Category Archives: critical thinking

The problem of Stuff

My problem is not acquiring too many things. My problem is to do with getting rid of the things I already have.  As a result I am surrounded by Stuff which fails William Morris’s test that I either know it to be useful or believe it to be beautiful.  I keep stuff only because I find it too agitating to throw it away.

The one I share my hoard with bought a copy of this book the other day and we read it with separate feelings of awkwardness and unease.

My particular epiphany was that I feel an obligation to dispose of things responsibly.  I cannot blithely throw something away unless it is useless and biodegradable.  I have to reuse, reduce recycle, in every way I can.  

This is inhibiting.  Yesterday in an effort of self-liberation I threw away a perfectly reusable jiffy bag. (I have boxes of the buggers upstairs on a shelf, waiting for the moment I need them).  I don’t mind throwing away the bio-degradeable kraft paper outer, but the bubble-wrap inner makes me feel uneasy. Why can’t jiffy bags be filled with paper waste any more?  Note the tense of that sentence: it makes me feel uneasy now, even though I threw it away yesterday.  Yes, it was worse at the time, but the agitation remains. We should not fill landfill with plastic bubble-wrap.  We certainly should not fill our seas with things that we use once and which then bob around for hundreds of years, killing marine animals for generations to come.

http://blog.etoncorp.com/index.php/2013/04/green-perspective-how-long-trash-really-lasts-infographic/

Although this is not quite a compulsion for me, it’s more than a moral imperative which I can comfortably ignore.  Every time I went to a beach the last time we were on holiday, I ended up filling  bin bags with rubbish.  I am shocked and horrified by the amount of trash blowing in the wind.

But it’s not just about preferring recycling to landfill. It’s avoiding waste in the first place.  My Grandmother could Not Abide Waste. She and my Ma raised me, and both were adults during WWII and both had a pack-rat sense of scarcity. Both kept things “in case they were useful”, like the jiffy bag. And both would be horrified by the idea that two people can fill one wheelie bin in a week.

So the only way I can dispose of something in good working order is by making sure someone else gets to use it.  Freecycle saved my sanity the last time I moved house.   Before Freecycle I had a “jumble sale box”.  (I remember picking over it once to make sure any erotica I was giving to the Village Hall did not have my name in it. Small village, small world). I take things to Charity Shops, give them to friends, give them to volunteer groups and charities.  Plastic toys upset me hugely; why can’t they still be made of wood? I’ve had three bags of  toys in my shed for four months waiting for me to take them to a charity which cleans them and gives them to impoverished children.

I do feel a sense of relief having read the book. I stand by my logic (we should be far more careful with plastics, we shouldn’t waste landfill on things that still work), but I now know my agitation is unusual.  It’s helped me throw things away rather than keep them, like the jiffy bag, and it is energising my attempt to find new owners for the things that are too good to bin.

The next thing is to strengthen my resolve to get rid of family things and things I’ve been given.  Not sapphires.  I am keeping those.

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Reasons I’d like to be religious

This was written in January 2009 but not published for some reason. For what it’s worth, here it is now.

Reasons why I would like to be religious:

  • Instant social life with people who are obligated to be welcoming, whatever they actually think – (c of e, chapel)
  • Karmic justice – (buddhism)
  • The opportunity to see how it all pans out – (buddhism or hinduism)
  • The chance of being a musician or a dancer – (buddhism or hinduism)
  • Seeing dad again – (christianity)
  • Everything being for a reason – (all of them)
  • Choosing one’s parents rather than the whole thing being a lottery – (buddhism)
  • The ability to influence events just by praying – (abrahamic religions)
  • The comfortable idea of moral absolutism – (abrahamic religions)
  • The absolute duty of social and ethical responsibility – (wicca and buddhism)
  • Additional dimensions and emotional depth to the experience of Cathederals and the music of Tallis and Bach – (christianity in the western tradition)
  • A sense that we don’t stand on shifting sands of hapenstance and chance – (all of them)

Ultimately I guess it boils down to:

  • Greed: – ie more time alive

And:

  • Comfort: – It may happen guys – but hey, it’s not actually shit

Oh well.

Feminism should be a dialogue not a dogma

This one has sat in draft since February 2008.  I tried editing it to say the same things more crisply, but wanted to say slightly different things instead, so I’ve left it as it is.  I had been lurking the trans-phobic rad-fem Michigan Womyn’s Festival stooshie when I wrote this.

The world is changing around us all the time: the world of 10 years ago was surprisingly different from the world today, and the world of the late 1980s even more so.  So far, so obvious.   But this means that political absolutism is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.  The world changes too much and too fast for any political or social dogma to last.   All political views are specific to the place and time in which they are held.  The ideas that last the longest either have a basis in scientific fact (racial equality) or else they are wishful thinking (the idea of human rights) . 

So what should feminism be like, if it’s a dialogue not a dogma?  Well undogmatic, for a start.  Sentences such as “all men are rapists” are meaningless.  So meaningless you’d think they would be impossible for an intelligent woman to utter, let alone for intelligent women, (sorry womyn) to listen to.  The idea that trans-women pollute spaces occupied by “womyn-born-womyn” is another spectacularly nasty piece of feminist dogma.  But the world is changing, including the space in the world that transssexuals can occupy and the way that children are raised, and unless one can demonstrate scientifically that all men are rapists, the statement is semantically void.  Unfortunately it’s got a snappy little ring to it, and appeals to a certain kind of self-righteous and vicious mind.

In fact, the example of science is an interesting one.  Science is just the sort of conversation that I would like feminism to be.  At the edges of science – where science is being done – are conversations.  Ideas are discussed with colleagues and turned into hypotheses, presented at conferences, tested experimentally, reformulated, restested, written up, peer-reviewed.    The world that science inhabits does not change physically (planets don’t start spinning backwards, the laws of physics don’t change in response to a new PM in Number 10), but the world that science inhabits moves onwards, as the boundary between what we know and what we don’t know changes.

Academic feminism goes through the  motions; I certainly get the impression that academic feminists like a good rant and love conferences.  But feminism lacks the rigour that science has, because it cannot test its ideas empirically.  But instead of recognising that the world it inhabits changes all the time, it seeks the reassuring solidity of fundamentalism.

Thinking and feeling

Updating this blog has been a tour down memory lane.

The thing that strikes me most is how badly I write when I am angry and the NHS junior doctor recruitment debacle of 2007 made me very angry indeed. Those posts irritate me  six years on because so many of them lack information; too many are articulate emotional rants.  They communicate badly because the reader has no room to respond. I am irritated and repelled by my former self.

It’s partly to do with speed. Writing coherently takes time and the conversation was moving quickly. I was part of a community of bloggers and activists, very much swept up in the fight. There was a lot being said and little time for reflection. It shows.  (This lack of time to reflect combined with a permanent medium is the reason why I don’t use twitter much.)

I heard Maryam Namazie speak a year or so ago and was impressed by the calmness of her anger. Her anger is powerful but not loud. It fuels a clear and contained rationalism which I struggle for, instead I become enraged. She is calm but driven and focused, and this is what I now hope for when I write on subjects I feel passionate about.

A couple of years ago I did one of those courses which elucidate your working style. This one looked at your style when calm (mine is “analytical” and “thinking”) and compared it with your style under stress.  It was illuminatingly accurate. When I am stressed I become more emotional and less rational; I lose the ability to think.  Discovering this has given me permission to step back from fraught situations and wait until I can think clearly again. I am a more reliable colleague and I hope I am a less emotional blogger.

Somewhere to escape to

I’m struck that we don’t have a folk-memory of women escaping from domestic captivity in the way that Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight have escaped in Cleveland, and Elizabeth Fritzl and her siblings, and Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, Shawn Hornbeck and Natascha Kampusch escaped before them.

The stories of these escapes are new.

Women being captured is not new, it’s not even specific to our species. At a recent Skeptics in the Pub Talk, Dr Alison Craig told us about “coercive consortship” in dolphins.

Women running away isn’t new either. Allegedly, Wilkie Collins took the title for his book “The Woman in White” from his first meeting with Caroline Graves, the woman who became his mistress. Collins was walking through London one night past a suburban villa when

“the iron gate leading to the garden was dashed open, and from it came the figure of a young and very beautiful woman” ….  she had been imprisoned at the villa under the mesmeric influence of an unnamed suburbanite.

What appears to be new, is that the escapes are successful, they are reported, and the victims are reunited with their families.   Today Caroline Graves’ story would be international news. But in the 19th century it was not told by the men who witnessed her escape. (Of course, it may not be true).

There are so many possible reasons for this change.

It is finally clear that a man who prevents a woman leaving him is committing a crime not exercising a right.  A line has emerged between a consensual domestic relationship on one side, and imprisonment on the other.  This is new. In the 19th century and before, you would have happy love-matches on the one hand, pragmatic civil contracts and arranged marriages in the middle, and who knows what hells of captivity and servitude at the far end.  Then, as now, a good marriage could go bad. But how many young women were kidnapped in a world where the neighbours all assumed they were wives not prisoners?

Women are free to leave in a way they weren’t before. Divorce gave women the the legal freedom to leave. Before divorce was available, women were chattels in a very literal way. I was checking references for the Mayor of Casterbridge auctioning his wife and  I found a Wikipedia entry about Wife Selling, which  apparently took place as recently as 1913. Later, women gained the cultural freedom to leave. However, in living memory in the 1970s and 1980s what went on behind closed doors stayed behind closed doors and the police would not intervene.  Putting it bluntly, if a woman runs away now, whether she is a wife or a kidnap victim, she will be listened to.  There is somewhere to escape to now.

But I think there’s more to it than that. We see the victims as unambiguously innocent and wronged. When there is no religious fundamentalism or misogyny at work we do not see them as someone whose moral worth has been destroyed. However, Elizabeth Smart said:

… she “felt so dirty and so filthy” after she was raped by her captor, and she understands why someone wouldn’t run “because of that alone.” …

I have tried to find out more about Smart’s upbringing in Salt Lake City to discover if it was particularly religious. She certainly expresses herself powerfully:

“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.'”

Smart felt worthless as a result of her repeated rapes but we see her as a victim not as “damaged goods” and  we celebrate when a kidnap victim escapes.  And if we have not yet managed to stop blaming the victims of rape we have at least progressed  beyond flogging them, stoning them or forcing them to marry their rapists.

So I am encouraged by the fact  that when victims of kidnap and imprisonment escape they now do so into the relative safety of a supportive and rejoicing world.

Meditation XVII

This was written a while ago; I am publishing it now because time has passed.

I am about to go to Peter’s funeral. Peter was a friend from uni days. To be accurate, Peter was a friend from the year immediately after we left Univeristy. When I knew him he was doing a PGCE and living in Newton Hall (“the largest private housing estate in Western Europe”) and I was living in a cottage in Pity Me. (I kid you not).

I find death confusing.

How can something as varied, complex, multi-dimensional and spontaneous as a human being suddenly stop being? How can a person simply cease to exist? For years re-incarnation made sense for me; I could not comprehend that such vitality and life could be snuffed out – a brief candle. Unfortunately for me I read Reincarnation – a Critical Examination by Paul Edwards and had to acknowledge that there simply is no good quality evidence for re-incarnation. Schmevidence, yes. Evidence, no. So I am left reluctantly staring annihilation in the face every time someone I know dies, and blinking in incomprehension. I simply do not understand it.

Grief is about life, not death. If someone ceases to exist, there is nothing there to pity. You can only feel grief about life – about the things they suffered during their life, what they missed during it or what they miss by being dead. Or else you feel grief for yourself: for the absence you feel, for the jokes you won’t share with them, for the conversations you’ll never have.

As well as confusion, death leaves me feeling angry. Not at the unfairness of it. Life is far too full of unfairness and suffering for anyone to consider early death as particularly unfair. A good life and an early death is preferable, surely, to some of the truly dreadful lives doled by the unjust hand of random chance. So there’s no reason for me to feel angry, but still I do. Anger might be too strong a word. When my friends die, I feel cross.

There’s a distinct John Donne-ness to my reaction to Peter’s death. I know very well for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for me. Peter’s not here, any more, after all. Grief is selfish. It’s all about me, me, me. I’ll miss Peter. I’m feeling confused and cross. I’m too young for my friends to die.

So tomorrow, when I go to his funeral, I hope that I will get a glimpse of Peter, and aspects of that complicated, private, gentle man that I never knew about. I want tomorrow to be about him, him, him.

All in the mix – there is no single answer to school massacres

So far, I have seen four strands of commentary in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre.

There is the predictable outcry against the lack of gun control in the USA. The rest of the world finds it obvious that there is a causal link between guns and gun crime. However, all the opinion pieces, statistics, mashups, charts, infograms and cartoons on Facebook fail to convince those wedded to the 2nd Amendment. Instead they repeat the mantra that guns don’t kill people, people do. But, as Eddie Izzard observes, the gun helps. On the same day as the Sandy Hook murders, another man attacked primary school children, this time in China. But he used a knife and none of them were killed. So, yes America, start on the long road to taking the guns away.

A second set of commentary doing the rounds is about denying murderers their 15 minutes of fame – what Thatcher called the “oxygen of publicity”. This is Charlie Brooker’s argument that sensationalist reportage turns the murderers into celebrities and makes mass-murder a career move. There is a logic to this: Mark Chapman murdered John Lennon to make Jodie Foster pay attention to him. Cho Seung-Hui mailed videotapes to NBC before killing 32 people at Virginia Tech. Fame transforms violence into heroism; it does it in gangsta culture, but it’s as old as the Saga of Erik the Red, as old as the Iliad. So, yes, do not glamorise mass murderers.

The more egregious the crime, the more important it is to the rest of us that the perpetrator(s) should be either sick or evil or both. We need them to be safely “other” or else it’s just too damn scary. This is the mental health strand and the reaction here has been more varied reflecting the greater complexity of the issue. On the one hand you have this piece by someone whose concerns about her own son led her to assume that Adam Lanza suffered suffered a similar condition. In the middle you have the USA’s failure to treat those with mental health issues which in turn suggests a culture which demonises those who are mentally ill. And finally you have the urgent need to put out the clear message that having Aspergers Syndrome or Autism, or having a mental health issue does not mean you are a killer. Kate Donovan puts it explicitly: I’m asking you not to make “being a good person” the standard for [being] mentally healthy. The importance of this message for the safety of those with neurological-diversity or mental health issues cannot be over-emphasised. And in terms of what to do to reduce these killings? Is it cheap of me to mention universal health-care at this point? It seems to me that treating mental illness is in every way better than criminalising and imprisoning people who are mentally ill. Certainly we need to start with a de-stigmatised, evidence-based and rational model of mental health.

Then there are a few people characterising school shootings as a “problem of male white crime”. William Hamby draws heavily on a paper succinctly and shockingly entitled “Suicide by Mass Murder” by Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel. Kalish and Kimmel observe that school shootings since 1982 have been mainly by young white males, often students themselves, and mainly in rural and suburban areas. It’s a middle-class crime. They suggest that killing provides the murderer with a sense of power and give meaning to their subsequent suicide. They think this happens when a sense of aggrieved entitlement turns into frustration and hatred: Anders Brevik springs to mind, though he did not commit suicide. It’s tempting to look askance at the more extreme Republicans exposed by the 2012 election who reacted so madly to their white, male privilege slipping away. This is a plausible thesis, particularly if you aren’t American, aren’t white, or aren’t male. It’s clearly not the full story, but it forms a promising starting point for the mental-health-issues argument. It’s also worrying, in an America where the middle class is shrinking and whites will soon be outnumbered. (The comments on Hamble’s first article prompted this second one, which is equally fascinating).

I for one find all these arguments compelling. However, I doubt that these are the only causes for these brutal crimes. Sadly, I see no signs of the rationality and self-control needed to tackle these four issues: gun control, media sensationalism, the irrational pathologisation of mental health issues, and aggrieved entitlement causing “male, white crime”.


This post was first published on The Twentyfirst Floor.