How individualism gives cover for inequality and prejudice…

Readers of this blog will know that I am interested in how ideas shape us, for good and ill. I am particularly interested in ideas that shape us in ways that we may not even notice; ideas that sit in our subconscious and dictate what thoughts are possible, almost like the soil quality dictating what kind of trees can grow.

There is no doubt that one such idea that has dominating our thinking throughout the late 20th C and into the 21st is this one;

individualism noun

  1. the habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant.
  2. a social theory favouring freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control.”encouragement has been given to individualism, free enterprise, and the pursuit of profit”

It is a word that has many good associations, you could say that it is the hallmark of our democracy, the peak of what we aspire to as citizens.

It is an idea that is also at the centre of almost all the other ways we think about ourselves and our culture;

ECONOMICS. The dominant economic model for the western world is still Neoliberal economics, which is based around the idea of individual autonomous consumer units

POLITICS. ‘There is no such thing as society’ said Margaret Thatcher, and successive governments on the left and right have tried to prove her correct. Instead we have strivers/skyvers. There are those who are contributing to society and those who are ‘excluded’. The latter need only individual solutions.

RELIGION. We offer only a personal Jesus, who seeks to save the world one sinner at a time. The Hebrew God, who refused even to be given an individual name, and was collectively engaged with a whole nation, has been forgottten.

THERAPY. It is not just because of swiftness and convenience that ‘self-help’ has become such a huge seller and gained such traction within the world of mental health. We can only see individual solutions to what are mostly collective problems.

HEALTH. Positive thinking is offered as the cure all for everything from depression to cancer. Your healing comes from the power of your individualism.

You get my point, I am sure. In some parts of the western world, individualism seems like an unassailable ideal. Any percieved threats to ‘individual rights’ are greeted with howls and threats. Think about the USA and guns. Think about the UK obsession with home ownership and consumer protection.

We are at a tipping point in our culture, and typically when one epoch shifts into another, then underlying ideas that are intermingled with the old paradigm tend to be challenged too. There is a danger of pendulum swing, in which we lose the good along with the bad, but I would suggest that it is essential that our concept of individualism is examined again.

Take a look at this quote and think about how you respond to it. Is it ‘true’? Does it make you feel inspired, or does it make you feel inadequate? Does it even apply to you, or is it more relevant to other people- those that need it more than you do?

It might be helpful to think about the quote in the context of your personal success.

Then in the context of your personal failure.

The thing is that anyone who has ever made even the most cursory study of social science will tell you that Henry Ford (who was after all not the most sympathetic individual) is talking absolute nonsense. Let me say more;

Psychologists can demonstrate in a hundred way that relative success in life (measured any way you like) is pre-loaded at birth, then shaped further by formative experience.

Sociologists can demonstrate in a thousand ways that success and failure is generational and ebbs and flows on a population wide level. Detailed studies of the effects of poverty have shown that there was never a level playing field. Poverty brutalises, hinders our cognition, makes us ill and die young, and we pass these things on to our childrens children.

Social historians can reveal to us how these arguments are not new. They can tell us the story of how the sweep of history has not primarily about famous individuals, but rather about mass collective action. They can show us how other generations have failed to the learn the lessons that we are grappling with now.

Even economists (and I mean even) know that Haydek’s individual autonomous economic unit is just a simplistic canard. They know that, no matter how much you try to ‘just leave it to the market to decide’, interventions will be necessary. They know that free market economics always leads to boom and bust, in which individuals are victimised.

So why, in the face of so much opposition, do ideas about individualism still hold such a grip over our culture? I am no conspiracy theorist, but here we have to consider whose interests are being served most by this narrative, and how the mythology around it is sustained. It is totally unsurprising that those in power tend to believe that their success came as a result of their own merit; of decisions they made and individual positive attributes that they posess.

But when we think about it, we know already that there was never a level playing field. Individual success was always dependent on your place in the collective.

One very topical way that we can demonstrate how this works is in relalation to how racism works.

The standard individualist response to the Black Lives Matter movement has been to say “NO- ALL lives matter.” This is one of those classic tautologies, in which a truth is used to hide and obscure a deeper truth. Of course all lives matter, but the point here is that pervasive, institutional, hidden racism has meant that black lives have never been lived with an equality of opportunity.

The other standard individualist response to a collective challenge is to choose individual examples that buck the trend or prove the stereotype; the high achievers from poor backgrounds, Obama becoming president, the benefits cheats who never wanted to work in the first place. Of course individuals can trancend their circumstances, and of course some people who are poor make bad decisions, but by choosing to focus on these examples (as we see the mainstream media doing time after time) we perpetuate a myth and fail to engage with the realities of iving in complex community.

Individualism has quite simply made it harder to see collective difference. If we can blame individual black people for their lack of success, we do not need to confront the benefits of our own privilege. If poor people are poor because of individual failures and unwillingness to use the power of politive thinking then efforts towards equality in society are pointless.

Our politics has essentially sold us a set of lies about how humanity interacts in the western world. We have always known it was not true, but this has not stripped the idea of any of its power.

Why does this matter?

It matters because most of the problems this world is facing right now can not be solved at an individual level alone. Even those problems (like homelessness and rough sleeping) that seem almost hyper-individualistic in their nature have to have collective solutions in the form of home building, sensitive support and benefit systems, etc.

The bigger ones, such as poverty, racism and inequality generally- we have to stop pretending that these could ever be addressed at an individual level. We have to call out those politician on the political right (and even the left) who ignore the huge body of research that tells us about how collective behaviours shape individual choices.

There are two other things happening in the world that also reveal the limits of individualism.

The first is COVID-19. What we do as individuals affects those around us. Some are affected more than others because of vulnerabilities over which they had little control.

The other one is climate change. Individual action is not even a drop in the (warming) ocean. Only by releasing the power of the collective can we hope to save what we have left.

This is as good a way to end as any.

East of Eden…

Back in the spring, in the early days of lockdown, I walked up to the ruined farm above our house and recorded this. This morning, thinking about the state of our world, it seemed relevant.

In case you missed the reference,

…then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. 16 So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod,[ east of Eden

Genesis, chapter 4.

The wound of love…

It was my sister’s funeral today.

We watched it on TV, live streamed. Getting there during lockdown, even as it is starting to ease, had so many logistical problems that we decided to gather here, comforted by the knowledge that there will be other gatherings when they become possible to hug again.

Funerals are so important. Gill, one of Katharine’s oldest friends, and a Baptist minister, led this one. How she managed it through her own grief was remarkable. She spoke from her heart, with no fear of her emotion, be it laughter or tears. Katherine would have been so proud.

As for me, even so soon afterwards, it feels as though the funeral unlocked something. Not just the tears, but also a way to connect myself with the reality of grief. For the past three weeks it has been with me constantly, but more like background radiation- corosive but not conclusive.

The family asked if I would write something for the funeral, and I tried. How I tried. I have at least three poems, but either they were too personal, or too dishonest. How could I say anything about my sister they did not say everything? And how could one poem ever say everything, particularly now.

In the end, I sent a poem I wrote a few years ago. I can’t remember the context in which I wrote it, but that does not matter for now it has a new one.


Practice the wound of love

Let it devastate

Let it scrape your soul

For blessed are the gentled

Blessed are the meek

Blessed are those whose fullness now lies



Practice the wound of love

Rest now in that broken place

Where grief is never silent

And ragged roots of love

Tap the trampled earth

Blessed are you as you reach for love

Because it reaches out for you


Practice the wound of love

Let it devastate

For nothing ever came from nothing

(Apart from love)

At the end of everything

We are just cups

Who are cupped.


We are held.


Britain’s shame; how we treat our travelling people…

In the wake of ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests that have swept the globe, I think we have to confront another kind of racism that exists within our society, fostered and maintained by prejudice and legal restriction. But first, let me tell you a story.

A week ago, a schoolfriend shared the news of the death of my dear sister on a facebook page dedicated to news of my home town in Nottinghamshire. The reactions were rather stunning. An outpouring of love and support from people who I mostly did not know, but had remembered her or knew her. It even connected me to a favourite teacher from my childhood who stoked my love of literature. I felt proud of my little home town and the good people who live there.

A few days later, the same page was alive with other news. It seems that some ‘Gypsies’ had set up camp on the edge of the municipal park- a large expanse of sports fields, lakes and childrens playing areas. One post announced this fact as if giving a public health and safety warning. It seems they had ‘smashed’ through a gate and ‘forced’ their way onto the park. We were to be assured that ‘remedial action’ would be taken, but in the meantime, we were ‘not to approach them’.

Cue an avalanche of bile and invective. I am sure you can guess the content, but here is a toned down version of what people were saying;

  • These people will leave stinking mess that will require our taxes to clean up. They do not pay taxes
  • They are violent thieves
  • Lock up your sheds because crime rates were now going to soar
  • How dare they move onto OUR park
  • Let them buy their own land
  • Why can’t they just live in a house like normal people?
  • They should be arrested
  • Every time they come near, all sorts of social problems come with them, including infestations of rats.
  • The words used to describe them were; Gyppos, Tinkers, Pikeys, Scum.

There were some voices – quite a few actually – calling out these views as racist, including one person who had to insist, in the face of much opposition, that Roma people were recognised as a seperate race.

Whilst these comments were being made, the small group of travelling people moved on. They were only breaking their journey and letting their kids play in the park. They left no mess. As far as I know, there was no crime spree. Oh- and it turns out that they did not smash through the gates after all- they were already open.

All this left me angry and really troubled. Perhaps it was the proximity to Katharine’s death, and the fact that all this took place on a site that had so recently celebrated her life. Perhaps it was because I knew this would have made her very angry too. She would have rattled off a high speed sentence letting us know exactly what she thought of the people who had made those comments- I should add that I did not know any of them, and probably she did not either.

I was angry, but the reality is that those making these comments, and the man who first posted the ‘warning’, were only expressing a variation of views that are mainstream. Here is what the local independent councillors think about the whole thing.

All of which leaves me asking… why? How did it come to this;

Back in 2009, the Equality and Human Rights Commission issued a report entitled ‘Inequalities experienced by Gypsy and Travelling Comunites: a review.” You should check it out, even if you just read the executive summary, here. The report list gives this list;

• Gypsies and Travellers die earlier than the rest of the population.

• They experience worse health, yet are less likely to receive effective,
continuous healthcare.

• Children’s educational achievements are worse, and declining still further
(contrary to the national trend).

• Participation in secondary education is extremely low: discrimination and
abusive behaviour on the part of school staff and other students are
frequently cited as reasons for children and young people leaving education
at an early age.

• There is a lack of access to pre-school, out-of-school and leisure services for
children and young people.

• There is an unquantified but substantial negative psychological impact on
children who experience repeated brutal evictions, family tensions associated
with insecure lifestyles, and an unending stream of overt and extreme
hostility from the wider population.

• Employment rates are low, and poverty high.

• There is an increasing problem of substance abuse among unemployed and
disaffected young people.

• There are high suicide rates among the communities.

• Within the criminal justice system – because of a combination of unfair
treatment at different stages and other inequalities affecting the communities
– there is a process of accelerated criminalisation at a young age, leading
rapidly to custody. This includes: disproportionate levels of Anti-Social
Behaviour Orders against Gypsies and Travellers, instead of the use of
alternative dispute resolution processes; high use of remand in custody, both
because of judicial assumptions about perceived risk of absconding and lack
of secure accommodation; prejudice against Gypsies and Travellers within
pre-sentence reports, the police service and the judiciary; and perpetuation of
discrimination, disadvantage and cultural dislocation within the prison system,
leading to acute distress and frequently suicide.

• Policy initiatives and political systems that are designed to promote inclusion
and equality frequently exclude Gypsies and Travellers. This includes political
structures and community development and community cohesion

• There is a lack of access to culturally appropriate support services for people
in the most vulnerable situations, such as women experiencing domestic

• Gypsies’ and Travellers’ culture and identity receive little or no recognition,
with consequent and considerable damage to their self-esteem.

Any community facing this kind of pressure will surely struggle; poverty and prejudice brutalises and traumatises us all. It starts with having somewhere to live. As the video above points out, travellers have visited the same camp grounds for many hundreds of years, but now they have been fenced off the common land, and their lifestyles have been criminalised. Council sites have closed up and down the land, particularly in the years of austerity.

When people have tried to buy their own land, they have faced a planning back lash- do you remember Dale Farm? Check this out…

As the report puts is;

Many Gypsies and Travellers are caught between an insufficient supply of suitableaccommodation on the one hand, and the insecurity of unauthorised encampments and developments on the other: they then face a cycle of evictions, typically linked to violent and threatening behaviour from private bailiff companies.

Roadside stopping places, with no facilities and continued instability and trauma, become part of the wayof life. Health deteriorates, while severe disruptions occur to access to education for children, healthcare services and employment opportunities. In order to avoid the eviction cycle or to access vital services, many families reluctantly accept the alternative of local authority housing. They are however, typically housed on the most deprived estates, sharing the wider environmental disadvantages of their neighbours and exposed to more direct and immediate hostility focused on their ethnicity or lifestyle. This also involves dislocation from their families, communities, culture and support systems, leading to further cycles of disadvantage

What (acting on our behalf) has our government been doing to address this social injustice? Well, not a lot;

The UK government’s record on Roma issues has been one of inaction and neglect. Plans, such as the coalitions 2012 strategy to tackle inequalities have been widely derided for having limited scope, little ambition and weak recommendations. The most recent inquiry failed to consider the shortage of pitches and site accommodation across the UK, which many groups representing Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities would consider to be one of the most pressing concerns…

…Successive governments have tried doing nothing, pilot projects have been attempted and mainstreaming the needs of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities has been the recent approach. But all have failed over the long term or led to very little improvement. Government needs to lead and to foster leadership in others – there needs to be coordinated plans and actions. As in most areas, resources will also be an issue, but a desire and an ability to affect change is critical. In doing so, the UK will address some of the longstanding issues for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people and make communities more equal and less hostile places.

Article from ‘The Conversation’, here.

There are no votes in championing the rights of travelling people. Those politicians who have tried have an uphill task- so let’s help them. Let’s start to chalenge our own prejudice so in turn we can help others to do the same.

Perhaps we start here;

Racism: not just over there…

Streets in Glasgow named after plantation owners/tobacco barons are renamed by axti racism protestors, 2020.

I am a middle class, middle aged, white male. I am part of the problem, but I want to be part of the solution. I have been talking about prejudice and racism my whole adult life. We keep thinking things are getting better, and then something swings into our consciousness to bring us up short.

Black community leaders in the US have encouraged white people like me to educate myself, and then use whatever megaphone or communications device we have to hand to educate others. I have no megaphone, but I write stuff, so that is what I will do…

Back when my lovely sister and I were studying ‘O’ level sociology, we were taught the difference between direct and indirect racism. We were also taught about something called institutional racism. Time for a few definitions;

Direct racism is where someone discriminates against someone in thought, word or deed because of their race.

Indirect racism happens when a person, organisation or policy acts in such a way as to place people from a racial group at a disadvantage (even if they were unaware of the effects of their action, or if it was unintentional)

Institutional racism happens when one of the above kids of racism becomes ‘normal’ behaviour in an organisation or society.

Please note one crucial fact here- indirect and institutional racism can be extremely complex and subtle in application and effect. Partly this is because we all want to believe that we are the good guys and so we resist any suggestion that our ‘normal’ behaviour is rooted in hidden prejudice.

Even when we have acknowledged racism in the past within our society (and lets face it, we really don’t have to look very hard) we tend to regard that as belonging to ‘another era’, and tend deny any legacy effects, even whilststill benefitting from continuing inequality in the form of trade, commerce and the cost of labour.

There is an uncomfortabe reminder of how this works in small town Scotland just along the coast from where I live. A rock that has been painted (until recently) in the colours recognised internationally as a ‘blackface‘ trope and emblazoned with the words ‘Jim Crow’.

Many people coming to town were shocked. The racist origin of this decoration was surely so obvious that only racists would defend it, right? Well, no. It was not that simple. You can follow some of the debates, including how angry people get, on the posts and comments below;

I share this story with some trepidation, even now. I don’t like conflict. I was never quite sure about ‘making a fuss’. I even thought that other people might be right, and this rock was just a benign oddity. Certainy, as seen above, the end result is far from edifying. Even now, attempts to find a community solution to the current graffiti covered state of the rock are too divisive.

I am also left convinced that my community, as a whole, has learned very little through this process about our history, and the ongoing pervasive effects of racism in our culture and our consciousness. I continue to hope that one day soon, we can make this rock into a different kind of monument- one that allows genuine reflection and restoration.

Let us remember, lest we forget.

Let us remember that the racism that resulted in the death of George Floyd and so many others originated here. We exported it in exchange for sugar. Then we excused ourselves by making black people into figures of fun an entertainment. Finally we managed to pretend none of these things really happened, it was all just ‘political correctness gone mad’.

Well shame on us all.


The local paper has just printed this statement from local MSP

“I understand and support the desire to get rid of the stigma caused by the rock once and for all. The name is offensive, whatever the dispute about its origins, and the repainting of it over the years, again and again, has added insult to injury.

“It is time that the rock was dealt with in a way that unites the town and indeed in early 2018 a number of local people approached Cllr Alan Reid and myself to ask us to try and help to do so.

“We agreed to try and help but were unable to find out who owned it. None the less we moved ahead and were assisted by the influence of former Moderator Rev Lorna Hood who convened a meeting of Hunter’s Quay Community Council, Dunoon Community Council, the local police, Dunoon Grammar School, local churches and The Dunoon Observer to discuss a way forward.

“Whilst initially there were some disagreements there was in the end a widespread view that change was required.

“As a result of the meeting the individual who had been painting the rock agreed to stop. Thereafter it was envisaged that there should be a competition for local young people to bring forward new design ideas which would re-define the rock as a symbol which unifies, rather than divides, the town. Dunoon Grammar School’s art department kindly offered to oversee the painting of the rock once a new positive design was agreed upon.

“The original discussions also resulted in a commitment to create a plaque or noticeboard near the rock which can explain the history of the rock and explain the decision to change it now.

“Staff at Dunoon Grammar School have organised this competition and have received a number of submissions from pupils in the Grammar and many of our local Primary Schools. A panel will now be organised to judge these submissions and select a new design. Over 100 submissions were made before lockdown slowed the process. More details of this will be published in the Dunoon Observer shortly.

“There is also an intention to have the rock washed and all paint removed to provide a blank canvass for the artists to paint the new design and it is hoped this will happen in the very near future.

“I hope that this will provide reassurances to those who have signed the petition and bring a final conclusion to this unhappy matter much closer.

Well done to the two local heroes who brokered this deal- it would not be fair to name them here, but I for one am very grateful…

Elite panic…

I came across this term when reading an article about the riots in USA triggered by police brutality, and it seemed particularly helpful in understanding wider governmental responses to COVID-19 – in the UK, certainly, but presumably wider than this too. Here is a quote, from here;

A dozen years ago, when I wrote a book about civil society response to urban disaster, I learned the term “elite panic”. It describes how the authorities often respond in an emergency – not by protecting and aiding the public but by seeking to control and repress us, protecting nothing but their own power and position.

‘Elite panic’ is a term that has emerged from over fifty years of sociological research into how society responds to major disasters. It turns out that what we might expect to see (based on a million disaster movies and popular doomsday predictions) very rarely actually happens. In fact, rather than pubic disorder and individual outrages against vulnerable people, these events more commonly bring out the best in us. However, our leaders – the government, the media moguls and the ruling elite – often seem to have a different reaction, based perhaps around a rather low opinion of the rest of us, who are clearly not like them.

Or perhaps the opposite is true, and they fear that we are just like them. After all, getting to the top, then staying at the top through inherited privelege, requires a set of scratch and smash skills that most of us might regard as plain rudeness. To be part of an elite seems to involve a healthy dose of fear, mediated only by the use of wealth and power to protect and sustain position.

As evidence of what we might regard as elite panic, consider the UK government response to the pandemic. At first, it was minimise and distract- keep the football matches/horse racing going (otherwise known to the Romans as ‘bread and circuses‘) beacause otherwise the rabble might rise.

Next we had the now entirely discredited ‘Herd Immunity’ approach. A few of you will die, but it will be better for the rest of us in the long run. Take one on the chin for the team. The cracks were starting to show here, perhaps. Almost as if the death of a few serfs is hardly noticeable to the lords and ladies.

Later on, the focus turned on us ‘all being in it together’. We conjured up imagary from the last great war and talked about ‘Blitz spirit’, but at the same time, the message was manipulated. Information from SAGE was managed and distorted. Then the Dominic Cummins affair showed it like it is.

It does not need to be this way- we know this from the reaction of governments not run by the elite for the elite. New Zealand, for example. Scotland even.

This might be an excellent point to remind ourselves of another highly pertinent piece of social research;

Lessons on austerity from the great depression…

As we emerge, blinking, into a summer made fragile from pandemic, I thought it might be worth reminding ourselves that we once hoped for a much better world; one in which equality, fairness and social justice was more important than private wealth and accumulation…

I found myself thinking about austerity, and the ‘we can’t afford it’ mythology that Conservative politicians have used to justify slash and burn of community, health and welfare expenditure in recent years- something that has undoubtably left the UK more vulnerable to COVID-19.

When considering new political and economic actions, we always have to look backwards as well as forwards. I would suggest that there are some interesting comparisons to be made between the times we are living through and the pre and post second world war economic situation.

Think back to the 1930s. Mass unemployment. Dust bowl migrants. The Jarrow hunger march. (Also, the rise of fascism.) In response, governments slashed public spending, leading to a cycle of agony for poor people that was only broken by a world war.

After the war, in the wrackage of Europe, a new economic theory arose.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating Keynsian economics as a complete solution. For a start, Keynes was still wedded to the goal of economic growth, which is killing the planet, but if you are not familliar with the arguments that raged back in the 30’s, nor with the way that Keynsianism dominated the economic thinking of the fifties and sixties, then it is well worth watching this short video.

As you do, think about what we have been told about the evils of public spending and national debt.

Think about the way that insitutions such as the world bank and the IMF have been bent towards a wholy different purpose that that which Keynes originally intended.

Perhaps above all, think about his warnings over boom and bust cycles in unfettered free market capitalism, and the way that slashing public expenditure makes things catestrophically worse.

In the interests of even handedness (ironically not something that Hayek was particuarly concerned with) perhaps we should also add this video.

For most of his life, Hajek’s ideas were discredited- regarded as irrelevant within a modern managed economy. Until Thatcher that is. Thatcher wanted a new way to look at the world. He gave her a way to ignore the old partnerships between markets and labour, and she went for it. Thatcher and her neo-liberal followers (including Blair) held the middle ground ever since.

Until now.

Blairmore gallery poetry workshop…

Coirsdan, from the lovely Blairmore Gallery, is running a number of on-line art workshops over the next period, and I am delighted to announce that we will be working together to run one on poetry. This will be on the 16th of June, from 2PM.

We called the workshop ‘poetry appreciation’, because our aim is not to write our own words (this time) but rather to take a journey through some other wonderful poems. In doing so, we we hope to gather some insights into what poetry is for, how it connects with us and what makes some words so much more powerful than others.

Here is the blurb;

Immerse yourself in words, by taking part in this new and exciting live-online workshop. Poetry has never been more important in our lives, because it is the way we say things that matter. If you have an interest in poetry and want to learn more, this workshop is for you. Led by Chris Goan, a local poet, we will talk about poetry & explore a wide variety of poems that are moving & meaningful, in a small group. You will discover the tricks & techniques that give words power. It will be £30 per person.

Book your place now by emailing Ciorsdan at

The strage thing about our new reality is that even though this workshop is local (to me) participants might be from anywhere, so if you fancy an afternoon sharing poetry with a small group, then it would be lovely to see you, if only on a screen.

Time for some poetry…

On trauma, shame and compassion…

Today, whilst I should have been doing any number of other things, I was sucked in the (usually) vacuous sinkhole called Facebook, flicking through my feed for the minor thrill of outrage, feeding my sense of superiority over all those others (who are just like me.) Today was a little different though, because instead of all the negative rants and virtue signalling (neither of which I can I absolve myself of) I saw this (HT Jamie for sharing it.)

I found myself weeping as I watched it.

There are personal reasons for this. Many of the steps that these men were taking, I could have taken too. I could have ended up where they were, but I am a white man, born into a different context. The detail of my own story is not really something that I can talk about, other than to say the person/s whose behaviour led to my trauma had it worse than me in their own childhood.

There are also professional – no that isn’t the right word – philosophical reasons for my interest. I spent a whole career working within a mental health system that pathologised shame and distress. It treated people as if their symptoms were more important than their stories. Really. I do not exaggerate.

At the beginning of my career, we social workers kidded ourselves that we were different. We talked about being person-centred, concerned with need, not fitting people into boxes. We even saw what we were doing as subversive, believing ourselves to be both in and against the State. Because of this, in the early days, we were the patron saints of misfits and lost causes- the people that the system regarded as ‘manipulative’ or to have ‘personality disorders’. People who did not easily fit with fiercely defended diagnostic criterias. The longer I worked though, the more we conformed. Patron saintliness led to unsufferable smugness and anyway,was a luxury we could ultimately not afford. After all, the system works, right? People with mental health problems are cured and sent home to get on with their lives?

Well, no. Not really. Mostly, mental health services are concerned with long term management of life-long conditions. There is relatively low turn over. This in itself creates a huge problem, as in becoming ‘patients’ people enter into a process of loss, which is then replaced by a different set of indentity markers. For rather too many, the stigmatising effect of this transfer of identity can have the effect of further traumatising people who were already managing more than their share.

This takes us straight to the old arguments about nature and nurture. What shapes our psychology, our genes or our experiences? Are emotions just chemicals? The answer to all of this is yes. We are not machines – the chemicals that surge through are both cause and effect – but neither can we pretend that the way we seek to modify increasingly levels of psychopathology is working for us.

Of course, I am not saying that people don’t get better, or that they are not helped by the many and varied science-based interventioned offered to them by mental health services. I am just saying that in many cases, the help on offer is very limited and pre-programmed towards protecting the system from overload and risk. It is also entirely obvious that those who get the most out of the mental health care system (as with all other systems) are those who already might be seen to be winners in life’s lottery- the educated, the wealthy and those who already benefit from networks of resillience.

So let’s step in to the circle.

How do we define the kind of trauma that is being referred to in the prison video above?

Most of us will have heard of the list of Adverse Childhood Experiences that give some kind of indication as to our vulnerability as adults. Some of us will have seen questionnaires like this one.

The strange thing about those of us who ahve answered yes to a few of these questions is that we share a secret. Even when we are able to see the fact that we were victimised by the behaviour and problems of someone else, we carry a deep sense of shame. We believe that at some level, it is our own fault. This kind of shame is toxic.

It also brings some rather unique life skills. We are like secret agents in our ability to submerge our feelings. We are also often have a social superpower- not in our ability to manage complex social interactions, but in our ability to read and understand them. Particularly when they involve other kinds of pain and distress.

We ought to be very good at this kind of stuff

But it is easy to fall in to this.

There is only one kryptonite for shame and it is called compassion.

Have a think about that. I don’t mean ‘There there, it’ll be OK’ kind of compassion. I mean the kind that celebrates our shared vulnerbilities. I mean compassion for others, but also (and perhaps even more important) compassion for ourselves.

In the context of our prisons and hospitals (full as they are by people like me) it has to mean something much more visceral and dangerous than what we have seen so far. My friend David sent me a podcast to listen to a couple of years ago and it has nagged at me ever since. Here is an excerpt

Trauma, particularly complex trauma, is not solved by being nice. It can take a lifetime to come to terms with, but it has to start with the right questions.

And it has to start with compassion.