Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Layer 272 . . . Community, Solidarity, Negativity, Bees, Mirasmus, Powerlessness, Social Justice and Freedom

One of the key lessons that people learn as they become older and wiser is that nothing of real significance or of lasting benefit is achieved by individuals acting alone. Everyone depends on other people for growth, sustenance, support and collaboration. We all have our parts to play, and even those who achieve the most are usually standing on the shoulders of some giants who have gone before them.

Even Barack Obama, an outstanding individual, became as powerful and well known as he is thanks to hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions, of 'ordinary' people taking part in canvassing, fundraising and voter registration. He owes them all - big time. Very unlike a lot of previous presidents who relied on the big party machines to raise funds from rich individuals and corporations and then to adopt them as their figurehead. Through doing it the hard way Obama is both less endebted to the fat cats and the party machines, and more endebted to we, the people. Even those of us who just stood by and cheered from the sidelines, or from across the pond. It's the cause and the collective that's important - not the leader or the figurehead. Though you'd never convince the likes of Thatcher or Blair that this is the case, it's been well understood by others like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

A really good example of a successful collective of individuals is a hive of honey bees, where the 'queen' is merely an egg layer, and it's clearly the efforts of the workers, the maintenance crew and the nurses that determine whether her egg laying is going to have any consequence.

The latest of Richard Hammond's fascinating series of documentaries on the unseen universe (Invisible Worlds) this week showed us - using x-rays, infra-red and ultra-violet - things that a normal human eye could never see. Such as members of a hive of bees that have body temperatures far higher than other members of the community, and who then use this particular faculty or gift to maintain the eggs and the pupae at the optimum temperature for development into adulthood.

It might be very interesting to use this technology to focus on human beings to see whether we too have members of our communities who are physically able to spread warmth, comfort and wellbeing. It's clearly the case that we have people who psychologically and spiritually either cool things down or spread some warmth. Maybe some people can do both, depending on circumstances. Some people can also freeze or enflame.

One reviewer of a book called 'How Full Is Your Bucket?' by Rath & Clifton said this: "They paint a compelling picture of the good things that happen when people are encouraged, recognised, and praised regularly, as well as the emotional, mental and sometimes even physical devastation that can occur in the absence of such positive encounters."

Which is all very well, but in itself such a positive approach to life is not going create a better world. Big fish like Berlusconi, Bush and Blair - and even minnows like Blears and Byers - have had more than a fair share of encouragement, recognition and praise - and look where that's taken us to.


Negativity Kills

'Negativity Kills' is the title of the first chapter in the Rath & Clifton book, and it's something to think about for all the New Labourites who supported the government's efforts to 'drive up standards' through slagging off the professions, telling them they're not good enough and they can't be trusted, and setting them production targets that could only be achieved through neglecting the real needs of the actual clients of doctors, social workers, teachers, etc.

Rath & Clifton describe a condition they call 'mirasmus' which they say is the end result of constant negativity and lack of positive input. It's a state of complete hopelessness and a feeling of giving up when you see the world as a complete crock of shit, and can't see any way to live a better life or to feel any faith or hope in the future, let alone love. People who have been psychologically deprived and have received only negative inputs eventually come to feel that even survival is pointless, and cannot even raise the energy to get angry about the state of themselves or of the world. Remember what Maya Angelou said about anger? "If you're not angry . . . you're either a stone or you're too sick to be angry."

Britain is now full of people who wander around in a state of mirasmus. They live in a state of isolation and despair. They radiate the negativity they've had inflicted on them. They have no faith in politics, or in the likelihood of being able to get a decent job, build a better life, and stay out of debt. They have no hope for the future. They hate their lives, their work, and the state of the world in general. They neither care about themselves or other people. They can neither love nor hate, nor get angry. They have no passion for anything.


In the Guardian today there's a 'comment' column by Amartya Sen, the Nobel prize-winning economist who teaches philosophy and economics at Harvard.

He's making the point that "freedom" as a concept is meaningless if people don't have any real ability to enjoy a life in which they seem to be politically and socially free - i.e. are not able to live lifestyles that most people see as desireable and ensure at least a basic level of wellbeing.

If people feel hopeless and have no faith in the possibility of a better life then they can't possibly feel they have either justice or freedom in their lives.

Powerlessness in actual lives is the hurdle that justice must clear

The state must ensure that individual freedoms not only exist, but that everyone has the ability to experience them

The question that immediately arises is how to understand the richness and poverty of human lives.

Even if chronically deprived persons – the hopelessly poor, or long-term unemployed – learn to come to terms with and accept cheerfully their deprived lifestyles, that cultivated cheerfulness will not eliminate the real deprivation of freedom from which they will continue to suffer.

When, however, the focus is on issues of economic and social inequality in the lives that different people lead, the relevant aspects of freedom can be captured better by a fuller assessment of what is called, in the new literature, "capabilities", which reflect the actual opportunities of a person. It is easily checked that means such as incomes and other resources, while valuable in the pursuit of capabilities, are not themselves indicators of the capabilities and freedoms that people actually have. The real opportunities that different persons enjoy are very substantially influenced by variations of individual circumstances (eg age, disability, talents, gender, maternity) and also by disparities in the natural and the social environment (eg epidemiological conditions, pollution, prevalence of crime). An exclusive concentration on inequalities in income distribution cannot be adequate for an understanding of economic inequality.

This is routinely missed in poverty relief programmes that concentrate only on the lowness of incomes.

To say that a person is powerless in reversing the kind of neglect that they have been experiencing can also be expressed in the language of capability: they are not capable of reversing the neglect from which they suffer. And yet there is some evocative strength and rhetorical force in the language of power, particularly in dealing with powerlessness, that the word capability, which is really a term of art, cannot really match. Analysing power and powerlessness can help to generate a better understanding of the divided world in which we live. Mary Wollstonecraft's wrath and bitter irony about the subjugation of women complemented her cool reasoning against gender hierarchy in her 1792 classic, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Or take Steve Biko's remarks on "powerlessness" in the apartheid-based South Africa in the 1970s. "Powerlessness breeds," Biko said, "a race of beggars who smile at the enemy and swear at him in the sanctity of his toilet; who shout 'Boss' willingly during the day and call the white man a dog in their buses as they go home." If capability failure of any kind is a matter of concern, those related to people's inability to act freely or speak openly because of the power of others have special urgency. This is an important concern in the advancement of freedom and capability, since societies involve conflicts as well as togetherness and mutual support. The pursuit of justice in enhancing freedoms and capabilities in peoples' lives has to be alive to both.



I first came across this series on Sky Arts last week, in which the programmes are based on a meeting and a dialogue between an older black woman and a younger black person of either gender. Last week (remember? Layer 266) it was Maya Angelou and Dave Chappelle.

Alecia Keys and Ruby Dee both grew up, 60 years apart, in Hell's Kitchen, Harlem.

Both of these amazing women are political and human rights activists, as well as artists, performers, philanthropists, educationalists, and an inspiration to their communities.

Bob Dylan said of Alicia Keys, “There’s nothing about that girl I don’t like” - and when His Bobness says someone's just about perfect then you really need to take note. On the opening track of his album Modern Times he sings “I was thinking ’bout Alicia Keys, I couldn’t keep from crying/ While she was born in Hell’s Kitchen, I was living down the line / I'm wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be / I been looking for her even clean through Tennessee.” How many people does Dylan ever bother to namecheck on his records?

Alicia Keys is a songwriter, musician, actor, poet and author, and she's intelligent, beautiful, creative, thoughtful, generous, idealistic, insightful, and a real role model for all young people. Ditto Ruby Dee, who's still going strong at the age of 86.

For the record - Alicia had a role in a film called The Secret Life of Bees.


Radio Culture

There was an edition of Marcus Brigstocke's "I've Never Seen Star Wars" on R4 last night in which he asked Jenny Eclaire to watch "Apocalypse Now" - since she's always avoided seeing it. Her verdict was that it was very good. She then revealed that she's never seen Star Wars either - the first person they've ever had on the programme who's never actually seen it!

Jenny also had to eat jellied eels!

"He's never asked me to marry him. 28 years of sharing the same bed. He has the bed on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays . . ."


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