Mental health, mental illness, insanity, wellbeing, distress, madness…

Hello, my name is Phil, and I don’t know what mental illness is.

Hello Phil.

I have an MSc in Counselling Psychology, work full time as a counsellor, and I don’t know what mental illness is. Neither do I know how it differs from mental health. I have a vague, felt sense of what these terms mean, but I don’t know.

Now admittedly, the ‘psychology’ aspect of my MSc wasn’t the kind that has lab rats and Big Brother body-language experts all that, but still, you’d think someone who’s qualified to work with people who are suffering from mental distress (there’s another ambiguous term to throw into the mix) might have a firmer grasp on such basic terms as ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’.

But I don’t. Neither do I really understand how ‘mental illness’ differs from ‘madness’ or ‘insanity’, or what place ‘wellbeing’ takes in relation to them.

Jens_Lehmann.jpg
A layperson [niche reference which doesn’t work in gender-neutral terms]
Sometimes I feel bad about this, and worry that I’m alone in my confusion – that I’ve missed the obvious distinction which everyone else was told about while I was in the toilet. But most of the time I think we’re all just operating in the dark. If you listen to people talk and write about any area of mental health there’s a real muddled mishmash of terms and attitudes which, to me, betrays a fundamental incoherence in the way that mental health/illness is understood both by the professional and the layperson.

Part of the problem is that the world of counselling is a bit scared of ‘proper’ mental illness – the kind we meant when, as politically-incorrect children we talked about people being ‘psychos’ or ‘mental’. We counsellors often shy away from a world we’re taught to see as too serious for our woolly skills (and too physical in cause). Some of us believe that we can help people with ‘proper’ mental illness deal with their problems, but the overriding discourse says that, at a certain point, we have to pass these people on to the big boys: the psychiatrists with the ability to prescribe and to section.

So there’s a whole big chunk of people who deal in mental health but feel they are not permitted to talk about the ‘real’ part, only the minor versions around the edges. And that in itself is symptomatic of the way that mental health and mental illness are (not) spoken about. We’re always banging on about destigmatising mental health issues but there’s a big stigma – a taboo – about deviating from this woolly, all-embracing, muddled approach to mental health [there’s the opposite taboo too, which I’ll deal with below].

There’s a taboo, in other words, about being clear about mental health and illness. A taboo which comes from a good place – not wanting to say something offensive about someone who is vulnerable – but whose effect is emphatically not good. By not speaking clearly we help no-one, in the long run, and we counsellors in particular make reduce our relevance and our stake in the argument to define what counts as mental health. In the interests of clarity, then, here are some of the things I’ve come across recently that have confused me:

Mental Health = Mental Illness?

met.pngA little while ago [ed. quite a while now, I’ve redrafted this many many times, and held off on pressing ‘Publish’ because breaking taboos is scary] there was a knife attack in Russell Square. Initially it was thought to be a terrorist attack, but the next day on the radio I heard your man from the police saying that it wasn’t terrorism what done it, it was a mental health problem.

I sat up at that phrase. Mental health?

Huh?

Without ever explicitly working it out, I think I’d always associated mental health with the softer end of the spectrum – the kind of thing we feel confident to deal with as counsellors: anxiety, distress, questions about purpose and meaning, that kind of thing. I’d linked it subconsciously with things like ‘wellbeing’ – with the everyday kind of things people mean when they say that 1 in 4 of us will experience mental health issues at some point in our lives. Stuff within the normal range of human experience. Not stuff that would lead you to kill a stranger with a knife.

sun.jpgThat kind of thing I always, unconsciously, thought of as mental illness. Mental illness which was seen, when I was young (and is still in the tabloid press) a kind of bogey-man; the kind of thing that the headline writers want you to think when they say ‘mental patients’ in front pages like the one on the right.

Mental illness = madness?

When we were children, the people we referred to as ‘mental’ were the same people we’d call ‘mad’. So is mental illness the same as madness? Is one a subset of the other? Clearly in The Sun’s mind ‘mental patients’ = ‘mental illness’ = ‘mental’ = ‘mad’, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Mental patients are killers – the kind of people whose behaviour or thought is way beyond anything a normal person could understand. Where should we stand in relation to this running-together of madness and mental illness?

On the one hand, it’s pretty reprehensible, I think. It deliberately links all manner of mental illness with threats to your (children’s, granny’s) safety with no factual basis. It plays to an inaccurate picture in order to marginalise vulnerable people in order to sell papers.

But on the other hand, the everyday language notion of ‘mad’ or ‘insane’ is less obviously reprehensible. It is hard not to think of someone who deliberately stabs a stranger as insane, almost by definition. Their actions and thoughts are so far outside the normal range of human experience that they are ‘beyond’. So does ‘mad’ mean the same as ‘mentally ill’?

Clearly they’re not co-extensive – there’s people who we describe as suffering from a mental illness whom we wouldn’t want to say are mad. Those suffering from major depression, for example, I wouldn’t want to describe as mad, but I would want to describe as suffering from a mental illness. But there is a subset of those we define as mentally ill who would also be judge ‘mad’ in normal language: those suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, for example, or experiencing psychotic delusions.

A continuum?

We seem, then, to have a continuum which runs from wellbeing at the softest end (where “we all have mental health” [which, if I’m being really cynical, seems to mean we all have emotions], through mental health, which bleeds messily into mental illness, which at its extreme is madness – the kind you can get sectioned for.

Now it may be that the policeman who set this all off just misspoke: he meant mental illness (the type that is co-extensive with madness), but said mental health. But even if he did, his misspeaking betrays a muddledness which lies just under the surface of the way we talk about everything on the continuum.

This muddle is partly borne of the fact that it’s not at all clear who decides how it works or what standards should be applied along its length – there are no authoritative authorities to defer to. And it’s made worse by the many taboos and fears in this area, which mean that we all discuss the continuum in murky, euphemistic and underhand ways.

I’ve tried to get clearer in my mind by slotting the different parts of the continuum together:

  • At the softer end we have a focus on the societal causes, as in the myriad articles and reports focusing on the pressures on Young People from social media and schools and adverts and models and so on. You also see it in the articles which address the way that we organise our working lives, arguing that better mental health (sometimes ‘wellbeing’) could be encouraged through more humane working practices. Individuals are encouraged at this level to take responsibility for their mental wellbeing/health, by seeking out counselling or rearranging the furniture of their lives. Society around them is encouraged to make space for this, as their needs are, in some sense, normal.
  • As we move down the continuum we encounter those issues which counsellors typically feel justified in dealing with – relationship crises, mental distress (a very strange term which I see popping up more and more), obsessive behaviour, minor depression, PTS, generalised anxiety, that sort of thing. In all of these the individual is held to be capable of repairing themselves in the right relationship, though the doctor might need to be called to medicate if the intensity gets too high. Notice, though, how already the focus has switched from society to the individual. There’s much less written about how the workplace can change in order to support those dealing with OCD, for example. Instead the rhetoric here is all to do with destigmatising: these people are still normal; they’re just a bit out-of-sorts. They’re still held to be responsible for sorting themselves out, but they’ll need someone to support them through the process.
  • Further down the continuum you find mental illnesses of a kind that most counsellors are afraid to work with, and most friends and relatives might consider themselves unable to deal with alone. At this ‘harder’ end you find major depression, psychoses, personality disorders, PTSD – that kind of thing. These people are less ‘normal’, and less responsible for their situation. Neither society nor the individual is held to be in any way responsible for the cause or the solution. Instead the cause is defined as genetic or chemical, their distress is made private, and the treatment imposed.

On this continuum, then, responsibility, agency, and normality are key factors. They are, in the way I’m picturing it, proportional to one another: the more ‘normal’ your experience, the more responsibility you have to sort it out yourself, and the more agency you are taken to have in doing this. The less normal your experience, the less you are seen as able to sort it out, and the less responsibility you are expected to take in doing so. In addition to this, you can add social responsibility, which is also proportional: if the individual’s needs are ‘normal’, we as a society are obliged to help them out in our everyday lives. If their needs are abnormal, we are under no such obligation.

The bleeding continuum

What seems to me to be happening now is that each part of the spectrum is bleeding into the other. The DSM-inspired hard end is encroaching on the softer middle and even the soft end, as the language of mental illness (symptoms, chemical causes, medical treatments, parity of esteem, little individual responsibility or agency) spills into the way we describe less-extreme forms of mental health issues. This comes largely from the ‘experts’ who have a vested interest in turning ever larger numbers of people into ijpatients, and use the DSM to achieve this. But it can also be seen in the way that us woolly liberals advocate for more and more expert mental health provision at all levels. While this is done from noble intentions, the effect is to imply that even lower-level problems need to be sorted out by experts, and that these problems are not the responsibility of the individual or the system they’re a part of. For example, the response to increasing levels of childhood depression has been to bring more mental health services (=, in many cases, more drugs) into schools, instead of encouraging us all to see these problems as ‘normal’ and so seeing society as responsible for changing the system that creates depression in children.

And then there’s the backlash to the hard end’s relentless march, as in this kind of headline, which seeks to reclaim mental illness as softer than the hard-end see it. They seek to limit the extent to which the common-person’s conception of mental health/illness is shaped by those at the extremes. Without wishing men.pngto get too deep into the oneupmanship of the ‘they’re not Muslims, they’re insane; they’re not insane, they’re men; they’re not men, they’re evil; they’re not evil, they’re let down by our cultural pessimism‘ Officer-Krupke bullshit, there’s an important re-balancing of the continuum away from the hard end here. Headlines like the one on the right argue that we need to push back at the definition of ‘madness=extreme mental illness’, so that those who are closer to the soft end don’t get infected by the fear created by headlines like the Sun’s.

That is, the soft end (woolly liberals) have argued successfully that lots of people at the soft end should be seen as mentally ill so that they can get treatment, and are now biting back at the hard-end because there’s a risk these people might be re-stigmatised by the focus on ‘mad’ people.  This rebalancing is vital (though it could all have been avoided if we’d come up with a different term for low-level mental illness in the first place), but because it’s being done with a sloppy attention to detail, it all ends up feeling confused and unhelpful.

ter.pngTake, for example, the article on the left. One bit of beef I have with headlines like these is that they focus an awful lot on stigma and an awful little on truth. In the call to stop calling terrorists mentally-ill (which was only done because they wanted to stop calling them religious), there’s very little interest in finding out if they actually are mentally ill. Regardless of stigma, if they are mentally ill, then failing to call them that is a regressive and unhelpful kind of self-censorship. In actual fact, the article concerned is quite well-argued: the author explains that there are many contributing factors to terrorism – that you need to take into account cultural, social, and individual purpose factors to understand how someone becomes a terrorist. In amongst all of this, though, he admits that mental health is a contributing factor, so clearly terrorism is in part a mental health issue, as well as a cultural issue, a social issue, and an individual issue. In his laudable desire to combat the way that mental illness is demonised by the tabloid press, he ends up openly contradicting himself and making an argument that will not change anyone’s mind. This kind of muddle will not help anyone, in the long run, and is intellectually dishonest.

More recently, articles concerning Donald Trump’s mental health have played the same back-and-forth game as ‘experts’ ‘diagnosed’ Trump with various conditions, and then were backlashed by those who argued it was wrong to equate evil/stupidity/meanness with mental illness. Neither side were particularly concerned with the truth of the matter: the experts wanted some official way to mark Trump’s idiocy, while the backlashers were scared that mental illness was getting yet another bogeyman added to their number. Truth, here as elsewhere, mattered little to either side, and so we ended up getting even more muddled.

Stigma

Another area of much muddle is in the constant call for reducing stigma.

I wrote about stigma a little while ago. I’m not entirely sure stigma is a bad thing. And I think a big part of my problem with the anti-stigmatas is precisely the sliding scale I’ve been banging on about. I think stigma at the softer end is by-and-large a bad thing. The fear or shame which holds someone back from talking to their GP about minor depression or anxiety, for example, is helpful to no-one. In the middle of the scale it’s less clear: stigma here has bad effects but might also provoke action (for example, the person who seeks professional help when they hear voices, in part because they know that if they told their friends they’d probably not understand). And at the furthest reaches, it’s hard to imagine why a society wouldn’t want to say that madness is not a good way to be, and society saying that it’s not a good way to be will, in someone who feels that way, induce a feeling of stigma.

When we talk about reducing stigma we’re almost always aiming our comments at the vast majority of the 1in4 who will experience a mental health issue this year. The vast majority of them are experiencing more-intense forms of the problems that everybody face: stress becomes free-floating anxiety, feeling down becomes depression, comfort eating becomes an eating disorder. These are the things that we don’t want to stigmatise, but the reasoning is wrong: we shouldn’t, as is so often argued, destigmatise them because they’re analogous to physical illness, we should destigmatise them because they’re part of the normal picture of human life – just a more extreme version. They should be destigmatised because that’s a more caring and humane way to approach them, and one which will benefit all of us as we change society to make them less likely to happen.

The other side of mental illness – personality disorders, or ‘madness’ as folk psychology knows it – is a different case. Here, we should aim to destigmatise to the extent that this helps people who are suffering take less personal, moral responsibility for their problems. But we should also make clear that these experiences are outside of the normal expectations of human life. These are like physical illnesses. But with this de-agenting (to reduce stigma) we also strip away humanity. These are high stakes to play with, and the bleeding of the analogy-with-physical-illness argument into the lower levels of mental illness is not helpful: applying the same reasoning to the 1in4 is silly and harmful and confusing.

In fact, this misplaced analogy risks stigmatising normal experience, by putting it within the purview of mental health rather than putting the responsibility on the individual and on society to make conditions more amenable to a good life. For example, one reason that someone with low-level mental health issues may feel more stigma in coming forward to seek support is precisely because higher-level mental health issues have been destigmatised and put in the same category as theirs. The same person may previously have sought changes within their relationships and habits (i.e. taken agency and responsibility for themselves) but will now be encouraged instead to privatise their distress, rendering it the responsibility not of society but of professionals.

Enough

I starting writing this six months ago, and have struggled to come up with anything coherent. I apologise for this. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for your patience.

Normally I can’t stand it when people publish things that are unedited or confused or badly-argued, and then apologise for them. It’s better not to put them up at all, until you’ve done a decent job.

But in this instance I’m making an exception, because I’ve spent months sporadically trying to put this into shape and I just can’t: partly this is because I don’t have the intellectual chops I used to, but I think it also reflects the muddledness inherent in the subject matter. It’s so confused there’s nothing to do but be confused. I don’t have a pithy conclusion, but I do feel this is really important. The only way out of the muddle, I think, is to talk openly and honestly about what we all make of mental health / wellbeing / illness / madness and try to come to a better understanding of how we, as a society, want to understand them.

Religious bigot from marginalised community with homophobic views is mentally unwell but earns money from hitting people but is a working-class hero but makes racist statements but speaks out for the homeless but supported brexit but is the victim of racial discrimination. Liberals confused, Tyson’s furious.

On certain days, my facebook feed is chock-full of mental-illness-awareness-raising. It tends to back up on days when there’s a high-profile sufferer who’s spoken out about mental illness and taboo, or when an easily-sound-biteable study is press-released. We’ve got to speak out and speak up, they say. We’ve got to get more treatment. We need parity of esteem. Stigma is bad, you guys! We need more funding. Especially for children. Especially for young men. Especially for those in minority communities. It’s the same message delivered differently. Sometimes there are pictures.

It’s fine, I guess. At the very least it provides a break from looking at babies. But so much of this stuff can just blur into a grey murk of well-intentioned blandness, unremarkable and uninspiring.

What aren’t we talking about?

What’s more interesting, I find, is when people don’t get involved. What’s not said tells you just as much about societal attitudes towards mental illness as what is said, sometimes more. For example, it’s surprised me how few (zero, so far) posts have popped up to speak out about the latest high-profile public figure who’s fallen from grace due to mental ill-health.

And I’m not talking about Will Young. No, I’m talking about the mentally-ill person we all love to hate: Tyson Fury.

With Tyson there’s been nothing. No-one publicly empathising with his plight. No-one highlighting the particular pressures of this sector of employment. No-one asking about how we change attitudes within the sport, or asking ‘are we doing enough for the mental health needs of the travelling community?’ Nothing. Why is this?

Maybe it’s because he’s a sportsman?

Nope, can’t be that. People are all over Gascoigne when he gets addicted to something and says a thing, or O’Sullivan when he pretends to quit and says a thing. And there’s always at least a smattering of attention paid to the sob stories of whichever footballing journeyman turns out to have had a gambling problem. Sports-people are great ammunition for the awareness-raising set, as they not only get to speak to a wider audience than usual, but get to wheel out the ‘crisis in masculinity’ dirge too.

So, is it because he’s from the travelling community?

I don’t think it can be that either. While the travelling community are pretty much the only ethnic group you can get away with discriminating against in polite society, they are still an identifiable minority, and as such should be prime grist for the liberal mill. Highlighting Tyson’s fury should kill two birds with one stone – you can advocate both for the mentally ill and the ethnically marginalised all at the same time. Bonus!

No, the reason people haven’t got involved is because he’s a bit of a shit.

So’s Gascoigne, you might say. But he always apologised (and was really good at kicking, which is nicer than hitting, but let’s leave that to one side). Tyson, on the other hand, is pretty nasty, and doesn’t seem to want to apologise for it, or to play the blame-it-on-my-illness card.

How nasty is he? By boxing standards, not that nasty, just a bit thick and a few PR-advisors short of a [I couldn’t think of anything snappy or funny to put in here. I really tried but I couldn’t]. But by everyday standards, he’s pretty nasty. He’s done the homophobia, the misogyny, the racism. Most of the key players.

This is confusing for us woolly awareness raising de-stigmatisers. We like a clean story, but we don’t get one here.

Goodies and (no) baddies

Why are we so keen on a clear narrative? Why do we need there to be obvious goodies and baddies? A lot of us awareness-raisers come from a person-centred background, which is about the woolliest of all of the counselling jumpers, which embraces each and every person with the message: “you’re great, you are, no matter what you’ve done or what you think. Your heart is a golden nugget and always will be. It’s just got a bit covered up by the bad words that some bad people said when you were young, but inside you is a beautiful unicorn just waiting to come out. Believe in yourself and let your nugget shine, and in no time at all, with no help from anyone else, you’ll become the beautiful rainbow you always were.” Or words to that effect.

We believe people are fundamentally good, in the person-centred world. Which is silly, clearly, but believe it we do. When you combine that childish belief with a medicalised model of mental illness which seeks to assign zero responsibility to those who are suffering, and you’re left with a world in which all badness must come from physical imbalances which are beyond our control, and all goodness is yours from within. There are no real baddies – only brain chemistry – and only goodies.

Which fits very nicely when your high-profile mental-ill-health sufferer is contrite, seeks medical help and externalises their problem. This suits us very well, as we can lazily consign all of the bad in them (even if it’s hurt others) to their illness, and still love the person we knew before they went off the rails. We love to watch as they go into rehab and come out clean, even if they relapse, because it allows us to see them as fundamentally good. Good people in their core, but on the surface afflicted by an illness (be it addiction, compulsive behaviour, anxiety, depression, whatever) that is not their responsibility.

Mental illness = not your responsibility?

Now I’m not going to go into the whole responsibility thing yet again. My views on this are unfashionable and I want to work them out properly before I say them outside of my head. But there is a problem with the standard, physicalising narrative we see in play in our attitudes towards high-profile sufferers: it doesn’t leave space for the Tyson Furys of this world.

Tyson (or, to be entirely accurate, the Tyson that we know through his public utterances) is, undeniably, a bit of a shit. He’s pretty horrible, as a human being. But he also has mental health issues. What we want to do when we hear that he has mental health issues is consign the nastiness to his illness and advocate for him to be treated gently and to not feel any stigma. That’s our stock response.

But we can’t on this occasion, as it’s just too great a leap of logic to put all of that nastiness down to mental illness. Plus, even if we wanted to he’s not making it easy for us – he’s not apologising and saying ‘I need help for my baddies’. He’s not fitting our narrative because after he goes to rehab and comes out clean, he’s still going to be homophobic and misogynystic and the rest. And then we’ll have to face up to a category we’re really not comfortable with: a mentally ill person who is also, in some respects, a bad person. Denied our stock response, then, and unable to fit him into our normal narratives, we stay quiet.

Mental illness = your fault?

Of course, on the other side of the liberal/conservative divide they’ve no problem with the category we’re struggling with here – that of a mentally ill person who is also, perhaps, a bad person. Indeed, if you look to the brexit press, it’s the only category they’ve got sun(where all mentally-ill people are dangerous and violent and completely responsible for their illnesses). This is worse, in terms of its effects and its closed-mindedness. But we’re not, I don’t think, doing that much better than them in terms of the clarity of our thinking, or in our flexibility and openness to the evidence.

On the liberal-accepting side, we too easily use ‘mental-illness’ as a get-out. A way of avoiding thinking difficult thoughts, and actually listening to the people we’ve categorised, or engaging with the nuances of morality and illness. It’s cleaner to put the mentally ill into an all-good (victims) or all-bad (criminals) category because it protects us from engaging with the messy fact that they’re people.

Add to all of this the fact that Tyson hails from the travelling community and has suffered considerable abuse because of his background, and you’ve got a perfect storm for liberal inertia. We know we should be advocating for him and for his community – they’re marginalised after all, and he’s been a victim of abuse – but we also know that he’s a bad man who expresses intolerant views. And that these views are pretty representative of a part of his community. And that he’ll continue to do so even after he’s had his brain fixed. He won’t disown any of it. He won’t apologise and wrap it all up neatly for us.

We just don’t know what to do with him – he challenges our cosy dichotomies and so we (just like the conservatives do with cases which don’t fit their categories) simply ignore him.

Rigid categories, blinkered kindness, fear

Why are we so rigid? Partly because of our woolliness and liberalness. But also, I think, because of the way mental health debate has been taken out of the hands of ordinary discourse and into the hands of medical science. We play along with this relocation because it’s most often done in the name of greater access and awareness etc. But by buying into a very narrow discourse, we’re left in a position where we can’t nuance our views to allow for someone who is discriminated against but is a shit person. Or for someone who discriminates against others but is deserving of our empathy. Or for someone who might be partially responsible for their mental illness. We just don’t talk about it because it doesn’t fit the categories we’ve unquestioningly adopted. Many is the occasion I’ve felt scared – even now as someone who’s trained to work in mental health – to ask some of the difficult questions I have about the way we perceive mental illness for fear of being illiberal and nasty. So I’ve ignored it too.

But by ignoring the cases which challenge our categories we fail to engage with the real world. A world in which we’re none of us completely responsible or completely free of responsibility for any aspect of ourselves, just as we’re none of us completely responsible or free of responsibility for the communities we grew up in. A world in which the dividing line between ‘prick’ and ‘personality disorder’ is blurrier than the sun. By talking about this in a grown-up way we might come to develop a language which situates mental health back in the realm of normal, messy, moral life, rather than the sterile, amoral, medicalised annex it currently occupies. But that’s scary. It means saying some things that feel horrible and bad and might offend people – it means blaming people we’ve got used to pardoning, and vise versa. I’ve tried to do that, but right now I’m too scared; I’ll keep quiet.

Who educates the educators?

Last week* your man Cameron said that we should be better at standing up for British values. He said this alongside his critique of Muslim women for not learning English and integrating, and of Muslim men for controlling them. His plan, then, was to ‘help’ more Muslim women learn English (as if Muslim was now a language) and join in more, thus freeing them from the control of their men.

Racism aside, I thought then how odd it was that your man Cameron only spoke to one side of the problem. He described three elements: the Muslim men too controlling, the Muslim women too meek, the indigenous of both sexes (the “we”) who don’t stand up enough for British values. So, three sides of a problem to address, and three education programs aimed at each side of the coin: one to help Muslim women learn English, another to help Muslim men be less controlling, and a third to help the indigenous population learn how to explain and share their beliefs.

No. No that didn’t happen. Only one of the three: the Muslim women one.

Sexism and racism aside, though, I kept my ire to myself, because, well, what’s the point of another rant? Obviously the establishment are sexist and racist and interested in furthering their own ends and keeping the status quo. I can’t change that.

But this morning I turned on the radio to stories of a rising number of referrals made to Channel (part of the Prevent anti-radicalisation scheme) by primary teachers. One was referred because they had asked “repeatedly” for a prayer room, and another because they had used the term “eco-terrorism” in class. What better illustration could there be of the desperate need to teach the deafeningly silent majority how to engage with the Other, than these examples of the ignorant and fearful indigenous?

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t be looking at the other side too, or that radicalisation isn’t a real, scary thing that needs to be addressed. There is a problem with the radicalisation and the terrorism and that. We all know this. It’s pumped into our faces all the time. It’s real. It’s scary, if you’re that way inclined. But the presentation in politics and the media and everywhere is of a one-sided problem, located firmly with the Other, not with the ‘us’. The problem lies with the visitor not the host.

But radicalistaion as a concept only makes sense as something relational: the radical is radical precisely because of its relationship to a perceived norm. And by definition every relationship has (at least) two sides. Trying to to sort out a relationship from one side is nearly always doomed to fail. By ignoring the potential for action from the ‘us’ side of the relationship, Dave exempts ‘us’ from the problem. This is awful for the Muslim population, as they are demonised and ostracised. But it is also awful for the ‘us’, as we don’t get to be wrong, and don’t get to learn. We lose out too.

What might have been different? I think we British (and particularly we British middle class) have a particular problem, fostered through the loss of empire, with communicating positively about ourselves and our beliefs and traditions and cultures. We’re afraid of this because it feels too red-top, and so we bury our self-image where it can fester and putrefy into rancour and unjustified resentment. A well-designed and sensitive program exploring with the indigenous public how we can better and more clearly share our beliefs would be a powerful corrective to the all-too-easy location of the problem in the Other. But it would also be a powerful way of helping us to get better at communicating about ourselves and our beliefs.

Maybe a good place to start would be the teachers, some of whom are (on both sides) are radicalising the next generation as we speak. For example, it is a radical view to hold that someone asking for a prayer room is a potential terrorist. It is a radical view to hold that anyone who does not belong to your religion deserves to be treated as sub-human. Both need to be addressed, but neither can be addressed in isolation. We’re all involved, and we all need to change.


* I wrote this ages ago – January 2016 I think – but didn’t publish it. I’m not sure why, but maybe I feared I was ranting too much at that point in time. In a way, though, it’s the same message I’ve tried to get across in what I wrote about Brexit. I’m nothing if not consistent. We, the liberal elite, are far too quiet and comfortable, and are becoming a real force of conservatism in our unwillingness to speak or to act.

South Asians and their taboos

Waiting by passport control for my South Asian partner [for that is her title], I came across an article on the BBC news website last week about South Asian attitudes to mental illness. Normally I’d skim-read an article like this before passing on to something juicier or fluffier, but having just returned to UK connectivity I was (I’m ashamed to say) hungry for digital content of any texture, so read it properly.

It was interesting enough, and had a picture of Monty Panesar at the top, which I liked. It reminded me of a simpler time in English sport, before we got good at things. But there was something in the tone of the article that made me uncomfortable.

It wasn’t the premise of the piece: the question “Why do many South Asians regard mental illness as taboo?” is a very interesting one. The way that different communities regard mental health and illness is a fascinating and important subject for public policy and private understanding. My partner and I often struggle to understand each others’ preconceptions about mental health, which are partly the products of our different cultural upbringings. Encountering assumptions that are foreign to one’s own helps one to become better aware of their contingency and arbitrariness.

South Asians – “a particular problem”

What troubled me was the way that ‘regarding mental illness as taboo’ was equated in the article with ‘wrong’, or, at the very least, ‘a big problem’. For example, the Professor man describes the large role that shame plays in South Asian cultures, and tells us that South Asians do not consider mental illness to be a medical issue, instead holding “superstitious belief[s] that there is something they did in their previous life and they’re being punished”. Later in the article a report is cited which found that mental illness issues were rarely spoken about or allowed out of the house because of fears around the status of the family, and worries about arranged marriages being called off.

The implication of these various statements is, to my mind, clear: South Asian communities are doing mental health badly. We as readers are invited to conclude with the article that it is wrong for shame to play such a large role in their culture, and for mental illness to be considered a moral rather than a medical issue. It is wrong that family status and arranged marriages are put before individual mental health.

The flip-side of them doing it wrong, of course, being that we (read: middle-class, western, mainly white) do it right. We’ve got the right balance of shame and openness, and have moved beyond primitive notions of moral responsibility to a much more sophisticated medical model (or, if we haven’t, we’re certainly working towards it through constant de-stigmatisation and medicalisation). Further, we hold – correctly, mind – the needs of the individual higher than the needs of the community.

I don’t necessarily disagree with the above arguments (I do). My problem lies with the way that the arguments are (not) made, and the way that this allows a degree of unthinking racism to be smuggled past the reader.

This may sound extreme. Read the article, see how racist it feels. Maybe it doesn’t. It didn’t to me when I read it. But that, I think, is because the article and hundreds of others like it doesn’t make its arguments explicit. If they’re held up to the light you can see how contentious the article is, but to avoid any controversy they’re smuggled through the back door, in unspoken assumptions.

The enthymeme

Hiding the most important parts of your argument in assumptions you don’t spell out is a classic philosophy trick, called an enthymeme. What are the enthymemes at work in the article? One of the main arguments being hushed through is that medicalising mental illness is a good thing. Another is that it is bad for a community to use shame to regulate itself. A third is that the needs of individuals should have precedence over the needs of family or community. There are others, especially once you get to the report, but lets stick with those three.

I’ve written before about my various beef with the first assumption, so won’t go into it much here. Suffice it to say that I think medicalisation is not obviously a good thing. At the very least, it risks narrowing the narratives available to individuals to explain and own their troubles, potentially disempowering and harming them.

But what of enthymemes two and three? Is shame a bad thing for a community to use to regulate itself? Should the needs of the individual be put above the needs of the group?

Shame

It’s easy for us to look down on shame, especially when we find it in other cultures, as it seems such an old-fashioned and anti-fun emotion. But unless you’re Carl Rogers (and I sincerely hope you’re not) there are some pretty good reasons to think that shame is essential for humans to live with one another.

For example, just off the top of my head, shame is one of the primary forces that stops me from becoming addicted to computer games. I know these are a drain on my life and cause my arthritis to flare up in ways that have terrible knock-on consequences for my physical and mental health. But it is not this knowledge that motivates me to stop – it’s the shame of being caught.

Shame is also a primary tool in the education of children. Much of the work of growing up is working out how to negotiate the balance between one’s bodily desires and the desires of others. It is shame, in the first instance, that helps a child to regulate their needs, as they seek approval from significant care-givers, and try to avoid losing this. Later on you might dress the shame up with rational argument but ultimately it’s the shame that does the work.

I know it’s unfashionable to say this, but shame does a huge amount of work in western as well as South Asian communities, as it should do. It has huge limitations, and a lot of the work that gets done in therapy is aimed at undoing unhelpful feelings of shame. But the point at which shame ceases to be useful and becomes harmful is not an obvious one, and criticising the South Asians for having a different way of drawing that line to westerners is not a useful response.

What would be useful is if the article had made clear its assumption that we’ve got the right line in the liberal West. At least that way the reader would be invited to question this, and understand the wider relevance of shame within a community.

Individual vs family

In the absence of such clarity, how might we find out how much shame is the right amount? Well, a simple way to do this would be to look at its effects: who gets hurt, who gets helped? In the article there is much focus on the harmful effects of shame on individuals, and an acknowledgement that this is often done because of the perceived needs of the family or group. The voices we hear are those individuals who have been harmed by shame, and rightly so – their voices need to be heard.

The voices that are not heard, though, are the voices of families and groups who have been helped to stay together by shame. And because of this we are not able to explore, within the article, whether or not the trade-off the South Asian communities have arrived at is a good one. As an article on a western website, the author expects us to unthinkingly accept that the any sacrifice required of an individual in the name of family or group is wrong, problematic, or backwards. But is this so?

Every culture balances the needs of the individual and the group in various ways. Obviously. Middle-class white Britain, for example, has embraced a kind of individualistic liberalism over the past 50 years which holds that family is very important so long as the individual chooses to be a part of it. We generally look up to people who sacrifice some of their own happiness to help their families (because family is important), but we do not look down on those who do not (because it was their choice). In other words, family is a good thing if and only if the individual wants it to be. In all things the individual is the final arbiter where any good is concerned.

The picture is different, I think, outside of that middle-class white bubble, but let’s not get into that now. As a white middle-class Brit, I am grateful for the freedom which individualism brings. It’s allowed me to make choices which have aimed at my individual flourishing, regardless of family or social expectations. But I also regret that some of my needs were placed higher than those of my family. For example, I was not required to visit my Grandfather when he was living in an old people’s home and, being a somewhat emotionally awkward twenty-something, didn’t choose to visit him. I regret my choices then and I regret that I didn’t belong to a culture in which my actions would have been shameful.

I regret, too, that it is not shameful for me to avoid ever talking to my neighbours, as this kind of shame would make me a better, more connected, happier human being. Without the societal expectation that I commit to something I don’t want to do, I find myself unable and unwilling to step out of my individual comfort zone and become a better person.

Ok Phil, but why spend so long pedantically tackling a pretty bland article?

Well, while the article itself may be bland, the trend it is a part of is not.

This article, like so many others we read every week about mental illness, unthinkingly holds that mental illness is a neutral object, capable of being observed free of any cultural baggage.

Mental illness is not a thing

But mental illness is not a thing. It does not exist. It cannot be treated as an object which is the same in one community as it is in another. In this respect it is not like physical illness. It is a cultural construct, as your man Foucault spent a huge chunk of his life riffing about (see this for a short, typically blinkered description of Foucault and the anti-psychiatrists). Our conception of mental illness is connected with many other aspects of our culture, including personal motivation, family structures, rituals, habits and so on. Medicalising mental health fits with Western materialistic (not in the hippy sense) individualism, but it doesn’t necessarily fit with a more collectivist culture.

By adopting a Western conception of mental illness, South Asian cultures would probably gain something (lower suicide rates, lower incidences of anxiety or whatever you’re measuring – that kind of thing) but also probably lose something. It might be that they lose something insignificant, but it might also be that they lose something of deep importance. We don’t know, because the article does not address this, and, by refusing to fess up to its enthymemes, tries to stop us from addressing it.

My gut feeling is that the price for adopting a western conception of mental illness would be pretty high. It might include the loss of established truths and norms which provide comfort and security, the loosening of family ties built through expectation and rituals of respect, and the diluting of cultural identity. Whether or not this is a good bargain is not clear, and not answerable by those, like myself, who are not a direct part of the South Asian cultures in question. And neither is it answerable by those who adopt an unthinking scientism where mental health is concerned. The ‘truth’ about mental health is ultimately not purely a physical one, but a cultural one too.

The South Asians who are quoted in the article are, to my mind, the only saving grace of the article, as they are arguing from within that their culture can and should change. These are important voices to hear. What’s missing in this article is the other side – the voices of those South Asians who value the traditional role that shame plays, for example, or who feel that the Western conception of mental health would not fit with their community in other ways. Their voices are unthinkingly erased from this account, because of the assumption that this is not a cultural issue but one of straightforward scientific misunderstanding.

Stripped of its ‘neutral’ surface dressing, an article like this which tells South Asians that they’re bad at mental health is straightforward cultural imperialism which borders on racism. That we don’t recognise it as such is testament to the power that the medicalised, individualised conception of mental illness has amongst us today. It’s become so much a part of our cultural furniture that we don’t even know it’s there.

What’s needed instead of one-sided dismissives is a genuine discussion about the broader cultural context of mental health – one which acknowledges that those on both sides of any cultural divide can learn from each other. Slating the South Asians isn’t good for them because it’s racist and plays into a stereotype of backwardness and rigid hierarchy and anti-science. But it’s not good for ‘us’ either, as it stops us from gaining insight into ourselves, and ideas from others.

Ultimately articles like this constrain rather than enable understanding. They are fundamentally conservative, and, under the cloak of ‘helping backwards Others’, serve mainly to bolster our own sense of right, preventing us from ever asking the question of the place mental health holds in our own culture: is it as good as all that? And that’s a shame.

Regrammarisation

Blah blah blah grammar schools blah blah social mobility blah blah blah regressive blah blah blah.

It’s stupid and it’s wrong and it’s probably evil. It underlines Theresa May’s incredible lack of credibility. It’s not wanted by anyone in the profession. It’s unnecessary. We all know this so there’s no point me saying it too. Let’s take it as read and move on to the next bit: what do we do?

Recently I wrote an article for Therapy Today about the way that counsellors are excluded (and exclude themselves) from the sources of knowledge and power – about the way that they are not allowed a say in what counselling means and how to measure it, despite being the people that do it. The same is true of teachers. In fact, it’s even worse. Teachers are part of a hyper-politicised profession that is politicked into such a frenzy of ill-informed froth by over-indulged shitbags that there is no space for the voices of the people doing the job. The education sector is led and defined by those who ignore the voices of teachers and children in favour of made up statistics, vested interests, and newspaper headlines.

As teachers we are used to this. We accept that we can have no voice in larger policy and so carve out little niches where our voices can be heard, both in our schools and online. We retreat as individuals and fall as individuals. Indeed, it was the inability of teachers (myself very much included) to break out of those niches and fight together that led me to leave full-time teaching.

During my teaching career there was plenty of bullshit which I and the vast majority of my colleagues disagreed with: OfSTED’s mission creep, Year 2 and Year 6 SATs, compulsory synthetic phonics, ever-expanding league tables, EYFS profile, free schools, the phonics screening check, Gove, 2-year-old testing, EYFS testing, attainment not progress, academies, scraping the new curriculum, flags, the list goes on. What did I do, throughout these? What did we do?

Generally, nothing. We moaned and griped and posted and shared and we even striked, but in terms of actual concrete action, nothing really. Well no, not nothing. Once, back in 2010, we boycotted SATs. I say ‘we’, I was teaching in Reception at that time, but I was cheering from downstairs. We took direct action and – for a very brief moment – made a difference. We, the people who knew what was happening in our schools to the children we taught, took control of what was happening to them, and refused to impose a cruel and pointless test.

It was amazing.

It didn’t last.

Before the year was out our unions had been persuaded not to boycott again in return for ‘a seat at the table’ when the new assessments were being planned. our unions folded and we followed them, receding quietly into the background and allowing control to pass back once more to the political footballers.

But it needn’t be that way. We’re used to thinking, as teachers, that we don’t have any power to make a change – that we need to look above us to the unions or the LA or the leadership team or the government. We’ve been drilled into thinking that we cannot (and do not have the right to) stand up for what we know, but we do.And more, we have a duty. If we cannot come together as a community of professionals over such an obviously odious and harmful proposal as the expansion of grammar schools then we don’t deserve to call ourselves caring professionals at all.

What kind of action can we take together?

Anything, everything! Posting on facebook and striking are fine, but they don’t do enough. We’ve posted and striked plenty, and yet every change in that long (and by no means exhaustive) list above was pushed through. Why not try something else, something more direct? Why not write a letter to the parents of the children you teach explaining why they need to put pressure on their MPs to vote down the plans – a personal, school-photocopied, unsanctioned letter? Why not collar parents in the playground and lecture them about the threat to their children? Why not devise a term’s worth of history lessons raising your class’ consciousness of the absurd system that existed up until the ’70s – get those who survived the class-segregation to speak to the next generation about what they might be facing? Why not organise community events in the school hall to spread the message to the wider population? Why not pickett and shame any school which does move towards re-grammarisation?

In truth I don’t know what to do. I spend very little time teaching now, and when I do it’s as a supply teacher, the least-heard of an inaudible profession, so I don’t have any great chalk-face ideas. But I do know it’s not enough to raise a cursory protest with a ‘like’ clicked here and a blog written there. We need to come together in solidarity with each other, and with the children we teach, and fight.

One last point, on the fight. Don’t, in all of this, get pulled into the argument about evidence or impact or standards. Don’t go along with the NUT’s typical ‘this is wrong because it’s ideological’, or ‘it’s wrong because the evidence doesn’t back it up’. There is no such thing as ideology-free education, just as there’s no ideology-free evidence.

No, argue your case from what matters: the child’s experience of their schooling. This grammar bullshit is not wrong because of evidence or political motivation, it’s wrong because it’s unfair and cruel. It’s wrong because it will consign a whole slice of children to the kind of impoverished schools you get in Kent today (and elsewhere in the ’50s), and another slice to the sense of entitlement which no child ought to be bought up into. It’s wrong because it excludes and divides. It’s wrong because it tells children that they are defined by their academic ability at 10. It’s wrong because it will further the culture of testing and measuring which treats children like so many cattle on a conveyor belt. It’s wrong because no-one who has children’s best interests at heart wants it to happen. No-one.

It’s wrong not because it’s done out of ideology, but because it’s done out of bad ideology. It’s your, my, our responsibility to stand up to it.

Not not in our name

What do Brits do in a crisis? It used to be a cup of tea, but now it appears that we turn to Facebook. We were all there yesterday, us 48ers, sharing the misery and the shock, numbed by the feeling that we live in a country that no longer represented us.

We searched for the post which gave words to our feelings, and landed (self-)righteously on those which characterised the other side as ignorant, racist and stupid. We shared and liked posts that cried foul at the lies of the Leave campaign, and the open dishonesty of the Murdoch/Viscount Rothermere press pedalling the most absurd anti-establishment narrative.

Some of the more balanced posts noted how the leavers were not necessarily all racist scumbags. They were characterised more moderately as misguided and manipulated by a process they were not able to understand. They shouldn’t have been trusted, we decided, with something so clearly beyond their mental capacity, but that was our fault not theirs.

I’m as upset as anyone about the result of the referendum. I’ve found myself going through the stages of grief from that funny post that the person shared with you. And I think a large proportion of those who voted to leave are racist scumbags. There’s more in this country than we like to think.

But I can’t go along with the sentiment, expressed by many reasonable and otherwise kind people, that the 52% are all stupid, ignorant, racist, and undeserving of the franchise.

The main motive of the 52% wasn’t racism, I believe. If you actually listen to people who wanted to leave (which doesn’t appear to be happening much on the echo-chambers of the cliques we all unthinkingly cultivate on facebook and twitter and that), their main motives, it seems to me, were fear and a feeling of voicelessness. They voted to leave because they didn’t feel like they have a say in politics, or the power to change the conditions of their lives. And they were scared of feeling powerless.

We, the liberal 48ers, are all about giving the disenfranchised a voice, normally. Our facebooks are all rainbow flags and disability living allowances and anti-islamophobia. And they should be. This is good. But where is that sentiment now? Where are the posts celebrating the enfranchisement of the previously disenfranchised? Where are the voices advocating hearing the message sent to us by a working class who have been systematically ignored for, well, for ever?

Nowhere. No-one’s listening, much less hearing.

What we should be saying now, alongside all of the anger and sadness, is “We fucked up. We ignored them and that’s part of the reason this has happened. We are, in part, to blame”.

It’s too easy to find the cause outside ourselves. I’m pissed off about the right-wing press too, and about the way the bbc (and probably sky and itv too – I don’t know about that, I never see them) dealt less-than-bravely with the lies of the remain campaign. I’m furious with the sloppy-faced shits who have led the leave campaign out of self-interest and pretend nostalgia. We all are. But these are soft targets, and complaining about them isn’t going to get us anywhere.

If you’re not convinced, lets’ try a thought experiment.

Imagine, just for a minute, that the leave vote was made up entirely of members of a group we normally consider to be oppressed or unheard: an ethnic minority, for example, or the disabled or the transgender community. If that group had sent a message of dis-empowerment, we would have heard it as such. We would have worried about the way that group has been systematically excluded from public discourse, and perhaps we would have noticed our own complicity as variously-privileged insiders. We would have thought about ways to ensure that those groups are better represented, and changed our attitudes towards them.

But it wasn’t one of these groups. It was the old and the working class. When it’s the old and the working class, we don’t even hear the message, let alone let it change us. We ignore it, and find ways to locate all responsibility for the problem in others – in the press, the deceitful shits leading the campaign, or the old and the working class themselves.

I’m not saying that the problems don’t lie outside of ourselves as well – they do – but to ignore what we, the 48ers, have been told is the worst kind of small-mindedness. To dismiss the message of dis-empowerment as the product of an all-powerful media without even trying to talk to any of the people sending it is ignorant in the extreme.

We are not in a position of power like the press or the privately-educated scum who run it are, but we are in a position of relative power to the 52%. We are relatively privileged, and are relatively complicit in the divided state of the nation. How often have you (have I) been out and tried to hear the voices of those that fear immigration, rather than argue with them (or more likely simply dismiss them)? How often have you (have I) genuinely been open to having your mind changed by someone who belongs to a lower class than you and didn’t go to university, or by someone from an older generation who is less than perfectly liberal?

We, the privileged middle classes, have been pretty happy to be buffered from the economic crisis by the working-classes, especially those in the north. We’ve kept quiet as we’ve piggybacked on their exclusion, happy to have our liberal views become the mainstream outside of a small pocket of right-wing press. But this quietness is part of what has caused the ukexit. We’ve kept quiet and have not heard. We’ve failed to challenge or engage with those outside of our bubbles, just as we’re doing now, on the facebooks. If we continue to ignore the message we’re being sent, we will continue to perpetuate the inequalities in this society and allow a space for the real scumbags (Murdoch, Viscount, Boris and Farage) to get a voice.

Remember that feeling of living in a country that doesn’t represent you? A country you don’t recognise? Hold on to it. That’s the feeling. That’s the message. It’s fucking horrible. Listen to it.

The Problem with Facebook

Well, not really facebook, more: The Problem with Microblogging in the Context of Disempowered Public Services. But that’s not quite so catchy a title, is it.

I wrote these blogs about leaving teaching two years ago. In fact they were the things that started me blogging:

govestupid
Little Mickey Goggles, Part. 1

I read them for the first time the other day, and they made me cry. Mainly because reading them took me back to that time and place, and confronted me with how much of my identity was/is tied up with being/not-being a teacher. But also because they feel so horribly current. It doesn’t feel like anything has changed since then; in fact it feels like things have got worse. At least once a week my Facebook feed has a story in which someone is writing their own valedictory-defeat letter, or highlighting the ugly on-the-ground reality of primary education.

Michael-Gove-Secretary-of-007
Little Mickey Goggles, Part. 2

In terms of consciousness raising, these kinds of posts are great. Education is so politicised a subject that the voice of the teacher (and more importantly the child) are often unheard beneath the rabble of political posturing. The same is true of other public services: as an outsider I felt much better informed about the junior doctors’ strike after reading a few junior doctors’ facebook posts describing their work and beliefs.

Michael-Gove
Little Mickey Goggles, Part.3 

But there’s a problem with these posts too. Well, there’s lots of problems – not least that the only people who read them are people who already agree – but there’s one problem which troubled me two years back and still troubles me now: what happens next? What happens to this ground-level knowledge after its been shared?

Doubtless it has some degree of impact on public understanding of the profession, and this is a good thing. But what does it change in real terms? That is, what difference does it make to a child’s experience of education? In the majority of cases, very little indeed.

For the teacher it’s a welcome moment of catharsis as they express their negativity and argue back against the system which is failing our children. If they write well enough it’s also a moment – or a day of moments – of affirmation and support from their online community. But after those moments? By an large, that teacher either leaves the profession (as I did) and so changes nothing, or stays in the profession and, frustrated, buckles under once more.

Why is this? I wrote last week about the way that, as things stand, there is simply no room within the current system for ground-level, bottom-up knowledge to change anything. Imagine the teacher who, energised by the catharsis of negativity expressed, clearer in her beliefs, and bolstered by 37 likes and a few comments of support, returns to school the next day ready to fight. Imagine the way that, as soon as she dares to express her situated, lived knowledge as a challenge to the system, she is shut down and told to put up or shut up [I never understood that expression; shouldn’t it be put up and shut up?] Even in excellent, nurturing schools, she will find herself coming up once again against an unthinking, unhearing system in which her knowledge and beliefs are simply irrelevant.

The more I’ve thought about these valedictory posts, the more I’ve found myself becoming frustrated with them, and with myself as I read them. Something is missing in all of this: action. In fact, I fear this kind of communication may ultimately make change less likely.

How so? Well, it’s great to get the positive feedback and feel like you’re in a community of like-minded people with similar experiences and beliefs. But this is a type of community ill-suited to action: it is community as curated by facebook. Because this is a facebook community and because facebook (and the twitters and the rest) is designed to provide tiny little squirts of emotional nourishment before returning us to a dull resting state of passive acceptance, it does not reach out and spur on. Instead another post is offered to us to click through to. The emotional engagement is real – we feel the pain and perceive the injustice; we even click the emoji or write the message, but Ooh, LadBible has a video of a man doing a thing!

We have come to accept, through the facebook, that the correct course of action, on hearing of someone’s immense pain which connects deeply with our own, is to make a comment and move on. At a distance, and on a platform which encourages short squirts over long entanglements, there is no will to solidarity; to action. The teacher who returns to the real world of a school in which they may be one of the few rather than the many – in which the ‘likes’ of their colleagues fail to translate into little more than a concerned look as they pass in the corridor – this teacher learns to quiet their brave voice. The community they thought they found seems now unfathomably distant from the real world. That facebook community is not nearly solid enough to back them up if we do fight the good fight. Real community stands up and acts; facebook (and all of the rest of the internet) is all sat down and reacting.

The problem with posting about the stresses and distress is that all of that anger and angst gets channelled into a catharsis that ultimately leads nowhere. It damps us down and helps us realise that the only place your voice counts is online: in the real world you just get by with as little hassle as you can. We learn that we are allowed to express our voices in public – microblogging has made this more possible than ever before – but we learn too that our voices are only to be expressed in this most private of public spheres.

By blogging or posting or tweeting or whatever we learn habits which are hard to unlearn: it’s safe and cosy to externalise our anger in small, supportive virtual communities. But that is not where our anger belongs. It belongs out there, in the real world – in the world the children we are failing inhabit. It belongs in real communities, channelled creatively and in solidarity. I fear that won’t happen if we’re able to deal with our troubles in the most private of public arenas.

This morning I read the Guardian’s Secret Teacher column. In it, a teacher who is I think symptomatic of the new generation of teachers suggests that all of the negativity we read on facebook is counter-productive and that we should instead focus our energies on adjusting to the system in order that it has a little an impact on learners as possible. They’re right, I think that the negativity expressed on facebook posts has a tendency to spiral in unhelpful ways, but how sad that the only solution this teacher can imagine is to make piecemeal protective adjustments. The new generation of teachers don’t believe they can have a voice which can change, and, if they continue to build their communities around the facebooks and such, they will be right. The other option would be to stand up in solidarity with one another, and there’s only one way to do that: do it.

Footsoldiers or Connoisseurs

(Paper presented at the Keele Counselling Conference on 7/5/16)

When the opportunity to present at the conference came up, my first thought was: what’s the point? Why bother? I’ve got nothing important to say and even if I did it wouldn’t change anything anyway.

For anyone who knows me and knows how passionate I am about counselling and about education and research, that would’ve come as something of a shock; I’m normally the first to jump at opportunities like this. And it shocked me as well. The more I dwelt on this shock and the negativity, the more I thought that I did have something I wanted to say: not to talk about my research, but to tell the story of doing the research – the story which ended with me feeling so negative and dis-empowered.

We’ll hear a lot of positive and inspirational things this weekend about creative research. My paper is going to sound very negative next to them, but I hope this negativity can serve a useful purpose. I hope that my story of isolation will resonate with others’ experiences, and highlight the danger that faces us when we, as practitioners, are separated from the knowledge creators. I also hope that the journey I’ve been on may gesture towards a different way to think about ourselves as professionals, and about what knowledge in counselling could mean.

Research, Knowledge and Fear

I’m going to start, then, with a very brief description of my Masters dissertation. My plan was to investigate my own identity as a white, heterosexual, middle-class man; to look at the privileges that this conferred and how I often failed to acknowledge or engage with these. I wanted to challenge my insider safety and security by involving others in the process – others who didn’t belong to the groups I belong to – others who could challenge and change me.

Fearing that any established method I chose would merely repeat and reinforce my privilege, I adopted an anti-methodological methodology. I hoped to ‘meet’ my participants, in Buber’s sense, with as few technical or power-full impediments as possible. So I sought dialogue – meeting – with Others, with no pre-set method at all except to engage and to keep on engaging. I had no criteria guiding the research except those which emerged in discussion and debate. I was the author and took responsibility for the work, but was not in complete control at any stage.

What did this look like in practical terms? Well, it meant holding an initial dialogue between myself and my participants which focused on identity (but was otherwise unstructured). Following this, both my participants and I would reflect on the transcript of that discussion and engage in further dialogue about these reflections, both via email and in person. This process would continue, spiralling hermeneutically towards a better, richer understanding of our encounters. The work would evolve in dialogue with my participants, rather than being an analysis of this dialogue.

So what happened? Well, it was a complex study, but one of the main threads that runs through the dissertation – and that I want to focus on today – is the way in which, after each dialogue, I would go away and try to understand what had occurred, and then share this attempt at understanding. And each time I shared this attempt at understanding, I would be told in response: “You’re trying to make this too clean, Phil – too final – too sensible”. I was told:  “You’re trying to understand it – to stand underneath it and justify and encompass it all”. And further, I was told that this movement was symptomatic of a privilege which seeks to encompass and erase difference.

As the piece developed, then, my participants were telling me that my goal of telling a clear story, or even of just plain understanding at all were themselves goals of a privilege which whitewashed and denied difference. I was invited instead to sit with the discord, to hear rather than understand; to allow the project to outgrow me.

I found this very difficult, and I shared these difficulties with my participants in a way which itself felt exposing and uncomfortable. But ultimately it was these moral and political criteria which led the writing of the dissertation. Ultimately I decided, in dialogue with my participants, that the moral and political imperative called upon me to include all of our voices, often uncommented upon, instead of rigorous analysis and clear explanation. I spent the majority of my allotted 20,000 words on these dialogues, and trusted to my reader that what mattered would come through in the writing.

The work was hugely worthwhile for me and, I hope, for my participants, and I don’t regret it. The learning I took away was of a moral, emotional and political nature, centring on what it means to be defined by others, and how unethical it can be to resist this. I have kept it with me and continue to learn from it.But the practical consequence of going off-piste in my research was that I got a much worse mark than I would have liked. This was the right mark, but the effect it had on me, which I hadn’t foreseen, was to feel excluded from academia.

And not only to feel excluded, but also, in a small way, to be excluded, as, without a distinction next to my name, I’m less likely to get funding for a PhD and, as I’m a counsellor, there’s certainly no way I can self-fund.

Now, this was my choice – I chose to write in a way which I knew risked getting a bad mark. But the feeling of being excluded from the bodies which create the knowledge that we as counsellors apply, set me in mind of other instances of alienation, and I realised that it’s something of a theme in my professional life.

Being a member of the BACP, for example, is for me an experience of having a distant, paternalistic instructor tell me what not to do. I feel I have very little voice in the body which represents me, and feel that it only represents the bland, quiet, profitable aspects of me.*

And this in turn set me in mind of another instance of isolation from my previous life as a teacher. Some years ago, while doing an MA in early years education, I conducted a piece of action research with my staff team. This research sought to raise our awareness of our interactions with young children and to reflect on these: to learn from the children and to learn how to learn from them. This was a fundamentally trusting, human, and relational piece of work, in which we all had a voice. And it paid great dividends, opening up new avenues of practical knowledge which would not have been accessible without this relational method. It was fundamentally lived, practical knowledge – it’s not the sort of thing that an outsider observing could have discovered. But not only did this knowledge not spread beyond us, it was soon overturned and negated by more official forms of knowledge: by initiatives backed up by extremely dubious but extremely evidence-focused research.

We had been encouraged to find our own practical knowledge, but were effectively told soon afterwards: “This is local, specific and not really proper knowledge. Our large scale studies are more important – they are more true”. In the years which followed this I found myself becoming more and more isolated from the sources of knowledge-creation in education, and, at the same time (because I was required to see and interact with my students in terms of this evidence-based ‘knowledge’), more and more isolated from the children in front of me. Eventually, the gap became too large and, reluctantly, I left.

The Risk to Counselling

Is this really a risk though? Do my own personal experiences really illustrate something larger? I don’t think counselling will ever end up where teaching has. For one thing counselling is much more private an enterprise, and a less political issue than teaching, and it has, at present, no statutory authorities. But I do think it’s worth considering what can happen when those practising a profession are completely isolated from the means of knowledge-creation, as is the case with teachers now. And there are signs that counselling is moving in that direction. For example, how is knowledge created in counselling? Who gets to say what counts and what doesn’t?

Well, to briefly divert into a little Foucault, there are many different discourses through which knowledge is used and defined in counselling. I want to focus on one particular discourse which is steadily gaining power and which I believe, if left un-engaged with, will widen the gap between the creators of knowledge and those who apply it. The discourse is that of evidence-based practice.

This is a discourse which holds that the only real knowledge is knowledge gained through randomised-controlled-trials and objective studies by neutral outsiders. It is a discourse which holds that knowledge is objective and measurable, and all that is not objective or measurable is not knowledge. This discourse has gained its power both through practical means such as the provision of employment to those who agree to it, and by broader cultural means.

On a practical level, for example, if you hope to work for the NHS – the largest employer in the UK – there’s a very good chance that you will have to accept the medical model and drop those elements of your personal beliefs which conflict with this. You will have to accept that you cannot learn from the patient, for example, and that your practice is defined by the research of others – others who measure a relationship as a series of inputs and outputs. You will have to accept that your clients are essentially lacking, and that you will fill in their gaps by operating a manual. If you don’t (or at least if you don’t pretend to), you won’t get work. Them’s the rules.

This practical power is hugely powerful, but there’s a larger societal story to tell too, about the systematic stripping-away of ideology and morality from public discourse. This de-politicising and de-moralising of public debate has left a vacuum into which the evidence-based-practitioners and their friends, the economists, have stepped. Economic impact is now the sole bottom line of almost all public debate, and so, increasingly, the knowledge that counts is knowledge which is measurable and has economic impacts. Just think of Lanyard. Knowledge of a more personal, local kind, does not count, because it cannot be measured.

This means that if you want to be engaged in creating knowledge; knowledge that matters, knowledge that has an impact, then it must be of this sort. Any other just holds no sway. Them’s the rules.

This is particularly pernicious a state of affairs in counselling, where so much of what we do – as is the case in teaching and in creative research – is about remaining open to and meeting the Other. The best of teaching and counselling and research is about a disciplined openness, in which we learn in relationship and from the relationship not about the relationship. But if you’re practising EBP you cannot be open to the client (or the child, or your subject-matter), because they are not in the evidence. And that means that you cannot learn from the client. And that means you let the client down.

As counsellors we can often end up feeling powerless in the face of the ‘evidence-based practice’ discourse: we often feel that the ‘knowledge’ created within this discourse is wrong but feel we cannot say so – we just don’t have the words.

Giving us the Words – Elliot Eisner and the Connoisseur

I want to end today by suggesting a framework within which we can start to stand up for ourselves more vocally and explicitly – a framework which will give us the words. And to do so I’m going to use a concept from the work of an educationalist called Elliot Eisner.

elliot_promotional_photo
Eisner (and a cat)

Instead of the technical or industrial approach to knowledge which we see in evidence-based practice, Eisner suggested that teachers may benefit from adopting a more artistic model of knowledge. Looking to the world of art, Eisner found that although there was no overall regulator dictating standards or evaluative criteria, there were, nevertheless, clear criteria and standards which were constantly being negotiated, developed and refined between artists and critics and audiences. And further, he found that these criteria provided enough structure for people to practice well and to improve their practice.

Within the world of art Eisner found explicit, measurable and objective criteria such as technical skill and draughtsmanship (much as we’d find in EBP), alongside criteria relating to established canons of practice and theory (and so an understanding of what knowledge has been passed down to us – much as we’d find in the ‘schools’ or ‘tribes’ approach to counselling), alongside amorphous but no less important criteria such as, for example, emotional impact and moral worth. Eisner called the person who engages with these different criteria and weighs them up against each other a connoisseur. These connoisseurs have a felt sense honed over years of direct, lived experience and dialogue, and use this engage in a community of rigorous discussion about truth, value and meaning in art. They have a shared sense of purpose, direction and practice, but within that disagree reasonably and rigorously about how to achieve those ends.

Eisner hoped to import that culture of critique and connoisseurship into education. He loathed the curricula which sought to control every aspect of a child’s experience in school. But he also distrusted the wooliness of unreflective teachers who were often just going along with tradition because it’s what we do. Education, as he saw it, was a messy human process, with aspects of culture and morality and subjective taste, as well as aspects of efficacy and science and objective research. He wanted teachers to be open to the cultural and individual, as well as the universal and rational. He wanted them to develop their own language to weigh up these different ways of judging and make informed, situated choices between them. Eisner knew that the only way that the art/science of teaching could be protected from industrialised knowledge-creation was to encourage teachers to take an active role in their own community of connoisseurs; for each and every one of them to become a researcher who could stand up for their own lived knowledge, and engage with each others’.

How does this help us in counselling? Well the best counselling is messy and human. It is a moral and ethical as well as a technical process. As counsellors we are artists but we are not just artists. We are concerned with our impact in the world and with doing counselling well. How these different aspects – these different criteria – are to be balanced is an unsolvable conundrum. But what Eisner’s notion of the connoisseur highlights is that this unsolvable balancing act is one which we must continue to debate instead of ceding, frightened, to one particular discourse. It gives us confidence, I hope, to engage in this debate – to say, unashamedly: “My standard of judging is potentially more important than yours”. To say “I understand things from the inside which you, on the outside, cannot grasp, and vice versa”. To face up to the EBP and engage with it rather than rejecting it out-of-hand, or slavishly submitting to it. To place the lived relationship and therefore the client at the centre of our work and to learn from these, arguing once again in our clients’ best interests.

The notion of the community of connoisseurs gives us a language through which to place practical knowledge on a par with technical knowledge, and to take back some control of our work. It gives us confidence, I hope, to acknowledge the compromised, messy nature of relationship, and to reject the totalising, manualising impulses of industrial knowledge where they are inappropriate.

My Journey to Keele

Which brings me to the closing remarks of my paper, and the question: how do we get to a position in which our voices as connoisseurs can be heard?

The battle has been lost – for the moment – in teaching. I left the profession because I felt I was not enough, and that there were too few people to fight with, and too few words with which to argue. But we are fortunate that we already, in counselling, share aspects of connoisseurship in, for example, the supervisory relationship, and in conferences like this, today. This conference is an opportunity for connoisseurship; for us to find our voices. We won’t find our voices by looking above for someone to give them us: we need to look towards each other, and stand up for – and to – each other. But the point I want to leave you with is that we have to look outwards as well as inwards – to those who disagree as well as to those who agree. If our situated, creative local knowledge matters we need to be saying that to others as well as to each other. We need to stand up together and say: “This matters. It is important. You need to listen”.

Part of my journey has been to expose myself here today and to say: my research was worthwhile because, in that instance, the moral and political were worth more than the analytic and judgemental. The lived-experience was more important than the mark scheme. Part of my own journey has also been to switch from the academic route into blogging as an avenue for reaching more people outside of the bubble of those who agree with me: turning out as well as in. Which seems like a very good place to stop and turn outwards to you for questions…


* After I presented this paper, I attended a keynote presentation by Andrew Reeves (of BACP chair fame), and my views have somewhat changed. An article based on this paper will briefly explore this in an upcoming issue of Therapy Today.

Privatise evasion

£16 billion a year lost to evasion. Exactly 10 times as much as is lost to benefit fraud. More benefit fraud investigators than tax evasion officers. HMRC consistently failing to recover the money they’re there to recover.

What does a small-minded government do when faced with under-performing public services? Privatise, of course. Or, in the current age, they part-privatise, putting lucrative parts of the system out to tender. Internal markets and competitive bidding are the only routes that small-minded governments can imagine to improve services. We’ve seen it extensively in the NHS, in prisons and increasingly in education. Recently the model has become a little more sophisticated as, for example, providers of imprisonment are paid on the basis of reoffending being cut. The economic case is clear: reoffending costs the economy huge amounts of money, so cutting the reoffending rate saves us money. Offering imprisoners a cut of the saving will encourage new, dynamic and efficient forms of rehabilitation.

It’s a small-minded way to approach anything, and it’s degrading to all concerned. But as it’s the order of the day, we might ask why this logic hasn’t been applied to the horrendously underperforming HMRC? It can’t be because it’s sensitive information which we shouldn’t allow private contractors to deal with, as we already let private contractors know everything they want to about the intimate personal aspects of peoples lives. It can’t be because there is an insufficient pool of talent/capacity to take on the work – we’ve got a City whose main purpose is to provide shady whatnots for youknowwhos. We’re world leaders in it.

So why not? These are people who respond very well to financial incentives (we know this from their pay awards, and from the fact that they will all, we’re often threatened, leave the country if we tax them at anywhere near a fair rate). Why not incentivise (hah! I said incentivise) these world-leading experts with a cut of whatever moneys they were able to repatriate? Put the missing £16 billion out to tender and at least we’d scrape back some of it, minus the incentivising cut.

Much as I hate privatisation for the way it degrades us all, this is an area which is already degraded beyond repair, so I would gladly support such a plan. But where the small-minded governments would jump at this kind of plan in any other area (indeed, it’s their only kind of plan), it’s not been discussed in the HMRC’s case. It’s not discussed at all. The HMRC do very badly, have their funding cut, and we shrug and move on. It feels like there’s actually very little appetite for recovering the moneys, despite what gideon and dave were saying last week.

 


Full disclosure: the man in the picture is a French, not an English. He may not even be a banker or tax specialist or anything, but he was wearing a suit and that’s enough for wooly liberals like me. Booo. Booo bad suit man boo.

Feast/famine

Some of the things I’ve written recently have been very negative. Most of the things. Living alone and listening to two hours of news a day ferments a pitch of negativity that, if left unchecked, would fester and develop into sores. It needs an outlet – it needs lancing. Normally it’d be her indoors who’d get an earful, but she’s currently displaced. You’ve been my displaced partner, you guys. You’re welcome!

But like any displaced partner you don’t just want to hear me whinge when I get home, so I thought I’d try to say something positive about what is good. It’s harder and scarier than saying something negative, but taking risks is the whole point of being in a relationship isn’t it. Isn’t it?

Anyway, I was also impelled to write this by seeing a therapist again. I’m seeing a therapist again you guys! Not because I’m in a particularly bad state at present – I’m cool – but because the times in my life that I’ve seen a therapist are times in which I’ve lived better and more intensely. I’d not want to see a therapist all the time because, well, money. And shame/self-respect. But therapy with the right person at the right time is ace. The right person at present is a chap who goes in for a bit of the psychosynthesis.

Psychosynthesis?

Sounds like some hypno-hippie-hipster pseudo-scientific bullshit right? It’s not, I don’t think. Maybe it is – I don’t know a lot about it (which is one of the reasons I like it), but I do know that, unlike most flavours of therapy, psychosynthesis seems pretty agnostic in its view of the person. Instead of trying to benevolently manipulate the client into agreement with their true state, it encourages them to make sense of themselves, often through a series of internal characters called subpersonalities or voices. These might be the much-maligned inner child who Freud was so interested in fiddling with, or they may be character-traits which emerge in certain situations, or relationship roles, or imagined future selves, or whatever. Unlike many of the other flavours of therapy there’s no prefigured plan about which voices each person should have. It’s creative and exciting and scary, and allows you – sorry, me – to explore and create with a sense of freedom and playfulness, instead of a fixation on uncovering underlying causes (psychoanalysis), becoming more pro-social (CBT, TA, other acronyms) or on polishing a turd (person-centred).

One of the things that has emerged for me in the course of therapy is the difference between those of my internal voices that speak from a place of feast, and those which speak from a place of famine [I think this distinction comes from the book ‘The Gift‘, by Lewis Hyde, but I’m not sure]. Engaging with them has been fascinating personally, but has also thrown an interesting light on public life – especially on those aspects which make me so angry and negative.

Famine

The voices which speak from a place of famine are those concerned with conservation, preservation and safety. They’re voices dominated by the past and the future: they have learnt the hard way and don’t won’t be bitten twice. They stockpile like a prepper, and are just about as likeable. They’re the voices which whine and wheedle: “Are you sure you’ve got enough strength for that?” or “What if you let him down – it’d be awful to promise something you couldn’t follow through on,” or “You need to be sure you’ve got this right, why don’t you check it again; much better you find the error before anyone else has the chance. In fact, it’s probably better no-one gets to see this at all”.

The voices of famine are afraid of overcommitting and will only take the most calculated and justifiable of risks. They don’t trust themselves very far, and they trust others even less: everything external will potentially let them down, so they seek to gather as much as possible inside themselves, and cut off from anything which can’t be consumed or controlled. And if the world must be engaged with, then it should be engaged with on the safest possible terms: scepticism, atomism, and safety-in-numbers-evidence.

Feast

The voices which speak from a place of feasting are – in me – rarer, but they are vital. They are enthusiastic, generous and profligate; they spend and give and trust recklessly in both themselves and the world. They speak from a place of strength but also vulnerability: in their confidence they expose themselves, consuming and enjoying and thereby making themselves less prepared. The feast can be enjoyed only because the past has been forgotten (ignored) and because the future is a place of hope and trust rather than fear. These voices sing “Expand, make connections with others; they won’t let you down,” and “Make yourself vulnerable: you’ll be held”, and “Believe, why not? You can change later.”

Voices which speak from a place of feast seek to expand, but not in order to control or make safe: their aim is to experience, now, what is good and to experience more of it. These voices are happy with science and evidence, but are not constrained by it as they have faith in something better, and are not tied to the past. They make sense of the world by immediate judgements rather than reasoned argument – aesthetics and virtue predominate: ‘how does it taste’ rather than ‘how many calories’; ‘is it the right thing to do’ rather than ‘can I get away with it’; ‘how am I moved’ rather than ‘what does my friend think’.

What has this got to do with the news and stuff? 

The more I’ve got angry about the flacid paucity of public debate about, for example, the EU referendum, academies, tax prickery, etc., the clearer it has become to me that the only voices with which we permit ourselves to speak, in public, are voices of famine.

Take, for example, the queen of the sciences – the voice to which all other voices much defer, in contemporary debate – economics. Economics is the voice of famine in its purest form: it posits nothing outside of itself, and aims to control by understanding. Anything which exists outside of economics is either irrelevant or reduced to itself. In the EU referendum debate, for example, all of the argument on both sides have been economic-based. No feast voice has been confident enough to stand up with an alternative. Can you imagine a pro-EU politician saying, as I believe they should:”the economic arguments are irrelevant: what matters is something bigger – a principle of shared humanity and generosity. The fact that we’re giving 151 million pounds or whatever a week to nations who are poorer than us is a good thing. We should be giving more”. It just wouldn’t happen.

And this is part of the power of the famine voices – both on a personal and political level – they’re inherently reasonable, and they’re right. You shouldn’t take a risk; there’s nothing to justify it. Because they are, by definition, reasonable and based on the best evidence, they cannot but win if engaged with on their own terms. Even when proved to be absolutely useless, they still win out. It hasn’t gone uncommented upon that very few economists predicted the whole global financial schermozzle, but public debate is dominated now more than ever by the economist. Just like someone suffering from OCD, we may not like the tools we have which keep us safe, and they may limit our lives severely, but they’re the only safety we know.

Similarly, if you listen to people in the 50s talk about their hopes for the future, they talk about 3-day-weeks and enjoying the present tense of leisure time and exploration and creativity and relaxation. Instead (and despite living in a much much much much safer world) we’ve put all our faith in a way of life which, broadly, makes us unhappy. But at least it’s safe.

The same can be seen in education

Read any education research from the 70s and you’ll find all kinds of idealism and hopefulness. You’ll find both sides of the educational divide framing their beliefs in terms of what society is for, and what counts as good or right. You’ll find people opining that as we become technically more adept at teaching and understand more about the brain, we’ll make space within education for all of the richness of human interaction and growth and creativity.

Look to current debates and you’ll find something else. Take, for example, the recent arguments over compulsory academisation. The main argument put up by the unions and the labours was evidential and economic. They argued, erroneously, that the evidence suggested that academisation made for worse results and that they would cost more than LA-run schools. They disagree about the working-out of the sums, but fundamentally they agree. Fundamentally they agree that what matters in education the speed at which a pre-defined skill can be learnt and demonstrated (parroted, or aped, depending on your jungle-based-animal-analogy of choice). They value the present purely on the basis of what it will be in the future: the child’s current experience is relevant only in terms of impact on future life. Sometimes this future-valuation is seen by good people as a bad thing, as when education is reduced to creating economy-fodder. Good people rightly baulk at the contention that experience x is good if and only if it will have a long term positive effect on employability. But good people also use this method of future-evaluation because they don’t know any other: for example, when early education is judged in terms of later mental-health or exam results.

In both cases both sides agree that the child’s experience of education is never to be valued on its own terms: its value is purely extrinsic, and situated in the future. Both sides speak with a voice stuck firmly in a place of fear and famine. Both sides speak with a voice that does not trust, and can not enjoy or value what is happening right now. A voice which is scared of global racers and technologies and tiger economies and Finland.

What else might they have argued? Well, in these times it is hard to think of an argument which isn’t about efficiency and fear, and still harder to make that kind of feast-argument stand up against the famine-status-quo. These kind of arguments just sound silly because they don’t play into the publicly-sanctioned language of debate. They might have said, for example, that even though ‘evidence’ suggests that method x gets better educational outcomes, method y is more humane, and feels more respectful. Ultimately I would argue that those of us who have worked with young children know, from those children, what is right better than those who watch from outside the relationship. We have been told.

The Family

Ultimately, though, I think argument is the wrong way to think about this. Arguing and debate are themselves modes of interaction which come out of famine: they are concerned with correctly organising what we already have rather than creating something better; discovering something new. Instead we ought to look to areas of life where the feast voices are established and undimmed. And chief amongst them is the home. The way we approach education is the complete inverse of the way that we parent (so long as we’re not hot-housing leopards or whatever). When we parent we delight in the moment, valuing the child intrinsically for what they are, trusting that they will grow and develop (without drawing the logical conclusion that, as a child is not yet as developed as they will become, they are therefore inferior and deficient). We are hopeful and confident and so instil hope and courage and boldness and creativity.

One part of the education system in which a more trusting, creative voice still holds some sway is in the Early Years (0-5). Why? Largely because, and excuse the sexism here, the Early Years has always been dominated by women, and sees education as a natural growth from care and parenting, rather than something which needs to be imposed to address a deficit. But even here the voices which speak from a place of joy and delight and feast are being drowned out by the famine voices of whitehall and ofsted and fearful parents.

Now, I’m not saying that we should all become hippies and just love one another. The feast and the famine each have their place. Feast voices can lead to the kind of excesses seen in Weimar Germany or Chelsea. Your man Nietzsche was all about the feast: he wrote about how the strong can afford to forget because they’re strong and can turn any situation to their advantage by dancing or raping or climbing golden trellaces, or whatever else his blonde beasts got up to. But we’re not Nietzsche – the voices of famine are vital to living well with each other and staying safe and learning. Vital. But they’re not everything, and it’s these famine voices that dominate the public sphere at the moment. In private life it’s different: in spheres where the influence has traditionally been more female we find more of the voices of feast: child rearing, care, friendship. But in public life we’re afraid to take a risk and argue (or sing, shout, whatever) passionately and creatively for anything, especially when a famine voice of science, evidence, economics, or plain old fear stands opposite us.

My own voices are often in a similar (im)balance: the conservative voices win out through their exercise of fear, while the creative, vulnerable, trusting voices cower and fester. My problem is that all of those feast voices need to be heard, and if they’re not allowed a positive space they’ll emerge in potentially harmful and destructive ways. The parallel with public life is clear, as bozos like BoJo and Hitler come to fill the space vacated by good people saying interesting, creative, hopeful things. Scums like Farrage and Trump speak to our need to believe in something bigger than just getting by, but these are feast voices which have gone off, badly, and become parodies of themselves. They inspire a belief in something bigger than fear when they are, in fact, governed by precisely the same fear as the famine voices on the other side. If a quieter, more vulnerable voice emerges which offers an alternative, creative way to be in public life, they’re drowned out by the bullshit and sink without trace. A case in point: Gordon Browns.

Remember Gordon Browns?

No, probably not. It’s hard to look back on his premiership without the taint of the narrative he’s since been crowbarred into, but at the time he took power, he offered something new and, to me anyway, exciting: a moral compass. His first 100 days were charcaterised by quiet and principled good leadership. Although he was all about the moneys, he often eschewed arguments from economics, and spoke instead about bigger ideas of right and wrong. It was good. But he sank. He sank because he listened to the famine voices of well-intentioned but spineless advisors who told him to apologise to a bigot whom he had accurately characterised as a bigot. Instead of taking his serious job seriously, he succumbed to stupid advice and tried, excruciatingly, to smile.

What he offered in those early days was an alternative to the narrative of politics as mere application of evidence: his moral compass was such that it privileged what was right over what is reasonable, or rational (in an economic sense). He reached beyond the past and the fear of the future into something bigger. Because he didn’t couple this with a smiling gonk-face, and lost his nerve when he needed to stick to it (against all reasonable advice), he was hounded out by a hostile press who couldn’t understand what he offered and preferred the cleaner narrative lines of economics, bacon sandwiches, and smiling faces. The same will probably be true of the Corbyn, who also makes no sense to the voices of famine, and is insecure and timid when faced by their reasonableness.

Ugh, this has been quite the ramble. I find it harder to marshal and organise my thoughts into clear arguments when trying to be positive. But perhaps that is part of the problem with positive feast voices altogether. They speak from a place of insecurity and confidence. They’re mixed up. They’re paradoxical and unreasonable. They can be picked apart with analysis and critique. They’re wrong. But they’re also important beyond measure as, without them, we are just fitting in and going along and hoping that we don’t get found out. That’s no way to live.