Saturday, 29 June 2013

Judgement Day. 30.06.2013

As a society, we seem to be trying to achieve some sort of moral neutrality. This is very much a new thing. In the past, holding on to a clear sense of right and wrong, often absorbed directly from a religious or political source, was considered the way to go. Now, by and large, we worship open-mindedness and tolerance. “Judgemental” has become an insult.

Now, I love me some open-mindedness and tolerance. In fact, being a person whose proclivities do not match those of the majority [1], I need the two above qualities to live a relatively peaceful life. I generally speaking try to live and let live. I try to minimise the impact I have on the world around me in general and other people in particular, and to ensure that what impact I do have is positive. “Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was nice”[2] is a lovely concept that I have tried to cherish and embrace. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a world where everyone strives to do their best for themselves and those around them? Where we all stood together, supporting each other, while we try to overcome the traumas of our past, so that we can all live a better future? Where we are not judged for our mistakes, but helped instead to progress past them?A world like that would be wonderful. Unfortunately, this world just isn’t like that.

Take the Goethe quote “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.” I used to hold it close to my heart and try to live by it. It might be old age or having smacked my head against too many sharp corners, but I find myself increasingly drawn towards a rather different mantra: “Your Honour, he needed killin’”. I first heard it from an American associate and it struck a chord. The idea is that someone has caused such damage and havoc that his unnatural demise is considered a bonus for the people around him and/or the general community. Dispatching him is, therefore, justified. Apparently in some parts of the USA this can be used as a legal defence. I find it increasingly hard to fault it, as a concept if not as a practice.

You see, the problem is that I know a lot of different people. I know people who are nice, and people who try to be nice even though it just doesn’t come natural. I know people who are strong and true and upright, and people who just can’t keep their word against the buffeting of the world. I know all sorts of people, living all sorts of lives. Amongst them are people who are the living embodiments of chaos and pain, people who continually wreak havoc in other people’s lives.

Please note that I am not making a judgement call here. I am not saying that they are “evil”, merely that their actions are unfailingly a source of agony to others. I am also not saying that they are not capable of committing “good” deeds, merely that their past performance has consisted of a much greater proportion of deeds which had a negative impact on those around them. These people are, in a variety of ways, just bad news.

When they walk into your life you’ve got a problem, because they proceed to wreck it. Now, we could spend an endless number of hours analysing why this is the case. Is it a result of nature or nurture? Is it accidental or deliberate? Is it conscious or subconscious? Is there a history of childhood trauma? Did you somehow summon them into your life, and if so why? The list of questions goes on and on. We can try and work out what their problem is. We can also try and work out whether their problem is a reflection of a problem you have. On the surface, it seems a perfectly reasonable course of action: you are trying to work out what the root of the problem is, so you can find a solution. If you look at it from another point of view, however, this is a really stupid way to go about things. The bottom line is that, metaphorically, you have a tack in your ass[3]. It hurts and is only gonna get worse. So how about we take the tack OUT first, and do the thinking later?

People, of course, are not objects. They have reasons and motivations for their actions. Much as those abstract concepts have a bearing on a situation, though, should they stop us taking action? If an animal is biting someone's throat out, does it matter if it's doing so out of fear, hunger, pain or sheer natural predatory cruelty? Surely we stop the mauling first, and work out what the issue is afterwards.

This, when applied to people in this society, is more easily said than done. We are indoctrinated to be understanding, compassionate and considerate. Even when we are not personally religious, we are still affected by the cultural values of “turning the other cheek”, “judge not lest ye be judged” and “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. Well, not wishing to be funny, but maybe we ought to take a closer look at the figure who popularised those tenets. Jesus, whether you wish to see him as an itinerant rabbi or the Son of God, was a great public speaker full of revolutionary ideas. Personally I really admire the guy, but I can’t forget the fact that he came to a rather sticky end. As a lifestyle advisor, his personal example should possibly ring a few alarm bells.

Still, we are good people, aren’t we? And good people show tolerance, understanding, forbearance and forgiveness. So we persevere, tack firmly in the ass, until things get so bad that we are forced to take action or someone does it for us, we get destroyed, or the tack falls off of its own accord, ready to be picked up by another unwary passer-by. How does this suck? Let me count the ways:

  1. We have let a person hurt another person. The fact that the “another person” is us shouldn’t matter a fig unless we are masochists. If we value human life, we should value and protect our own as much as anyone else’s.
  2. There have been no consequences or repercussions on the person who hurt us. Please note, I am not saying anything about revenge – that’s a different thing altogether, which “doesn't fix anything and it gets your soul all sticky”[4]. People, however, being mammal, often learn by trial and error. You do something and you decided whether to do it again based on the consequences. If there are no negative consequences to an act, or worse if you profit by it, you’ll just carry on with it.
  3. We are facilitating someone else getting hurt. We have done nothing to stop or discourage the perpetrators, so they will often go on to do it again. Unless we alert other potential victims, we are partly responsible for the problem persisting.

This approach is “nice”, but unfortunately only to one person, and that’s the person misbehaving. Can someone kindly explain to me how, when and why being “bad” became something that entitles you to preferential treatment? Because that’s what’s going on here. We are protecting the threats and leaving the threatened undefended.

No, I’m not advocating the death penalty. I’m also not advocating vigilante squads, public castrations for rapists or stoning people. I do not trust my powers of judgement enough to want to make that sort of call. The thing is, though, that I have no evidence whatsoever that Karma works. That kinda sucks, because, like any child raised on Disney, I like to believe that there are "happily ever afters" for the goodies and a choice of retribution or redemption for the baddies. It seems that we might have been left alone in the playground that is universe, having to make and enforce our own rules, because no supervisor is gonna rush in and help us if someone gives us a boo-boo.

If we want to make the world a better place, maybe we need to combine tolerance with consequences – negative consequences for negative actions, positive consequences for positive ones. Maybe Karma isn’t a mystical force outside of us. Maybe we are meant to be part of it, acting as its instruments, being “the change we wish to see in the world”. Maybe I’ve lost it, and I’m turning into a bigot like my grandmother. Who the fuck am I to decide what’s good or bad? At the same time, though, if I don’t make a judgement call, who is going to make it for me? There are no absolutes I can lean against. I don’t know. What I do know is that I routinely see good people facilitate bad people in following lifestyles which thrive on everyday atrocities. That seems kinda fucked up, frankly.

[1] No, I’m not a sexual deviant. I’m an incredibly tiny person of the female persuasion who wants to drive vans, use chainsaws, travel unaccompanied and do all sorts of things that you “just don’t do”. It’s really rather unexciting, but it seems to upset society’s apple cart, and there are repercussions.

[2] My favourite Hogswatch song, sung to the tune of "It's a Small World":If we all were friendly
I'm sure you would agree
That the world would be a better place
For you and for me
And if everyone was kind
I'm sure no-one would mind
So let's all be nice

Wouldn't it be nice if everyone was nice?Wouldn't it be nice if everyone was nice?
Wouldn't it be nice if everyone was nice?
Let's all be nice.
Terry Pratchett. You gotta love it.

[3] I nicked this off another US friend. UK English speakers – this be the equivalent of “a drawing pin in the bottom”. Unfortunately it just doesn’t sound as good. Julie Goin – I’d credit you if only you’d written the book, but we’re all still waiting.

[4] Spider Robinson, “Callahan's Lady”.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The road to violence. 22.06.2013

A friend of mine from Turkey posted this picture at the end of May.  I have not been able to get it out of my head, for entirely the wrong reason.  The picture is one of many showing the demonstrations to prevent the demolition of a park on Istanbul's Taksim Square.  Most of the pictures I have seen aim to show the contrast between the peaceful protesters and the abusive police force.  I have not been following the demonstrations at all, much to my shame.  I just didn’t make enough time for it, so I know that I don’t know enough to have an opinion about the issue.

There is, however, one thing that I know for a fact.  If you shoved a book in my face my immediate instinct would be to thump you one.  I probably would not, in fairness, because I am vaguely civilised and I make an effort not to flip out at people, but I definitely could not promise you a calm reaction.  I feel justified, though, because touching faces is very much a taboo in our society.  We may touch children’s faces.  We may stroke the face of our beloved.  We don’t, however, touch the faces of other adults.  It is perceived as invasive, rude, over-familiar or patronising.  We’ve all seen mafia movies where the Don gently slaps the face of a lesser criminal, and we all know that it is a gesture intended to be demeaning.  Most children get to a certain age and refuse to be touched on the face – nobody teaches us about it, it just happens.  If this “peaceful protester” had done the same to a random person in a pub, I am willing to bet that he would have paid for his little caper.

I believe the photo was intended as an iconic representation of the contrast between the brutish police versus the educated, gentle demonstrator.  I looked and looked at that picture and one of my favourite truisms jumped up at me: “Abuse of power comes as no surprise”[1].  This would all be very well, if only it hadn’t hit me the wrong way round.  You see, to me it’s the demonstrator who is abusing his power.  He is exploiting the fact that the policeman’s discipline prevents him from reacting in the way any other person naturally would.  Now, generally speaking I am no fan of the police.  I have spent far too much time operating in what could be described as a legal grey area to love them too dearly.  At my most positive, I see them as a necessary evil.  However, I have endless respect for this particular poor bastard who managed to rein in his instincts despite the provocation he was being subjected to.  The demonstrator knew that he could get away with something socially unacceptable because the policeman was bound by a set of rules and regulations.  In my books, that makes the demonstrator a bully.

As I freely admit, I don’t know any of the background, the political connotations, any of it.  I’m simple.  But I’m willing to bet my left arsecheek that if the policeman lost it and hit out, all hell could have broken loose.  The rest of the policemen were probably tense as hell, not because they are boorish servants of the regime or beasts thirsting for blood, but because they are HUMAN.  We try to be rational creatures but we are just evolved monkeys, operating according to social scripts that were largely developed long before our species learnt to speak, let alone write books.[2]

The picture got me thinking, because most people I know would label the protester as “peaceful”.  He is not hitting anyone, after all.  The responsibility for any violence starts with the person who throws the first punch, right?  Erm, no.  Sorry, but no.  I know for a fact that I can make anyone, including the Dalai Lama, including YOU, punch me.  I know I can do that because I’m A. perceptive and B. an annoying little cunt.  I am, generally speaking, very good at working out people’s triggers.  If I want to, I can really piss most people off.  Being rather attached to my front teeth, however, I generally opt to use any intel I have about a person to achieve precisely the opposite result.

I know a few people who enjoy starting fights.  However, being cowardly arsewipes[3], instead of going up to people and saying “hey, fancy giving your knuckles a dusting?” they annoy the shit out of them.  They goad and goad and GOAD until the other person ends up hitting them because nothing else will make them shut up or go away.  But hey, they didn’t hit first, so they are innocent, right?  They end up smelling of roses[4] whilst the other person gets into trouble with bouncers or the law.

You might have guessed that I don’t hugely approve of this sort of behaviour.  However, there is worse.  I know far too many women who never even risk breaking a fingernail, because instead of fighting themselves they line their men up for a confrontation.  For instance, they find some poor unaware bastard to pick on and wind him up with some trumped-up charge. He was “looking at them” inappropriately, or “touched them” in the middle of a crowd; anything will do.  They push it and push it until their chosen victim does or say something that causes their partner to have to step in and defend them.  That’s one of the classier ways of going about it.  Less subtle women will flirt with two or more guys, hoping to start a Battle of the Troglodytes.  Plenty of men do the same.  Personally, I find this sort of behaviour despicable and dearly hope that there is a special circle in hell purely dedicated to them, but hey, that’s just me.  I’ve done too much first aid to think of fighting as glorious.

We don’t just cause violence by using other people’s triggers.  We routinely hurt people, sometimes severely, just by using words.  “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never harm me” my arse.  The people who can read us, who know the inconvenient truths we hide in our hearts, the things we fear and loath so much about ourselves that can’t deal with them, can hurt us far worse with a sentence that they ever could with a blow.  My now very-much-ex-best-friend, in a still unexplained fit of pique, wrote me a ten-line paragraph that made me cry hysterically for over four hours.  Now, I’m not generally the crying sort.  Meltdowns aren’t normal behaviour for me, because I’m hardcore and shit.  But it came out of nowhere and it just HURT SO BAD.  Yet it was a seemingly innocuous short piece of writing that would have had no emotional impact on anyone but me.  But he knew my shatterpoints “the weak places in an opponent (…) where the unbreakable can be broken."[5]  He knew how to hurt me, and he did.  I would have much preferred it if he’d punched me, because it would have hurt less, for a shorter period, and felt less like a betrayal as it would have been less personal.

I have routinely used violent language to defend myself when I was in school.  I was always one of the smallest kids and had no strength, physical skills or co-ordination.  What I did have, however, was a cutting tongue and the ability to spot weaknesses.  Anyone who tried to bully me got verbally abused so harshly that most people didn’t want to go through that twice.  I had learnt the trick from my grandmother, who was a harpy of gigantic proportions.  She would say the most horrendous things to people, using not-quite-truths that could not be challenged to upset people as badly as she could.  She could do so without fear of repercussion, because most people do not give themselves permission to thump a frail old lady in the gob. 

Words can do huge amounts of damage and can never be unsaid.  “The stroke of the whip maketh marks in the flesh: but the stroke of the tongue breaketh the bones.  Many have fallen by the edge of the sword: but not so many as have fallen by the tongue.”[6]  I don’t often refer to the Bible, but I think it’s got it right on that point.

Personal anecdotes and biblical references aside, the vast majority of us regularly commit acts designed to annoy, upset or hurt other people.  We may do so “in thoughts and in words, in what we have done and in what we have failed to do”[7].  We may do so openly or covertly.  We might do so off our own backs or, more commonly in these cowardly days, hiding behind the cover of rules or regulations.  The intent is the same – we want to cause discomfort or pain.  We want to wound somebody.  The fact that we do not use our bodies to cause harm is, to me, completely beside the point.

We like to think we’re so fucking civilised, but really we’re just up ourselves.  Whiny toddlers standing on the shoulders of giants, we have turned away from our brutal history.  We spout idiotic platitudes such as “violence never solved anything”.  Eh, what?  Seriously, WTF?  For most of human existence violence was the only way of getting food, of protecting yourself from predators, of defending your tribe against other tribes who wanted to take away vital resources.  It was essential to staying alive.  The only reason we can do without it now is that countless generation before us have used so much of it that they have altered our planet beyond recognition, so we can have the luxury of sitting on our increasingly fat arses and growing faint at the mere thought of spilled blood.

Violence doesn’t start with the first punch – it starts with anything specifically designed to hurt another.  If you push it too far and the other person gets physical, tough shit, it’s still you who started it.  You took the first step on the road to violence.  If you can’t handle the blood and gore that may follow, that’s just too bad for you.  You shouldn’t have started it.

This picture saddens and angers me.  It saddens me to think that as a species we might have gone beyond evolution into a denial of what makes us human, which includes all the layers of us, even our inner monkey.  It saddens me that we are so wrapped up in our own narrative, full of ideology, politics and other lofty stuff, that we end up overlooking really obvious, basic, mammalian-level behaviours and mis-behaviours.  It saddens me that a man could have caused a bloody massacre – monkeys against monkeys – with a simple, misguided gesture.  It saddens me that many will think that he is being a hero, because he did something “brave”, when really in my eyes he’s just being a rude pillock.  Most of all, it angers me that I am forced to look at a policeman and think that he’s the hero there.  He managed to control the monkey.  He managed to rein in his instincts.  His feelings and dignity were injured, yet he followed his discipline, kept his composure and in doing so might have saved lives.  Me, the glorious rebel, hero-worshipping a copper.  That’s a turn-up for the books.

[1] Jenny Holzer
[2] I shan’t get into an explanation of the monkey brain because you have been reading your MacYoung, haven’t you?  Of course you have.  But in case you want to re-read it, here’s the relevant blog:
[3] What, you reckon that this is not an unbiased assessment? I’m being, what, judgemental? Suck it up, princess.  What did I tell you about us all been nothing but evolved monkeys?  I’m not immune.  Deal with it.
[4] That, or with smashed front teeth and a fractured cheekbone.  Been there, done the first aid, rinsed the blood off the t-shirt.  Don’t try this at home, kids.  It’s not big and it’s not clever.
[5] Mace Windu, in “Jedi: Count Dooku”.  No, I’ve not read it.  I’m not that dedicated to the Force.
[6] Ecclesiasticus 28:17-18. 
[7] Confiteor.  No, I have no idea why this is all coming out of the closet, either.  Me and organised religion REALLY don’t get on.  However I’ve always loved this bit of this prayer as a reminder of the multitude of ways in which I can fuck up.

Friday, 21 June 2013

The tale of the educationally subnormal monkey. 20.06.2013

I firmly believe that the world is divided into two groups of people: those who think you can glibly classify people into groups, and those who don’t.  I thought I belonged to the latter but a squirrel showed me that I was wrong.  Yes, a squirrel.

I got back to base after deliveries yesterday, tired as hell and sleep deprived as per usual, only to be presented with a cage with a broken squirrel in it.  The poor thing had had an argument with a car and quite obviously lost.  One of the girls who work for me had found it on her way home and brought it back in hysterics.  The other girl was also upset but managed to keep her cool, plonk it in a cage and send the other girl home.  The reason she had kept her cool is that she knew that idiot here would sort it all out.

There isn’t much that can be done with a squirrel with a broken back other than help it go painlessly and quickly.  I explained that to girl no.2 and she said that she had expected that.  She was very accepting of the situation but asked me if we could tell girl no.1 that “he had died peacefully”.  I agreed, and was left with a squirrel to dispatch and a lie to maintain.

Off I went into the garage so I could do what needed to be done without anyone getting upset, and it hit me.  What about ME getting upset?  Why is it that I’m the person who gets to kill the small furry creatures?  It’s really not something I enjoy doing.  It needs to be done, so I’ll obviously do it, but why me?  More than that, why don’t I get the luxury of falling apart in hysterics all over the place and then be comforted?  The obvious answer is that I can’t be doing that, because then nobody will do what needs to be done.  At that point the little toddler who lives in my head started stomping her little feet and crying that “it’s not fair”.  For once, I couldn’t disagree with her.  It’s not fair.  It’s not fair that I seem to be in charge of dealing with unpleasant but necessary tasks.  It’s not fair that I can’t indulge in an emotional meltdown because there’s shit that needs sorting.  It’s not fair that to cap it all I then have to concern myself with the emotional state of those who were excused from actually dealing with the situation because it was too upsetting for them.  What about my emotional state?  I’m the one going around with blood on her hands[1].

It’s not just about squirrels and it’s not just me.  The vast majority of my friends are plagued by the same issue.  When there are hard decisions to be made, unpleasant tasks to be completed, loads – metaphorical or not – to be carried, we all step up and get on with it.  Hell, most of us step up even when we’re not asked, when it’s not technically our problem.  Are we stupid?  Because, sure enough, you step up enough times and it becomes expected of you.  People know that they can rely on you because you have been reliable.  And it’s ok, it’s fine, because stuff needs doing and you can do it, so you just get on with it.  Over time, it becomes what you do.  Then it becomes what you are in the eyes of those around you.

Things end up snowballing.  Once you start rescuing and fixing, there is no stopping.  Once you prove yourself capable of dealing with the small stuff, people will come at you with bigger and bigger issues.  You start out hand-feeding baby birds that have fallen out of the nest, and a decade later you wonder how you ended up with recovering domestic abuse victims clogging up your living room[2].

Things get heavier and heavier for you, because the issues you deal with get harder to wash off your hands.  I might be ridiculously soft, but every time I have to deal with someone’s injuries I feel a little bit of their pain.  If they get better it’s a bit easier, but some of the pain seems to stick.  If they don’t get better more of the pain is left behind.  It’s as if every injury you deal with was a little pebble.  Over time, the weight drags you down.

If you need to take a break because it all gets too much, you are letting everyone down.  If you end up having a meltdown as a result of all the little ones you kept a lid on, it’s as if the sky was falling on people’s heads.  People do not flock to comfort and assist you.  People stand watching you with their mouth open, aghast, or start panicking like mad.  They feel and act cheated, shocked or resentful.  You don’t have the luxury of collapsing under the weight, because you have become the lynchpin, the go-to person.  If you collapse, the whole system goes to pot.

The opposite is also true.  While you are holding things up, everybody around you can relax a little bit.  Girl no.2 yesterday kept her cool because she knew I would keep mine and the problem would be solved.  So, instead of rushing around like a headless chicken or getting bitten, she actually did something helpful in a safe manner.  That made my task a lot simpler and easier – but that was precisely because she relied upon it being “my task”.  It’s great for the overall running of the “tribe”, but it often sucks for me.

This is, of course, a gross oversimplification, and largely the result of me suffering from a serious case of self-pity.  There is quite a large grain of truth in it, though.  I have seen many of my friends come close to doing themselves in for the sake of those who depended on them.  They had helped create that dependency over time, by enabling the people around them to lean on them.

Now, there is nothing wrong in helping people.  Aside from morals and ethics, which are subjective, we are a social species.  You’d think supporting each other would be the way to go.  However, evolution doesn’t quite work like that.  If you are the person who runs into the burning house to save whoever is inside and you get turned into toast, your genes will not be passed on.  There is a lot of mileage to being the person who is horrified by the fire and reacts by flapping around, at a safe distance.

That sort of panic tends to spread, because as a species we are designed to infect each other emotionally.  Marc MacYoung explained this particular aspect of human survival in one of his lecture[3].  Imagine you are a monkey, sitting with your monkey friends in the grass, eating, picking nits and generally doing your thang.  A fellow monkey comes in at 300 mph, in a blind panic, and rushes straight up a tree.  All the other monkeys do not stop to ask what’s up – they all fly off in a similar panic and end up in the tree.  Only AFTER they are up the tree they might stop to wonder what the hell just happened.  This makes perfect sense.  If a predator is about to attack you, it doesn’t pay to stop and ask for details.  You want to trust the instincts or knowledge of your fellow tribe members and get the fuck out of the way before the monster can get you.

This makes sense to the individual, though, but not to the group.  If everyone stampedes off, the predators will end up picking the slowest and weakest.  You’ll lose your children, then your females, and that just doesn’t work as a survival strategy.  A load of strong male monkeys sitting in a tree is not a sustainable group.  So nature has a way of making sure we don’t go extinct by designing a special breed of idiot.  In a successful group there will be individuals who run towards trouble, instead of away from it.  They see a predator approaching and will try to see it off, because it needs doing.  They don’t think about it – there is no time to think about it.  A little switch flicks and they just do it.  As MacYoung says, “We all run.  We just run in different directions.”

Some people find this sort of stuff rather glorious.  A friend of mine, bless him, told me that “natural leaders always rise to the situation” when I moaned about the squirrel.  As I’m aware that my leadership qualities are pretty much equivalent of those of the poor creature AFTER I finished with him, I didn’t really buy it.  It was kind of him, and I wish it was true, but it just isn’t.  There is a lot of modern mythology about natural leaders, warriors and so on, though.  If you listen to some of Dave Grossman’s podcasts[4], he makes much of creating a mythology for figures such as policemen and soldiers.  He divides humans into three groups:
·         Sheep: kind, productive individuals who can only hurt each other by accident;
·         Wolves: who aim to predate on the sheep;
·         Sheep dogs: the protectors, living outside of the herd and somewhat despised by the sheep until the time they are needed.
I see what Grossman is trying to do and I understand why, but I don’t see myself fitting any of the descriptions.  I am no warrior.  There’s no heroism about what I do.  I am not a natural leader.  What I am, in the MacYoung mode, is an educationally subnormal monkey.  I’m not special – I’m speshul.  I am comforted by the fact that so are most of my friends.

This leaves with a problem, though.  We go forth to solve all sorts of little hiccups, so that people’s lives can proceed a bit more smoothly.  What happens, though, when we are the ones with the problem?  What happens when other people’s problems become too much for us?  We are conditioned not to crumble – it’s not our role.  When we do, in my limited experience, we can fall apart completely, because we have allowed ourselves to be pushed to the very edge of our tolerance level.  If you give 100%, there are no resources to fall back on.

The other thing that sucks, in a major way, is that by not panicking along with the rest of the tribe you can end up being labelled as cold or unemotional.  When flapping around in hysterics is considered to be the appropriate reaction to an event, the person who coolly gets shit sorted out is a freak.  Your pragmatism and ability to take effective action are seen as the result of a lack of emotional response, rather than the result of a conscious effort to keep it together.  It pisses the shit out of me when friends of mine get accused of “not doing emotions”, which happens surprisingly frequently.  I would like to retort with something along the line of “he can’t do his own emotion because he’s too busy dealing with your drama” – but you can’t do that.

It’s not just a few people being unfair, either.  It seems that as a society we have become increasingly squeamish.   In the past we used to respect those people who did what needed doing, in particular if they were of the male persuasion.  To be a “real man” you had to be able to take the harsher aspects of life on the chin.  If you couldn’t keep a lid on your emotions and deal with situations you were a weakling, hardly a man at all.  Other men would sneer.  The women wouldn’t go out with you.  I can’t say that I agree with that.  I’m all for men (and women, and children) being in touch with their feelings, but we might have gone too far in the opposite direction.  It seems that we have started valuing emotional sensitivity to a level that becomes disabling.  You just throw your hands up, get all hysterical and shout that you can't cope or face something and hey presto, you’re a wonderful, sensitive, caring human being.  Never mind that “caring” is supposed to be a doing word.

It is, of course, a wonderful survival strategy.  “Not being able to cope" these days seems the automatic equivalent to "someone else will have to sort my shit out for me".  You get to flap around a lot, making a lot of noise, and some other idiot ends up doing whatever needs to be done, however unpleasant or dangerous. Then you get comforted for your emotional sufferings, whilst the person who metaphorically took the rubbish out get the dirty looks because they now smell a bit.  Going all untogether is a great "get out of jail free" card.  Wish I could get one.

So, what’s the answer for the educationally subnormal monkeys out there?  You know, I’m not fully sure yet.  I know we’re not going to stop doing our thing.  Whether it’s because of nature or nurture, I don’t know any of us who could just stand and watch events unfold without doing “our bit”.  There are other ways of lightening the load, though.  I know that I feel a lot better for having realised that I’m singing from a different hymn sheet.  I am aware of tendencies that could be self-destructive, so I can now rein them in a lot better.  I learnt what my limits are by coming up against them at speed, and I will endeavour not to hit them again, because it fucking HURTS.  I learnt that I’m not super-human; I have the same right to ask for help that everybody else does, and if people don’t like it they can stuff themselves.  I have also learnt that I find it hard to tell people, however politely, to stuff themselves. 

The most helpful thing I learnt is that we can all be subnormal together – the support you get from fellow sufferers of this condition isn’t the same we give to “normal” people, but it’s still bloody good.  Unfortunately it is a bittersweet kind of comfort; it feels bad, because a little voice in my head says that I’m “letting the side down”, but also good, because it feels nice to know that someone’s got your back, or at least a bit of it.  Let’s face it, we’re all gonna keep jumping on grenades, rescuing damsels, fixing blocked pipes and breaking the neck of small furry creatures, whatever is necessary.  We better get used to doing it as safely as possible, because we’re going to be doing it for a long time.

[1] Figuratively speaking.  I know my shit.
[2] I shit you not.  It happened to me last year.
[3] May 2013, Bristol.  You should have been there.  It was epic.
[4] Sorry, no reference.  I pinched them.

Friday, 14 June 2013

The Secrets of the Pyramids – Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and women self-defence. 14/06/2013

I’ve been tripping out on Maslow lately.  It all started because of a podcast by Rory Miller[1].  In this absolutely excellent recording Miller uses Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to explain certain types of violence to people who haven’t encountered it.  I have been using Maslow’s model ever since to explain all sorts of phenomena which up until now have puzzled the crap out of me.

For those unfamiliar with it, Maslow’s model essentially states that there are 5 levels of needs for humans, as follows:
Once the basic needs are met, we strive for the higher ones.  Once we have all five, then we’re truly happy bunnies.  If we don’t have the basic ones, the higher ones are temporarily put aside – it is not a lot of use to me to know that I am loved and esteemed if I can’t breathe, or am starving.

Miller used the hierarchy of needs to explain the severity of predation by addicts, amongst other things.  To explain to innocent people the extreme acts addicts will resort to in order to feed their habit, he asks what people would do to feed their children if they were starving – not just hungry, but actually starving and in danger of dying.  Personally, there isn’t a great deal I would not do in that situation.  The vast majority of my morals would be temporarily put aside.  When addicts are desperate to satisfy their habit, they are in that sort of frame of mind.  There is very little they will not resort to.  If their potential victims do not understand that, if they try to relate to them as if they were in a position to be reasoned or bargained with, they can put themselves in very grave danger.

I used that model to explain to a young and rather naïve friend the perils of dealing with addicts, and the concept seemed to sink.  Result!  The girl is now aware!  The pyramid got me wondering, though.  I just can’t leave it alone.  When you accept the fact that you are almost a different person when you operate at different levels, all sorts of mysteries are resolved.

Something that I’ve never managed to get my head around is the ongoing acrimonious debate about women’s self-defence.  The way I look at it is quite simple: as with all other dangers, my first line of self-defence is to not put myself in danger in the first place.  I take steps to reduce my risks.  This means, for instance, that I tend not to go to certain places where I know trouble is rife.  If I go out at night I tend not to wear revealing clothes.  I don’t go out alone to places where people tend to go to find sexual partners, unless that’s what I’m there for.  If I go out with friends I watch their backs and I expect them to watch mine, particularly if we are somewhere where minds are getting altered, i.e. anywhere where alcohol or drugs are present.  To me it’s a simple case of taking sensible precautions, running basic safety checks, in the same way that I would if I was about to use a chainsaw.  I know that it is not wise to use a chainsaw in shorts and flip-flops.  If I did that[3] and I had an accident, I would feel at least partly responsible for it.

To me it seems all pretty clear cut.  I don’t avoid danger because I live in fear.  I quite simply can’t see the bleeding point in getting myself into trouble and then having to get myself out of it.  Yes, I could go out to the local meat market – sorry, club - on my own and wearing very little indeed, but frankly I don’t fancy having to spend an evening smacking people.  I can’t see the point in presenting myself in a way that is likely to lead to misunderstandings which in turn may lead to potentially serious trouble.  I also am deeply uncomfortable being off my face when surrounded by strangers or in unfamiliar areas.  Partly this is because I’m a mistrustful little cunt and I want to be able to have my wits about me in case a situation arises.  Partly it’s because I have seen plenty of people behave in rather unconstructive ways when under the influence and I don’t want to be one of them when in an unsafe area.

These are not in any way, shape or form hard and fast rules for me, and I don’t always follow my own advice.  I have been in plenty of situations where my original plans were thrown out because, hell, there was good fun to be had, and most of the times no trouble resulted from it.  However, if I was to take unnecessary risks and I ended up in a situation, I would feel at least partly responsible for it, as with the chainsaw analogy.

Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to say that anymore.  Anyone who dares utter anything of the kind seems to get immediately jumped on and accused of “blaming the victims”.  Apparently, suggesting that there are steps that women can take to keep themselves safer is equivalent to saying that victims of sexual assault are to blame for their ordeals.  I couldn’t get my head around this at all, for the longest time.  I just couldn’t fit the concept in my head.

I know that sexual assault is “not right” – evil, inexcusable, call it what you will.  I know that I should have the right to walk around butt naked through my town, alone, in the middle of the night, and expect to get back home safe.  I also know, however, that I’ve got a much higher chance of getting back home safe if I don’t do that, because that’s just not how the world is.  For me it’s a no-brainer – keep your arse safe first and foremost, and fight for your rights second.  It’s a lot harder to fight for your rights when you’re broken and bleeding, after all.

But no, that’s considered plain wrong in some quarters.  If you teach women self-defence, you must EMPOWER your students.  This means, apparently, that you must dispel their fears and make them aware of their rights, so that they can assertively embrace them.  It doesn’t matter if their fears are fully justified.  It doesn’t matter if their problems are likely to result from people who don’t respect their rights, and are larger and stronger and meaner than them.  According to that school of thought, it seems to me that it ultimately doesn’t matter if their training results in them making choices that put them in greater danger than they were before.  That, frankly, pisses the hell out of me.

I have a stepdaughter I love dearly.  I have lots of younger, innocent, sweet friends I am also very fond of.  If anyone ever tries to convince them that they should throw themselves on the grenade, that they should put some nebulous right ahead of their safety, that person is gonna get it from me.  I don’t want them to be scared.  I don’t want them to miss out on life.  But I want them to be aware – aware of what is out there, of the best steps they can take to avoid it, and how to deal with it if the shit still hits the fan.  Aware of when they are taking a risk, so that they can decide whether it’s worth it.

Ranting and frothing at the mouth aside, I just couldn’t work out where the hell these people were coming from.  The ultimate goal is reducing the incidence of violence, yes?  But we shouldn’t tell women to take those steps which are proven to reduce their chances of encountering violence?  In a nutshell, WTF?  Then I thought – Maslow.  Of course.  The pyramid holds the key.

My approach to violence avoidance stems from having encountered it.  I first met a sexual predator when I was 11 (a teacher).  I was ambushed at 15 on the way back to school and had to fight my way out.  I have literally lost count of the number of times I was exposed to various forms of sexual predation and general bother in my teens.  I didn’t live in a particularly rough area and I definitely did not court trouble, but I spent a lot of time commuting and travelling on my own, so I was exposed to what trouble was out there.  I know full well that there are people who quite simply do not see me as a fellow human, worthy of any respect, consideration or empathy.  They have no concerns about causing me harm – they just don’t care.  People like that, in an ideal world, just wouldn’t exist – but they do.  In fact, there are also people out there who deeply care about causing me harm, because that’s how they get their kicks.  They would care for nothing better than to watch me cry, plead, bleed or piss myself in fear.  I’m not saying the world is full of evil – and for fuck’s sake, I’m not saying all men are evil.  But there is evil out there, and if you disagree with me then consider yourself lucky, because you haven’t seen it.

I came to my views on self-defence from the second level of the pyramid.  My security was regularly in danger and I had to take urgent practical steps to protect myself.  This has affected the way I look at the issue.  It set my priorities.  I have to remind myself that my point of view, thankfully, is not normal.  My experiences, whilst nowhere as extreme are those of people who have really suffered, are still more extreme than those of most.  With a bit of luck, my stepchild and my friend will never share my point of view other than in a purely theoretical way.  They will hopefully keep themselves safe, but it will be out of a reasoned choice rather than as a reaction to circumstances.

I am willing to bet my left arsecheek that a large proportion of those campaigners out there who put empowerment before practical safety are talking from much higher up the pyramid.  I am guessing that they live on the top floor - self-actualization.  They are taking the long-term moral stance.  That’s just grand, but it’s not a luxury afforded to anyone who has to deal with the issue, day in, day out.  It also won’t save your arse when the shit hits the fan.

Understanding this has, bizarrely, calmed me down a lot.  I feel almost glad that those people exist, that they managed to get to an age when they can verbalise lofty concepts unencumbered by the memories of a tragic past.  I still wish that they would shut up, mind you, because I think they are dangerous, but I cherish their naïveté.  I cherish the thought that we live in a world where most people have never had to stare at a predator in the eyes and fight for their lives.  I cherish the fact that I am a statistical oddity and that the women I care for are unlikely to have to deal with much of what I’ve seen.  Mind you, I could be wrong.  Those loud campaigners might have lived through bad experiences, yet have decided that ideals come before practical solutions.  Hey, after all we’re a species that decided that it was necessary to put “Warning – Contents May Be Hot” labels on cups of coffee.  We ain’t all that clever, I guess.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

War and Peace. 13.06.2013

Ingrained mechanisms are funny things.  You don’t do something for ages, yet if the situation is right you just fall back onto it as if by magic.  It had been a very long time since I hit the road, yet the first thing that struck me on my recent road trip was how easy it was to fall back onto the “road mentality”.  It’s quite safe out there, as long as you know the score.  I noticed for the first time that I run through all the drills automatically.  I scan any new place for dangers.  I have an in-built checklist of criteria for selecting the best place to kip at night[1].  Without thinking, I pick clothes that will not make me stand out – blander than what I would normally wear and most definitely unattractive.  Even the practical details of splitting up my money and cards and hiding them in various places so I am not stranded in case of theft or robbery – it’s all there, safely lodged in my head, a series of habits which have over time become instincts that kick in at the appropriate time.

My instincts were at their keenest back in the days when I was a hitchhiker.  I was confident in my ability to assess situations and read people.  I could spot a psycho a mile off.  I could read places and social structures to avoid ending up involved in conflicts.  I could manipulate situations and conversations to make sure that people not only didn’t want to hurt me, but actively wanted to look after me.  I was a GOOD hitchhiker and supremely proud of it.  I kicked ass.  Then I stopped travelling, got a job and settled down – and apparently hung my brain on a peg somewhere, completely lost the ability to function and proceeded to get systematically trounced by life.

I sucked at work.  I sucked at relationships.  I sucked at PEOPLE – me, the pro-hitchhiker!  I ended up going out with guys I would not have taken a lift from.  I got pushed around at work by people that I should have been able to play mind yo-yo with.  My friends stepped all over me so often that I should have tattooed “Welcome” across my back.  None of my skills transferred.  Up until my recent trip I had not realised that, and once I did I just had to work out WHY.  What the hell went wrong?

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that I am far from unique in this.  I know people who make their living teaching assertiveness skills yet are completely under the thumb at home; people who negotiate major financial deals on a daily basis yet are not allowed by their partners to buy their own clothes; psychologists who end up working for or going out with psychopaths.  The list goes on.  It seems that many of us have an uncanny ability to forget everything we know, everything we have trained for, and fuck up.  But why?

I can’t answer for anyone else, but I know where I went wrong.  It seems that I divided life into two very separate sections.  When I was out on the road, I knew I lived surrounded by danger, conflict and predation.  I was constantly on guard.  I based my choices and actions on what would keep me safe and maximise my enjoyment of the situation.  At home, on the other hand, I expected things to be all warm and fuzzy, like a bad Disney movie.  Nasty things should not have been happening.  That’s the problem, the “should” – instead of reacting to what was going on, I reacted to what should have been going on.  The two situations weren’t remotely similar. 

I would not have lasted five minutes on the road if I’d operated on the basis of “how things should be”.  Theft and robbery and intimidation and violence and rape and murder should not happen – but they do.  I have the right to be treated a certain way, as stated both by laws and cultural mores.  However, the statutes of the land and every etiquette manual ever written won’t help me one jot if I let myself get cornered by a predator.  I knew this, I set my internal dial to “War Zone” and I operated accordingly.  Unfortunately my dial appeared to only have two settings, the other one being “La La Land”.

La La Land is a splendid place.  It’s a place where your partner is your best friend and always has your back.  It’s a place where your friends care about as much as you care about them.  It’s a place where your work team is precisely that, a team, with people who co-operate to support each other towards a common goal.  It’s a place where neighbours look after each other.  Oh, La La Land is a lovely place, where things are just as they should be.  Such a shame that it is complete bullshit.

In the real world, I went out with guys who felt no empathy towards me and used any means at their disposal to try to control and manipulate me.  I had friends who needed me a hell of a lot more than they cared for me.  Most of my work teams contained individuals who had no interest other than their own advancement, obtained at any costs to others and to the tasks at hand.  My mum’s next door neighbour tried to jump her.  The real world is full of teeth and sharp corners.

I failed to use my road skills with my nearest and dearest because I shouldn’t have needed to.  “Home” should have been my safe place.  I completely failed to realise when I was in a situation of conflict – not open war, to be sure, but most definitely interpersonal conflict.  Instead of choosing the approach that would have got me the best result with the minimum effort or risk, I tried to play it straight.  I did not lie or manipulate or plot.  I was fair and open and honest.  D’ya know what?  As a strategy, that’s not worth spit.  No other fucker played the game with the same rules – hell, as often as not they were playing a different game altogether.  I lost, and on occasions I got hurt bad.

It gets worse.  Because things weren’t “how they should be”, instead of reassessing my situation and re-writing my script, I grew shrill and petulant, like an upset toddler.  It.  Was.  Just.  Not.  FAIR!  I was playing nice, and by the rules!  This was only my inside voice, you understand, but I am sure that it transpired to those around me, in the way I spoke and acted.  They reacted as most people do when confronted with peevish children – they showed me (and my rules) even less respect than before.  Bad situations often escalated, and I can’t blame them for that.  I was an idiot, and an annoying idiot at that. 

Let me give you an example.  In my last job I ended up managing an older guy who had been working there since the dawn of time.  He deeply resented having to work with someone younger, female, small and foreign – and I was supposed to be in charge of him.  He gave me hell for years.  He ranged from casual rudeness to uncontrollable fits of anger, accompanied by screaming and swearing.  The whole situation was clearly unacceptable – asides from the requirements of common courtesy, we had POLICIES to deal with xenophobia, sexism, racism, ageism and all sorts of other -isms!  This fact, however accurate, didn’t help me a bit.  My boss did not want to take sides.  If I had started an official complaint, he would not have supported me.  Now, as a hitchhiker I would have used the guy’s prejudices against him to manipulate him in looking after me – after all, I am a member of the weaker sex, physically puny and clueless both as an ignorant foreigner and as an inexperienced youngster.  I would have had him doing somersaults to help me.  But no, I played it straight and by the book, because I shouldn’t have had to bow to his intolerance.  So I treated him as I would have treated any other subordinate, he threw huge tantrums at me, and I had to remain calm, controlled and professional.  In the end it was just the way we interacted with each other, him screaming and me playing the extremely annoying voice of reason.  It wasn’t productive and it drained the life out of me.  It just sucked.  I don’t want to do anything that stupid ever again.

So, now what?  What I want to learn is how to operate at all levels of the violence continuum.  I want to be able to resolve all sorts of interpersonal issues at their appropriate level, using whatever technique gives me the best result for the minimum of fuss.  I want to keep my eyes open, even when it forces me to look at unpleasant things.  I want to be able to make accurate evaluations of what people actually want, because our implicit shared goals may not be what motivates them at all.  I also want to nip situations in the bud, before they escalate.  It seems that in order to live a peaceful life, I must accept the inevitability of conflict.

[1] Conventional resting places such as hotels and campsites are not allowed.  It’s one of the very few rules of the game.