Tag Archives: honour

The contradictions inherent in virtue

Every virtue has the seed of its own destruction inside it. Taken too far, or taken the wrong way and things that should have been virtuous and brought good into the world become dysfunctional or damaging. The problems come when we get too focused on practicing the specific virtue and stop putting it in the context of a bigger picture.

Tolerance that tolerates intolerance sows the seeds of its own destruction. When you accept that all views deserve to be heard and all comers are due a place at the table, you empower those who will take power from others. Tolerance needs to be conditional on excluding the truly intolerant. When we’re so invested in our tolerance that we’ll tolerate anything and anyone, we enable Nazis, fascists and other haters.

Modesty and humbleness, and avoiding pride can in itself become a form of pride. These are particularly Christian virtues, and the way they seed their own destruction can often be best seen in those who claim Christianity as their faith. When people become enthusiastic participants in their own martyrdom, and keen to announce how humble, modest and good they are, it’s pride in a different hat. But it’s more problematic than simple, honest pride, because it’s also self deluding.

Being kind can become profoundly unkind when it supports people in doing harmful things. If we’re too kind to tell someone that what they do isn’t working. If we’re too kind to call out an abuser, question dodgy thinking or protest at inappropriate behaviour, we enable all those things. The kindness that lets someone carry on destroying their own life isn’t very kind at all.

Often the wider frame we need for navigating here, is honour. But even honour holds the seeds of its own destruction. If we focus on how to appear honourable and how to put ourselves forward as the best and most honourable people, we won’t always do what’s needed. Sometimes what’s needed is a lot more complicated than personal honour will allow. When the laws become toxic and the leaders are false, it ceases to be honourable to hold up laws or dutifully follow leaders. When the truth around you is evil, lying can become necessary. When the system is unfair, cheating can become essential.

At every turn, you can use the seed of destruction within a virtue to act badly while claiming the moral high ground. At every turn, you can use the knowledge that every virtue has its limitations to justify not even trying, or to protest that virtue itself is meaningless. It is a difficult thing to meaningfully practice virtue in a dishonourable age.

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Shifting the boundaries

I was never terribly good at boundaries, growing up. Being a parent taught me a great deal about boundary setting. It’s no good declining to give a child boundaries, because that can leave them feeling unsafe and unable to navigate. Boundaries that are too limiting and rigid create resentment and restrict a child’s growth. The boundaries have to shift as the young person develops and changes. Those boundary shifts have to be talked about, so that they can happen in the right way, and be understood.

It took me a long time to realise that all the same things apply to adults. We need to have some sense of where the permissible edges are. We need the right to hold boundaries, but also the freedom to change them at need. Where we draw our lines in one instance cannot be taken as the rule for where our lines are. If I say yes to something once, I have not said yes to it forever.

Developing trust between people can mean a process of changing where the boundaries are. The process of interacting with each other can change how we feel and think, what we need and expect, and what risks we’re willing to take.

In some ways I’ve become a lot more guarded with my boundaries in recent years. I am far less tolerant of people who try to cross my lines uninvited. That’s about emotional lines as much as it is about physical contact. In some ways I’ve become softer in my boundaries because there are people I trust to honour what I say, and to still honour what I say if I need to change things.

We like clear and simple rules because they seem easiest to work with. But for every rule – religious or secular – it’s easy to think of times when breaking the rule would be the better choice. Lying isn’t good, but if Anne Frank is in the attic and Hitler is at the door, of course you lie. I’m not in favour of killing people, but sometimes this is necessary to save lives. If a shooter walks into a school, there should be no question about trained police taking them out in any way they can. And of course because people are difficult, this kind of argument can then be used to try and justify arming anyone who wants to be armed. Give people clear and simple rules for all situations and a subset of those people will always try and bend the rules for their own gain.

When it comes to dealing with people, simple rules tend not to work very well. What we have are massively complex social structures full of privileges and power imbalances. Our dealings with large numbers of people are shaped by rules, habits, social norms. These are not easy things to think about, which is why I think it pays to focus on the most immediate and specific interactions where we have the most scope to make change.

How do we recognise and honour other people’s boundaries?

Do we have any habits of thought that might means we’re not listening? Do we assume our own rights or entitlements trump someone else’s? Do we think a certain kind of person just makes a fuss?

What do we do when our boundaries aren’t respected? Do we have choices?

How we deal with each other’s boundaries is a fundamental building block for our societies as a whole. What we normalise, or ignore. What we undertake to change. What we refuse to back down over. What we demand other people take seriously.


Pillars of the community

When people in positions of power abuse others, what tends to happen is they are helped to cover it up. We’ve seen it with the Catholic Church protecting paedophile priests, we’ve seen evidence lost in a current case about child abuse amongst the high and mighty. The likes of Jimmy Saville and Bill Cosby should be on everyone’s minds. Of course it’s not just at the really top ends of things, and it’s not just those in power protecting each other.

Yesterday I had a conversation about a man who has broken data protection law, broken the rules of the organisation he’s involved with, lied, manipulated and bullied people. “But he’s done so much good,” his defender said. “And I don’t think he realises what he’s doing is a problem.” A pillar of the community, this man who has done so many things that are not ok, is defended because of his work.

We see it in the creative community – how do we judge a creative person when their lives are riddled with issues? Consider H.P. Lovecraft’s ghastly racism, consider the acting out of modern celebrities. Is it justice to weight the work someone does again the harm they cause, and to consider the balance?

I think not. I think this because it allows powerful people to get away with raping, and then silencing their victims. It allows powerful people to bully, use and abuse those around them. How much of the work that we celebrate has been achieved by using others? A self-proclaimed pillar of the community can look like a splendid achiever, but if someone is in the habit of lying and taking, there’s no guarantees they are honest about who really did the work.

Sometimes it’s because we convince ourselves that we need them – the unchallengeable pillar runs an event, or an organisation, and so we feel obliged to turn a blind eye and pretend we didn’t see the signs of trouble. We tell the people who want to complain that we just don’t want to hear it – I’ve had that happen to me, and it’s an awful position to be put in.

Perhaps we believe that people at a certain level deserve to be cut some slack. A sense that those above us are entitled to use and mistreat, so long as we can pretend we don’t know it’s happening. Feudalism is alive and well.

Of course for every rotten apple who makes it to the top, there are a lot of good folk, working with honour and integrity, and doing the right things for the right reasons, and not abusing their power or position in any way. It’s not an inevitable consequence of power. Certainly, power can corrupt, but it doesn’t have to. Every time we accept corruption and moral bankruptcy from those in authority, we’re also delivering a quiet smack in the face to the people who are better than that, and who deserve our support. Most communities have multiple pillars, after all, and if the abusive ones are supported by the community, the harm done to the non-abusive ones is considerable.

When corrupt, unethical, immoral and abusive people find their way into places of influence, we should not go along with them. We should not excuse their epic failings on the basis of ‘good work’. If something is wrong, it needs taking seriously and we all need to keep a careful eye on who we support, and what they’re actually doing.


Emotional Honesty

Word based honesty has always been very important to me. If I can be properly honest, I will be, although I recognise that there are times when honesty isn’t honourable. Truth can kill people, in some contexts. If I need to protect someone, then my preference is omission and misdirection rather than outright untruth because these cause less trouble and are easier to unpick later on.

Of course, most lying happens for a reason, and not all of it is conscious. The reasons always seem good to the person doing the lying – self protection, harm and pain avoidance, avoiding punishment and reputation damage are likely to seem good ideas. We lie in small, and less small ways to ourselves and others about how good we are, how many people love us or depend on us, and this is all about needing to feel secure. Much of the time this kind of dishonesty isn’t a major problem, but the bigger the lie, the bigger the consequences if it catches up with you. The person who has greatly invested in a lie of self worth, telling themselves and those around them how fantastic and important they are, can be setting themselves up for the most almighty fall.

I know that I have trouble being honest around a number of issues. I’ve spent years refusing to look properly at issues of pain, depression, anxiety and exhaustion, telling myself that what matters is the soldiering on regardless. I got to the point in the last year of no longer having the means to do that – the lie caught up to me, my body cannot take it anymore. I have to start facing up to my own limitations, admitting they exist, and being honest with myself, and everyone else, about what I can and can’t do.

Alongside this I’ve come to recognise that while I’m very emotionally honest if using words, I do my level best to lie with my body language – again mostly about pain, exhaustion and fear. I’ll try and put a brave face on it. I lie a lot by omission around these issues, too. Again, this summer this has caught up with me, and I’ve reached places of can’t do this anymore. It’s requiring me to think a lot about how I present myself to others, the effort involved in masking, and the possible consequences of not doing that.

I lie to make life easier for other people. I lie in fear that if I am honest, people will think I am attention seeking or making a fuss. Sometimes I lie about things because it seems more professional to do so, and I have to wonder about how much of that goes on out there. When did being professional become more important than being real, or being human? I lie because it’s easier than having to explain.

How much of this should I change? How much do I want to change? How much of this is about changing what I do, and my choice of situations? I’m going to try and be more conscious about where I’m quietly lying about how I’m doing, and see whether those are really situations I need to be in, or whether, for the greater part, I can step away from the spaces where I don’t feel it’s safe or appropriate to be honest. I’m tired of pretending to be better than I am.


Belief, politics and seeds for action

I believe that human rights are the foundation of a civilized society. I will not co-operate with anything that undermines them. I believe that we only have one planet and that its preservation is essential. I will not co-operate with planet destruction or environmental degradation.

I will resist tyranny, oppression and environmental damage by whatever honourable means are available to me. I will speak out, use what economic power I have, and if needs be put my body in the way of threats to my society and my land.

I will do whatever I can to uplift, support and enable all others who are resisting. I will not blame anyone who is too frightened or under-informed to fight for life and liberty, but I will seek to educate and demonstrate through my own actions to the best of my ability.

I will use what resources I have to alleviate suffering where I can, to protect life, and to protect our precious eco-systems. I will work in all ways available to me to create a better, fairer, sustainable and kinder future.

I will challenge greed, oppression, short term thinking and eco-suicide by any honourable means available to me.

I recognise that I am one finite human being with limited resources of time, energy and money, and I will resist in ways I can sustain for the longer term and I will not resist by doing the things I am opposed to. I will act in line with my beliefs in all things. I will not allow fear, short termism or personal advantage to sway me from what is just, good and needed. I will seek the greater good in all things.

If you agree with any or all of this statement, you are welcome to reuse any part or the whole in any way you see fit.


Angry Druid

For me, the journey of recent years has involved claiming my own anger and letting myself feel entitled to it. Anger is not a socially accepted emotion – especially not in women and many of us learn that we are to be quiet, grateful, biddable and co-operative and that we must never, ever cause offence by being furious. Never mind what’s done to us to provoke the fury.

I’m also only too aware that there are a second set of people who feel entitled to anger over anything that displeases them or makes them uncomfortable. There are a small number of people for whom the experience of anger is understood as an excuse for violence, as though to be angry is to have no choice but to lash out.

Getting the balance of needful, healthy, protective anger without falling into the anger that is deaf to all negative feedback, is tricky. It’s not what we feel that’s in issue here, it’s what we choose to do with it. How and when we express anger, is a choice. This is very much a work in progress for me, and as ever, alternative stories and perspectives are exceedingly welcome.

I’ve identified two different anger inducing situations for me. The first is impersonal – a response to sexism, casual or deliberate, to things that enable rape culture, racism, pedalling misinformation, hypocrisy and the such. The vast majority of anything said by anyone from UKIP and quite a lot of other political stuff too, in fact. I wade in and I comment. I make a point of being as polite as I can with this, because feeling entitled to be rude is a lot of what enables the other side in these fights. I’m not doing it with any hope of winning, but some possibility that others, getting to compare me being polite and rational with the hateful raving, might decide they don’t want to support the haters. It’s worth a try. While the clashes I get into are often wearing, I know what I’m doing and why and I feel fairly confident about it.

The personal stuff is a lot harder. I don’t feel confident about my entitlement to personal anger. If someone seems rude, unkind or aggressive in their treatment of me, my default is still to step back, and the urge is still to apologise and assume blame and responsibility. That’s been a big problem for me historically and has left me vulnerable, so I’m trying not to do it. Where possible, what I do is step away to explore my responses without the source of emotion present. If I can get a second opinion, I will. A wider context can help establish what is fair, reasonable, normal, etc. That enables me to make more informed judgements about how I’m handling things. I will talk to people I trust to see if it looks likely that I’m in the wrong. If it is necessary to go back and say anything, it will be calm and considered.

I’ve never said anything in anger that I didn’t mean and later had to retract. I have a great deal of difficulty with people who use ‘I was angry’ to excuse this. If honour is central to Druidry, then your word is everything, and if you speak carelessly, or say things in rage that are not meant, where does that leave your honour? I find I’m more comfortable with people who own what they do in anger, who meant what they said and are not ashamed to own it in hindsight. That’s a good deal easier to respect, even if I do choose to step away from them, than the person who lashes out, and in a desire to seem nice, later puts the lie to their own words.

I am convinced that it is possible to feel, express and honour anger- our own and other people’s – without falling into a shouty, aggressive, dysfunctional and dishonourable state.


Courage

Of all the virtues a person might cultivate, courage is one of the ones I find most important. Honour is the primary virtue cherished by Druids, but honour without courage doesn’t amount to much. If you can only be honourable when it is safe and easy, you won’t get very far.

Fear is a very destructive and damaging force in my life, and I know I am not alone in this. There are days when the fear is so bad that I simply want to shut down and refuse to engage with the world. To do so, would be to bring about personal disaster, there are no two ways about it. To be halted by fear, is to fail. So much of what I do depends on getting out there and doing it… if I let the fear overwhelm me, I am finished. It means that often, any kind of movement at all is far better than quitting would be.

For some, courage and bravery seem like an absence of fear. From the outside they tend to look that way. Conventional wisdom has it that courage is not freedom from fear, but the ability to overcome the fear that you have. Undoubtedly this is a useful thing, but it means living with the fear.

What is courage, as a state of being? Firstly it requires a capacity for hope. You have to believe it is possible for things to be better and that taking action will help. Without that fundamental belief, there is no courage. An absence of despair, or at least not very much of it, are necessary pre-requisites for courage. Even if you are heading out to face certain death, you have to believe that doing so means something, or you’ll just pull the duvet over your head and wait for certain doom to come to you, instead. It doesn’t need to be more than a fine thread of hope, a tiny belief that some small thing could be made better. However, that dash of optimism makes all the difference. Without it, courage seems futile.

Courage requires a degree of belief in your own power. If you don’t believe that you, personally, can make a difference by acting or doing your best, you will not find the courage to stand up and try. So for there to be courage, there must be a world view that embraces the potential of the lone crusader, or that sees how many little actions contribute to changing the tide. Gloomy acceptance does not foster courage.

Then you need to have a vision of something better, so that you know which direction to move in. It might be vague, it might simply be the idea that if you act honourably you will move towards those better ways of being, but there needs to be something. Courage without honour has no idea what to be doing, and can easily turn into something else.

Courage is not merely the business of overcoming fear. Determination can do that. Fear itself can make us overcome the paralysis of fear for fear of what might be worse should we fail to act. Courage is an inner condition that says ‘I can try and there is a point’. When you have that, you can see all the things it is reasonable, and less reasonable to be afraid of, but you have the means to challenge them. You have a perspective that makes it possible to stand up and act. That kind of courage is not bombastic or sabre rattling, but it has a great deal of power.

I do not think that courage as a virtue is simply a measure of overcoming fear. It is a state of being that is not dependent on how much fear you are feeling. It is a habit of mind and a cultivation of belief that enables action regardless of fear. One can therefore have courage without feeling afraid, or with it; the measure is not the terror overcome, but a particular inner quality that enables action.


Green Media

This afternoon I’m teaching Green Party folk about media work. You may have heard about media training, how it teaches you to spin, bluster, avoid awkward questions, and take over the subject to talk about your agenda, not what was asked? That’s not what I’m teaching, because that’s not Green media policy. I think this is worth sharing.

The very first thing I learned when I became a press officer for the local Green Party, is that we do not do spin. We do not lie or wilfully mislead. This is very much at odds with the norms of the modern political world. It means I take pride in being able to do my job honourably and honestly.

Green politics explicitly does not go in for the shouting, braying, name calling and rude rubbishing tactics favoured by mainstream politics. If we can manage it, we’ll have a quiet, civilized debate with anyone willing to talk about the issues. I hate aggressive and rude behaviour in politicians, because it shuts down debates and intimidates those who do not agree into shutting up. The person who won’t even listen to a counter argument cannot be moved, and there is little point even trying to talk to them. That’s not democracy. So on Twitter I’ve found that my local Labour hopeful is endlessly rude and unpleasant if I try to talk issues with him. The local Tory will occasionally have a conversation with me, and tends to go quiet rather than nasty if he can’t answer a question. I don’t take a bullying stance when he can’t answer me, because I’m hoping he’ll go away and have a think. That would be way more productive. I do not agree with him or his party, but I respect the fact that he communicates with manners.

The Green Party does not have a whip. There is no pressure to hold the party line in the same way other parties must. We favour consensus approaches, so if you don’t agree with a policy, you get scope to say so. You have the option of saying ‘what I think is this,’ in public and it’s the decent thing to acknowledge if the general opinion in the Party is different. If it is the case that your specific local situation requires unique handling for some reason, working out what the Green approach is there will be more appropriate than just coughing up a standard party line. If in doubt, we have core values and principles, from which it is easy to work out the sort of direction to take on any given issue. Let me just reiterate that. We have values, and they are consistent. That matters a great deal to me. Those values are more critical than doing whatever it takes to get a person to Westminster. It’s not about naked lust for power, it’s about standing for something you care about.

We’re an evidence-led party. Reason, based on the best evidence available, underpins our thinking. It’s not about bending the facts to fit what we want to have be true, its about responding to reality. I like that a lot.

The only reason I can combine being a Druid with being a press officer, is that I’m working for a party where this in no way requires me to act dishonourably. It is my job to be truthful, to speak well (and for me, good speech is a virtue). It is my job to try and grapple with complicated and confusing things, and get them into the public domain in ways that make sense. I can be a political Druid because I am not asked in my political work to do anything that would in any way be at odds with my spiritual values.


Studies in trust

For me, trust is everything, and it’s also something I find very difficult. It’s not especially the issues of practical trust – will people do what they said they’d do? I’m able to roll easily enough with the natural forgetting and error that is part of life for all of us. The critical balance for me lies around the trust-truth-acceptance dynamic.

Part of my problem is that I’ve been sorely messed about by people who were not truthful, and who did not accept me. Pressure to change, and rejection of how I am as a person whilst wanting either my body or my utility, having been reoccurring themes. I’ve learned a lot about how not to get caught up in that, and am doing better, but the legacy of it remains.

I find it really hard to trust people in any way. Most especially I find it hard to trust that I will be accepted. I am easily persuaded that silence equates to rejection, when probably it doesn’t. I tend to assume that my emotional openness will be unwelcome, and as a consequence I am less honest than I could be. I undermine the trust-truth-acceptance dynamic every time I lie by omission to someone I care about. Most often the thing I lie about in this way, is exactly how much I care. It says a lot about some of the people in my history that I have learned to be fearful around this one, and to feel that saying ‘you really matter to me’ is likely to cause affront.

It is so easy to cart victim/survivor status about, letting things that have happened in the past define what I do now and how I see the world. Holding the belief that I will not be acceptable and should not be emotionally open is actually a safe space, a cheat. If I stay in that view, I need take no emotional risks. I do not have to be vulnerable for anyone, or face my fears of rejection, or deal with the complexities of how other people feel and what they need. The more carefully closed I am, the less likely I am to invite emotional honesty and trust from anyone else, either.

Last year I ended up on my knees at one point, utterly convinced that how I am is fundamentally toxic to other people and that I should batten it all down and hide it as much as possible. It’s taken me a long time to think this through. Is it fair or reasonable to base all future relationship judgements on the words of one person? Is it fair to the other people who are in my life, or who come into my life, to assume that they will all, without exception think and feel in this way? Clearly they don’t. My husband Tom is an ongoing source of affirmation that I’m not some monstrosity that should be hidden away. Other versions of how I am perceived are available and I can choose which story to trust.

The bottom line in terms of why I find it so hard to trust other people, is that I do not trust myself. The reason I do not trust myself is that a very small number of people, half a dozen or so across my life, have really gone to some lengths to undermine my confidence. I know in some cases it wasn’t even personal, it’s how they treat everyone. In other cases its likely a consequence of being lost and messed up themselves. I realise that only if I can learn how to trust myself, to trust my judgement, my honour and my integrity, then I will be far less at the mercy of the people who want to take me down for the hell of it, and far more able to be open to those who might genuinely accept me as I am.


Just a bit of fun

Warning: I found this one deeply uncomfortable while I was writing it. Even by my usual standards I think this is a challenging post.

One of the repeated defences of NaNoWriMo after my blog post criticising it, has been that it is just a bit of fun. This came in response to me suggesting it has a problematic impact on the book industry and on perceptions of books, far beyond the minority who participate. In turn, this led me to thinking about the logic of defending something as ‘just a bit of fun.’

Now, in cases where something is attacked purely on the basis of worth – comic books would be a case in point, the ‘fun’ defence seems passably valid to me. Comics are fun, they don’t hurt anyone normally, and they can be a tool for improving literacy, especially in boys who are not attracted to books (and we’ve moved beyond fun now). It is often the case that popular culture is criticised on issues of merit and worth, and defends itself with the ‘fun’ line. The worth attack, fun defence is perfectly reasonable not least because ‘worth’ is so subjective in the first place, and the first line of attack for people who resent ‘fun’.

However, ‘just a bit of fun’ also defends the torture porn movies and sexual pornography as well. It is a line for silencing debate about the social and emotional impact of subjecting ourselves to this kind of content. What if it isn’t just harmless fun? What if it’s addictive? What if it changes us in ways we are not even aware of? Shouldn’t we know about that, and shouldn’t we care?

All blood sports have at some point been viewed as ‘just a bit of fun’ by the people who enjoyed them. The badger baiting and cock fighting, the dog fights, fox hunting and so forth. Shooting wildlife you do not mean to eat is no doubt ‘just a bit of fun’ for the people who participate. Less so for the wildlife, at a guess. When historical armies have raped their way through conquered peoples, you can be sure someone was ‘just having fun’. It is the first line of defence for abusers – nothing bad is happening to you, this is just a bit of fun. This is the classic defence of all bullies too – especially at school. Normal rough and tumble play. Just fun. No harm real harm done…

What troubles me about the ‘just a bit of fun’ defence is that it seeks to minimise and dismiss the questions that are being raised. While there is a huge difference between a writing program and physical assault, the line of defence being taken is equally invalid and itself needs challenging. I did not question whether NaNo was fun. I’m sure it is for a lot of people. I also know fox hunting is fun for a lot of people who do it (no, I am not implying any similarity between NaNo and fox hunting).‘Fun’ is not an ethical assessment of a thing. Why should the pleasure we take in something be given priority over its wider impact? ‘Just a bit of fun’ is often a refusal to consider the alternatives.

Of course no one wants to consider that the things they were innocently, thoughtlessly enjoying might be problematic and not that cool. We don’t want to be that wrong, any of us. We don’t want to have to feel guilty about things we like, or change our behaviour because of the ethical impact. So we keep buying the fun shoes made by slave labour and the chocolate harvested by children, and we close our eyes and ears to what’s going on. Pagans with our dubiously sourced crystals, taking pilgrimage by aeroplane to international sacred sites. We are all guilty of this, to some degree. I know I could do more to avoid wilful ignorance. Do we choose to keep shutting our eyes and putting our fingers in our ears “la la la, can’t hear you, it’s just a bit of fun, it’s all fine” or are we willing to look the problems in the face when someone brings them to our attention?

And on the flip side, if you want to defend anything, ‘just a bit of fun’ is a really flimsy approach. Not least because the people for whom it isn’t fun probably couldn’t care less how you feel about it. If you love something, argue for it with more considered replies, with more reasoning and better justifications. Many people did defend NaNo on those better terms with talk of community and literacy programs – a powerful counter to my critique, and a valuable addition to the wider discussion. Thank you, those of you who dropped in to do that. That is an important counter argument, well worth sharing, and a definite consideration when thinking about the wider impact of NaNo.

If it’s truly just a bit of fun, why on earth are we willing to ignore the possibility we are hurting someone or something else?

(And feel free to place bets over how many people misread this and go on to get angry with me for comparing NaNoWriMo to rape, because if this week is anything to go by, someone will. Not something one of you lovely regulars would do, I feel confident. You all seem sane and tend to reply to what I’ve written, not what you’ve inferred after reading every third word… )