Tag Archives: responsibility

How not to be a victim

So much advice about safety and avoiding crime is about how not to be a victim. We teach girls how to avoid sexual assault while investing little or no time teaching boys that is their responsibility not to assault girls. Victim blaming, and misplacing the responsibility has massive consequences.

Part of what we teach when we teach people to stay safe, is that it is the victim’s behaviour that causes or attracts the crime. If I was assaulted when walking across town alone at night, it would be understood that I had been assaulted because I was walking across town alone at night. We tell each other that it is just common sense to take safety precautions without examining what the safety stories actually do.

If your clothes, or where you happen to be make you a target, then we’re telling each other that the criminals can’t help themselves. They have no defence against a woman in a short skirt, or a person who is alone and looks worth mugging. We apply this more to the victim of sexual assault than we do to the mugging victim. We tell a story that says crime is responsive. It can’t resist your open window, your unlocked car, your low cut top. If you can’t expect people to avoid temptation, you tell a story that we’re all basically awful and that perhaps any of us would do the wrong thing given the chance. That’s affirming to those who are inclined to harm others.

This is an especially pernicious idea when it comes to sexual assault. We are too quick to ask what a person could have done to avoid being a victim. Every time we do this, we send out a message that we don’t really expect people to resist temptation. Every ‘stay safe’ message carries a subtext that the woman who isn’t staying safe is pretty much asking for it. Every time we ask what the victim was wearing, we give credence to the idea that clothes justify assault. We reinforce the idea that we cannot expect men to control themselves if they see a woman in a sexy outfit. We keep perpetuating the idea that anyone faced with an attractive woman in an appealing outfit might feel the urge to do something criminal to her. We normalise it.

Too often, we lose the key facts here. 100% of rapes are caused by rapists. All abuse is caused by abusers. Theft is a consequence of people stealing – not of what security measures you had in place. We don’t talk about the likelihood of your attacker being known to you – that you are more likely to be harmed by someone you trusted than by a stranger on the streets. All those safety measures we are encouraged to take don’t work if you’re dealing with someone you thought you could trust.

It’s hard to live fully if you have to organise your life to avoid becoming a victim. Many women are doing this. We need to be much clearer that the responsibility for crime does not lie with the victim, but the perpetrator. Here in the UK, we really need the police to stop telling people what to do to stay safe (invariably aimed at women) and to start being a lot clearer about the legal responsibilities of perpetrators and the things that you are not allowed to do to another human being, no matter what they were wearing at the time.

The best way to avoid being a victim, is not to have anyone feel entitled to attack you. Until we dismantle the things in our culture that create those feelings of entitlement to attack, no amount of doing things to try and stay safe can actually guarantee your safety.


Too much responsibility

As a teen I really took on board the idea that we can only have freedom and power in so far as we are willing to take responsibility. On the whole, I’ve found that a useful approach to life. As with all things, you can end up with too much of it. Too much responsibility does not translate into too much power, or too much freedom. There’s a point somewhere on the scale when a lot of responsibility means a loss of power and a closing down of options.

If responsibility is taken by someone who does not have the means to deliver on it, there are going to be problems. Being given responsibilities in a job, or a relationship, but denied the resources to deal with those responsibilities, is a crushing thing.

There are things we definitely cannot and should not be made responsible for. Other people’s inner lives are a case in point. We are responsible for how we treat each other. We owe each other basic care and respect. We owe it to each other to listen and try to factor in each other’s needs and issues. However, too much responsibility for someone else’s feelings and thoughts puts you in a place of powerlessness and may be deeply harming. If I am kind, careful and respectful and it still isn’t enough… If it is my job to magically know what others want and need, without being told… If it is my job to twist myself in knots trying to give someone else what they want… responsibility becomes a noose around my neck. I’ve been here, and making a person this responsible for someone else’s feelings is a form of emotional control, and pretty abusive stuff.

Sometimes, if we take on too much responsibility, we deny someone else the opportunity to grow and flourish. Parents who try to do everything for their kids mean well, but do not allow their children to discover and own their own power. If we take on too much responsibility for someone else’s life, we can take power from them, undermine their dignity and sense of autonomy.

If we make ourselves responsible for things we cannot have any say in, we can drive ourselves mad. A person suffering from anxiety may feel that everything has to be perfect, even when many things are beyond their control. Not being able to make things perfect may cause a great deal of fear. On its own, this may seem preposterous, but when you factor in what happens to people when they are made responsible for things beyond their control, continuing with those expectations even after the situation has ended, is not so irrational. Who knows who else might want the same level of responsibility from you?

It is good to pause now and then and ask what we’ve shouldered, and whether we should still be carrying it.


Domestic Days

It is not a joyful thing to be trapped in the domestic sphere. The realm of home and family can seem very narrow and dull if you don’t get many opportunities to break out and do something else. This however is not going to be a piece of rage about the historical treatment of women, but about the ways in which domestic days can be a really good thing.

When you spend much of your time outside of the home (the traditional male role) then home becomes a place to retreat to for peace and comfort. It’s much easier to find comfort in a domestic setting when it’s not the only setting for your life.

I’ve noticed this summer, travelling in August for two events, one of which was massive, that a quiet weekend at home seems rather pleasant after that. It becomes a chance to catch up on the domestics, to potter about and cook. If you’re up to the eyeballs in it all the time, yet another weekend at home can really wear you down. I know – I’ve been there.

Humans need a balance between rest and stimulation. If you don’t get enough rest, all becomes exhausted, threadbare misery. If you don’t get enough stimulation, all becomes dull monotony and feels like a trap. Most of us need some degree of getting out there and being active, alongside some amount of folding in and retreating. Exactly what balance any given person needs, will of course vary. In an ideal world we’d all get to deploy our time on our own terms, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

One of the things it is easy not to notice is the way in which our choices shape other people’s options. If one member of a household won’t go out (can’t is a different issue because it’s not a choice) other members of the household may feel obliged to stay in too. Equally, if one person is out and about all the time, it may give the other person no choice but to stay home and take care of things.

I noticed in many years of going to folk clubs that there are usually more men than women there. In conversations with people I found repeatedly that this was because when the children came along, the women stayed home and the men kept going out. There are far more solo male performers than solo women on the folk scene as well, and I think this is part of the same thing. It is easy to fall into unconsidered cultural habits, where the men go out to play, and the women are expected to be satisfied by a life lived in the domestic sphere. In practice most of us benefit greatly from spending time at home, resting and taking responsibility for our domestic arrangements. The people around us also benefit when we all show up to making a household work, rather than not noticing the impact it has when the divisions of going out and staying in are really uneven.


Emotion and responsibility

How much should we hold people responsible for our emotions? And how responsible should we be for other people’s emotional responses to us? This is a question that is so often relevant in situations of bullying. Bullies often treat their victims as responsible for how the bully feels, and for what they do, while taking no responsibility for how their behaviour impacts on the other person. “You made me do it” is a really problematic thought, an act of victim blaming. Equally I’ve seen memes suggesting that no one else can make us feel anything and how we feel is totally our own responsibility and I find that unhelpful, too.

We all have feelings, and we all respond to what we encounter. We all hold responsibility for ourselves, and some degree of responsibility for how what we do impacts on others. I think the first question to ask here, is whether the person being blamed can choose to do differently. For example, if someone in your household is loud when you need to sleep, they probably don’t need to be loud and it may be fair to expect they can stop being loud. Their loudness isn’t necessary to them, your sleep is necessary to you. At the same time, your need for sleep is not something you have control over, nor is how you feel when sleep deprived.

However, sometimes we may make people responsible for things they have no power over. If I find you very attractive, and I make you responsible for that feeling and act like because of it, you owe me love, or sex, this is not ok. Whether or not you find me attractive in turn is not something you can choose. How your face is, does not make you responsible for how I feel about your face.

It is fair to ask a person to take responsibility for the feelings they cause in some contexts. If you shout abuse at a person, you are responsible for making them feel like shit, for example. It is not usually fair to make someone else responsible for how you behave in response to your feelings. If your feelings lead to violent responses for example, the violence is your responsibility, not caused by the other person. If your feelings leave you needing to act protectively, it’s worth remembering that this is your choice because if you feel like you’re just reacting, that can leave you feeling powerless.

Power and responsibility are very much linked to each other. The person who takes no responsibility will likely feel they have no power in a situation. This may encourage them to keep making other people responsible, and to be angry about how powerless they feel, without having looked at how they are giving power away. Most of the time, most of us have choices about how to respond. If you don’t, then that’s a serious red flag. If you don’t feel safe about responding by changing things so that they would be better for you, look carefully at what’s going on. If you feel so obliged to humour another person that you regularly do so at the cost of not meeting your own most basic needs, there is a problem. Not wanting to choose differently is not the same as not being able to, although we may tell ourselves otherwise.

When it comes to behaviour, you should feel free and able to choose how to react, respond and express yourself. If you feel someone else is ‘making’ you behave in certain ways, look hard at this. If they have that much power over you and you have no scope to choose, you should seek help, because that level of control is abusive. If you’re making someone else responsible for your actions because you feel like it’s their job to take your emotional backlashes and answer your every need, then the problem is you, and you may need help to change.

One way or another, if you cannot control your own behaviour in a situation, seek help, and if you cannot tell if you are the bully or the victim, get professional advice. A belief that you have no power doesn’t always mean that you are the victim. Some of the most bullying people I’ve encountered had stories about how it was other people ‘making’ them act in certain ways. It can be really convenient to cast yourself as powerless if you want to spend time hurting people. It can be an easy way to control well-meaning people, who will try harder to make you feel better every time you tell them they are responsible for what you do. It’s a hard thing to deal with, and no doubt a hard thing to see in yourself and undertake to change.

If you’re seeing this from the outside and cannot tell if a person is a victim or a perpetrator, encourage them to seek professional help – either way, they need it.


Freedom, responsibility and community

I ran into existential philosophy in my teens, and with it the idea that you can only have freedom in so far as you are willing to take responsibility. It’s a notion I’ve carried with me into everything I do. What it gets you, is a very different sense of what freedom even means.

All too often, people take freedom to mean selfishness and the scope to do what one will, act on whims, run off alone and generally be antisocial. Now, I’m very much with the wiccans on this one – an it harm none, do what you will. Freedom without being alert to harm is not any kind of good at all. Freedom that doesn’t care about harm easily turns into abuse and exploitation. We can think about how big companies treat the planet and living things. We can consider the freedoms the rich have and who pays for those.

There’s a lot of noise in politics at the moment about the way in which those who have should not be called upon to support the have-nots. Freedom from social responsibility for the rich is not something I understand. When it manifests, it is framed as a good thing for those being relieved of their responsibility, but what does that do? What does it mean to feel no responsibility for anyone else? No duty of care? No ownership of the suffering of others?

When we undertake to be responsible for each other’s wellbeing, we create community. When we are willing to care enough to lift up those who are less well off than us, we increase the amount of good in the world. When we see ourselves as involved with and invested with the lives around us – human and non-human alike, we are rewarded by our own sense of connection. The person who engages and takes responsibility is never alone. The person who can only care about themselves can only seek comfort in wealth and material goods, and these things do not provide comfort.

Rather than talking about freedom from responsibilities, we need to explore the very different kind of freedom you get by taking responsibility for other lives. It is an honour and a blessing to hold that kind of responsibility. It is a place of power and openness, and it lifts the person who gives as much as the person who receives.


It’s all so easy in the New Age (and why that makes me want to punch people)

Sometimes I read New Age stuff – don’t judge me, work requires it now and then. I am struck, over and over by how easy it is all supposed to be. Just say your positive affirmations, cut out the money attraction symbol and stick it in your wallet. Know that the universe loves you. Buy a very expensive rainbow unicorn Atlantis faerie guide object and never worry again!

I see the New Age memes go by on twitter all the time, the ones that say you have the power to change everything, fix everything, make everything good. And I wonder how that’s supposed to apply if you live in a war zone, if your child is dying of starvation, if your family are lost, if you are in the sea having fallen out of a refugee boat… I wonder what the homeless and the hungry are supposed to do in terms of positive thinking. I wonder how much a paper charm in your otherwise empty wallet helps when deciding whether it’s going to be heating or eating.

I come back to the same thought, over and over and over again. That if your problems are small, fixing them is easy. If you have resources – time, money, health, education, security, safety – then you probably can do much of what you want to do if only you believe in yourself. If you live in a country where your sexual identity is punishable by death, less so.

It troubles me because it sends such a clear message to anyone who can’t magically fix their life in five minutes. It sends a message of blame. You aren’t positive enough. Like attracts like, so you deserved it. The war. The injury. The bereavement.

I can’t bear how cruel that is. I hate the way in which it allows those who have a lot to feel no responsibility for those who have nothing. I hate how like attracts like thinking acts as an enemy to compassion. I hate how this whole attitude is a barrier to making real change. Not everyone can wish themselves out of their problems. Many people need actual help, real interventions, support, aid, care, food, heat, water… And not some smug, entitled git telling them it’s all about karma or that this is part of their life plan.


Conflict and power

There have been a number of occasions in my life when I’ve found myself in conflict with someone who had considerably more power than me. That power has come from a variety of sources – it could be the power of an employer. People in leadership roles tend to have more power and influence than those who follow them. There’s a power that comes from being charismatic and socially capable. Financial power, access to resources, an able body versus a limited body – all of these things and more can create massive power imbalances between people.

Fall out with a person who has power, and the odds are it will ripple more widely than your immediate quarrel. People are reluctant to take sides for all kinds of reasons, but throw in a person of significant power, and going up against them to support someone they’ve wronged puts the supporter in a vulnerable place. It often means if you want to support someone who has been mistreated, the only vote you have is to vote with your feet, and leave. People get isolated this way, because all they can do is leave.

We are often reluctant to believe anything bad of people whose power revolves around charisma. If we’re under the spell – and I’ve seen this happen repeatedly – it’s easier to blame the victim than contemplate the enchantment. Repeat offenders using their popularity to hide their acts of cruelty and exploitation get away with it so often because we don’t want to believe that of them. ‘Pillars of the community’ who are also wife beaters, child molesters, fraudsters, thieves, can go unchallenged amongst us because we have too much invested in believing they are good.

How do we change this?

I’ve three suggestions. One is that we need to look at power carefully. When other people hold it, keep an eye on whether that’s the power to do, or it’s a power to attract. When power draws resources, energy, people, money and status towards itself, and is the primary beneficiary, be wary. Clever people in this position will make a lot of noise about community benefit, but it’s always worth asking if this is really what’s happening. Anyone spinning the line that what benefits them benefits the community is doubly suspect.

The second suggestion is to watch how we handle our own power. Can we be told if we’ve made a mistake? Can we take responsibility and sort things out if we cause hurt? Do we default to victim blaming rather than listening if someone else has a problem with us? It’s often not a simple victim/user dynamic, especially not at the outset. When things go wrong between people it tends to be complicated, and a willingness on both sides to listen and address problems is most usually what’s called for. If one person uses what power they have to silence and push away another person, that’s where the bigger problems start. If we can encourage a culture of responsibility, we make it harder for those with more power than us to hide behind their status when there’s a problem.

Thirdly, we need to look at the benefits we think we get by supporting someone with more power, such that we’ll ignore other people’s problems. It’s more comfortable not to know what’s going on when there’s an issue between people. It’s safer to side with the person who has most power. It validates our choice to have been there in the first place. We have to be able to admit pour own capacity for error. All of us, in innocence, have the scope to support a charismatic psychopath who looked like something good. If we don’t have the courage to admit that, we’ll facilitate what they do.


Somebody else’s problem

One of the key things for holding effective boundaries, is knowing what is yours and what is not. Other people’s emotional responses create a real challenge here. On one hand, the person who is made responsible for how others feel can be subject to control and abuse, on the other, the person who pays no regard to their impact will likely become abusive and problematic to others. There’s a very delicate balance here. What are we responsible for, and what are we not? There are no tidy answers, but a lot of important questions to ask.

It flows both ways – because we are affected by others, and affecting others all the time. We experience, and we react, and to some degree that reaction is a choice. If something causes us to be angry, then we may say ‘this makes me angry’. If something hurts us, ‘this makes me upset.’ Our own thoughts can (but not always) play a part here. If we’ve had to infer or interpret in order to suffer, we’re partly responsible. “You said that, which means… and therefore… and now I am in pain.” Making other people responsible for our interpretations is hardly fair, but if we are not especially self aware, we can infer without noticing that we’re doing so, taking things that were not meant as we imagine and reacting accordingly.

Equally when what we do and say has an impact other people don’t like, we can all be really defensive about that. We justify it – we are not responsible for their feelings. We are giving them a helpful and useful challenge. We are just being honest and telling it the way it is. We cannot be expected to walk round on eggshells just because they are a bit delicate. We cast our behaviour as reasonable and theirs as irrational in order not to have to feel uncomfortable or consider changing.

The person who is too influenced by how other people react can become a ‘people pleaser’ – unable to express their own feelings, needs and wishes. Put a people pleaser with someone who can never be wrong, and they will suffer horrendously. If they are fortunate, they will have a story about how heroic, noble and longsuffering they are. If unfortunate, the story will be that they are useless and undeserving, such that they end up expressing gratitude and apology to the person who is hurting them.

We are all works in progress, all flawed, learning, prone to error. We all have our stories and wounds, our needs are not always obvious, neither are our fears and vulnerabilities. To do more than chafe along another person’s edges takes time and effort. It requires the trust to be honest about how we react, and the trust to listen to how other people see things. This isn’t a blame game, establishing one party as good and right while the other is bad and wrong. Blame games perpetuate relationship problems. If we start by assuming that what is heard is not always what is meant, what is intended is not always what manifests, what is painful is not always an attack, and that it is entirely reasonable to be asked to change and make effort in order to further a relationship… there’s a place to start building.

The person intent on digging in and being right, or huddling down and accepting they are wrong no matter what… cannot create good relationship. Only when we start taking into account that we are messy and flawed, and so is everyone else, can we open the way to working out how to relate to each other. We do have some responsibility for how we inspire each other to feel – for well and woe. Our behaviour is our own business, and how we choose to manifest feelings must be laid at our door. Unless a gun is held to your head, no one is ‘making’ you do or say anything, but in the desire to protect ourselves from perceived attack, it is all too easy to go on the defensive. I am inclined to think that if our culture favoured co-operation and did not reward competition so enthusiastically, this would all be  good deal easier to sort out.


Blame and responsibility

Blame is one of the least useful things we can go in for. It shuts down conversation, breaks relationships and all too often makes it impossible to come up with any kind of productive resolution. We go in for blame to protect ourselves from feeling bad about our own shortcomings – if we can out the blame squarely on someone else we can hang on to the illusion that we are fine, lovely, good people. Owning mistakes hurts. Equally, when we accept the blame, we can be demoralised, crushed even, by the value-judgements that go alongside being blamed. Worthless. Useless. Failure.

Taking responsibility is a powerful thing. Where blame is usually a blanket, and not very specific, responsibility requires us to unpick things. To take responsibility you have to know where things went awry, and what precisely could have been done that bit better. There’s scope for a learning process that takes you forward, safe in the knowledge that next time there will be new and different mistakes.

Blame cultures breed denial. If the consequence of owning a mistake is that you will be humiliated and shamed, there’s not much incentive to own the errors. In a culture that prizes responsibility, stepping forward to say where things went wrong is an honourable action for which you should be thanked. Most of the time things go wrong because of misjudgements, genuine errors, well meant attempts that were wide of the mark. Most of the time, those can be dealt with well once they are exposed and scrutinised.

Sometimes, there are people who are just mean and unreasonable. There are problems not born of honest mistakes but of a genuine desire to inflict suffering. If you come back with a blame response to one of those, the most likely outcome is that you will escalate things. People who mean to cause pain are not people who will shoulder responsibility for resolving it. What you’ll get instead is a flash of narcissistic rage perhaps, or some defensive lashing out to preserve that person’s sense of worth and dignity. If you think that someone else is genuinely to blame for a problem, the responsible action can simply be to get the hell out of there and reduce the scope for them to do something similar again.

How do you tell if you are the victim or the villain in a blame situation? How do you tell if you are blithely projecting your negativity onto someone else, or defending your crapness by blaming it on another? Look to the blame itself. If your impulse is to blame, and to push responsibility away from you, then regardless of what is going on in a situation, you’ve got issues that need looking at. If your impulse is to unpick problems and work out balances of responsibility with a view to making things better, you’re going the right way. If your inclination is to take the blame and internalise a sense of fault, this is not proof that you are the bad guy, nor is it proof that you are some kind of long suffering saint. What it means is that you have an unhelpful way of thinking about things, and you would be better off ditching it in favour of a more balanced approach.

If you’re faced with people who blame, then it is easy to internalise all the things they refuse to be responsible for. I’ve been there, and I’ve got t-shirts. There is a trap in letting yourself feel noble and self-sacrificing as you absorb someone else’s toxic output. I’ve done that too, and it’s not something I’m proud of, not least because it didn’t solve anything and just left me in a worse state. If there is shared responsibility, you have a strong relationship, a strong community. If there is just blame, it is never going to be good. Sometimes the responsible choice, is to go somewhere else.


Why Aurochs?

I have a bit of a thing about aurochs, and have for some years.
The great hairy cows of our ancient landscape died out in the 1600s, or more precisely, were hounded to extinction by humans. They are just one of the many lost things that haunt me. Our bears and wolves have gone, we don’t really have beavers. The cranes are being helped to make a come-back because there are European populations to draw on. The small leafed limes that once dominated our woodlands are scarce. Keeping the dead present, is important. Remembering the lost, and being aware that there has been a lot of genocide against species down the centuries. We wipe out so much diversity, destroy so much beauty, and I cannot honour nature without facing up to the awful history of how humans have treated the natural world. And how we still treat the rest of nature.

There are so many things we could lose, or have come close to losing. Our otters are back from the brink, but still vulnerable. Our Scottish wildcats are endangered. We nearly lost the red kits and the ravens. Cuckoos are in decline, our bird and insect populations as a whole are suffering. Bees and hedgehogs, badgers and bats. Reports into UK wildlife this year have been gloomy to say the least. Extinction is forever, and no one should consider that acceptable. (To borrow from the Green Party, we should not go round seeing other species as expendable.)

Aurochs wandered through our ancient landscapes. I’ve seen what smaller, modern cows do to woodland, churning up the soil, eating the saplings and low growth, knocking over the odd smaller tree. What would one creature, two meters high to the shoulder, do in a forest? What would a herd of them do? It would be destructive. And yet, forests are at their most lively and diverse not in the deep treed areas, but on the margins. Most of woodland life happens at the edges, with groves and glades a critical part of that. I postulate, quite simply, that herds of aurochs created groves.

There are many wild flowers that only now thrive in woodland when there are regular cycles of cutting and pollarding to let the light in. Did they evolve in response to human wood management techniques, or something older? How much of the landscape did we lose when we lost our wild cattle?
I picture the power and majesty of the auroch. Little domestic cows are scary enough when they run at you. An auroch would be terrifying, awe-inspiring.

I miss them.

They haunt me, and they carry a message about wildlife, about all that is so precarious just now, all that could be lost. No species is expendable. No species is worth killing off to further some financial end. No road, no building project, no faster train… none of it justifies the loss of a creature, a plant species, a type of insect. Every time we destroy something forever, we wreak unknown havoc on the eco system as a whole. There are trees that will die out because they needed the dodos to germinate their seeds. Without the bees, as a species we will be stuffed. If we can’t be responsible from a sense of duty, we really ought to be able to do it from a place of wanting to survive.