Tag Archives: culture

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

 


Craft, culture and boro

Back in the winter, Pinterest lured me in with images of boro. At the time I had no real idea of what I was seeing only that I found it very attractive. If you get in there with a search engine, the internet will give you a lot of images of mostly denim patchwork, visible mending techniques and embroidery. As an enthusiastic needlecrafter and upcycler, this all had instant appeal. I dug in.

I like to have some idea of where things come from and what their significance is. Partly because I delight in such knowledge and partly because accidental cultural appropriation is not my idea of fun.  Here’s a brief synopsis of what I found out when I dug in. Boro means rags, and it is a tradition from Northern Japan, inspired by poverty and necessity, that takes what little fabric is available and keeps it in sound, wearable, protective condition. It fell out of favour after the second world war because of the poverty associations, but is having something of a renaissance. Of course traditionally it wasn’t done with denim but currently that seems to be the fabric of preference. There is also an embroidery tradition that goes with it, called sashiko.

We really need these kinds of traditions right now – we need the inspiration and to reclaim cultures of re-use. To take our throwaway culture towards something more sustainable we need to start valuing re-use, repairing, upcycling, and keeping whatever is usable in use. This of course is what poor people have always done, of necessity, and that’s part of the problem. While we see these techniques as being about poverty and insufficiency, many people will be actively put off them. Who wants to look poor? Who wants to do what poor people do? Affluence means discarding things whenever you like.  It means never looking shabby, or ragged, or even mended. We equate smartness with newness and wealth.

It will take a bit of a shift to see the value in what is old and repaired. But, there is a great deal of beauty and innovation in these traditions. Off the peg clothing is bland stuff that seldom lasts long. It means looking like everyone else and having limited scope for self expression. The upcycler on the other hand gets to play and make over, and has adventures in clothing unavailable to other people. There are plenty of things to find attractive here.

Over the coming few days I’m going to be writing a bit about my adventures with boro, so, watch this space. To be clear, I am not making boro – I’m using the wrong materials and the wrong tools. It’s not my cultural heritage, and my grasp of it at this point is fairly superficial. However, there’s a lot I’m excited about and inspired by, and there’s a world of difference between being inspired by something, and misrepresenting it by claiming to be doing it.


Questions of aging

Western culture frames aging as a bad thing, and one that we must tackle through the purchase and use of products. Buying stuff to look younger means using material we wouldn’t have needed if we’d been ok about aging in the first place. Make-up, hair dye, skin products, botox and I have no idea what else – but it all clearly has a carbon footprint, creates waste materials and reduces our confidence in ourselves.

It would be better for the planet if we could just get on with getting older and not feel like we have to disguise that totally natural process. If we respected age, then signs of aging would be no issue at all.

One of the issues here is that aging can reflect all sorts of things about our lives and personalities. How your skin ages will be different if you’ve spent a lot of time in the sun, or haven’t. Smoking affects how we age, so does diet. How much fat you carry affects how lines show in your face. Habitual expressions settle into our skin.

It would be better, I think, if we were all less worried about the fact that we age, and more concerned about how we age. The face of a person who has lived well, and richly, and who looks like their body has been lived in, should be something to enjoy and celebrate. The way our lives mark us should be something to take pride in, not feel reduced by. It’s good to have character and be distinctive, and there is far less to be said in favour of looking like a Ken or Barbie doll. We need to give ourselves permission to be real mammals, not plastic toys.

For some people of course, that aging process doesn’t go so well because of what appears in their faces. I know several people who I don’t much like, whose middle aged faces are starting to show those sneering, unkind expressions that are part of who they are. The reasons I don’t like them are, increasingly written all over them. There’s a certain amount of justice in this. The only way to avoid aging in this way is to not go round covered in unkind facial expressions.

Equally, people I know who tend towards kindness, laughter, compassion, and concern are clearly aging with faces that show these things. It doesn’t matter how old and wrinkly they get, their faces will be an expression of the kinds of people they are, and I will always find that lovely to look at.

For some of us, the lines in our faces will be caused by pain and grief, by loss and suffering. I suspect the face I’ll be taking into my latter years (assuming I get there) is going to look worried.

And for some of us, aging won’t be a thing. Accident, illness or violence will account for us before we have chance to get old. It’s worth remembering that getting to grow old is a blessing not everyone experiences. Most of us would prefer whatever state our faces wind up in, to no face at all. If our culture wasn’t so inclined to death-denial, we might be able to talk about this more, and view aging from a different perspective.

 


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.


Folk process or cultural appropriation

Last week I wrote about the right to be creative within your own folk tradition. Morgan Daimler flagged up to me that I need to tackle the other side, too – what happens when we mess about with other people’s traditions. Taking other people’s traditions, writing into them, or over them and presenting that as genuine material can have the effect of wiping out the tradition, not keeping it alive. How do you tell the difference?

Your relationship with the tradition is key here. If we’re talking about your culture, your family background, or the place you’ve lived your whole life as a participant not a coloniser, then you are someone who is inside the traditions around you. They are your traditions.

There are plenty of non-white British people engaging with British folk traditions, and that’s also fine. It’s important not to let this idea of who owns the tradition exclude people who want to be involved. Time spent working in the tradition, learning it, knowing it – that’s the key thing here. If you’ve put in the years, then you can enter a tradition that belongs to the place you live, or to people you are interested in, without that being a problem. The key thing is that what you’re doing is entering the tradition and participating in it. If people are willing to teach you and share their traditional things with you, then you can enter into it without issue.

The problems arise when people have brief and superficial contact with a tradition and then think they can own it. Going to one folk festival doesn’t qualify you to write folk songs. In the context of British folk, if you go to one festival, and write some songs that are wide of the mark, the odds are you won’t go far, and it won’t matter – there’s enough people who have been doing this over a long enough time to just shake off the pretenders with no impact.

If you have some superficial contact with someone else’s traditions where there are fewer people involved, and/or it’s not part of the dominant culture, and then start making your own in what you think is in the same style, there are massive problems. You may be presenting material to people who don’t know that you’re misrepresenting a culture. If you have more power – if you are a white western person messing about with the traditions of an indigenous culture, for example – you may have more scope to present the tradition to others than the people living in it do. You may have the power to inform and define a tradition that you know little or nothing about, with no one to rein you in.

This is also true if you are someone studying or recording a culture – as a folklorist or academic. Trying to pin a tradition down can be a process of limiting and damaging what you study, and shaping how it will be seen by others. Colonial misrepresentation of other people’s cultures is a longstanding problem. The determination of westerners to present non-western tradition as primitive, superstitious and irrational is a longstanding problem.

If you’re working from inside a tradition, steeped in it and invested in it, then the ways you want to keep it alive and updated are likely to serve the tradition, not harm it. But, why would you want to appropriate a tradition you know nothing about in order to play with it? What does that achieve? You aren’t keeping a tradition alive by doing this, unless what you’re working with is a people who have disappeared. Then you’re guessing and reviving, and there’s a case to make for that if it’s done honestly.

Wanting to learn from someone else’s tradition also makes a lot of sense – there’s a lot of wisdom and inspiration out there, it is reasonable to find that attractive. But surely, if you’re interested in another culture, what you want is immersion and absorption, and to get to a place of having internalised it. Running in to make up our own things in the same style is a sure fire way of learning very little. It’s a deeply questionable activity on so many levels.

There are no short-cuts to being part of a tradition. You can’t pick it up over a weekend course or by reading a book. If you aren’t prepared to invest years in building a relationship with a tradition, you aren’t interested in tradition and should probably leave it alone.


The healing power of kindness

When faced with someone in difficulty, it’s very easy for any of us to minimise what we’re seeing or being told. We may well fear that if we are helpful, or cut them slack, we will be taken advantage of. And of course in some instances, this will prove to be the case. However, when we can be kind to each other, we can have powerful effects on each other.

Workplaces often make people ill – they are a massive source of stress and anxiety. People who are overworked and falling behind can seem like a hazard to those who are keeping up. One person’s shortfalls are another person’s escalating problem. It can be hard to push back against that, and it may well carry risks. If we can be kind to each other, we can resist the work culture that will run us all until we collapse. Kindness is a route to not seeing each other as disposable and replaceable.

With kindness, you can find the options that allow people to participate. Reliably stopping the meeting when you said you would stop the meeting can radically improve inclusion. Listening to what people can manage and factoring that in is really powerful. Support and enable people to do the best they can, and more often than not, they’ll do that. When we treat each other kindly, we’re not usually going to open the floodgates for people being exploitative and taking the piss.

When we look after each other, we open the way to being recipients of care as well as givers. We create a culture of care, of watching each other’s backs and helping each other out. We stop counting the cost to us of everything we do when we don’t feel reduced by that. In a culture where support flows to where it’s needed, when you are resourced, you can better afford to be generous. If enough people are prepared to embody the idea that what goes around comes around, they will turn it into a shared truth.

Healing takes time, rest, peace, less stress. It doesn’t really matter what you’re healing from, if the people around you are kind and supportive, you’ve got a better shot at it and will do it sooner. If we are kind to each other, not only can we help with individual healing, but we create a scope for cultural healing, for community wellness and for relationships based on trust and doing our best. Kindness is the key to dismantling exploitative systems that treat people as disposable. Kindness is the key to building something better.

It need not be dramatic. Small injections of kindness into your normal day will have a significant influence on the people around you. It’s also a self-empowering thing to do. When you give with confidence, you also get to feel better.


Trees and cultural heritage

Trees and woodlands are important in their own right, and important as habitats for other beings. They are also part of our cultural heritage in the UK. When it comes to cultural heritage protection, we seem to be better at protecting things humans have made, than the context in which history has happened. I could get into a long diversion here about what kind of human cultural heritage we protect and what we don’t, but today is all about the trees.

Trees and woods have a huge place in our history and culture. What is Robin Hood without Sherwood forest, or Macbeth without Birnam wood? Consider our green men and jack in the greens. The role of the greenwood, merry or otherwise in our folklore is massive. Our forests are the places we dream of when urban life is too much for us – whether that’s Shakespeare’s As you Like it in the forest of Arden (now gone) or Tolkien’s Mirkwood (aka the forest of Arden) our dreams and stories are full of trees.

The forestry history that produced wood for ships and made our navy possible is worth a thought. I’m no fan of warfare, but there’s no denying the role of wooden ships in our naval history. Look at any historic house, and you’ll be looking in part at wood from historic forests. The house has the better chance of being protected as heritage.

Every wood has its stories.

For more information on tree heritage, visit The Woodland Trust https://treecharter.uk/principles-protection.html


Changing the words

There’s a relationship between how we think and the words we use, and it’s circular in nature. However, when your culture has habits of language that encourage certain ideas, it can be worth stopping to look at those. When I was a young person, it was totally reasonable to write books in which the assumed reader was male. That puts over a message that women don’t really count.

When we take nature words out of children’s dictionaries to replace them with the language of the internet, that’s both a reflection of what’s going on, and a furthering of it. When we don’t have words to talk about things, those things are harder to share and explain. The words we have and the words we use, matter. They shape our thinking and our interactions, they are the basis of our culture.

I was interested to see PETA challenging some of the animal abuse norms in language recently. I’ve dropped ‘killing two birds with one stone’ from my own way of talking because it’s not what I want to say. They advocated against describing test subjects as guinea pigs, but I’m inclined to go the other way. Let’s be lab rats and test beagles when we are subject to experiments ourselves. It’s a good way of reminding each other that this stuff happens.

Sadly, the PETA alternative phrases were awful and sounded forced and silly. You don’t get meaningful language shifts by dictating in this way. It’s better to open it up and invite people to reconsider and then see what happens. Where the power lies is in looking at habits of speech and what they suggest, and being willing to rethink them. Why do we use animal names as insults? (bitch, catty, cow, mare, bullshit, etc) Why do we call especially nasty humans animals? The idea that animals are inferior to humans is woven through our speech. It’s worth thinking about and watching for.