Tag Archives: privilege

Distress as a community issue

The worst experience you’ve ever had is going to inform your sense of perspective. I ran into this a lot when James was young, and it’s quite a process giving a child a framework in which to consider their experiences without invalidating how they feel about things. Distress should not be competitive, and the idea that you shouldn’t make a fuss because other people have it worse, is abhorrent.

How distressing something is depends a lot on how resourced you are. If you’re already at the margins, smaller things will have more power to break you. Getting the flu as a basically healthy person is different from getting the flu when you were already ill. From the outside, it isn’t easy to tell how overloaded someone else might be. 

Even so, in my experience it is often the people who are most privileged and most comfortable who make the most fuss about their setbacks. The more insulated a person is in a bubble of comfort, the more intolerant they are likely to be of other people’s struggles, too. Most of us are challenged and knocked about by life and most of us have more compassion and empathy for other people than that. Unfortunately the UK government appears to have a lot of whinging privilege in it at the moment.

Community is really important in all of this. Investing care in others – humans and non-humans alike will give us a context for our own experiences. Very little is new, most of us aren’t desperately original about the things we struggle with, and I think there’s a kind of beauty in that. We share so much common experience in our flawed humanity. When we talk about that and make the stories of our trials available to each other, we open up to compassion and empathy. It’s also a way of sharing knowledge, and if you’ve seen someone else go through something you’re much better prepared to deal with it if you encounter something similar.

I’m always uneasy about the people who constantly need to prove that they’re the biggest victim, the most hard done by, and the only one who should be getting attention. It’s not healthy. It’s vitally important to be able to look around and see what’s most urgent right now, or most fixable. When we look out for each other, we build resilience and resources. If we all sat in little puddles of self pity demanding that we be recognised as the one with the best sob story, nothing good would come of it. We all need room to express our woes, but doing that together is far more powerful. 

When we rage, and grieve and struggle together we can build things that are more than the sum of our misery.


Dealing with disbelief

I made the mistake of starting to suffer from chronic fatigue at a point where it wasn’t reliably being diagnosed. My doctor at the time did not believe it existed, and treated me accordingly – with scorn, suggestions that it was all in my head and the assumption that I just wanted to get out of PE. And yes, I did want to get out of PE because PE was hell, for a whole bunch of other reasons no one knew were issues. Whatever else was going on, my distress never seemed plausible to him.

I had no idea, as a small child, that most people weren’t in pain. Other kids did the things I couldn’t do, and seemed to be ok. I’m not sure why I concluded that they were all just making less of a fuss about it, but that’s child brains for you. I certainly had plenty of encouragement to think I was just making a fuss and not trying hard enough.

Now we know how hypermobility impacts on people, what was happening for me is no great mystery. Everything takes me more effort than is typical. Many things cause me pain. I hurt and damage easily. Taking my weight on my hands really hurts me. Also I have a lot of issues with being upside down, I still hate it, I still find it stressful but as an adult I don’t have to deal with people forcing me into those positions.

At this point I’m fairly confident that I don’t express pain – be that physical or emotional – in a way that makes much sense to a lot of people. My default is to explain, but I tend to be calm. This is to do with my coping mechanisms, and being used to pain. It meant I had a lot of trouble persuading anyone I was in labour, and went a long time with no pain relief as a consequence. It may have coloured all of my interactions with the medical profession. There are a number of people in my history I am fairly sure had a problem with it.

I’ve been told I come across as cold, unfeeling, uncaring. I’ve been told I seem manipulative. I guess if you expect people to present pain in more dramatic ways it might be hard to believe a person who is saying calmly that they’re in more pain than they can bear. Panic can make it impossible for me to present this way, but I’m not always panicked. 

Somewhere along the way I missed all the memos about appropriate expression of feelings. What seems normal to other people doesn’t always make much sense to me. I’ve spent a lot of years trying to figure out what it is that gets some people’s distress taken very seriously, and other people ignored. From what I read, I’m fairly sure privilege is a big part of it. The more advantages you have, the more likely you are to be taken seriously about problems you encounter. White men are more likely to get their abdominal pain taken seriously. Black women die in labour in disproportionate numbers. 

How we expect people to behave is clearly informed by all sorts of things. But it isn’t a fair measure. Ignoring distress because it isn’t being presented the way we expect, or assuming a person will overstate because of who they are, is really problematic, and there’s a lot of it out there. Much of it is far worse than anything I’ve had to deal with, but these are the illustrations I have to work with and I hope they are useful.


Spiritual unease

The pandemic seems to have pushed rather a lot of New Age folk into the arms of the far right. At first glance this all seems very strange – what are the peace, love and light brigade doing cosying up with white supremacists, and people who seem to be all about conflict, hatred and control? And yet there they are, shoulder to shoulder at anti-vax protests and sharing the pages of publications.

I honestly wish I was more surprised, but I’ve been aware for some years now of the many issues in peace-love-light culture. There’s the toxic positivity, which really crushes people who are struggling. There’s the mistaking privilege for having the magical power to manifest good fortune. There’s like-attracts-like thinking which is a brutal and unjust philosophy to apply to people who are poor, disabled and otherwise disadvantaged. The idea of pre-life contracts make it seem ok to ignore people in distress because hey, they chose these lessons. The New Age movement has always had a problem with appropriating from other cultures, treating the global majority with disrespect, feeling entitled to take anything from anyone… 

Perhaps the most problematic bit is the assumption that if you’re all about peace and love and light, the people around you are good. Feeling that you can afford to be uncritical of yourself and others, and that you can just assume that goodness is what’s around you. If you think like attracts like you’re hardly going to want to consider that you’ve become attracted to Nazis. 

To be genuinely spiritual, you have to be willing to keep an eye on yourself for smugness, self-importance and feelings of superiority. The spiritual life will only stop you turning into a total narcissist if you’re actually invested in the idea of not becoming a massive, self-serving ego. To be spiritual you have to be willing to be uncomfortable. Learning and growth are pretty much impossible if you aren’t able to be uncomfortable sometimes. If you only seek out things that make you feel good about yourself, you can end up with more of an ego trip than a spiritual journey.

It does matter who you associate with. The people we spend time with have a huge impact on us. Do the people we encounter really help us become our best selves, or are they making us feel like we’re above criticism? What does the freedom we demand cost other people? Who is hurt by what we do? If we aren’t willing to ask awkward questions sometimes, our desire to have everything pleasant and easy can turn us into monsters.


First Frosts

While the first frosts can come a lot earlier in the autumn than they have this year, they are always a sign of the winter to come. For me, they never feel like a good sign. Granted, there is a kind of sharp beauty and clarity that also tends to come with the frosts. Frosty mornings tend to be bright and crisp, and can feature some intensely blue skies. However, cold weather tends to hurt.

My body doesn’t handle the cold well. I get stiff more readily, and I hurt more. I’m never going to appreciate the prettiness of frost with uncomplicated feelings of joy. At the moment I’m enjoying a life where I don’t have to head out on frosty mornings. It’s easier to enjoy the light and the sparkles while not being out there dealing with slippery surfaces. I’m also in the fortunate position of being able to afford to keep my home warm enough not to suffer at the arrival of frosts.

Being able to enjoy the winter tends to involve privilege. Enough money for heating and a body that isn’t threatened by the conditions are key. For some people, the reduced amount of sunlight causes depression. For many, winter is isolating. If you can enjoy the season, that’s lovely and you should do so. But please remember not to berate or shame people who express difficulty. And yes, while it’s true that there are no bad weather conditions, only unsuitable clothing, it is also true that you have to be able to afford that clothing, and not everyone can. A winter without a substantial coat is tough. I’ve been there. 

If it gets cold enough, you can’t wear enough jumpers to make up for not being able to afford to heat your home. If your home is a van, or a boat, if you sleep in your car, or are living in a tent or rough sleeping, winter is a very hard season. You can’t always tell by looking who is dealing with such issues. There are working people in the UK who live in cars and tents and hide it well. Please be gentle with the people who find winter difficult.


Permission to be awkward

Like a lot of people, I grew up understanding the importance of being co-operative. Don’t make a fuss, don’t be difficult, don’t ask for what isn’t available. Like what you get. If I’m not paying attention, or feeling confident, I still default to whatever’s cheapest, whatever is most convenient for everyone else. It’s taken me a while as an adult to make the headspace to explore my own preferences. What do I want to wear? What do I prefer to eat? What don’t I like?

I’ve made some startling discoveries. I find loud food really stressful. I suspect I’ve always found it stressful, but I’ve never taken it seriously before. There are things I really don’t like having in my mouth because of how they sound. There are textures I don’t like. 

I don’t like bright light, the noise the strip lights make is stressful. I hate the hum of the desktop computer, I have a hard time sleeping if there’s any light source in the room. I’ve known for a while that there’s only so much noise and movement I can process before my brain has a bit of a meltdown. When I’m tired, I can’t figure out where the ground is by looking at it, which is awkward on non-flat surfaces. None of this is new.

I’ve given myself permission to be awkward. I’ve given myself permission to not like things, and to say no to things. To let go of things that don’t work for me. I’ve even given myself permission to say when I don’t like how a food sounds inside my mouth, or something else is bothering me. Having given myself that permission it is easier to pay attention to what’s happening to me, and to take some control of that. It’s taken me a while to figure out that I am allowed to do that, and no one minds.

There’s a class aspect in all of this. I think children from more affluent backgrounds tend to be allowed to be fussy, to have preferences, not like things, to want things. I think there was, and still is, more willingness to think that an affluent child may have a condition, need a diagnosis or special treatment or accommodations. When what there is, is what you can afford, a fussy child is a problem. A fussy child is going to have to get over it and eat what’s there because there isn’t anything else. You wear the hand-me-down clothes because that’s all there is, there’s no point having feelings or preferences about it. If you’re poor, you may not be allowed to be delicate, or sensitive. You may not be allowed to say no to things.

Being allowed to be awkward feels like a luxury, and looks like a privilege. I’m glad to have that now, and for the opportunities to be more comfortable that it will allow me.


Identifying Privilege

One of the trickiest things about squaring up to your own privilege is that the very nature of the thing makes it hard to spot in the first place. Privilege is the stuff we assume is normal and take for granted and don’t realise other people might not have. Many of us won’t see ourselves as privileged because we see all too well the ways in which we are struggling.

Recently I discovered just how much toilet privilege I normally have, and this was an eye opener. A couple of health issues combined to make it hard to get on and off the loo. Managing your own continence is such a basic thing, so easy to take for granted and not notice. But for many people, that’s not a temporary problem, that’s daily life. Those of us who can use the loo independently and with little trouble won’t see that as privilege because it just seems normal. Most of it works this way, give or take.

However, having more privilege does not mean any kind of increase in the ability to spot it. Those who have most seem to take for granted their level of wealth and comfort. The idea that what we have is fair, deserved and appropriate becomes really problematic when we’re talking about people who have far more than their fair share. Rather than see themselves as advantaged, the richest amongst us seem to see those who have least as failing in some way and personally at fault for their circumstances.

The more you have, the harder it may be to empathise with anyone who has less. People who have experienced hardships and losses of the things they might otherwise take for granted at least have some basis for understanding what others may be going through.

We have people with such extreme wealth that they could personally fund the solving of the world’s biggest problems. They could end hunger and homelessness and sort out climate chaos. I find it hard to imagine that a person could have that level of privilege and fail to see it.

For most of us, an exploration of privilege is going to mean thinking about things we take for granted that other people don’t automatically have. It’s a useful subject to explore, especially on your own and when there isn’t someone who is suffering and being obliged to educate you. Any setback is an opportunity to think about what life is like for someone who is stuck with those issues all the time.

Ideally, the process of understanding privilege is about finding ways to give more to those who have less. For most of us, it’s not going to be about reducing our own privilege, but seeing how we can extend those same privileges to others. There comes a point however, where a person has so much wealth and privilege that what they’ve accumulated is actively harming others. Rather than celebrating extreme wealth, we need to start challenging it, and recognising that there have to be limits to how much privilege a person should have.


Druidry and Privilege

Back when I was first exploring ideas of privilege, there was a person who used to show up on my blog to argue with me. I’ve since deleted most of her stuff.  If I talked about body size, she’d be in to tell me how hard things can be for thin people. I talked about the social issues around being found unattractive, and she responded by telling me how hard things can be when you grow up pretty. I remember her writing about her home, and big garden, and driving to get to the farmer’s market, and me raising the issue of privilege and being told that she wasn’t privileged.

We were all fairly new to the privilege conversations at this point. I did not then know how normal this type of conversation would become – that people who have considerable amounts of privilege are often incredibly resistant to seeing it, or to imagining what life would be like without those things. I know at this point how normal it is for people with massive privilege to dismiss the challenges faced by others, to treat the inconvenience they experience as being comparable, and to minimise the suffering of those who have significantly less.

These days I would have both the confidence and the insight to call out someone for this kind of crappy thinking. At this point I know that I am right about this stuff, and was right at the time. I never owed anything to the poor little rich girl who wanted to feel sorry for herself over how her attractiveness made other people jealous. One of the things massive privilege likes to do is whinge when it looks like the focus of attention is moving somewhere else. Immense privilege is used to being centre stage, and feels entitled, and resents the suggestion that something else matters more, so dammit, if the way to compete is to prove that really you are the disadvantaged one, then that’s what you do to stay firmly centre stage and most important.

For me, justice is an important part of Druidry. The work of seeking justice begins in yourself. If means being anti-racist and starting by looking hard at your own prejudices and assumptions, for example. It means looking at your privilege and the differences between what you have, and what others do not have. Justice requires a willingness to be uncomfortable. This includes a willingness not to be centre stage, and to recognise that other people may have bigger problems. Yes, thin can bring issues and criticism, but it will not usually mean a doctor automatically ignores your symptoms and attributes them to your body shape. 

For there to be justice, we have to listen to each other. One of the easiest ways to derail a bid for justice is to insist that something else is more important. When men insist on foregrounding violence experienced by men in response to someone trying to talk about violence inflicted on women by men, for example. At the same time, if someone is talking about issues with no reference to the privilege involved, that actually needs derailing. No, we can’t all drive to the farmer’s market to buy local organic veg. Not all of us can drive, or afford that kind of food, and it isn’t that we aren’t trying hard enough.

And today, justice is allowing myself the space to feel angry on my own account that I had to deal with all of that. Angry that someone persistently worked to undermine me, to derail me, to minimise genuine issues and to put themselves centre stage in this space that is mine. I’m allowed to be angry, but it’s taken me a lot of years to be able to hold that for myself.


Tone Policing and Justice

Tone policing is the unpleasant habit of making the way the message is delivered more important than the content. It tends to be undertaken by the person with the most privilege in a situation as a way to ignore, diminish, take down or silence someone who is distressed. It also tends to go with treating someone who is distressed as invalid – too emotional, unreasonable, childish, out of control – so as to feel like there’s no need to take them seriously.

If the hurt feelings of the person with power and privilege are the most important thing, then of course nothing is going to change. And yes, it can be really uncomfortable looking at the ways in which you benefit from a system that hurts other people. It can be disturbing and upsetting to be told you’re perpetrating harm when you thought you were ok. These are hard lessons to learn, and tone policing is not the answer, not in this context.

There are however, times for tone policing. We should be policing ourselves, especially in situations where we have power and advantage. Are we speaking kindly and respectfully? Are we talking over other people? Are we increasing the anger in a situation? Are we punching down? Are we shouting someone else down? If you’re the person with the emotional control in a situation, are you using the fact that it isn’t hurting you to run power over someone who is being hurt?

Consider policing the tone of people who share your privileges. Call them out – gently and politely – when you catch them putting their own hurt feelings ahead of the actual oppression of other people. Call out the people who use anger and aggression to dominate spaces. Call out the micro-aggressions and be prepared to explain – calmly – why this kind of thing isn’t ok.

One of the biggest indicators of who has power can be seen around who is allowed to be upset. People with power and privilege are allowed to be upset when children’s cartoons aren’t made for them. People without power and privilege are not allowed to be upset when people in their community are murdered. If we want justice, then this is an area of human interaction that really needs some work. It is complicated territory and tends not to bring out the best in people, but small acts around checking your own tone, policing the people closest to you if they mess up, and defending the right of people to be upset by actual oppression will add up.


Why I’m not debating

I don’t like debating. It’s now something I tend not to engage with, and when I find people who want to argue recreationally, I tend to express an absence of opinion. I very much like being in situations where I can exchange ideas with people, but as soon as we’re into arguing and winning or losing, I’m out.

The win/lose approach of the debate means people have more invested in making their point than in deepening their understanding. That often means that the pushiest, thickest skinned and most aggressive debater wins – it’s not really about ideas at all. It promotes a culture where aggression carries the day and opinions supported loudly are more important than facts and experience. I will not be part of that.

It’s rare that these debates are balanced. The odds are that one person knows more than another. If I’m in a situation where someone has more firsthand experience than me, or more academic insight than me, I want to listen to them. Their knowledge and experience is clearly of more worth than my less informed opinion. Put me in that scenario I won’t debate, but I may well ask a lot of questions.

Sometimes I’m on the other side of this as the person who knows the stuff. I will – time and energy permitting – cheerfully dig in and share that with anyone who is interested. But, I’m not inclined to offer that up so that someone who knows less than me can try to shoot me down with their opinion. If I have knowledge and experience, and that isn’t being recognised there’s not much point being in the conversation.

In my experience, people who argue recreationally don’t invest much time in finding out what the other person really knows. This is especially problematic around firsthand experience. Wanting to argue with someone about their life experiences and how they interpret them, is deeply problematic and there’s a lot of it on social media. White people who want to argue with Black people about experiences of racism. Men who want to argue with women about sexism. We should not be debating people’s lives for fun or to reinforce power imbalance and prejudice. We need to listen to each other more, and recognise that an uninformed opinion isn’t worth bringing to the conversation.

Debating takes energy. As a consequence it tends to be an activity that goes with privilege. The less privilege you have, the less likely you are to have the time, energy and emotional resources to argue with people. This is weaponised. I see far too much effort online going into exhausting people who are trying to make changes and get their voices heard. Debating people can be an oppressive thing to do, and deliberately so. Demanding that people educate you while you try and pick holes in them is nasty stuff. There’s rather a lot of it out there.

The only way to truly win a debate is to not waste energy on it. The people who can afford to argue for the fun of it, to play devil’s advocate, to indulge in their opinions and to shout down those who disagree are not owed anything. They do not deserve anyone’s time. No matter how they demand attention and the right to play this particular game, none of us has to do it. The more of us refuse to do it, the less culturally normal it will become. Adversarial debating is just a game to such people – it achieves nothing but gives the winner a kick. It is of no real use.


There is no normal to go back to

The idea of ‘back to normal’ has appeared regularly in ideas about a post-virus UK. As though our previous ‘normal’ was a good thing. It’s increasingly obvious that many people do not want to go back to how things were, and that there’s less appetite for long commutes, heavy traffic and air pollution. For people who have had an opportunity to learn from the virus, new, exciting ways of doing things may emerge.

For many people, there is no normal to go back to. For some, very little changed – many people are isolated at home by illness. They’ve had more stress and pressure in recent months but many of the practical realities haven’t changed much, except that it was far harder to order shopping online. As the rest of us ‘go back to normal’ hopefully we can remember that not everyone has that option. We might all better understand now what being forced into isolation does to people. We might be more alert to the ill, disabled and elderly people around us who live in isolation because no one much bothers with them.

For people whose lives were precarious, there may be no real normal to go back to. Early on, the government demonstrated that they could get every homeless person off the street and into a room, if they felt like it. A few weeks later they went on to demonstrate that they really couldn’t be bothered to keep doing that. We can, and must do better.

For some people, back to normal means going back to being excluded. We’ve established that many things can be handled at a distance using the internet. We could make work, entertainment and socialising a lot more accessible for people whose ‘normal’ is exclusion.

Recent months have made me aware of what it means to have a ‘normal’ you can measure things by, and what happens if your sense of the normal is dysfunctional. The idea of ‘back to normal’ only works if what you had before worked for you. If it didn’t, if you were on the wrong end of systems, and economics, if normal was miserable and hopeless – there is nothing you’d want to re-instate. The idea that there is a normal everyone wants to get back to is, I realise, a massive expression of privilege and insulation from suffering. For the worker on a zero hours contract, for the person forced ever deeper into debt, for those facing benefits sanctions and going hungry, ‘normal’ is a terrible place.

We live in a culture that takes ‘normal’ as a meaningful measure, and never properly questions what that means or who it works for.