessed to serve the common good, not the profits of the few. This is always an option, and never the one that gets priority. Meanwhile we celebrate and idolise the wealth that costs most of us, and the planet an unbearable amount.

What if we stopped imagining that work is the key to human existence, and started considering some alternative ways of thinking about ourselves?

Peeling off a label

I don’t really identify with gender. However, the practical reality is that I have a female-appearing body and because of that I am subject to the sexism and hazards women face. I have identified with feminism, but I’m increasingly unsure about what the word now means, or whether I want to be part of it.

I definitely do not want to be part of the white feminism that talks over the global majority or treats them as victims to be saved. I don’t want to be part of the way white feminism can be complicit in racism, and in perpetuating racial stereotypes. 

I do not want to be part of the cis-feminism that is so quick to shout ‘erasure’ if there’s a person with a cervix in the room or a parent who gave birth. I’m sick of the actual erasure of non-binary folk and trans folk and how that impacts on their safety. Our safety. I’m sick of the idea that acknowledging trans and non-binary folk somehow undermines or harms the idea of womanhood or female identity. 

I do not want to be part of the biological essentialism that causes so much pain to women who don’t have all of the ‘woman parts’ – the women who were born with different bodies, the women who have lost body parts or functions to illness, accident and operations and who should not have their identity threatened by this. Not everyone who thinks of themselves as female bleeds, for many different reasons. I don’t want to be part of a feminism that throws women under a bus for not conforming enough to gender stereotypes.

I do want women to be safer. I want an end to gender based violence and to all other forms of gender inequality. I want equality of respect and dignity, I want equal chances of healthcare needs being met, I want an end to the pay gap. I want everyone to be safer, and to do that we have to deconstruct patriarchal and colonial structures and mindsets. I want to work with anyone who is pushing for that. I want an end to racism, and classism and ableism. They’re all interconnected.

Female Safety

CW rape and violence

The judge in the sentencing hearing for Wayne Couzens described his victim Sarah Everard as “wholly blameless”. There’s a subtext here, that a victim of rape and murder could, in some instances, be considered not wholly blameless, and this is both appaling and unsurpriing. Here in the UK we have a long tradition of blaming the victims of violence – especially women.

My whole life, I’ve been hearing what women should do to stay safe – don’t drink, don’t go out on your own, don’t go out after dark, use your keys to defend yourself, don’t dress provocatively, stay in areas with plenty of other people around. Sabina Nessa should (by that useless theory) have been safe on those terms, but she was murdered recently. 

Now the Metropolitan police are telling women what to do to stay safe if approached by a police officer. Because we can no longer safely assume that a police officer won’t assault, rape or murder a woman, in the aftermath of what Wayne Couzens did to Sarah Everard. He was shielded and enabled by his status as a police officer. The Met, let me repeat, are now telling women what to do for their own safety if approached by a police officer.

I don’t have words for how angry I am. These are the people whose job it is to uphold the law and keep people safe. If the institutional response to police brutality is to make the victims responsible for their own safety from police abuse, the police cannot be said to exist to uphold the law or keep people safe. As Talis Kimberly pointed out on Twitter, if this is the case, no-one should be charged with resisting arrest – especially not anyone whose apparent race or gender identity might put them at risk of being killed by the police. 

In theory we are supposed to be policed by consent. No one consents to police brutality, to rape or to murder. Either we need an urgent and radical overhaul of how policing works and how problematic policepersons are dealt with, or we are, of necessity, going to all have to treat the police as dangerous and suspicious – and clearly that’s not going to go well for anyone.

Radical change is long overdue. Police brutality towards black people is a known and longstanding issue. Police attitudes to protestors are highly problematic and tend to defend the convenience and property of the powerful at the expense of the freedom and wellbeing of ordinary people. Violence against women seldom leads to justice, with rape prosecution an area of absolute shame in this regard. Innocent, blameless women die all the time in the UK – a further 80 since Sarah Everard was murdered. It’s relentless. If you haven’t willingly participated in a violent situation, you are blameless and innocent.

The police are supposed to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. We have to demand change.