Category Archives: The quiet revolution

Seeking discomfort

One of the hardest things to do is wilfully challenge the ways in which you are comfortable. Yesterday’s blog – Seeking comfort brought up a comment about white poverty in the southern states of America, “Why do people so often assume that to be white means to have a privileged life?” I’ve been in this conversation quite a few times before. It makes people uncomfortable.

Privilege is relative, and not an absolute condition, you can have privilege in some ways and be massively disadvantaged in others. You can be dirt poor and better off than someone else who is dirt poor and of a minority religion, sexual identity or racial background. It’s not that white privilege means we white people all have it easy, it means there are people who, by dint of skin colour, have it harder than us. In just the same way, having straight privilege, or male privilege, or cis privilege or being mentally and physically well does mean you live a charmed life. It means you have a certain set of advantages that you may be taking for granted.

If you’ve never looked at how your life may advantage you in some ways, it tends to be an uncomfortable process. If you are invested in the idea of your disadvantage, it can be really uncomfortable looking at how realistic this is. There’s a lot of difference between being poor in a peaceful country that has a social safety net and being poor in a famine or a war zone. And of course there are some vocal young men out there on social media keen to get across the idea that middle class straight white boys are the most persecuted minority in the world. If you think being able to flag up how persecuted you are creates some kind of social advantage, of course you’ll want to persuade people you are the ‘real’ victim. That kind of behaviour can only come from a place of not understanding what it means to be disadvantaged.

Having our stories challenged is never comfortable. We all exist in contexts that involve other people, culture, history… we are all still implicated in what colonialism has done around the world and what capitalism does, and the exploitation and abuse these things involve. It isn’t comfortable. It’s much more comfortable to pretend you don’t benefit from the things you benefit from. It’s much easier not to look at how you fit in the bigger picture.

Being able to resist such discomfort by refusing to engage with it, is the biggest privilege there is. Being able to deny your position in your culture and history is a place of power. Those who are trapped by culture and history don’t get to pretend it isn’t happening to them and have that be an effective solution.

Willingness to be uncomfortable is necessary for change. If we aren’t willing to be uncomfortable, we won’t work for fairness, or justice or equality. And if we’re making other people uncomfortable, it’s important to ask are we doing that by doubling down on what’s already hard for them, or are we doing it by pointing out where things might be better for them than they’ve acknowledged. If people are living in a state of discomfort, the right answer is to try and ease that where we can. If people are comfortable and oblivious to how much they have – they urgently need to feel uncomfortable. Most of us fall somewhere in between, advantaged in some ways and disadvantaged in others and better off when we can see how that works.

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Seeking comfort

Our soft mammal bodies crave comfort. Climate crisis is going to give us a hard time on that score as we struggle with extremes of heat and cold, drought and rain. Those who have least will be hurt most by this. Those who have most will wack on the air con, or the heater and add to the problems.

Some people lack for comfort because they don’t have enough food, or can’t afford enough. Protein and good quality fats are expensive. Our bodies don’t always seem able to tell the difference between the comfort of sufficiency, and the kind of excess that will bring discomfort. We did not evolve to deal with routine excess.

Rest is one of the most important comforts available to us, and hard to come by. Rest requires quiet, space and time in which to do very little and feel ok about that. We’re encouraged to have hectic ‘modern’ lifestyles that deprive us of rest, and then to seek comfort other places – by buying something. A sofa, alcohol, junk food, holidays… None of the things we buy when we are trying to offset insufficient rest will give us the comfort we need.

Emotional comfort goes to those who have most and are most conventional. To be straight and white, middle class, financially secure, well educated, and home owning represents a selection of comforts that may be invisible to the person who has them. To be queer, poor, working insecure jobs and living in insecure conditions is to be much less comfortable. Many of these things intersect with each other to make things worse. Add in ethnicity, and the stresses and vulnerabilities this involves in any white-dominated society, and there’s a lot to contend with.

We seek comfort, all of us. For those of us who are systemically kept outside the comfort zones, this can be hard going, or impossible. For those who have too much comfort, this can lead to lack of empathy and understanding for those who have less. It can result in feelings of having deserved to be comfortable and being entitled to be comfortable. Thus when the uncomfortable make themselves seen and heard, the comfortable often feel threatened by this.

Too much comfort can make a life stagnant and unsatisfying – we do all need some challenges and opportunities to grow and learn. Too little comfort is a problem on a whole different scale. To live a life with no padding, no insulation against setback, much less disaster, is hard. Every day. To face only challenges and seldom know respite is emotionally exhausting. To fight against people who have too much and don’t understand what their comfort means, or what it means not to have that, is relentless.

Those with the most, and with the greatest sense of entitlement are also those with the most power, and they tend to reinforce the status quo – not always consciously. If everything supports your comfort and ease, it must be really tempting to see that as the natural order of things, and to see those who have less as less deserving, even if you never consciously think in those terms. It’s not comfortable asking how your comfort relates to the discomfort of others. When you have the power to maintain your comfort at someone else’s expense, it’s very easy not to look at how that works.


Talking about poverty

The stories in western cultures go that wealth is deserved and poverty is the consequence of laziness or other failings. This makes it difficult to talk about experiences of being poor, because there’s always the fear of being judged, blamed and thought less of. This in turn makes it harder to challenge those dominant narratives about what wealth and poverty mean.

In practice, your best chance at being rich is to be born into a wealthy family. It’s not actually about personal excellence, skill or merit for the greater part. It is the accident of your birth. There are of course exceptions, but on the whole, wealth begets wealth.

If you are born into poverty, you may be clever enough and skilled enough to work your way out – people do. But, not everyone does. We have many studies from psychology that demonstrate what happens to rats growing up in impoverished environments and with poor diets. None of it bodes well for your average rat, or, by reasonable extension, your average human. Exceptional people can thrive regardless of where they start from, but a system that requires everyone poor to be exceptional clearly isn’t fair or reasonable.

Most households are only one serious problem away from disaster. A sudden job loss, a serious illness, a bereavement, the failing of a key bit of kit… and from there, debt, and difficulty and spiralling into increasing trouble from which it is every harder to break out. Poverty is often a consequence of sheer bad luck. However, if we blame people for their poverty and misery, those of us who are doing ok can hang on to the belief that our virtues keep us safe. We can pretend it won’t happen to us… right up until it does.

People who have never experienced poverty can have some funny ideas both about how it works, and who is afflicted by it. I’ve been in too many conversations about the undeserving poor, the feckless, careless, doing it to themselves, should try harder, shouldn’t have had so many children… Words from comfortable people who may not even be aware of how they are inclined to blame the poor for poverty. And yes, of course some poor people make bad choices – people at any income level do that. We judge the person with a million pounds of debt far differently from how we judge the person who doesn’t have a tenner for food this week.

I’ve experienced poverty. I’ve managed to keep afloat – which I think was a mix of luck, judgement and discipline. I’ve had those days when I wished I could get so drunk that I no longer felt anything. I know why people might do less than responsible things to try and escape from the misery of their own lives – if only for a while. Grinding misery does not facilitate the best short term thinking.

The Haves get their stories about poverty – for the greater part – from the media and from others who have plenty. We won’t get a cultural shift without those who have enough better understanding how poverty works. So I keep trying to talk about it. I keep asking people if they have ever had to choose between heating and eating, and what they imagine that might be like. I will challenge assumptions about all the luxuries the Haves are convinced the Have Nots are able to get with universal credit. I’ll keep talking about the shopping implications of poverty, and the stress and mental health implications. I hope by doing so I will also make it a bit easier for other people to tell their stories.

A great deal of poverty is invisible, because the stigma attached to it makes it much more appealing to hide the problem and pretend you are ok. Can you tell if the person you are looking at has been able to afford decent food this week? You can’t. Do you know whose debts have spiralled out of control? Who is selling their stuff on ebay to pay the electric bill? Of course not. And if you treat poverty as the deserved consequence of personal failure, who is going to tell you otherwise?


Utility and identity

Being reduced to your utility is not good for self esteem. However, there’s a powerful flip-side to this as well – if you aren’t sure of what space there is for you, utility can be a good thing to hide behind. I’ve gone into many spaces offering my usefulness and willing to work simply so that I could be confident there was a space for me. I find it hard to ask for space if I’m not clear about what I’m offering. I feel more secure when I have a defined role.

Workishness can also be a good defence from having to look too closely at areas of insufficiency. I’ve done this, too. If you’re always busy, if there’s always a stack of jobs to do, you never have to pause and look at your life. Emotional insufficiencies can be blocked out by work. If you are busy, you never have to ask what you want or need – something else is always more important. If your situation isn’t that happy or rewarding but you want to stay in it, being busy can enable that, but it isn’t always the best choice.

Relentless working can become a part of your identity. The idea of ‘hard work’ as a virtue can mean that grinding yourself down every day seems like a noble or necessary activity. If you take up residence here, then the work, the doing, and being someone who works flat out all the time can become a major part of your sense of self. I’ve watched a few people go down this road and it isn’t pretty. Once you buy into working yourself into the ground as part of who you are, there’s a lot of motivation to hang on to it. Who would you be without the work?

Who am I? It is always a challenging question to ask. Who am I aside from this thing I have pegged my time, energy and identity to? And the more frightening question: Am I anything at all if I am not useful and working? It can prove far less frightening to keep slogging away so as not to have space to ask that question in the first place…

Relentless slogging leads to diminishing returns. Exhaustion, burnout, lack of ideas, lack of inspiration and input all take you in a downward spiral, locked into an embrace with the very thing that is taking you down. Breaking out of that is hard. If you’ve become utility-orientated, the best break out comes from seeing utility in different terms: If you want to be creative, inspired, able to do radical new things and make real change, you need to be well resourced. You need energy and inspiration and this means you need to take care of your own needs and wants at least some of the time. Resting improves efficiency.

The other question to ask, is what are you working for? What is this supposed to achieve? Because unless your vision is of a world where we all work ourselves to death as fast as possible, the odds are you aren’t moving towards your own vision here. I’ve seen this come up repeatedly for activists and creators alike. Living in a way that is at odds with the world you want to create isn’t a good idea and manifestly does not deliver your intentions.

It’s important to pause regularly and draw breath. Ask what you are doing, and why, and whether the means truly support the ends. If you are routinely hurting yourself, ask what you are protecting yourself from in doing this. Dare to ask what you really want, and what the best way to get there might be. Being busy isn’t always the most productive approach, sometimes it’s a way of avoiding the things you most need to do.


Work and mental health

There are all sorts of things I would like to do but can’t, because I know I don’t have the emotional resilience. It is, frequently, really frustrating. There are skills I have that I can’t always use to best effect because I can’t deal with certain kinds of situations. If there’s an aggressive tone to arguing, I won’t last long. I can’t cope with people who are controlling and like to run power-over – which does not make me easy to employ! If I need to stand up for myself, I can find I’ve got nowhere to go.

I’m fortunate in that there are a number of steady, small freelance jobs I do where I’m well insulated. I work for people who understand me, am left mostly to get on with it, and feel safe. I do some pretty good work in those contexts, too. If there’s nothing to trigger a mental health problem, I’m a good worker. I bring loyalty, dedication, willingness to go the extra distance to get things done. Frequently I also bring passion and creative thinking. What I don’t have is the capacity to fight people. I don’t have the means to deal with a lot of ‘normal’ human behaviour.

I hate how this makes me feel. I hate the feeling of inadequacy that comes from not being able to deal with more abrasive environments. I hate not having the emotional resources to face down someone who is being sexist, or unreasonably demanding, or domineering. I hate having to ask for help dealing with more challenging workspaces. I hate having to say to people that I know I am too fragile to do something.

I also know that mental health is fragile. We’re all breakable. We can all be ground down by too much pressure, by inhuman treatment, unreasonable demands, constantly shifting goal posts and toxic environments. There’s so much mental health crisis in the world today and it is in no small part because we insist on maintaining toxic workspaces. There is shame in saying ‘I can’t take this’ and so often the feeling that you should be able to, and that not being tough enough to handle the poison is your failing, not the failing of your situation.

I am too fragile for this. I hate being too fragile. I will however, keep talking about it, keep owning the shame I feel and the difficulty I experience. I don’t want to work in environments where any sensitivity gets you labelled a snowflake and treated dismissively, or further bullied for being in trouble. I know it isn’t necessary. There is no job, no working arrangement where efficiency is improved by giving people a hard time. There is no job where bullying makes people better at what they do, and having to fight every inch of the way ups your creativity. It’s a rather nasty myth that keeps certain spaces in the hands of the most aggressive and toxic people. Politics being a very obvious example of this.

If you can’t stand the heat, there’s something wrong with the kitchen.


Labels, power and identity

Labels are certainly useful when it comes to finding people you have stuff in common with. The Druid, Pagan and Steampunk labels have served me very well in that way. When we give ourselves those labels and seek other people who identify with them most of what happens is good.

Naming things is essential if you want to talk about them. Finding descriptions we can agree about isn’t always an easy process, and the more personal and emotive the things that need naming, the harder it gets. When people are on an even footing trying to find language to communicate, the inevitable bumps in this process are, I think, largely worth it.

However, labels can also be stuck to people as an act of power-over. To have the power to label someone is to have the power to over-rule their self identification and replace it with your own terms. This may be backed up by notions of being ‘academic’ or more informed or having authority based on your job, or other forms of seniority. However, when you take away a person’s right to name themselves and put a label on them, you reduce their power and assert your own. When that happens, the basis of the authority needs questioning.

Labels can also be refused and taken away. There’s always someone keen to say who isn’t a real Steampunk, Pagan, Druid, Briton, Jew, to tell disabled people they aren’t really disabled… to tell people they don’t look poor so they can’t be working class, that their gender identity doesn’t exist… It’s nasty stuff. As many of those examples flag up, it’s not just a name you lose when this happens – it may be state aid, the right to self expression, safety, and other essential things. Miss-labeling is so often where we start when we intend to strip people of other things as well.

If we aren’t on an equal footing when labels are being ascribed, then labels are something that are done to us. Politicians calling refugees migrants is a case in point. That’s a re-labeling with massive consequences. Think about the kind of language used to label the LGBTQ community, or the habit of less inclusive Christians to insist that all Pagans are Satanists. Miss-labeling tends to disappear something of who you are and replace it with who you are assumed to be. It can be anything from annoying through to life threatening, depending on the context. It’s definitely not something to take lightly.


Seeking the handcrafted life

Creativity should be an option for everyone. Making and re-making, repurposing, and upcycing are skills we all need to reduce what we throw away. The pleasure of creating from scratch should be everyone’s right, not seen as the domain of the talented few. Whether that’s cooking or gardening, rag rugging, painting, dancing or singing or anything else you can think of, we should all have the time and resources to follow our creative interest. Not as a way of making a living, necessarily, but for the sheer joy of it.

As an aside, I think there would be much greater appreciation of professional creativity if everyone was engaged with it for fun as well. A culture of creativity would increase the value of original work.

Creativity is not just about obvious arts and crafts activities. It’s also about how much innovation we have in our lives. Do we just run through the same routines day to day? Do we do what we’ve always done, powered largely by habit and clinging to what’s familiar? Does life have scope for adventure in it? Is there room for surprise, for joy, excitement, novelty and pleasure? Can we make these things for ourselves or are we only looking to buy answers to those human needs for interest?

One of the things I’ve learned working creatively, is that inspiration requires space. You can’t be busy all the time and expect to keep coming up with great ideas as well. It’s the quite down time that hatches plots and plans. It’s the unstructured spaces where I can daydream, chew over things I’ve learned and wool gather that makes room for a lightning strike of inspiration. If I’m nothing but busy, I don’t have anything like as many good ideas – about anything.

The busyness of conventional western life doesn’t leave us much room to think. Most of us are sleep deprived as well. We rush from one thing to another, time pressured, money pressured, constantly getting messages about why we aren’t good enough. These forces can leave you living a life that is not of your designing. You can so easily end up running after money and then needing that money to console yourself for everything that’s missing. A slower, less economically active life can be both less expensive and more rewarding. Without the space to think creatively about how you live, this is hard to achieve.

Most of us have more time available than we think we do. The trick is to turn off the screens for a bit. Screens are addictive, and feed the fear of not keeping up, the pressure to be available, the sense of panic if we don’t know what’s going on and aren’t busy all the time. Turn the screens off. Remove small screens from about your person. Turn them off and leave them behind and go to a quiet place, and just breathe for a while. Look at the sky, or a tree, or the life in the grass. Sometimes it takes a while for all the chaotic, stampeding things in your head to calm down, but eventually they will, and once there is calm, there is space to ask questions about what you want, and what you need, and what just has you chasing your tail to no real purpose.

When you have time to think, you have the scope to think creatively. When you can think creatively, you can take much more control of your life and live on your own terms. A handmade life, imagined and crafted by you and for you. It’s well worth making the effort for.


If you don’t want abortions

No one actively wants an abortion. It’s just that there are times when not keeping that small bundle of cells is a better choice. It should be blindingly obvious that no one with a womb should be required to carry a child of rape or incest to term. It should also be blindingly obvious that women who need late term abortions are not baby killing monsters. A late term abortion is a tragedy – always. It means that a baby who was very much wanted has got into difficulty, or the mother has, and there is only pain and misery ahead. The abortion is the kindest choice available – which is a dreadful, heartbreaking place to be. Anyone needing a late term abortion needs care, support and understanding.

There are four main reasons why women get pregnant when they don’t want to be pregnant. Reason one is lack of education. If you haven’t had proper sex education, and don’t know precisely what leads to pregnancy and exactly how to avoid it, then your risk of getting pregnant against your will is much increased. Good sex education reduces the need for abortions. The second main reason is lack of access to free, or at least affordable contraception. This is also easily fixed.

Reason number three is economic. If you cannot afford a child, then raising one in poverty may not be an appealing idea. Women are less likely to seek abortions for economic reasons if having a child is not likely to throw you into poverty. Proper financial support for parents makes it easier for a woman to say yes to a baby she was not expecting.

The main reason women find themselves pregnant when they don’t want to be pregnant, is men. Without a man in the equation, penis, sperm and all, it is pretty much impossible for a woman to become pregnant by accident. If a man declines to use condoms, or takes them off during sex, or won’t pull out, the risk of an unwanted pregnancy is much increased. Power imbalances in relationships remain a thing. Imagine a world in which a man could be prosecuted for causing an unwanted pregnancy. Consider the implications.

The right to bodily autonomy for a woman disappears as soon as a man puts his sexual pleasure ahead of her safety. Our culture tells the story of the feckless woman who isn’t sexually responsible and goes out and ‘gets herself’ pregnant and then doesn’t want the baby. No doubt careless women exist, but the more you know about the implications of getting pregnant, the less likely you are to take those risks in the first place. Women who have had a decent sex education don’t tend to go this way unless what they’re after is a baby – in which case you won’t see them seeking abortion.

We do not talk about the role of men in abortions. For every abortion, there is someone who brought his sperm along. Again, education will play a big role here, but for the chaps I think it’s not just about sexual education, it’s the need to educate about responsibility. As long as pregnancy is seen as a woman’s problem, male responsibility for causing it is ignored and most critically, ignored by the men who are causing unwanted pregnancies. A woman does not get herself pregnant, there’s someone else in the equation. Someone who is not currently subject to legislation about their rights to get women pregnant and who bears no legal responsibility for the unwanted baby.

A culture serious about reducing the need for abortions would provide good sex education and free and affordable contraception for anyone who wanted it. That culture would not have a rape culture within it in which women’s safety is seen as less important than male pleasure. A culture serious about the idea that babies matter would make sure no child ends up in abject poverty. When you look at the policies of places criminalizing abortion, these other things are also in short supply too. The underlying idea is not that every baby is precious, it is that women should not be allowed to decide if they go through with a pregnancy. Carrying a baby to term is no small thing and it will change your life. The man involved may be made to pay maintenance, but he’s not obliged to change his whole life to accommodate this new person.

If abortions are illegal, knowingly causing an unwanted pregnancy should also be an offence. That it isn’t tells us a great deal about the real priorities involved.


Eco Justice

Sustainability and economic and social justice all naturally go hand in hand. Any project that doesn’t deal with all of these areas together may be setting itself up to fail.

There are two major sources of pressure on the natural world. One comes from the greed of people who have far more than they need and will destroy environments to take more. That’s what we’re seeing with oil extraction, fracking, palm oil plantations, industrial fishing practices, rather a lot of mining – anything where big industry goes in and clears out what’s valuable.

This happens not only at the expense of the environment, but also to the detriment of ordinary people living in the afflicted landscape. People may be persuaded in the short term with the bribe of jobs and money, but it is they who will deal with the flammable water, the flooding that comes from deforestation, the soil degradation and all the other long term consequences of big industry destroying the landscape. It is important to recognise that people who have been bribed and lied to about the implications are not wholly responsible for where that leads.

The second major pressure on ecosystems can come from the aftermath of the above, or be generated by war, climate change or other such challenges. People in desperation simply trying to survive become locked into unsustainable practices that further deplete the land and the wildlife. Environmental damage caused by hungry people can only be tackled if you also deal with the hunger.

We have a nasty habit of thinking in terms of nature as human-free and protecting landscapes by either ignoring the people in it or taking them out. It tends to be the poorest and most vulnerable people who are treated this way. If we want long term environmental solutions, we need the people in the landscape to be part of it, not something to drive off.

Both sides of this damaging process need dealing with. We have to curb the greed of people with far more than they need. We have to reduce the desires to consume of people who already have a decent standard of living. We have to help those who have little or nothing to live at a decent standard in a way that will work for their local environments. While there is any significant belief that those with great piles of resources are entitled to what they have and those with nothing deserve nothing, we won’t be able to sort out the way human activity impacts on the planet.

We need to find ways of being that allow us collectively to live within the planet’s means. We need to question the idea that it’s acceptable for many people to starve while a few have grotesque excess. Justice for the environment goes hand in hand with justice for people. We have to replace our long out of date feudal thinking that has the rich few at the top of the pyramid and the deprived many at the bottom, and create for ourselves social structures that are much more equitable. To preserve our environment and keep it fit for human habitation, we have to live more cooperatively, and more equitably.


Gender education

We’ve had issues in the UK for some time now about parents wanting their kids not to be exposed to LGBTQ information at school. Some teachers appear not to be keen either. Today I want to talk about what happens when we let kids grow up thinking that straight if the normal default.

I assume there are a subset of people who believe if you tell your kid that gay is a thing, it will turn them gay. If they don’t know, they’ll be straight. This is a perspective that assumes gay is a deviance that a person chooses, and can choose not to be. There are of course people who can choose – we’re called bisexuals, and we are often made invisible, even to ourselves.

A young person who does not know LGBTQ people exist may go through childhood aware they are out of kilter with people around them. They have no words for this. They will feel isolated, lonely, lost and all kinds of other distress. Eventually they will figure out who they are. Rather than growing up feeling secure and validated, they grow up without that. That’s a cruel thing to do to a child. Our sexual identities start to show up pre-puberty. No one should be frightened by the nature of their childhood crushes.

If queer is so abnormal you can’t talk about it, the suspicion of queerness becomes grounds for bullying.

If you grow up straight, with straight being treated like the only option, you’ll likely give little thought to your orientation. Straight kids don’t have to come out to their parents as straight. Now, if we bring kids up aware of diversity, they may all have to look at themselves along the way and figure out who they are. No one is default normal any more, and no one is the weird outsider, and everyone has to give it some thought – that’s a much more level playing field.

There seems to be an unspoken assumption that straight kids who get to grow up feeling normal and never having to come out to anyone are advantaged – and indeed in some ways they are. But it also has a price tag, and that price tag is never having to think about who you are. I think there are a lot of benefits in asking questions. I also think there are bisexuals who are pushed into straight identities because they have no idea who they are. And if straight is normal and queer is deviant and you can pass as normal if you hide part of yourself – this is not a good way to live.

Kids are not led astray by knowing more about the breadth of human possibility. You don’t turn people gay by telling them that gay exists. What you do is save them from having to live either as outsiders, or trying to fake being something they are not. Anyone who thinks heterosexuality is so fragile that it can only be maintained by never letting children know about the other stuff, doesn’t really believe that being straight is as natural and normal as they make out. I wonder, with great discomfort, how many of the most vocal people protesting that kids who know about LGBTQ will be corrupted by it, are in fact bisexual people who have been cultured to hate part of themselves. As a bisexual person, this makes me uncomfortable, but we are the people who can choose whether to get into a queer relationship. It’s not a choice for other people. Just us.

If you are a straight person who has chosen to be straight, because you could have gone the other way, you aren’t straight. You’re bisexual and you’ve made choices.