I keep coming back to this stanza... It’s resonances for me, for right now are nothing to do with the song’s original message or story; my interest in these words have nothing to do with the personal microcosm of my life.
I am locked in a cycle of disappointment and resentment, of visceral regret at the state of public and political life in not only our country, but the World at large. I hear these words and I see the faces of the people that claim to speak for me, work for me, for us in running our country, or indeed other powerful countries in the World. There seems to be a startling dearth of honour or depth amongst them.
There was so much hope, sometimes I still see glimmers of it, but I am starting to understand why the late seventies and the eighties were hard for anyone starting from a place of compassion. As a child at the time I knew that the World was rarely fair and often a cold hard place outside the more protected worlds of school and family that were fashioned around me and my brother, but I look back now and I can imagine the pain and hopelessness so many people must have felt in the face of “greed is good” and all of that evangelism that cemented capitalism’s hold on the zeitgeist.
It seems we have learned nothing, that the value of truth, of facts, of critical thinking, of compassion and fairness, and even just right and wrong have all taken a beating in the last few years, and in only one pursuit. We are, as members of our societies, reminded that our place, our function, is to enrich our betters, take our turn beating our lessers and to close our hearts and minds to any hope of an end to the imbalance, or the slanted hierarchy we labour under. I accept that without a faultless, collective utopia there will always be a hierarchy, but could we make better efforts to have the lowest echelon of that hierarchy not be living in abject poverty with a narrow horizon and no hope? I feel that we can and indeed must strive for that, but increasingly I am made to feel that the World sees me as anything from naive to weak to stupid for feeling that way.
Most of those of us who might reasonably call ourselves “middle class” - though increasingly I see the term as a sick joke - are at most three or four bad months away from losing our footing in ways that many would never come back from, and while that risk is real in the UK it is the breath of an unseen horror on the back of the neck for almost all Americans, considering the situation with healthcare there at the moment* amongst other issues and worries. Now try to imagine how precarious those forces are if you live in Manila or Mombassa or somewhere you and I have never heard of, the Mansfield, Nottinghamshire or Trenton, New Jersey of say Namibia or Indonesia if you will?
(*Based on my reading this thread Tragic story about the human and financial cost of healthcare in America on Twitter this morning - I realise that it’s an extreme story, but in the UK, or Canada or Australia or Belgium or indeed any number of so-called First World countries, these people would have been given so much more support, would have been allowed time to grieve instead of having to manage the minutiae of the practicalities of their own care whilst also trying to come to terms with an unimaginable loss, and would not have lost their settlement etc.)
What sane reality can possibly be served by a World, or a society that has the technological power we see around us, but holds a dangling sword over its people’s heads seemingly on a whim?
Conform! Consume! Perpetuate!
I find myself aware that I am not answering any questions, and I fear that this may be seen as the directionless wailing of a hippy that failed to be, simply screaming his dissatisfaction into the void.
I have the beginnings of the germ of a thought, and I need to be clear that this thought is in no way original, it is based on other people’s ideas.
I think that the only solution is to adopt three ideas that have struck me with their simplicity and power in the last few months.
We are all, as a society, so keen to take a negative stance, to criticise to excitedly deliver our opprobrium and to deny our own frailty to hide the inherent hypocrisy of these violent delights. Recent examples of people in the public eye who have been driven to suicide or other self-harming actions simply for attracting the casual ire of the mob are legion in number. Yes we should condemn Harvey Weinstein, but should we condemn Jack Monroe? Clearly my position is evident, I do not believe that someone like Jack Monroe, who is hurting no one and is actually trying to do good deserves to be hounded on social media because of their sexual preference or their gender identity, or the way that they look or their taste in body art, or their dietary choices.
I have come to realise that there is only one true path out of the toxic culture of commentary and judgement that is the currency of the popular press and the internet trolls. Compassion. Indeed, Radical Compassion.
I need to be very clear, compassion (radical or otherwise) does not need to include forgiveness. There are people in this World who have committed such grave acts of cruelty, violence and harm that they can never be forgiven, but the only psychologically “safe” path is to force ourselves to show all people, no matter what they have done or not done, the respect of acknowledging that they are people, and affording them their basic dignity. To recognise in all people our shared Humanity and the uncomfortable truth that in almost every case, there but for the grace of random chance go we all is to know that we have an absolute imperative to as Amanda Palmer says “eat the pain and send it back into the world as Love”.
In less extreme examples (i.e. that person on Twitter who you just cannot stand because they insist on waxing lyrical about a beverage that you despise) refraining from abuse, and offering them compassion, even if that is evidenced simply by your allowing them to be and not engaging in cruelty in their direction, is a happier road to walk than any other I have considered.
If you would like to know more about Radical Compassion, or the idea that no one is beneath you and everyone has value, you can have a look at Wikipedia on the subject, you can listen to the ramblings of Amanda Palmer on the subject, or indeed you can do your own research. It’s out there, I am not an expert. In fact, I am only beginning to be an adherent, and I am as imperfect at it as anyone else that is trying to live this way, but I promise you that if you really try to commit to it there are layers upon layers of benefits.
Here is a concept that is as old as time, but that most people in the Internet Age associate with the tenets of Anarchy, called Mutual Aid. What does this term mean?
Well, literally speaking it means helping one another. There are small acts of Mutual Aid, such as helping a person with a pram to navigate some stairs or to alight from a bus or train. You helped them not for payment or because you were required to, but simply to help. In the same spirit, someone else will later help you off the ground after you have slipped on a patch of ice, or call an ambulance when you crash your bicycle. These are the small acts of kindness that make society work, most of the time, and though we live in an age when increasingly people believe that these kinds of things do not happen, if you open your eyes and look around they happen all the time and there are opportunities for all of us to join in, in some way shape or form.
On top of random, minute acts of kindness we can choose to help one another in more concrete and lasting ways. A wealthier person can pay for a friend of more meagre means to seek assistance after a terrible trauma, or we can open our homes to the dispossessed or give money directly to people in need. There may be a limit to each of our resources, and I am not suggesting that we should impoverish ourselves or exhaust our energies doing only good and only things for others, but if society as a whole were to do what it can, when it can, the entire picture would undoubtedly be improved.
Detractors of this approach to life always attempt to debunk the idea based on the apparently inescapable reality that credulous generosity will be abused by cold hearted opportunists. This may happen, there are bad people in the World, but if you keep your wits about you and yet approach the World with an open heart there is scope to do a lot of good for not very much sacrifice and the overwhelming majority of people do not want to simply leech off another person or group of people. Humans crave purpose, and most people prize their own achievement very highly. If you empower someone to navigate their immediate disadvantages they will more often than not take the ball and run with it. Better still, most of them will pay that kindness forward, thus powering Mutual Aid onward.
Keep an Open Mind
I am not as good at this as I would like to be. I think that the mark of true discernment is to never be entirely sure of anything, to really have the mental agility and flexibility to be able to operate solely on the merits of any given argument or the circumstances of any given situation. To acknowledge that life is far too complicated to actually fit into standardised shapes and experiences and that every moment brings a new horizon and a new possibility.
Clearly we still need to be able to make decisions and take action, but to do this on the basis of all available information, even new information that challenges our former perceptions is a super power that unlocks the greatest possible utility in human endeavour for all of us.
We can see the negative flip-side of critical thinking and scepticism amongst the dwindling cadre of people that flatly deny the idea of anthropogenic climate change. The available evidence and scientific investigation based on the evidence leaves an overwhelming impression that there is no longer any doubt that human beings are through our various activities altering the climate of our planet. There is still some wiggle room on the scale, severity, whether or not it might be reversible, the role of technology in slowing or even reversing it etc, but fundamentally the tide of human thinking has turned to the point that Climate Change denial is an aberrant belief. And yet there are public figures, ostensibly well educated people that insist that Climate Change does not exist. They are increasingly objects of ridicule and their insistence that they exhibit greater intellectual purity by clinging to an idea long after its sell-by date is an object lesson in just how important it is to be able to change your mind.
You may have very firm, very private ideas about how you might feel were your parent, spouse, sibling or child to reveal to you that they had a sexual preference that diverged from your assumptions about them. Do you want to be the person that is imprisoned by ignorance and an unwillingness to re-assess and so lose that person from your life? Is there not undeniable utility in being able to re-frame assumptions, adopt new data and make new decisions? The ability to change one’s mind based on new information is the most important survival technique that we have evolved as humans; learn to exercise this skill and you will be freed from the narrow horizon that crushes so many and forces division between people where none is really needed.
I truly believe that these three ideas can provide us with a foundation upon which a fairer and more equal society can start to be built. I doubt that I will see It in my lifetime, but I can only hope that slowly those of us that see the pressing need to follow these simple ideas and then really live them, will start to outnumber those focused on nothing but their own individual advantage, on the short term gains of selfishness and self interest.
In the end showing our fellow humans love and compassion, in all moments, against all eventualities and maintaining open minds and a broad vision may be hard work, but I can honestly say that it has helped me to find some meaning, to believe that there is something better to strive for and that one day we may make or at least leave a better World behind us.
Heed the warning in Hades’ song:
“Why do we build the Wall, my children, my children?
Why do we build the Wall, my children, my children?
What do we have that they should want?
We have a wall to work upon!
We have work and they have none
And our work is never done
My children, my children
And the war is never won
The enemy is poverty
And the wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free
That’s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free
We build the wall to keep us free“