Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Disclosure and Silence

I read Diarmaid MacCulloch's seminal book Silence: A Christian History about a year ago. At the time I was very struck by the amount of space he gives to the silence of not naming, forgetfulness and shame. It was an aspect of silence I had not previously considered very much and especially not in connection with whole traditions or institutions. As he points out it is possible to build whole identities through 'things casually or deliberately forgotten' and this often happens for the sake of institutional survival at the expense of the individual. 'Life is rarely comfortable for the little boy who says that the emperor has no clothes.'(p.191)  

MacCulloch explores, in particular, three acts of forgetting, namely Christian attitudes to slavery, the Western churches' attitudes to the Nazi Holocaust and the concealment of clerical child abuse in the Roman Catholic church. He identifies these as 'circumstances which no amount of historical relativism can condone' and looks at the way shame and silence have become tangled in both the causes and the retrospective evaluations of these phenomenon. I was interested at the time I read the book because I was involved in work on modern day slavery. Sadly, the upturn of far right movements in Europe and the USA and the on-going disclosures about abuse in society and in the churches mean that his observations have stayed very much at the front of my mind. In the current climate of disclosure his words seem prophetic. 'As we know from many walks of life, the powerful often have a lot to hide, and they strive to regulate the right to silence.'

But there is another side to the story of silence and the book also explores that. Silence often lies at the heart of religious experience and, for Christians, the silence of Christ at his trial and in his crucifixion is more powerful than any power 'of this world or even the next.' (p8) There is at the centre of Christianity a profound paradox in the Christ who is called the 'logos' or Word and who comes with a message and the same Christ whose very message leads to crucifixion and is the cause of his voicelessness. W.H. Vanstone has written at length in his book The Stature of Waiting about the silence and powerlessness of Christ from the moment that he was betrayed and handed over to the authorities; it was a silence in death that led to resurrection and the establishing of Christianity. Christian traditions from the Desert Fathers and Mothers through the mystics to later movements such as the Quakers have understood silence to lie at the very heart of the human experience of the Divine and as such to precede anything that can possibly be said.

And this is where I have begun to wonder about the true nature of silence and words and their relationship to power. In many parts of the Christian tradition it seems that words precede silence almost as though the purpose of the silence is to allow space for meditation on the words. What then very quickly grows up is a whole enterprise that is directed to examining, explaining and defending particular words and concepts and using them 'correctly'. But what is their source and who or what controls the notion of 'correctness'?

In a few traditions there is an emphasis on the emptiness of silence and a recognition that the practice of silence (and rather a lot of it too) is the most valuable thing that a seeker after truth can participate in. From this flows a quietude that results in certain states. One is the state of what I can only describe as reserving judgement - a recognition of the respect due to the vision of another person as they too emerge from silence. It may be that two people try to speak of what they have each experienced but there is no preconception of content. What is heard is then weighed in further silence. From this brief description it is obvious that any power relationship between prescribed teachings and doctrines and the insight of individuals is non-hierarchical. It is also obvious that discernment of truth takes a great deal of time and continues to evolve in ways that are the responsibility of all concerned. Anyone who has attended a Quaker business meeting, for example, will know both the strengths and the frustrations of such a process and they will be struck by how counter-cultural it all is.

Yet, to continue with my example, it is not ultimately true that traditions who ground their being in silence are without influence in the wider world. In fact, quite the opposite. Quakers are a small group, world-wide, and are probably best known for their largely silent worship. They do speak and they speak in measured and careful ways, occasionally to great effect. The work of the Quaker United Nations Office is one example of this happening. Jonathan Woolley explains the work of the office in a short video here outlining the distinctive work of Quakers in bringing representatives of the many NGOs and offices at the UN together in unthreatened space where they can 'connect as human beings'. From this and the research undertaken by the Quakers flow practical and political initiatives which reshape attitudes. Work is currently going on in peace building and the prevention of violent conflict, climate change and its human impact, human rights and the plight of refugees, disarmament and resource distribution.

Silence is a necessary condition for the emergence of truth and attitudes that transcend conflict, separation, dissembling and shame. It seems we have ever needed people of silence but we are slow to recognise it and slower to dare to sit in profound and protracted silence as a precursor to action. Only through the silence of heart and mind that precedes the humility needed for respect can a way forward be found between parties caught up in the abuse of power. That journey will start with the recognition that the exercise of power must change.       

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

The Kitchen Table

With thanks to Aisha Coppack
for the photo

When a table is set it stands as an invitation. Friends from afar, family, the cat who jumps from the stairs onto guests' shoulders, the unexpected caller who sits at the corner with a bowl of soup. The sharing of food and the exploring of ideas, the telling of events and the hearing of moans and groans about this week's grind. A table stands as a reminder that time and food are precious, that people are even more precious and that more can aways be squeezed in. Chipped crockery and odd assortments of glasses - three of this kind, five of another - stand as testimony to other meals, to the passing of time and to the ups and downs of life together. Scorch marks and writing gouged into the wood are reminders of long-gone culinary experiments and last-minute letter writing. And on the table are presents, food and drink brought by others, to be shared and the left overs to be enjoyed tomorrow. The table stands at the heart of life together. Tables are always best with two or more sitting together. But even when there is one, there are good memories and hopes that more will come another day.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Why Write Poetry?

On holiday I indulged in the luxury of scribbling in my journal, reading and musing on what it is I'm trying do in creating poetry. Introducing an article about W.H.Auden's insights into the work of the poet Maria Popova says this, 'The Commonplace Book has been particularly beloved by poets, whose business is the revelation of wholeness through the fragmentary' (A Certain World: A Commonplace Book, W.H.Auden).Throw-away line though it is, I warm to this as a definition of what the poet is trying to do - the revelation of wholeness through small details, the communication of something universal through specific moments of life, the power of reflection on keen observation to see beyond what lies on the surface of an event. Auden says that what the poet has to convey is 'not self expression, but a view of reality common to all, seen from a unique perspective.'

Auden also talks about truth emerging from 'moments of enchantment'. These are moments when we are most truly ourselves, drawn into a sense of certainty that transcends both belief and doubt; we just know. He warns about the possibility of false enchantment (when we desire to possess or be possessed by the object of enchantment) but, I think, sees that the best poetry grows from a true enchantment in which we desire nothing other than that the object of enchantment exists and is communicated. 

Alan Lightman writes about similar moments of suspension between belief and doubt, seeing clearly and stumbling blindly, when he says, 'Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand....the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.' Poems so often start with a moment of fascination which, when remembered, worked on, expressed, leads to quite another place than expected.


Cultures that turn a blind eye to abuse of power linked to sexual harassment are being called out in a dramatic way. I nearly wrote 'finally being called out', but is this, in fact, the final push? Judging by the stories that are emerging, this kind of behaviour is even more endemic than imagined and potentially touches almost every kind of institution, organisation and informal group. And that's an understatement; it appears to be at the heart of many, the modus vivendi for some of the successful and powerful men at the top. So it would be a shame if the current climate of willingness to speak out were to dissipate before action has been taken in the worlds that stand accused.

© Bristol Post

The energy behind the Women's Marches was largely galvanised by the recognition that the USA has a president who has been recorded boasting about sexual harassment. This fresh new burst of energy marked by the participation of so many millions in the #METOO movement is a follow-on from that. It perhaps delineates the point in history where women are recognising that the only way to change cultural assumptions about behaviour towards anyone who has less physical, economic or social power than you is to call out bad behaviour with the support of others who have experienced and observed the same kind of abuse. Never before has this been such an accessible option as it is today due to social media and the internet.

Up until now the privatisation of this sort of behaviour has enabled it to thrive. My mother's generation were only too aware of such things but largely 'didn't talk about them in public' and dealt with them by avoiding contact with the perpetrators and shutting up. In the 70's when I was a young woman, there was still a kind of objectification of harassment; it was something that happened to someone else so the shame that it had happened to you kept you silent. You might tell a girl friend and try to laugh it off or you might just worry over it on your own - 'what's wrong with me?' 'what did I do to attract that kind of attention?' But the remarkable thing was that all of us knew several people to whom it had happened. As we grew older we realised that this kind of experience was one of the factors preventing us from doing so many things from walking home alone at night to applying for promotion to getting our voices heard in the organisations where we worked.

Women fall into two distinct groups when it comes to dealing with the (often subtle) harassment and sexual abuse of other women. There are the 'I believe Anita' people who are predisposed to take the victim's story at face value and to acknowledge resonances with other such stories (and maybe their own experience). Then there are the 'Don't make a fuss/it isn't that bad/you'll only make it worse for everybody' people who advise caution or inaction and, by so doing, effectively deny the true, persistent and cumulative power of such experiences. 

I recently witnessed the misuse of male power by the utilisation of derogatory language about women and the stereo-typing of male/female gender roles. It happened through the actions of one man in a group where there were five times as many women as men. The group was made up of some very articulate, capable and mature people but it took four days and the absence of the culprit for the behaviour to be named. Promises were made about dealing with it but up to this point I have heard nothing from the organisation concerned about whether or how the situation was addressed. If it is this difficult to call out an abuse of power, no wonder lone victims tremble at the thought of coming forward.

The uniquely new thing about the #METOO hashtag is the possibility of calling out abuse publicly at the same time that others do so. If 500 people had joined in, it would not be perceived as a matter of public interest. If 100,000 had joined in it would have been possible to dismiss the concerns raised as my mother's generation did, by branding them regrettable, minority behaviour thus proving the point that too much was being made of the matter by a few sensitive souls. The fact that millions and millions of women across the world have joined in says, loud and clear, this is normal everyday behaviour, routinely encountered by women who are then left to deal with the problem without any kind of structured support. The law, the prevailing culture of organisations, the teaching of many religions and philosophies, the assumptions of police, medical and educational institutions are all stacked against the woman who says 'I was touched/unfairly dismissed/raped/exploited for another person's sexual gratification without my consent.

What has changed? Women are beginning to say not 'We ought to hear her', 'we think her story is like ours', 'perhaps it happened the way she describes', 'how dreadful' but 'ME TOO'. 'I am willing to tell my story of the way I have been treated'. Is this the point at which history evolves to become her-story too? Theologians like Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza pointed out, decades ago, that women's stories are simply edited out of history as being of no interest by male editors. (My mother's generation were colluding in this centuries-old phenomenon every time they said, 'Don't make a fuss.') It's remarkable that some stories of women have crept into most patriarchal cultures but, again, the scholar always needs to ask, 'Is this being told from the view point of the women or the prevailing patriarchal culture?" 'Why is is being told?' (Think about it - the story of rape in Judges 19, who benefitted from that story being told?) In the #METOO hashtag we have a pivotal moment. At last women are telling their stories in enough numbers and enough ways to subvert the over-riding narrative. Up until now we have all lived with a meta narrative that tells the story of a society constructed for the good of both women and men (perhaps needing a little tweaking here and there). This is not the experience of several million women. 

The writer Roxane Gay is currently editing a new anthology of essays about rape and sexual harassment called Not That bad. Although I most certainly do not look forward to reading it, I do believe that it is now down to the writing community to do our bit in normalising the stories of women's experience that include all the minor and major harassments our mothers would have said 'keep private'. Of course, our own psyches also shout or whisper 'go carefully' but there has to be an outing and a naming and a telling that encompasses the reality of the completeness of our relationship to male power if anything is to change.

Just like the Women's Marches, the #METOO moment could simply wind down and lose its power. The Women's Marches, contrary to what many predicted, continue to spawn significant new departures in political thought and activism. So, I hope, will the #METOO hashtag, becoming  a groundswell for sea change. The dam is breached and there comes a flood of disclosure, the moment for a powerful shift in balance between history and herstory. 

Post script
In searching for an image for this blogpost, I was struck by the fact that, at a quick glance, I could find French, Spanish, Italian, Indian, Latvian, Dutch, Swedish, Japanese, Kenyan, South African and Canadian versions. I am grateful to the Bristol Post for the one I chose.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Thought About Thought for the Day

A verbal battle royal seems to have broken out over Thought for the Day, a 2 minute 45 second slot on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. The presenters have branded it 'deeply boring' and 'all roughly the same'. Various deliverers of the slot have risen to the bait, defending its alleged ability to show a view of the world 'as seen through a religious lens'. See, for example, BBC Says Thought for the Day is not About to be Axed in The Tablet

Objections seem mainly based round the sheer repetitiveness and lack of teeth displayed in the content and the fact that atheistic perspectives are not included which, in a multicultural society, suggests imbalance.  Support for the slot is focused round accusations of an animosity toward faith-based view-points in broadcasting and the allegedly ever decreasing airtime given to religion by the BBC.

© Hearing Voices Cymru network

In our household, Thought for the Day is often the moment we remember the cat needs a clean litter tray or some item has to be printed off urgently for work. I agree with the presenters who've pointed out that you can almost guess what many of the slots will convey. There are one or two shining exceptions among the speakers and I would argue that the whole enterprise would have more impact if the programme kept a sparkling, incisive or entertaining Occasional Thought but got rid of the rest. And please do let's be fair to atheists, philosophers and ethicists if the thing is about belief in a multicultural society. (I was under the impression that we do hear from humanists sometimes?)

In the delivery of the speakers, you can usually hear sincerity and a desire to communicate that which is precious to them. But is this what's required? In the middle of a programme which doesn't dodge the sharp issues of the day, why does the 'religious bit' so often not rise above the level of illustrated platitude? I, for one, would like to learn about what each religion's impact actually is (not what believers wish or think it might be.) So, heavily supplement the academic, clerical contributors with more ordinary, practising believers (and atheists) engaged in professions that throw up tricky dilemmas. Hunt out the leaders of faith-related projects that have demonstrably changed some or other situation. Use religious correspondents and journalists. Let's hear from people who live with challenging difficulties because of their faith. And please can we  actually have some news? (I mean that in the sense of 'something that is new to us'.) If this can be accompanied by well researched comment, so much the better. The religious presenter ought to respect the serious journalistic enterprise which characterises the rest of the programme. Comment can be drawn from a faith's tradition, but let it be more than wishful thinking and let it be engaging and motivating. This is a challenge to the speakers but also a challenge to the programme's editors to do a bit more digging around to find suitable contributors.

Finally, before I cut myself off by exceeding my limit, there's a serious pitfall for the would-be religious broadcaster. It's nigh-on impossible to deliver a credible message of the 'there-is-much-to-be-recommended-in-our-faith' variety to a world that sees religious extremism and intolerance, religious bickering and persecution and abuse in religious institutions. Yes, some of us would accept that we should expect to find sin/wrong-doing everywhere (others would not) but there's a huge turn-off factor in attempting to present the 'religious world view' or one's own faith as theoretically offering privileged wisdom; humility is required. Put simply, no-one would accept lectures on behaviour from a corrupt and misbehaving faculty. People are convinced by true stories about what has been achieved, what has been changed, what is admitted to be wrong and what is dreamed of by exceptional visionaries (who usually have clay feet and not much status.)