Transformation

A feed of recent articles from the independent global media platform openDemocracy’s Section Transformation, which tells the stories of those who are combining personal and social change in order to reimagine their societies.


23 February 2018. #MeToo, dialogue and healing

To give voice to our deepest experiences is to cultivate connection and collective healing.

Credit: Pixabay/Chulhwan. CC0 Public Domain.

Washington University, St Louis, 2002. We sit on the floor, friends and others, each of us holding vigil.

I wonder if I will even be able to find the words if I choose to speak. There are fewer facts than I wish for—more self-judgments and denials than cohesive narrative.

It is the story of a date gone bad—broken but intrusive memories, tainted, tamed, and tortured by reoccurrence and repetition.

Heavy, loaded, and strange, the words that come out feel foreign on my tongue as if the story were not mine.

There was the taxi cab, the woman giving herself a pedicure in the living room, my hurrying down the stairs and out the door only to realize I was locked in. There was having to go back inside to ask him to let me out of the gates.

There was, if I let myself feel it, the sensation of watching my body on the bed from far up above where the wall met the ceiling by the doorway to the room. There was voicelessness and fear—the shame of knowing that I did not yell or fight.

There was my wandering of the streets not knowing if I would find my way home or if I even wanted to. There was the feeling of a disorienting sense of safety or freedom in those dark, foreign streets—he was not there.

For the first time, that night I give voice to the words: “I was raped.”

I wonder if the sentence will ever feel real. I do not cry. I just sit in the room, on the floor, where we have all come to share our stories. I stay still and listen to others after I speak. The candles around us seem to offer some comfort of illumination and the darkness in which they flutter holds the safety of an emerging connection to myself and to something else unfolding and unseen.

Daring to break our silences, even those that have kept us safe, is vulnerable work, no matter when or where or how we make the choice. Giving voice to stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault carries with it uncertainty, fear, and the possibility of re-traumatization. Those of us who have experienced the trauma of sexualized violence run the pros and cons of whether to tell people in our lives or offices or communities a million times over.

Times may be changing. Our societies may be ready to receive these stories without questioning them or us. #MeToo has given us a sense of solidarity and togetherness. But even in this watershed moment we are left with the question of collective healing; of how to be in relationship with one another, grieve together, and rebuild a society without such ubiquitous violence.

The only way I’ve found even a glimmer of hope for answers to these questions lies in the practice of dialogue, through which we come to understand ourselves and others, and from that understanding create the relational trust that’s needed to re-imagine and rename how we want to live together.

To give voice to our deepest experiences is to cultivate connection. I have come to believe that sharing personal stories invites us to enter into transformative dialogue with oneself, with others, and also with the sacred. I have come to see much of my ministry as opening up spaces for people to be with one another in solidarity and dialogue, much like the one I experienced in St Louis that night.

It is hard for those of us committed to working for peace, justice and healing to find safe places to honestly explore our stories. As the demands for outcomes, impact, and measurable change drive us toward easily quantifiable, transactional engagements, we are devaluing the power of sitting together with the simple task of naming the world as we have experienced it.

As we practice giving voice to our experiences and listening to those of others in non-transactional environments, it is impossible to ignore the presence, understanding, and insight that emerges personally and collectively. Such spaces, I have found, are schools of healing, reconciliation, awareness, and spiritual growth.

Paulo Freire, in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, discusses this power: “To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in its turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming. Some may think that to affirm dialogue—the encounter of women and men in the world in order to transform the world—is naively and subjectively idealistic. There is nothing, however, more real or concrete than people in the world and with the world, than humans with other humans.”

To engage in dialogue requires that we surrender the desire to control ourselves, others, and outcomes. Such a practice requires that we remain firmly and faithfully committed to the cultivation of an abiding and unconditional love, humility, faith, and hope—essential qualities of both our spiritual and practical co-existence. Speaking the story of my rape aloud for the first time back in 2002 did not heal me or free me from my pain and fear. But as I look back, I realize that in the moment I opened up and people listened. I unlocked the possibility for change within me, and maybe outside of me too.

Whether sitting with an individual in spiritual direction, leading a leadership development effort or designing a community healing program, I’m consistently struck by the fragmentation of relationship that comes with suffering. With the wounds of trauma, we all crave a concrete path to healing—if only there were the equivalent of surgery and sutures. But trauma is different. The suffering following trauma can be as multifaceted as the wound. Often one’s connections to self, others, and the sacred cease or change so dramatically that they feel chaotic and meaningless.

If relationship is to be a path to liberation, we must understand the nature of what it means to enter dialogue from a place of pain, loss or trauma. All of the people and places that have offered me something of healing—whether therapists or spiritual teachers, community healing events, 12-step programs, meditation halls or activist groups—have honored the power of dialogue through pain, discomfort, and uncertainty. They have allowed me to name my experience freely and openly, listen to myself and others, rename my experience, and embrace the interconnected nature of all life.

This dance of dialogue has taught me what safety in relationship means. It has helped me to honor the depths of myself and others, and has enabled me to trust again. Slowly, I have realized that I am not alone, that the highs and lows can co-exist. I have realized that I can show up fully to life as it is.

As I pay these gifts forward I am reminded of how much people yearn for spirit-filled opportunities to begin healing with others as a complement to their mental health care and other supports. At my organization Still Harbor, we remain committed to accompanying communities as they discover the power of dialogue-based approaches for healing together. We have offered such experiences in many ways over the years.

In Boston, for example, we’ve trained trauma-informed  ‘companions’ in the art of spiritual listening to offer peer support to their neighbors in a community that experiences chronic violence in its streets. We’ve hosted monthly events and small group dialogues that invite people into an open, creative, and expressive space to share their stories of loss, fear, hardship, suffering and hope. This program has unlocked a powerful, transformative energy and a felt sense of connection for all involved.

The profound simplicity of these principles is challenged only by people’s collective fear of the unknown, the fear of what might unfold when we invite people to show up and share their past, pains, and prayers. It can be hard to see others struggle. It can be hard to struggle ourselves. It can be hard to cultivate enough faith in our own spirituality to allow for the kind of authentic dialogue that leads us together toward healing. But I have discovered that in this, as in so much of life, it is well worth the effort.

I used to say that suffering was my teacher. But in truth, I learned very little from mine until I started to name it for myself and in relationship with others. It was the naming and renaming of my suffering that set me on a path towards healing, growth, and happiness.

My hope for all of us is it that we find the courage to create more spaces for this kind of dialogue. As we recognize and enter such places I am confident that we will begin to free ourselves from the oppressive silence of realities unnamed, unheard, and un-integrated. This, I believe, is the power of wholeness, relationship, and community.

A longer version of this article appears in Anchor Magazine.

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21 February 2018. The silencing of difficult women

What happened at Save the Children UK wasn’t a ‘mistake,’ it was a strategic choice.

Justin Forsyth, ex-CEO of Save the Children UK. Credit: By DFID - UK Department for International Development, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It is now an acknowledged fact that women staff at Save the Children UK’s Headquarters in London suffered harassment and that their leadership failed them. In its public statements SCF-UK is now all about the implementation of policy reviews and a new dawn and a readiness for root and branch reform. Justin Forsyth, the former CEO, and Brendan Cox, his former number two, have both admitted that they mistreated women. But this stems from a crisis that culminated in 2015. Why is it only being acknowledged now? Why didn’t anyone speak up?

Well, that’s the thing. Many did speak up but they were silenced. What happened at Save the Children UK wasn’t a ‘mistake’, it was a strategic choice: achieving change for children, went the argument, needed Save the Children to be firmly led by powerful charismatic leaders who ruffled feathers and who should be followed obediently by staff.  

When staff started complaining about the bullying culture that was brought in by former Number 10 special advisors Forsyth and Cox, they were derided as moaners. Everyone learned that it was ‘their way or the highway.’ So when several women suffered repeated mistreatment, this was dealt with by leadership as part of the price of being an ‘effective organization’—and staff found out that it was dangerous to complain as a number of them later told the BBC.

Many kept their mouths shut, or at least complained to their peers through informal channels because they had no faith in the formal ones. The bullying and mistreatment was the worst kept secret in the development community. A great many NGO people knew about the ways in which the behavior of Cox was indulged and enabled by Save the Children’s leadership, who, as is now becoming known, did not do enough to stop it or to hold those responsible to account. But still people were reluctant to come forward. Nevertheless, some did. Complaints were made about both Cox and Forsyth, but neither was fully or properly investigated because the trustees protected their ‘star players.’

Some of the women affected said that the Chair of SCF International’s Trustees, Alan Parker, discouraged them from speaking out and left them re-traumatised. He even brought in Brunswick, the PR agency he founded, to help fend off the communications challenges of the crisis. Both Cox and Forsyth were allowed to go quietly—Forsyth to become number two at UNICEF in New York until his resignation on February 22.

The victims of Cox and Forsyth and their allies didn’t stop at telling peers, senior management and trustees about what was happening. They also went to the media. You might be wondering  why all these stories of harassment and abuse are being broken by the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph—it was the Mail that originally covered Cox’s departure from the charity back in 2015. Why didn’t the complainants go to somewhere like the Guardian? They did.

These victims are not typical Mail and Telegraph readers and they understood that a story about a lack of accountability in an aid organization will likely be followed in those newspapers by calls for less foreign aid. None of the victims support that goal. What they want is aid plus accountability.  

Almost all of the complainants went to the Guardian first. Different Guardian journalists were contacted, but all went quiet. One told me: “I just wanted to say I haven't forgotten about this. Unfortunately the decision to work on the story or not is above my station, so I'm just waiting for a decision either way…” Later, when I asked if they had heard back the same journalist said: “I haven’t unfortunately. It was passed onto powers that be. At the moment it’s looking like it’s not going to run... I presume after some weighing of pros and cons.”

Not only did the Guardian not run a piece about Cox and Forsyth, they actually ran a piece by Cox. This was three months ago. Still I and others kept pressing them. To those affected it looks like some senior media people protect those who are also their personal friends—both the BBC’s Andrew Marr and Sky’s Adam Boulton have publically spoken up for the two men. Perhaps they also think that they are protecting Save the Children, but you don’t protect charities by covering up the behavior of predatory men, only by helping them free themselves from them, and if you leave it to outlets like the Daily Mail then the story gets turned into another reason to cut support for charities.

So this has been a massive disservice, and also a shocking approach to the news, as though women being harassed by powerful men should not be reported on if those men are ‘one of us.’ When the Guardian sat on the story a subsection of the whistleblowers went to the Mail and the Telegraph, who ran it with many fewer sources. The Mail ran a new story about Cox’s behavior on February 17 2018 and the Telegraph followed suit the next day. Neither mentioned Forsyth.  But on February 20 the fuller story of the SCF scandal was broken by Radio 4’s PM programme by a dedicated journalist who cited three complaints by female SCF-UK staff members about threatening text messages and other behaviour. SCF-UK has admitted that these complaints were not dealt with in a satisfactory way.

Just a few hours before the PM programme, Kevin Watkins, the current CEO of Save the Children-UK and a former trustee who was one of the people supposed to be ‘governing’ Forsyth, appeared before MPs on the International Development Committee as a leader on transparency and accountability. He wasn’t asked a single question about Cox or Forsyth, or the role of Parker, or his own previous role on SCF-UK’s Board.

Several journalists told me how Forsyth and Parker can kill media stories. What made Cox so dangerous was his power, and that power came from Forsyth and Parker, but their power in turn came from how willing so many people were to participate in silence and in silencing: trustees, politicians, journalists, staff who kept quiet either out of fear of their careers or fear of hurting Save the Children, and ‘feminist leaders’ including Labour MPs like Lucy Powell and Jess Phillips who publically praised Cox after his confession. 

But now it looks like all these silencers will be defeated by the persistence and courage of a few difficult women. One of them is Brie O’Keefe, who served under Cox and whose experience at Save the Children left her feeling broken. She spoke yesterday on the record and said this: “If you look at where I am right now I am in a town called Yellowknife in Northern Canada and I am so far away from it, and I am still afraid to speak out. But I am going to do it anyways.” 

When Save the Children does reform and return to its values and become a safe place for women, let’s not rewrite it as a story of how Cox and Forsyth ‘took responsibility’ and how Save the Children’s new leadership brought in a new approach. They were covering up key aspects of that story even yesterday—and still haven’t released the key documents prepared for the hearing that never happened because Cox resigned, nor those that look back and examine the whole crisis (SCF-UK has promised to release these documents later in 2018).

Remember instead the real heroes, the whistleblowers. Justin Forsyth remained the deputy director of UNICEF until February 22 2018. Alan Parker remains the chair of Save the Children International. Kevin Watkins, a trustee at the time of the scandal, succeeded Forsyth as CEO of SCF-UK and now insists that he has zero-tolerance of sexual harassment. Brie, meanwhile, lives in fear in a small town in Northern Canada. She and others like her are the real leaders of Save the Children. 

This story has been updated to reflect the resignation of Justin Forsyth from his position at UNICEF on February 22 2018.

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Save the Children-UK responds 2pm February 22: "Brunswick was not instructed with regard to these matters. Save the Children has always sought to protect all employees from inappropriate comments and behaviour.  If concerns about behaviour occur, there are very clear policies and processes in place to deal with them.

In 2011 and 2015, concerns were raised about inappropriate behaviour and comments by the then CEO, Justin Forsyth.  In each case, the chairman instructed HR to manage the process in conjunction with an independent trustee. Two trustees carried out two separate investigations into a total of three complaints made by three female employees.

Both reviews resulted in unreserved apologies from the CEO.  All the parties agreed to this and the former CEO apologised to the women in question.  At that time the matters were closed.

Concerns were raised with trustees that matters should not have been left as they were and that a further review was required. The review found that HR processes had not been followed in every aspect

In a statement on Sunday, 18 February 2018, Kevin Watkins—who was appointed CEO of Save the Children in late 2016—confirmed that he was commissioning a root and branch review of the organisational culture, examining the systems and processes that protect and preserve the safety and wellbeing of all staff, and addressing any behavioural challenges among senior leadership. 

A spokesperson for Save the Children said: ‘The review will commence by the end of this week and report in June 2018.  The final report will be published, shared with the Charity Commission and made available to Government and every single member of staff."

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20 February 2018. What’s it all about, Oxfam?

We should seize this opportunity to re-examine the future of foreign aid.

Haiti: Oxfam latrines and sanitation facilities. Credit: Flickr/ Kateryna Perus/Oxfam. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The public heat generated by Oxfam’s scandal is focused on three issues. First, the absolute importance of protecting vulnerable people—project beneficiaries and collaborators, staff and volunteers; second, accusations of hubris, arrogance and self-serving behaviour by aid agencies; and third, the bigger questions of whether and how aid makes a difference. How are these issues connected?

The mechanisms required to protect vulnerable people from being preyed on by staff who abuse their positions of power (in any sector) are well-known: more care and better vetting in recruitment, including a mandatory phone call to previous employers; more open whistle-blowing policies; better induction and training of staff; an emphasis on clearly articulated and modelled ethics; and a commitment by managers to act swiftly and decisively, and steer away from impunity.

Although the aid sector can and should work collectively on an informal basis to strengthen these mechanisms and attributes, I think it’s a mistake to establish global regulations or a mandatory database of international development workers, because the sector isn’t really a single entity in the way that (perhaps) medicine is, and because of the messy, unpredictable, international nature of aid. How, for example, is a young woman in the Philippines supposed to register as an aid worker before the disaster which leads to her recruitment even happens? I also fear that external regulations can be the enemy of the proper internalisation and ownership of ethics.

On the second issue of self-serving corporate behaviour and hubris, there is clearly a problem, but it isn’t quite as simple as portrayed in the media. Aid agencies have long backed themselves into a corner by claiming in their marketing and fundraising that they have ‘the solution’ to poverty, and the public, despite being far too intelligent to think that poverty can be so easily ‘solved,’ have willingly gone along with this narrative.  

When a willing buyer (the donor) and a willing seller (the charity) are both intentionally vague about the product they’re trading, they create a problem of accountability. So a flawed accountability loop has developed: you give me your money and I’ll take care of the problem while you continue to live your privileged lives. The seller is thus encouraged to create and sustain a narrative in which those who give money are making a difference through the charity’s actions—and to go to enormous lengths to protect this narrative when the real world threatens to undermine it.

Hence, a narrative has emerged of western charities ‘saving’ and even ‘transforming’ non-western lives. The narrative is an integral part of the model, so it can only be changed by disrupting that model. The interest generated by the current Oxfam story gives us an opportunity to do so, but that means looking at the third question: whether and how aid makes a difference.

Let’s divide aid into two categories for the sake of simple analysis: emergency aid and development aid. If providing help in natural or man-made emergencies is by no means easy, the task is relatively simple to define. There is a need to mobilise quickly, save and stabilise lives, and provide basic services to sustain and restore those who have been affected so that they can rebuild their lives.

This should, of course, be carried out with all due care and attention so as to avoid the kinds of unintended negative consequences illustrated by the Oxfam scandal and described by Matthew Green in an excellent article in the Financial Times. It is also increasingly understood that conceptualising and preparing for post-disaster reconstruction should start as soon as possible, with the idea of “building back better” to create a new, more resilient baseline in terms of disaster-prevention and -preparedness, human rights fulfilment, fairness, empowerment and governance. This takes us into the realm of development aid.

Here, we have a real problem. To explore it we first need to separate development from development aid. The word ‘development’ is thrown around as if we all know and agree on what it means; all too often it is used as shorthand for aid. Orwell was right that jargon inhibits clear-eyed analysis, so let’s replace ‘development’ with ‘progress.’

As soon as we do this, the problem becomes clearer. Perhaps with the exception of ‘religion’, ‘progress’ is the most disputed concept in the world. It’s what politics seldom agrees on, whether ideologically (left and right) or on an issue by issue basis, as in how best to provide health care, for example, or whether to subsidise farming, or if it’s worth destroying hundreds of acres of forest to mine potash, iron or gold; or perhaps even whether to leave the European Union. So questions of development are political questions.

Should a country like Uganda use its limited fiscal resources to provide a mediocre quality of primary schooling to all children free of charge, or should it focus on shepherding a smaller number of brighter children through a better education system so they can play a leading role in politics, business and public service, and thus build a platform for further progress? How should a poor rural community allocate its farming land—only to those of the dominant language group or also to those who have migrated there from other districts? Should daughters as well as sons inherit land? Is stability more likely to improve children’s prospects, or should communities opt for a more risky process of transformative change?

These are not primarily questions about aid. They are typical, political questions about progress. And like most political questions they don’t have simple, normative answers. Nevertheless, they are important questions that do need answers, and which the political system in a country like Uganda may choose to answer in ways that people in other countries might disagree with, absent as they are from Ugandan politics and social dynamics.

The challenge for outsiders therefore—whether the UN, western governments or foreign NGOs —is how to play a legitimate political role without overstepping the boundaries of interference. This is probably hardest for western governments, who at one time, for example, were funding half the Ugandan Government’s budget.

Legitimacy is perhaps a little simpler for foreign NGOs, at least in principle, because they operate on a much smaller scale and with less power to abuse. Nevertheless, it’s a critical challenge they must contend with. It’s hard to see how most Haitians would view Oxfam—and  by extension other foreign NGOs—as having much legitimacy after what has come out in the past two weeks.

But legitimacy is a subtle and complex notion; it’s not just about interpersonal behaviour and respect. What’s welcomed from foreign NGOs by local activists might be condemned as interference by their government—as current debates in Russia demonstrate. I once asked a Ugandan activist if the international organisation I represented could legitimately engage in political advocacy there. His answer was simple: pick the right issues and be effective, and you’ll be legitimate. So, for him at least, relevance and effectiveness confer legitimacy.

The more foreign NGOs see themselves as activist agents of specific, contextually relevant change (and not just as service deliverers), the more they’ll need to recruit leaders—preferably  citizens of the country concerned—who see themselves as activists too, within the fabric of indigenous civil society and politics. But they should go further. Challenging the status quo implies an element of risk, so to increase their legitimacy foreign NGOs also need to be ready to take risks, including the risk they will be closed down by the authorities even if this disrupts their organisational interests.

Historians dispute the process of development or progress just as much as planners and politicians. So even from a vantage point in the future, it will be hard to know how and why change happened in a country like Uganda, and even harder to know how change will happen —and therefore how best foreign NGOs might contribute. So the Oxfams of the world must take an active part in, and support local groups to take part in, debates about these matters within civil society, holding up their own ideas and plans to scrutiny, and sharing lessons learned to further enrich the conversation. This can have the added benefit of helping to expand the scope of public debate and politics from questions of representation to questions of participation—to the policies governments should follow and the visions of the future around which societies might cohere.

One way donors can help in this process is by moving away from models of funding which assume that cause and effect can be predetermined with confidence, and that consultation and political engagement can be carried out on the cheap. The same applies to Oxfam and its public narratives: by creating and sustaining the pretence that it knows what is needed, how to provide it, and how its interventions will work without unintended consequences, the aid sector risks denying itself the posture and resources—and perhaps even the legitimacy—to contribute to progress where it can.

Thus, Michael Edwards is right that it isn’t gratuitous to link the Oxfam story to wider questions about aid. Indeed, surely we should seize this opportunity to do so.

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19 February 2018. Why mental health is the hidden cost of the housing crisis

Our homes are supposed to be safe and welcoming, yet one in five adults in the UK suffer from mental health problems due to housing pressures.

Credit: Pixabay/TheDigitalArtist. CC0 Public Domain

For six years, Anastasia Miari has suffered from clinical insomnia triggered by anxiety.

Like many other people, financial worries keep her awake at night. The 27-year-old freelance writer lives in a house-share in east London and pays £750 a month for her room, but is considering moving to cut down on her rent.

“I get bouts of real anxiety but it doesn’t come in the form of panic attacks—it rears its ugly head in my sleep,” Miari told me in a recent interview, adding that she only slept one hour the previous night.

“Basically, it is difficult to know how much money you’re going to earn every month and if your rent is super expensive, you can’t afford to save to buy a house. A place has just become available at a friend’s house and it is £100 cheaper a month than mine, but it’s a box room.”

Our homes are supposed to be safe and welcoming places free from the pressures of everyday life, so it’s no wonder that housing problems have a major impact on our mental wellbeing.

High rents, the threat of eviction, overcrowding, substandard housing and financial pressures brought on by the ‘bedroom tax’ (in which tenants in social housing have their benefits reduced if they have a so-called ‘spare’ room) are all issues which can lead to stress, anxiety and depression, and which have a knock-on effect on all aspects of our lives from work to relationships.

London is Europe’s most expensive city in which to rent according to recent research by the analytics firm ECA International, but prices are rising across the UK, including in Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow. And with increasing rents and stagnating wages comes financial insecurity, which plays havoc with our mental health.

In fact one in five adults in the UK suffer from mental health problems due to housing pressures, according to research carried out by the charity Shelter. In the worst cases, some people reported experiencing suicidal thoughts.

According to the same source, around one in six adults also said that housing problems had affected their physical health too, in the form of hair loss, nausea, headaches and exhaustion.

“Housing and mental health are closely related,” said Helen Rowbottom, policy officer at the National Housing Federation, when I talked to her. “The negative impact of poor housing on someone’s health and wellbeing is well evidenced. In many cases, it can prolong illness and escalate healthcare costs.”

Housing problems not only cause mental health problems, they also have the potential to make existing conditions worse. People with mental health conditions are one and a half times more likely to live in rented housing, according to research by the NHS Confederation mental health network and the National Housing Federation, leaving them at higher risk of rent increases which perpetuate the cycle of stress and anxiety.

In addition, since it was introduced nearly five years ago, the bedroom tax has hit some of the most vulnerable people in society the hardest, leaving tenants in social housing out of pocket just because they have a ‘spare’ room. Three-quarters of people paying the tax have had to cut back on food, according to a report published by the Department for Work and Pensions in 2015. Nearly half had also cut back on heating for their homes.

It doesn’t take much imagination to link these problems to mental illness. Three months after the Department’s report was published, a study in the Journal of Public Health found that all of the residents in one community in northern England—in which 68.5 per cent of the population live in social housing—reported stress and symptoms of anxiety and depression as a result of the bedroom tax.

In a recent interview, Gareth Bradbury, a 54-year-old single father from Bolton, told me that his girls were nine and five years old when they came to live with him. The family lived in a three-bedroom house and he worked as a gardener to support his daughters, who went on to attend university.

Then, a string of problems changed Bradbury’s situation. He had a heart attack and had to have bypass surgery, but later went back to work. While cleaning the gutters of his house he fell and seriously injured one of his legs, leaving him unable to work. When the bedroom tax was brought in in 2013, the added pressure on his finances took its toll on his mental health.

“The bedroom tax came in and I have to pay £30 a week out of my benefits,” he said, “but I also need a car to get about so my disability [allowance] pays for that. I have been on meds for depression and I’m still on them. I went for a swap of houses to a two-bedroom house, but got knocked back. I was offered a one-bedroom flat but my daughters still come and stay with me so I could not accept it. I’m stuck paying this forever.”

Against the odds, Bradbury says he has managed to cope. “I got on with my life and now I run a small group of volunteers called Bolton Community Kitchen. We feed the homeless, vulnerable and elderly people of Bolton every Monday night. I’m a lucky one that will bounce back.”

Anne Power, a professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, told me that the bedroom tax has undermined people’s confidence in their entitlement to the “peaceful occupation of their home,” which is a legal entitlement—a right.

“It has made them feel insecure when they simply cannot afford to pay the additional rent and many people have had to turn to family when they couldn’t meet the rent, increasing the feeling of being a burden,” she said. “Generally, welfare reform has greatly increased people’s sense of anxiety and uncertainty, which is the last thing you need in your home.”

For Bradbury, his community has been a source of support during difficult times. But if you don’t have that kind of support and housing pressures are affecting your mental health, it’s worth getting in touch with Shelter which provides advice on a range of issues, from falling behind on your rent to living in a home which isn’t up to standards.

The mental health charity Mind also covers the impact of housing problems on mental health extensively and can provide crucial support, as can another organisation called Rethink. Speaking to your GP about a mental health problem is always important.

It may also be helpful to contact Citizens Advice, who give free, confidential advice to people struggling with housing issues. Your local council may also be able to help in the form of a discretionary housing payment—an extra payment to people who claim housing benefit—which could help you if your housing benefit doesn’t cover your rent.

Whether it’s the pressure of paying an extortionate rent or financial anxiety caused by the bedroom tax, Britain’s housing crisis is having a serious effect on mental health. What’s worse, this is a problem that is being largely overlooked, and with very dangerous consequences.

When Brenda, from Manchester, was evicted from her home she spiralled into a deep depression. “You blame yourself and you feel a sense of total helplessness. I remember not wanting to go on and wondering if I should end it,” she told Shelter.

Things began to turn around after she spoke to one of the charity’s advisors. “She was the first person who had asked how they could help me. It was the beginning of me taking back some control. I think about that call practically every day. All you need is someone to listen.”

 

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15 February 2018. What’s to be done with Oxfam, part 2?

Is it gratuitous to link the scandal engulfing Oxfam with the need to transform NGOs and foreign aid?

Credit: Wikimedia/Chris ReynoldsCreative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

“Tensions between reform and transformation are hardwired into the NGO community and look set to continue, unless or until some large scale shock arrives to force through more fundamental changes—like the end of foreign aid, or the removal of public credibility in the wake of some massive scandal, or a blanket ejection of foreign organizations by Southern governments. But those prospects seem remote.” What’s to be done with Oxfam? August 1 2016.

Well, ‘be careful what you wish for.’ Eighteen months after I wrote these words that “scandal” has come to pass, though exactly how “massive” it is a matter for debate. As allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by a small number of Oxfam staff in Haiti, South Sudan and Chad, and in some of its shops in the UK have exploded around the charity’s head, there have been many forceful and legitimate demands to tighten up procedures, make reparations and strengthen accountability so that such instances are prevented wherever possible and dealt with decisively when they do happen. ‘Case closed,’ you might say.

Except that critics have used this opportunity to castigate Oxfam, NGOs and foreign aid in much more general terms. What has occurred proves that charities are corrupt and incompetent, they say, that they have no ethics or moral value, and that aid should therefore be abolished. Even friendlier critics like Larry Elliot, Suzanne Moore and Deborah Doane (all writing in the Guardian) have accused Oxfam of abandoning its moral core, practicing colonialism and becoming little more than an international business.

Meanwhile Oxfam itself is in turmoil, offering a delayed, incomplete and surprisingly cack-handed response which goes against its own communications advice and ignores decades of experience in how to handle revelations of this nature: tell the whole truth as soon as you find any evidence of wrong-doing; do everything you can to prevent it happening again; and don’t allow abusers to slink away silently into the rest of the system—regardless of any potential embarrassment, loss of funds or legal complications. Don’t hedge or fudge or offer unconvincing justifications of what you can’t do, and don’t wring your hands in public.

Only one head has rolled thus far in this fiasco, but would you or I have done any better under such enormous pressures? Speaking as an ex-Oxfam manager, I’m not sure I would. And in any case, isn’t it a bit gratuitous to use the pain and trauma of all those involved as a hook on which to hang a lecture about the politics of the international system, or to mount generalized attacks that are largely spurious?

I’ve been a critic of NGOs like Oxfam myself for many years, but I value the international solidarity they can help to build when they are at their best. I’m trying to see all sides of the story and avoid throwing any babies out with the bathwater, so for me the question boils down to this: is there a link between what happened in Haiti and what needs to happen in the aid sector more broadly going forward? If not, we should limit ourselves to addressing the case in hand and its consequences. If yes, there’s a legitimate claim that Oxfam and the others should use this opportunity to make those broader changes, and be held accountable for doing so.

At the simplest and most basic level, abuse and exploitation happen when someone near the top of a hierarchy uses someone lower down who has less power, outside of a system of clear rules and accountability. The fact that this case concerns the hierarchy of an NGO or the aid industry more broadly is irrelevant—unless one believes that Oxfam is staffed by saints or that institutions behave more ethically just because they say so. We know that neither of these things are true, and I’m certain that we’ll hear more evidence to substantiate that fact in the coming months as other instances of abuse come to light in other settings.

In a recent interview with AFP about the Oxfam furor, Mike Jennings, head of the Department of Development Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said this:

“Emergency situations are almost a perfect environment for these kind of activities to emerge. You have extremely vulnerable people...and a few people who are effectively controlling access to resources, or have huge amounts of power. Whenever you have those inequalities and variances in power, you have scope for abuse.”

That’s true, but ‘access to resources’ and ‘inequalities in power’ are not a given. They are formed in particular contexts by human hands, and they can be re-formed in similar fashion. Inequalities in power and resources are what Oxfam and the others were set up to confront and ultimately transform, not just in relations between men and women or employers and employees but throughout society and its institutions—and especially between rich and poor. You can’t secure those sorts of transformations unless you attack their constituent parts at the level of daily practice, and it’s here that the link between the specific and the general becomes a little clearer.

For at least the last 25 years there has been a lively debate about power, aid and NGOs, focusing on the inability or unwillingness of agencies to hand over control and share their resources—as opposed to building their own brands and competing for market share from their fundraising base in the global North, and notwithstanding the recent trend to decentralize some parts of their operations. There are echoes of this debate among the friendlier critics of Oxfam since the Haiti scandal broke. The central issue is that, while NGOs are happy to criticize inequality when it is caused by others—billionaires for example, or the World Bank or multinational corporations—they have not been prepared to face up to the inequalities for which they themselves are at least partly responsible

Those inequalities stem from a failure to build or support indigenous institutions in order to remove the need for any foreign presence, and the taking away of political and intellectual space from organizations in the global South, and grassroots groups everywhere, in the worlds of advocacy, research and campaigning.

If inequality is tolerated anywhere it can be reproduced everywhere; by contrast, if it is honestly acknowledged and dealt with in one part of the system it can act as a spur to confront other inequalities elsewhere. That, it seems to me, is the potential wider significance of what has happened in Haiti. But it’s important to note that reducing inequality doesn’t automatically curb sexual abuse and exploitation. There are no saints in the global South either.

Hence, it is not gratuitous to link yesterday’s horrific school shooting in Florida to the need for gun control across the USA. Specific cases call for a generalized response, not just improved security in one school. In the same way, putting measures in place to curb sexual abuse in one agency or country requires us to look more deeply into the inequalities that lie at the root of the problem, and to address them in a general framework. Although that may sound unlikely in the heat of the current moment, its results could be revolutionary. We may finally get a healthy, ethical and equal-minded movement for international cooperation to confront global problems.

Can its own #metoo moment help the aid industry to question and transform its role in this way? When you face an outside threat to your integrity, and even to your existence, it’s difficult to focus on anything except circling the wagons in order to survive. But the emotional experience of vulnerability—the enforced stripping away of arrogance and defensiveness and inertia—can also create a space for acceptance, an acceptance that things do now need to change.

At the human level we should all feel for Oxfam’s staff in these times, just as we must feel for those who have endured abuse and exploitation at the hands of a very small minority of their number. As the global leader of the NGO community Oxfam has a special responsibility to make sure this opportunity isn’t wasted.  

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13 February 2018. Walking the path of love

Small acts of love have the potential to join together to create a more compassionate society.

Credit: Pixabay/Marysse93. CC0 Public Domain.

Back in 2011 when I was trying to find my way and find more meaning and purpose in my life, I contacted Alastair McIntosh, the great Scottish human ecologist and theologian. I told him what I wanted to do and asked for his advice. His reply was simple and to the point: “Matthew,’ he said, “it doesn't really matter what path you walk, what matters is the heart you walk it in.” His response liberated me, because I understood that my activism could find its expression in the process and not just the end result. 

So I set off on a series of journeys through the United Kingdom and beyond to listen to and share as many love stories as I could, seeing love as the root of human connection and authentic social action. The results have been captured in an interactive website called A Human Love Story, and now in a new book. During the last seven years I have told and retold my own love stories to strangers, on the path, in the streets, towns and villages I’ve passed through. And in those exchanges I’ve sought to create safe spaces where people can be heard, where they can speak their stories and have an opportunity to open up and to be vulnerable.

I’ve come to think of this as ‘heart-led activism’ or compassionate practice in the world, rooted in the conviction that deep listening is one of the most profoundly loving gifts we can offer someone.  When carried out authentically it represents love made and love given. When I talk about deep listening I mean a practice in which the listener is fully present in that moment with another human being without any judgement—an open and compassionate space where connection and understanding can take root. 

For me this is a form of activism on an individual level that can cultivate change on a wider societal and cultural scale. To undertake the simplest of tasks with the right intention can contribute to an emerging web of similar actions with and by others. In isolation these actions may seem fruitless, but in a wider context they have the power to embed more compassionate discourses and actions deep into our behaviour. A psycho-analyst friend of mine based in Paris talks of “chipping away in your corner.” Like the ripples that emanate from a pebble dropped in water, compassionate understanding and loving interaction can spread across society and its institutions—which leads me to my most recent journey with A Human Love Story

In the spring of 2017 I walked some 500 miles through Scotland, from Lindisfarne in the North Eastern corner of England to the Callanish Stones on the Isle of Lewis, far out in the Atlantic Ocean.  During this journey I met with hundreds of people and we shared our stories. In Edinburgh I met with a group of volunteers at the Welcoming Association, which provides education, support and nurturing to refugees, migrants and other newcomers to Scotland. They offer understanding, hospitality and community to many young people and adults trying to create a new life for themselves in Edinburgh. 

The care and love I observed in these interactions was both inspiring and humbling.  On countless occasions during my walk I was offered a bed for the night, food for my journey and connections further along the path; small acts of kindness that required courage, heart, and openness towards a stranger. I met with a group called the Afterwards Community in Bathgate (a town in West Lothian), who support each other emotionally as they go through profound changes in their lives.  Recognition, storytelling, food and hugs all help to create a supportive framework of love and kindness. 

I talked with people who helped to build allotments, digging the soil and nurturing others in that process. I received smiles on the road and nods of acknowledgement; powerful gestures of welcome. On another occasion I found myself talking to a young lady from Spain who was living in Scotland. Her love story began on a beach in Greece, where as a volunteer she spent the night waiting for refugees to arrive from their crossing of the Mediterranean Sea. During those hours of darkness she fell into conversation with a fellow volunteer, and a passionate romance was ignited.  Hers was a fiery and visceral love story, but what struck me more was the situation in which it was initiated—waiting on a beach to help strangers find a welcome; a powerful act of compassionate activism and a love story in itself.

For me, all these acts of compassion require an outward-looking perspective. Our gaze is directed beyond ourselves and into our living and waking communal experiences. Like listening and sharing, they build a framework of existence that is inter-dependent. In this approach, the ego is perhaps tucked away a little. My partner often quotes these words from a Nat King Cole song: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” For me, this is such a poignant statement because it reaches out beyond the individual, beyond our own desire and longing for love. It expresses the essential character of loving interaction, which is the dynamic response from all those involved.

The simple things each person does in relationship to themselves, to others, and to the wider world are opportunities to walk a more compassionate path. For me, being fully conscious in my interactions with other people is the most profound way to walk this path. Small acts of love have the potential to join together and create a more compassionate society.

We all journey in our different ways.  And though we have destinations and goals, and markers along the way, it is the journey itself that is important.  How we move through our lives, the connections we make, the intentions we set, and the love we offer ourselves, others and this beautiful world is our greatest potential gift. Because in the end, it doesn’t matter what path you walk, what matters is the heart you walk it in.                     

Matt Hopwood’s new book is A Human Love Story - Journeys to the Heart, published by Birlinn.

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12 February 2018. Five ways to transform our economies

We need a new economics for the 21st century. Here are five potential pillars.

Credit: Alpha Stock Images/Nick Youngson.CC BY-SA 3.0.

We live in a world that’s facing many destructive and entwined crises including growing inequality, climate change, poverty, pollution and human rights violations. Our current economic system is perpetuating and exacerbating these crises.

Over the last thirty years, neoliberal fundamentalism has put corporate and financial interests ahead of social and environmental standards through policies like privatisation, trade liberalisation and deregulation. If economics is about the allocation and distribution of scarce resources as many first year university text books claim, then 30 years of these policies have failed. We have created more wealth than ever before but have been unable to share it equitably, and in doing so we are destroying our common home.

We need a new economics for the 21st century. To protect our fragile planet, we need to listen to communities and social movements across the world who are already creating just and sustainable economic solutions to social and environmental challenges. Here are five of them.

1. Public services for all through tax justice.

From health clinics in South Africa to clean water in Uruguay  and public transport in Vienna , public services provide necessities to hundreds of millions of people around the world. They also drive economic activity and so can play a leading role in the shift towards a more sustainable economy.

To do so, they must ensure the meaningful participation of communities through systems like participatory budgeting, greater transparency, stricter environmental standards in relation to functioning and procurement, and mandatory universal access.

Fair and redistributive tax policies are required to pay for these services. Rather than more tax cuts we need more taxation of multinational corporations, financial transactions, capital gains and wealthy individuals.

Tax havens are costing governments hundreds of billions of dollars. Saving our planet from global warming is possible, but it requires tax justice to finance the necessary energy alternatives. For example, Friends of the Earth International calculates that revenue lost between 2015 and 2030 to tax havens could power half the world with 100 per cent socially controlled renewable energy.

2. Scale up social ownership and cooperativism.

Across the world more than one billion people are already members of cooperatives, a key part of the ‘social and solidarity economy’ which the International Labour Organisation defines as a concept that encompasses organisations that produce goods, services and knowledge while pursuing social and economic objectives. The solidarity economy is fundamentally about reasserting people’s control over the economy. Its principles are based on collective power, democratic decision-making, women’s autonomy, transparency, sustainability, self-management and the egalitarian distribution of economic returns.

Cooperatives produce and distribute millions of goods and services every day, from the food we eat to the hotels in which we stay, the factories we work in and the credit unions in which can choose to invest our savings. In Quebec, Canada, ten per cent of all economic activity comes from this solidarity economy, and in Brazil it has lifted millions of people out of poverty

Without sufficient support these initiatives can struggle to grow from small projects to transformative solutions with a broader social and economic impact. We must ensure that they have proper access to financing and supportive regulatory frameworks, learning from emerging ‘sharing cities’ like Seoul and Amsterdam.

3. Support local markets and fair trade.

Local and regional economies that are linked together through equitable trade relations are the backbone of a sustainable society. Yet trade liberalisation has rigged the game, writing the rules in favour of multinational companies. This has led to a ‘race to the bottom’ on social and environmental standards.

We need a trade system based on cooperation not competition. Policies must enable governments to reduce trade in environmentally and socially harmful products and introduce ‘supremacy clauses’ that bind states to follow international law and ensure that human rights are legally superior to trade deals.

Communities and local businesses recycle a much larger share of their revenue back into the local economy than multinationals. A study by the University of California found that twice as much money stayed in the community when people bought the produce they needed at local farmers’ markets instead of supermarkets. The promotion of local and agro-ecological production also eliminates unnecessary carbon-intensive transportation.

Many governments already recognise the importance of local economies: ‘farm to school’ programmes in Brazil, the US and France prioritise sustainable locally grown foods in school canteens, while Indonesia is supporting village economies with a fund that’s targeted at improving local public amenities and enterprises.

4. Create economies of purpose by valuing the wellbeing of people and planet.

Under neoliberalism, growth and competitiveness are treated as goals in themselves rather than means to a wider end. This exacerbates inequality and outstrips the rate at which the environment can regenerate or absorb pollutants.

The central aim of economic organisation should be to fulfill the needs of communities in harmony with the planet. GDP should be given much less priority and replaced with new indicators of progress. As economist Kate Raworth argues, “today’s economies are divisive and degenerative by default, and must become distributive and regenerative by design.”

In such ‘economies of purpose,’ democratically-accountable governments agree to prioritise activities like healthcare, education and renewable energy through subsidies and other measures while shrinking or stopping harmful activities like coal mining and weapons production

This is already happening in some regions of the world. Government policy in parts of Latin America is being driven by concepts of buen vivir’ or ‘well living.’ There are related transition initiatives taking place in India under the rubric of ‘ecological swaraj,’ and in Europe through the transition towns movement.

5. Binding rules to dismantle the power of big business.

Human rights abuses by the biggest companies are rife, be they communities in Indonesia losing their homes to palm oil plantations, rivers in Colombia so heavily polluted by coal mines that local residents can’t fish there any more, or communities in Nigeria that have been devastated by natural gas flares from refineries and pipelines, despite this being illegal.

Voluntary corporate responsibility or ‘self regulation’ is not enough. We need legally binding international rules to regulate and hold transnational businesses to account. The United Nations Inter-Governmental Working Group (IGWG) is already working towards creating such a binding instrument and a French ‘duty of care law’ was passed in 2017 to hold French companies responsible for human and environmental violations committed anywhere in the world.

Governments must also intervene to break-up national, regional and global monopolies and oligopolies, in order to create a more level playing field for small enterprises, cooperatives and public services.

In all these areas, the solutions to poverty, inequality and environmental degradation already exist. The challenge is to scale them up and transform the economy in ways that serve both people and the planet.

 

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11 February 2018. Radical happiness: moments of collective joy

True happiness is produced by cultivating our ties to one another: a review of Lynne Segal’s new book.

Credit: Sisters Uncut/Jade Jackman. All rights reserved.

In a recent Guardian expose, Michael King, a London ombudsman, warns of a new phenomenon—the rise of homelessness in the UK among people who have stable jobs and a steady income. In 2017 it is not unusual to see nurses, taxi drivers, hospitality staff and council workers find themselves on the streets after being evicted by private-sector landlords seeking higher rents. The problem of homelessness, King continues, can no longer simply be ascribed to drug addiction or mental health issues; rather, the erosion of the social safety net is what is pushing an ever-increasing number of people into precarity.

It is in the midst of these devastating new realities that Lynne Segal’s book Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy has appeared on the literary scene. In her new book, Segal adamantly refuses despair. Instead, she insists that we must never stop imagining and struggling for alternative—and, yes, even utopic—spaces and futures. This urging could not come at a more opportune time.

As study after study has shown, levels of individual misery, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and isolation are at all-time highs in the Anglo-American world.  Meanwhile, the billion-dollar happiness industry—that  “culturally orchestrated ideology of individual happiness with its ubiquitous commercial incitement to pleasure” as Segal puts it—continues to thrive, from positive psychology to mindfulness and the wellness movement: think Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP and the explosion and popularity of TED talks endlessly exhorting us to foster a positive outlook.

In her book, Segal posits radical happiness as the antidote, not only to the ersatz happiness that is sold to us via pills, apps, and self-help guides but also to the more general sense of despondency. Happiness, Segal gently reminds us, is not something we find; nor can it be bought on the market. Unlike the dominant ideology of individual felicity—with consumerism and individuated sexual desire mixed up with ideals of romantic love at its core—radical happiness is produced by cultivating and reaffirming our ties to one another and to the world.

Thus, while love is central to happiness (both individual and collective), love is also infinite in its variety, making it imperative to expand notions of attachment and care well beyond heteronormative coupledom. As the title of the book suggests, radical happiness is therefore most accurately defined in terms of moments of collective joy, moments that are created when we are moved to go beyond and outside ourselves to act together with a plurality of others. Crucially, for Segal, these moments emerge as we forge communities that struggle together to ensure the creation of social conditions and infrastructure that would enable the greatest number of people possible to thrive.

Much of Radical Happiness charts how and why this movement beyond oneself has become more difficult in the contemporary era. Despite the Anglo-American obsession with happiness and the thriving happiness industry, the populace is increasingly miserable. Segal draws on a range of thinkers from Émile Durkheim to Hannah Arendt to underline the point that that such widespread misery, even though it may be experienced at the individual level, has deep roots in social context and structures. 

One of these roots—and the preponderant one for Segal—is the rise of neoliberal governance, which has, since the 1980s and the era of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US, seen the steady dismantling of the welfare state and the social safety net. This has, as the book details, translated into increasing economic insecurity for ever more people. Not only has work become increasingly precarious over the past few decades but employees are also putting in more hours for less money, which, in turn, leaves people less time for leisure and, often, the ability to fulfill care commitments. Furthermore, neoliberal governance erodes any sense of social responsibility while fostering intensified individualism, which merely exacerbates feelings of isolation and loneliness.

This deepening cultural crisis is the direct result of on-going policies of austerity and privatization, which siphon wealth upwards at a staggering pace while eviscerating public resources, spaces, and community life. The World Inequality Report recently published data showing that the richest 0.1 per cent of the world’s population have increased their combined wealth so much that they currently have as much as the poorest 50 per cent, or 3.8 billion people. With rising rates of poverty and homelessness alongside deteriorating health and educational infrastructure, it really is no wonder that so many people are miserable and feel so alone.  

Radical Happiness is not, however, a gloomy book.  Rather, after diagnosing the ills of the current Anglo-American political and social landscape it offers us hope, reminding us of the wealth of resources on which we can draw in order to continue struggling for alternative futures. Taking us back to the ancient Greeks, Segal underscores Aristotle’s notion of happiness or eudonomia as a form of human flourishing; it derives from activities we desire to do for their own sake, which are both noble and good. Happiness was thus conceived as activity, not a static emotional state. This is a crucial insight and one that could potentially reorient our understandings of pleasure and joy in the present.  

Indeed, throughout the book, Segal taps into the resistance archive, drawing on a wide range of resources from socialist visionaries like Robert Owen to anarchist and political activist Emma Goldman to utopian feminist fiction like Marge Piercy’s Women on the Edge of Time. These dreamers and their political engagements serve as key resources for the on-going struggle to create a more egalitarian world, even as this task appears more daunting today than ever before.

Segal also recounts her own participation in the woman’s movement in the 1970s, underscoring how her involvement in such a movement was utterly transformative, personally as well as politically. Collective resistance to oppression in its various forms—with its shared sense of agency—symbolizes for Segal the very essence of radical happiness. These movements or moments of collectivity are often fleeting, but they make us feel alive and hence happier.

In other words, whether or not these struggles for a more egalitarian world ultimately succeed—and historically they most often have not—the very struggle to cultivate and (re)build a sense of the commons compels us to move beyond ourselves while reaffirming our connection to each other. It is precisely this kind of “acting in concert” to create a more just and better world that facilitates these life-affirming moments of collective joy.

While Segal herself is perhaps best known for her feminist interventions—particularly her Straight Sex, and for her more recent critical musing on ageing, Out of Time—in the neighborhood of Islington in London (where she lives) she is renowned for her decades of radical activism as well as for her indominable spirit. Radical Happiness is a panoramic yet exquisitely detailed book, erudite but extremely accessible, and cautiously optimistic while scathingly critical. It is a tour de force and a vital light in these dark times.   

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8 February 2018. Six things urban feminists should never say to rural people

Folks with degrees from Smith and Wellesley talked to me in slower, louder voices once they realized where I was from.

Credit: Shutterstock via Everyday Feminism. All rights reserved.

Originally published on Everyday Feminism.

This article is for my fellow poor/working-class, rural feminist transplants trying to navigate a movement and culture that centers urban, coastal, middle-class values, experiences, and people.

If your experience has been anything like mine, I know you’ve probably had to walk a long (and bumpy, dirt) road. And for those of you without the citizenship, cis-gendered and white-skin privileges I have, bumpy is undoubtedly an understatement.

While not all of us move to big cities, those of us who do might leave the towns we grew up in because we felt isolated, unsafe, fell in love, or got a fancy scholarship that propelled us into the academic industrial complex.

Others might leave in hopes of connecting with like-minded people, to obtain healthcare, or to gain access to the kinds of resources only made available to urban artists, activists, and culture makers.

I moved from my small, rural, hometown in northern California to the Bay Area because so many of the artists, activists, and culture makers I look up to have lived or still live here.

I wanted to witness their processes, study with them, learn and grow from their struggles and legacies. I wanted my own life and work to be influenced by the same landscapes and conversations as those of my mentors. (p.s. relocation, especially to the Bay Area, is complicated in general, no matter who you are or where you’re from.)   

Upon arrival, we tend to be greeted with the simultaneous disgust and awe of a character from the movie Deliverance. Popular culture’s stereotypes and caricatures of us have never been kind.

We’re always portrayed as being a group of exclusively white, mullet-wearing, banjo-playing, lazy, toothless, illiterate, alcoholics and addicts. Casual jokes about inbreeding, incest and bestiality are perpetually being made at our expense, and we’re often depicted as violent, hateful, and dangerous. 

When I first got to the city, I constantly found myself having to prove the fact that I, a “rurally socialized person,” could actually be a feminist. People were always insisting on helping me with the use of rudimentary technological devices. Folks with degrees from Smith and Wellesley talked to me in slower, louder voices once they realized where I was from.

People used the term “tacky” to refer to the way I dressed and spoke. And I know that I am not the only person who’s had class privileged, urban folks shamelessly gawk at my teeth, insisting that I “take down the number of their orthodontist friend.”

Being a target for this ongoing barrage of insults can make it hard to remember that these stereotypes were designed to make us feel inferior—to quell our sense of dignity and willingness to fight against injustice.

But make no mistake, these insults were created to reinforce the hierarchies necessary for industrial capitalism, white-supremacy and heteropatriarchy to thrive. They were meant to prevent racial solidarity movements from forming, let alone, from effectively Taking Shit Down.

It’s crucial that we’re able to identify where these harmful stereotypes about us come from, what purposes they serve in the larger context of white-supremacy, capitalism and heteropatriarchy, and why they just aren’t true!

The following six statements are comments that I hope eventually, none of us ever have to encounter again!

And if you’re a rural, working class/poor feminist who hasn’t had the pleasure of engaging face to face with many of your class-privileged, urban and suburban counterparts, you’re really in for…a treat.

1. 'So you grew up in white-trash central?'

This is infuriating on so many levels.

First off, at this point, we all know that the term “white-trash” isn’t solely engineered to offend white folks living in poverty, right? The underlying implication is that anybody who isn’t white is already considered trash—hence the need to specify “white” when calling someone “trash” in the first place.

Further, people of color and white folks live together rurally in communities all over the country—in the Lower Mississippi Delta, the Southern Black Belt, regions along the US-Mexico border, and large parts of Central Appalachia. I grew up in California where migrant workers from all over South America made up a huge part of the community I was raised in.

Insinuating that all rural, working-class and poor folks are white not only invisiblizes folks of color, it enacts the power of white supremacy by calling on the old, divisive modes of our forefathers who pitted rural-poor white folks against people of color so they wouldn’t have a class war on their hands!

2. 'Didn't you grow up, like, with no electricity?'

Since the dawn of western expansion, people in positions of power have constructed strong distinctions between what is considered “civilized” verses “savage.”

Colonizers, by deeming themselves and their ways of life “civilized” (and therefore superior), were more easily able to dehumanize the people in the communities they occupied.

This civil/savage dichotomy is reinforced in all sorts of ways still today—one of them being through technology.

The skills and access required to be considered “technologically civilized” in today’s world excludes enormous populations of people all over the globe, and we – in turn – use that to justify dehumanizing them, appropriating their culture, and occupying their land.

No computer or wireless internet in your house? How savage! Using a clothes-line to dry your clothes? Savage. No central heating system? Savage! Use of non-electric domestic appliances? You get my drift.

To make a long story short, we are taught that “civilized” is superior to “savage,” and that it’s impossible to be considered “civilized” if you lack access to the newest technological resources.

In reality, what we consider “civilized” is actually just capitalism’s way of getting us to assimilate into its dangerous consumption-obsessed culture.

3. 'But you look so normal!'

As far as I’m concerned, this comment is meant to assert the notion that—due to our “savage,”“animalistic,” “amoral,” and “perverse” sexualities—folks in rural communities suffer from self-inflicted, genetic mutations that render us inherently flawed.

In other words, kids in poor/ working-class, rural schools have lower test scores and literacy rates than kids in affluent urban areas not because of capitalism’s unfair allocation of resources, but because of irreversible, biological stupidity.

In addition, the idea that being “smart” and coming from a rural-poor background is somehow surprising is really hurtful! In the face of this, it’s important to remember that our society values certain ideologies, skills and smarts over others.

For instance, individualism, competitiveness, market economy, industrialization, and the importance of overpowering one’s “animal nature” are typically associated with the “metropolitan mentality” and deemed “civilized.”

In opposition, the adherence to tradition, ritual or religion, the prioritization of process over of product, community infrastructures based on support and mutual aid, and the building of economies that coincide with the rhythms of nature (like farming, for instance), are considered “anti-modern” and therefore, inferior.

So while it may be true that some of us didn’t achieve full literacy until we were much older than a lot of class-privileged, urban and suburban kids did, we knew how to cook a meal, balance a checkbook, and be caretakers of small children by the age of ten.

4. 'Did you actually come out as queer when you lived there?'

The idea that rural areas are somehow less safe than urban ones for folks deemed “other” has always baffled me.

We live in a heterosexist world where certain people are targeted every dayeverywhere. Have you seen the statistics of trans women murdered this year alone in urban spaces? Of queer kids bullied and brutalized in urban public schools?

We all know that hate crimes happen in rural spaces as well. Of course—by nature of the world we live in—they do.

But the scapegoating and lack of accountability that occurs when people imply that rural areas are “worse” than urban ones in this regard is inaccurate.

5. 'Growing up around all the rural mysogyny must have really impacted your love life!'

Comments like this usually come in tandem with assumptions about The Helpless Rural Housewife: barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen with two black eyes, sobbing into a mixing bowl while making jam.

I’m not really sure where the image of the meek, rural housewife comes from, but let me tell you —all the working-class, rural women I grew up with were fucking tough, capable, smart, and sassy as hell. They had to be.

They’d collect truck beds full of splintered lumber with their bare hands to bring home for firewood. They’d keep buck knives in thick leather cases dangling from their belt loops, and they could remove bottle caps with their teeth.

I don’t mean to imply that all rural women are like this—obviously every community, family, individual, and rural culture is different. I’m just saying, the rural women I know are far from meek or passive.

As for the stereotype that all rural men are misogynistic abusers, patriarchy is patriarchy.

There are some men who are allies and some who aren’t—and I’d venture to say there’s a mix of them in both rural and urban spaces.

These gendered stereotypes function to reinforce class-privileged, urban supremacy by using…you guessed it…the civil/ savage dichotomy.

6. 'Your family shopped at Walmart? What about the boycott of unfair labor practices?'

Just because a community doesn’t organize through consumer-based activism or with the intent to change institutional policy doesn’t mean they’re complacent or apolitical. Activism often looks really different in rural contexts than it does in urban ones.

We know that rural, working-class, and poor folks engage in forms of activism every day, one example being through the practice of mutual aid.

By this, I mean we know how to show the fuck up for each other. Where I grew up, families regularly shared resources without expectation—shelter, food, childcare, money, and so on.

We looked out for each other. Girls and women tagged the names of known perpetrators and abusers onto restroom walls all over town so we knew who to watch out for, whose tires to slash, and who to never leave our loved ones alone with (…unarmed).

We might not organize a boycott against Walmart if that’s the only place to buy groceries for a 100 mile radius, but we will sure as hell fight ICE when they come into our communities trying to detain our undocumented friends, family members, co-workers, and neighbors.

I don’t know about you, but I grew up seeing masses of rural, poor/working-class folks show up with rifles and form barricades to keep cops and immigration officers from invading homes.

We are constantly being told that there is only one effective way to be an activist—and that is simply untrue.

The actual stories, voices, and activisms of poor/ working-class, rural folks are always silenced by stereotypes and media mouth pieces. Urban dwellers have so much to say about the poor/ rural experience, which they do through memes, popular media, books, and movies. But rarely do we hear directly from the voices within our own communities.

Consider Morgan Spurlock, with his premiere episode of 30 Days, in which he and his partner move to a small, rural town in Ohio and each get jobs earning minimum wage for a month – you know, to show everyone how hard life can be for “some people” (before returning to their swanky Park Slope home and lucrative, metropolitan careers).

And you know what? Life is hard sometimes—but we are complicated human beings! We are not defined merely by the hardships and adversities we face.

And further, we are very capable of writing our narratives ourselves. Did anyone ever even ask us what we might have to say?

Enter Barbara Ehrenreich, journalist and author of the 2001 bestselling book Nickel and Dimed, who wrote about her harrowing experiences living undercover as a member of the rural, working-poor for one year.

And, well, I guess that since we’re such “simple folks,” it’s totally possible for a class-privileged urban transplant to understand a lifetime’s worth of cultural nuances from spending just one year among (the likes of) us.

Are you kidding me?!

Some of us want to challenge the stereotypes that exist about us by writing stories that reflect how multi-dimensional and dynamic our lives actually are.

But aside from the publishing industry not seeing us as a profitable or sexy demographic unless portrayed as comedic others, we are generally considered far too stupid to be capable authors in the first place.

Academic and governmental institutions have never taken us seriously. The schools we go to are never well funded, and they generally fail to provide us with the educational resources necessary to succeed beyond mere hand-to-mouth survival.

We never had teachers encourage us to explore our academic passions. Nobody ever told us that college was on the horizon, or even helped us explore alternative paths to finding our own forms of self-actualization.

We are too often funneled from shitty, run-down school districts into labor trades where we’re expected to use only our bodies (until they give out on us) and never our brains.

We often settle into the shame and disappointment of this reality and wonder whether our community’s stories ever really get archived (let alone taken seriously).

In a different world, rural schools would be given access to the same resources that class privileged urban schools do. People like Morgan and Barbara would have offered to share their resources so that rural, working-class, and poor folks could have the opportunities to document our own narratives.

In a different world, there would be grants available specifically for the purpose of supporting poor/ working class, rural writers in the process of archiving our stories. There would be free tutorial and editing resources available to us as we work through our projects. In that world, we would be seen as intricate, complicated human beings with powerful and important things to say.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world (yet). But there are some things we can do for ourselves and each other in the interim.

My suggestions to you—regardless of where you choose to live—is to find each other. Cultivate solid, long-lasting, loving relationships with each other. Remind each other how smart, resilient, resourceful, and strong you are.

Immerse yourselves in the cultural work of other poor/ working-class, rural feminists. Share and act on your mutual aid values in every community you’re a part of. Learn more about the marriage between white supremacy and industrial capitalism.

Study the history of solidarity movements between poor/ working class, rural white folks and folks of color. Get involved with and/or support movements that center the voices of poor and working class people of color in both rural and urban communities.

Write your stories and support others in writing theirs—get involved in literacy activism.

I’ve found that these things can make navigating the world feel a lot more manageable.

Oh, and one more thing: It tends to make class-privileged folks real uncomfortable when you have a visible weapon dangling from your belt loop, so whenever possible, keep the buck knife inside your purse.

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6 February 2018. Why is the American left so prejudiced about the South?

Smugness and complacency are no basis for effective action on poverty, inequality and racism throughout the USA.

The Confederate Monument to Robert E. Lee in New Orleans is removed from its perch on May 17, 2017. Credit: By Abdazizar - Own work, via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.

“What is wrong with them?” “They’re dumber than I thought!” “This is a new low, even for them.”

Comments like these were made to me by many friends and colleagues in New York during discussions about the 2016 special election in Alabama that narrowly rejected Judge Roy Moore’s candidacy for the Senate.

Sneering about the “Backward South” has become a form of escapism for many Northern liberals. There’s a certain comfort in thinking that the country’s worst problems exist far away rather than a few stops down the subway line—out of our control, an affliction unique to them. The late-night comedy version of the South as a land of ignorance, violence and prejudice is crude at best, serving mainly to make us feel good about ourselves rather than conveying anything of substance about the country. 

But activists in the South  have been mobilizing voters and challenging power structures successfully for decades, from flooding Mississippi’s jails with Freedom Riders in the 1960s to helping to drive the surge in (especially black) voter turnout that defeated Moore. Like anywhere else, the South can change. Its institutions are constructed by human beings and are vulnerable to mass collective action. If the left can renew and extend this spirit, it may even win in the South—but not until we dismantle our prejudices about and against it.

The first step in doing so is to understand how the South is different, and where it’s not. The Triple Evils identified by Dr. Martin Luther King—poverty , racism and militarism—are  American, not uniquely Southern, but the South’s roots in slavery and Jim Crow racism color everything in distinctive ways. Mississippi didn’t fully ratify the 13th Amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery until 2013—news that Jon Stewart justly ridiculed at the time as “only 148 years late.” Alabama didn’t legalize interracial marriage until the year 2000. There’s still a proud statue of the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan just off Interstate 65 near Nashville, Tennessee.

But as Elizabeth, a character from James Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It on the Mountain saw it: “There was not, after all, a great difference between the world of the North and that of the South which she had fled; there was only this difference: the North promised more. And this similarity: what it promised it did not give, and what it gave, at length and grudgingly on one hand, it took back with the other.”

Civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, the daughter of a share-cropper in the Mississippi Delta, was similarly frank in a speech she gave in New York in 1971. “I used to think that if I could go North and tell people about the plight of the black folk in the state of Mississippi,” she told her audience, “everything would be all right. But traveling around, I found one thing for sure: it's up-South and down-South, and it's no different. The man shoot me in the face in Mississippi, and you turn around he'll shoot you in the back here.”

The truth of these reflections go back as least as far as the Civil War itself, when a mob attacked the “Colored Orphan Asylum” during the New York City draft riots of 1863, punctuating their terror by chanting “burn the niggers’ nest.” Not to mention the many subsequent, unpunished attacks against people of color well north of where ‘the racists’ are supposed to live: Chicago in 1919, Los Angeles in 1992, Staten Island in 2014.

Like racism, the second of Dr. King’s Triple Evils—poverty—is ostensibly more acute in the South. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Poverty and Human Rights only recently described conditions in rural Alabama as the worst he’d ever seen in the ‘developed’ world. At the beginning of 2018, Jackson, Mississippi endured a “boil water advisory” and a mass public school closure after the city suffered 116 water-main breaks in the space of one chilly week.

But for every Jackson, Mississippi, there is a Flint, Michigan. For every opioid overdose in Kentucky, there’s at least one in Massachusetts. And any effort to address poverty and inequality soon comes up against national resource constraints that are rooted in America’s giant military budget, nearly half of which goes straight into the pockets of defense contractors. Like Dr King’s other two evils, there’s nowhere to hide from militarism.

In short, the South’s problems are—and always have been—America’s problems. The sooner we accept this fact and shake off our smugness and complacency, the sooner we’ll be able to play a more effective part in forming local, regional and national coalitions for action that turn the spotlight on poverty, inequality and racism throughout the country. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean ignoring political realities: the daunting, decades-long dominance of the right in most of the Southern United States. Hard-nosed pollsters looking to deliver victories for the Democratic Party in the 2018 mid-term elections would likely tell us to forget about the really Deep South: too conservative, too close-minded, too ignorant.

But the South has a rich, though frequently overlooked, leftist tradition. You can find some traces of it at Nashville’s impressive Bicentennial Mall, which includes a massive marble plaque celebrating Tennessee’s rivers and lakes. It proudly quotes Section 29 of the state’s first constitution, which declares “That an equal participation of the free navigation of the Mississippi is one of the inherent rights of the citizens of this State; it cannot, therefore, be conceded to any prince, potentate, power, person, or persons whatever.”  

This eloquent declaration of a public good is accompanied by the force of the 1977 Tennessee Water Quality Control Act: “The people of Tennessee have a right to unpolluted waters.” The full text of the act refers to “the waters of Tennessee” as a “public trust.”

Unfinished movements from the past have also been revived and built upon. In a recent article for Transformation, Sarah Freeman-Woolpert highlights how Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign has been reignited under the leadership of Reverend William J. Barber in North Carolina, and is beginning to build coalitions across class, racial, gender and regional lines.

Project South, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, carries out its own local organizing while also supporting social movements across the region. Its legal advocacy has exposed abuses in prisons and immigration detention centers, and constantly pressured the Georgia state assembly over anti-Muslim discrimination and surveillance.

The Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi has promised to make his city “the most radical on the planet.” His counterpart in Birmingham, Alabama has similarly ambitious plans. Meanwhile, elections at the state level suggest that more progressive advances may follow Doug Jones’s senate win in Alabama, particularly in the legislatures of Virginia and Georgia.

New Orleans has taken down its monuments to the Confederacy and white supremacy. Mississippi has established a new Civil Rights Museum in the state capitol. Inside, visitors are confronted with the names of the victims of lynching projected onto giant illuminated columns, enlarged mug shots of every activist sent to Parchman Penitentiary for protesting segregated transportation, and detailed electoral maps exposing the cynical redrawing of congressional districts to diminish the strength of the black vote after the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1964.

Much of this is symbolic, but symbolism matters: it tells us something about how we define ourselves and our aspirations. If a Southern state is building symbols that honor the  continual struggle for civil rights rather than the  ‘Lost Cause’ of the Civil War, then this hints at a small shift in mindset that could grow into something bigger.

From my own experience, I know that the South is more diverse, more contradictory and more complex than is often portrayed. It has a history different from, but wholly entwined with, the rest of the country. It is full of social and political movements that many of us don’t know about. Its story is dynamic, not static, shifting constantly between huge strides forward—emancipation , Reconstruction, civil rights—and  the enduring legacies of its racist past and present.

Liberals and progressives who snigger at the region would benefit from approaching it with the same values they claim to uphold: openness, intellectual humility, and a deep appreciation of diversity. Then, we might stand a better chance of winning people over—and  maybe even learn something new about ourselves.  

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4 February 2018. You don’t have to be embarrassed to be vegan

The more welcoming and accessible veganism becomes, the closer we’ll get to our goal: a world free of cruelty.

BLTA Sandwich at Moncai Vegan, San Diego. Credit: Flickr/Tony Webster. CC BY 2.0.

It’s February 5th 2018, and Veganuary has come and gone with record success. The number of vegans in the UK has increased by 360 per cent in the last ten years, and even Tesco, the low-budget supermarket chain, has launched a range of vegan ready-meals from the Wicked Kitchen company.

Despite the fact that veganism has existed for centuries and was originally rooted in the global South, it’s finally made it to the Western mainstream. But this isn’t a surprise—it’s due to a recent change in the tactics of vegan campaigning that have replaced sanctimony and shaming with recipes and room to try new things.  

For too long, vegan campaigns have given us the ‘why’ of veganism but rarely the ‘how’. They have banged on and on about how veganism is a moral imperative and how we’re all complicit in animal cruelty. They’ve created disturbing films about animal abuse and pushed a very clear message that if you eat animal products, you’re a bad person—and left it at that.

I say ‘they’ but I’m vegan myself (and have been for the past six years), but I’ve deliberately disconnected myself from the vegan lobby because frankly, it’s embarrassing.

I became vegan as a result of my beliefs in labour rights and feminism more than anything else. After all, it’s the female animals that are violently exploited for their reproductive functions. Cows are repeatedly and forcibly impregnated in order to produce milk, and their calves are immediately torn away to be sold as veal whilst we steal the milk to sell.  

Veganism is faultlessly logical. Avoiding animal products makes sense on ethical, environmental and health grounds, and in terms of nonviolence and social justice too. It’s easy to see how it connects to human struggles. Aph Ko, co-founder of Aphro-ism recently told the New York Times, “The black vegan movement is one of the most diverse, decolonial, complex and creative movements.”

The ‘why’ is absolute and compelling, so why has veganism historically struggled to attract more people? Because much less has been said about how to make the leap to plant-based life—or how delicious it is once you make it. There is simply not enough information on how to put a vegan diet into practice given the realities of the food industry and the structure of the economy, which squeeze most people’s incomes and options.

But the one can’t be done without the other: both ‘how’ and ‘why’ must go hand in hand.

Why vegan campaigners need to understand human psychology.

Let’s start at one of the biggest challenges to behaviour change: humans are not logical. We’re highly emotional, and food is one of the most emotional and central parts of living. We comfort eat, we get food guilt, and we treat ourselves to expensive meals out. Food is more than just sustenance; it’s part of our identity. It punctuates our daily life, defines our cultures and underpins our family traditions and gatherings.

Demanding that someone radically changes what they eat on a daily basis for the rest of their lives is one of the most disruptive demands you could make. And it doesn’t help that vegan campaign tactics tend to go against human psychology: the truth is, we’re hypocritical, we’re loss averse and we react badly to shame.

Human beings can be awful hypocrites, and will perform any amount of mental gymnastics to justify their contradictions. Cognitive dissonance describes the discomfort we often feel when our beliefs and behaviours come into conflict. This is what enables us to pet our cat or dog, identify as an ‘animal lover,’ and then tuck into a steak. Ironically it’s also what enables some vegans to do cocaine on the weekend.

The truth about animal cruelty is terrible and overwhelming, so it’s not a surprise that most people want to block it out. I have friends who became vegan after watching the powerful vegan documentary ‘Earthlings’, but many more refuse to watch it because “it means we won’t be able to eat meat again” and their fear of loss takes over.

Giving things up is tough—ask any smoker. When it comes to veganism, lots of people will first weigh up the losses: “how can I live without cheese?” “Won’t I just be hungry all the time?” As the Guardian’s restaurant critic Grace Dent stated on BBC Newsnight recently, meat, eggs, cheese and cream are “the very cornerstones of the British diet”.

Demanding that someone gives all of this up without advising them on how to replace it isn’t going to be met with much of a welcome. And that’s why, without more education, easily-accessible alternatives and compassion towards those who currently eat meat, all attempts to make people join the dots between animal welfare and their individual responsibilities will fail.

Veganism is a social justice issue.

The lack of tools and education about veganism goes well beyond individual dietary choices—it’s also a structural problem of terrible food literacy and a lack of affordable options, with the food industry lobbyists operating the key controls.

The battle for veganism is a battle for nutritional education and access to different options, and those things usually fall along class lines. Many people already have too much on their plates (literally and metaphorically) to dedicate sufficient headspace to overhauling their diet.

I grew up on oven food: chicken nuggets, Billy Bear ham, turkey dinosaurs and hot dogs. That’s not my fault and it doesn’t make me or my mum bad people: it’s what was available to us at the time, and we would have struggled to know what else we should eat, let alone how to cook it. My mum didn’t have time to soak lentils.

My personal transition away from cheap meats and ready meals was a slow, twofold process: first, realising that I no longer wanted to be part of the cycle of violence that underpins an animal-based diet; and second, being exposed to different foods and plant-based recipes. This is what Wicked Kitchen have done, with their founder chef Derek Sarno aiming to “celebrate everything that’s ‘wicked’ and tasty about plants.”

Shame doesn’t help people change—compassion does.

If PETA (the largest animal rights organisation in the world) is the parent who shouts at you, Veganuary is the one who kneels next to you and gently explains what’s wrong and how to fix it. The founders of Veganuary are wise to what psychologists have already proven: that shame doesn’t help people change. It’s more likely to make them hide their behaviour and resort to virtue-signalling in order to keep up appearances.

Matthew Glover, its co-founder, has said that “Veganuary is in the business of making vegans...Everyone who registers to take part for the month will find a welcoming, supportive, non-judgmental community waiting for them.” The campaign is making its mark because it ‘shows’ rather than ‘tells’; it’s concerned with providing encouragement and information about concrete alternatives as opposed to simply telling people what to do.

There’s plenty of research to prove this works. The British Nutrition Foundation has found that when getting someone to change their diet, learning to deal positively with failure is essential to support healthy behaviour change.

Making veganism accessible. 

The staggering violence of the food industry is structural, but individual behaviour change is an essential part in dismantling it. If we are to succeed in achieving the goal of a cruelty-free world, we’ll need as many people on side as possible.

Shock tactics are good for grabbing attention and making people aware of animal cruelty, so they are imperative. However, we also need to extend the compassion and support we have for animals to our fellow humans—the people of whom we’re making ethical demands and who might be reticent to commit to veganism.

Making sure that education about veganism and opportunities to buy, cook and eat vegan food are as accessible as possible can only work in our favour. This will help people to see that taking charge of their own nutrition, discovering amazing tastes and becoming a better cook is not just about ethics and morality, but is also aspirational and exciting. We need to get away from the dull, self-flagellating mire of diet shaming that has characterised much of the movement to date.

The more welcoming and accessible veganism becomes, the closer we’ll get to our goal: a world free of cruelty.

 

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1 February 2018. Why reconciliation and redemption are central to countering white supremacy

Sammy Rangel, director of Life After Hate, talks about his work with violent extremists.

This article was first published on Waging Nonviolence.

Life After Hate Executive Director Sammy Rangel at a TEDx conference in 2015. Credit: Youtube/TEDx Talks.

It’s been a roller coaster year for Sammy Rangel, the executive director of Life After Hate—a non-profit organization that encourages people to leave violent extremist groups by offering them support and a community of other “formers.” From losing its government funding when the Trump administration took office to experiencing a surge in media attention after Charlottesville, Rangel’s organization has become a go-to source for its unique perspective on the motivations compelling people to join extremist groups—and how to get them out.

As former members of extremist groups themselves, Rangel and his colleagues at Life After Hate bring an insider’s understanding to their work. They know why people embrace hate and understand the pain and vulnerability fueling their violence. As a child, Rangel was abused, raped and tortured by family members. He ran away from home at age 11, and began using hard drugs and having sex, leading to more traumatic experiences when his young girlfriend gave birth to a stillborn baby. Rangel’s sense of fear and abandonment turned to anger, leading him to join the Maniac Latin Disciples gang and spend years engaged in violent crime and cycling through prison.

Over time, Rangel’s life slowly began to change for the better. After undergoing drug abuse rehabilitation, he started doing community outreach to reduce violence, earned a master’s degree in social work, and began training law enforcement agencies on reducing violent extremism. When I spoke to Rangel, he discussed his belief in peoples’ potential to change—even those engaged in violent extremism. He challenged the way such people are condemned and dehumanized by the very people who claim to stand against hate. For Rangel, nonviolence requires the recognition of each person’s humanity, and countering violent extremism must begin with trying to understand what leads a person into a life of hate in the first place.

A recent New York Times story profiling a neo-Nazi sympathizer in Ohio sparked a heated debate about the line between giving extremists a platform to spread their beliefs and trying to understand them as people. Could you tell me how you see that distinction in your own work?

For us, it’s not a fine line. We’re not conceding anything, nor are we relinquishing anything in our position. We just know how to develop a dialogue with the person who needs the help. One of the things we have to be mindful of is whether we are adopting the same narrative about the people we say we are protesting against. If I were to look in the mirror, do I look and sound fundamentally like the person I’m challenging, in how much I hate and condemn that person and want to cause harm to that person? That’s what the other side is trying to do. They think, “That person is so different from me that I could never relate to them.” But whether you dehumanize someone because of their race or ideology, it’s still the same process. It leads to the same thing: violence and extremism. You can be against a behavior and still see value in a person.

The New York Times article minimized and glamorized. It went too far in how it depicted this person. But underneath the story is the truth: This person eats and sleeps like everybody else does. He has feelings and relationships. We’re not dealing with Nazis, we’re dealing with people who embrace the propaganda of white supremacists and the alt-right. They’re still a person, not an animal, not a sub-human. We’re dealing with people, and there’s nothing wrong with keeping that in the forefront of your mind.

How do you think we can try to understand where someone’s coming from without condoning their beliefs and ultimately resembling the same dehumanizing narrative we’re trying to oppose?

Both sides have two things in common: They have grievances, and they want to be validated. They like to talk and be heard and feel they are important. By saying “We understand,” [some left-wing groups] think we’re conceding our position. We haven’t. What we’re saying is: “I see how you got to that point in your life. I can see your process and start to dismantle that process through a lens of understanding, which is only focused through compassion and empathy. I see the suffering. I don’t agree with how you’re managing your suffering, but I see it.”

Is a white supremacist wrong when he says the middle class is shrinking? No, but where it gets radical is who they blame and how they carry that out. They blame the government and then take it out on minorities. They should take it out on the government, but not with bombs and tiki torches. What’s amazing is that when you listen, they actually calm down and listen in return.

What sorts of things can people do to build better understanding with members of extremist groups, particularly those of us coming from left-leaning activist circles and who aren’t in a position to reach out from personal experience?

We see a lot of counter-protests, and while protests serve a purpose, they shouldn’t be equated with the idea of dialogue. You’re not going to a protest to listen to anyone—you’re preaching to the choir. In many ways a silent protest would be more powerful in my mind, because we’re there to hold our position and show the nation that this won’t go unnoticed—not to challenge their ideology. We’re not trying to win anything, but we are trying to maintain and restore balance.

A lot of left-wing groups have been celebrating the “punch a Nazi” memesince the violence at Charlottesville. What are some ways groups can oppose ideology that’s not going to alienate people even further and lead to more violence?

We don’t need to oppose ideology. It’s not the ideology itself [that’s the problem], it’s the radicalization and ultimately the extremism. It’s not unconstitutional or illegal to be a radical in your thinking. [It only becomes those things] when you take those thoughts and act out on them violently. What we want to be promoting or ensuring is a place where people can have their differences of views without feeling that they can impose those on other people. You can only oppose a person’s ideology when you have mutual respect in the relationship, and that mutual respect normally comes when you are willing to listen. Listening is often mistaken for conceding something, but it’s not conceding.

The second thing a person can do is to get behind organizations that are doing a good job on this. We’ve raised $700,000 this year, but we’ll run through that in a couple of years doing the work we’re doing—it’s not sustainable. We need people to get behind it. Other people have been innovative in helping to raise funds [by donating to groups like ours when white supremacists come to their town]. These [white supremacists] know every minute they’re out there, they’re funding programs like ours. They hate that shit. There are innovative ways to do this—it’s not difficult. We have to spend more time learning from others about what’s working in the nonviolence world.

We also need to let people know that nonviolent doesn’t mean non-dangerous. It’s one of the most dangerous paths that a person can walk. It’s actually probably more dangerous [than using violence] because we’re walking into dangerous situations where people are willing to be violent, and we’re putting our lives on the line to hold a position as it relates to humanity. If you’re going to represent your humanity and your values, you can’t do it by diminishing someone else’s—that’s not how that works.

How might future white supremacist rallies be countered without leading to the kind of violence we saw in Charlottesville?

We’ve talked about the value of holding a protest, but not holding it where these guys show up. Let them talk to themselves while we hold our rally over here at another place. What if no one was there to pay attention? For their movement, any press is good press. We’re lending our light to their light, and that’s not what we intend to do. I’m not saying we shouldn’t protest at the same time, I just don’t think we need to engage with them directly. I think that’s counter-productive on every level. What you’re trying to do is to intimidate them, but you’re actually going to embolden them.

In an interview with [former Life After Hate co-founder] Christian Picciolini, he said it’s identity, community and purpose that drives radicalism—not ideology. What are some of the ways that we, as a society, can work on addressing the underlying issues of identity, community and purpose, in order to create more space for people who feel rejected or are looking for validation?

Let me ask you this: If we’re protesting the way we protest, where is the safe place for someone who is second-guessing their membership? What are we doing in our community to create a space for those people? Right now, Life After Hate is the only place to go, which is a shame because we can’t be everywhere all the time. But if the community took that stance, they might actually win some of those people right there on the spot, who say, “You know what, I want more of what you have.” When they look out their window beyond their group, they see a raging, angry crowd with nowhere to exit.

As for identity, when we won’t allow them to have a voice or a grievance, we also rob them of their identity. What’s more, we don’t let them change their identity. Once a Nazi, always a Nazi [is so often the mentality], which is why people shame, isolate, fire and remove them from their homes. We’re not even allowing them to try and create a new identity. [Nor are we allowing them to find new purpose.] What purpose can they serve in this community when all their opportunities are being squandered because of who they used to be?

This movement has forgotten that there are things like reconciliation and redemption. I think we’re so violent because we’ve lost faith in our own ability to be effective in this fight. If you’re skilled at what you do, you don’t burn out like this. You don’t become violent and adversarial. You only do this shit when you get so frustrated that you abandon ship, you abandon your own moral high ground. We have to do better at being strong in our position without having to condemn people. Do not concede, but do not condemn. You can do that without sympathizing with anybody who is willing to act out on hate.

 

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1 February 2018. How to start a revolution - remembering Gene Sharp

Gene Sharp, the American philosopher of non-violent direct action whose extensive writings have inspired generations of activists, died this week aged 90. Tim Gee pays tribute.

Image: Gene Sharp, who died this week aged 90.

I first came across Gene Sharp in 2006. An enthusiastic and internationally minded student activist, I had been considering writing my Politics undergraduate dissertation on voting behaviour in student elections. That was until I found a copy of Sharp’s 1973 work The Politics of Non-Violent Action in the university library. 

I opened it, read it, and a new world of possibilities was revealed. Here was a sophisticated theory of how mass movements of civic society can and do dismantle the world’s most authoritarian power structures, beginning with the simple recognition that all elite power is derived from the co-operation of the ruled.

I changed my mind about my study interests, and instead began an investigation into democracy movements in Sub-Saharan Africa in the wake of the Cold War. Beginning with Gene Sharp’s theories, I wanted to know whether violent or non-violent struggle had been more likely to sustain democratic outcomes in the long term. Cognisant of a multiplicity of factors involved, non-violent conflict nevertheless won out. With trepidation I looked up Gene Sharp’s email and sent him the final version. To my surprise, within a couple days I had an encouraging reply.

I was spurred on to further study and became interested in whether the theories could be mapped on to other historic campaigns for justice. Again with his encouragement, that became my first book. After it was published, we met for a morning, at his little home-based office in Boston. It was the time of the Occupy movement and I’d been visiting encampments, writing about the people I met. Did he think his theories would work against the corporate 1% I asked? “I don’t know” was his honest reply, “but I hope your generation will find out.” Then he reached – pharmacist like – for a couple of his out-of-print books. “And I hope that these will help”.

The strategies of war are ancient – as any visit to museum will show. But while non-violent methods of fighting back can be found far in to history too, consciously non-violent strategic action for change remains a comparatively new field of study, within which is a breakthrough regarding the potential for peaceful protest. 

Democracy campaigners all over the world have studied Sharp’s work and on occasion used it to successfully bring down dictators, changing millions of lives. Who knows how many more lives those ideas might have saved as revolutionaries opted for strategic nonviolent action over civil war? He himself though was always modest about his achievements, as well as cautious about claiming change-processes as complete.

In recognition of his nearly sixty years of writing, the newspaper testimonials rightly name Sharp as one of the foremost systematic theorists of non-violent struggle of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But there is something else to add, borne witness to by the Twitter messages flowing in from people all around the world.

Gene Sharp may not have had significant resources, but right in to his eighties he made the choice to make time for people. Instead of training or instructing them, he simply believed that with aid of self-study and strategic analysis, movements for democracy would find the best routes to change in their context. With the passing of Gene Sharp this week, the world has not simply lost a great mind, but a generous soul as well.

The fruits of Sharp’s study live on, and his words are as relevant as ever. As he wrote in the closing page of his most widely read book:

“No outside force is coming to give oppressed people the freedom they so much want. People will have to learn how to take that freedom themselves.”

Read openDemocracy's interview with Gene Sharp from 2012 here

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30 January 2018. “We’re a movement, not just a magazine”

Can the arts stimulate new ways of living in old mining communities like Doncaster?

Staff and volunteers of Doncopolitan magazine. From left to right Jasmine, Cristiana, Dan, Warren, Rachel, Arissa and Rufus the Donco Dog. Credit: Doncopolitan magazine. All rights reserved.

“You know, there’s no such thing as society,” said Margaret Thatcher in an interview with British magazine Woman’s Own in 1987. Yet in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, a town where her influence is still deeply felt, a creative and radical community is forming.

This was a heartland of resistance in the 1984-1985 UK miners’ strike, home to three of the 55 collieries in Yorkshire at the time. Now there are none; the last pit closed in 2015, and the majority long before that.

The town lies 17 miles north-east of Sheffield, once also a hub of British industry in the north of England. Known as ‘Steel City,’ its manufacturing base has largely disappeared, but it is home to two renowned universities which attract students from the UK and across the world.

In Doncaster there has been no such large-scale regeneration. The town’s main employers are now in the service industries such as hospitality, call centres and retail. Studies carried out by Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research found that 43 per cent of neighbourhoods in the coalfields of England are in the most deprived 30 per cent in the country, and 11.7 per cent of the population report long-term health problems compared to 8.6 per cent nationally.

A third of children in Doncaster live in poverty, and the current government’s austerity programme is having severe affects: the town’s Women’s Aid centre, the last in South Yorkshire, is fighting closure due to cuts in their funding

‘Donny’—as the locals call the town—gets a lot of bad press. On the face of it, you might be led to believe that ex-mining communities are places mired in hopelessness. Rachel Horne, co-editor of Doncopolitan magazine, knows the affects of the closure of the mines intimately.

Her father was a miner, the fifth generation of miners in the family. Rachel, 34, was born in the first year of the strike. Her father moved between various jobs after the pit closures, none providing the security or community belonging that the mines had done. She remembers times growing up when her family went without electricity. Like many young people in Doncaster she yearned to escape, and moved to London to study at Middlesex University. She stayed for seven years, but the grind of the capital drove her back north.

“I didn’t want to leave London,” she told me in an interview, “but I felt stagnant and depressed there, looking back. I could only really live my creativity at 20 per cent as I had no money and little financial backing. London is full of people who get the financial backing to live there and succeed because of it.”

Moving back to Doncaster, I was worried that there wasn’t enough here for me. That people wouldn’t understand that my work sits between fine art and connective aesthetics. I want to change the world not just mirror it.”

Along with Warren Draper, 48, an activist and artist, she founded Doncopolitan—a free magazine of arts and culture that has grown into a community hub of art and action.

Issues of Doncopolitan magazine on a wall. Credit: Kylie Noble. All rights reserved.

“Warren and myself met on a humble artist mailing list in Doncaster in 2010. There was no support for visual artists at that time other than that mailing list.

Warren emailed the group asking if anyone would be interested in getting involved in an arts and culture magazine off the back of Doncaster going for city status in 2010. I’d just come back from London. I was keen to meet other artists. We met in a tea room and flower shop called Lord Hurst. It reminded me of being in North London, like Primrose Hill. A lot of creative meetings happened in that space for the following year.”

The pair had an instant synergy.

“I was born in the miners’ strike. It had influenced my journey as an artist to discover what had happened to Doncaster and how the strike affected my community and family. Warren had moved to Doncaster shortly before the strike and spent time on the picket lines as a teenager. He saw first-hand the brutality of the police and the State against working class people, as well at the lies told by the media.”

Aided by a small team of part-time staff and many volunteers, a regular print magazine, festivals, events, campaigns, meet-ups and exhibitions have all been spawned from Doncopolitan’s co-working space office on Copley Road.  Events happening in February 2017 include craft club, a 1980s and 1990s club night for charity in an old warehouse, and an arts and music “wonkfest.”

Dan Ryder, 28, is Doncopolitan’s social media editor. He’s also a poet and one of the organisers of the town’s Ted Hughes Poetry Festival. Getting involved with Doncopolitan “shattered the negativity” he had about his home, he told me. Like Rachel, Dan left Doncaster for university. He attended Manchester Metropolitan and spent spells in Australia and Iceland after graduating.

“Moving back and making Doncaster a permanent base was something I would have felt was not a viable option while I was at, and even after, university. Despite always feeling incredibly proud of my roots, I felt Doncaster didn't and couldn't hold opportunities of any real kind for me as a young person, especially creative opportunities.

Finding a group of people who actively championed Doncaster—both the place and its people—went against the tide of negativity that both local and mainstream media put on the town.

Doncopolitan tuned me into a network of local creatives and taught me that I could make Doncaster my future. On the surface Doncaster doesn't have as many opportunities as a large city, but on the flipside it is a creative blank canvas where I can create projects and lead on them, such as creating and curating the world’s first public poetry exhibition in a commercial shopping space.

When I spoke with him Warren pointed out that Doncaster was once one of the wealthiest regions in the UK. Surrounded by arable farmland and with a strong heritage of engineering and industry, he believes, “we should want for nothing, yet, Doncaster is currently one of the most underprivileged regions in the UK.”

He and his colleagues see the magazine as an integral part of a wider strategy to promote DIY culture, promoting greater self-reliance and sustainability on an individual and community level. Doncopolitan looks to the Slow Movement for inspiration, with the aim of making Doncaster “the slow capital” of the UK.

The movement began in 1986, when Italian food writer Carlo Petrini staged a protest against the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant in Rome’s grand Piazza di Spagna. In opposition to fast food, he advocates for “slow food,” but the movement has widened to include many aspects of living.

“We want to show how slowing down can improve life quality, reduce stress and make our lives healthier, greener and more enjoyable,” says Warren.

One of the most exciting developments for Doncopolitan has been their expansion into community farming. Bentley Urban Farm was founded in 2016, with Warren leading the project. Receiving a grant from the Doncaster Mayor’s department enabled him to leave his job in the town’s furniture shop and employ another worker alongside himself to focus on developing the farm.

“We use reclaimed materials to build, repair and maintain a greenhouse, poly-tunnel and outdoor beds where we grow fresh, healthy, local food in a town where it was previously easier to buy kebabs than kale.”

The farm is leased on an abandoned and disused horticultural centre site. Community groups and individuals use the site and through a ‘veg bag’ scheme, organic produce is delivered to local residents, with subsidies provided for families and individuals on low incomes.

“We always wanted a space to create and land to grow and test new models for sustainable living. A space to share and innovate new ideas. We’re a movement not just a magazine or a community growing project. We’ve got to create new ways of living as current systems aren’t sustainable at all.”

 

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28 January 2018. Why we must respect the rights of all sentient animals

The only way to recognize the moral personhood of animals is to accord them a right not to be property—and that means the abolition of animal exploitation.

Credit: Pixabay/Hans. CC0 Public Domain.

Both of us are advocates for the rights of nonhuman animals. That doesn’t mean we believe that animals should have all of the same rights as humans—it would make no sense to say that animals should have the right to drive cars or vote (even though we might have better political leadership if they could).

In fact when we talk about animal rights we’re referring to one right in particular: the right not to be property. Why is that so important?

All of us have interests—states of affairs that we prefer, desire, or want. There are two ways to protect these interests. The first is to protect them only to the extent that this produces desirable consequences. The second is to protect them despite these considerations—as rights.

A person’s interest in living is protected as a right; others must respect your interest in continuing to live even if killing you would benefit other people. So even if your organs could be used to save the lives of leading scientists, inventors or artists who will die without organ transplants, your interest in not being used as a forced organ donor would still be protected because you have the right to life.

However much people may disagree about what rights human beings should have, we can all agree that they all have the right not to be chattel slaves. Why is that? Because if a person is a slave, they are not considered to be a being who matters morally—to be, in other words, a person. Instead they become a thing that only has an economic value that is determined by their owner. If a human being is going to count morally, they must have the right not to be property. If they don’t have this right they will be used as a resource whenever other people believe that they will benefit from doing so.

Society extends the right not to be property to all people irrespective of their intelligence, beauty, strength or any other characteristic. It doesn’t matter whether a person is a genius or has a learning disability. No-one should be the property of someone else. Slavery still exists, but no one defends it.

The same reasoning holds for nonhuman animals. If animals are to matter morally, and not be just things, they cannot be treated as property, since if they are property they have no intrinsic moral value. Their only value is that accorded to them by their owners. The only reason we deny this right to nonhumans is that they are not human. But that is no different from using any other morally irrelevant characteristic such as race or sex to justify slavery or otherwise fail to accord equal consideration to others.

The only characteristic that animals must have in order to matter morally is sentience. It is not necessary that they have humanlike minds. If they are sentient, they have interests, including the interest in continuing to live and in not suffering pain or distress. That is all that is necessary.

If we agree that animals matter morally, we are committed to recognizing that all sentient nonhumans have a moral right not to be used as property. This requires that we stop using animals as resources. In other words, we must be morally committed to stop eating, wearing, or otherwise using animals.

This position may sound radical, and in the sense that the rights position requires the abolition of all institutionalized exploitation, it is. But since most people already believe that it is wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals it’s really just an extension of current and widely-shared convictions. If the principle of unnecessary suffering is going to mean more than avoiding the infliction of gratuitous harm, it must rule out any suffering or death that’s imposed for reasons of pleasure, amusement or convenience. But those are the only reasons we have for almost all of our current animal use—uses that are, for the most part, transparently frivolous.

For example, our most numerically significant use of animals is for food. We kill about 60 billion land animals and one trillion sea animals annually. Putting aside any possible situation in which someone will starve if they do not eat animal foods because those are the only foods available, this killing and suffering is completely unnecessary. There is no compulsion. We could all be as healthy—if not healthier—if we ate only plants.

Moreover, animal agriculture causes a good chunk of the ecological damage that is threatening human survival. And we could feed many more humans if we consumed plants directly rather than fed plants to animals who are then consumed.

If we stopped exploiting animals for food, clothing, sport, and entertainment we would get to almost the same point as that which is embraced by advocates of animal rights. So the animal rights position is not especially radical relative to what we say we already believe.

The only use of animals that is not transparently frivolous is in helping to cure serious human illnesses. There is a considerable dispute about whether such use is really necessary for the purpose, but for argument’s sake let’s assume that without animal use we will fail to discover important information that is medically beneficial.

Why do we think animal use in this context is acceptable? The standard response is that nonhumans, unlike humans, are not rational, or otherwise lack the moral value of humans, so unlike human beings they can be ‘sacrificed’ for the sake of some wider social benefit. But we would never say that humans who are not rational or who are otherwise not considered to be cognitively ‘normal’ have a lesser degree of moral value, and can therefore be ‘sacrificed’ to benefit ‘normal’ human beings.

Indeed, we protect people from being used as resources for others even if that use will benefit society, because we recognize that they have an inalienable right not to be so used. To reject this right where nonhumans are involved and where the only difference is species is an example of the speciesism that a rights position prohibits.

If the right not to be used as property was recognized and respected, it would require the abolition of all institutionalized animal use. This would necessitate the end of all domestication, but it would not mean that conflicts between humans and nonhumans would disappear. There would still be non-domesticated animals living away from humans in woods and jungles, as well as those who live amongst us such as squirrels, rabbits, rats, mice, birds, and many other creatures. We would still need a framework to govern our interactions with these creatures but, if we no longer engaged in the exploitation of nonhuman domesticates it would be easier to develop a solid framework for these other situations.

Do we have to recognize the right of animals not to be property? Couldn’t we just do a better job of protecting animals who continue to be owned by human beings? In theory, we could, of course, treat animals better, but there are powerful economic interests that work against doing so in practice. It costs money to protect animal interests, and the more we protect those interests the more expensive it becomes. Someone—usually the consumer—has to pay that cost. The result is that the standard of animal welfare is very low; even supposedly ‘higher welfare’ products involve treatment of nonhumans that, were humans involved, would constitute torture.

However supposedly ‘humanely’ an animal is treated they will still be exploited or killed for purposes for which we think it appropriate to use no humans, and in our view that is morally unjustifiable. The only way to recognize the moral personhood of animals is to accord them a right not to be property—and that means the abolition of animal exploitation.

For more discussion of these issues, please visit our website. This article draws on material in our most recent book, Advocate for Animals!—An Abolitionist Vegan Handbook.

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25 January 2018. After #MeToo: healing from the trauma of sexual assault

Within two weeks, 94 percent of women survivors will experience PTSD. 

Credit: Artem Kovalev on Unsplash via YES! Magazine.

In January 2018 the red carpet of the Golden Globe Awards was not the usual sea of dazzling gowns and blinding jewelry. Instead, a shadow of black engulfed the night. Actresses alongside activists wore black as a proclamation of solidarity with sexual assault survivors within the entertainment industry and workplaces across the country.

Connected to the “blackout” was Time’s Up, a movement aimed at ending sexual violence and inequality in the workplace. The initiative aims to bridge the gap between Hollywood players and those who experience sexual assault from less privileged backgrounds.

 “Time’s Up is a unified call for change from women in entertainment for women everywhere,” states its website. “From movie sets to farm fields to boardrooms alike, we envision nationwide leadership that reflects the world in which we live.”

With about 19 million viewers watching, the awards ceremony offered perhaps the largest platform to address sexual violence since the #MeToo movement began on social media. But recognizing this crisis is only half the battle, because for many the aftermath of sexual assault is just the beginning of a lifetime of healing.

In November, an online campaign inspired by the #MeToo movement launched in the hopes of encouraging sexual assault survivors to seek the resources necessary for recovery. Suitably named #HealMeToo, the campaign was created by Meghan Patenaude with the National Organization of Women, New York chapter, and is bringing the issue of trauma caused by sexual assault to the general public. Since a video created by the #HealMeToo campaign went live on the Huffington Post in November, it has been viewed about half a million times.

Patenaude, who is a survivor herself, describes the importance of bringing attention to these traumas. “It just seemed like there was really something missing, and we wanted to be able to connect with people and share the aftermath,” she explains. “It doesn’t just end with the story. Everyone who just posted to #MeToo is also suffering, most likely, from PTSD, and that’s kind of the story that we have never really heard before.”

Within two weeks following sexual assault, 94 percent of women will also experience post-traumatic stress disorder, reported the Journal of Traumatic Stress in 1992. PTSD is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event—either experiencing it or witnessing it—and includes a variety of symptoms, varying from flashbacks and nightmares to severe anxiety and uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

PTSD can affect an individual’s ability to work, to have close and meaningful relationships, and can trigger addictions and unhealthy behaviors. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found in a study that women are twice as likely as men to develop PTSD. Those who experience this condition due to sexual assault often find they need to avoid certain social situations and people likely to trigger a negative response. Going to the park, grabbing a beer with friends at the bar, walking down a dark street—these simple tasks can heighten fear and anxiety for those suffering from PTSD.

Survivor Colleen Kane, a 23-year-old living in New York City, says that sharing her experiences with the #HealMeToo campaign has helped her handle intense emotions that arise after being sexually assaulted. “It can be very overwhelming, and in the first few months I felt completely isolated and I didn’t feel my close friends really understood what I was going through.”

Kane’s experience is familiar to those who have been through similar trauma. It is this sentiment of isolation and separation that is what the #HealMeToo campaign is hoping to negate.

Patenaude wanted to bring attention to PTSD among survivors, and found that linking to the #MeToo movement would be the best way. The campaign has been featured on Refinery29, Teen Vogue, The Huffington Post, and Ebony Magazine.

“This project came out of just really wanting to help women fight PTSD and being able to create the first sense of community around it,” she says. “I think this campaign plays an important part in getting the public to realize the aftermath of sexual assault and, further, how to heal.” Women have participated through Twitter, Facebook, and the campaign’s online message board, and the campaign has offered them an umbrella under which they can safely discuss triggering topics so often kept from public view.

The website offers survivors a variety of tools, including a website, message board, videos, and social media threads, which all focus on survivors’ personal accounts of working past PTSD. The website also links to organizations that specialize in helping victims after an assault has occurred (After Silence, RAINN, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and the PTSD Alliance, to name a few). Health organizations like Mount Sinai Health System and Teen Source have referred their patients to the #HealMeToo website as a resource.

Since the start of the campaign in November, a guidebook was created to combine the stories of 40 survivors. The guidebook is available online atwww.healmetoo.com and contains words of encouragement and advice about how to start recovering from PTSD after being sexually assaulted.

“There’s nothing more powerful than advice from survivor to survivor,” Patenaude says. “The campaign [does] not just spread stories, it spreads advice from people who have been there, from people who are going through it, and who are still fighting through it.”

This article was first published in YES! Magazine.

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23 January 2018. Transforming the powers: the continuing relevance of Walter Wink

Any attempt to transform a social system without addressing both its spirituality and its outer forms is doomed to failure.

Credit: By Francois Polito (Own work) GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

“But the bank is only made of man. No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.” John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath.

Most people want a world without militarism, poverty, sexual exploitation, white supremacy and the despoiling of nature. Yet we find it so difficult to achieve such a world. One reason is that our social, economic and political structures powerfully resist transformation, as Steinbeck made clear in his description of the banking system as a monster that cannot be controlled.

The American theologian Walter Wink (who died in 2012) made it his life’s work to help us understand these monsters and how to loosen their hold through an interpretation of Christianity that makes the core insights of biblical faith available to social change agents, both religious and secular.

Trained as a New Testament specialist, Wink is best known for his “Powers trilogy” beginning with Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament in 1984, followed by Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence in 1986, and ending with the magisterial Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, published in 1992. He also wrote several shorter works that flesh out the trilogy’s core insights.

Wink argues in Naming the Powers that the language of “Principalities and Powers” in the New Testament refers to human social dynamics—institutions, belief systems, traditions and the like. These dynamics, or what he calls “manifestations of power,” always have an inner and an outer aspect. “Every Power tends to have a visible pole, an outer form—be it a church, a nation, an economy—and an invisible pole, an inner spirit or driving force that animates, legitimates, and regulates its physical manifestation in the world. Neither pole is the cause of the other. Both come into existence together and cease to exist together.”

In Wink’s view, we need such an integrated, inner-outer awareness in order to understand the world we live in and act effectively as agents for healing and transformation. “Any attempt to transform a social system without addressing both its spirituality and its outer forms is doomed to failure,” as he puts it in Engaging the Powers. What's more, in Wink's understanding all systems of power have the potential to be just or unjust, violent or nonviolent. “The Powers are good. The Powers are fallen. The Powers must be redeemed.”  

“We cannot affirm governments or universities or businesses to be good unless at the same time we recognize that they are fallen,” he continues “We cannot face their malignant intractability and oppressiveness unless we remember that they are simultaneously a part of God’s good creation. And reflection on their creation and fall will appear only to legitimate these Powers and blast hope for change unless we assert at the same time that these Powers can and must be redeemed.”

This cycle of personal and institutional redemption provides a pathway to deep social change, but Wink refuses to pit the political against the personal. If either side is missing, he insists, genuine transformation won’t be possible. To illustrate what this means in concrete terms, take his analysis of contemporary North America, which focuses on the role of violence in US culture. Wink challenges what he calls the “myth of redemptive violence”—the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, and that might makes right. His work explores how to combat this myth and further a social order that is free from domination.

A major problem in American culture has long been the devotion of an incredible amount of resources to the military-industrial complex. As a consequence, the US projects force as a solution to conflict in ways that only heighten global insecurities through a constant stream of ‘blowbacks.’ These social dynamics are fueled in part by the socialization of Americans into a mentality that insists on responding to perceived enemies with fear and violence. Wink’s analysis helps us to see how our refusal to confront the darkness within ourselves on both the personal and the societal levels blinds us to alternative approaches to enmity that can lead to a growth in self-knowledge and open up pathways to reconciliation.

His thinking about “domination systems” helps us to understand the contemporary context of large-scale violence in America and beyond, a system that entraps us all in the amazingly self-destructive dynamic of violence responding to violence, and on and on and on in this same vein. And his analysis of the role that the Principalities and Powers play in human culture helps us to make sense of why our structures are so destructive of human wellbeing.

As another example, take the crises of climate change and environmental degradation. Thus far we have not found a way to wrest control of our economic systems away from the ideologies and institutions that are driving us over the cliff of irreversible and catastrophic ecological change. Something in these systems resists change—but it is also true that our personal addictions to wasteful lifestyles and our deference to political and corporate leaders render us largely impotent.

As these examples show, the inner or spiritual Powers are not separate heavenly or ethereal realities but rather the inner aspects of material or tangible manifestations of power in relation to nature—as well, we may note, in relation to prisons, the police, racial and sexual violence, debates over gun control, militarism and the ‘War on Terror.’ As Wink writes in Naming the Powers:

“The ‘principalities and powers’ are the inner or spiritual essence, or gestalt, of an institution or system. The ‘demons’ are the psychic or spiritual power emanated by organizations or individuals or subaspects of individuals whose energies are bent on overpowering others;…‘gods’ are the very real archetype or ideological structures that determine or govern reality and its mirror, the human brain; and…‘Satan’ is the actual power that congeals around collective idolatry, injustice, or inhumanity, a power that increases or decreases according to the degree of collective refusal to choose higher values.”

In Wink’s understanding, the biblical worldview allowed its writers to comprehend the spiritual nature of human structures. The language of demons, spirits, principalities and so on helped these writers to recognize that social life has both seen and unseen elements, and that both need to be taken into account to understand the dynamics that shape our lives.

But that biblical worldview has fallen by the wayside with the development of modern consciousness and cannot simply be re-appropriated. It “is in many ways beyond being salvaged, limited as it was by the science, philosophy, and religion of its age” as Wink puts it in Unmasking the Powers.  

However, the materialistic, modern worldview has itself proven inadequate in understanding and addressing complex social realities, since it cannot recognize the possibility that the spiritual Powers are real. This is crucial because, when we fail to respect the reality of the Powers we become most vulnerable to their manipulations—as, for example, when we are blind to the ways in which the myth of redemptive violence pervades ways of thinking about how best to deal with conflict and insecurity.

“A reassessment of these Powers—angels, demons, gods, elements, the devil—allows us to reclaim, name, and comprehend types of experiences that materialism renders mute and inexpressible. We have the experiences but miss their meaning. Unable to name our experiences of these intermediate powers of existence, we are simply constrained by them compulsively. They are never more powerful than when they are unconscious. Their capacities to bless us are thwarted, their capacities to possess us augmented. Unmasking these Powers can mean for us initiation into a dimension of reality ‘not known, because not looked for,’ in T.S. Eliot’s words….The goal of such unmasking is to enable people to see how they have been determined, and to free them to choose, insofar as they have genuine choice, what they will be determined by in the future.”

Therefore, we must adjust our worldview to take in the inter-related realities of internal and external power structures and make this the basis of our actions. With some success, through his writings, sermons and workshops, Wink tried to help Christians to revive the biblical worldview in a postmodern context, though his insights remain relatively unknown outside of the progressive wing of the church, at least in North America.

By challenging us to look beyond and beneath material power structures but never to ignore them, Wink's work helps us to understand how worldviews shape our perceptions of the issues that surround us, and how important it is that we revise our modern worldview if we want to move more effectively towards human wellbeing. Only an “integral worldview,” as he calls it, will enable us to remain modern people while also recognizing the interconnections of all things and the spirituality that infuses all of creation.

Along with providing necessary insights into why we are so dominated by the forces of violence, Wink’s analysis also provides an essential sense of hope and empowerment. As we break free from the illusions of the Domination System, we can be freed to recognize that not only are the Powers corruptible (or “fallen” in his language), but that they are also redeemable. So Wink’s ideas, sobering as they are, are not a counsel of despair. The Powers can—and must—be successfully resisted and transformed.

 

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22 January 2018. A 'Minister for Loneliness' is a sticking plaster for the ills of neoliberalism

Is loneliness the price we pay for an ideology that privileges individual freedom and ‘choice’ above the collective and communal; that sees attachment to others as an obstacle to the pursuit of profit?

Image: Geir Tonessen/Flickr, Creative Commons

Anyone who really knows what loneliness is knows it well: that permanent vague aching sensation in your chest when you haven’t meaningfully engaged with another human being for days or weeks or even months, and yet here you are, alone once again. When it finally comes, that moment when someone says something to you that goes beyond work orders or neighbourly pleasantries, or touches your hand, or hugs you, can be so powerful that you fear your legs will give way under you, or that you will start sobbing uncontrollably. But you manage - more or less - to maintain appearances.

Anyone who really knows loneliness, of this deep kind which lasts for weeks and months rather than a few lonely hours, is not in the least surprised to hear the research findings which tell us that being lonely is the health equivalent of smoking fifteen cigarettes a day, or that loneliness significantly increases the risk of premature death.

According to research by the Coop and the Red Cross, loneliness affects at least nine million people in Britain. The Campaign to End Loneliness reports that over three-quarters of GPs say they are seeing between one and five patients a day who have come in mainly because they are lonely. Reflecting no doubt this growing social reality, there has been a lot of talk in the media about the problem of loneliness over recent years, and charitable and campaigning organizations dedicated to addressing the problem have mushroomed. Most recently, following the death of MP Jo Cox, who campaigned energetically on loneliness, the Jo Cox Commission on loneliness was set up by the Government last year, and has recently published its recommendations. The Government has acted rapidly, giving responsibility for loneliness to the Minister for Sport and Civil Society, Tracey Crouch, and promising to publish a cross-governmental strategy on the issue later in the year to implement the other recommendations of the Cox Report. So that’s it then: due to the efforts of many determined campaigners, loneliness has finally come to the attention of our leaders, and they have a plan! We can move on to other matters.

But if we are to really address the problem we should ask where this epidemic of loneliness comes from. It would be instructive to consider the deep historical roots, as well as the more recent ideological underpinnings of loneliness.

Starting with the historical roots, which go back to the Enlightenment thinkers, loneliness is to some extent the negative corollary of the modern desire for individual freedom from the restrictions and constraints of traditional institutions and forms of life: religion, family, village, tyrannical bosses and so on. Individuals want to exercise greater choice over their work, the place they live, their moral and political beliefs, their sexual orientation and so on.

But the downside of this desire is the creation of the more mobile and restless individuals that we are today, who choose to opt out of traditional communities like extended family, neighbourhood, church, or union. The difficulty is that we cannot always find substitutes for the fellowship and feeling of community these institutions provided and which they need. Increased demand for individual liberty tends to produce more lonely individuals. This is why it is so important for modern societies to create institutions and places which foster community and togetherness, places that people know they can find company and fellowship whilst not sacrificing their individual freedom.

But instead of countering this historical trend with new ways of creating connections between individuals whilst respecting this legitimate desire for freedom, the neoliberal ideology which has dominated in recent decades has reinforced the causes of loneliness in two ways.

Firstly it has reinforced our image of ourselves as absolutely free beings. Neoliberal economics portrays us as rational autonomous choosers of lifestyles, consumer goods - and self-creators for whom any medium or long-term projects, or any attachments to others, are obstacles to our freedom at the moment of choice. Wealthy, “successful” individuals present themselves to us as “self-made men” who owe everything to their hard work, and who we should admire and emulate, whilst omitting to mention the many people who helped them on the way up - and the many ways they benefitted from state provision of health, education and other public services.

Frederic Lordon, Colin Cremin, and others have described the way in which neoliberal capitalism is not content with simply dominating its workforce, but makes us the willing agents of our own enslavement. Many of us have become joyful team-players and competitive careerists who are happy to sacrifice family and personal life to increase the bonuses of the members of the board, or shareholders’ dividends, whilst our rewards remain largely symbolic (pats on the back from the boss, “best employee” awards, promotions etc).

Along with economic globalization and the financialization of capital, this colonisation of the “soul” - of the previously largely private domain of desires and our emotions - is probably one of the characterizing features of neoliberalism. One result is to see ourselves as masters of our own fate, independent of and separate from others in both our professional and our private lives.

The second way that neoliberalism fosters loneliness is by eliminating anything which is not “productive” in a narrow economic understanding of this term - anything which does not produce a return-on-investment for shareholders. Governments of all colours have in recent years implemented policies which dissolve or undermine youth clubs, sports clubs, libraries, and charities supporting disabled or older people, or other vulnerable groups - exactly the kind of collective projects which protect people from loneliness in modern freedom-loving societies. At the same time, the army of volunteers who once ran such community projects is drying up, exhausted from having had every last drop of their productivity - that is, their energy - squeezed from them in their day job. These are some of the real causes of contemporary loneliness.

I am not saying that we ought to reject the recommendations of the Cox Commission, which have received the backing of Jo Cox’s husband, Brendan. But we should be under no illusion about how much they can achieve in a socio-economic system which generates loneliness - not to mention an epidemic of mental health problems - on a massive scale.

An analogy can be drawn here with foreign aid: wealthy countries colonize majority world countries for decades or centuries, plunder their natural and human resources, and then, after granting national independence, establish a system of trade rules and bank loans which entrench dependence and poverty, and make it impossible for poor countries to develop. We are then told that we can solve the problem of global poverty by offering a little bit of aid. It is the same with loneliness: we can only address the root causes of loneliness by first understanding them, and then by changing the nature of our society so that it no longer generates loneliness. A “Minister for Loneliness” is not going to do it.

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21 January 2018. Is catastrophe the only cure for the weakness of radical politics?

If we want a future worthy of the name we need a different form of revolution.

Credit: By LatheeshMahe (Own work), CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Some philosophers and social theorists work in a vacuum, but the best ones slow us down before we grab our gas masks and charge off to change the world. They resist what Emmanuel Katongole calls “prescriptive haste”—the nasty habit of acting first and thinking later that reveals a culture of “frantic activism,” false “relevance,” “failure of imagination” and “ahistorical innocence.”  

‘Know thyself,’ as they say, or pay a hefty psychic price for getting lost in forms of action that distance us from our deepest subjectivity and bury us in pragmatism. We’ve already killed off utopian thinking argues Fredric Jameson, America’s leading Marxist literary critic, and for the darkest of psychoanalytical reasons: fear. Utopias are of course unreal, but they are necessary imagined futures. They can snap us out of our present-day socio-political malaise so that we can envision alternatives, build the institutions we need to get there, and inspire heroic commitment.   

Instead, says Jameson, cynicism is the ideology of the day: “dystopian obsession, a quasi-paranoid fear of any form of political or social organization.” In confronting capitalism, he says, we remain “oddly fixated on the impossible present without any visible historical future, save catastrophe.”

What to do? Withdraw from the Big Picture, from mass solidarity organizations and party politics? Seek solace in the personal, the intimate, and in Twitter-based virtual organizing? Wait for the world to collapse?

Herein lies the tension between today’s reduced politics of the possible and those who still seek solutions in the seemingly impossible politics of the future. If the cause of this impasse is in our heads, as Jameson suggests, then overcoming it requires, as he also says, a “consciousness revolution.” But what do such revolutions look like, and how do they happen?  

In his book Cosmopolis, Stephen Toulmin describes the consciousness revolution that launched the modern world. He dates it to 1637, the year in which mathematician-philosopher René Descartes published his Discourse on Method—“I think therefore I am.” What caused this revolutionary shift?

The answer, says Toulmin, is catastrophe, a key event which opened up the space for a radical break in thinking. In this case there were two such events: first, the shocking assassination of Henry of Navarre, France’s popular king—Europe’s  ‘9/11’  that ended France’s liberalizing humanist regime and threatened civil war; and second, the Thirty Years War over religious beliefs and political infighting that destroyed central Europe.   

Digging into Descartes’ past, Toulmin discovered that the young philosopher was terrified by these catastrophes. All he could make of such warring over religious and political ideology was that the world is impossible to live in if no one can agree on what is true. Diversity is death. So he set his formidable brain to find the one indubitable foundation for determining Truth: our own minds.

Once set upon his anxiety-saturated quest for certainty, Descartes turned his back on earlier writers like Erasmus, Grotius and Montaigne who aimed to build a tolerant and relatively peaceful proto-liberal Western European society in which diversity is life. They believed that space for different and conflicting beliefs and opinions protects us from error, and that proper manners in debate, discourse and political leadership require trust, respect, open-mindedness, and skepticism of any absolute claims to the truth.

Descartes repudiated these arguments and raised skepticism to an art form, refusing to accept any claims as true unless they met his own test of precise mathematical rationality. The only way to confront fear and political chaos, he decided, is to remain firmly in control. Only one truth could not be doubted: I think therefore I am—Descartes’ rational mind. From this inward-looking foundation the superstructure of a new, rational world could be built to replace both the theological and the open-minded, proto-liberal worlds that came before. Descartes quickly changed Europe’s mind, and revolutions—cultural, political, scientific, and industrial—followed in train.

Cartesianism defined the long Age of Revolution into the twentieth century. What ended it? More catastrophes, this time in the shape of world wars, economic depressions, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Gulags and apartheid. These politico-ideological events disabused us once and for all of the power of universal rationality as an unqualified force for good. 

It took a couple of decades after 1945 for a new cultural revolution to gather energy. Immanuel Wallerstein cites the global turmoil of 1968 as the apotheosis of a world-wide shift in consciousness which undermined the two great ‘rational’ legacies of the modern age: Western liberalism and revolutionary socialism. The new sensibility that emerged shook confidence in the received tradition of Western modernity. In doing so it disabused many people of ‘rational,’ abstract ‘big picture’ master narratives, perhaps generating a loss of nerve even to consider new ones in the process. Popular attention shifted from the economic concerns of traditional politics to the “cultural turn” as it was called—making the ‘personal political’ and vice versa.

The 1960s ‘revolution’ was far from complete or uncomplicated. In shifting attention to the cultural register and rightly giving voice to women, minorities and emerging nations long silenced by patriarchy, racism and imperialism, attention was diverted away from the socio-structural register, from powerful economic and technological regimes that continued to run unchecked. In the decades that followed, even many leftists seemed to succumb to Margaret Thatcher’s chilling claim that “there is no alternative” to the anti-utopian quicksand of neoliberal capitalism.

The long half-century since 1945 came to be called ‘postmodern,’ but if ‘postmodern’ means prioritizing the cultural register over the transformation of capitalism then we are heading blind into the next catastrophe. Can there be a different ending to this story? Perhaps, but it includes retracing our steps through Descartes’ 1630s ‘revolution’ and building a real alternative that integrates both personal and structural concerns.

Toulmin concludes that Descartes didn’t invent modernity—he merely diverted a growing liberal consciousness movement into a strict, puritanical, radical rationalism. To overcome this distortion we must recover the tolerant, open-minded, well-mannered speculations of proto-liberal cultural leaders before Descartes, but three ominous legacies of Cartesianism’s imperial hangover still stand in the way.

First, individualism. Descartes taught us to see the world from the inside out. Institutions that once pulled people out of themselves and into solidarity—like tradition, community and religion—are dying. Each person is now an ‘army of one,’ confident only in their own opinions, their truth, and manifesting solipsism on a vast social scale. Even Descartes worried that “everyone is so full of his [sic] own wisdom there might be as many reformers as heads.”

Second, skepticism. Descartes’ ‘method’ was radical doubt: question everything and believe nothing until it presents itself to the mind in the form of rational proof. Critique, critical theory and a hermeneutics of suspicion are all useful tools, but when they are our only tools there’s a danger that nothing survives, even reason itself, as postmodern philosophers have taught us. Critique claims to ‘know’ what’s wrong with everything, but it teaches us nothing about how to build a positive—let alone utopian—project.

Third, fear. Descartes’ world was bloody. He was afraid of it. He assumed the world was violent in its very being and can only be survived through strict rational control—a  reversal of the Medieval understanding that the world was made good and distorted by sin, but is otherwise correctable through wisdom and fellow feeling.

These three legacies are dangerous, not just because we are stuck in them, but also because they mask a deeper anxiety that we don’t want to face: the drive to be in control and assert moral self-certainty that shows itself in a judgmental puritanical perfectionism; in the desire for small, controllable ideas; and in a radical mistrust of others’ intentions, ideas and plans for action. These anxieties stop us from imagining a workable future beyond postmodern neoliberalism—blocking us from letting go in order to trust one another, from recovering the confidence to revive the power of big ideas and broad-based organizations, and from re-embracing solidarity and a functioning democracy.   

We can wait for another catastrophe to force us to change the way we think. Go ahead—grab the gas mask, light the fuse and see what survives. Or we can do the hard work of facing ourselves with honesty and imagining our way out of this impasse. We must do this together, but the struggle begins in our own minds and in our communities—only later will it add up to another consciousness revolution. No one can tell us how to do it. It will take time.  

If we want a future worthy of the name we must take Jameson’s psychoanalysis to heart and find a new gestalt. In the words of a black activist preacher I heard last week on Martin Luther King Day: “We gotta’ get changed from the inside out.” 

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18 January 2018. A renewed Poor People’s Campaign revives King’s dream of challenging class divides

Can a new fusion of movements reignite the search for freedom and equality in America?

This article was first published on Waging Nonviolence.

Rev. William J. Barber speaks to the crowd gathered at Pullen Baptist Memorial Church in Raleigh, North Carolina on New Years Eve 2017. Credit: WNV/David Freeman.

The air in Raleigh, North Carolina was bitterly cold on New Years Eve, but the chill did not stop hundreds of people from gathering for a mass community meeting at the Pullen Baptist Memorial Church. Inside, the band was warming up on stage and friends called out greetings to each other as they went into the main hall.

A group of Raging Grannies filled a pew at the front, wearing floppy hats adorned with activist badges. Locals from North Carolina greeted activists who had traveled from around the country to attend. Some of them had recently been arrested together for protesting the tax bill on Capitol Hill.

As speakers began addressing the audience, people in the crowd linked arms and audience members flocked on stage to sing “We Shall Overcome” and chant “Forward together! Not one step back!” Together, the crowd assembled in Pullen rang in 2018 with a commitment for the coming year: to lead a nationwide campaign to save the “heart and soul” of American democracy.

Officially titled “The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival,” the campaign’s objective is to train a massive network of grassroots activists to spark a multi-fronted movement challenging four systemic “evils” in American society: poverty, racism, ecological devastation and the war economy.

One of the key faces of the campaign, former North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William J. Barber, delivered a fiery speech to those gathered in the church on New Years Eve. His voice boomed through the congregation, calling on everyone to “speak truth to power and love to hate in the name of God and all that is holy.”

“What we face is not new,” Barber then told the cheering crowd. “But when you get scared, remember the folks in power are scared too. They’re having nightmares!”

Barber read biblical passages in which the marginalized citizenry—the so-called “stones the builder rejected”—rise up together to face the “wolves”—or politicians—to save their society. In doing so, he added, sometimes they even “save some of the wolves.”

A towering, imposing figure, Barber has been described by activist and professor Cornel West as a modern-day Martin Luther King, Jr. It is easy to draw the parallel, as the Poor People’s Campaign itself is named after an initiative King announced months before his assassination. The campaign is considered an unfinished part of his legacy — a movement seeking to unify people across racial lines around the shared poverty and structural inequalities they experience.

The formal launch of the contemporary Poor People’s Campaign was held exactly 50 years after King announced the campaign in 1967 and is gearing up to be the largest nonviolent mobilization in the United States this year. Building on years of organizing within the state of North Carolina, leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign will spend the next five months training, educating and mobilizing communities around the country. Then, on Mother’s Day, the campaign will begin 40 days of widespread civil disobedience, nonviolent direct action and voter education.

The movement aims to draw in labor unions, farm workers, civil rights groups and marginalized communities from around the country, focusing each week on a specific issue of injustice. Each week will include specific policy demands and voter education programs at the state and federal levels, as well as training in nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience. By organizing through local and state chapters, the campaign will maintain a relatively decentralized structure guided by a set of core principles and targets.

Reviving King’s dream of challenging class divides.

One of the major strengths of the Poor People’s Campaign is its potential to appeal to Americans across party lines. It aims to unite the grievances of the marginalized white working class with marginalized communities of immigrants and people of color throughout the country. Barber says this division has kept poor whites and people of color from coming together in common cause for generations. Organizers of the campaign promote a narrative that reaches out to rural or working-class whites—a discourse often employed by politicians on the right, while also emphasizing opposition to sexism, homophobia and racism that are more traditionally territory of the left.

North Carolina activist Tony Quartararo explained his support for the movement in terms of its unifying potential, saying, “[Trump] used xenophobia to play poor whites off against poor black and brown and Muslim people. That’s what the 1 percent has always done, played the 99 percent off against each other and allowed themselves to stay in power.”

Quartararo and his wife Elena Ceberio said they are willing to be involved in supporting the campaign in any way, and have both already been arrested for civil disobedience actions with Barber and others. They say they prefer to stay “in the background” and out of the spotlight, and they enthusiastically promote the movement within their social circle. This year, for example, the couple’s Christmas card featured a photograph of themselves with their son, all clad in black Poor People’s Campaign T-shirts, with a message asking their friends to lend their support. King’s dream was “to bring everybody together,” Quartararo said, and he hopes to draw in people from all walks of life to participate.

References to King are frequent among national and state-level campaign leaders, and much of the movement’s popular legitimacy draws on this connection. The original Poor People’s Campaign, spearheaded by King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, sought to bring together people living in poverty across the country in a new March on Washington. The march was intended to pressure Congress and the Johnson administration to pass comprehensive anti-poverty legislation, as well as demand jobs, healthcare and affordable housing. Unlike previous campaigns to fight for the civil rights and voting rights of African Americans, the Poor People’s Campaign addressed issues affecting poor people of all races.

In April 1968, just weeks before the march was scheduled to take place, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Rev. Ralph Abernathy was put in charge of organizing the march in his place, along with a group of other civil rights leaders, such as Rev. Jesse Jackson. The march began on Mother’s Day, May 12, 1968, when Coretta Scott King began a two-week-long protest demanding an Economic Bill of Rights. Five thousand protesters descended on the National Mall during the campaign’s first week and built a protest camp called “Resurrection City.” But the encampment was plagued by ceaseless rain, and its inhabitants were ultimately expelled in the middle of the night on June 20. As a result, the campaign has since been considered an unrealized part of King’s dream.

Today, the Poor People’s Campaign aims not only to revive this decades-old dream, but also to reenergize many of the activists who were engaged in the anti-war and civil rights movements in the 1960s and ‘70s. David Freeman, who dropped out of high school to join the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, has played an active role in other Barber-led campaigns. “I know of no organization, past or present, which engenders the same passion and commitment over as broad a coalition as [the Poor People’s Campaign],” Freeman said.

The campaign also represents a second chance for those who played a less active role in social justice struggles of that era. At 78 years old, Fran Schindler laments “missing her chance” to participate in the social movements of the 1960s, having spent those years raising small children. But after attending the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., she felt the time had come to take a stand. “It was an awakening, if you want to call it that,” Schindler said. “It wasn’t my time to do it back then, when I wanted to be doing it so much and felt I was being left out. But now’s my time.”

Having had a double mastectomy, Schindler has gone to protests with slogans like “This is what a preexisting condition looks like” painted across her chest. After the inauguration, she said she was grateful to find a way to “let it out” by “going topless and screaming” at the top of her lungs. “I’ve got some feminist stuff in me,” she laughed. “Just because a woman’s got no breasts does not mean she is any less of a woman.”

Roots in North Carolina’s progressive resistance.

Supporters like Schindler, Quartararo and Ceberio learned about the Poor People’s Campaign through a series of actions in North Carolina targeting reforms on the state level, which had been organized by Barber and other progressive groups around the state. After the Republicans won a majority in North Carolina’s state legislature in 2010 and the governorship in 2012, Barber launched the Moral Mondays movement in April 2013. He led protests bearing “moral witness” to the state legislature’s far-right agenda, which included attacks on health care, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and voting rights throughout the state.

The movement gained momentum when 17 people were arrested at the first Moral Monday demonstration in the summer of 2013. Within months, there had been over a thousand arrests, sparking more actions throughout North Carolina. These included the “Tuesdays with Tillis” demonstrations outside Sen. Thom Tillis’ office in Raleigh and the “Air Horn Orchestra” demonstrations every Wednesday outside Gov. Pat McCrory’s mansion, protesting issues like gerrymandering and environmental degradation.

Barber became a leading figure of progressive resistance in the North Carolina NAACP, the organization’s second largest state chapter, while serving as its president for 11 years. Barber stepped down in May 2017 to join Presbyterian Rev. Liz Theoharis in co-chairing the Poor People’s Campaign. Theoharis runs the New York-based Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice and is the founder of the Poverty Initiative. Although Theoharis often speaks at mass meetings and Poor People’s Campaign events, she is less visible in the public spotlight than Barber, who was more involved in state-level organizing in the years leading up to the campaign launch.

Barber is also known for his role as head of the non-profit organization Repairers of the Breach and for leading the “Forward Together” movement, which began organizing the annual Moral March to the Raleigh statehouse every February, also known as the Historic Thousands on Jones Street, or HKonJ. The march is put on by the HKonJ People’s Assembly Coalition, a group comprised of over 125 North Carolina NAACP branches, youth councils and college chapters, as well as representatives from over 200 other social justice organizations. The march has produced some of the largest civil rights gatherings in the South since Selma and Birmingham, and will take place again this February.

A fusion of movements.

One of the campaign’s strengths, aside from a strong foundation in grassroots organizing, is its aim to draw together many smaller organizations and campaigns into what Barber calls a “fusion of movements.” Back in 2014, in the early planning stages of the campaign, over a hundred leaders from more than 40 organizations began holding strategic dialogues to plan the Poor People’s Campaign, and it has been seen as broadly encompassing many other movements ever since.

The campaign has so far succeeded in drawing in many smaller groups, like the Pennsylvania-based March on Harrisburg. Community organizer and march leader Kyle Moore was inspired to join the coordinating committee for the Pennsylvania state chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign after he was arrested with Barber in July. Moore was a key organizer of the March on Harrisburg, a group that held a 105-mile march from Philadelphia to the Pennsylvania state legislature in Harrisburg in May 2017. The same group was also arrested in November, when they dressed up as the “Where’s Waldo” character to make the point that it is easier to find Waldo than elected officials. They were also drawing attention to issues of gerrymandering, voter suppression and political corruption at the state level.

 “What we did with the March on Harrisburg is very similar to what the Poor People’s Campaign is doing,” Moore said. “If you don’t have voting rights, you’re going to have people in office voting for things that a majority of people don’t support.”

The Pennsylvania Coordinating Committee will be organizing state-wide “barnstorming” efforts with the Pennsylvania chapter from January until March, hosting trainings in Unitarian Universalist churches on citizen lobbying and civil disobedience. Moore, who is also a trained civil rights historian, said he became passionate about the campaign after watching Barber speak to thousands of people at a church in New York City. “He’s so much like Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Moore said. “My feet started dancing a little bit. The way he talks is like a rhythm, it’s like a prophet. You’re willing to follow him down any road that could restore democracy in this country.”

While the campaign is garnering substantial enthusiasm in local and state chapters, as well as painting a compelling narrative of unity among marginalized and disenfranchised groups in America, many hurdles remain. Organizers will be pressed to forge a movement among diverse interest groups, develop a clear strategy with attainable goals, and maintain the enthusiasm of early supporters while also drawing in new participants. What’s more, they face the same problem as the original Poor People’s Campaign: having a single charismatic leader as the face of the movement. If such figures become unable to lead, as we have seen, the campaign can lose momentum and direction.

Nevertheless, the Poor People’s Campaign has already laid the groundwork for major mobilizations in 2018, drawing in numerous stakeholders and whipping up a frenzy of enthusiasm from supporters across the country. “Yes, we need to keep checking ourselves critically, to improve outreach to youth,” Freeman said. “But all progressive organizations are struggling with these issues. The Poor People’s Campaign is the most hopeful, most powerful coalition we have going. Nothing compares to it in breadth.”

For now, Barber’s leadership remains a strong asset for inspiring dedicated participants and drawing the campaign into the national spotlight. As Schindler boldly declared, “I am definitely throwing what’s left of me in with his mission. Wherever he goes, I will follow him.”

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16 January 2018. Can polarisation be eroded by design?

How can society encourage more nuance and compromise when entrenched opposition is baked into consumerism and politics? Español

Credit: Pixabay/geralt. CC0.

"People love those who are like themselves” said Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics over 2,300 years ago. In 2018 we’re still tackling the same problem: how can we create cohesive communities that understand each other despite their differences?

Research from the writer Jonathan Haidt  shows that polarisation between Republicans and Democrats has been getting steadily worse in the US for decades. What’s more, it seems that these different groups now regard each other with even more suspicion, and truly believes that the other acts for nefarious reasons.

In the UK, both of us work on projects that aim to reduce polarisation. Jazza is a vlogger and podcaster known for bridging the political divide by interviewing the NRA (among others) on his YouTube channel, and founding the Right Dishonourable Podcast which he hosts with Jimmy Nicholls. Nicholls voted to leave the European Union; Jazza to remain.

Alice is the founder and editor of the Echo Chamber Club which aims to introduce liberal and progressive metropolitans to views and voices they may not agree with. It’s been running now for over 18 months. As time has gone by we’ve both realised that polarisation seems to be something that’s baked deep into our society. What’s more, new communication technologies can amplify how these structures are exploited by politicians and businesses. In which case, what can we do about it?

Debates about polarisation aren’t new. Social psychologists have worked on theories of ‘homophily’ since the late 19th century: the idea that people of similar age, class, gender, race and education, as well as political and values-driven beliefs, are more likely to gather together and network with each other. Now in the internet age, we have the power to network outside of our local geography—which may or may not alter this tendency—but for the moment the status quo usually leans towards in-group connection.

Indeed, 2016 was the year that voters defined themselves along binary lines: unity or independence, remain or leave, Trump or Hilary. And 2017 was the year in which these trenches were dug even deeper and people settled in for a much longer battle. Despite reporting from hopeful liberal commentators suggesting that those who supported Trump in 2016 are growing weary and that Brexit voters are slowly changing their minds, there has been little change in how these individuals identify with opposing viewpoints.

Research from Jonathon Wheatley of the London School of Economics shows an increase in polarisation along both economic and cultural lines among the British public in the run up to the 2017 election when the Conservatives lost their majority, when compared to the voters who rewarded ex-Prime Minister David Cameron with a majority in 2015. In the United States, the Pew Research Centre has been documenting the widening gulf between Democrats and Republicans for at least 30 years.

Polarisation is even cemented into the buildings that house our political institutions. Very deliberately for example, the Houses of Parliament’s Common’s Chamber has two sides facing each other to seat the government and its opposition, with other parties squeezed in beside them. When the building was rebuilt after bombing in the Second World War, Prime Minister Winston Churchill insisted the architect (Giles Gilbert Scott) maintain the same adversarial design, which, he said, was key in creating a system that worked because it was dominated by two parties. In Churchill’s eyes the binary structure of politics was key to maintaining stability and power, favouring it above the crescent shape that’s increasingly used by legislatures that aim to be more open to cooperation and compromise.

It’s clear that creating common enemies can reap rewards on the political stage, but the same is also true in other fields of life. Vin Clancy for example, is the moderator of the Facebook group Traffic and Copy (a network for entrepreneurs), and a self-described ‘growth-hacker’ who has built Facebook and Twitter accounts from nothing to tens of thousands of followers in a matter of days. When creating a new online community, he swears by the need to have a common opponent, not just a hopeful message (“Vegans will save the planet!”). “A very good idea if you’re building a following, tribe, or community,” he says, “is to attack an enemy. It can be an idea or person.

The pages of successful Instagram and Youtube stars often attack those who are ‘opposed’ to their mission. Take Kayla Itsines for example, an incredibly successful fitness instructor who gained recognition through social media. “Before you judge those of us who are committed to the gym as self-centred or superficial,” she said in a recent post, “realise for many of us it is our escape, our sanity and a place where we work not only on becoming strong physically, but mentally as well”. It’s important to these communities that they are working on something meaningful, and they can only attract attention if it’s believed that there is hostility towards their cause.

Clancy’s techniques are aimed at the growth of online communities, but the creation of a community opposed to an out-group is nothing new. Think Marmite, for example, with their highly effective “love it or hate it” campaign, or Apple’s  iconic advertising that divided the population between Mac and Windows users. A study in the Harvard Business Review found that “highly polarizing brands tend to perform more poorly than others, but they also tend to be less risky”. Having a clear enemy provides a defined and loyal base, with a common cause to fight against.

In which case, how can society encourage more nuance and compromise when entrenched opposition is baked into consumerism and politics?

One immediate problem is that funding and support for initiatives which are trying to reduce polarisation is so difficult to come by. There are a wealth of public funds to improve society in the UK like Nesta, the National Lottery and the European Commission (for as long as the UK stays in the EU), but despite depolarisation being a non-partisan issue it is still treated as ‘political,’ and thereby lies outside the guidelines that donors typically set for charities and social enterprises. The Echo Chamber Club has been rejected by numerous funders for being ‘too political,’ and by more political donors as not being political enough.

Crowdfunding provides an alternative source of support, but would you give your money to a cause that will further the goals of those you disagree with, or encourage a dialogue with your ‘enemy?’ In the United States at least, the Obama Foundation is awarding funds to combat echo chambers and fight the ‘balkanisation’ of public discourse:

“[We] now have a situation,” the Foundation says, “in which everybody's listening to people who already agree with them...reinforc[ing] their own realities to the neglect of a common reality that allows us to have a healthy debate and then try to find common ground and actually move solutions forward.”

In addition, our structures of communication are fractured, and perhaps even exacerbate the problem. The British population may no longer be effectively represented by the traditional left/right dichotomy but by what the Economist has labeled “The New Political Divide” of an “open and closed” society, with internationalists and social liberals on one side and nationalists and social conservatives on the other. However, the chasm that split society between 48 per cent of ‘Remainers’ on one side and 52 per cent of ‘Leavers’ on the other in 2016 is still very wide.

When you tune into Question Time or the Today Programme, you’re more likely to hear individuals talking past each other than finding common ground. The BBC aims to practice impartiality, but enforcing a false political binary between left and right is no longer a useful way to achieve this. One of the reasons the Echo Chamber Club has succeeded is that we don’t force any of these false binaries in political discourse, presenting not just conservative points of view but also Hindu voices, perspectives from software engineers, academics on North Korea and lots of other perspectives that aren’t part of the dominant discourse. Establishing a non-linear narrative requires this kind of philosophy.

On The Right Dishonourable Podcast, the format of forcing a Brexiteer and a remainer to understand each other's’ point of view rather than simply debating it helps to counter the combative nature of other talk shows and the regular news cycle. We’ve held conversations with YouTube darling of the alt-right Carl Benjamin, better known as Sargon of Akkad, and were able to get a men’s rights activist to talk about Scottish independence and Parliament’s Brexit bill in 2016. This type of calmer, conversational media exists in other pockets on the Internet too, like Leena Norms’ I’m Not Being Funny But…, Dylan Marron’s Conversations with People Who Hate Me, and the new Kialo site in the US. These are examples of using media to ‘break bread’ rather than ‘cross swords,’ and we need more of them.

But even with greater support and resources, it will be very difficult to overcome polarisation whilst it remains profitable to create niche communities and entrench division in politics.  Nevertheless, we have to act and act quickly. Recognising that anti-polarisation efforts are a deeply political act, but one which is as neutral as political acts can be, is a good place to start in healing the deep ruptures of society.

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14 January 2018. Fire and fury: the psychodrama of a very stable genius

Donald Trump is portrayed as a narcissist, but what exactly does that mean?

Credit: Max Pixel/Free Great Picture. CC0.

The release of Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury has heightened concerns about Donald Trump’s mental fitness for office. In her review of the book for the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin says that it shows Trump to be “an unhinged man-child utterly lacking in the skill needed to be president”—despite Trump’s assertion that in fact he’s a “very stable genius.”

In the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland writes that Wolff’s revelations “prove—yet again—what a vile, narcissistic and dangerous man we have in the Oval Office.” And in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen, warns that Trump’s White House is “waging a daily assault on the public’s sense of sanity, decency, and cohesion. It makes us feel crazy.”

Is there any way to get beneath the daily assault on our sanity and try to understand what might be driving the chaos of the Trump Presidency? A good place to start is with the word that many say best sums up the man, which is narcissism.

As Wolff reports, “I will tell you the one description that everyone gave, everyone has in common. They all say, ‘He is like a child,’ and what they mean by that is he has a need for immediate gratification. It’s all about him.” And ‘It’s all about him’ is a pretty good definition of narcissism.

Psychologists are at pains to stress that it is not narcissistic for a person to value a quality in themselves that they actually possess, or to want to be admired and valued by others. What’s problematic is when someone loves and admires themselves excessively for qualities for which there is little or no foundation, a condition known as “narcissistic personality disorder.”

The characteristics of this disorder are well known: a grandiose sense of self-importance or uniqueness; an exhibitionistic need for constant attention and admiration; a lack of empathy and an inability to recognise how others feel; disregard for the personal integrity and rights of other people; and relationships marked out by a sense of entitlement and the exploitation of others.

The ancient myth of Narcissus conveys these features powerfully. The myth tells us how the handsome Narcissus was doted on by the nymph Echo, whom he rejected. In retaliation, the gods decided to punish Narcissus by making him fall in love with his own reflection in a mountain pool. Every time Narcissus reached out to this image of perfection, the image fragmented, eventually causing him to die of sadness.

To fathom the psychological origins of narcissistic personality disorder and the real meaning of this myth, we have to go back to the earliest days of infancy. In very early childhood, when a baby’s mind and brain are still developing, it is thought that they are unable to distinguish between themselves and the world around them. At this stage in their development there is a magical, omnipotent quality to the child’s experiences.

They cry and are automatically enveloped in a warm soothing embrace. They are hungry, and warm milk is quickly conjured up to satisfy their needs. Physical discomfort from a soiled nappy is magically dispelled whenever it’s required. In these earliest days, the infant is the world and the world responds to their every need. But life does not continue in this magical vein for long.

This state of “primary narcissism” as Freud called it is soon disrupted as the child experiences the inevitable frustrations that occur as the mother and father slowly withdraw from the intensity of care that was necessary in the first few months of life.  Now the child’s every wish is no longer immediately and magically satisfied, and the existence of an outside reality begins to break in.

Psychoanalysts refer to this crucial period of development as the beginning of “object relations.” The child’s dawning and painful realisation that an external reality exists, and that they are not the sum total of the universe, happens when the child’s mind is still a bundle of loosely interacting parts. The infant’s first relationships are not only to people outside themselves, but also to the fragmented and developing parts of their own mind.

Two of these fragments of the mind, the “ego” and “superego,” are familiar to us. The ego is the part of the psyche that we most readily relate to as the ‘self.’ Freud described the ego as the part of the personality that enables the individual to delay immediate gratification. A mature ego acts as the seat of judgement, rationality and control.

A second part of the mind is the superego. According to psychoanalysis, as the intensity of the mother and father’s care is slowly reduced, the child deals with the terrifying feelings of loss and anxiety that result from being left alone by internalising aspects of the caregiver within their own mind. This internalised image is the superego. It plays the role of an ever-present carer, guarding over the thoughts and behaviour of the child, and eventually comes to act as the source of conscience and guilt.

In the infant’s mind, two other psychic parts are also initially present that are less well known in popular discussion—the “ego ideal” and the “narcissistic self.”

The ego ideal is that part of the mind which holds onto the belief in the child’s omnipotence despite all evidence to the contrary. Refusing to adapt to the limitations placed on it by the external world, the ego ideal continues to exert relentless demands for grandiosity and perfection. And like a cruel circus trainer, it stands ever ready to pour scorn on the ego should its unattainable standards for omnipotence and control of the external world not be met.

The fourth part of the infant psyche—the narcissistic self—contains the child’s natural drive for love and admiration and their desire to be looked at and admired. In early infancy, the narcissistic self has a heightened intensity that reflects the infant’s existential need for attention. During the course of normal development, the narcissistic self eventually loses its original all-consuming quality and becomes the source of healthy self-esteem.

Under normal circumstances then, as the child matures, their developing ego manages to moderate the extreme demands for perfection and omnipotence of the ego ideal, and to contain the childish exhibitionism and desperate need for acclaim of the narcissistic self. As a result, as psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut writes, the mature personality becomes dominated by the ego—which  exercises a measure of rational control—under  the guidance of the superego which sets realistic ideals and moderates behaviour through a healthy modicum of guilt.

Hence, during the course of normal psychic development, a person acquires a measure of humility, the recognition of external reality, and the acceptance that others are not here simply to serve their own needs. But these qualities are not those that people see in Donald Trump. Instead, as Wolff reminds us, “it’s all about him.”

A number of quotes from Fire and Fury about Trump’s behaviour are consistent with someone with narcissistic personality disorder—someone whose psyche is dominated not by a mature rational ego and an ethical superego, but by the immature parts of the infant psyche, namely the narcissistic self and the ego ideal.

For example, Wolff writes that “Bannon described Trump as a simple machine. The On switch was full of flattery, the Off switch full of calumny. The flattery was dripping, slavish, cast in ultimate superlatives, and entirely disconnected from reality: so-and-so was the best, the most incredible, the ne plus ultra, the eternal. The calumny was angry, bitter, resentful, ever a casting out and closing of the iron door.”

“[Trump] neither particularly listened to what was said to him nor particularly considered what he said in response. He demanded you pay him attention, and then decided you were weak for grovelling. In a sense, he was like an instinctive, pampered, and hugely successful actor. Everybody was either a lackey who did his bidding or a high-ranking film functionary trying to coax out his performance—without making him angry or petulant.”

These quotes suggest a mind dominated by a constant battle between the childish exhibitionism of the narcissistic self and the unattainable demands of the unforgiving ego ideal. Every interaction is a desperate attempt to prove perfection and omnipotence against the background of a constant fear of shame and humiliation.

In the ancient myth, Narcissus eventually died of sadness because every time he reached out to himself his self-image fragmented and disappeared. Every time he tried to know himself he found that there was nothing solid.

The myth’s message for our times is a warning that people with narcissistic personality disorder are driven to live out their lives by damaging others and pursuing their grandiose destructive dreams—often at enormous expense to society—because they are psychologically incapable of coming to terms with the Fire and Fury that lie within.

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11 January 2018. After Erica Garner’s death, I can’t breathe through the tears

In praise and memory of a great advocate for peace and social justice.

Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner, leads a march of people protesting the Staten Island, New York grand jury's decision not to indict a police officer involved in the chokehold death of Eric Garner in July, on December 11, 2014 in the Staten Island Neighborhood of New York City. Credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images via Yes! Magazine.

Three weeks before her death, anti-police violence activist Erica Garner spoke in an interview of the trauma and struggle that caused Kalief Browder’s mother to die of heart problems—literally, a broken heart. Browder was the 16-year-old boy from the Bronx accused of stealing a backpack in 2010 who then spent three years in an adult prison, often in solitary, without being convicted. After he was released, he struggled with mental health and eventually took his own life.

In the interview, Erica discussed her own trauma of seeing her father, Eric Garner, killed by a New York police officer, her own health struggles, and the stress of fighting injustice since that summer day in July 2014.

“This thing, it beats you down,” she said to podcast and YouTube show host Benjamin Dixon. “The system beats you down to where you can’t win.”

Erica shared that she felt her father’s pain watching the viral video that shook the nation, showing New York police officer Dan Pantaleo putting her father in an illegal chokehold, killing him. “That same pain when he said he can’t breathe. That same pain when he said he was tired of being harassed” by police officers.

But the self-proclaimed daddy’s girl, the oldest daughter of Eric Garner’s children, stated emphatically, “It’s hard, but you have to keep going. No matter how long it takes, we deserve justice, and I want to get justice for other people.”

Erica was tireless in fighting for justice for her father, whose death was ruled a homicide, although no charges were brought against Pantaleo. She died fighting for police accountability and justice for others.

Like so many others’, my social media feeds were flooded with the news of Erica’s death on Saturday. People expressed their own pain, anger, frustration, and sadness.

But I had no words. I could barely make out my own emotions. I didn’t want to jump on the bandwagon of quick sentiments. I didn’t know Erica personally or professionally. I didn’t follow her work. My reaction was similar to when I saw the “I can’t breathe” video of her father’s killing, similar to when I saw the killing of Philando Castile, the killing of Terence Crutcher, the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

There was only numbness.

But now the tears won’t stop. I can’t breathe through the sobs.

I remember the fatal chokehold that took Erica’s father’s life. I remember the image of a Black child being gunned down by a police officer at the park. I remember the image of a Black driver being shot while reaching for his identification, his girlfriend screaming when he dies on camera, the sound of their 4-year-old daughter consoling her mother. “It’s OK, Mommy, I’m right here with you.” Pleading with her mom to stop “’cause I don’t want you to get shooted.”

I can’t breathe through all this remembering.

My tears will not bring her back, and they will not get the justice that she fought for so personally and passionately. But maybe these tears, along with these words, can touch a few hearts.

And maybe many words and many tears can spark a lot of people—tens of thousands, millions—to join the movement to end the oppression of marginalized people in their communities.

And maybe those people will propose legislation that refuses to give police violence a pass, and that fully prosecutes wrongful acts of policing. This is something the Movement for Black Lives has already begun.

And maybe out of that will come the Eric Garner Law or the Tamir Rice Law, or pick a name—maybe just the Black Lives Matter Law, which sees to it that police officers are not allowed to just retire following an act of violence. Maybe this law will instead suspend them without pay during an investigation of a killing, a rape, harassment—any form of police violence. Maybe this law will encourage just and appropriate charges. And maybe convictions, too.

And maybe all the programs that have been proposed to actually train police officers in implicit bias and de-escalation will be mandated for every policing agency in the smallest town to the largest city—rural, urban, suburban, county, state, and federal.

I can’t breathe through all these maybes.

Erica died fighting for justice. Like her father, her heart gave out from the task. She died seeing the person who killed her father not be held accountable for taking his life unjustly.

I do not want to die knowing that I said nothing. Did nothing, knowing that oppressed people every day are dying unjustly at the hands of police, moving along with my days numb, as if that is just the normal way things are. It is not normal.

So I will fight through the numbness and the tears, and offer my words.

This article was first published in YES! Magazine.

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9 January 2018. Could extraterrestrials help us save the Earth?

If human beings are so ineffective in confronting planetary problems, shouldn’t we seek out help wherever we can find it?

Credit: http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/Sunset-Ufo-Aliens-Evening-Landscape-Afterglow-1673929. CC0.

A few years ago I visited an old friend at his home in the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, Argentina. Apart from its breathtaking grandeur the region is known for a more unexpected reason: local residents have reported frequent sightings of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (more commonly known as UFOs), among the highest in the world.

The region has become a popular hub for UFO enthusiasts ever since hundreds of apparitions started appearing in the mid-1990s. So widespread is the phenomenon that a new government agency called the “Committee for Studies of Anomalous Aerial Phenomena” has been established to investigate UAPs in the region under the auspices of the Chilean Air Force.

My host Guillermo had his own story to tell. While walking his sheep dogs around the range the previous year he observed a weather phenomenon he had never seen before—a  wall of fog that extended from the skies to the plains and horizontally as far as the eye could see. A high-pitched sound emerged from the fog and suddenly, out of nowhere, a large oval disc about a hundred feet in diameter flew up and hovered directly above, maneuvering back into the fog a few moments later.

Like many others who have witnessed such phenomena, Gullermo was uncomfortable talking about his experience, acutely aware of the danger of sounding like a kook. But the days of being embarrassed about UFOs may be drawing to a close. On December 16, 2017, the New York Times published an expose about a secret US Department of Defense initiative called the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program that was active from 2007 to 2012, dedicated to the investigation of Unidentified Flying Objects.

The bombshell report, co-authored by three seasoned journalists including two Pulitzer prize winners, includes on-the-record statements by Luis Elizondo, the man who ran the program, videos of possible UFOs filmed by the Pentagon, and confirmation of the US Government’s activities from former Senator Harry Reid, who earmarked $22 million for them while in Congress. “Much progress has been made with the identification of several highly sensitive, unconventional aerospace-related findings,” said Reid in a letter to a deputy defense secretary at the time.

In July 2015, a group led by physicist Stephen Hawking launched “Breakthrough Listen,” an initiative that’s claimed to be the largest ever scientific research program aimed at finding evidence of civilizations beyond Earth. During the launch of the initiative at the Royal Society in London, Hawking voiced his fears about what might happen in any such encounter, and why humankind needed to be much better prepared for what they might bring:

“We don't know much about aliens,” he told the audience, “but we know about humans. If you look at history, contact between humans and less intelligent organisms have often been disastrous from their point of view, and encounters between civilizations with advanced versus primitive technologies have gone badly for the less advanced.”

Science journalist Ann Druyan—who was part of the announcement panel—seemed more upbeat: “We may get to a period in our future where we outgrow our evolutionary baggage and evolve to become less violent and shortsighted,” she said. “My hope is that extraterrestrial civilizations are not only more technologically proficient than we are but more aware of the rarity and preciousness of life in the cosmos.”

Whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist about the possibilities of life on other planets, it’s here, beyond all the technical details about UFOs and ‘Advanced Aviation Threats’ and what exactly has been witnessed by whom, that the real interest lies. To put it bluntly, if human beings are so ineffective in confronting planetary problems, shouldn’t we seek out help wherever we can find it even if it comes from an inter-planetary source?   

With religious and ethnic chauvinism on the rise, self-serving corporations wreaking havoc on the environment, and populist demagogues commandeering significant swathes of the populace, it’s clear that humanity needs an urgent wake-up call—something that shakes us out of our complacency and short-sightedness and forces us to recognize that we all share a symbiotic relationship with each other and with this fragile planet.

Breakthrough Listen and other similar initiatives may be a sign that this tipping point is getting closer, or at least that humanity is becoming more serious in its search for help.  Other governments and academics are already studying UFO-like phenomena in the UK Canada, Peru, France, Belgium, Spain, Sweden, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico, Japan and the ex-Soviet Union.

The SETI Institute in California (shorthand for “Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence”) is gaining increasing credibility under the leadership of Dr. Seth Shostak, an astrophysicist from CalTech, while in India, Kumaresan Ramanathan, a senior technical engineer with a Chennai based IT firm, recently became that country’s first ‘certified UFO investigator.’ Ramanathan is part of MUFON (the “Mutual UFO Network”), one of the oldest and largest civilian non-profits investigating UFOs with thousands of members worldwide that was launched as far back as 1969. He was assigned 60 cases of credible UFO sightings from across the country when he started work.

After a decade studying the phenomenon, Leslie Kean, one of the authors of the New York Times report, published the results of her work as a book in 2010 entitled “UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record.” Aided by former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, Kean examined reams of government documents, aviation reports, radar data, and case studies corroborated by physical evidence including scientifically analyzed photographs.

Kean’s book contains detailed personal accounts of UFO sightings by a host of high-level sources including US Air Force generals, Fife Symington III,  (the former governor of Arizona), and Nick Pope, former head of the British Defence Ministry’s UFO Investigative Unit. Mirroring the increasing seriousness of this coverage, recent Hollywood offerings like Dennis Villeneuve’s film “Arrival,” with its emphasis on new forms of sophisticated, non-verbal communication between humans and aliens, may help to support a more intelligent debate about what might be learned from extra-terrestrial teachers.

The realization that we are not alone in the universe may be exactly what is needed at this stage of our evolution to help unite us in common purpose and actualize the full potential of our shared humanity. With the realization that perhaps we are only one of many civilizations in a vast galaxy comes the need for a broader and more encompassing vision of the future. It may be the catalyst required for our species to develop a planetary consciousness and cast off the old, redundant affiliations that no longer serve.

 

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7 January 2018. It’s time to reconsider the meaning of ‘animal welfare’

Current standards simply make us feel better about the continued exploitation of animals.

Credit: https://pixabay.com/en/horse-pure-arab-blood-eye-look-1843081/. CC0

At the end of 2017 British Prime Minister Theresa May abandoned the Tory manifesto pledge to hold a free vote on repealing the legal ban on using dogs to hunt foxes. May’s decision followed complaints from Tory MPs that support for repealing the ban, while popular in some rural communities, had cost them votes during the 2017 general election. The pro-hunting position is very unpopular.

Polling released in May 2017 showed that almost 70 per cent of British voters were opposed to fox hunting, and half were less likely to vote for a pro-hunting candidate in the general election. Opposition is not limited to fox hunting. A 2016 poll indicated that, in addition to the 84 per cent opposed to fox hunting, significant numbers of people in the UK were opposed to deer hunting (88 per cent), hare hunting and coursing (91 per cent), dog fighting (98 per cent), and badger baiting (94 per cent).

Why is there such opposition to these activities?

The answer is simple: we care about animals. We believe that they matter morally. We reject the position which prevailed before the 19th century that animals are merely things to whom we have no moral or legal obligations. Instead, most people embrace the animal welfare position which has two key components.

The first component is that—although animals can be used for human purposes—we should not impose unnecessary suffering or death on them. The second is that when we do use animals, we have an obligation to treat them ‘humanely.’

The activities to which most of the British public objects involve imposing suffering and death on animals where there is no necessity or compulsion to do so; it is wrong to make animals suffer or to kill them when the only purported justification is that humans derive some sort of pleasure or amusement. The use of animals for frivolous purposes is tantamount to denying their moral value. Most people reject that.  

The problem is that, although most people regard the imposition of unnecessary suffering and death on animals as immoral, their actual behavior is not consistent with their moral position. They participate in imposing suffering and death on animals in situations where there is no necessity, and in which the treatment of animals is anything but ‘humane.’

‘Unnecessary’ suffering and death.

Most people eat animals and products made from animals, and both involve a great deal of cruelty. In the UK alone, more than one billion animals are killed every year for food. Many animals are raised in intensive conditions that constitute torture. Even those who are raised in supposedly more ‘humane’ circumstances suffer distress throughout and at the end of their lives.

This is not just a matter of meat. The cows used to produce milk are repeatedly impregnated and have their calves taken away from them shortly after birth. And all animals, whether used for meat, dairy, or eggs, are subjected to terror and distress at the abattoir.

Is any of this suffering and death ‘necessary?’ Is there any compulsion involved?  The answer is no.

No one maintains that it is necessary to consume animal products to be optimally healthy. The UK National Health Service says that a sensible vegan diet can be “very healthy,” while mainstream health care professionals all over the world are increasingly taking the position that animal products are detrimental to human health.

We don’t have to settle the debate about whether it is more healthy to live on a diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds. The point is that a vegan diet is certainly no less healthy than a diet of decomposing flesh, cow secretions and chicken ova. And that’s the only point relevant to the issue of whether suffering and death are necessary or not.

Moreover, animal agriculture constitutes an ecological disaster. It is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the burning of fossil fuel for transportation, and results in deforestation, soil erosion and water pollution. The grain fed to animals in the United States alone could feed 800 million people. Against this background, what is the best justification we have for inflicting suffering and death on animals?

The answer is simple: we think they taste good. We derive pleasure from eating them. Eating animals and animal products is a tradition, and we have been following it for a very long time.

But how is that position any different from the justification offered for animal uses to which most of us object? How is palate pleasure any different from the pleasure that some people derive from participating in blood sports? There is no difference. Fox hunting, badger baiting and dog fighting are all traditions. Indeed, almost every practice to which we object—whether involving animals or humans—involves a tradition valued by someone. Patriarchy is also a tradition that has existed for a very long time, but that says nothing about its moral status.

Many people oppose hunting foxes because they can see no morally significant distinction between the dog they love and the fox who is chased and killed. But what is the difference between the animals we love and those into whom we stick a fork and a knife? There is no difference. The dogs and cats we love are sentient—just as are the chickens, cows, pigs, fish, and other animals we exploit. They all feel pain and experience distress; they all have an interest in continuing to live.

‘Humane’ treatment.

If most of our animal use cannot plausibly be characterized as ‘necessary,’ what about the second component of the animal welfare position—that we have an obligation to use animals ‘humanely?’ This is also a fantasy.

Animals are property. They are chattel. They are things that are bought and sold. It costs money to protect animal interests, and the property status of animals ensures that, as a general matter, standards of animal welfare (whether mandated by law or adopted by industry) will always be very low. We will protect animal interests when we get a financial benefit of some sort from doing so. Most of the time, welfare standards will be linked to the level of protection that is needed to exploit animals in an economically efficient way, so these standards will (to the extent that they are even enforced) prohibit nothing more than gratuitous suffering.

Animal welfare standards in Britain are claimed to be amongst the highest in the world, but the treatment accorded to British animals is still appalling. To say that animals in the UK are ‘humanely’ treated would be false using any plausible understanding of that word.

On some level we all know this. That is why we have seen the rise of a niche market in Britain and elsewhere that purports to provide ‘higher-welfare’ meat and animal products. But as various exposes of this niche market have shown, the promise of ‘humane’ treatment is never realised. We may give animals a bit more space; we may allow them to see a bit of sunlight; we may allow cows to spend a bit more time with their calves before they are taken away from them. But these changes are minor in their effects even when they are implemented.

Animal welfare organizations campaign against the ‘abuse’ of animals. But even if all of these abuses stopped and all animals were treated in perfect accordance with applicable laws and regulations, the situation would still be terrible. Animals would still be killed without there being any necessity to do so, and even if we transformed animal agriculture in the direction of family farms there would still be a huge amount of morally-unjustified suffering and death.

In fact, standards of animal welfare are not about animals at all; they are about us. These standards make us feel better about continuing to exploit animals. They were formulated at a time when most people thought that killing and eating animals was necessary for human health. No one can reasonably believe that any longer.

Therefore, it is time to examine the moral justification for using animals. As someone who maintains an animal rights position rather than an animal welfare position, it is my view that we cannot justify exploiting animals for any purpose, including biomedical research aimed at finding cures for serious human illnesses, any more than we can justify using humans whom we believe are cognitively ‘inferior’ for such a purpose.

But even if you do not accept the rights position, the position that you probably do accept—that it is wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering and death on animals—makes it impossible for you to avoid the conclusion that the use of animals for any purpose that does not involve true compulsion or necessity, including the use of animals for food, clothing, and entertainment, must be ruled out. Any other position relegates animals to the category of things that have no moral value. We see this where fox hunting and other blood sports are involved; it’s time that we see it in other contexts too.     

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4 January 2018. The strategic naiveté of Antifa

Why violent protest rarely works.

This article first appeared in Waging Nonviolence and was published in collaboration with the Peace Science Digest, which summarizes and reflects on current academic research in the field of peace and conflict studies.

Antifa graffiti. Credit: Flickr/Oliver Wunder. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

We’ve all heard the argument before: However “nice” the use of nonviolence may be, in the real world violence is necessary—and ultimately more effective, so the thinking goes—for challenging a brutal regime, fighting injustice or defending against an armed opponent. But what are the actual effects of adding violence to a movement’s repertoire of resistance strategies?

Previous scholarship has been inconclusive on this question of so-called “radical flank effects,” as studies tend to focus on individual cases and also reflect collective confusion over what is meant by “radical.” Does it, for instance, refer to the means used or the ends sought?

Focusing, therefore, on violent—as opposed to “radical”—flanks, researchers Erica Chenoweth and Kurt Schock sought to bring clarity and systematic analysis to bear on this question of positive versus negative violent flank effects. In a 2015 article for the journal Mobilizationthey examined all nonviolent campaigns from  1900-2006 with radical (i.e. “maximalist”) goals—such as the “removal of an incumbent national government, self-determination, secession, or the expulsion of foreign occupation”—to see how the presence or absence of armed resistance affected the success of these nonviolent campaigns. Their findings offer compelling evidence that violence is not generally a helpful addition to nonviolent resistance movements.

How did they arrive at this conclusion? Using both quantitative and qualitative research methods, the authors begin by generating three hypotheses. First, nonviolent campaigns with violent flanks are more likely to succeed than nonviolent campaigns without violent flanks. Second, nonviolent campaigns without violent flanks are more likely to succeed than nonviolent campaigns with violent flanks. And third, violent flanks have no impact on the success rates of nonviolent campaigns.

To test these hypotheses, they search for any significant statistical relationships that might exist between the presence of violent flanks and the success or failure of nonviolent campaigns. They find none, thus providing no support for either the first or second hypothesis. As the authors note, this could mean either that the presence of violent flanks has no discernible effect on outcomes or that it has mixed positive and negative effects that cancel each other out when taken together.

When they compare the effects of violent flanks that emerge from inside a nonviolent movement to those of violent flanks that develop parallel to a nonviolent movement, they find that the former are associated with failure, suggesting that negative violent flank effects are more pronounced when a nonviolent campaign cannot distance itself from its armed counterpart. Moreover, they find that mass participation is the strongest determinant of nonviolent campaign success and that the presence of violent flanks has a negative effect on participation levels, suggesting that violent flanks may indirectly decrease the likelihood of success.

To flesh out how violent flanks operate within individual cases, Chenoweth and Schock examine four cases where violent flanks were present: Burma in 1988, the Philippines from 1983-1986, South Africa from 1952-1961 and South Africa from 1983-1994. Two campaigns were successful (the Philippines and South Africa from 1983-1994) and two were not (Burma and South Africa from 1952-1961). Meanwhile, two had violent flanks outside of the nonviolent movement (Burma and the Philippines) and two had violent flanks associated with the nonviolent movement (the two South Africa cases).

After examining the histories of these nonviolent campaigns—and the ways they interacted with armed resistance—the authors find mixed results. Violent flanks had negative effects in the two unsuccessful cases, no net impact in one of the successful cases (the Philippines) and a weak positive effect in the other (the later South African case). Overall there was greater evidence for negative violent flank effect mechanisms than for positive ones.

In the one case where a violent flank had a weak positive effect (South Africa from 1983-1994), Chenoweth and Schock argue that that effect was mostly symbolic—energizing activists around the revolutionary mystique of violent resistance—rather than instrumental to gaining power over the apartheid regime (something that was accomplished, instead, by the nonviolent resistance movement).

However, in the two cases where violent flanks had negative effects, these effects were seriously detrimental. The presence of an armed movement, according to the authors, diminished “chances of success for otherwise nonviolent campaigns by legitimating repression, demobilizing participants, shifting to violent strategies where the state [wa]s superior, and discrediting regime opponents.”

Notably, the armed movements were consistently shown not to protect nonviolent activists but rather to put them at greater risk, as authorities used the presence of armed actors to justify widespread repression against all resistance movements, violent and nonviolent alike.

Chenoweth and Schock find evidence in the case studies, then, that violent flanks do actually influence the outcomes of nonviolent campaigns, despite the earlier quantitative findings suggesting otherwise. Negative and positive effects simply appear to cancel each other out when taken together over a large number of cases, with negative violent flank effects being somewhat more prominent than positive ones. The authors argue, therefore, that “on average, maximalist nonviolent campaigns often succeed despite violent flanks—rarely because of them.”

Contemporary relevance.

Despite recent scholarship demonstrating the greater effectiveness of nonviolent resistance (see Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s 2011 book, “Why Civil Resistance Works”), assumptions about the effectiveness of violence—along with its supposedly radical and/or revolutionary nature—stubbornly persist. When faced with a brutal or blatantly unjust opponent, many people are inclined to believe that only violence will bring about needed change or be able to protect and defend one’s community or fellow activists.

We have seen this recent thinking everywhere from Syria to Venezuela, but for those of us in the United States struggling against the Trump administration and the white supremacist and neo-Nazi forces it has unleashed, we need look no further than the presence of Antifa (anti-fascist groups who do not rule out engaging in violent confrontations) in our own protests to see this same logic at work—as well as its counterproductive effects. Such groups see themselves as a necessary counterpart to white supremacist or neo-Nazi groups who come armed to demonstrations, ready to engage in street battles with left-wing activists.

Although this logic of needing to use violence to defend against violence is so widespread and deeply ingrained as to be almost intuitive, the problem is that such moves feed into and reinforce narratives on the right that inspire—and provide cover for—their own claims to self-defense. Just as the presence of a violent flank in an anti-regime nonviolent movement can provide necessary or further justification for government security forces to fire on protesters, so too can it create a similar dynamic among non-state groups, including neo-Nazis and white supremacists, mobilizing more recruits and ultimately increasing the vulnerability of anti-racist and anti-fascist activists and the marginalized and targeted communities whom they wish to defend.

Practical implications.

In the wake of recent events in Charlottesville, outrage has rightly focused on the neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups who came armed and even killed one of the counter-protesters. Their goals of racial supremacy and purity, fueled by hate and fear and devoid of empathy, have no place in a country that values equality, pluralism and human dignity, and their ascendancy at the moment is nothing short of terrifying.

For the sake of effectively challenging these groups and their repulsive vision, however, those of us who consider ourselves part of the resistance must also engage in critical inward reflection, especially with regards to the strategic implications of the presence of Antifa affiliates who also came armed to Charlottesville, among otherwise nonviolent counter-protesters.

Although their work to expose and tirelessly organize against fascism is admirable and necessary, those who identify with Antifa and its full range of tactics appear to endorse at least two flawed assumptions. First, they assume that truly radical action to effectively challenge fascism must include violence—what is often termed “physical confrontation”—and that nonviolence equals “dialogue” or “normal politics,” which  implies acquiescence, submission or cooptation. Second, they assume that violence is also necessary to protect activists and targeted communities.

But, in fact, here is what we know from recent social scientific research: Nonviolent resistance is twice as likely to be effective as violent resistance when used for radical goals such as the removal of an authoritarian regime or national liberation, cases with no shortage of brutal, unreasonable opponents. Furthermore, nonviolent resistance strategy is all about analyzing and dismantling an opponent’s sources of power, including through direct action. Finally, as noted in Chenoweth and Schock’s research above, instead of protecting nonviolent activists, the presence of a violent flank frequently creates justification for further repression against them, making them more vulnerable to violence.

It is time, therefore, that we untether violence from its “radical” and “protective/defensive” associations. Not doing so—and hanging on, as Antifa does, to these tired old assertions that violence is a necessary response—is, quite simply, poor strategy. It gives white supremacists and neo-Nazis exactly what they want, reinforcing their “we’re embattled” narratives, thereby strengthening their movement. It muddies the waters by giving commentators on the right something to point to when they try to create ludicrous moral equivalencies between white supremacists/neo-Nazis and anti-fascist activists. And, in doing so, it does nothing to actually diminish the strength of white supremacism.

Furthermore, the continued presence of armed elements like Antifa has negative effects within the resistance. Speaking from personal experience, as the mother of a three-year-old, it makes me, for one, feel more vulnerable to violence and therefore less likely to show up to demonstrations with my daughter. I can only assume that many others—not just parents—feel and act similarly, resulting in diminished mass participation in the movement and thereby a decrease in its power and effectiveness.

For all these reasons, if Antifa activists care—as they no doubt do—about challenging resurgent fascist, white supremacist forces effectively, they must think more strategically, considering the short- and long-term effects of their actions. Although “punching a Nazi” may feel like effective action due to the immediate, physical consequences of violence—someone’s bloody nose, someone’s body on the ground—what actually matters for the strategic value of an action is how others respond to it afterwards.

Does it strengthen the opponent group—reinforcing its narratives, drawing more recruits and unifying them against a more easily vilified adversary—or weaken it? Does it strengthen one’s own side—drawing a broader array of activists of all ages and from all walks of life to the resistance movement, unified around a common vision—or weaken it? Does it bring uncommitted third parties to one’s side or alienate them? These—not the number of individuals punched or bludgeoned on the other side—should be the metrics of a strategic response to fascism.

The dangers of white supremacism and fascism are real, and the stakes for American democracy and values are high. It is precisely for these reasons that activists need to engage in discussions about the strategic merits and radical credentials of disciplined nonviolent resistance (both for movement effectiveness and for protection), together strategizing about those actions that will best diminish the power of the opponent to realize its white supremacist, fascist agenda. A few points, in particular, are worth raising.

First, despite common-sense associations of violent action with defense and protection, nonviolent discipline has a better chance of keeping activists safe than armed resistance does, even—counter-intuitively—in the face of a violent adversary. There is no guarantee of complete safety with either type of resistance, but armed resistance is much more likely to elicit further—not less—violence from the other side. 

Nonetheless, assumptions about arms and their role in defense or protection are so engrained that this is a tough point to get across. If presented with a scenario where a few unarmed activists in a completely nonviolent movement are killed by armed opponents versus one where a greater number of unarmed activists are killed by these opponents while joined by fellow armed activists fighting back, most of us are likely to characterize the unarmed activists in the first instance as “defenseless” and those in the second instance as being “defended,” despite the fact that they were, in fact, better protected in the first instance. These deeply engrained—and flawed— assumptions about the defensive or protective value of weapons must be brought to the surface and critically examined.

Second, there is a strategic logic to nonviolent resistance that most Antifa adherents seem to not know (as demonstrated through the claim on one Antifa website that “only popular self-defense, not simply debate, has succeeded in stopping fascism” or statements made by various Antifa activists in the New York Times suggesting that our choice in response to fascism takes binary form: use violence or “do nothing.”)

Far from being synonymous with “debate” or inaction, nonviolent resistance involves the dismantling of an opponent’s sources of power through a range of methods, including various forms of disruption and direct action, and is twice as likely as violent resistance to succeed in achieving radical goals. In other words, the success of nonviolent resistance does not depend on the presence—and persuasion—of a “nice” adversary.

Contrary to mainstream belief, there is a historical record of successful nonviolent resistance against fascism in countries under Nazi control, including the Rosenstrasse demonstrations in Berlin where wives saved their Jewish husbands, Denmark’s rescue of most of its Jewish community, resistance to the Nazi policies of the Quisling government in Norway, and so on. Jacques Semelin’s 1993 book “Unarmed Against Hitler” is one resource that examines these and other cases throughout Europe.

Third, only by maintaining nonviolent discipline can the resistance dramatize and capitalize on the clear contrast between its activists and the white supremacists or neo-Nazis they confront. Stooping to the level of armed hooligans on the other side, engaging them on their own terms, weakens the anti-fascist cause by surrendering the high ground in media representations of demonstrations, providing cover for commentators who wish to draw a specious moral equivalency between the two sides, and alienating people who would otherwise ally themselves with an anti-fascist movement.

Finally, violence is less—not more—“radical” than nonviolence is, especially insofar as it is less effective in achieving radical goals and less likely to dismantle white supremacism and fascism than nonviolent resistance. Far from embodying a radical challenge to fascism, Antifa affiliates are doing exactly what neo-Nazis and white supremacists are hoping they will do—this is precisely the reaction that will energize the very fascists they are hoping to shut down, reinforcing their embattled narratives and strengthening their ranks.

Only by disassociating one’s radical credentials from participation in violence will we ultimately move away from these knee-jerk responses to racist violence that do nothing to minimize the draw and strength of white supremacy—and instead move towards more strategic, effective action that actually has a chance of advancing the cause of a diverse, inclusive, just society.

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2 January 2018. Living prayer at Standing Rock

We are more powerful when we live together as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us.

Credit: Ellen Davidson. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published in Anchor by Still Harbor.

In April of last year, people from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota began to physically block Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), an oil company, from constructing a pipeline under a river that provides drinking water to the reservation and millions of people downstream. After the mostly white citizenry of Bismarck rejected the original path that would bring the pipeline close to their own water source, ETP made plans to drill on reservation land that has been so-called “disputed territory” between the U.S. government and the Lakota Sioux since the 1800s—land that was granted to the tribe by treaty.

Since the 2016 Presidential election, this situation has soured for the Sioux and their allies and, at the time of this writing, ETP had already begun to drill under the water. With my partner, Leo, and a caravan of a dozen activists from Chicago, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and NYC, I visited the main camp, Oceti Sakowin, built by protesters in November, 2016.

About 45 minutes out from Standing Rock, our little caravan stopped for gas. I went into the station to pee and as I walked back out to the car, a man held the door open for me. Having experienced only super-friendly Midwesterners on the trip thus far, I was a little surprised when he answered my cheery “thank you!” with a curt, silent nod, but I didn’t think much of it. But, as I crossed the lane to our car, I felt the eyes of another man, wearing flannel and a ball cap, staring at Leo and me. He began to curse at us. “You fuckin’ lowlifes. Get outta here, you longhaired hippies. No one needs you here.” We sensed the darkness in his tone and quickly got into the car and drove away.

As we got closer and closer to the camp, I began to visualize our little caravan as white blood cells rushing toward an infection, staving off bacteria along the way. Better yet, we were like the imaginal cells that transform a cocooned caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly. At the beginning of metamorphosis, a few of the imaginal cells appear in the caterpillar’s body—they are treated as foreigners, intruders in the system, and the caterpillar cells begin to actually attack the butterfly cells. Yet, against all reason, the imaginal cells grow in number, urged on by some ancient knowing.

Credit: Ellen Davidson. All rights reserved.

We arrived at Standing Rock on that chilly morning, the day that happened to be when most Americans would celebrate Thanksgiving. Though I felt certain of my calling to join the Water Protectors, I was still a bit nervous. A few days before our trip, the protesters had encountered a violent offense from law enforcement. Many were injured, some seriously. I had heard about constant drone surveillance and menacing planes zooming overhead and had seen photos of armed police officers keeping watch from a hill in the distance. I expected there to be danger and revolution in the air. Yet, when we drove into the camp, everyone seemed focused and calm.

The woman who greeted our car told us that this was a place of prayer and ceremony and that “we take care of each other here.” She asked no questions of us, all non-natives ourselves. I sensed that trust was given, not earned; everyone was held to high standards of integrity, hard work, and cooperation. Her directness and warmth helped ease my anxiety; thoughts of the angry man at the gas station began to fade. I immediately began to settle into the spirit of camp. I felt like I knew everyone I passed on the makeshift roads of camp. Folks smiled and acknowledged each other. I heard dogs barking. I saw children playing.

Much of my time was spent cleaning and organizing piles of donations, serving nourishing food, and building tipis and yurts to prepare for the brutal North Dakota winter. Eventually, I would find myself covered in bits of hay as I sewed together panels of burlap for insulation. Working toward justice is messy, maybe, but simple. Everywhere I looked, I saw people jumping up to help one another without hesitation.

One evening, Leo and I sat on the cold ground, patiently waiting for a can of soup to warm over a Sterno stove. Beyond our little campsite, I could see the menacing glare of floodlights shining upon Oceti Sakowin. Policemen, like clumps of black ants, weaved around armored vehicles. What was it like for them over there? Tears rose to my eyes as I thought of their hearts, tender as my own, beating beneath bulletproof vests. The same arms that hug children and wives were wrapped around lethal weapons.

What causes the cocooned caterpillar to resist its own beautiful, transformed future as a butterfly? Fear of flying too high or losing a grubby, slow-moving body for a form as light as air? Anger at not being able to chew leaves anymore and being relegated to a life of drinking sweet nectar from fragrant flowers? How scared those officers must have been to respond to prayerful, unarmed protesters with such violence and hatred! I felt an urge to reach out to the men and invite them into camp, wishing them to witness and experience the deep care with which everyone there treated each other. I imagined their surprise at being referred to as “brother” or “relative.”

Credit: Ellen Davidson. All rights reserved.

The elders told us constantly, “You’re here to pray.” Pray? This used to be such a loaded word for me as someone who grew up and became disillusioned with the idea of asking an old white guy in the sky to wave his magic wand and give me what I want. But that’s not the kind of prayer the elders were talking about. Of course, the Sioux pray petitionary prayers, but they’re not one-sided demands or requests. Those prayers come from a deep understanding of relationship with Mother Earth and offerings are made to Her as appeals are made. Body, mind, and heart must be prepared beforehand.

I was instructed to always wear a skirt, the traditional sign of a woman in ceremony, as everything I did in camp, from cooking to sewing to carrying water, was part of our prayer. I came to know prayer as a dynamic embodiment, the place from which my whole life is meant to arise. The new world my heart knows is possible already exists. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen people, native and non-native alike, praying peace, equity, and reciprocity.

Praying, like justice, is simple, but simple does not mean easy. Living in this way is to live in relationship—it requires constant awareness and attentiveness to ourselves, each other, Spirit, and Mother Earth.

In Howard Zinn’s oft-quoted essay, The Optimism of Uncertainty, he says, “Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises…We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”

Revolution may be made of mere moments, but they’re organized moments. I can’t tell you how many times since Election Day, 2016 that I’ve heard acquaintances and friends and family members ask, “What can we do?” In other words, as we face one of the most potentially dangerous presidencies in American history, what actions will truly be effective in making any waves of change? We are each being faced with the sense of inadequacy that comes with being one individual on a planet of seven billion people. But, together, our strengths multiply and complement each other’s weaknesses. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Justice looks like a stranger lending a hand to another stranger and sounds like a brown-skinned man calling a white-skinned woman “sister.” Justice is living as simply as possible, taking only what you truly need and then sharing that. Revolutionary change is the convergence of a few thousand people upon the tiniest speck of a point on a map, coming together to stand for justice. This becomes a collective prayer, embodying the qualities of a world we know is not only possible, but also true.

We are heard when we join our voices in a chorus of resistance. As Zinn teaches, we are more powerful when we live together “as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us.” At Standing Rock, I learned that revolution is people praying together, arm linked in arm, in an unbreakable and undeniable chain of justice and love. 

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28 December 2017. How giving makes you happier

For a joyful economy, spread the wealth. This infographic shows why.

Credit: YES! Magazine/Ben White/Unsplash.

This infographic was first published in YES! Magazine.

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26 December 2017. Let’s demonstrate the true meaning of Christmas: sharing

There’s no point spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need in order to make impressions that don’t really matter.

Credit: Flickr/Adam Wells. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

At this time of year, the over-consuming lifestyles of the affluent world are impossible to ignore. Brightly-lit shops are bursting with festive foods and expensive indulgences, while seasonal songs play in the background of shopping malls to keep us spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need, in order to make impressions that don’t matter.

The frenetic commercialism of Christmas continues to escalate despite all the warnings from climate scientists that Western lifestyles are destroying the planet. We still buy enough Christmas trees in the UK alone to reach from London to New York and back, and the card packaging that’s thrown away could cover Big Ben almost 260,000 times—not to mention the 4,500 tonnes of tin foil, two million turkeys, 74 million mince pies and five million mounds of charred raisins from rejected Christmas puddings that are discarded in the UK come January. The mountain of e-waste from discarded electronic items—many of them bought as unwanted gifts—is projected to reach ten million tonnes by 2020.

Just pause for a moment and picture the scale of that waste, along with the ecological destruction it represents. Christmas is merely an exaggerated illustration of the gross materialism that defines our lives in a consumerist society.  

What is more difficult to recognise is that our profligate consumption habits also exacerbate levels of inequality worldwide. The so-called ‘developed world’—roughly 20 per cent of the global population—consumes a hugely disproportionate share of the earth’s resources, and is responsible for at least half of all greenhouse gas emissions. Behind such statistics lies a depressing reality: the artificial standards of living of the global North are dependent on the dire working conditions and impoverishment of millions of people throughout the global South.

In spite of the spurious claims of trickledown economics, the number of people living on less than $5-a-day has increased by more than 1.1 billion since the 1980s. The vast majority of people who live in ‘developing’ countries survive on less than $10-a-day; none of them can afford the wasteful, conspicuous consumption that we consider ‘normal.’

Our personal complicity in this unsustainable global order is complex, because we are all caught up in a socioeconomic and cultural system that depends on ever-expanding consumerism for its survival. Everywhere, we are besieged by messages that encourage us to ‘buy more stuff,’ as profit-driven businesses increasingly seek to meet our needs (real or constructed) through the marketplace. Our consumption patterns are often tied to our sense of identity, our desire for belonging, and our need for comfort and self-esteem.

We are all victims of an excessively commercialised culture, not just via environmental harm and global warming but also through the psychological and emotional damage that afflicts everyone in one form or another. We experience that harm through the time-poverty of affluence; through the pressures of living in an individualistic and market-dominated society; and through everything we’ve lost on the competitive work/consume treadmill – our freedom for leisure, our mental space and our community cohesion.

There is also an inarticulable form of spiritual harm that arises from being part of an exploitative world order, in which our over-consuming lifestyles in the West are connected to the immiseration of people in poorer countries who we do not know, or care to know. Simply put, it is impossible to reconcile the twin challenges of ending poverty and achieving environmental sustainability unless we also confront the huge imbalances in consumption patterns across the world, and fundamentally re-imagine the economy in ways that escape from the growth compulsion.

Hence the resurgent focus on post-growth economics in a world of limits which recognises the importance of reducing the use of natural resources in high-income countries, so that poorer nations can grow their economies sustainably and meet the basic needs of their populations. Nowhere is the case for sharing the world’s resources more obvious or urgent than in the need to achieve equity-based sustainable development or ‘one planet lifestyles’ for all. Yet our societies remain far distant from embarking on this great transition.

What better example than the spectacle of French President Emmanuel Macron convening the ‘One Planet Summit’ at the end of 2017 to demonstrate international solidarity in addressing climate change, while at the same time governments were attending the resurrected World Trade Organisation talks in their continued attempts to turn the world into a corporate playground with minimal protections for the poor.

Questions of global injustice and ecological imbalance may seem far removed from our daily lives, but everyone who participates in modern consumerist society is conjointly responsible for perpetuating destruction on an international scale. Our frenzied spending around Thanksgiving and Christmas is a case in point, further preventing us from embracing the radical transformations required in the transition to a post-growth world. What, then, should we do?

In fact there are already lots of ways to de-commercialise Christmas, like the ‘buy nothing’ movement that advocates we ignore the conditioned compulsion to purchase luxury goods. We can all practise ethical giving and support the work of related activist groups and charitable organisations. For example, Christian Aid have released a witty video that entreats UK citizens to be aware of festive food waste in the context of global hunger, and donate £10 from Christmas food shopping—enough for a family in South Sudan to eat for a week.

Actions like these constitute small steps towards celebrating Christmas with more awareness of the critical world situation, and the need for Western populations to live more lightly on the earth. When extended beyond the holiday season, that awareness could be translated into a mass movement that rejects the consumerist ethos and voluntarily downshifts to lifestyles that meet our needs in ways that bypass the mainstream economy.

As proponents of the gift economy, the commons and collaborative consumption all attest, this is the long-term antidote to mass consumption. We must become co-creators of alternative economic systems in which we reinvest in our communities, shift our values towards quality of life and wellbeing, and embrace a new ethic of sufficiency. We must resist the competitive economic pressures towards materialism and privatised modes of living, thereby releasing time and energy for cooperative activities that promote communal production, co-owning and civic engagement. In short, we need an expanded understanding of what it means to be human in a world of shared resources. 

Christmas provides us with a unique opportunity to do this. In his essay on “Christmas, the System and I,” Mohammed Mesbahi exhorts us to imagine what could be done if all the money we needlessly spend on festivities and unwanted gifts was pooled together and redistributed to those who urgently need it. If Jesus were walking among us today, writes Mesbahi, surely that is what he would call us to do. Perhaps that would be an expression of the true meaning of Christmas in the twenty first century. 

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23 December 2017. Shy radicals

‘“The notion of hate crime does not cover crime committed against people who have become victims simply because they’re different.” He wants Shy Radicals to become a voice for them.’  Book review.

lead Shy Radicals,published by Book Works, 2017. All rights reserved.Hamja, a campaigner and art curator, isn’t an ordinary interviewee. Turning up in his Manic Street Preachers T-shirt, he looked intense the moment I saw him. He showed me into his local café in Tooting, the part of London town he grew up in, and pointed me to the table in the corner where he sat writing most of Shy Radicals: the Anti-systemic Politics of the Militant Introvert, a rare book that made me laugh and one that has puzzled many.

I suppose we read each book with the weight of our own history, and then our baggage merges with the author’s own. When I read Shy Radicals, a little girl came alive: the little girl who was silenced the moment she was brought into a class in a primary school full of pupils older than herself. Her grandmother worked as a full-time teacher there and had decided to let the school do the childcare for her. The child’s mum and dad lived in the city and were too busy to look after her themselves.

Barely five, this girl only knew how to be silent. She was made to sit through classes where loud pupils around her were keen to show their enthusiasm by collectively reciting stories and poems. They raised their hands, and answered every question put to them by teachers loudly and clearly. The little girl uttered no words, which marked her out as different and therefore odd. For the rest of her time in school she underwent extra training by a well-intentioned teacher who was determined she must be cured of her quietness.

In fact, this girl wasn’t “normal” to start with. A year before her parents sent her to her grandparents, she had undergone “correction” by the adults around her to stop her writing with her left hand. Many children were made to learn to write from the age of three. The use of the right-hand was the correct way in society. Only unwanted rebels used the left hand. Like the kids who choose quietness, they are often treated as a problem.

As this child was growing up among extroverts, she began to secretly dream up her own world, a world free from the oppressiveness of extrovert adults. Reaching seven, she started to write stories about her isolation as a misfit. Kids from the neighbourhood who came to play happened to read the stories and some were drawn into them, sitting quietly in the corner of the room, absorbing the words. The stories struck a chord. They asked for more to read. The small child realized she wasn’t the only “strange child”. There were many introverts and “misfits” like her, who couldn’t conform to the rules of extroverts.

That small child was me. That introvert lasted in me and enabled me to see the politics of the personal. When I read Shy Radicals, I could relate to “Aspergistan”, a concept similar to the paradise I created in my writing at the age of seven as an isolated child. As it turned out, Hamja told me that he had wanted to write the book for a long time and wishes to connect with people with similar experiences and emotions.

These experiences began for Hamja in primary school and lasted through his secondary school years and formed the structures shaping his emotional state for years. “It was quite a highly-rated school by Ofsted… But the culture of bullying there, as in many secondary schools, is overlooked.” Hamja was often subjected to bullying, “as if being quiet was threatening enough,” he said. As an adolescent, he had developed an interest in philosophy and art history. “My introverted nature was seen by them as a reason to bully and gang up on me, be violent towards me…” he recalled. “And as a teenager, I was never given more than thirty pounds to buy myself trainers, which was another reason for me to be a target for bullying. ”As a teenager, I was never given more than thirty pounds to buy myself trainers, which was another reason for me to be a target for bullying...  The teachers didn’t help either.”

“The teachers didn’t help either. They bullied people who’re quiet as well. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ they always looked at me and said. There’s this culture of bullying in society…The childhood TV presenter is like this in-your-face thing… There’s this fallacy that starts from childhood all the way into employment, that an outgoing personality is the ideal. At the time I just wanted to be left alone and do my drawing.”

Hamja became an atheist at the age of thirteen. “I used to see enlightenment as a good thing.  But later I learned more about colonialism, and how colonialisms connected with rationality and become embedded in law and science… I began to see atheism like a nineteenth-century liberalism and I found it hollow…”. During his experiment with atheism, Hamja was also experiencing extreme depression and finding solace in a range of music. From the Palestinian intifada music, the Irish Republic songs and the Bosnian blues, to what he calls “the Sensitive White Man” music -- he got into Nirvana and the Manics, who used to talk about depression in a way to which he could relate.

The bullying carried on, all the way to when Hamja was seventeen, when he was diagnosed for depression for the first time. He attempted suicide during that year.  “I was seen as a cause of concern although I got very high grades at school… I swallowed the excessive amount of tranquilizers they gave me…  I didn’t see a future. I was so shy that I felt I couldn’t fight things on my own. I was wondering how I could cope with adult life…”.

Throughout his adolescence and early adult years, the need and the desire to write Shy Radicals had always been there. As someone who was bullied, Hamja felt that he didn’t have role models or historical allegiances to turn to. The notion of hate crime does not cover crime committed against people who have become victims simply because they’re different, he said. He has wanted Shy Radicals to become a voice for them.

Hamja went to university slightly later than his peers. But studying art in St Martin’s helped him turn a corner and extract himself from being an “outcast”. “It was only in my mid-thirties that I had some sort of acceptance of who I am… The acceptance that I don’t like clubbing and partying and it’s fine.” Largely through social media, he was able to find another landscape of identity in cyber space where he could see other people who were also bullied.

The experience of racism is also part of that identity. “We [South Asian Muslims] have a sub-culture that is a bit less hedonistic… not getting drunk and feeling a bit out of place… At times I did receive racial bullying…which made me feel a sense of despair,” Hamja said. He pointed to the Chicken Cottage shop across the road as we walked along and said this ordinary venue was a large part of his growing up as a South Asian youth. “It was one of the places I used to hang out… Tooting is where recruitment for young Muslims to fight in Bosnia happened, right here at the Chicken Cottage...”. But of course these places have been gradually replaced as youth venues, as gentrification sneaks into the area.

As an artist and curator, Hamja was keen to seek out alternative spaces for the young. He got involved in organising DIY Cultures, which consists of a huge variety of non-loud workshops and activity for young people. In those five years, he developed it as a stimulating place where young people could spend time, interact and exchange ideas with one another. And as introverts, “we need to preserve spaces where we can sit in the quiet… like libraries, like a lonely cathedral, like in the Catholic church near Leicester Square…”.

Shy Radicals is Black Panthers for shy people,” Hamja said. Much of his writing style is legalistic and poetic, influenced by his interest in prison writing. Each page is filled with humour, a lot of it dark, which makes it fun to read. “Aspergistan is a safe haven for all Shy, Introvert and Autistic Spectrum people everywhere.” “The Shy People’s Republic of Aspergistan is an independent Pan-Shyist state representing the interests of all Shy, Introvert and Autistic Spectrum peoples”. “Aspergistan honours the struggle of the Introfada in the liberation of the homeland and the freedom, tranquillity and well-being of the Shy peoples…”. Shy Radicals is Black Panthers for shy people,” Hamja said. Much of his writing style is legalistic and poetic, influenced by his interest in prison writing.

The humour is intrinsically linked to suffering and oppression. There’re a lot of references about his and other British Muslims’ experience with state surveillance, in particular with Prevent. Thus the vocabulary, “Shy radicalisation”. “Shy Radicals is not a terrorist organisation. Terrorism is always loud.” “The extrovert state is a terrorist state.” “The extrovert world order at present is the greatest purveyor of terrorism in the world”.

Hamja said that he truly became politicised in February 2006, when anti-terror police raided his family home and arrested his brother, Talha Ahsan, on suspicion of terrorism. Talha was a SOAS graduate, a poet and translator, and he didn’t stand out in any way in his academic and public life. But somehow he became a suspect on the basis of an online document (which turned out to have nothing to do with terrorism) that passed through him. Talha had always been a shy person, and had been diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome. Prior to his arrest, he was preparing a job interview to become a librarian. While suffering from the social stigma of being autistic, and feeling like an outsider in a “neuro-centric” world, he was at the same time treated as a second-class citizen for being a Muslim.

“It changed my consciousness,” Hamja recalled the raid. “They came into my bedroom and took away my CDs, my diary and my mobile phone, and even my nephew’s cartoons… They took everything. The violence and humiliation. I felt like my head expanded… Suddenly I was able to identify with people who were stopped and searched… I had never experienced it first-hand. I used to think of the police as quite benign, just going about doing their job. That changed completely. My whole outlook changed. The raid changed my life completely. It radicalised me. I became an activist in my head.”

Without a trial or charges, Talha was detained for six long years under Theresa May as the Home Secretary. Hamja and his family visited Talha in Belmarsh prison every Sunday. He started to re-read his brother’s poetry and campaign for justice for him. Without a trial or charges, Talha was detained for six long years under Theresa May as the Home Secretary. Hamja and his family visited Talha in Belmarsh prison every Sunday. He started to re-read his brother’s poetry...

Then, Talha was extradited to the US on terrorism charges in 2012 where he was detained for two more years. On the plane, he felt as if he was kidnapped by terrorists. He was put in solitary incarceration in a death row prison, which Hamja described as a concrete hell. “I went to see Talha twice in the US. I found him in a yellow jump suit, in a place that looked like a concrete tomb, as if in the Doom (the video game). He was kept in a room the size of a bathroom, 24 hours a day, with no human contact. He was leg-shackled even when he had a shower… The entire environment was meant for deprivation… He witnessed a lot of suicide attempts, self-mutilation, among the inmates. 50% of suicide rates in prison are in solitary confinement. I was only able to see him two hours each time. Yet Theresa May was rejoicing and celebrating the trauma she has caused me and my family. She saw that as an achievement. That’s the government we live under.”

Talha wrote a lot of poetry during his solitary confinement. He is winner of the Platinum and Bronze Koestler Awards 2012 for his poetry. In ‘I, Otherstani’ (2013), he wrote:

And so the world was divided into Hereistan and Thereistan. You can’t call it revenge if the killing occurred at the same time. Those killings feed into each other like a swirling figure of eight in blood.  The numbers grow. Infinity groans and falls to his side. Murderers are best left unasked about their views on euthanasia. Each grapples for the beginning of blame as the knife yielding hand reaches for the end. In conflict their limbs are more interwined than the bodies of lovers wrestling over a capital disputed both call Murdabad. If only this mobius strip simply existed in pastry and the roar of the mob was only hot oil incited. The geometry of death weaves a map with a pattern of disease across a terrain each calls mine.

Where do you go? Where would you live? Is your country the one you will be born in or the one you died in? The vultures decide with their droppings. Those who yearn to belong to that country of birds whose geography is air are shot down by brats with catapults and made to endure hard labour in a cage. Your mother tongue is not the one you read or write but with which you dream, laugh and scream in under torture.

Welcome to Otherstan! It is between the gaps of words; the hollows between syllables. The linguafranca is of sighs, yawns, burps and sneezes. Its rivers are no better than running noses. Its hills and mountains disappointing as any lover’s knees. Otherstan: a republic where each man is king because each woman is a king maker. Our national anthem is a minute silence.

Eventually the abacus tips, the number of dead is too large. The sand timer is too heavy to lift. The fruits on branches grow rich with flesh. They pump out like cheeks swelled with vomit. The trees creak off their knees, straighten their backs and raise a head of laughter to the sun. The water rumbles with fish. O earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the Lord: be the better son of Adam. Take an oath of realty with me: I remain truely an Otherstani.

Talha’s suffering turned Hamja’s world upside down and compelled him to become outspoken and sustain the campaign for Talha. He was central to the Free Talha Ahsan campaign. “It changed everything for me,” he said. It motivated him to act and want to be a catalyst for a better world. “It influenced the book [Shy Radicals] a lot, written from my position as Muslim. A lot of it is about war on terror, issues of integration and assimilation.”

Hamja’s life was transformed. “There was a lot of love and sympathy from people for our family... For the campaign, I went all over the country, Glasgow, Cardiff, Manchester, Cambridge, Bradford, Leeds, and I’d be able to stay at someone’s house… People told me that I inspired them to speak up… I felt that a positive community of solidarity was created… Shakar Ahmed’s wife came to see my mother even when they were going through unjustified treatment… which I found so moving.” [Shakar Ahmed was held by the US in Guantanamo for more than thirteen years without charge.] Talha was released back to Britain in 2015.

Since then, Hamja has got involved in a variety of campaigns, such as Justice for Hillsborough. “They were treated as the enemy within, like British Muslims today. We’re all targeted by the same people, the state.” In a sense, paradoxically, activism becomes a form of therapy when he’s faced with the day-to-day battle against his oppression. Activism soothes and reassures him. Activism becomes the way he could deal with depression, which he described as a strike – and far more effective than any biochemical solutions. “I found going to a trade union rally or a Jeremy Corbyn meeting or an Occupy meeting uplifting. It made me realize that it wasn’t my fault, that I wasn’t to blame, that I am not a bad person. It made me see that reality can be transformed.”“I found going to a trade union rally or a Jeremy Corbyn meeting or an Occupy meeting uplifting. It made me realize that it wasn’t my fault, that I wasn’t to blame, that I am not a bad person. It made me see that reality can be transformed.”

Hamja then showed me around the “introvert pub” in Tooting, where he sometimes spends time. There is a quiet cinema downstairs and no one seems to come in here. A pub doesn’t have to be loud and noisy, does it? With Shy Radicals, Hamja wants to challenge the idea of universality in how we think and behave. To do this, it’s important to create identification. “We don’t have to fit in. I want to challenge correctness and present alternatives… Instead of doing all that assertiveness training, it will be good if extroverts could be trained to listen more and be more quiet… It’s about the reverse of power… I want a lot of the vocabulary, like extrovert supremacy, to travel, to be used…  It’s like Nina Power saying when you can name things like harassment, it’s powerful because you can identify it. I want people who feel bullied and inferior to feel empowered…  to find some solace and ways to resist.”

I asked what Hamja has in mind for his next book. “Kaliphate fried chicken,” he said, “A book about dystopian gangsters in a fried chicken culture.”

Shy Radicals: the Anti-systemic Politics of the Militant Introvert is published by Book Works, 2017.

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