Tuesday, 18 February 2014
Free from judgment: How the Living Room works. The western world in the modern era has based itself on its ability to be critical, its societies have developed systems of mass education, health, welfare, science and economic might through critical thought. Applying a microscopic scrutiny over nature has yielded immense benefits to millions but also has pushed us to the brink of environmental and social catastrophe. This process of the Enlightenment has also been applied to examining the nature of the individual, when modern schooling, prisons, asylums and working life was created in the 19th Century, people were subjected to more examination and judgment than at any other time in human history. We still live with the values of the 19th Century, the ideas that shaped Victorian society were put in place because of the needs of the industrial revolution and an age of empire, and they were of course deeply toxic to the human condition. In the 21st Century the individual is criticised in the home, criticised at school, criticised at work, at the doctors and in the media. The logic that powers mass society is that this endless criticism and supervision of us as individuals makes us 'better people'; it may enable us to eventually achieve more in work, as economic agents in the economy but the damage that is done can often only be remedied by some form of self-medication. We live in an age of mass consumption, where we are criticised and judged for not being as beautiful and charismatic as the images we see on the television and so the values that mass culture hands down to us as a society encourage us to judge each other - inevitably we are all found wanting. How can a person live up to all of this? It is impossible to be the superman that the modern world requires us to be, but this salient truth is lost, or deliberately buried, keeping us all in a state of perpetual doubt and fear. Coming to a non-judgmental space like the Living Room, where one can be real and authentic and can stop trying to conform to the dysfunctional dictates of society is invaluable to the recovery of addicts. For many it is like the first gulp of air after decades of a strange type of asphyxia, and the discovery that not only is it OK to be imperfect, flawed and to make mistakes, but it's an aspect of all human beings. When criticisers criticise, it is rarely from a position of intended malice, invariably what they are trying to say is: "I know what is best, if you do what I say, you will improve as a person." What the individual, who often deep down knows what to do to be 'better', hears is: " You are no good, no one could love someone like you." At the Living Room criticism and judgment are lethal, we leave them at the door, few things are as dangerous to a recovery. Once we can see beyond the myths and fantasies that society presents us with and embrace our perfectly imperfect selves our recoveries and self-growth become energised and our own urge to self-judge and self criticise diminishes.
Monday, 3 February 2014
Existential Poverty In 1901 the Quaker Seebohm Rowntree, heir to the confectionary millions of his father Joseph, wrote a groundbreaking report into poverty, examining the condition of the working classes in York. He discovered that there were two main kinds of poor, those below the bread line who were locked in a daily battle for survival and those living just above it, struggling to keep their heads above water. The Rowntree Report shocked Britain, paved the way for Lloyd George's Liberal Reforms, old age pensions and unemployment relief; it was one of the most influential studies of the 20th Century. What would Seebohm Rowntree's report show today? The foundation established by his father still argues that there is immense material poverty in Britain and the existence of food banks and city centre begging would tend to support that view. There seems, however, to be a kind of poverty that is much more difficult to see until it manifests itself in tragic and sometimes violent ways; it is a poverty of meaning, an existential poverty that grips many lives, where the individual often has little sense of the purpose of living and is dominated by a sense of boredom. The medicine that is currently prescribed for this condition by our culture is alcohol, but increasingly other drugs and harmful behaviours are also used to medicate this spiritual malaise. Recently, feminist blogger and activist Caroline Criado-Perez's campaign to have a female face on at least one British bank note brought down upon her a storm of violent abuse from Twitter users. Much of this hateful misogynistic vitriol went unpunished, but the two individuals who were prosecuted, Isabella Sorley and John Nimmo, were given short custodial sentences for making threats to kill. For both offenders alcohol played a significant factor, with Sorley, by all accounts an educated and intelligent woman, having been arrested 25 times before for drunk and disorderly behaviour. The defence counsel for both individuals cited 'boredom' as an exacerbating factor in their lives, one that seems to have resulted in their mindlessly hateful behaviour. It might be tempting to dismiss this as a feeble excuse, but we must engage with the issue of boredom for a moment. We must ask ourselves why in a society that, even for some of the least well off among us is packed with more opportunities than Seebohm Rowntree could have dreampt of, do some people still feel disinterested in all but the most destructive pursuits? Why do we see internet 'crazes' like neknomination emerge, a phenomenon of such extraordinary stupidity - whereby a participant downs a large quantity of alcohol on video, posts it online and essentially dares the next viewer to consume alcohol in a potentially dangerous scenario, emerge? The internet troll, a lonely, marginalised figure and the neknominator who unwittingly causes the death of another (as has happened recently) are similar in that both are trying in misguided ways to matter. Both are medicating their boredom with alcohol and trying to have some kind of agency in the world, an agency that proves ultimately to be destructive. It might be that the kind of society that we currently have encourages a degree of consumption, in this case of state of the art computer technology and alcohol, and encourages a narcissistic individualism, but little else. These 'pleasures' fail to address the deeper human needs for involvement and connection with others, the nation's widespread existential poverty, boredom and disinterest in contribution is quite possibly linked to the roles that we have created for ourselves as citizens. The guiding logic of our society is that self-interest and self-indulgence eventually yields public benefits, and if this has ever been true, it's certainly not true now. The nation's bored and switched off subsist in an existential and spiritual wilderness with only alcohol, drugs and the internet to engage with and it is down to Britain as a wider society to rethink how we see ourselves as individuals and as a community, and to place deeper humanistic values at the forefront of our priorities.