In Which My Mother Helps Me Consider What’s Important

By what guidelines do you think we are judging good and bad, right and wrong, at this moment in Western society? I found I was asking the question in the wake of Andrea Leadsom’s comments about motherhood, and the furore over Black Lives Matter in America. And I am wondering whether the answer lies in the odd pickle we seem to be getting ourselves into over the difference between morality and ethics. Let me explain, and to do so, I’m going to talk about my mother.

My mother was born into an age of morality. Back in the 40s, behaviour was judged by an absolute system of black and white rules. There were no excuses, no mitigating circumstances, and very little in the way of compassion. Couples could not live together without getting married, babies could only be born into marriages, homosexuality was a sin, foreigners were not to be trusted, you kept your house tidy and turned up to church on a Sunday, and respectability was all. Of course what went on in private was entirely unregulated. What mattered was to show yourself to be on the right side of the rules in the public space.

Now, my mother was a war baby. My grandmother never told her who her father was, and my mother had to grow up with the stigma this conferred. My mother, who has a mind like a steel trap, let me assure you, grew up with far less education than she should have had because school was an uncomfortable place for her, and she was wounded in her self-esteem. She has never had the confidence to which her looks, abilities and character should entitle her. And yet could anyone be more innocent in the situation in which she found herself? Nothing my mother did warranted the stigma that attached to her in her early years. I can only hope her life spent as the essential heart of a close-knit, loving family has managed to make up in some way for this rank injustice.

Over the 60s and 70s people began to wake up to the unnecessarily stringent harshness of their morality. They began to understand that people should not be condemned for the rest of their lives because they made a mistake, or because they were different to the rigid standard of ‘normal’. And this was because morality was gradually giving way to ethics. Morals are the rules imposed on a group, whereas ethics are the guiding principles we choose for ourselves. Morals are specific to historical time and place, whereas ethics are eternal, and transcend the society we live in. The way I understand this is that ethics are often primarily concerned with how we treat the other person, based on the understanding that what unites us is much more profound than what separates us; we must all suffer the difficulties of the human condition.

Two of the great forces in this shift into ethics were feminism and civil rights. In both cases the premise of the argument is that men and women and people of all skin colours are fundamentally the same. But society has made some of those groups second-class citizens in the eyes of others, thanks to longterm, systematic discrimination. Much as those people who had been discriminated against were angry, and with every right to be so, their intention – explicit in feminist circles – was to ‘raise consciousness’. In other words, to remind others of basic human similarity, to help others understand what it was like to walk in their shoes, and to promote the ethical necessity to ensure fairness, justice and equality for all.

The psychologist Alfred Adler argued that one of the great motivating forces in each individual is to make up for the painful feelings of inferiority we harbour by finding ways to feel superior. He felt that childhood would pretty much wound everyone, one way or another. We’d all emerge from it feeling awkwardly, shamefully inferior in some respect or other, and the counterpart of that unpleasant condition would be to search ruthlessly for reassurances of our superiority. Now, morality is a fabulous way to do this, because it has simple rules and no excuses. If we catch someone trangressing a moral boundary we have every right to look down on them. They have done wrong. They are inexcusable and must be punished.

But ethics has a very different perspective. The ethical position suggests we consider how we ALL struggle with these feelings of inferiority, and that the way to move forward isn’t to seek this fallacious sense of being superior to others, but to have compassion for ALL our wounds and weaknesses, in our broader collective.

If women and ethnic minorities hadn’t believed that the people around them could be enlightened and changed, there wouldn’t have been much point in them fighting for the right to equality. The ethical position acknowledges that the world is often a badly misguided place, full of damaging and dangerous misunderstandings, but it is fundamentally optimistic. From that shared place of humanity, we might all choose to deal with our fears and our insecurities in better ways, in the fullness of justice and compassion. And it is a choice. Morals are imposed, but ethics are the principles we choose for ourselves, and so the path towards them is always an education.

We are supposed to live now in an age of ethics, where we understand that each individual is the same but different, and that’s okay. But of course it isn’t okay, because there’s a tendency for people to want to turn ethics into a morality, to have absolute rules that brook no excuses. So if someone makes a sexist comment, we want to invoke a moral rule. There’s a tendency to want vengeance, to shout that this is wholly unacceptable, the person has fallen on the wrong side of the law and must be punished; they must be humiliated and ashamed. I can understand a warrior stance against backsliding, but I wonder if some people believe that only anger, shame and humiliation will educate (though schools gave up with that approach a while back, because it causes as many problems as it solves). In any case, all this is a moral perspective on the problem, a case of people being wrong or right, good or bad, without nuance.

An ethical perspective would be to educate or enlighten the person who made the sexist comment; to challenge them for sure, but not to aggress them. In ethics, the question is fundamentally how you treat the other person. Sure, it’s wrong to insult someone in a sexist way. But to scream for the blood of that person on social media, to humiliate them in public, to ensure that they lose their livelihood for their mistake, well, that’s every bit as unethical as the insult was in the first place.

And why should we not turn our ethics into a morality? Well, because of people like my mother, that’s why. Because morality can be so harsh and unbending, so restricted in its ruling, and yet so specific to its time that innocent people do get caught in the crossfire of something that’s ridiculous 50 years later. That’s why we let the law deal with the timeless rules of morality, with the extreme cases of murder, grievous harm, theft, slander, and so on. Because morality can ruin people’s lives if they end up on the wrong side of it. And, with rare exceptions, that’s too harsh for the everyday problems of getting along together in a mixed society.

So we’ve had a couple of big ethical issues happen in the Western world lately. Andrea Leadsom’s foolish remarks about motherhood, and the Black People Matter argument over in the States. In both of these cases the debate has moved almost instantaneously into a punitive, vengeful, moral realm. I place the blame on the media, which is the punitive, vengeful, moral realm par excellence. The media are totally unethical – they will ruin anyone’s lives without a second thought if they can make moral mileage out of it.

I seriously think that we should not let the media have our conversations for us. Ethics rise naturally to the surface when we become real to one another. When we speak openly, not defensively, from our vulnerabilities. When we actually listen because we want to understand the problem. Forget the media – sisters, let’s talk about how irrelevant it is to our friendships whether we have kids or not. Black, white, East, West, we all need to keep talking to people who are different to us, to be reminded time and again how much we share. Then these screaming headlines in the papers – Having Children Makes You A Better Person! – Black Lives Matter Is A Racist Comment! – can be met with the words ‘don’t be so ridiculous’, and a turning towards positive things. What unites us is far more powerful than what separates us.

I think we have to keep asking ourselves: what is truly important in a life of limited time and energy? Is it more important to express anger and hatred, or love and kindness? Is it more important to catch people out, or to explain to them why they made a mistake? Is it more important to reassure ourselves we’re right, or to recognise the insecurities that make us all crazy sometimes?

Here’s what I think is important: try to understand the other person, and be kind. Understanding and compassion neutralise far more powerfully than any violence can.

 

p.s. In case you were wondering, I told my mother what I was writing and gained her permission to tell some of her story. Thank you, Mum!

Want To See What Mr Litlove’s Been Doing?

I have been longing to show you the new desk that Mr Litlove has been making me, and for several weeks it’s been almost there but not quite. Now he has finished it and I hope you’ll agree with me that it is a most beautiful beast. It’s his own design, using maple and burr oak veneer panels. You might also be able to see the fine black inlay that surrounds each of the top panels.

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This shot from a slightly different angle shows you the curved supports on the side. Mr Litlove had a lot of trouble photographing it because we lack a big enough, plain space against which to display it. The glossy sheen finish also has a tendency to reflect things! But I wanted a good solid varnish so that I wouldn’t be afraid of marking it every time I use it. As it is, I fear I may just end up on my knees before it saying ‘I am not worthy!’

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A little run-through of some of the other pieces he’s made so far. He’s made this music case for our dear friend, Dark Puss. Same materials as my desk.

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And this is how it looks on the inside – though since this photo was taken, he’s added supports for flute and sheet music.

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He’s nearly finished this coffee table for my hairdresser’s salon. The salon has a very attractive logo: a circle of scissors that looks like a flower. He decided he would inscribe it on top of the table and went to a friend who has a factory with the capacity to cut with either lasers or CNC.

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He took a variety of wood samples with him and then tried out a variety of finishes. The results were so cute that he thought he’d make a set of coasters to accompany the table.

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You may remember a couple of months back Mr Litlove went to Devon on a chair-making course in the workshop of David Savage (who is well-known in furniture-making circles). This is the chair he made, a much more contemporary design than he’d attempted before (a design from the workshop, not Mr Litlove’s), and using his new upholstery skills he added a slip seat in bright green faux-leather. He called it the Kermit Chair, and when he sent photos back to the workshop, they liked the idea so much that they said they’d try to persuade the other guy who made a chair alongside Mr L. to use bright pink faux-leather and call it a Miss Piggy. Given the guy was ex-forces and living in a two-man tent for a year while on his course, Mr Litlove didn’t fancy their chances.

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And this is one of the first chairs that he made after leaving his old job. This is a Sheraton chair in mahogany and he has also upholstered it himself.  We really love its classic lines.

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He’s now moving on to making ergonomic chairs. This is something he’s been thinking about for a while: how to make a comfortable, bespoke chair that’s positively good for your posture and helps those with sore backs. He’ll try it out with ordinary chairs and a desk chair, but first of all, he says he’s going to make me an ergonomic rocking chair. Yay!!

In case you’re wondering, we agreed that he would take a year to practice his skills and design pieces that he would be happy to make professionally. When we get to October he’ll have to decide how he wants to move forward – and I guess we’ll have to see what Brexit Britain looks like by that time.

 

 

Where Do We Go From Here?

After the chaos comes the entrenchment. It’s the natural swing of the pendulum. There were a few days when the earthquake of the vote threw up some of those real but inconvenient emotions like regret, shame, horror at what had happened, and then the desire for stability reasserts itself with its concomitant stubbornness. Whilst stability is desirable, it’s only under the pressure of chaos that change can happen (the status quo being so seductive). We really need change, but it’s an unruly beast; we need to think extremely hard about what good change might look like.

George Sand declared that an ideal state was like an ideal marriage – it should be founded on the principles of equality and mutual respect – and she was onto something, I think. Especially now that the UK has served divorce papers on the EU and any number of dependent unions have spiralled into confusion, including the union of the political parties, the union of the United Kingdom, and the union of the voting people. The result has not made those in either Inner or Outer camp more understandable to each other. There’s been a painfully fascinating programme on BBC2 this week about divorce, focusing on the work of mediators. I’ve got a theory that any ugly human behaviour arises essentially out of defensiveness, and the couples on this documentary are the most amazing examples of angry and bitter defensiveness. They are so entrenched in their sense of resentment, so wrapped up in their own feelings that they are completely blind to each other. I think it’s a risk we all run in this country at the moment – understandably, given what’s happened – and nothing good comes of it. The mediators’ first job is to try to get the warring parties to listen to one another, actually and genuinely hear what the other is saying. As I’ve been watching the news unfold (obsessively) over the past week, there have been several things that have struck me as worth hearing.

I’ll include a link at the bottom of this post to the brilliant video by Michael Dougan, a law professor at Liverpool University, whose argument is that the Leave campaign was one of systematic deception at an industrial level. If you listen to him factually dismantle every last one of their weasel claims, I’m not sure how you could argue against him. Which begs the question: how can politicians be allowed to get away with public lying? There was a very good letter to one of the broadsheet papers from a doctor, who said that if a surgeon had knowingly misled a patient about the treatment of his condition, and made the first incision with no idea what to do next, he would be struck off the medical register. So why on earth don’t we have a political register, which details those who are eligible to stand as decent representatives of the UK. And why don’t we legislate against public lying in the service of winning votes? If politicians had to face legal consequences for misleading the public, maybe they would do so less often? Here’s a thought: why don’t all those doctors who voted Leave in the hope of getting money for the NHS take out a class action for their money, from the personal pockets of Gove, Johnson and Farage? If there is one thing to come out of the political mess we find ourselves in, it must be some kind of regulation of political practice. We reached the absolute zenith with Boris Johnson – a man sacked twice for lying – standing as a candidate for PM. He may not still be a candidate but there is nothing to stop him from returning to public life in the future – and there should be.

As for this question of a second referendum, Switzerland is the country we might care to take a look at. Back in 2014 Switzerland voted against the imposition of immigration quotas by the EU. The Swiss are not full EU members but they have bilateral agreements so they can trade in the single market. Since that time, the EU has steadfastly refused to negotiate on the immigrant question and the Swiss have no desire for the economic suicide we are contemplating. So it looks inevitable that a second referendum will have to be called in the (possibly vain) hope of breaking the deadlock. In fact, there are several small countries who are agitating against the EU’s quotas (Hungary has started up this week) and it might have been sensible to consider some sort of alliance among all these countries in the hope that a block protest could shift EU thinking. There is much that is wrong in the EU and many who’d like to change it, but evidently the EU will be determined to show entrenchment at the moment in order to discourage other countries from staging referendums. And of course we can no longer be involved in any alliances because we’ve already voted out and have nothing to bargain with. If you leave book club because you don’t like the book choices, you don’t get to choose books for book club. We can only sit on the sidelines now and hope that something happens to make the EU rethink its stance.

The current downturn in the economy is nothing compared to the disaster that will hit us if and when we invoke article 50. Because the EU has undertaken all our trade negotiations for the past 40 years, we have no trained international trade negotiators. A fact China underlined this week by saying (I quote Dougan) that it didn’t realise the UK had the 500 people and 10 years at its disposal to broker a deal with them. Well hang on in there, China, because we may soon have more than enough unemployed who need to retrain. And maybe fill the offices of Whitehall with the staff required to undertake the unimaginable mass of paperwork that will constitute divorce from the EU. But what will we do in the UK if we lose the bulk of European trade? Well, I guess we could become a tax haven, given the London banks have been close enough to singleminded money laundering for the past few years. And I guess we could trade with the countries in the world no one else will have anything to do with. We’ll have to be a lot less picky about where we get our money from in the future.

My last point is a cultural one, in a week that has seen the rather frightening rise of the Far Right. It’s been coming for a while now, this creeping endorsement of hatred. I say hatred rather than racism, because race is just an excuse. In my mind, it began with the internet, and all those open comment forums where people were free to leave whatever bile was in their mind unreproached by moderators. The comment section of the online Guardian newspaper is evidence enough of the kind of thing that goes on. Hatred isn’t something  you can persuade or educate away. If people are open to that kind of angry hatred then it just lives in them, waiting for the spark to light it. You can only restrain it, let it be known that that kind of emotion is not acceptable in a civilised world. Because if you let the energy of hatred loose, it’s one hell of a genie to put back in the bottle. I can only urge all internet users to act firmly against this sort of hatred – do not accept it or allow it permission in the interests of showing all sides of a debate. Do not let it have any kind of voice.

Finally, a point made by Mr Litlove in response to this week’s commemoration of the Battle of the Somme. While the bravery of those who went into battle is unquestionable, Mr Litlove pointed out that no one got to do anything heroic. The soldiers were told to walk towards Berlin without stopping, and they were simply mown down in their thousands within minutes. It is one of the most strategically senseless battles of modern history, in which tens of thousands of young men made the ultimate sacrifice because of the stupidity of their leaders. If it stands for anything this week, let the Battle of the Somme stand for the unimaginable extent of human folly, in the toxic combination of panic, pressure, the need to ‘show’ other countries what we’re made of, the underlying viciousness of humans to one another and the objectification of individual life in the service of some greater cause. Let’s think carefully about the potential extent of human folly, and do what we can to stay sensible.

 

A Few Words on Brexit

As we were doing the supermarket shop this morning, we kept coming back to the subject, couldn’t quite leave it alone. I will admit that I am not dealing with it especially well at the moment – a little clue to which was my desire to snarl at a perfectly ordinary white-haired couple heading back to their car with the Daily Mail tucked under the man’s arm. But fortunately I am married to Mr Litlove, whose sensible perspective today has been: we have to understand this, and recognise the discontent and disenfranchisement expressed by half the voters on Thursday, and think about what we can do.

So here’s where I think the rot set in: I think the banking crisis of 2007 was one of the most mismanaged and shameful episodes in recent history. Not only did it show how corrupt and mindlessly greedy the financial sector had become, the subsequent disaster and double-dip recession it caused was never truly, definitively laid at its feet. There were no public reprimands, and none of the shake-up the sector obviously needed. It was a declaration that the super-rich were in charge.

And then I think that politicians have been heading down a slippery slope for decades now, out of touch with so many parts of the country, slick and superficial and performative, rather than genuinely concerned to find workable answers. All those spin-doctors, all those sex scandals and expense account fiddles, oh I can’t even be bothered to write about it. Who amongst us thinks that politicians are anything to admire? It breaks my heart that Jeremy Corbyn, who appears to be a genuinely principled and decent man, is unreadable in our current culture. We’ve lost the ability to pay attention to anyone who speaks quietly and sensibly and compassionately. Unfortunately, he’s the wrong man at the wrong time.

Globalisation has taken a heavy toll – we hear about all the problems in the world and we can’t solve them. And we hear about people like the Kardashians as if they were a family to whom we might compare our own. We’re told about all the money out there and all the trouble out there, and we’re encouraged to look all the time at this enormous picture of extremes that makes no sense but which we’re supposed to be a part of and which clearly is intended to threaten us. If people are pushing this hard for isolationism, then it must in some degree be due to a backlash against the idea of the global community.

And the biggest responsibility for all this has to go to the media, who work their little socks off to spread an atmosphere of fear and discontent. If people are afraid of immigration, whose fault is it? The media acts like an enormous lizard brain, screaming and yelling at the least hint of trouble, pushing us towards extreme reactions. And when it isn’t depressing us with the promises of disaster, it’s pedalling narcissistic envy of celebrities and the rich, putting them on pedestals, pulling them down. It sets an example which we cannot help but follow – look, this is how we treat other people, we point the finger of blame, we say others don’t deserve what they have, they make us feel not good enough, not rich enough, not safe enough and it’s always someone else’s fault. The media never takes responsibility for itself, and this is highly contagious.

So there’s a huge protest vote. But why did anyone think that leaving the EU would make any of our problems go away?

Notting Hill Editions sent me a book a few months back that was an argument for leaving the EU. Mr Litlove read it. Its suggestion was that, if we were to leave the EU, we could set up better economic deals for ourselves in the long term. But it would take about ten years to do so. If we were able to bear the difficulties of those ten years, and deal with them effectively, we might end up in a stronger position.

Now, I myself would not have chosen these next ten years as the ones to undergo further hardships, not just at the point where our economy is stabilising again. Nor would I have chosen to undertake a difficult and complex renegotiation of our trading positions at a time when we have no faith in our political leadership. If we had a united country, if we had leaders with strong, clear visions of the country’s future, if we had a buoyant economy, if we had anything in this tiny little island that was unique to us and valuable to the rest of the world, maybe then we could step forth into a brave unknown with some confidence. Instead, we’ve sawn off the branch that we’re sitting on, and we’re just falling.

And what to do about it?

Well, you will not be surprised (if you visit this site with any regularity) to learn that my solution at this point is for every British person to take a long, hard look at their attitudes. A long, challenging look. In the Daily Mail, which this morning proclaimed that Britain should ‘take a bow’, the editorial pointed out that holidays abroad would be more expensive, pensions would lose value and we have lost the right to work, travel and study abroad with any ease. There followed a string of comments from outraged people who apparently ‘did not know this would happen’. I read that Cornwall, which voted to leave the EU, has now registered a protest, demanding reassurance that it will continue to receive the same levels of funding as if we were still a member state. The Leave voters have complained a lot about being called ‘stupid’, but I am struggling to find an alternative adjective for these reactions. Perhaps, though, the people who are annoying me the most are those who are acting as if nothing is happening, as if the economy isn’t going to head into recession, as we know it will, as if the EU isn’t about to make us an example to discourage other referendums, as if Scotland isn’t about to leave the union. I will say this as politely as I know how: if you voted Leave, you are going to have to step up and take some responsibility for the crisis that is now going to overwhelm us.

What makes me despair is this: the years since the Second World War have been some of the most peaceful and prosperous in UK history. And what have we done with them? We have worsened climate change and destroyed the environment, we have put house buying out of reach of our children, who are now leaving university with massive debts (when we had our education for free!), and we have voted to shut them out of Europe, out of 27 countries where they could have lived and worked. And we have just voted to set back scientific research for the foreseeable future – there’s a reason why 105 university Vice-Chancellors wrote jointly in favour of Remain, pointing out how dependent their research was on European collaboration and funding. We have not made a better world for our children. We haven’t even preserved the one we had. And now we’re reducing their opportunities to find solutions and improvements. We are what we do (being complicit is an act) and we have been selfish, profligate and greedy.

There’s been a lot of talk about wanting Britain ‘back’, in a loose, unspecified kind of way. Essentially it’s been a euphemism for xenophobia. But if there’s a Britain I’d like to see back, it’s the one I’ve read about in novels – which makes me think it must once have existed – where people didn’t have much, but what they had they were ready to share with anyone who was suffering. They seemed to pride themselves on being able to help others in need, on forming strong communities, on recognising the bonds of humanity that draw us all together, regardless of all other circumstances. I am not a Christian myself, but I feel at the moment the loss of Christian ethics, which were deeply woven into the social attitude in a way that made people feel they knew what they ought to do, even if they couldn’t always do it. There was a time when, if you had a standing in the community, if you had status or wealth, then you had a responsibility to care for others less fortunate. There was definitely a time when being civil and polite showed you to be a decent person, and it made the wheels of life turn more smoothly. There was a time when humility was a real virtue, before it was replaced by self-righteousness and entitlement. If we are forced now to return to a pre-WW2 state, then it will only work in any way if we can adopt some of these pre-war values. Returning to the 1930s with the attitudes of 2016 is going to be a complete disaster.

Here’s a few more things: we’re going to have to get over this ridiculous resentment of people who actually know things in favour of our personal, uninformed opinion. If we’re to move forward into this uncertain future with any hope, we have to listen to those with good ideas and experience and insight. We’re going to have to figure out how to build bridges again with all those Europeans we’ve just offended, putting their own countries at risk of further economic instability, because we can’t just work in isolation, not any more, not in this world. We are going to have to find ways to ask a great deal more of our politicians and our media – and to understand what that ‘more’ might sensibly and usefully look like. We are going to have to give up being fearful all the time of things that have a tiny statistical risk, and learn to fear the real dangers that stalk us: self-absorption in our own self-pity, for instance, the pleasure taken in being stubborn for the sake of it, the refusal to take responsibility for our own situations.

Because finally, ultimately: we have all lived through good times and bad times, and so we must surely know by now that happiness and contentment are not dependent on external circumstances, but on our own attitudes. If things are wrong in our lives, it is usually because we are standing in our own way.

We must surely know by now that feeling good about ourselves lies in our ability to do good things, to act well towards other people, to take responsibility for our fates. Great networks of self-justification, great conspiracy theories of blame pointed at people we scarcely know, living in a bubble of self-reassurance, these only provide artificial happiness, manufactured out of artificial ingredients. No, if we have any hope for what lies ahead it has to be grounded in the understanding that working hard and taking pleasure in doing a good job, whilst caring for others in our community are the valuable skills and attitudes that are available to us all. Goodness knows in the coming years, we’ll need them.