Thursday, 18 June 2020

What will You Carry Out of Lockdown?

Lockdown has been an interesting experience. In one sense nothing much has changed for me. I work in a Care Home two days a week so I've been going to work as normal. We locked down early and, so far, we've been fortunate in not having any cases of coronavirus. Staff have undertaken to isolate themselves at home, not going out apart from when they come to work. So the 'at home' part of my life has become outwardly much more constrained. There's been plenty of opportunity for relaxation, reading, gardening, meditation, walking in the countryside around our house. I can feel the stress of many years melting away with the significant reduction in pressure to do things, meet people, respond to requests and invitations.

Something that's kept me energised and positive has been the new balance in my life. Two days of purposeful busy-ness and five of reflective spaciousness has felt good. Encounters with other people have been less frequent but deeper. Old friendships have been renewed. I've appreciated the clear challenges at work. It's been obvious what needs to be achieved quickly in response to the virus and the main frustration has been finding the necessary resources. I've been aware that for those working from home for the first time, furloughed or made redundant there may have been less of a sense of work as an 'anchor'. From colleagues in ministry in the various churches, I've picked up a degree of 'overwhelm' in terms of opportunity to prioritise and do things differently; for some this has bordered on an existential crisis. 

Finding myself in a place of heightened practical and reflective response to a crisis has been an unusual and extremely interesting experience. Over the weeks themes have emerged for me that have predominantly been around questions of justice and work. What is the true place of work in our lives and in society? The COVID-19 crisis has thrown up anomalies.

Care work is extremely poorly paid, often at or below the minimum wage. Every day an army of unseen workers cares for the very elderly, the very young and people with disabilities; this crisis has suddenly rendered them more than normally visible. Many have not been paid when they themselves have fallen ill with the virus or have had to isolate. (Care is often paid on an hourly basis with no provision for sick pay by employers.) Meanwhile other workers have been furloughed on 80% pay and have reported 'boredom' or a sense of being on an 'extended holiday.' I'm glad that people have been furloughed rather than losing their jobs and pleased that they have found refreshment amid the anxiety. But the situation has thrown into sharp relief questions about how we value work, particularly the kinds of work the we all rely on heavily to support our lives. Care is just one example. 

So how do we evaluate different kinds of work?

Skill is not perhaps the most helpful measure. It's too blunt an instrument. Justice-for-worker questions may sound more like this

  • who works in ways that are essential for survival?
  • who responds effectively to needs?
  • who brings greater quality of life to most people?
  • who has resilience and stickability?
  • who enables others to contribute?
Our attitudes to work in the economies of the developed world tend to be focused on a contrasting set of questions
  • who can generate market place needs?
  • who is effective in suppressing economically inconvenient needs?
  • who generates quality for those who can pay most?
  • who demonstrates ability to move on?
  • who enables me to do what I want? 

The Quaker, William Penn observed that 'true silence is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment'. It takes a well-nourished soul to meet survival needs, bringing depth and quality to all one does, turning up to do it come what may and allowing others space to do the same. A year or so after I started attending Quaker meeting one of the young Quakers asked me what had changed for me as a result of immersion in silence. I quickly thought of the intangibles - I was calmer, more focused, I'd become more attentive in listening and more measured in responding. But, as I thought about it, I was surprised to recognise more tangible changes too - I'd joined a political party, started gardening (which I used not to enjoy), taken on training as a psychotherapist. I'd not directly connected any of these tangible changes with Quaker silence but I now realised that it was the quality of the silence I was experiencing that had enabled them.

The silence and quiet of lockdown has thrown up many questions, insights, glimmers of the ways things could be different; it has pointed me toward some of the actions needed to initiate and sustain this difference. There have been shifts in perspective, shifts in the balance of my life, shifts in what I find I truly need. These, I feel, are the things to value and take forward. 

One thing I will certainly be taking forward is my work to reform our Social Care system. Those who care for our loved ones - our youngest children and our elderly parents - provide the basic 'oil in the engine' that allows society to function. This 'oil' is the ability of ordinary people to go about their business every day knowing that their family will be cared for at affordable cost by well-motivated, competent, compassionate people. Historically 'care' has been the job of the family, often the women in the family. It is no great surprise that one of our lowest paid sectors arises from a trajectory of 'women's work'. Over centuries the role of women in caring has been transferred from the clan, to the family, to the churches, to the social services and health care agencies without any rigorous evaluation of the qualities and skills involved or the intrinsic value of their worth. 

As a society we simultaneously hold contradictory beliefs about care. On the one hand it's something anyone can do - don't parents do it all the time for their children? No special training or resources necessary! On the other hand it's something about which lots of people say 'I couldn't do that for all the tea in China.' Too much patience needed, too many menial tasks involved! Put the two attitudes together and you have a profession that is not thought of as requiring much resourcing or training, where most people do not wish to think about its reality in too much detail and do not listen to the voices or wisdom of those engaged in it. So the myth that there is a plentiful supply of 'angels' who will instinctively do this sort of work, not for the pay, but simply because they love doing it is perpetuated. And 'society' feels very comfortable about that!

A friend recently said to me during a Zoom conversation, 'We no longer live in a society, we live in an economy.' What would it take to turn us into a society of communities motivated by care? We are so far from prioritising care at the moment (a symptom of this being the neglect of Care Homes' voices and needs during the pandemic) that a colossal shift of perspective is required. This will involve putting insights that come from care alongside and sometimes over and above those that come from the creation of market forces. In such a new perspective success may be seen in terms of making people feel genuinely good about themselves, appreciating what they have to offer rather than seeing only what they own and can or can't buy; not measuring them according to externally generated criteria drawn from the need always to create wealth. 
I've watched really experienced care workers. They attend to their clients. They read the signs and learn what makes a person feel cared for (as opposed to making assumptions about what a person needs based on their own needs.) Here's a small example: at our Care Home there's a group of staff who take infinite care to work out what a resident might like for their birthday. The genuine delight on the face of a person as they open their present or go out for their treat is testimony to the times they get it right. That same approach underlies all profound care. It is the care we experience in the heart of the Divine, to be known so well that the joy within us is liberated and flows out to others. There is no price that can be put on that kind of care. It is a quality our society badly needs and it isn't until we learn to value it that we will begin to have a just relationship with work. 

Friday, 5 June 2020

Benjamin Zephaniah - Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas

Thinking About George Floyd

The name George Floyd has gone down in history and will not be forgotten. I have been so appalled by his murder I have found it difficult to write anything. As a white person I am all too conscious that I should listen more than speak, but I also know that not to speak at all is to condone violence and oppression.

We are wrong, in the UK, if we allow ourselves to think that what we are seeing unfold in the United States is solely an American problem with roots in American history. We have racism built into the fabric of our society in the UK, too, albeit with some slightly different emphases. I don't have to think very hard or move from my desk or even do any research to come up with stories that show this to be true.

I've nursed alongside black nurses and heard the demeaning comments, jokes, 'compliments' ('she's very kind for one of them'). I've watched the government refuse the right to remain to black people who have served, by invitation, in industries and sectors that would not have survived without them, living their whole lives in Britain. I've read books and watched TV programmes that show the extent to which slavery of black people created the wealth on which much of the British industrial revolution was based. I've seen how people assume the black person in the group is the student (not the teacher), the offender (not the lawyer), the committee member (not the chair). I've seen a group of students demolish or ignore the contribution of the black people in the group because they don't see it as relevant to their experience. I've been laughed at by students for putting books written by black theologians on an essay booklist. I've sat tight lipped but silent when friends and family have made derogatory remarks and jokes about people of other ethnic origins. I've seen mixed race friends denied the freedom to celebrate part of their heritage, 'we think of you as white'. I've done and said things that have demeaned black people without thinking and found it difficult to listen to the rebuke; and so I ask how often have I got away without rebuke because my black friend was too gracious or too weary or too angry?

I know very little - and I want to understand more. My own ethnicity is White Welsh British. I look white but I speak a minority language and belong to a people who are regularly the butt of stereotypes and jokes. 'Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief'. The drip-drip frustration of constantly hearing your language and culture belittled damages your pride in yourself and your heritage and puts you on the back foot. Do I defend, challenge or let it go? I cannot imagine living with that 'on-the-back-foot' experience repeated over and over in almost every aspect of your life - your appearance, your access to opportunity, your freedom of movement and speech, your education, the job market, only having the 'right' to exist at the cost of other people's supposed 'right' to make you the focus of a joke or a comment. The less space you are given the more energy it takes to stand, to be, to refuse to shrink, to judge every situation with just the right balance of challenge and grace. I have had a glimpse of how exhausting that might be. And I feel a tiny glimmer of the cumulative pain.     

The events of this week in the USA are indescribably disturbing. As a white person I feel inhibited to contribute and I invite correction and comment for anything I have said that misrepresents or distorts. But I reflect maybe there are a few ways I, as a white person, can work for change. 

  • Always listen to the experience of black people more than speak of my reaction.
  • Be honest about my reaction to myself and, where invited, to my black friends.
  • Never let a demeaning or racially offensive comment go, never join in a joke or let one pass.
  • Make it a priority to learn about and from other cultural perceptions, especially those that are very unfamiliar.
  • Immerse myself in black history and draw attention to black perspectives that contradict or amplify the dominant white story.  
  • Explore variety in other cultures and avoid joining in anything that stereotypes a race or nationality.

In my own discipline of theology, I'm currently reading Nine African Women Theologians You Should Know About by Stephanie Lowery (with thanks to my friend Revd Ade Lawal for recommending it.) Donald Trump's actions this week have shown how Christianity can be highjacked and used in quite dreadful ways and this has been a shocking reminder of how theology has been used to oppress black people. It is ever more pressing that every theological institution takes seriously and teaches black perspectives in theology.

I'm also reading  Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga. My parents worked in Ghana and I know that I have inherited a one-sided version of the history of Britain's relationship to the many countries in which today's black British communities have roots.  I've been re-educated powerfully by Olusoga's work on the influence of slavery on Liverpool. I've been shocked to discover slavery's foundational impact on the whole British economy through the extent to which wealth was created for white people (but not black) by compensation when slaves were 'freed'. See here for Olusoga's introduction to black British history, 'the history we are not taught in schools.'

Racist behaviour does not spring only from contemporary attitudes but from deep-seated inequalities, exploitations and oppressions that are not acknowledged in popular versions of history or theology. That is as true in the UK today as it is in the USA and George Floyd's death should disturb us in Britain a very great deal. 

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Why Repeat Social Care Mistakes with COVID-19 In Schools?

Back in March, incredulous care workers were listening to their distressed managers coming out of meetings in which plans to 'safely' discharge elderly people from hospital into care homes had been outlined. If regulations and guidelines were followed, there would be minimal danger of transmitting COVID-19 - and, of course, there was all this stuff called PPE everyone expected to see delivered any day.

All our experience of working with the elderly plus our gut instinct told us something was amiss. What was being suggested was risky, dangerous and, to say the very least, taking a capricious liberty with the lives and manner of death of vulnerable people. I am not writing this with the benefit of hindsight. At the time many of us made protests. I wrote to my MP and the CQC. 

Had we known then that patients who might be or were infected with COVID-19 would routinely be sent to care homes where there was no particular expertise in nursing highly contagious diseases, no PPE and no facilities for isolation, we would have shouted a lot louder. Had we known that GPs would not be allowed to visit and no provision would be made for proper palliative care in some cases, we would have swung from the trees and yelled.  We accepted the situation with huge trepidation because we knew these lovely, trusting, vulnerable, elderly people needed to be cared for. We drew up the very best plans we could in the circumstances. Many homes went to extreme lengths with staff voluntarily isolating themselves from family for long periods, living in caravans and tents and making their own PPE.

It was a disaster. We had known it would be.  Although many elderly people have been successfully shielded, on May 15th the BBC reported more than 18,000 excess deaths in care homes in England and Wales during April here. Members of the Social Care work force are twice as likely as the general population (including NHS workers) to have died here.

Now, the government seems to be making a similar miscalculation about schools. With the reproduction rate (R) scarcely below 1 for a few days, this reckless government has issued guidelines for social distancing in schools, keeping children in 'bubbles' which prevent transmission between too many households. These guidelines are being challenged by teachers who say that they are simply not workable. The teachers have powerful representative organisations (unlike carers) to speak up for them. The BMA has lent its support to voices that are saying not, 'we don't want to go back to school' but 'we don't think it's safe to send reception class pupils back to school, in this way, now'. Experience, gut instinct and scientific data are all crying out, 'this is very risky.' 

I am no expert in children's health but I do know that there are a whole range of studies that suggest we do not accurately know the extent to which COVID-19 affects children. Nor do we know the extent to which children transmit the disease. There have been studies in China here and elsewhere here but the research is at an early stage and they mostly show what we do not yet know rather than draw definitive conclusions. A syndrome has been identified where children who have had the disease later develop an inflammatory condition that has landed some in ICU here

We all know the extent to which children bring infections home from school, especially the youngest. A friend's family was affected when her sons contracted the virus at school in March. They were, thankfully, not very ill, but Mum and Dad (a doctor and an agricultural scientist) caught it and were off work for weeks. I've just watched a Conservative MP's youtube video describing the approach to distancing that puts children into groups or 'bubbles' of 15 with a teacher. Should someone contract the disease, only the 'bubble' and their families would need to isolate. If each child has even four people in their family, this would result in over 60 people isolating for 7-14 days or perhaps much longer, many of whom could be vulnerable or might be key workers. 

Children have to get back to school but every instinct and a lot of evidence is shrieking '1st June is too soon.' Why experiment with the safety of our youngest children? (In many countries with excellent educational results, they would not be in school until they were 7.) Why not wait until R has been consistently below 1 for weeks rather than days? 

Teachers are not raising objections because they are cowardly, lazy or obstructive. They are raising professional concerns because they instinctively know that we are taking a huge risk with the well-being of children and families. Just as the carers were back in March, they are extremely worried that the regulations and guidelines they are being given are inadequate to contain the infection and, worse, that all the factors relevant to the situation have not been properly considered. They do not want to see unnecessary deaths or the permanent disabling of children or parents who contract the disease. They remember the false assurances given in early March that it was 'very unlikely the virus would be transmitted to care homes' even as care homes were beginning to report that it was being transmitted. 

Teachers and carers have one thing in common. They look after the most vulnerable and the most precious members of society - our children, our parents, those who are abused, those who have dementia, those who have disabilities and are disadvantaged. Most disgracefully, this week, parts of the press have turned on teachers. Regularly, the same parts of the press attack carers who are among the lowest paid and least trained workers in society for alleged dereliction of duty over conditions in care homes. The truth underlying such attitudes is that, as a society, we have become so focused on economic growth and workplace productivity that we have no interest in resourcing and supporting those who do the kinds of work that shore up the quality of our children's and parents' lives. We give lip service to the importance of education and the crucial role of teachers; we clap and call care workers 'heroes' as we send them to look after the dying with no protective equipment. We do not listen to them, we do not take their advice, we do not resource them properly. We allow them to be invisible and disparaged and then we blame them for not overcoming the difficulties our demands place upon them. In failing them, we let down the very people we say we love and value most. A civilised society, at the very least, funds care for its infants and its dying and we have failed the test for the latter. Do not let us fail it for the former.

Monday, 11 May 2020

Changing the Narrative on COVID-19

This little mask is one I have been supplied with to use at work. I have to save it in a plastic bag and reuse it for the same client each time I visit. For 4 weeks I have worn this mask on 12 separate occasions for an hour at a time. 

I have been placed in a position where there are three possible narratives I can tell myself about my companion mask. 

1) 'I must wear it as directed because it is the policy of my employer and I would be at fault not to do so.' (This is what I have done.)
2) 'I should not wear it as to do so under these conditions is a hazard. I am likely to pass on infection or become infected myself by repeatedly wearing a dirty mask. To comply with a policy that research shows may result in harm goes against my duty of care to clients and my training as a nurse.'
3) 'I should speak out about the fact that professionals who need PPE are being forced to implement unsatisfactory policies based on specious information and I should campaign for improvement.' (I am also doing this.)

It's immensely stressful to abide by what you know to be a false narrative.

These three narratives co-incide with the possible positions each of us has been placed in by the government. 

1) 'I must follow government lockdown-easing guidelines because not to do so would break the law or breach public trust.'
2) 'I should not follow government guidelines where they create an infection hazard to myself or others and can be shown to depart from properly researched supporting evidence.'
3) 'I should support campaigns to call out incorrect information and unsatisfactory policies.'

Narratives 2 and 3, of course, invite official censure and disciplinary action - dismissal (in the case of masks) or sanctions or a fine (in the case of government guidelines). 

Narrative 1 ought to be the path we could all follow but there's a problem with it. It's becoming increasingly obvious to a large proportion of the population that this narrative is failing because it is a false narrative, requiring us to act in ways based on skewed interpretations of scientific evidence. The government can see that, due to its earlier decisions, it is losing power to control events and that, now, it is beginning to lose control of the narrative about what is happening. The only option then becomes to change the narrative as the Prime Minister did last night. Last night's change of direction was not about infection control or about economic expediency, it was about spin. 

Now that the message has changed from 'stay at home' to 'keep alert', the responsibility for what happens has passed to the individual. It is now my responsibility and your responsibility to prevent the spread of the virus, despite the fact that the tools we need to do so have been found missing, wanting, absent or, in the case of the moderately clear messages about lockdown, have just been pulled from under our feet.

The CQC guidelines tell me, 'if you carry out procedures' properly then there will be minimal risk', the implication being that if I or a client get infected it will be due to my failure to use a mask properly. The government is now telling us 'if you go to work or school and social distance on crowded public transport remaining alert at all times, we can keep R below 1', the implication being that, if we don't, it is due to the failure of the general public.

At some point and by some means we have to be able to say, 'No. You are asking us to play roulette with the nation's health.' You have imposed policies that are the worst of all worlds. The lockdown is massively damaging to the economy (a price most of us thought worth paying to safeguard health), yet you are starting to lift precautions before R (the infection rate) has been consistently below 1 for longer than the incubation period of the infection, thus potentially throwing away all the advantage of the lockdown.

Monday, 4 May 2020

Resurrection Hope

This Easter I have been very conscious of the words Jesus spoke to Mary Magdalene when she first recognised Him and went to embrace Him after His resurrection. 'Do not touch me.'
So apt for our strange times on a practical level.
On a spiritual level, also apt. Jesus was risen and that was a cause for joy. But he was telling Mary, 'Things are not going to be the same as they were before.' The resurrection changes everything, you will be different, you will find joy and purpose and new life, but the future will be new. 

Today, for many, perhaps all of us, the future will not be as we expected, but it is there for the shaping and hope, faith and love will triumph.
Christ is risen!
The image is by He Qi, a Chinese artist, Do Not Hold On To Me.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

COVID-19: Perspective From The Past

On a pine-clad hill with views of the rolling Nottinghamshire countryside near where we live, you come across the Polish Cross Memorial, a memorial to the first men of the Masovian Squadron who were killed, returning from a flight in 1940.

Sitting in the quiet wood, I felt very connected to my parents' and grandparents' generations. In youth and middle age, across the whole of Europe and across the world, their life was disrupted by separation from loved ones and by being sent to do things they did not want to do, maybe did not agree with. In living and dying, they depended on others, often strangers.

They shaped for us a future which was more peaceful than anything they had known, not perfect but better. Less war, better health care, basic pensions and welfare available to many.

 We are not fighting each other, we have it in our power to do what is asked of us and we can emerge from this with better values, recognising that the lives we all enjoy often depend heavily on the unseen and costly actions of others.

Monday, 24 February 2020

4IR, the Wellbeing Agenda and the New Politics

Britain feels to me like a country that has lost its grip on reality. We are sorely divided with people living in different bubbles of delusion while flinging insults at those who are not part of their bubble. On social media you can flick from the sunlit uplands - 'We'll be living a prosperous dream now we're free of the EU' - to doom laden depths - 'Democracy is fighting for survival with the media and judiciary under attack'. There are two very different types of nostalgia on offer - Type 1, 'Britain has stood alone and will be great again,' and Type 2, 'Life in the EU was full of wonderful opportunities and the sooner we rejoin the better.'

Then there are the more personal lines of attack, 'It's democracy, get over it,' 'You only see it like that because you read the insert name of paper,' or 'You voted that way because you're uneducated and don't understand the consequences.' If you mostly read one type of propaganda you can feel quite optimistic. It's all about positioning ourselves globally so we can prosper by capitalising on the AI and robotics revolution. New wealth and jobs will filter into the economy and we are on the brink of a Fourth Industrial Revolution. Conversely, you can begin drawing up plans for emigration (or a move to Scotland) if you read other sources. It's the end of the welfare state as we've known it, the economy is doomed, free movement and necessary migration have been halted and the government is secretive and out of control.

What we seem to have lost is a sense that we are all in this together. The country has taken an enormous risk at a time when, globally, the known order of things is shifting in unpredictable ways. We are all responsible for the future we create. I find myself searching rather forlornly for groups, organisations, communities that are engaging in informed ways with the reality of the changes that lie ahead. We seem to have revised many of the previously defining categories that provided our landscape. In political terms 'conservative', 'liberal' and 'labour' appear to have taken on new meanings. It appears that to align yourself with current Conservatism is to be in favour of radical change and to be very right-wing. The liberal project appears to be floundering, partly as a result of the tensions that its own generosity to diversity breeds; there is a new sense that people don't trust Liberals. The Labour movement appears no longer to represent the interests and concerns of the working class and perhaps we are not even sure we can define groups by the kinds of work they have (or don't have) any more. Nationalism and regionalism are increasingly seen as ways out of intractable difficulties over the distribution of resources and power. Other than the fact we all inhabit the same little archipelago of islands, there appear to be few shared values that hold us together and our political landscape is undergoing some kind of revolution.

Without intending to be (she thought she was making a philosophical point), Margaret Thatcher was prophetic when she said 'There is no such thing as society.' What is 'society' the new British way? Some fundamental issues need addressing and a key question to ask is,'What does it mean to be human today on these islands?' It's as fundamental as that. What basic needs do we share? How can we meet them? What does almost every person value?

When we address our future in these terms, we come up with things like
  • a symbiotic relationship with the environment that supports our existence
  • food, warmth and a roof over our heads in a variable climate
  • provision of basic care and treatment in sickness and around giving birth and dying  
  • a means of earning 
  • education in the skills that are needed in our society and an appreciation of our common roots 
  • dignity and respect whatever our origins
  • freedom of speech and action tempered by the protection of laws that define and uphold limits for the good of the many
  • compassion - both directed toward ourselves, especially when vulnerable and the capacity not to be so self -obsessed that we cannot show care for others
  • space for creativity, invention, imagination, uniqueness
  • means of engaging in travel and trade

This picture does not accurately reflect my experience of British priorities today. We have a society where increasing numbers of people are excluded from even these basics. Different groups suffer in different ways - some lack food and a home, others lack care in their dying days, others experience their education as anything but conducive to creativity, others have no access to work and others lack basic respect due to difference or characteristics they can do nothing about. This happens in all societies. But today's levels of inequality in Britain are beginning to destroy us. We seem to have set our face to ensure, or perhaps turn a blind eye to, increasingly uneven levels of inclusion and provision. We have collectively said, 'That's OK.' We share no humanity that causes us to ask, 'What risks are acceptable to take with other people's lives and work?' 'Are there levels of cost at others' expense to which we will not stoop?' We have moved to a place where our values are shaped by the overall wealth the country can generate and the conditions for this are set by those who will profit the most at the expense of those who will not profit at all.

There is no nice way to say this, Britain has become a place where greed, actual and aspirational, rampages unchecked while quality of life for many goes mostly unattended to. When teachers tell stories of washing clothes and feeding pupils before they can teach, someone will say, 'Well good for them, teachers have always done this.' When carers say, 'We need more resources,' they are told, 'Soon we'll have robots to do most of your work.' I'll be honest. I don't see leaving the EU as a sensible way to create a better future for Britain. However, there are many issues about our commonality (or lack of it) that urgently supersede the debate about whether we should have done it and the means by which it came about. The fact that we did it is one symptom among others of the very concerning malaise that pervades British life today.

If it is true that the world is entering a Fourth Industrial Revolution at a time of ecological crisis for the planet, Britain needs urgently to make changes in its habitual ways of categorising, thinking and participating. A new humane politics is needed that is a far cry from the political developments we see currently in the Johnson government or among opposition parties.

Last autumn, the Prime (First) Ministers of Iceland, New Zealand and Scotland put forward a proposal for a new way of looking at the performance of governments here. In their Well Being Agenda measurements of GDP take second place to, or at least are considered alongside, indicators of sustainability and equity. GDP is put alongside its cost to the environment and its effect in creating inequality. Factors that take into account well-being and happiness for the whole population have as much weight as the raw creation of financial wealth. The argument is not that GDP does not matter, but that its importance must be balanced by other indicators when it comes to assessing the overall success of a government or the health of a country. This is not dissimilar to the kinds of priority found in the Scandinavian countries and Finland. More detail can be read  about this challenge to conventional economics on the Wellbeing Economy website and in Professor Alister McGregor's recent book Well Being, Resilience and Sustainability: A New trinity of Governance.

I am struck by a very sharp contrast between the contribution women make to the governments employing this new approach and the overwhelmingly male composition of the British government and parliament. The recent furore over the hiring of a government minister with statistically-driven views on eugenics highlighted the extent to which government policy is now formed by an elite, largely male group who act on highly rational approaches to statistically based data without drilling down into things like motivation, empirical evidence of consequence or emotional engagement. Their thinking, research and prediction-power is predicated on a startlingly truncated and one sided understanding of life embracing limited fields of experience. In short, our political life manifests a desperate loss of balance - female/male, right brain/left brain, affective/intellectual, symbiotic/autonomous - in terms of ideology, education and experience.

One of the new political groupings that ought to be emerging in this climate is surely a constituency around sharing and balance, with values drawn from recognition of the emotional bonds that tie us to our planet and bring people together. The dangerous loss of such perspective in Westminster politics accounts for many of the imbalances we see in the way politicians and the media conduct themselves and for many of the features of society that have caused the disillusionment leading to the Brexit vote. We urgently need a feminising and a greening of our political system. The Women's Movement marches that followed the election of Donald Trump have, as yet, failed to live up to their promise in terms of delivering a realistic challenge to mainstream politics. The ecological movement appears to be having a little more impact. One thing that these groupings have achieved is the bringing to light of alternative ways of assessing data and even deciding what data is relevant. As movements they meet with much opposition by dismissal and ridicule (think of Trump's criticisms of Thunberg) but slowly and surely some inadequacies and blinkered attitudes are starting to be being confronted.   

The problem with both the climate crisis and British politics is that we do not have much time. The pace of change is measured in years not decades or centuries. There is little point in putting energy into trying to return to a glorified past (of whatever variety). It's equally pointless to expend disproportionate amounts of effort trying to hold to account those who have shown themselves oblivious to laws, rules and codes of ethics. What Britain needs now is people who will grasp the new ways of trading and generating wealth with a firm and vocal commitment to ensuring they deliver sustainability and rising levels of national and international equality. Or to put it more radically, people who demonstrate a commitment to making sure the sustainability of the planet and decreasing inequality between people shape what it is possible to produce and sell.       

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Murky Waters

Two months into this Government's term of office, what might be called the Sabisky Affair has, perhaps fortuitously, brought to light the darker side of some of the influences that shape thinking going on behind the scenes at Downing Street. And very dark it is too. Who would have guessed, even a year ago, that large chunks of the British media would be having conversations about the rights and wrongs of eugenics and the merits (or otherwise) of research into relative IQ levels reported among different races? More alarmingly, who would have foreseen conversations about whether highly questionable research into such subjects is now shaping Her Majesty's Government's policy formation? For the last forty eight hours I have been pinching myself. This is the British Government we are talking about?

Having not woken up and found it's all a bad dream, I've turned to reflecting on the nature of any signs that this was coming. We know we have elected a right-wing, authoritarian Government that wants to overthrow or radically reshape the institutions that hold the balances of power in our democracy. We've observed their increasingly cavalier attitude toward honesty, transparency and shame. It doesn't seem to matter any longer if you are dishonest or even if you are caught out being dishonest: the thing, if you have enough power, is to soldier on in the knowledge nothing can be done to stop you. Last autumn, we saw attempts at holding the Government to account crumble, become relatively meaningless and, more significantly, fail to prevent their re-election. All in all, we appear to be witnessing a slow, determined power grab, aided by parts of the press, over a population that is relatively unaware (for complex reasons that intersect in potent ways) of what is really happening.

Perhaps what has happened to Sabisky (appointed an adviser to Number Ten then quickly resigning following an outcry about his alleged opinions) has done us a favour.

Firstly, it has brought to light the quality of thinking among the Prime Ministers' advisers. It appears inventive, scattered, at times driven by rationality, at others by emotion or intuitive leaps. This makes for flexibility and ingeniousness but also renders it difficult to identify underlying motivations. Motivation becomes an important question because arguments appear to rely on somewhat capriciously chosen research, inadequately, even uncritically, digested by thinkers who do not grasp the full implications of the disciplines they are engaging with. (In the Sabisky case, this has been effectively pointed out online by Adam Rutherford, a geneticist and author of Creation: the Origin of Life and Creation: the Future of Life). There are some interesting historical parallels with the attitudes and working style of Winston Churchill's wartime adviser, the physicist Frederick Lindemann (quite well summarised on Wikipedia here). 

Secondly, the Sabisky episode has confirmed publicly what many have suspected, namely that some of the attitudes taken seriously by people influential in Number Ten circles are beyond the scope of conventional morality, or at least any kind of morality that is based on common understandings of virtue and common 'goods' for society. (I think, for example, of the kinds of approaches to ethics taken by philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre or, more popularly, writers such as Iris Murdoch.*) This poses a significant problem. Much of public life is still predicated on assumptions about fairness, decency and honesty and the ultimate subjugation of personal or party ambition to the exercise of these virtues. Yet we are dealing with a group of Government ministers and advisers who do not share such assumptions and do not play by the rules that might be expected to flow from them. Sabisky's appointment may be the wake up call we all needed to realise what is going on. I'm encouraged that just about every part of the press did indeed grasp the outrageous nature of some of the statements he is reported as having made.** Sabisky's resignation may also be the wake up call Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings and the cabinet need to realise that there are limits to what the electorate, the press and even their own MPs will tolerate.

I don't often find myself quoting Margaret Thatcher but she notably said, 'Being democratic is not enough, a majority cannot turn what is wrong into right.'  She went on to talk about 'the deep love of liberty' and the rule of law which are certainly things this government might ponder long and hard. But I think she was, in fact, on to something deeper than the question of how we protect our democracy. She recognised that there are some values that pervade our humanity and others that destroy it. Protecting ourselves from those that destroy it is the highest calling. Though I am not a Conservative or even, by inclination, a conservative, I recognise some truth in her words. 

When it comes to this government planning, discussing or implementing policies influenced by notions of

  • superiority by dint of race
  • the subjugation or objectivisation of women
  • enforced mass control of the bodies and choices of citizens
  • people as 'underclass' groups

I refuse to tolerate what they are doing. The only reasonable response is to question and expose their intentions and overthrow their actions, if necessary, by every legal means possible. 

As a child, the first 'grown up' book I read was Anne Frank's Diary. It alerted me to the fact that liberty is very, very fragile. It also showed me how thin can be the veneer of civilisation that keeps us all humane. In Britain, our education system has been poor at helping the past two generations understand what happened across Europe in the 1930's. What we are witnessing with the UK government today worries me greatly because it manifests the same creeping approach to dismantling institutions that need reform. Outwardly this is planned and achieved in the service of the common good, but covertly it is done in the service of undeclared ends that help those with power and wealth accrue much greater power. If you put this alongside bland propaganda and engagement with ideologies of superiority and control, this becomes dangerous.

While preparing this article, I've come across writing by people connected to Number Ten that is frankly shocking. Indeed some of the press articles I've looked at about attitudes to women have contained warnings about the 'upsetting' nature of the content. I have no intention of giving such ideas the oxygen of publicity by reproducing what was written here. I've been careful to check out sources and contexts. My research has led me to the conclusion that, if we are to resist attempts to control people on grounds of gender, race or questionably measured characteristics like ability and intelligence, the whole electorate must be far more vigilant and politically active than we are used to being in the UK. We can no longer leave it to opposition politicians, the judiciary and the press to hold this Government to account or to keep them within past bounds of decency and honesty. We must all be aware and active. If you are black, or a woman, or have uncertain status as regards nationality, if you are unwaged or on a low income, the impact of factors that are being considered with seriousness and attitudes that are coming to be accepted as normal is somewhere between anxiety-provoking and scary. 

* Some really interesting work has been done on the less discussed virtues of civility, decency, truthfulness and ambition which seems especially relevant to the kind of politics we are seeing in the UK - e.g. Pettigrove 2007 Ambition in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 10 (1) p.53ff. Colhoun 2000 The Virtue of Civility in Philosophy and Public Affairs 29 (3) p.251ff 

**I'm aware of the debate about the context of some of Sabisky's remarks and that it may be the impact of the remarks as reported rather than the original intention that has caused offence. I think Tom Chivers, in his article "'Eugenics is possible' is not the same as 'eugenics is good'" sums the dilemma up well here. He says, 'I don’t think, as some people do, that these remarks have been “taken out of context”, as such. I think that even with the context, lots of people would still assume that when he says “FGM isn’t a major risk” he means “we don’t need to care about FGM”.It’s a translation problem: some people think they’re having a cold, rational discussion; other people are alive to the implications; there will be frequent occasions when the two groups will hear the same words and yet understand totally different things by them.'

Friday, 31 January 2020

Woolgathering in North East England: Michael Sadgrove's Blog: Thoughts on Brexit Day

This is the best piece I've seen on the spirituality of the decision to leave the EU. If we are sad, today, as the UK leaves, we should take time to grieve. This is a bereavement for many and, to grieve healthily, we need to express our true feelings. We are not helped to do so (and maybe are not helping ourselves when we join in) by the jingoism of either triumph or disappointed anger all around us. Michael invites us to deep lament where our energies may be renewed and redirected toward working positively among the uncertainties that lie ahead. 

Woolgathering in North East England: Michael Sadgrove's Blog: Thoughts on Brexit Day: This is one of the hardest days of my life.  Brexit Day feels like a kind of dying. Born as I was of mixed parentage, to a native Ger...

Monday, 27 January 2020

Speaking Up: 75 Years After Auschwitz

Yesterday, I went for a swim and a sauna. It's usually a pleasant, relaxing experience with, often, an interesting chat to someone. However, I found myself sharing the sauna with five men and another woman. There was an exchange of what you might call political banter going on. I sat and listened to many things I disagreed with. Then came 'the trouble with the National Health Service is all these f*** foreigners are coming here and using it and not paying a penny..." and  'Boris is going to get it sorted and send them all packing' and 'you'll be able to walk into a pub and not hear b*** gibberish spoken in your own country.'

The other woman piped up, 'I don't think you can say that all foreigners are bad.' I tried, 'A lot of people from other countries are on the staff of the NHS, doing much needed jobs.' But I could feel her nervousness and I knew my stomach was knotted as we listened to more diatribes about foreigners and refugees and, yes, women 'who have never had it so good.' It's not easy to stand up for your principles when you are outnumbered by people in close proximity who are loudly and forcefully shooting down what you say in a manner that feels slightly threatening. I don't think we did very well, but we did try.

Today, I've listened to the speeches by survivors of Auschwitz on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp by Soviet soldiers. 1.1million Jews, Roma, Polish citizens, homosexuals and Soviet prisoners of war were horribly murdered there. As Marian Turski (a survivor) said, 'Auschwitz did not suddenly fall from the skies'. He was quoting something the Austrian President had said to him that had helped him articulate what he felt. The persecution of Jews, homosexuals, Roma and the disabled happened bit by bit, slowly, slowly, a tiny loss of freedom here (no sitting on these benches), a tiny loss of opportunity there (you have to shop after 5pm), a licence to be derogatory (well it's only them, they don't really matter, they never integrated properly). Turski  described how, as a child he observed this process take a hold until such views became part of normality for the perpetrators, the witnesses and the victims.

Eventually the European Jews were crying out for somewhere to flee to safety. Yet nearly every country either rejected them or severely limited the numbers they would accept. 'And that was the point at which Hitler knew he could build his death camps.' The world didn't really care.

Marian Turski spoke of an eleventh commandment that issues from the Shoah (Holocaust). 'Thou shalt not be indifferent.' When you hear lies, when you see governments infringe civil liberties, when you see politicians erode human rights, you must speak out. 

Another survivor, Elza Baker, a Roma, said, 'In a time when minorities have to fear again I can only hope that everyone will stand up for democracy and human rights.' Auschwitz did not fall from the skies. Something similar could happen again. Primo Levi wrote, 'This happened which means it may happen again which means it may happen somewhere in the world.' Another Holocaust begins when we turn a blind eye to the erosion of the rights of minorities, when we harden ourselves against the humanity of people who are different from us, when we denigrate groups of people as 'all corrupt' or 'all bad' and, even jokingly, scapegoat them for our own troubles.

I fear we live in changing political times. Several of the survivors alluded to this. Only last week the safeguards for child refugees in the EU Withdrawal Agreement were voted down by a majority of 342-254 in the House of Commons. This probably affects about 3,000 refugee children who need to be reunited with families in the UK. A tiny number, yet think of the unspeakable misery of separation and the damage being done to young lives. There is a list of the MPs who voted to remove these safeguards here (see bottom of article).

Currently, the Government has issued a consultation document on 'unauthorised encampments' proposing amendments to the trespass laws that will criminalise the lives of Roma, gypsies and travellers, in effect, leaving them with nowhere to live. Even the police appear to oppose the implementation of new laws saying that the current ones suffice. The Government's document can be seen  here and a Guardian article by George Monbiot explaining it more fully here. Parliamentary scrutiny has effectively been reduced by the Government's somewhat cavalier approach to committee work, its tendency to engage in secret negotiations, its tendency not to publish the detail of proposed policies or answer questions in detail and, ultimately, its enormous majority. 

Last week the Church of England bishops issued a statement about civil partnerships and marriage here. The statement makes clear the continued official position of the church which (though somewhat confused) denies the provision of rites for the blessing of civil partnerships or the marriage of same sex couples (paras.17 & 18). Although the bishops acknowledge that there is dissent within the church on the question of recognising and supporting same sex relationships, they continue to uphold as mainstream their rejection. This appears to me to be another of those 'small voices' that normalises or allows the possibility of the objectification and exclusion of a particular group of people who are spoken about, not with.

I was moved by the co-incidence of yesterday's conversation in the sauna and today's Holocaust Memorial to return to a question that has haunted me ever since I read the Diary of Anne Frank as a 10 year old. Would I have spoken up for the Jews when others were abusing them? Would I have stood with them? Would I have refused to join in taunting them? Would I have endangered myself to help them? Would I have hidden anyone who was being hunted? 

I don't know. We none of us know until we are faced by an ugly situation. Judging by my reaction in the sauna, I might have tried tentatively and given up rather lamely. I can see that today, perhaps even more than in the recent past, there is a need to practise those little habits of speaking out, challenging unfounded blame, contradicting hate speech, lobbying for what you believe in, identifying and working with others who are concerned about the right of every human being to be respected, treated with dignity, freed to speak their mind and allowed go about their legitimate business and way of life.

Do not be silent when minorities are belittled or attacked.
'Thou shalt not be indifferent.'

I hope I have quoted the words of the survivors at the 75th Holocaust Memorial correctly. Some were translated by interpreters and they were written down by me at the time of hearing. I apologise if I have not got the exact words.     

Monday, 11 November 2019

To Listen is the Greater Part of Prayer

How did you learn to pray? My mother taught me. Every night, before bed, we knelt down and said 'thank yous', 'sorrys' and then there was 'please bless...Mummy, Daddy, Nana, Taid, Auntie so and so, Uncle thingumy...' It could go on for quite while.

That's not so different from a lot of adult prayer. Some of us go in for sincere, conscientious lists of people and concerns we are committed to. Others go in for the dutiful, disciplined offering of set forms of prayer that mark out the times of day and the seasons. Still others regale the Almighty with desires, believing that if we have enough faith, these desires will somehow become consonant with God's and will therefore 'come to pass' as the scriptures put it. Most of us include genuine expressions of gratitude and regret as we go along the way but a very big chunk of much prayer is either intercessory or liturgical, the former expressing desire and the latter involving the recitation of the words of scripture or a denominational text. When words fail us we have recourse to 'your will be done'. A particular dislike of mine is the pastoral conversation that is directed into prayer when things get a bit tricky; I'm suspicious that there's an unacknowledged agenda or that it's a device for exerting covert pressure to conform.

Recently re-reading a biography of Jung, I was struck by a passage in which he describes overhearing his father (a minister) praying. 'I saw how hopelessly he was entrapped by the church and its theological thinking' (p.20, Jung: A Biography, Gerhard Wehr, 2001). This gave me pause for thought. So much prayer is constrained either by our own semi-acknowledged desires and horizons or by what church tradition has told us it is acceptable to think, feel and say. Much Christian prayer seems to miss out on the truly radical aspect of relationship with the Divine which is listening - listening to ourselves to discover the truth about our innermost motives and our habitual behaviours, listening for the stirring of that which is of God within us, within others and within the political and natural events around us. This takes time, discipline, repetition and a persistent commitment to an openness of attitude that lays aside dogma and systematisation.

There are many books about this kind of listening (often called contemplation). It's an inward journey, but also a journey shaped by and seen in outward influences. Here are some questions that might prompt us to review how deeply we listen. The more profoundly we listen in everyday life, the more we increase our capacity to listen to God and vice versa. 

  • Who have you really listened to today?
  • Who has really listened to you and how did you know?
  • How often do you find yourself anticipating what's going to be said or thinking about your reply before the speaker finishes?
  • When did you last hear something that changed you?
  • When did you last stop to listen to something in the natural world?
  • What was communicated in the last memo you read?
  • How many repetitions does it take you to pick up a short tune?
  • Do you often forget or mis-hear simple instructions?
  • When did you last hear something truly unexpected?
  • Who never listens to you?
  • Who do you tend not to listen to?
  • When did you last sit in silence for 10 minutes...half an hour?