The Blame Game

Sorry for another political rant.

It started with a phone call from my youngest, and the subject – as it inevitably does in the UK at the moment – drifted into politics.  It shouldn’t have been a problem.  We both, for the record, voted to remain in the EU; we were both dismayed at the result.  There, though, the similarities end.  For me, a slightly grim pragmatism has taken over – a kind of ‘Well, OK, we’re in this mess, so what can we do to make the best of it?’ attitude.  His disappointment, however, has taken him in a different direction.

“Not wanting to cause offence or anything,” he said, “but you know it was mainly the older people who voted for Brexit.”

I pointed out that two thirds of young people hadn’t even bothered to use their votes.

Old Man, Man, Face, Senior, Older, Weathered, Age“Well, yes, maybe,” he continued, “but it isn’t fair that these people, who won’t even be around to deal with the consequences, should have decided our future.  A group of us were saying, the other night, that – just as there’s a lower cut-off point for voting of 18 – there should maybe be a cut-off at the other end and people over 70…”

“When I reach 70,” I told him, icily, “I expect to last for approximately another 30 years.  That’s longer than you’ve been alive.”

“Well yes,” (he knows as well as I do the genetic predisposition of women in our family to last well into their nineties and often beyond) “perhaps 70 is a bit harsh.  Maybe it should be more like…”

He didn’t get to finish that sentence.

There was me thinking the ‘Remain’ camp had the higher moral ground.  We were the ones who had said, ‘Well admittedly all is not as we’d like it, but let’s stay in the Union and change things from within, rather than throwing babies out with the bathwater and putting the blame for all our ills on others – immigrants, economic migrants, European bureaucracy, Greece, Germany or whatever.’

Seems I was wrong.

As soon as the Remainers have reason to feel miffed, what do they do?  They begin flailing around looking for someone to blame.  The Scots blame the English.  The educated blame the ignorant.  My son and his mates would happily disenfranchise their parents and grandparents, just as surely as the Brexiteers would gleefully repatriate the European workers who are propping up our health service.

Why?

Index, Finger, Pointing, You, Hand, MeBecause BLAME is endemic in our culture.  We have grown up believing that everything we dislike is someone else’s fault.  All we need to do is find that someone, punish or denounce or harass them and things will start to get better.

Such an attitude is the stuff of life to our media; they thrive on fuelling the ‘righteous’ indignation of the many against the few.

It is the modus vivendi of politics.  We look on miserably while the two sides slug it out in parliament, endlessly blaming each other for whatever mess we’re in.

The trouble is, there are no winners in the Blame Game – just losers.

So how would it look, I’m wondering, if we stopped blaming?

Just simply stopped.

How would it look if each one of us took responsibility for the way things are now?

What if we calmly considered what we’re happy with and what could do with changing?

What if we then set about entering into a blame-free dialogue with others to find ways of improving matters?

What if the media observed and reported on what is happening in the country and beyond, without apportioning blame or inciting revenge?

What if politicians didn’t square up to each other across a divided room and hurl insults and recrimination?  What if they formed into all-party special interest groups – individuals with particular levels of experience and expertise in particular areas of government – and became groups of ‘elders’ who sat around a table and worked together to forge a way forward for the benefit of all?

It couldn’t be a lot worse, could it?  Maybe it could be a great deal better…

It all starts with us, though – us not blaming anyone.

Democracy, wossat then?

I’ve been working with a 12-year-old student – we’ll call her Sian – on philosophy.  We’d been following a storyline for several weeks.  Her job was to consider the issues thrown up by the situations in the story and look at possible solutions from different perspectives.

Legoland, Building Blocks, Legos, LegoHere’s the story so far:  She had woken one morning as the only inhabitant of a remote desert island, with a crown, a pen and a blank scroll headed Rules of The Island.  She had no recollection of how she got there but discovered ample food supplies, fresh water and materials to make a shelter.

Over the weeks, Sian had worked diligently to compose her set of rules to live by, to decide that – in the absence of all others – she was sovereign of all she surveyed and to develop a style of living which would ensure her own survival but protect the species and ecosystem of the island.

A couple of weeks ago, so the story continued, a group of migrants arrived on the island and asked to stay.  Sian considered all the implications of this and agreed to accept them.  She showed the new arrivals where to find food and water and suggested where they could construct shelters.

On June 23rd (Referendum Day in the UK, and yes, I did plan it that way!) she had a new philosophical dilemma to face.  Now that she was no longer alone on the island, how were decisions to be made?  Would she keep her crown and insist the newcomers obeyed her rules or should there be an alternative form of government?  What were the options?

I presented her with a whistle-stop tour of all forms of leadership from dictatorship and monarchy, through various forms of oligarchy to democracy, carefully avoiding passing on any bias of my own.  We also took a passing look at anarchy.

Lego, Head, Brick, People, Figure, FaceSian sifted through the options with commendable thoroughness.
“Don’t want that one – it’s like Hitler!”
“No, you’ve got to have some rules or it would be horrible.”
“I like democracy best.  That’s what we’ll have!”

“OK,” I said.  “There are two forms of democracy.  There’s representative democracy, where people vote for individuals to represent their interests and make decisions on their behalf, like we do at general elections, or there’s direct democracy where every single person has a vote on each decision, like in today’s referendum.  Which do you prefer?”

Sian thought again.  She considered politicians and what she’d heard about them – how they looked after themselves first and broke promises.
“I think direct democracy is the fairest,” she finally decided.
“Fine,” I said.  “So each person on the island has an equal vote in all matters.  You’re happy that would work?”
“Yes,” she said firmly. “Wait – NO!  What if there was one of them who had really bad ideas?”
“Well, they’d only have one vote,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, but they might be – you know – good at persuading other people to do what they wanted.  It might be someone who said everyone had to prove themselves by swimming with the sharks or something.  That would be an awful idea.  It would be really dangerous.  And some people would just go along with what they said.”
Lego, Head, Face, Activity, Block, Brick“Ah,” I smiled.  (I so love lessons like this, and the way – left with time to consider – children will think things through.) “So what would you do if that happened?”
“Kill him,” she returned, calmly.
“Would that be democratic?” I wondered.
“Oh no, it wouldn’t, would it?  So no, I wouldn’t kill him, but… Oh it’s difficult!”

Yes, Sian.  It is.

Lego, Head, People, Figure, Face, ScaredThe following morning I, and just about everyone else in Britain, was reeling from the shock of the vote to leave Europe.  We knew it would be close, but we didn’t expect the Brexit lot to win.  Not even they expected it.

At 8am, as I walked into the main station of a nearby city, a TV camera and microphone were thrust into my face.  What did I think about the result?

I was taken off-guard.  I had many thoughts, but all I could manage to splutter was, “Horrifying – just horrifying.  But it was a democratic vote, so I suppose we’ll just have to deal with what happens now.”

Like my young student, I’d felt the full force of democracy’s dark side.  People are easy to manipulate.  Let them believe they’ll be better off and have more opportunities and they’ll vote to swim with the sharks every time.

A week in politics is a long time, though.  The politicians are so busy stabbing each other in the back that it’s hard to imagine who will be left to lead.  A House of Cards scenario playing out, complete with a Francis Urquhart character?  You might very well think that.  I couldn’t possibly comment.

I decided to put my fears and fury aside and to meditate.

Toys, Blocks, Brick, Plastic, LegoI was shown – so clearly I could call it a vision – a huge pile of Lego bricks on the ground.  They were in a dark place, jumbled and chaotic.  As I watched, three narrow beams of light shone down on them, illuminating parts of the pile.  I realised I was being shown the purpose of Lego.  It’s for building.  The more complete the destruction, the greater the opportunity to build something new – something better.  Our British nations have been controlled by fear and blame for so long.  Our political system stood on these twin pillars.  Perhaps they needed to fall.  Perhaps the ugly underbelly of xenophobia and self-interest needed to be revealed so that it could finally be dealt with.  I choose to believe that something finer will, eventually, emerge.  That’s where I’ll put my energy.

 

 

Down with Education: Bring Back Educetion

No, it isn’t a typo.  There’s a subtle but world-changing difference, you see, in the vowel.

Education comes from the Latin educare – to bring up or train.

Educetion (which I’ve just invented, of course) is derived from the Latin educere – to lead out, to draw from.

See the difference?  In the first, we have malleable individuals who can be trained in whatever way those in authority prefer.  In the second we have innately wise people who, with a sufficiently nurturing environment, can develop and hone their own skills, perhaps in entirely new ways.

Let me give an example of educetion from my own childhood.

Long, long ago, I sat in in a grammar school classroom ready for the first art class of the year with Mr Sutcliffe.  Our group was studying art as a ‘relaxation subject’, timetabled in as a break from the many hours working towards academic A-levels.

Bob Dylan, Musician, Joan Baez, Singer, 1960S, ComposerMy classmates and I had, for the past couple of months, been vicariously enjoying the Summer of Love, via our transistor radios and magazines.  The times, as Dylan had foretold a few years before, were a-changin’.  We were sixth formers now.  We felt ourselves to be groovy and trendy and hip – yet Mr Sutcliffe was about to do something so shocking, so daring, so different, that we would walk out of that room as changed people.

No paints.  No pencils or pastels even.  Just Mr S at the front of the class, holding up a magazine advert for washing powder.

“Persil Washes Whiter!” he boomed.
We stared in confused silence.
“Than WHAT?” he demanded.
He seemed to require a response. We glanced at one another.
“Than – other brands, sir?” one boy suggested, nervously.
“Does it say that?” Sutcliffe snapped back. “Is there proof?”
“No,” we mumbled.
“No,” he agreed, his voice returning to its usual friendly, comfortable tone.
“No.” He sighed sadly. “And yet – just because of things like THIS,” (shaking the magazine page accusingly) “millions of people spend their money on this product rather than another.”

We sat, mesmerised, while Mr Sutcliffe went on to demonstrate, clearly and convincingly, how we – the unsuspecting public – were constantly duped by advertisers, politicians, the media and anyone else with a vested interest in manipulating our minds.  He showed us how colour, design and typefaces created a desired attitude.  He showed us how empty words and clever phrases would place ideas in our minds.  He entreated us to stop and think and avoid being led blindly into behaving as They wanted us to.

“You are wise, intelligent young people,” he said, his voice almost cracking with emotion.  “You have the wit and the ability to make your own choices, to decide whether or not you believe what you are being told.  Be critical.  Be wary.  Be sceptical.  No one has the right – or the ability – to tell YOU what to think!”

Mr Sutcliffe had put his job on the line – even back in those liberal, relatively unmonitored times.  He had not given us an art lesson.  He’d given us educetion.  He’d shown us that we were not empty vessels to be filled with facts and instructions, but autonomous people with the ability to make our own choices.  Such behaviour was unheard of in those days.  We were being trained to be obedient little consumers; that was how capitalism worked.  We were being trained to believe those in authority; that was how politics worked.

Today, of course, things are very different.  Advertising is (somewhat) regulated.  Conspiracy theories and debunking explode from the internet in every direction.  Students in schools are taught critical thinking skills and encouraged to form their own opinions… aren’t they?

Call me sceptical and cynical and so forth if you like, but I was taught by Mr Sutcliffe.  I’ve learned to smell a rat.

Exam, College Students, Library, ReadingThe tide is turning.  Times are a-changin’ again.  Our leaders – fearful that their authority, and even their purpose, are being eroded – are fighting back.  They are being very clever about it, too.

The British education system is being overwhelmed by Junk Learning.  It is imposed by the government.  It isn’t in the National Curriculum – that would be too obvious.  It’s in the tests they are imposing on our children.  If schools want to survive, they need good test scores.  To get good test scores, the teachers must teach what will be tested.  It’s no accident that there has been a sudden leap in the amount of difficult, obscure and downright pointless material primary school children – as young as six – are required to learn and regurgitate on cue.

A recent study found – unsurprisingly – that a group of university academics, even when they were allowed to confer, were unable to complete the tests being given to 10 and 11-year-olds this year.  Needless to say, the stress caused to teachers, parents and children is utterly unacceptable.  Thousands of English parents are planning to ‘strike’ and keep their 6 and 7-year-olds out of school next Tuesday to show their displeasure at the test system.

Man, Suit, Leave, Marker, Text, FontSo why is it there?  Well, I venture to suggest, there are a finite number of hours in the school day.  The more of those hours that are devoted to the rote learning of pointless grammar and complex arithmetic, the less are available for educetion.  Children who are not given the chance to develop their innate talents and creativity, not encouraged to consider alternative viewpoints, not allowed to have any choice in what they study or how they study it will grow up believing themselves to be successes or failures, based on their ability (at the age of eleven) to identify a prepositional phrase or a modal verb or to multiply a fraction by another fraction.

How much easier will it be to manipulate such citizens, broken by a harsh, unreasonable and destructive system, than those who have been empowered to think and reason for themselves?

Listening to Llull

IMG_20150417_161121This wasn’t the post I was intending to write this week, but the Friday 13th events in Paris, and the Western governments’ entirely predictable responses have prompted me to insert a few thoughts on someone who for me is a new-found hero: a man who lived many centuries ago, but perhaps has something to teach us all today.

Ramon Llull was born to courtiers of Jaume the Conqueror – a mediaeval Spanish king responsible for taking Mallorca, among other places, from the Arabs.  Ramon became a page at court and later tutor to Jaume’s son.

Bear in mind that this was the time of the crusades.  Bitter wars between Christians and Muslims had been raging for well over a century when Ramon was born.  The divisions between the two cultures could not have been greater.  Hatred and distrust of all things Arab would have been endemic in his world.

IMG_20150415_113040

gardens of Arab baths, Palma

IMG_20150415_111927

Arab baths, Palma

Perhaps, as a young man, he wandered amongst the beautiful Arab buildings in his home city of Palma.  He certainly thought deeply and studied hard.

Leaving his family, Llull went to live on a mountain in the centre of the island, taking with him an Arab servant, from whom he learned to speak Arabic.

Certainly, like every Christian of his day (and many in our own) he believed that his religion was the one true way and that Jews, Muslims and anyone who didn’t share these beliefs should convert.  Unlike his contemporaries, though, he did not believe this should happen at the point of a sword.  He proposed the use of logic – philosophical argument – to convince others.

IMG_20151104_143724He produced intricate diagrams and many books which he was sure would convince anyone of the veracity of his beliefs.

He travelled tirelessly to visit heads of state across Europe and the Middle East, offering them his works and begging them to engage in dialogue rather than warfare.

Miramar, the site of one of Llull's universities, on Mallorca's north coast

Miramar, the site of one of Llull’s universities, on Mallorca’s north coast

He set up a series of universities, where young monks could learn Arabic and other less-studied languages, the better to engage in discourse with those of other faiths.

Ramon Llull had discovered a great truth.  He had realised, centuries before Einstein would turn it into a sound-bite, that the definition of insanity is

doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

He was blazing a new trail and trying to move humanity on from endless, pointless bloodshed; he was proposing respectful, open dialogue and discussion at a time when the divisions were apparently intractable.

We have to start somewhere – why not with ourselves?  Might it be time to listen to his ideas?

 

 

 

Divinity Within

17th-century engraving of Glastonbury I felt the need for something uplifting, at the end of what had been a rather testing day.

Noticing that a speaker I hadn’t heard before was giving a talk in town about finding divinity within – a subject close to my own heart – I decided to go along.

It’s brave, talking about a topic like that in this town; it’s something of a spiritual hub.  Although small in area and population, Glastonbury plays host to adherents of a huge and sparkling variety of beliefs.  We have Sufis, various denominations of Hindu and Christian, Buddhists, Pagans, 50 shades of witches, wizards and magicians, goddesses and many more besides.  The local events guide is bursting with invitations to engage in ritual, breathwork, healings, drummings, gong baths and awakenings.  Ascension and Enlightenment loom large in the small ads.  And yet here was this lady, standing up to tell her audience that divinity could be found within.

Her credentials were impeccable.  Not only did she have a doctorate in social anthropology, she had travelled the world and become intimate with a range of spiritual paths that made our town’s selection seem paltry.   Part of the ceiling of the Divinity School. Calmly, gently, and with great respect and reverence, she pointed out that every spiritual and religious path she had encountered came down to one thing:  There is a desirable state, which lies some way ahead.  If we are prepared to follow the prescribed path resolutely, putting our own desires aside, we may be fortunate enough to reach the promised state of bliss/enlightenment/ascension/joy or whatever is being offered.  She paraphrased further: As things stand, we are not good enough, not complete, lacking a certain something.  Our perfection lies some way off.

She had not, she insisted, had a personal awakening or mystical experience – nothing so grand.  She had, gradually and painfully, seen that the paths she had been following were missing the perfection that is already there.  She spoke of a fragment of divinity which lies within each of us and invited her audience to find their own ways of searching within for the guidance which would not take them on some esoteric spiritual path, but would involve simply going on, day after day, week after week, making mistakes, making amends and getting on with life. She looked rather sad, as if the quests for perfection with their rituals, observances and promises of a wonderful future were, by comparison, a kind of primrose path – one she missed.

2014-10-12 11.19.45Yes, it takes a brave woman to stand up in Glastonbury and tell people they are doing just fine without chanting, processing, drumming and praying, but I feel that she is right.

This is The Shift – the one that so many books were written about, so many experts spoke about just a few short years ago.  2012 would dawn, they said, and everything would change.  We would enter a New Age.  Self-empowerment would be the key.  We’d no longer be giving our power away to politicians, bankers or – yes – spiritual leaders.  It was hyped up to a ridiculous degree.  We gazed longingly at Aztec inscriptions and prophecies ancient and modern.  We waited with baited breath…

No bells, no whistles, but slowly and almost imperceptibly the change began.

A stealthy, gentle sea change is taking place as we begin to recognise that we DO in fact have the perfection we sought inside ourselves.  We are perfect, divine beings who have chosen to spend a fragment of our eternal existence exploring imperfection.  We witness dark in order to be able to see light.  We encounter pain in order to recognise and value joy and pleasure.  We have been born into a time and a culture where many ancient and wonderful paths offer wisdom and experience.  Many of us have the freedom – hard-won by our ancestors – to choose which, if any, of these to follow.

So however we decide to experience this brief lifetime, each of us – every single being – is unable to shake off our innate divinity.  It is who we really are and as we grasp that stunning understanding, so we can gently, gratefully and reverently lay aside our allegiance to those who try to lead us to what we already have.