Tag Archives: community

The community cost of injustice

There’s an obvious upfront cost to injustice that relates very immediately to whatever has gone wrong. What seems like a small unfairness to someone not immediately affected by it can seem like a small problem, not worth the hassle of sorting out. To the person on the receiving end, that small wrong can be life destroying. However, there is a larger and more subtle cost, one that we keep overlooking. Injustice breaks relationships and undermines communities. All the injustice that stems from prejudice. All the injustice that is intrinsic to rape and abuse. Social and financial injustice. All of it.

So, you’re affected by something, and it hurts you, and damages your life, your wellbeing. I’ll leave it to you to decide what sort of injustice to imagine or remember at this point. Nothing is done. The system refuses to change, the perpetrator is not tackled, no one says ‘hey that’s not ok and shouldn’t be happening.’ You are left with the immediate damage, and the knowledge that no one cares enough to do anything about it. A second level of hurt comes from this, and that hurt can go deeper than even the initial damage.

If your wounding is trivialised and/or ignored, then your relationship with the people who don’t care, changes. It may be that you have to see the injustice inherent in the system, and you can’t ever unsee it and feel easy about things again. It may be that you start seeing all people from the group that harmed you as a potential threat. You will likely feel cut off, and alienated, and angry, and there’s nowhere to take that because the people who most need to know about it have already made it pretty clear that they don’t care.

We’re doing this all the time. We do it at the state level. We collectively turn away from victims. We close our ears to them, we don’t listen to their stories. If we don’t think something would bother us, we decline to see why it would be a problem for anyone else. Injustice severs the natural bonds between people. It dehumanises all of us. When we look away. When we don’t worry because it’s not happening to us. When we say ‘oh, it’s not that big a deal really, stop making a fuss,’  we contribute. And so there is fear, and mistrust, resentment, bitterness, anger all bubbling away in so many places for so many reasons. It’s been there a long time and it won’t change easily, but change it must.


Community solutions

For some time now, I’ve been exploring the idea that many of the problems our societies construct as individual issues, aren’t. I’ve mostly been looking at this in terms of mental health, but suspect it applies more widely. The emphasis on the problem as being the individual’s problem, and the solution being individual too, seems highly suspect to me. Depression, anxiety and other stress-induced problems happen in a context, and if we don’t change the context how can there be a real solution?

Up until this week, I’d thought of my problems with inspiration as being a personal problem, necessitating personal solutions, or otherwise unfixable. Opening up about the problem has brought me a lot of conversations – here, on facebook and by email. Thank you everyone who did that. Apparently it’s not just me. Rather than seeing a personal problem, I’m now seeing a much bigger problem(s) impacting on creative people. The answer, then, is to find solutions that aren’t just for me. Maybe what we have here is the sort of thing that can only be dealt with collectively.

My plan at the moment is to spend time over the next few days really facing up to this, to my own feelings of guilt, shame, grief and loss, and to look at what paralyses me. I’ve not done this before, because these are painful things to look in the face, but, I think it’s necessary to walk into it.

So, this is an open invitation to contribute. If you have experiences either of being able to maintain your creativity, or of struggling with it, and you’re willing to share what’s happening, then please do. If you don’t want to do that in public, just comment that you’d like an email and I’ll get in touch – wordpress helpfully shows me your email address when you comment. Anything shared privately I won’t put out in public except in a generic ‘some people are finding’ kind of way.


Needing People

Some people like to feel needed, but there are plenty of folk for whom saying ‘I need you’ is likely to induce some kind of panic. What they hear (I suspect) is more like ‘I need you to commit to doing certain things for me.’ I need you to bolster me up in certain ways. I need you to look after me, take responsibility for me, I will make work for you and suck up your time and energy.

We all need people. At a practical level, most of us need people to do the many things we cannot do for ourselves. We may never meet the people who grow and prepare our food, make our clothes, provide our electricity and maintain our roads but we need them nonetheless.

Humans are social creatures. We’ve evolved to work co-operatively and to live in groups. Many of us, if left alone, become lonely and miserable. Here’s an article about how loneliness kills. Meaningful human interactions are part of what keeps us sane and coping.

We all need people.

What if that needing isn’t about specific actions? What if it’s not about asking people to take roles and responsibilities within our lives? What if I can say ‘I need you’ and you will hear that as my need to have you, as you are, in my life. Not doing anything extra, just doing what you do and being who you are.

What if being who you are and doing what you do is wholly sufficient already? What if you didn’t have to go some difficult extra mile to be the sort of person who is needed? Then being needed wouldn’t be a matter of utility, just a recognition of who we are.


Lessons from 2016

I’m a big fan of pausing now and then to review my experiences so that I can see what there is to be learned. The end of a calendar year is a very obvious point at which to do this. Normally I review things on a day to day basis, but some patterns and lessons only really emerge when a bigger time frame is considered.

2016 delivered a run of intensive lessons about how I value myself, and how I act based on that value. For too long, I’ve been over-grateful for any kind of place to be involved, any sense of being wanted, or useful, or tolerated. In practice this has made me vulnerable to people who want to use me, and has put me in places that don’t give me what I need. At a less unpleasant level, it has also put me in places of half-heartedness and lack of commitment, and those don’t suit me either.

What I need, above and beyond all else in terms of work and community is the emphatic ‘Yes’. I need the people who are wholehearted about wanting me in the mix and who will accept my wholehearted and serious commitment. Situations that want me half-hearted, not too intense, and so on, crush me over time. I have realised that if I assume nothing better is available, then I won’t be looking for anything better. This year I started looking for the social spaces that give me an emphatic yes. I’d come to think of my marriage as a little bubble of difference, a unique space that I couldn’t hope to replicate in terms of the feeling of being valued, accepted and inspired. It’s not just us, I just needed to learn how to look, and to believe it was worth looking.

For a couple of years now, working at Moon Books part time has been an absolute joy, because that’s a space where my energy, ideas, innovation and efforts are valued and trusted. I love that work, and it has become the measure for other things I take on with other people (measuring everyone against Tom would seem unfair). If it’s not as good as Moon Books, if I’m not as excited about it, if I’m not working with people who are that fired up… why would I bother?

What I’ve found is that spaces, and people are becoming more available to me. I want to do the work that only I can do. I want to do work that is needed and valued. I want to spend my spare time with people who are delighted to do that, not with people who grudgingly accommodate and find me difficult. 2016 has taught me that I can have those things, and I don’t need to waste any more of my time on half-hearted nonsense.


Grooming the human mammal

Mammals groom. As I type this, I’m sat next to a cat who is busily washing herself, with her tongue. For most mammals, washing means licking. For any non-solitary creature, grooming is also a collective activity with a community bonding aspect to it. I wonder when it was that humans stopped licking themselves, and each other. Clothes clearly have an influence. To lick a fellow human these days could only be understood as a sexual act, and certainly none of us would be likely to think of it as hygiene.

The grooming of fellow humans is also something we no longer do as a natural part of daily life. Parent humans apply water, cleaning products and brushes to offspring, until said offspring can do it for themselves. Those who cannot clean themselves are groomed by others, but this is often the kind of work we pay people to do in the context of care homes. We don’t mind paying for grooming, for haircuts and washes, for the treatments of beauty parlour and spa – if we can afford it, that is.

It’s interesting to speculate what human relationships would be like if we routinely groomed each other, with no sexual connotation, and no financial aspect. We know from other mammals, that connections are reinforced by this. I’m prepared to bet, based on how modern humans respond to hairdressers and spa days, that there are some considerable feel good factors attached to being groomed. In monkeys, grooming can also be part of the expression and reinforcement of social hierarchy, which is complicated for a creature like me, but I think it’s likely a better way of handling it than many of the alternatives. It certainly users fewer resources.

I think this is all part and parcel of the way we’ve tended to sexualise all forms of contact. We tend to see touch as sexual, and thus only accept it in the context of certain kinds of relationship – sexual, familial or paid for. The word ‘grooming’ is increasingly used to suggest preparing someone for inappropriate sexual contact. There are comforts we aren’t allowed to provide for each other, but are fine if you stump up the cash. Other ways of being are clearly possible.


All Ages Communities

Being in the school system tends to culture us into associating with people who are within a year of our own age. For a lot of people, this habit continues through life, creating generation gaps and a lack of social cohesion. There are assumptions about what different ages and life stages mean. As a consequence, most social activity is either child free, or revolves around amusing the kids. Teenagers are expected to go off and do their own thing. Older people aren’t even present, much of the time.

Some events and locations will try to get round this by providing crèches and amusements for the younger folk, freeing up their parents to do the things. This of course still means dividing people by age.

All of this is very much on my mind because I’ve just come back from Lincoln’s Asylum – the biggest steampunk gathering in the country. It’s an all ages activity, in the sense that people of all ages can actively participate (some of the evening things are 18+ but given how many things are totally  accessible to younger folk, this isn’t a problem).  Kids really get into it, with costumes, and enthusiasm for many of the events.

What really affected me, was talking to older women who were not steampunks, but who were eyeing up attendees at the event. One woman said to me, “This is amazing, I’m 60 and there are people here who are older than me, and they’re dressed up and clearly having a fantastic time.” Of course Victorian based attire looks great on older folk in a way that modern clothing doesn’t. The assumptions about what older people can and should wear, in all other contexts, are both dull and restrictive, but steampunk elders can be as punked, glamorous, outrageous, playful and innovative as anybody else.

In most contexts for women, there’s a lot of pressure to appear young (while not falling into the ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ trap). We’re supposed to be sexy if we look young enough, and to cover up if we don’t. But not too sexy, so as to avoid the ‘slut’ trap. When we are older, we are to hide sags, wrinkles, grey hair etc as best we can. We are not to celebrate our aging. I love that in steampunk spaces none of this applies. The results are varied, wild, unpredictable and deeply inclusive of all kinds of ways of being female. There’s also an abundance of space to play with gender representation and identity as well, which is incredibly liberating.

It seems mad to me that we so often have so much age-based segregation within our societies. Communities gain breadth, depth and long term stability when they can accommodate people at all life stages. It’s a very different thing being in a space you know will always have room for you, rather than being conscious of an obligation to grow out of it at some point. It’s good to be in a space that genuinely makes everyone who wants to be there welcome, so long as they uphold the one rule – be splendid. I love what happens when the default is inclusion, and look forward to the scope for getting older disgracefully.

I suspect that no matter how old I get, I will always be a filthy urchin at heart, so I‘m going to need the spaces that won’t try and shoehorn me into a twin set and a sensible haircut.


Druid Community

It’s easy to waft the term ‘Druid community’ around (I’ve no doubt used it) but is it fair to say we have a Druid community? Probably not. It may be fairer to say that we have lots of smaller Druid groups, because many of us around the world are in no way connected to or affected by each other.  We discernibly have orders, groups and groves, but whether it is fair to call those communities depends a lot on what you think a community is. I thought I’d throw some not all-encompassing suggestions out there.

The aspect of community that Druid groups most reliably have and do well, is that we gather together to do stuff. Shared activity is, to my mind, key to a community. The counter example is that all living in the same place does not make a group of people into a community if they all ignore each other!

For me, community means a reciprocal process of care and support. We look after each other. Often in larger Orders, this is quite unbalanced. In OBOD, mentors look after students, and there are people who look after the mentors, but the students don’t usually know other students so can’t help them, and would not expect to be taking care of their mentors in turn. As a teaching structure, this is fine, but I don’t think it works in terms of ‘community’. In smaller groups where people live close together, there may well be this wider involvement in each other’s lives.

Community is defined to some degree by its edges. Who is welcome, and who is not? What do you have to give, pay or accept to be able to participate? Who isn’t accommodated? I don’t think there’s a clear definition here around which boundaries signify community and which suggest something else. However, the more participation depends on money, the more exclusion there is for other reasons, the less community there can be. If all we have are people who are very much the same as each other, we don’t have the diversity to create a robust community. We might think of that in terms of age, life stage, education level, financial situation, mental and physical health, mobility, ancestry, and more.

For me, what makes a community is in no small part the willingness to at least try and accommodate anyone who wants to be part of it. Community means negotiation, hearing difference, accommodating diversity of wants, needs, outlooks and intentions. It means people working together, not gurus or other forms of ‘glorious leadership’. Sure, having people in charge of one aspect or another can be productive and necessary, but in a community, that’s about getting stuff done, not an ego trip.

Communities also have to endure over time. Yes, we can come together for a weekend, or for a brief time online, or for a ritual now and then over a couple of years and feel very close to each other, but that’s not community. It has the makings of community. A real community endures. Its leadership can change. People within it can go through different life stages and still find there’s room for them. Something that is recognisably the community continues, being more than the sum of its parts, more than any one person.

It’s ok not to be a community, I should point out. Teaching, ritual, healing, and events can bring us together in wonderful ways for short-term reasons, and that’s great. We don’t have to be fully functioning communities for that to be well worth our time.


The Hero’s return and alienation

One of the things that struck me when reading Adam Curle Radical Peacemaker (proper review here) is the insights that came out of his work with former prisoners of war after WW2.

Some years ago, I spent a while on a course called The Freedom Program, which helps survivors of domestic abuse get their heads, and lives back on track. One of the things the facilitators said, is that people coming out of domestic abuse situations have the same kinds of symptoms as people coming out of war zones – they were mostly referring to the PTSD side of things, but it may be a relevant thought.

What Adam Curle talks about in his work, is the way in which returning former prisoners experienced alienation from the rest of society, even from their own families. I’ve heard similar things said about soldiers in all kinds of context, and by former soldiers – that going back to people who have no way of understanding what you’ve been through, is alienating. There’s no way to speak of what happened, and the gaping chasm caused by the experience separates the survivor from the ones who have not been there. Based on personal experience and anecdotal evidence, I think the same things can happen to domestic abuse survivors, survivors of any other kind of abuse or violence in any context, and people who are returning after breakdowns in mental health. It may also be true for people coming back after long periods of bodily ill health.

Compare this to Joseph Campbell’s work on The Hero’s Journey, and Martin Shaw’s more recent work developing that narrative. Coming back is part of the journey, and in his books ‘Snowy Tower’ and ‘A Branch from the Lightning Tree’ Martin Shaw talks a lot about how problematic the return is. I think this is all part and parcel of the same thing.

Sometimes we have experiences that are alien to most of the people around us. Somehow, after those experiences, we have to come back and work out how to be part of a community, a functioning member of society. From the outside we may seem ok, may appear to be doing a decent job of it, but the feeling of alienation is something that goes with the return, and is part of the challenge of returning.

What do we do with this? I’m not sure. Be aware that anyone could have made the kind of journey it is difficult to return from. Listen to the stories and make room for them. Acknowledge the differences and the potential for feeling alienated. Don’t assume we know where other people have been or what it means.

Coming back is necessary. Bringing back something of what happened is necessary. The negotiations between the one who returns and the people they return to, can only be handled on an individual basis, and how we do that, as people who are returning, and as people witnessing a return, is something we’ll all have to figure out for ourselves.


My Druidry. My Steampunk

Recently at a Steampunk event, a very fine chap (Paul Adams) spoke about how just because something isn’t ‘his’ steampunk, doesn’t make it invalid. Like Druidry, steampunk has breadth and depth, and every so often someone tries to explain why some other set of people are doing it all wrong. This is a subject I’ve poked before, but new things have occurred to me.

When it comes to communities and interests, we should all have the right to choose how we identify and what we do. In any given community, there’s likely to be a critical mass forming a centre somewhere, and also people pushing the edges. To me, this seems intrinsic to a lively community. Enough definition, and enough challenge makes for something alive, able to change and not too controlling. The more people push at the edges, the more the people in the middle may feel they need to say ‘our bit is the true bit’ and reduce the size of the project to make it more ‘real’. They will vocalise the fear of being too diluted, too vague. It doesn’t mean anything anymore, we must get back to the core principles.

This way can lie fundamentalism, with all its nasty habits. However, if the centre has limited power, or ideally no real power at all, it can only make noise. Having people passionate about the centre is a good thing. It creates stability and gives the people on the edges something to rebel against. Yes, sometimes people can get so far outside a thing that they become something else entirely. This is also fine, so long as they don’t have the power to make everyone else do it their way. This is how we get new things, evolution, adaptation and learning.

There should be a little bit of natural tension between people who are part of the centre and people who push edges. We shouldn’t be afraid of that tension – it’s what’s holding the overall shape of the thing.

And let’s face it, if these processes of holding and testing had not already been part of Druidry, we’d still be wearing fake beards and white robes. We’d be a small, probably cultish thing centred around a few big names. Without our long, healthy history of people saying ‘sod that’ and going off to try their own thing, we could be a narrow and maladaptive little thing able to do only what its first few founders in the modern era were ok with.

If, ultimately, so many people moved to the edges that the centre collapsed, this would also be fine. It would happen if the centre no longer related to lived experience and social change. I’m passionate about Druidry, but if so many people ran off in different directions as to make it unviable as a community, I’d be fine with that. I would still do whatever it made sense to me to do, on my own terms. We don’t actually need the validation of other people doing it our way.

However great we think our practices are, they are never great enough to make people hang onto them when they want to be doing something else. I hold that this is true of all religions, all communities, all traditions and all cultures. If you aren’t driven by love of them, and working with other people of the same persuasion, what you’ve got is already dead.


Conflict and power

There have been a number of occasions in my life when I’ve found myself in conflict with someone who had considerably more power than me. That power has come from a variety of sources – it could be the power of an employer. People in leadership roles tend to have more power and influence than those who follow them. There’s a power that comes from being charismatic and socially capable. Financial power, access to resources, an able body versus a limited body – all of these things and more can create massive power imbalances between people.

Fall out with a person who has power, and the odds are it will ripple more widely than your immediate quarrel. People are reluctant to take sides for all kinds of reasons, but throw in a person of significant power, and going up against them to support someone they’ve wronged puts the supporter in a vulnerable place. It often means if you want to support someone who has been mistreated, the only vote you have is to vote with your feet, and leave. People get isolated this way, because all they can do is leave.

We are often reluctant to believe anything bad of people whose power revolves around charisma. If we’re under the spell – and I’ve seen this happen repeatedly – it’s easier to blame the victim than contemplate the enchantment. Repeat offenders using their popularity to hide their acts of cruelty and exploitation get away with it so often because we don’t want to believe that of them. ‘Pillars of the community’ who are also wife beaters, child molesters, fraudsters, thieves, can go unchallenged amongst us because we have too much invested in believing they are good.

How do we change this?

I’ve three suggestions. One is that we need to look at power carefully. When other people hold it, keep an eye on whether that’s the power to do, or it’s a power to attract. When power draws resources, energy, people, money and status towards itself, and is the primary beneficiary, be wary. Clever people in this position will make a lot of noise about community benefit, but it’s always worth asking if this is really what’s happening. Anyone spinning the line that what benefits them benefits the community is doubly suspect.

The second suggestion is to watch how we handle our own power. Can we be told if we’ve made a mistake? Can we take responsibility and sort things out if we cause hurt? Do we default to victim blaming rather than listening if someone else has a problem with us? It’s often not a simple victim/user dynamic, especially not at the outset. When things go wrong between people it tends to be complicated, and a willingness on both sides to listen and address problems is most usually what’s called for. If one person uses what power they have to silence and push away another person, that’s where the bigger problems start. If we can encourage a culture of responsibility, we make it harder for those with more power than us to hide behind their status when there’s a problem.

Thirdly, we need to look at the benefits we think we get by supporting someone with more power, such that we’ll ignore other people’s problems. It’s more comfortable not to know what’s going on when there’s an issue between people. It’s safer to side with the person who has most power. It validates our choice to have been there in the first place. We have to be able to admit pour own capacity for error. All of us, in innocence, have the scope to support a charismatic psychopath who looked like something good. If we don’t have the courage to admit that, we’ll facilitate what they do.