On responsibility

One form of power in society is the ability to avoid, or at least be selective about, responsibility for one’s actions.  When an ‘ordinary’ person does something wrong, we naturally expect them to apologise, be punished, or otherwise act to correct their mistake.  Even if the event was something out of their personal control, there tends to be sage muttering of things like: ‘actions have consequences’, as if these are bound by the laws of physics rather than malleable societal standards.

The thing that brought this to mind right now is the, just announced, UK Supreme Court ruling on the publication of Prince Charles’s letters to various minister.  Or more specifically, the government’s attempt to block a FoI ruling that allowed their publication.  In particular, the then attorney general”Grieve over-ruled the tribunal, arguing that publication of the letters between September 2004 and April 2005 would “seriously damage” the Prince of Wales’s kingship.”  (http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/live/2015/mar/26/prince-charles-memos-supreme-court-ruling-live)  This is what pisses me off.  Firstly a declaration of my republican sympathies – I’m not a supporter of the monarchy, but I think I still understand what it’s for.  And if the status of the monarch is to be damaged by release of this correspondence, then the responsibility clearly lies with the writer.  If the heir to the throne was trying to interfere with what I shall only half-sarcastically refer to as the democratic process, then we should be able to know about it, and if he doesn’t like that then maybe he should keep his mouth shut and do his job as a figurehead.

Of course this is only part of a wider pattern of attempting to conceal access to government.  Fortunately there are people who are happy to expose such matters as just how often Rupert Murdoch and his associates get invited to Downing Street (I assume somewhat less in the aftermath of Coulson).  However, the response to this is to deny that anything of substance occurs at these meetings.  It is suggested that these are merely social events, from which no substantive matters of policy evolve.  Obviously I’m sceptical of that for several reasons: firstly the very idea that one can remain unaffected by those one meets, especially when they include such political operators as Murdoch; and secondly because otherwise why would an American billionaire repeatedly show up for courtesy drinks; and finally because why else are those involved so determined to keep these meetings under wraps?

The attempts to conceal access to government for both the heir to the throne and various wealthy individuals are particularly egregious in that not only do ministers want to keep hidden what was said, but don’t want the public knowing that the meetings (or other contact) have even taken place.  This makes me think of the disingenuousness surrounding various states’ attempts to monitor the private communications of its citizens.  The defence is offered that they are only looking at ‘metadata’, i.e. they don’t read your emails/listen to your calls, only look at who you are talking to.  The idea is that your chat with your mum is private, while the long conversation you had with a known terrorist can be flagged, and then read once the proper legal channels have been followed.  This pretends that nobody can work out why you might have called Dominos at 2330, or what that email from the STI clinic might have related to.  If metadata is so innocent, why try to suppress news of who has been dining with the PM?

Defending the indefensible

Of course the other news item du jour that has prompted a mass waiving or displacement of responsibility is the Clarkson departure (I call it thus because it’s still unclear whether he’s been sacked, not had his contract renewed or, as at least one wag has had it, been reduced to zero hours).  You can argue that Clarkson is a great presenter and entertainer (and I can see that, although I’m much more disappointed at/in James May), or even try to deny that the incident occurred as described.  Which would be a little bizarre as Clarkson himself hasn’t made any attempt to deny what happened, only justify himself.  But if the violence and abuse did go down exactly as described, it’s hard to see how you can blame anybody except Clarkson himself.  From the attempts to place the blame on a BBC conspiracy (an organisation that is still, despite the insistence of its detractors, overwhelmingly run by white, middle-class, conservative male Oxbridge types), to the unconscionable further abuse hurled at the victim of Clarkson’s attack, this is an attempt to deny responsibility on behalf of somebody who has no need for such defence even if it were grounded in fact.  And the fracas provided such clear grounds for dismissal that Clarkson’s opponents haven’t even had to go near his repeated public racism.

Postscript

Of course, the powerful have always been able to evade responsibility for their actions; to my mind, that is a major part of what power is.  And even in cases where matters do catch up with them to an extent, they are never punished to a significant degree: resigning ministers tend to wander into directorships or sinecures; Clarkson will continue to sell books and will presumably reappear elsewhere on our screen before very long.  But at the other end of the social spectrum there is no such flexibility.  Benefits claimants, despite in the vast, vast, vast majority being in a situation not of their devising, are given no sympathy at all.  The public assumption is that if somebody is unemployed it must because they got themselves fired, or are too lazy, or greedy (which conveniently ignores how difficult it is to live on such limited funds).  If the keyboard warriors and green ink brigade really want something to rant about, maybe they should consider the ease with which the most desperate in society are sanctioned by the system that’s supposed to help them maintain a basic standard of living, and allow them to participate fully in society (including, in most cases, getting back to work in a position that suits their skills and abilities)

The wealthy and powerful are forgiven and shielded for every fuck-up, while the poor and voiceless are hounded for the slightest misdemeanour, oreven totally chance event.  That makes *me* want to punch somebody in the face.

No Children

Yesterday evening I eavesdropped, as it were (I’m sure there’s appropriate terminology, but I don’t know it), on a conversation between two people I follow on Twitter.  One has just had a child, and was remarking on how amazing being a father is, and the other concurred.  Rather than interrupting their shared reverie, I thought I’d ramble on about how I don’t entirely get this, and also how society’s attitude to the production and raising of children is rather odd.

Let me start by saying that I’m not criticising the fathers I was reading, nor parents in general.  If you want to have a kid, and believe that you can raise them to be a good person and have a decent standard of living, go for it.  Although these caveats touch on some of my thought: now it’s not my place – or anybody’s as far as I’m concerned – to make decisions for prospective parents, but I do wonder how much thought people give to having children.  Not, of course, that they don’t think about when to do it, and how they’ll reorganise their lives, but the pressure of expectation is so great that the idea of, y’know, not doing it at all doesn’t come up.  And of course there should be nothing wrong with saying ‘no thanks, having kids isn’t for me’.  Yet this is treated as a strange, or even radical position.

Nor am I interested in the purely biological imperatives to have kids/perpetuate one’s genes, etc.  There are fundamental reasons why other organisms reproduce – if there weren’t we wouldn’t be here – and I get that these contribute to human nature.  But this still doesn’t explain why society fetishises parenthood – human civilisation is one of the things, for good or ill, that differentiates us from the rest of nature.  As an aside, this is one of the reasons I don’t understand the pull of evolutionary psychology: trying to explain everything in terms of our hunter-gatherer past rather misses the point of what we’ve been up to for the past few millennia, and at best it’s a long distant starting point.

So you’re thinking about having a baby

Great, many people consider it to be the most rewarding experience of their lives.  You might too, but don’t count on it.  You’re about to invest a huge amount of your time and energy, to say nothing of money, in this project, so it’s probably worth giving it some thought.  Probably best to at least put your plans on hold if you’re only doing it because you think it’s something you should do, but without knowing quite why.  Ditto if you’re doing it because your partner, family, friends, colleagues say you should do it.  These people’s opinions are all important, to varying degrees, but they’re not you.  Most difficult is going to be the case of your partner, but if they want kids and you don’t really, it’s probably best to part ways amicably now.

Oddly enough, I reckon that the most commonly cited factor, that of money, is the least important factor in making this decision.  Plenty of people, generally those with money, will go on about making sure that you’re economically stable and comfortable.  Quite apart from the impossibility of knowing where you’ll be decades in the future, there is no such thing.  People manage on every conceivable income, and expectations tend to fit the circumstances.  For example, I have been amazed to read about a number of people who cannot even imagine not sending their offspring to a private school.  I remember reading a piece in the aftermath of the initial banking crisis which tried to give some perspective on the modern class system, and which featured a banker who genuinely believed that it was impossible to raise a family on a salary of less than six figures.  I guess he might have made some concessions for people living outside London, but he listed off various expenses as necessary, apparently oblivious to the fact that the vast majority of the population live without them.  Which tangent brings me to a real requirement: empathy.  If you can’t think of other people, you probably shouldn’t have kids, cos they won’t just be extensions of your self, however much you might like them to be.

Anyway, if you reckon you can muddle through, and genuinely want to, then go for it.  Billions of people have managed it before, which is not to say that it’s not challenging, as they’ve met with varying degrees of success.  But it’s not a completely outlandish idea.  Quite the opposite, which is my real issue here: why does society at large see the need to continually celebrate parenthood as if it’s the greatest thing in the world?

I get why politicians do, as there are a lot of votes in it, but that’s merely a function a) there are lots of parents, and b) that they think that what they do is worthy of recognition.  So that get’s us nowhere.  But as a broadly political matter, it makes no sense, as people kind of do it anyway, and besides the world is already full enough (in terms of the current infrastructure – I’m not suggesting that there’s an arbitrary limit).  I might make exceptions for people who take a narrowly nationalistic position and who’s national populations are in decline, but this is already a piece with the idea that a growing population is a Good Thing.  And besides, anybody who doesn’t view immigration as a viable solution to this is at least latently racist.

So if there’s no wider incentive, why get so much more excited about it than almost every other possible human activity.  I agree that we should celebrate people who do a good job of it, but no more than we should congratulate those who produce good art.  But in both cases we should withhold the praise from those who do it badly.  It’s true that the very attempt at either might be good for the person or persons themselves, but that’s no reason for the rest of us to weigh in uncritically.

Anyway, for all of the above reasons, and also because I don’t want to, I shall not be having children.  Good luck if you plan to, but don’t think you’re special.  Billions have done it before and more will after; some will do a better job than you, and many will fuck it up a whole lot more.  I hope that wilfull childlessness will gain something of the status of modern atheism – but without the Dawkins, if you please – it may always be a minority choice, but is a viable one where neither side gains any special moral currency from making what is simply a personal choice.

Postscript

One final point about the oddness of people who regard producing children as if they’re doing a favour to the rest of society.  The whole business about providing for the future of the human race is about the most spurious argument you can make.  Firstly, it doesn’t look like we’re in any danger of dying out from this.  Through destroying the environment, maybe, or even a massive nuclear exchange.  But there are plenty of people already having kids, and many millions of young people who could do with food, shelter, and dignity first.  Let’s look after the children we have before we start thinking about having more.

And this last brings me to my second and final point: it’s odd how those who go on most about looking to the future of the species here, and are most pro-‘family’ – which is to say conservatives – give the least consideration to others in the rest of their lives.  Anybody who has or wants to have children should really be a green (more-or-less, and I’m thinking of the ideology, rather than the party itself, as you can disagree on specific policies).  If you’re looking at the future in one fashion, you should really be looking at it in every area.  It makes no sense to want ‘the best’ for your offspring, while cheerfully screwing up their future.  And this isn’t really about people who deny anthropogenic climate change – that’s a scientific discussion that I’ll leave elsewhere – but the fact that even if you don’t think the science quite holds up, any ethical parent should probably at least be thinking about the, in no way outlandish, idea that we might have some effect on the world of our children, and adjusting their behaviour accordingly.

Stop Press: Fuck the Pope

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/11/pope-francis-the-choice-to-not-have-children-is-selfish

Code: Hopelessness

Now I’m sure that everybody who has ever experienced mental health problems has struggled, in addition to the basic issues, with how to describe their particular situation.  It’s incredibly challenging trying to share something when you have no idea if the other person(s) with whom you’re trying to communicate have any point of reference.  When you refer to the physical, you can generally start with some common ground: notwithstanding special visual issues, you assume that everybody else sees the same object in the same way.  This becomes trickier once you move to away from simple observation, but with physical injury and illness there is still somewhere to jump off from.  It’s not unreasonable to assume that one broken leg will have a certain amount with another, even though there’s no way to experience, and hence to know what somebody else’s pain is like.  Of course this assumes a willingness to empathise – it’s perfectly possible to simply deny the reality of another’s pain.  But this is unusual in the case of their being physical symptoms.

With mental illness you don’t even have that starting point.  You rely entirely on the rest of the world to accept your description of what is happening inside your head.  And all too often, your attempt to talk in terms the rest of the world can grasp backfires, because it allows people to file it away in neat boxes that they are already familiar with.  Maybe  you are sad? – well who isn’t at some time or other?  Or if depressed, they immediately look at meatworld factors, like how your job or family life is.  To be fair, I was equally guilty of doing the latter.  I only took myself to speak to a doctor about the situation once I’d looked at every aspect of my day to day life and failed to find a mundane cause (not that I’m bragging about how great my life is, or was at the time).

Flavours

Anyway, if the best way to describe something to somebody who hasn’t experienced it (and maybe cannot) is by finding something similar, surely the next is to talk in terms of difference.  So I’m going to try and describe the various different forms I experience.

Today’s is hopelessness.  There’s an underlying layer of exhaustion, but my lack of will is more based on a feeling – that obviously doesn’t square with my rational understanding – that nothing I do will change anything.  This was much greater last night, and is kind of fluctuating now, hence I’m actually writing this.  But it’s still there at the back of my head.  Will just have to see what happens after another night’s sleep; could be up, could be down, could just fix itself for no apparent reason.  But then that’s part of it – nothing I can do will affect the course.

How to be a good ally

Wish I knew.  I’ve not got any answers, just a few thoughts on how to avoid fucking it up (much).

I mean, I’m aware of the basics: not declaring yourself to be one like it comes with a badge, or viewing it as a permanent status – you’re only one as long as you’re doing the right stuff – listening, rather than making it about yourself, and that sort of thing.  (There are plenty of lists out there, so I won’t attempt to compile one) http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2013/09/no-more-allies/ is one of the best I’ve seen on what not to do.

It’s difficult to keep to these, and there are plenty of places to trip up along the way.  I guess the trickiest is that as a person in a position of privilege – in my case a white cis male – it would be far too easy to lean on that privilege.  Probably the most obvious is that as a guy it’s easy to go into white knight mode, throwing (metaphorical) punches to protect the damsel.  And I know I can do that safe in the knowledge that I won’t get hurt.  Whatever happens, my particular combination of characteristics mean that I’ll wake up tomorrow knowing that the world still laid in front of me.

It’s hard not to do this when we’re worried that people we care about are being hurt.  It’s hard not to do this when we see things that offend our sensibilities, and make us really, really angry.  It’s hard not to do this because we’ve been conditioned to think of this as a good thing, admirable.  But it really doesn’t help the situation.  It’s really just another way of making it about you.  You ride in, save the day, and (although you might not think that you’re doing it for this reason) get the ‘girl’.

And even if you do ‘save the day’, what then?  The same thing will happen tomorrow.  The same structures, and the same people, whether genuinely evil or just callous little shits, will be out there.

Instead, you’ve just got to be there, but giving your support from behind the scenes.  And dealing with your own crowd – maybe gently pointing out to other [men] when they don’t even realise the effects of what they say and do.  But otherwise only getting directly involved, and then quietly, when you’re asked to.

You don’t do it to be a hero.  You don’t do it for the credit (and you damn sure don’t go fishing for anything from those you purport to support).  If you’re serious about it, you do it just because it’s the right thing to do.

Postscript

I’m sure I get things wrong all the time.  I certainly do jump in sometimes.  Oh well, try harder.

“Hey! He lied to us through song. I hate it when people do that. “

It’s amazing how easy it is to lie to those around us.  Lying is generally regarded as a major moral failing, and we would all like to think of ourselves as good people, so we convince ourselves of our virtue despite the fact that we constantly dissemble and misrepresent.  As more than a few people have observed, true honesty is not socially acceptable.

I’m not thinking of of major untruths: the slandering of a rival, the concealment of one’s criminal actions.  Nor the petty viciousness a child might direct towards a sibling, or the way a gossip may massage facts to inflate their own importance (Twitter’s own version, perhaps, being reposting without attribution).  On the flip side, I equally don’t mean white lies proper, where one acts to protect from genuine harm, or shame.

No, the vast majority of the lies we tell are simply social lubricant.  A colleague asks after our health and we unthinkingly reply that we are well.  Or we avoid making a perfectly justifiable complaint in a restaurant in order not to make a scene.  Conversely one might pretend relative indifference to a topic of great personal interest, as we know that interest is not shared by others present.  As a Brit, I have been trained to take part in the great ironical game where a phrase like ‘mustn’t grumble’, which clearly is grumbling in itself, is used to suggest that everything is fine, regardless of whether or not this is the case in fact.  And none of this is to suggest that this is a bad thing.  If whenever one spoke on a matter, one felt obliged to point out every single little dissatisfaction, or to trumpet one’s delight, we’d probably spend most (or more, at least) of our time wishing everybody would shut up for a bleedin’ minute.

Although there is clearly a vast gulf between the way we would like to see ourselves, and how we actually are, there is at least one matter those who sing the gospel of probity have got right: small lies soon become bigger ones, and the few easily multiply.  Or at least this happens if we are not vigilant.  If we unthinkingly lie about the insignificant things, at some point we’ll slip and do the same about things that really matter, that require the truth.  As the title might have suggested, I’m thinking of when we say that we’re ok, but really are not.

Now I don’t want to come across as if I’m painting myself as a paragon, but I’d like to think that I’m particularly good at this.  While I hardly led a childhood of deprivation, I lost my mother at a young age, and yet I never complained.  When I say this, I don’t mean I never objected to anything, or protested about my treatment, just that I never stopped and said anything like, ‘I’m eight years old, and I’ve just had one of the most important people in my life taken from me.  I shouldn’t have to deal with this, and I’d like some fucking help, right now.’  It seems rather funny writing like this about my past self, because I really don’t remember it like it happened to me.  I’m not sure how everyone else looks back on their childhood, but for me it’s more like recalling the elements of a story someone else once told than sorting through my own more recent memories.  Anyway, I digress.

It’s possible that my particular case is exacerbated by my Britishness, middle-class background, or my being male.  I’ve certainly seen mention of the latter in regard to the poor record of men presenting themselves to a doctor when sick.  But it seems rather odd to generalise this way as I don’t see our public spaces flooded with women bewailing their many misfortunes.  Well, I don’t – some people seem unable to distinguish between the legitimate airing of political grievance, and ‘moaning’.  There may be minor differences in the extent, but everybody does it, at least most of the time.  And this may not always be healthy.

I’ll wrap up with the idea that this was just a very long-winded way of saying ‘I’m not ok’.  But I’m kind of ok with that.

Postscript

Maybe I have made an error in assuming that everybody lies.  If you feel that I have misrepresented you, I apologise.  I’d say that I admire you but, in an uncharacteristic moment of truthfulness, I’ll admit that I don’t.  Honesty has its place, but it can also be brutal, hurtful, and even malicious.  I might like to be more honest, but totally?  I think not.  I’d rather get on with those around me.