Tag Archives: culture

Superstition, colonialism and prehistory

My experience as a white person living in Europe, is of prehistoric peoples being depicted as ignorant and superstitious. It’s there in pop culture, and it intersects with a similar treatment of the global majority. It’s a kind of infantilising, treating adult people from other cultures as though they have the same relationship with reality as a typical white toddler.

One of the things this misrepresentation does, is to enforce the idea that white colonial cultures are superior. I think it actually starts from the assumption of that superiority and then interprets what everyone else is doing in light of the idea that those cultures are inferior. There’s nothing evidence-based here. I’m going to talk about prehistory because it’s less loaded and, being pallid myself, I feel it’s more appropriate for me to speak about. I do think that how we imagine prehistory is profoundly related to modern colonialism and racism.

Pop culture representations of prehistoric people tend to focus on their being ignorant and superstitious. An obvious example is the way people in Clan of the Cave Bear don’t know where babies come from. There’s a tendency to imagine ancient people attributing everything around them to gods and spirits while having no idea of how anything works.

Interestingly we don’t make the same assumptions about animals, historical or contemporary. Whether their behaviour is attributed to instinct, experience, training or conditioning, we treat animal behaviour in the wild as being fairly logical and as making sense as a response to the environment. But overall we like to imagine our wild human ancestors as not being rational in the way that all other mammals are. We portray them as children, for the greater part. It also does a disservice to our own children, who, given half a chance will do their best to figure out how the world around them works and how best to interact with it. Children tend to be quiet scientific in their figuring out and will engage rationally with their experiences unless adults actively teach them not to.

To survive in the wilds as a human, you need a lot of skills. You need to be able to source things, make things, gather things and maybe hunt for food as well. You have to understand the weather, the seasons, the resources and threats around you. This calls for people who are highly skilled and knowledgeable and who interact with what’s around them in informed and logical ways.

The irrationality and childishness are in fact projections from the minds of contemporary adults. We believe some pretty irrational things these days – not just the gods we’ve invented, but market forces, countries, trickle down economics, the divine right of kings, capitalism… none of these things make a lot of sense when you consider the evidence for how they function. We accept childish tyrants who do little of value but who have inherited wealth and power and a belief they should lead us. We’re not a culture that invests much in evidence or reason most of the time.

Our ancestors must have known how to communicate and cooperate with each other far more effectively than we do. Useful skills would have been essential. Knowing how to suck up to power isn’t worth much when you live marginally. I think a lot of the time what we project onto prehistory says a lot more about us as people than it does about the past. 


Attraction, bodies and culture

Human bodies are such interesting things. We’re a diverse sort of species. We come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, colours and builds. Some of us are naturally quite furry and some of us are skinless landsharks and all places in between.

The bodies we have are affected by our health and our ancestry. What we eat and how we spend our time will all have their impact. Most cultures have standards for what counts as especially attractive and that’s diverse too.

To what degree is our capacity for attraction informed by our cultures? What happens when our desires don’t neatly match what we’ve been told to want? Or when our bodies aren’t considered socially acceptable? One obvious case in point here would be the obsession some cultures have with youth being the standard for beauty. We all get older, and fighting that process is pointless – but it does make a lot of money for beauty industries.

For me, attraction doesn’t begin with a body. I can find people aesthetically pleasing without feeling any urge at all to follow through on it. If I connect with someone emotionally, then I will find them attractive. I don’t have a type exactly, I’m not much affected by gender or gender presentation. I tend to go for high cheekbones, but that’s about it, and it’s certainly not a deal breaker.

How someone’s voice sounds is a bigger factor in attraction for me, than what they look like. I assume it wouldn’t be a dealbreaker but at the same time I’ve never been attracted to someone I didn’t think had a gorgeous speaking voice. I’m also really affected by how people smell, although that’s not easy to spot when it’s happening. We can unconsciously gather a lot of information about each other from smells, so for me it’s only been when people’s smells have changed that it’s registered with me.

I’m very much attracted to creativity, imagination and unusual minds. I like interacting with people who think deeply, and who are interested in things, and excited about things. What exactly they are into turns out to be less important. I like spending time with people who have passions and wild enthusiasms. 

Who we find appealing informs so many aspects of our lives. It’s not just about romance and sexual partners. It’s there in how we pick our friends and our social spaces. It can inform who we vote for and who we hire. There’s a lot of privilege that comes with conforming to certain kinds of beauty standards and lots of scope for abuse, shaming, disrespect and disadvantage the less you conform to those standards.


My hot take on that celebrity situation

Sometimes, the vitriol famous people endure online impacts their mental health. Sometimes people die as a direct consequence of this. However, most of the time, my hot take on the latest celebrity thing will have no impact whatsoever on the people involved. They won’t notice me judging them, and if they did, they probably wouldn’t care.

The people who will see my hot take are my friends, most of whom aren’t especially famous. If I body shame someone, it will be my friends with body shame issues who feel that. If I stigmatise someone for their disability or the state of their mental health, it will be my struggling friends who are impacted. If I am sexist about someone because I don’t like them, it is my female friends who will be hurt. If I mock someone for saying they feel suicidal, it is my suicidal friend who becomes less confident about asking for help.

I’ve talked before about why I think celebrity culture needs taking seriously. It is culture. In just the same way that what we do online is real and not magically hived off from the rest of existence. Wound someone emotionally via the internet and they are still wounded. How we talk about famous people can have a huge impact on the people around us.

It is important to call out people for the things they should not have done. I’m all for that. But all too often, the insults that come with it reveal a lot about the person making the comments. The kind of sexism hurled at women isn’t ok, no matter what they did. Call them out over their behaviour, but don’t link it to appearance, or desirability, or how appealing it seems to have something horrific happen to them. 

If your main focus is on taking down people you don’t like, then weaponising anything you can about them will seem like fair game. It’s a toxic way to behave. What we need to focus on is building something better and that means not hurling abuse for the pleasure of it. It means staying out of the personal attacks. It also means checking, and double checking your assumptions. If it feels ok to hurl sexist abuse at a woman because she’s on the other side of a political divide, that’s still hurling sexist abuse and it upholds sexism. 

Focus on what you want to build, not what you want to take down.


Social Media Druid

All of the social media platforms you might use have issues of some sort or another. Who owns it, who uses it, who profits from it, and whether how it functions is of any use to you at all are all considerations. If I leave a platform, it will have no impact on the person who owns it and as protests go, it doesn’t add much to the world.

If I stay, I can do considerably more. I can take care of my friends, and of fellow travellers who might be glad of my support. I can put nice things out there – visually pleasing things, nice ideas, inclusive thoughts, compassionate thoughts and hopeful things. In terms of what impact I might have on the world, my day to day sharing of small things is likely to have far more impact than my flouncing off in a huff because I don’t like the technomaniac in charge.

Interacting meaningfully with the world tends to involve compromise. No space is perfect. Our allies are often imperfect. Waiting for the perfect platform is a good way of doing nothing. Doing nothing only ever supports the status quo. I tend to think it’s better to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty doing whatever it is that you can do that might make some small good.

Protecting your mental health and personal safety is a totally different issue. If you need to leave any space for those reasons, don’t hesitate to do it. 

Drama has its attractions. Dramatically flouncing out in protest is one of those big-gesture moves that is always going to be tempting. But what does it achieve? Elon Musk isn’t going to become a better human being because I stropped off from Twitter and left him to it. Twitter isn’t going to take a good hard look at itself and become an inclusive and compassionate space because I said it wasn’t good enough. But if I stay, and in my own small ways try to contribute to a process of making both social media and humanity in general that bit better, I can actually make a tiny contribution to that process.

Anyone can make that kind of contribution. Cultures are just large quantities of people. If we back out of the spaces where trolls and bullies gather, we relinquish those spaces to them. If we stay, and try to make good things,  there are more options. Nothing is going to be perfect, everything is always a bit compromised, or more than a bit compromised. As a small and insignificant entity, I can do more good – I think – by staying and putting up a fight than by leaving. And by ‘putting up a fight’ I mean sharing anything that isn’t motivated by hate.


Nature, culture and healing

What makes you feel like yourself? What do you do that gives you a sense of being fully present, alive and acting from a place of authenticity? Conversely, how much time do you spend in spaces where you have to pretend to be other than you are? What do you do that robs you of identity and leaves you numb, disengaged and dysfunctional?

One of the truly great things about being outside and alone is that you don’t have to perform. The elements do not require you to be other than you are. If your sense of self has been crushed by pressures and expectations, this time alone might be your best hope of healing and finding yourself. We don’t lose ourselves anything like as much as we have our identities taken from us.

We can end up feeling that we are the roles we are obliged to perform. If our work, our usefulness, our family identity is the only thing anyone else sees and interacts with, the result can be lonely and demoralising. We all need the room to be more than the utility we provide to others.

Running off into the wilderness can be a tempting antidote to this. But, humans put a lot of pressure on what wild nature remains. It might be more productive to stop looking to nature to heal us and start looking to human culture not to ravage us in the first place. A better work-life balance would do a lot to restore many people to themselves. A kinder, more inclusive, supportive and spacious society would really help too.


Why we need to take celebrities seriously

It’s easy to dismiss celebrity culture as trivial and irrelevant, the new opium of the masses and beneath anyone who is invested in being spiritual. However, I recommend taking them seriously because celebrities are symptoms of our culture and also inform it. If we don’t engage with that, there are consequences.

How do we think about mental health and how do we support people who are suicidal? If a high profile person is dismissed as attention seeking, what does that do to all the regular people who see that happening? If you are suicidal, and you see people you might have turned to talking about how attention seeking this celebrity is… will you feel able to talk about your own struggles?

There’s a high profile couple out there with some serious domestic violence issues. Who do you believe and who do you dismiss? How does this impact on the family member who is dealing with increasing violence at home? Are you making it easy for them to ask you for help, or are you saying things about celebrities that might distress them into silence?

It’s not just what we say ourselves, either, it’s what we allow to go unchallenged. It’s every time we don’t say something to the friends who express white privilege in face of a racist book. It’s every time we don’t say anything about an article objectifying and sexualising a high profile woman.

And yes, it’s relentless and yes its exhausting feeling like you have to talk about everything that goes wrong, and no, you wouldn’t keep up with it even if it was your full time job to try. But you can still try, and show up where you can, and be alert to the ways in which celebrity culture impacts on wider culture.

Celebrity culture is culture. It shapes what people think is normal and acceptable. It holds a mirror up to us collectively and tells us what we think is ok. Even if you don’t think it impacts on you, it probably does through the small drips of information you can’t avoid if you are online. It’s so easy to end up thinking ah yes, another vacuous airhead selling her body to get media attention – because slut shaming is so normal, because women who don’t play the right games around appearance don’t get the same opportunities, because we assume that being sexual and being clever aren’t compatible in a woman. If you can’t do anything about celebrity culture anywhere else, keep an eye on what happens in your own mind when these figures go by, and check on what you’ve been taught to think about them.

Watch out especially for the things you are persuaded that someone deserves because of how they have been presented by the media, and how they function as a commodity in our consumer society. We really shouldn’t be consuming people in the first place, it’s not healthy.


Pain, Shame and Guilt

I think in many ways it’s a reflection of how seldom mental health is taken seriously that we add shame and guilt on top of people’s existing pain. No one who considered themselves kind and well meaning would tell a person with flu to just pull themselves together and try harder as though this is how you get over flu. We don’t tend to tell people whose bodies have been seriously injured that they should ‘man up’. Culturally we do have some serious and parallel issues around how we treat chronic pain and long term disability, but that’s a post for another day.

We treat psychological injuries as though they are personal failures and in doing so, add to the burden already wounded people are carrying.  Telling people the reasons you think they shouldn’t be in pain doesn’t ease pain. What it does do is help that person internalise shame and carry guilt about their own suffering. That in turn makes it harder to ask for help.

Depression isn’t an individual failing. Often the reasons for it aren’t personal, but systemic. Poverty and the stress of insecurity makes people ill. Overwork, leading to exhaustion and burnout makes people ill. Distress caused by mass extinction and climate chaos makes people ill. Being made responsible for things we have no power over also makes us ill. Here in the UK we have a culture of working people to death, blaming them for not being able to find work in a shrinking jobs market, causing poverty and then blaming people for being poor and a host of other such horrors that pile on the misery. The result is that not only do you get to suffer the consequences of stress and insecurity, but you get to feel like it’s all your fault for not being good enough in the first place.

If you do get help with mental health issues, the odds are it will be meds. That’s what we can have. Huge numbers of people are suffering depression and anxiety as a direct consequence of our messed up work culture and precarious lives. How can the answer to such system failures, be chemical? Use it to get by if it helps you, but don’t buy into the idea that meds are the answer here.

We have to stop blaming individuals for suffering and start talking about the way in which our culture is sick. We get less time off than your typical mediaeval peasant. The safety net of welfare is being eroded. We are punished for misfortune and poverty. We don’t have enough green space, enough quiet space or enough time to benefit from exercise. Many of us can’t afford to eat well. It is difficult to be mentally well in such a situation.

Mental health is a collective problem that needs solutions on a societal level. When we treat it as a personal problem to be solved at the personal scale, we add to the guilt and shame that makes people ill, and perpetuate the stories in our culture that are causing bodily and emotional sickness. Mental health is a cultural issue, a societal issue, a political issue.


Language, Culture, Celts

Let me start by saying that this is a speculative blog post. I’m a dabbler, not a historian and I am not qualified to hold much of an opinion on this subject! So, I’m just sharing some things that occurred to me, that might, or might not be meaningful.

Nomadic hunter gatherer people tend not to go in for writing. Writing calls for kit, and storing writing clearly isn’t ideal if you’d have to heft it all about with you. People who need to travel lightly tend to have oral cultures and depend on memory. Nothing controversial there.

Writing seems to go with keeping records. I’m not aware of any instances where we think a culture started writing because it wanted to keep its poems for posterity! Written records become necessary when you want to keep track of ownership and/or debt. If wealth is held in common, you don’t need records. You might need records in a larger and more complex community that is sharing resources – you might want to track that to understand what happens. So at the very least, writing represents organised and self conscious social structures, probably.

It’s very difficult to have tax without written records. It’s difficult to keep track of debt, or tithing or any other system where ownership and contribution are related. These can of course be very good things in a culture, making systems to share out the goods. But at the same time you can’t have functioning hierarchies without some kind of paperwork. Arguably the difference between a barbarian horde and a colonial project is whether you can follow through with accountants and tax the people you just rampaged over.

This leaves me with some interesting thoughts about the Celts. What are the implications of the Celts not having a written language? What does it mean about their social structures? How much of our sense of them as a hierarchical community depends on them having been depicted that way by the Romans, and by those later writing down their stories? The stories we have are full of Kings and nobles. But is that a fair reflection of Celtic peoples in Europe, or of their systems of interacting with each other? Here I am speculating, but I think it’s worth wondering about what the absence of writing might suggest.


Systemic Oppression

Anyone from any demographic can be horrible to anyone from any demographic. However, it is easy to not realise that you are contributing to a problem that involves systematic oppression. What systematic oppression means is that there are social norms, legal structures, institutionalised ways of dealing with things that massively disadvantage a group of people. The most visible example of this at the moment is the Black Lives Matter/All Lives Matter issue. Systemic oppression puts Black lives in danger.  It’s not about disinterest in white lives and safety, it’s about exposing and changing the norms, structures and behaviours that put Black lives at risk. Individual unpleasantness does not function in the same way as unpleasantness reinforced by wider society.

I’m going to hammer out some examples in the hopes that this will prove useful. If we can’t see how the system oppresses a specific group of people, we can end up adding to that. We should not be adding to existing oppression, we need to figure out how to dismantle it. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully catches an array of ways in which this all happens.

Fat shaming and skinny shaming are not the same. Yes, skinny shaming is horrible, but a thin person will not have a medical condition ignored while they are told to gain weight. A thin person will usually be able to find clothes that fit them, is unlikely to be removed from an aeroplane. Thin people will never find they can’t get into a toilet cubicle because it’s too big for them. There are lots of things that make life hazardous and hard if you are fat, and there are no real comparisons for thin people. Thus if you get into a size conversation and try to present skinny shaming as the same as fat shaming, you’re adding to the burden in fat people.

Sexism against women exists in a context where there is a real pay gap between genders. Your chances of having pain taken seriously are lower if you present as female. The odds of being raped, assaulted, harassed or suffering sexual abuse are much higher if you are female. Your odds of securing a job with real power are lower – just look at who sits in government.  So yes, while women can be massively prejudiced against men, sexism against women is backed up by society in all kinds of ways, including religion, and cultural gender-norms.

We treat straight sexual identities as normal and anything else as deviant. What this leads to is people suggesting that it is wrong to talk to children about queerness, as though being queer is something you get into by choice, and not intrinsic to who you are. The failure to recognise difference and the equal validity of different experiences is one of the ways on which systemic oppression manifests, and not just for LGBTQ people. We treat neuro-divergent folk in much the same way, trying to ‘normalise’ them towards what the rest of us do rather than creating more supportive environments.

One of the places to start doing the work on this, is to look at our own responses. If you want to say ‘but white people experience racism too’ or ‘but men can also be abuse victims’ or ‘being a pretty girl is just as hard as growing up ugly’ or whatever else you have, take some time to sit with it. Think about why you need to respond to someone else’s distress by demonstrating that you, as the person who seems to have the easier deal, are a victim too. Does is reduce your feelings of responsibility? Do you feel you need more attention? Have you thought about how much equivalence there is between these experiences? Have you thought about your relationship with your culture and how other people’s experiences of it may be very different?

We are products of our cultures. Systemic oppression exists because people are taught to think of it as normal, natural and inevitable. Challenging that is hard. Scrutinising it is uncomfortable. We can however dismantle oppressive systems. First we have to see them, then we have to deal with our own involvement, then we have to stop participating, then we have to actively challenge those systems. It’s good work and well worth whatever time you can give it.


Why I’m not doing Sashiko

Following on from my previous post about boro –  https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2020/06/26/craft-culture-and-boro/

Sashiko is a Japanese embroidery tradition, and it is gorgeous and well worth looking up. As far as I can make out, the whole thing is based on a fairly simple running stitch so it’s quite accessible and easy to learn the basics. It does however use specific kit, a needle and  a totally different kind of thimble from the ones I am used to.  These are easy to find, but I have concerns about how my easily-hurt hands would respond, so that’s one reason I’ve not dug in. The other is that I’m doing non-traditional sewing inspired by boro and using fabric far heavier than you’re supposed to use for sashiko, so, it’s not going to work for me.

When I first became interested in these traditions, I found a lot of western people writing about them. I had to dig a bit to find Japanese sources.  Appropriation is something I’ve thought a lot about from a Pagan perspective and it is just as relevant for craft as for Craft. I’m greatly in favour of learning from other cultures, practices and traditions, but how you do that clearly matters.

One of the things I learned from my adventures with sashiko is this – if you learn the surface of a thing you may get a bunch of rules that teach you how to make something that looks like something. If you dig in to learn about the history, use, purpose and context of a thing you can end up with a totally different approach.

So, while I’m not following the available rules about exactly how to do this kind of sewing, I’m trying to understand how the embroidery relates to the cloth, what it is for, what it does, and where that knowledge leads.  As a consequence I’ve learned a lot of things that I can take back to my own crafting. I also think this stands really well as a metaphor for what we might do with other people’s spiritual traditions. It’s worth thinking about how much time a person invests and where they learn from before they feel entitled to present as an expert  on a culture they are not part of.

I’m happy to talk about what I’ve learned, and what my journey has been, but I don’t think it would be even slightly appropriate at this point for me to claim I am making boro, doing sashiko or able to tell anyone else how to do those things.

But if you’re curious, here is a man whose family work with these traditions, and who has a great deal of insight to share… https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCraGC2n7qN31FlQSvXYI0JA