Guerrilla Litter-Picking

Like many men my age I’m liable to sound off a bit. On occasion. For good reason. And there are many good reasons to be angry about many real issues. However, anger can become a default emotion for many men my age. It’s the other side of depression and (perhaps) it’s better out than in. Inward anger is linked by the more holistically minded to many bodily symptoms of ill health – and even the most Cartesian of medical minds admit that stress induces high levels of cortisol with a knock-on effect that’s not only bad for the waistline but is linked to Type 2 diabetes etc.
Grumpy is a stereotypical attribute of older men but vary the adjective a little and other stereotypical irascibilities come into focus: peevish, waspish, nippy, surly, petulant, bitchy, thin-skinned, aggressive, high-maintenance, demanding, hard to please, not amused. There are many manifestations of habitual anger and a bit of wordplay will ensure that’s there’s one demographically suited especially for you.
Nowadays many of us feel that we are justified in having anger as a default reaction to the wrongs of the world. We would all be quite happy if not for the treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers, if not for climate change denial, if not for cruelty to animals, if not for racism and homophobia and misogyny, if not for the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, if not for Teresa May and Donald Trump. If only these things would change, we would get back to being out usual bubbly happy-go-lucky selves. If only.
And just Zenning out or doing yet another spa weekend/ Tough Mudder/ Marvel Comics Movies binge/ (insert favourite displacement activity) can feel a bit of a cop-out. What do we do? What can we do? In the face of all that’s wrong, isn’t that the basis of our communal, continual, ever-present, exhausting, anger?
And for those of us whom the powers-that-be (higher, lower or just purgatorial) have tasked with the burden and duty and privilege of caring for a specific vulnerable person (or several at once) then all these political concerns become so personal that at times it’s simply unbearable.
And that’s when I take my trusty Ben for a walk. Along the banks of the beautiful Forth and Clyde canal. Which winds beside the remains of the Antonine Wall, one of Scotland’s most unknown, unprotected, and uncherished cultural legacies. And on that walk through this place of Victorian and Roman imperial heritage there are empty bottles of Buckfast (cheap fortified wine made by English monks) and cans of beer and their plastic rings and the supermarket plastic bags they came from, tossed about. If they haven’t already been smashed/ thrown into the canal or set on fire along with the grass.
And it usually makes me angry. But tonight, I found myself thankful that the local youth had had the grace (this time) not to chuck the bottles at the stank just below the swings. An empty bottle is better than a broken one. And on my way back, Ben still sniffing and gambolling about – because his default emotion is either highly energetic or very lazy joy – I picked up the plastic bags, snapped apart the plastic beer rings and put them and the cans and the bottle in the bags, took them home and recycled them.
It’s not much. It’s just guerrilla litter-picking. I don’t do it all the time. But when I do engage in this little sporadic and disorganised warfare against hopelessness, I can feel my cortisol levels drop and my grumpy face relax. A little.
There are so many of us. We have such energy. Just think what we could do. Just think what we do do. Now and Zen.

old-bridge-on-canal

Thanks to Karen Arnold for releasing her photo Old Bridge on Canal into the public domain.

Triage and Tyranny

1855. You are sitting outside a large medical tent in the freezing winter on the shores of the Black Sea. Future generations will know this is the Crimean War. To you, a young woman from a sheltered background with scant medical training, it is Hell.
Here they come.
The tent behind you is partitioned in three. To the right, the wounded soldiers likely to survive without medical intervention; in the centre, those likely to die without medical intervention; to the left, those likely to die; outside, those already dead. There are three exits from the tent. The word ‘likely’ does not mean very much, but it’s the best that can be done in the circumstances.
As the first one approaches, stretcher supported by brothers in arms, you know that your split-second decision for right or left or centre (or outside) is likely to save some lives and to end others. If you do nothing, many more will die. If you try to save them all, many more will die.
You steel yourself, thrust down your feelings, and begin the first, rapid, assessment.
This scene is an imaginary illustration of very real events that have been taking place just behind the front line in many wars for many years. A complicating factor, and there are many, is that there are only so many doctors and there’s only so much time. So only those most likely to survive will receive treatment. Any time wasted on those to the right or left means more of those in the centre will die – as some will anyway. This necessary categorisation, in these circumstances, is not only life-saving; it is almost certainly a sentence of death. Someone has to do it.
As morality deals with good and evil; ethics deals with right and wrong. Their relationship is complex. The kind of ethical decision-making employed by the young woman in the illustration is today called ‘utilitarian’ – meaning that such decisions are based on their utility, i.e. the good that may come out of them. Several modern philosophers are associated with utilitariansim but the foremost champion of a single ethical imperative outweighing all others is the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant.
Kantian ethics, deriving ultimately from Plato’s Socrates (via a misreading of Aristotle) had great influence in Nazi Germany and, as I show in my thesis, continues to have great influence in the United States of America.
What a horrible thing to say! How can I compare a courageous young woman doing her best to save lives against all odds in hellish circumstances, with Hitler and then with the Land of the Free?
Firstly, as the classicist Prof. Martha Nussbaum shows, Kantian ethics are an attempt to avoid the tragic conflict of opposing ethical imperatives. In other words, the young women sitting outside the tent in the Crimean War avails herself of the clarity of these ethics so that no matter the particularities of each wounded soldier (the one whose blue eyes remind her of her brother, the one who pleads for life because of his pregnant wife, the one who has high rank in the Army) she is able to make a decision based solely on the greater good: saving as many lives as possible.
I cannot fault the exercise of Kantian ethics in those circumstances. Grave problems arise, however, when frontline decision-making becomes the basis of ethical conduct in times of peace.
Kantian ethics rely on the total removal of all other ethical considerations opposing the main imperative. A key part of this process (as modern philosopher Dr Mary Midgley shows) is the reduction of particular people and particular circumstances into universal categories. (Also reduction happens, as I show in this book, by use of language.) So, for example, sandy-haired Private Benjamin Jones, 33, a nonconformist lay preacher and amateur boxer, married and faithful to pretty brunette Nelly Jones neé MacDonald, although in love with his lieutenant, who has three kids (the youngest coincidentally resembling the postman), doting parents, a dog and likes fishing, becomes ‘suppurating wound in the thigh’ and is sent to the left (to die).
The reason why frontline ethics are a problem in peacetime is that the only thing that recommends them is their simplicity. I’m not for a moment saying that triage is simple but Kantian ethics are designed to respond only to the greatest ethical imperative and ignore all the others. As Prof. Nussbaum shows, this is the reverse of Aristotle’s teaching that it is the particulars of each person and circumstance that most surely guide us towards a wise ethical response. Not simple, wise.
This kind of sensitivity to particular ethical situations is recommended by moral philosophers such as Rev. Charles Curran, the American theologian who was in frequent conflict with Pope John Paul II. What concerns me is that it is a sensitivity increasingly under threat as more and more organisations worldwide are affected by American corporate values.
Charitable organisations are especially vulnerable as they often flounder in terms of effectiveness, communication and organisation so a hard-headed person unafraid to make tough decisions may seem like a godsend. The catch is that such decision-making may indeed be tough, for anyone with much humanity, but for those hardly burdened by conscience it is quite simple: set goals, clear obstacles, forward march!
Further complications arise because charitable organisations are full of people who feel it is uncharitable not to think the best of others. So if a candidate for a powerful position shows psychopathic tendencies, these may be interpreted as ‘focussed’ or ‘business-minded’. Freud’s rather innocent example of such tendencies (a girl who likes a boy she met at a funeral hoping for another funeral to maybe meet him again) shows that they are not just shared by the criminally insane. In fact, a recent survey of top companies found that a fifth of CEOs shared these tendencies.
It’s a commonplace in the more smug varieties of chicklit and womens’ magazines to poke fun at males (never men) making up the majority of those on the autistic spectrum; on the other end of the same spectrum psychologists are concerned that women (never females) who make up the majority of those on the psychotic spectrum are not receiving support as the condition is so badly publicised.
Adding all this together with the everyday sexism that still abounds and the trend in the third sector is for organisations to be run by someone high on the psychopathic scale, with immediate subordinates (or support from Head Office) of men who find it easier to stick rigidly to rules than interact with changing human situations (as emotional particularities are so overwhelmingly complex to interpret) and with women in the majority of grassroots workers and many of them self-sacrificing and painfully sensitive to the opinions of others.
On top of all this may be the hothouse effect that occurs when communities are cloistered canonically, isolated geographically or otherwise shrouded in secrecy due to the vulnerability/ naivety of their client group or the difficulty in getting staff. An insistence on ‘professionalism’ may mean that dissenting/ abused employees and volunteers are prevented from expressing anything other than the party line – as the psychopathic boss controls formal communication and informal communication is condemned as ‘gossip’ unworthy of good people, scandalous to the public/ clients and contrary to the exemplary values of the school/ church/ home/ charity/ community. The hallmark of the psychopath is the inability to recognise or feel any remorse for the harm they have done to people, so they move effortlessly from sadistic treatment of an individual to community schmaltz with a beaming face of innocence.
There is much wisdom in the co-dependency awareness movement but what it may fail to grasp is that everyone involved may sincerely believe that they are doing the right thing:
– Laying down the law
– Sticking to procedures
– Self-sacrificing and keeping silent
As we watch in awe the debacle of American democracy, it may help to realise that the unprecedented administration is a symptom, not a cause, of frontline ethics applied in peacetime.
The reduction of complex situations to simple categories of right and wrong, the dehumanising of people, the control of the people by force and censorship of the free speech, these are the hallmarks of military crisis and in such times the Ancient Romans accorded special dictatorial powers to a designated senator (usually a consul). The Ancient Greeks called this person a Tyrant.

funny-hospital-sign

Thanks to Linnaea Mallette who has released her photo ‘Funny Hospital Sign’ into the public domain.

Afternoon of Life

For my birthday, a good friend gifted me a link to a New Age film which is part of the inspiration and industry related to a certain famous channeled body of writing. The body in question is a lively organism of many members and this film is only one of the many related works. The title doesn’t matter as, in the whole film I found nothing original. The book, ditto. I didn’t put the word ‘channeled’ in scare quotes as I have no problem with archetypal writing, or the kind of book that Robert M. Pirsig (who doesn’t use that word) calls by the Swedish word kulturbärer (culture-barer). I do, however, have a lot of problems with the culture embodied in this film.

To be fair, there is much that is good about the film. Many creative works begin by choosing a different path in midlife and, if Dante’s Divine Comedy was a momento mori (remembrance of death) than this film is definitely a reminder to live life, and to live it to the full. All well and good, and in the afternoon of life we may do well to remember that life is for living.

I can put up with the New Age smugness, the smile and the not-really-listening-to-the-question-because-you-already-know-the-answer; these are symptoms of an attitude common to all ideologies. The studied childlike anti-intellectualism, which precludes an ideology becoming a critical philosophy, the vagueness and conflation of concepts of self and universe and nature and the divine, which preclude fragmentary teachings becoming a religion (or even a full spirituality); these are annoying but not toxic elements utilised by this industry. More irritating is the gender binary, seemingly stuck in melodramas of 50’s suburban Americana awaiting the liberation of Second Wave feminism. So we hear that pre and post the ‘quantum moment’ (a peak experience that [unlike peak experiences] is enduring and simultaneously a paradigm shift, always for the better) men and women want different things. None of them surprising (for those who know the genre). But the male teacher conveniently forgets, in his universal call to service, that while human beings find our purpose in serving, women, apparently (they’ve done studies), need to do their own thing.

So I wonder, as usual with the abundance/ awareness version of the New Age, whether ‘human being’ really translates as ‘independently wealthy White US male’. Just don’t ask by what means he or his family got the money. And please don’t stop supporting this multi-million dollar industry, that prides itself on not being materialistic.

I’m being unkind and unfair, I know. Just about everything I’ve said could, with a couple of tweaks, be equally applied to scientific socialism, Roman Catholicism, or the touchy-feely micromanaged milieu of call centres. I’m not being partisan, I often take pot shots at my coreligionists, when I find them lacking in collective compassion – and don’t get me started on call centres!  But the film bothers me because it’s almost right.

Its naiveté is breathtaking. We’re told that, as we lacked nothing in the womb, as all was provided perfectly, so, with non-interference and good will, all will be well in life after birth. Without going into reproductive ethics, from the perspective of life in a woman’s womb, there are so many things that can and do go wrong – abortion, miscarriage and non-fatal damage being three. It’s also beyond me how, looking around the seas and shores of Europe at the moment, everything can be said to be working out perfectly. This is the Humpty-Dumptyism of language. If that’s what ‘perfect’ now means, we need another word to describe what it used to mean. One that doesn’t include calamity.

So the film is plain wrong about the politics of privilege, this whole industry masks its present day material relations and considers anti-capitalist protest a form of mental illness. The much-vaunted ‘purpose’ we are all encouraged to find seems to be to support the industry, while appearing not to.

So what’s good about it? This film is a reminder to live life, and to live it to the full. And yes there is much insight into creativity and wonder and play as essential elements of a life well lived. These are elements that I bring out when referencing the New Age in my novels. What is missing from the film, with all its blather about awareness, is:

  • we must live more simply, in order for others to simply live
  • we must live more justly, in order for others to just live

…and in order to do both these things, we must become aware (as native peoples, deep ecologists, feminists, anarchists and liberation theologians tell us) of all our relations, just and unjust, simple and complex. If we don’t do this hard task of honesty, ‘spirituality’ becomes a bland soporific, a boob tube of pleasant transmissions, a sleep of the critical faculties.

The wise Buddhist, Taoist and Sufi traditions from which this mental mish-mash is extracted and commodified do not conceive of enlightenment as peaceful slumber.

Wake up!   tree-13441096826dr

Thanks to George Hodan who has released this photo:

“Tree” into the Public Domain