Tag Archives: political

Dances with Algorithms

Social media can be toxic for the individual user, and there’s a growing school of thought that some of it is harmful to society as a whole. However, social media is a significant percentage just people, and as people participating in it we get to contribute to how it all works.

I’ve spent many years doing social media professionally for various companies, organisations and individuals. This means I’ve spent a lot of time having to think about how various platforms work, and how to get people to engage. A lot of engagement tactics are unethical – clickbait, and more problematically, outrage bait. Make people feel something and you are more likely to get them to engage with you. Outrage is pretty easy to invoke and channel because when people feel it, they often don’t think calmly or clearly and become easier to manipulate.

Social media algorithms are informed by engagement and speed of engagement. That which gets a lot of reaction fast, travels and becomes more visible. So, if you don’t like something and you engage with it, you’re actually helping to move it around.

The internet is an attention hungry toddler and is best treated as such. It craves your attention because that’s how it makes advertising money. Attention hungry toddlers don’t care what it takes to get your attention, they just keep doing the thing that gets most reaction. If that’s you losing your shit, the toddler learns to wind you up. Sometimes, the most effective way to teach a toddler is by being boring and disinterested. Algorithms are the same.

If something makes you angry, don’t respond to it. Don’t comment on it, don’t argue with people on it, don’t share it to express your anger. Screenshots don’t send traffic or energy back to the source of the problem. If it’s bad enough to merit a report, a block or an unfriending, do that quickly and move on.

Facebook in particular will show you more of what it thinks you want to see. It judges this based on what you interact with, and what your friends interact with. If you spend a lot of time arguing with people, you’re going to see more content featuring the key words you were arguing with. Your social media experience thus becomes more angry and unhappy.

You have to teach the algorithm what it is you want to see. I mostly see adverts for cat related things and cute cat videos and a fair amount of queer news. I curate hard on sites I use, and I don’t stay friends with strangers whose posts make me cross. I don’t live in an echo chamber because I actively seek all kinds of information. I don’t make myself available to people who are going to make my life miserable. 

I’m active about sharing nice things, because I think we could all do with nice things. Sharing warmth and beauty is also political, and seriously radical, and all about the kind of world I want to live in. If I need to argue, I do so as gently and politely as I can, and if I am concerned I can’t stay gentle and polite I get the hell out. I leave likes and loves and hearts on things that cheer me, for the greater part. I do a bit of political critique sharing on Twitter, but I stay away from anything that is abusive or divisive.

Most days, my experience of social media is positive, cheerful and adds richness and delight to my life. No site has to be a hellspace, you just have to tame it and bend it to your will.

There are people who are nourished by your outrage, and who will starve for want of attention if we just ignore them. Don’t name them. Don’t engage. Undertake to be bored by what they do, and direct your energy towards what’s good and interesting instead.


All Stories Are Political

Every now and then some bright spark will object to their favourite creator saying political things. Or to other fans involving the creative work in political conversations. ‘Don’t politicise Terry Pratchett’ was a stand-out recent example of this…

Politics isn’t just talking about parties. Every story involves a world view, a sense of what’s wrong or right, valuable or problematic. These are also political issues. Who is present and who is absent is a political issue. What is shown as desirable, is political. Stories tell us what to aspire to – and whether that’s wealth, or kindness, or power over others, or the bloody death of your enemies, has implications for how we think about life.

If a story doesn’t seem political, there are reasons for this. One may be that it represents the world as you think it is, and so it seems entirely free of judgement. We often don’t see the political implications of supporting the status quo – at the moment a good example would be that most people won’t see car adverts as politically loaded.

If the story reflects you and your life and experience, and you have a lot of privilege, you might just see it as normal. There are all kinds of issue around access to education, to books, to who gets to be a high profile writer in the first place, that bring politics into writing. There are longstanding issues around getting to write children’s fiction if you aren’t white. There are issues around how mainstream publishing favours white, educated in specific ways, middle class voices. Especially if your book isn’t about offering exotic novelty to the assumed white, middle class reader.

You might not realise a book is political if it is speculative. As with the Pratchett illustration at the start of the post, people don’t always make connections between the stories they read and the world they live in. Speculative genres can be better at speaking to real world issues because they can take short cuts and explore alternatives. Racism becomes specieism, disability becomes undead issues and so forth. It can be easier to think about things when they’re presented to us in a more entertaining, less loaded sort of way. But, for the person whose heart is set on not seeing that, it remains possible to pretend that stories are free from politics.

One of the most insidious forms of ignoring the politics is to suggest that we don’t hear from certain voices because those people just aren’t good enough. The stories that are published, and discussed are supposedly the highest quality ones – which often means they are told in the way that seems most familiar to the white and affluent people who dominate in all the relevant industries. ‘Dest’ often really means ‘sounds like me and is something I can relate to’. The way race, class, gender and disability narratives are assumed to be less accessible to a ‘mainstream’ audience tells us a lot about who gets to decide which stories are universal, and which are of less interest.

All stories are political, and none more so than the stories we never get to hear.


The politics of editing

Editing is one of those things that does not self announce as a political process, but is. The impact of that process is with us in so much of what we read. There are class issues, race issues and pretty much any other kind of diversity issue you care to think about.

When you edit for a publishing house, usually your primary concern is to bring the author in line with house style. I’ve had this kind of work, and the notes about what house style is. I’ve also not gone after jobs where I’ve seen the house style information and found it so suffocating that I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that to an author.

Most publishing houses are run by white, middle class people – often men. The bigger the house or the imprint, the higher the likelihood of an Oxbridge education. The rules about what constitutes good and proper writing come out of that background – it is formal and official English and conformity may well be prized a good deal more than diversity. But, that said, smaller houses often seek to emulate what they think the big houses do, and nasty editing exists at all levels.

If your background isn’t white, middle class and educated, the editing process can be one of having your voice changed. An unsympathetic editor won’t necessarily recognise what it was about your voice that was important to you. Having your voice normalised to these standards is an intensely political thing. Being discounted if you aren’t close enough to these standards is also political. And it is not, let me be clear, that standard official English makes for the best writing. It may be clearer and more familiar to people who speak it as their language, but language use itself is far more diverse than this and modes of expression matter. The right to express in your own way matters.

Slang, dialect terms and personal quirks should not be seen as inferior or inherently in need of correction. That can be all about wiping the signs of class and race out of someone’s writing. The flip side of this is the way voices are ‘characterised’ by middle class authors so that the non-middle class folk are represented in non-standard English. The way Scottish accents are fetishised and caricatured is an annoying case in point.

These days I proof read for authors. The only proof reading I’m doing for publishers is at Sloth, where I’m the second set of eyes on works in translation. But, that’s a small house, and there’s no house style sheet.

When you edit and proof read for an author, they are the only person you answer to. At this point, the job is not to standardise them, but to help them do the best possible job of doing what they wanted to do. Proof reading for an author means protecting whatever makes them unique. It means supporting their voice and helping it carry. This is the work I prefer to be doing.

There isn’t enough diversity in publishing. This is not an accident.


Druidry and Politics

It always makes me sad when I see modern Druids claiming that Druidry isn’t political. We know the original Druids were political, and we know this simply because the Romans went to some effort to wipe them out.

On the whole, the Romans took a really inclusive approach to colonialism. They had given some thought to what keeps a population biddable – bread, circuses and continuity. So where possible, your leaders continue to be your leaders, only they are answerable to Rome and send taxes in. Your Gods are still your Gods, although you might get a Roman name tacked on so they become a double-barrelled entity. There’s not much incentive here for the regular working person to rebel. People get grouchy when you take away their Gods and priests, so mostly you don’t, and conquest is easier. You co-opt their Gods and Romanize them too.

One of the few historical accounts we have of the Druids is of the Romans going to Anglesey specifically to wipe them out. Clearly, as an invading and colonial force, the Romans found the Druids a bit inconvenient. Enough to fight them. Enough to describe them for posterity in ways that did not make them look good. Whatever it was the Druids did to cause that much offence, I can’t help but feel it must have had a political dimension to it. Rome just wasn’t that fussed about religious diversity. By all accounts, the Christians of the period really had to make an effort to get martyred.

In face of oppressive, militaristic colonial capitalism moving into their territory, the original Druids put up enough of a fight to justify trying to wipe them out. Now, you can take that onboard and decide that they got it wrong – that the survival of Druidry was more important than resisting Rome, perhaps. You might decide that in the same situation, you’d have been off to some remote and romantic retreat to practice peace and light because your Druidry isn’t political. Maybe there were Druids who did that at the time – we don’t know. But there were clearly Druids who preferred death to submitting to Rome, and that’s about as political a choice as anyone gets to make.

The idea that you can step outside of politics is a mistaken one. The Druid who does not resist the Roman invasion is also making a political choice – to tacitly support the aggressor, to not defend people and traditions, to take what might be the easiest and safest personal path. In times of peril, conflict and great change, not doing politics is itself a deeply political choice with huge political consequences. You don’t get to be a Druid and opt out of politics because you don’t get to be a person and opt out. You do get to decide who you support, and doing nothing is a choice that supports whatever already dominates. Pretending you can avoid politics is a political decision, either to accept what is done to you or because you are comfortable and don’t suffer what the less fortunate do.


All art is political

All art is political. If you can’t see the political dimension of a piece of art this is because it aligns neatly with your own world view and requires no effort on your part. If you are cis, white and male and you’re used to it being normal for the main character to be cis, white and male, then you won’t see anything remotely political about this representation. This happens at the unpleasant end of comics reading rather a lot. To introduce diversity is political, to carry on with this – from the perspective of those who support it – isn’t.

Anything that upholds the current system and gives us what we expect can be misread in this way. However, given the many problems and failings of western colonial culture, to present it unchallenged is to be political. We are killing our planet, ourselves and each other with pollution, climate change, loss of resources and over-consumption. To ignore that is political. Art that doesn’t mention these issues is political.

Equally, art that has no room for vast swathes of diversity and experience, is political. If there is no room in your story for queers, if disabled people don’t exist, and poor people are just cannon fodder and BAME people don’t get speaking parts, or are just there to be exotic eye candy… then the art is political.

All creators exist in a political context. All creators are impacted by the laws and financial realities of the time and place in which they create. Some creators have massive privilege – family wealth, education, support, nepotism, opportunities… some creators do not. Publishing is not good at diversity. Getting an arts education is a lot easier if you can afford one, and doors open for people who know people who work in the right places. It is impossible to make art that is not political. If you find it easy to make and sell your work and give no thought to the context that makes it easy for you, your art still has a political dimension.

If you can ignore the political context in which you create or consume art, that’s political. It means you are safe, and have privilege and can choose whether to engage or not. Marginalised people don’t have the luxury of that choice. If politics are done to you, then you don’t get to choose whether you engage or not, and the political dimension in which your art occurs is there whether you wanted it in the mix or not.

Then there’s the politics of how we think about it. Whether we see an art item or a craft item is a political issue. The way in which beautifully made and decorated items with utility are hived off as craft is a political decision that impacts on how the arts of working people are understood.

So, next time you see someone complaining about an artist bringing politics to their work, bear this in mind. Some creators don’t get a choice, because who they are means that their work will always be viewed in political terms even if they don’t really want it to be. Art only seems not to be political if it expresses and reinforces your world view, and that’s a very politically loaded thing to have happening unquestioned.


Everything is political

I notice a lot of people saying we shouldn’t politicise the virus, or that making a political point in a crisis isn’t the right response. This assumes it is possible for something not to be political. Just because we don’t see the political dimension of something, we imagine it isn’t there. This does not help us.

Everything we are allowed to do, required to do and forbidden to do is held by laws that have been decided on through our political systems. There is no area of our lives where this isn’t relevant. Alongside that, the rights, freedoms, obligations or the lack thereof for companies, wealthy individuals, landowners, and politicians also impact on us.

There are so many ways in which lockdown and the virus are inherently political issues. Funding decisions over the last ten years have undermined the NHS. Political ideas about Europe have cost us protective gear and ventilators. Treating the economy as more important than lives has killed people. These are all political choices. The degree to which we are battered by all this, the number of people who die and the economic damage we take are all tied to political choices. The crushing of whole areas of economic activity – arts, leisure, self employed folk, is a political choice that will have long term consequences. Funding billionaire tax dodgers while letting small businesses go to the wall, is a political choice.

Everything about the virus is political. The decision to not treat it as a political issue is also a political issue. If we insist on not being political about it, we do not call politicians to account. We accept that they could not have done better – and they so clearly could. We accept that the political decisions creating the context for our poor handling of the pandemic, were not important. That’s really dangerous territory. What do we think politics are for, if not for creating the framework in which we all operate? If that framework fails us – as is happening now – ignoring the political part of that is an act of powerlessness, of our abdicated responsibility as well as theirs.


Uncovering the massive lies

I’ve had it happen twice on the kind of scale that rocked my sense of reality. Finding out you have been lied to in a way that undermines your sense of the other person, how the world works, maybe even your own sense of self is a distressing thing to go through.

Small lies are an everyday thing and no big deal usually. The lies of forgetfulness and omission, the lies that were meant to be a kindness to you, or that protect someone else. Inadvertently misleading each other because we use language differently, or understood something differently… There are also the small lies people tell to protect themselves – of course I remembered. Of course I was going to do that. In the grand scheme of things, they might not be ideal, but they can be lived with.

A big, deliberate lie or series of lies has serious consequences. It can leave you wondering what was real, and second guessing everything. You will likely feel betrayed, and your trust in other people can be compromised. You may feel like you should have seen through the lie, and be beating yourself up for being fooled, naive, optimistic, over-trusting or whatever it was. Worse still, there may be people on the sidelines ready with an ‘I told you so’. There may be humiliation to add to the misery of betrayal.

It’s hard stuff to deal with and will make you feel like shit. It can be more tempting as a consequence to go along with the lie rather than dealing with the truth. Sometimes the truth is bloody painful, and the lies are consoling. But no one feels good about having been misled, and the more you’ve done off the back of that, the worse it feels.

Dealing with this in your personal life is hard. Dealing with it at a political level is brutal. When people have lied to you to get your vote, and you’ve been persuaded to support something that isn’t in your interests, and the people on the other side are just waiting to crow and add insult to injury… it’s not a good place to be.

It’s tempting, when you are proved right, to want to draw attention to that and get back at the people who said you were wrong, or lying. It’s tempting to be angry with the people who were persuaded by lies into doing things that weren’t helpful. If the liar has a lot of power, it can be easier to vent frustration on their victims than go after them.

It’s hard to admit you’ve been duped. We can choose to make that easier for each other, and to handle it kindly. It is better to have people pull away from the lies than give them reason to double down, upholding the lie to protect their own fragile feelings.


Two Party Politics

The UK and the US both suffer from having political systems dominated by two parties. There are a number of reasons why this doesn’t lead to good democratic outcomes.

Firstly it gives us something adversarial in nature. Us versus them. Polarised tribal politics with little room for co-operation. We’d be better served by compromise.

Secondly, most issues have more than two sides to them. If you aren’t represented by the two sides in an argument, you’re stuck.  More parties means more breadth, depth and diversity.

Thirdly, if you then feel unrepresented you may well see no point voting. This is part of a narrowing down, as the two parties go after the people who do vote, they may move closer together, representing fewer people.

Fourthly, it is difficult to shift back and forth between two parties. If they are at all different and you agreed with one, the odds of that changing at the next election aren’t that high. Democracy works better when we’re offered a range of options that might be relevant to us and we get to decide what we think is best.

When there’s a bit more diversity, there’s more room to look at the individual qualities of candidates. How honourable they are, whether they keep their election promises, how they treat people, what kind of results they get and so forth. If you’re stuck with two viable candidates and one of them is unthinkably awful, you may feel moved to vote for someone who is simply less bad. More options tend to improve quality.

Unfortunately, the two party system serves the people who are in the two parties – the only people with any real power to change that system and open it up. So, little wonder that they don’t, usually.


Have an ego trip, save the world

The odds are that you, like me, spend most of your time feeling not very important. Our votes change nothing. Big corporations and international agreements move the world in direction we are powerless to resist. If you aren’t a chart topping best selling, box office breaking in the news and on the magazine covers kind of person, you know that what you say and do doesn’t add up to much. You know this because it is reinforced every single day, mostly by the media. There’s the great and the good, who set the agenda and make the decisions that matter, and there’s the rest of us.

Most of our ancestors would not have spent their lives feeling so small. When your world is a tribe, a village, even a small town, your scope for mattering is much improved. If you’ve living the marginal, tribal life then any one person’s choices or actions can make or break, kill or save for a whole community. For most of human history, our choices mattered greatly to the survival options of our nearest and dearest. We evolved with our opinions counting for something to create this culture that treats most of us as interchangeable and irrelevant.

However, the ‘irrelevant’ 99% of us represent a lot of life lived and choices made. When you look at what we do collectively, we clearly do have a lot of potential for power, much of which we squander because we’re so busy buying the idea that what we do doesn’t make much odds. If we all pulled in the same direction, everything would change.

My invitation to you, is to have an ego trip. Start treating your personal choices as though you were making decisions for all of humanity. Start acting like you are a king or queen and that the fate of many lies in your hands. See each choice you make as powerful and important, and hang on to that no matter what you hear to the contrary.

For a start, this one life is the life you have, and your experience of it is the most important thing that will ever be available to you while you live. You are entitled to take that seriously. Within your own life, your choices are of vast importance, and you do have the power to make changes. Even if the wider political scene isn’t going the right way, you can act to resist, and will feel happier for upholding your own values even if it does seem like a drop in the ocean compared to what’s needed. There is always the possibility that if more people act with you, larger scales of change become possible, and in living what you believe you will encourage and inspire others to do the same. Small stones thrown into ponds can make huge ripples.

In Paganism we tend to say that we are all our own priests and priestesses. We take spiritual roles that would once have belonged to rulers. Arguably, democracy puts all of us in a position of sovereign relationship with the land. So why not embrace that fully and take that sense of power and significance into the rest of our lives, to make changes?

We are continually bombarded with messages of our own irrelevance. Every news item that tells us how somewhere, far away, other people are making choices that will affect our lives, tells us that we are lesser. We do not have the power. Feeling powerless, we are encouraged to think we have no choice but to go along with what we are told. We always have choices. We do have power. We need to claim it.


Reluctantly Political

I had no ambitions to get into politics. I’ve spent most of my life wanting politics to be something that happened quietly and productively, somewhere else, leaving me free to get on with writing books and exploring Druidry and generally doing the stuff I value.

I have no desire to be in charge of anything. I’ve had small tastes of power, in Pagan volunteer roles laden with responsibility. I did not get much of a power kick. I did get a lot of anxiety about doing the job well enough, and managing the responsibilities. I’ll run things if needs be, but leadership is not something I enjoy for its own sake, only for what might usefully be achieved.

Politics is an invasive business. It is not prepared to leave me alone to get on with my work. It is politicians who sort out the laws to protect creative content. I understand from The Society of Authors that the UK affords the shoddiest creator-protection in Europe. VAT on ebooks really hasn’t helped, thank you politicians. Laws about ‘orphan’ works have further undermined copyright. Then there’s all the blocking and banning, and as a Druid author I have to worry that growing censorship will shut down access to my site, and if companies are allowed to buy and sell access more specifically, that could squash me. Then there’s the Trans Atlantic Trade Agreement, which I feel threatened by. As an author, politics has not left me to get on with it.

As a Druid, the natural world matters to me. I see both the sacred and the pragmatic aspects of our essential, life-support systems. I see how politicians are willing to sacrifice the clean air and the safe water for the sake of a quick buck. I see how economic growth is valued above tackling climate change, and as a Druid, this makes me very uneasy. How can I go around being a Druid and be non-political, when politics is trashing the planet?

I would be the first to tell you that I don’t have the knowledge or the training to handle politics. Then I look at the people in positions of power. Climate change denier Paterson in the Environment job. Gove handling teaching, who hasn’t grasped that you can’t make all children perform above average. Osbourn, whose austerity cuts turn out to be very expensive indeed. It’s hard to protest that I’m not clever or informed enough to do a better job, in face of what I see happening.

So I joined the Green Party some years ago, and last year I took on a much more active role, and I’m going to be doing a lot of campaign work. I’ll be supporting EU candidate Molly Scott Cato, economics spokesperson, with a doctorate in economics. She’s knowledgeable, and sensible and doesn’t spend her time shouting random abuse or airing unsubstantiated opinions. I like informed, evidence-based policy, and I like people in positions of leadership and responsibility who know more about it than I do.

I’m tired of people in power who are just in if for the power trip and the opportunity to make themselves and their friends very rich. I’m tired of having to listen to uninformed fantasy and drivel from people who refuse to read, listen or think but who are so overconfident in their own prowess that they still feel entitled to tell the rest of us what to do. I want politicians who are wise, noble, well-informed, responsible and good human beings. That means, until we get to that place, I’ve got to pile in, and try to make some kind of difference. Then, hopefully, there will be some sane and relaxed space in which I can get back into the rest of the business of being an author and Druid.