Tag Archives: responsibility

Are you a free spirit?

It’s one of those terms that sounds really good if you don’t think about it. I have thought about it. I am not a free spirit.

My spirit is limited by my body. I’m a physical entity and biology, physics and other branches of natural science inform my experience on a daily basis. There’s a great deal I cannot do.

My body most assuredly isn’t free. I live with pain, stiffness and limited supplies of energy, all of which is often frustrating to me. I cannot reliably do all the things I want to do. I’m hardly unusual in this. Like all working people I’m also sorely limited by my position in the economic system I am obliged to inhabit. I cannot just go skipping off when I feel like it.

I was hurt by existentialism at a formative time in my life, and this has left me invested in the idea that we can only be free in so far as we are willing to be responsible. If you measure my freedom by my willingness to take responsibility, I am an incredibly free being. I’m actually a lot less responsible than I used to be because my child is an adult now. Many of my responsibilities are things I have chosen to carry.

I’ve encountered the kinds of free spirits who move on in a state of carefree joy, with no concern for the mess they leave in their wake. Freedom is always going to be tempered by your ability to care and your unwillingness to hurt, use, or abandon other people. I’m a profoundly relationship-orientated spirit and I’m in it for the long haul. I find my happiness in deep and long lasting connections with people. Doing that requires collaboration and compromise. I have no interest in being free to dance away as soon as I’m bored, or annoyed or things get difficult. I’ve had that done to me, and I do not like it.

When people describe themselves as free spirits, it can often be with complete unawareness of the privileges they have – especially health, money and leisure. It’s easy to be a free spirit when you can afford to do whatever you feel like. It’s hard to present yourself to the world as a free spirit when you’re working multiple jobs to try and keep your family alive. It’s worth being alert to feelings of superiority around ideas of not being a sheep, not being obliged to go along with the crowd. Most of us have limited options and cannot simply choose to be free.

There are other things I am bound by, as well. A sense of community and of other people being entitled to my care and support, especially. A sense of duty towards the living world that means I cannot go carelessly on my way. 

I have no doubt that the majority of people who consider themselves to be free spirits also consider that to be a good and virtuous way of being in the world. It can have everything to do with wanting to create, wander, love and exist lightly. Being a free spirit off grid is really hard work though. Being a self employed free spirit is no kind of easy option. It’s important to ask what we want to be free from, and what we want the freedom to do, and what the price tag is on all of that. If freedom means that someone else pays for it, then it isn’t really freedom at all, its privilege.

I prefer the idea that we can’t be free until all of us are free.


Blaming the Poor

There’s nothing new about blaming the poor for poverty. To my knowledge, the same ideas have been doing the rounds in the UK for as long as anyone has been keeping notes on such things. It is (we are told) the fault of the poor for being lazy, careless, making bad decisions, drinking, smoking, having too many babies.

Somehow it is never the fault of the rich, who claim to be rich thanks to their own merits. The relationship between riches for some and destitution for others is something we have never talked about enough. Wealth is made by extracting profit. The choice to pay workers less, and charge them more is very much part of how capitalism works. Having the power to decide how much a person is worth, and how much they should be charged for essentials – food and shelter – is a decision that remains in the hands of the powerful. 

When there are more people than there are jobs, it is easier to keep wages down. Desperate people are more likely to accept appalling and dangerous work conditions. 

Lately I’ve seen the rich blaming the poor for food poverty on the basis that poor people don’t know how to cook. Never mind the cost of the resources you need to cook – a cooker, a fridge, utensils, saucepans… it’s no doubt also the fault of the poor for not knowing how to whittle their own spoons and make an oven out of clay. It is also, we’ve been told, the fault of the poor for not just getting better paying jobs in more lucrative careers. Yes, clearly that one’s on poor people too and I’m sure we can all see how we just need to try harder.

Making people responsible for things they have no power to change is a revolting thing to do. But then, admitting that hunger could be eased, that homelessness isn’t inevitable and that there is no moral virtue in working people to death would have all kinds of implications. The people with the power to make change are seldom inclined to give up their power for the sake of being nice to others, more’s the pity. 

Perhaps the biggest fight around all of this is convincing people that they should be better treated and that they do not deserve the ways in which they are made to suffer. The impact of blaming people for their own misery is that it makes it harder to push back and demand better. This is not an accident.


The responsibilities of fiction

Clearly part of the point of fiction is to create something that doesn’t already exist. However, that always has consequences. I don’t think writing fiction gives you a free pass, ideally authors need to be responsible about what they write. There’s also the difficulty caused by readers not taking responsibility either. As an example, taking folklore from fiction and presenting that as folklore, which is worse when there is a living tradition being written over by this.

One of the biggest problems with fiction is often who gets left out. Which leaves us with some people convinced that there were no People of Colour in mediaeval Europe, for example. Or that LGBTQ and neurodivergent people didn’t exist in the past. White, western fiction has perpetuated many of the harmful stereotypes about cultures around the world. There are many white authors who have taken stories from other cultures and reimagined that to fit their purposes, beliefs, assumptions and prejudices. 

There will probably always be readers who read satires and mistake them for how-to manuels. As a writer you aren’t going to be able to do much about the people who wilfully misread your work – like the people who firmly believed Terry Pratchett would be ‘gender critical’. There are limits to the interpretations authors can be responsible for. How work will be viewed changes over time, such that Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was written as an anti-slavery text, but these days the language itself is so problematic that it raises a lot of questions about how, or when, or if to teach the book. No one can write for the context in which their book might be read in the future.

Being a responsible reader means thinking about the context. If we consume fiction unquestioningly, it isn’t always good for us. It’s important to know how a book relates to the rest of reality. Fantastic reimaginings of history tend to be self announcing enough that people know it isn’t the real thing. Smaller scale mistakes, and quietly offered agendas can get by unnoticed. Historical fiction in which working people and servants don’t really exist can cause some interesting distortions to how we understand things, for example. 

Of course this isn’t just about authors. For anyone with a shot at a large readership, there were also editors and publishers involved in deciding how or if the book would go out into the world. All of whom are complicit when we get books that misrepresent people, science, history and so forth. 

There’s a place in the world for stories that are not necessarily true. Sometimes we need them to put back in the people traditional history deliberately left out. Sometimes we need to imagine how things could have been better, kinder, more interesting – I’m all in favour of fiction that tells us how it could have been, perhaps should have been and that opens up new perspectives. It’s important to remember that history itself is a form of storytelling, written by the victors and leaving out far more than it includes.

There are reasons to question the kinds of stories that persist in writing people out of history. We need to be wary of the kind of colonial storytelling that asserts the brilliance of the white male conqueror and portrays him as a saviour for the savages – Victorian fiction is rife with this sort of thing and it continues to turn up in many guises. It’s not the job of fiction writers to tell the truth, but it pays to take a hard look at the kinds of untruth the publishing industry as a whole is happy to keep putting out there.


Health crisis, mental health crisis

I’ve been seeing a lot of comments from medical professionals all around the world – that they can’t cope emotionally or psychologically with what’s being demanded of them.

We forget at our peril that humans are finite creatures. No one can work all the hours there are, indefinitely, without consequences. We’ve asked our doctors and nurses to hold the front line against a disease that kills, and that is more likely to kill you if you get a high exposure to it. Many of them have died. We’ve asked them to work without the proper protective equipment – especially in the UK. Also in the UK we’ve declined to pay them properly so that nurses can end up at food banks.

People become mentally ill when too much is asked of them for too long. Even people who expect their jobs to involve death and distress can only handle a finite amount of that. 

Exhaustion, burn out, overwhelming fear, and unbearable pressure can have an array of impacts on a person. It becomes harder to make yourself move or to act. Decision making becomes harder, even impossible. Every situation becomes overwhelming and impossible. Clearly it’s not possible to keep doing a job where you need to think quickly and act decisively to save lives if you can barely function. And yet that’s exactly what we’re expecting people to do.

At the beginning of the pandemic we were talking about slowing the curve, because there are only so many beds and ventilators out there, and if we have too fast a spread we’ll overload the system and people will die. If we overload people, that also matters.

All too often,mental health is treated either as a luxury, or as a problem for people who are just weak to begin with. Everyone has a breaking point. There is only so much stress, pressure, misery and exhaustion that any one human can take. We’re approaching the two year mark with covid and it’s amazing really that so many people in the medical profession have held up for so long in face of all this.

But they can’t do it forever. 

We need to recognise the humanity of our medical professionals, and that we have asked too much, and we need to do what we can not to end up in hospital. We’re all in this together, we are all impacted by each other’s individual choices, but we’re asking one group of people to bear the brunt of the consequences. And then, ill and unvaccinated, the most selfish amongst us show at the hospital expecting to be helped by the very people they’ve accused of genocide, sometimes while shouting abuse and demanding miracles. 

I don’t have any large scale answers to this, but as individuals we can at least try not to be part of the problem, and to be kind to the people we hope will save our lives.


He made me do it

CW domestic abuse.

One of the areas of language use I’m currently scrutinising is how I use the idea of made/make. It’s interesting to ask where the balance of power really lies, where I might be abdicating or ignoring my own power, and how unhelpful habits of conventional phrasing are in this regard. He made me do it.

It’s a phrase that comes up a lot around domestic abuse. The idea that the victim made the abuser act as they did is something many victims are subjected to. You made me angry. You made me hit you. As though the abuser is powerless and has no choice in face of the victim’s actions. That sense of being to blame for what happens is part of what keeps victims trapped in abusive relationships as they try to fix things, atone and do better.

The idea that someone else’s behaviour made you react in a certain way is popular with small children. I think much depends on how the adults around you then handle things. Which brings me to the flip-side of this issue – that it is equally problematic when people deny all cause and effect and insist that we are all responsible for how we react to things and not responsible for what we provoke in others. Upsetting someone isn’t an excuse for following through with violence, but at the same time, emotional harm needs taking seriously. If someone says you are making them miserable, the answer is not to tell them that they are wholly responsible for how they choose to feel. 

We can and do make each other feel things. The person doing the feeling has some control over that process, but it isn’t total control. People can make you feel things you do not want to feel. Our words, actions, inactions all impact on other people emotionally. It may not always go as we intended, but if you want any power over the outcomes you have to be willing to also take responsibility. Can we make each other take action? I think how we act on our feelings is normally an issue of personal responsibility, but there are times when it isn’t.

People can be trained to act in certain ways. My understanding is that this is an important principle in military training. We often train creatures on these terms, with fear and threat of punishment so that they do exactly what is wanted of them without hesitation. We may choose to use rewards in the same way. If the threats and rewards on offer are significant enough, saying no isn’t really an option. If you’re given an electric shock every time you do the ‘wrong’ thing it won’t take you long to learn and stick with the ‘right’ behaviour.

I suspect most of us prefer to believe that we couldn’t be trained in this way. Sustained programs designed to train us will have that effect over time. Most of us cannot effectively resist such things. It’s not a comfortable thing to consider. 

When it comes to writing, I’m comfortable discussing things in terms of how I am made to feel. I watch out for inadvertently saying ‘made to do’. At the moment, no one is running power over me in a way that makes me do anything – although that has been an issue historically. I’m watching out for the times when I give too much power away, ascribing too much significance to whatever prompts a feeling and not recognising how much is intrinsic to me. I take it seriously if someone habitually makes me feel uncomfortable. I step away from people who want to make me responsible for their actions. I’m not going to make anyone do anything, if I can help it.


How do you make me feel?

Recently I’ve been exploring my own use of the word ‘make’ and how that small word influences my relationships. How do I make you feel? How am I made to feel? Where are the edges around personal responsibility?

Manipulative and controlling people will try and make you feel things. So will people who are trying to cheer you up. Sometimes, we’re very deliberate about the impact we want to have. It bothers me a lot when people try to define feelings as wholly the responsibility of the person feeling them. It doesn’t always work that way. However, if we let people ‘make us’ feel things, or we don’t look closely enough at our responsibilities, that’s also an issue. People who are violent so often blame the person who ‘made them do it’ rather than recognising their own lack of self control.

I’ve been playing about with my own language use. It’s interesting to say ‘this is what I want to inspire in you’ rather than ‘make’. What I really want to do most of the time doesn’t involve making anyone do or feel anything. I want to enable and facilitate. I want to encourage and support. The language shift is helpful for directing my attention towards the kinds of spaces I hold for people and what that facilitates, and away from me taking inappropriate responsibility for how I ‘make people feel’. 

At the same time it’s opening up conversations about what other people around me might make, or not have to make. I don’t want anyone feeling like it’s their responsibility to make me happy. I want space where there is room for happiness, and where people can share joyful things and uplift each other. 

Words are powerful. Words are the basis of magic and spells. They are also how we hold the shapes of our thoughts and intentions. Sometimes a small language shift can open up large areas of possibility and exploration. 


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.