Reading about Ecopsychology

I’ve recently been reading and researching around the topic of ecopsychology, and one of my favorite chapters so far was on Soul Surfing by Bron Taylor. This chapter is available online, for anyone who is interested in reading it, but it shows so clearly the interaction between surfers and the environment, the rhythms and flows, and our connection to a greater ecology.

I’ve been wondering what motivates a person to begin surfing, particularly because one of my lecturers once shared that there are mountain/earth people and sea/water people. I tend to choose being close to the water, given a choice, and I always find te rhythms of the sea to be very peaceful and soothing.

Soul Surfing, along with David Abram’s Becoming Animal shares how embodiment, or the ability to connect to a wider world, where, in te words of David Abram, ‘things can eat us,’ enriches our lives.

I was wondering what motivates a person to choose to spend time at the water or in the wild? Do children follow their parents in connecting with the ecology, or do we have experiences in our lives which connect us to a wilder (and wider) sense of self?

Interestingly, I read that many people who connect to a wilder sense of being have often already gone beyond the western bounded self even before working towards a deeper sense of sustainability or ways of being. It seems that questioning the world we see before us is the key to working towards sustainability.

The Deep Ecology movement shares that going out into wild spaces and allowing ourselves to connect and realize the value of nature enables us to move beyond our very bounded and western selves and discover how we are interrelated with the ecology around us. This experience is a form of sacred enquiry, where we allow what we see to change us. It is an experience which cannot be forced, but which may change our ways of seeing or observing the world.

Bron Taylor wonders whether an appreciation of the ecology helps us to work towards a more humane world, quoting Columbian Ecologist, Ximena Arango, who shares that ‘oppressive behaviors do not follow an understanding that everyone is a part of the earth. (Taylor, 2010, p197).

Interestingly, deep connection to earth does seem to offer deeper value to human beings who spend time in wild spaces. Research by the Humane Education Trust showed that children from violent areas valued their own lives more deeply after learning to care for animals.

My approach to ecopsychology fits in with Radical Ecopsychology, shared by Andy Fisher, who introduces the importance of critical psychology, and emphasizes the importance of social justice.

It will be interesting to explore what unfolds as this new research project comes to life, and particularly during a time when many people are speaking about climate change. Perhaps the environmental crisis offers the opportunity to explore where we have come from, how our social histories have determined the present, and how we can work towards a more just world?

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Exploring agency


Last year, when Rita, one of the teens who takes part in our AoC project spoke to a news reporter on a riverside in Observatory, and explained that she’d learned that “Change starts with you.” I was grateful that she got to share her views with a wider community.  It didn’t matter what she had chosen to say, but that she got the chance to share what she believed.  And she was taken seriously when she made that choice.

From the perspective that social norms are created through conversations or constantly repeated rituals, every new voice or conversation holds the possibility of adding a clearer picture of what it means to be a human being in this world.  Speaking, sharing and feeling helps us get in touch with our own views or beliefs, and those of ‘other’ people,  so that we can get a more complete picture of how the social world positions each person.  A greater range of values or belief help to give insight.  This perspective shares we are shaped by the social system around us, but every action we take will help to maintain (or add a new voice) into that system.

This doesn’t mean subscribing to the very individualist world view that each person is responsible for his or her circumstances, that poor people are lazy, or that people are to blame for social conditions.  Quite the opposite.  Recognising the social world around us, the conversations or beliefs which maintain it, and the limits or restrictions it may place upon people means acknowledging social injustice.  It also means recognising those actions or beliefs which maintain the system, and using our own internal sense of justice or morality in order to respond.  We may not be able to change those embodied characteristics which create social divides.  But we can change the way we perceive people (or ourselves), the limits we place upon them, and the language we use to explain the world.

This ability to respond, to work towards a more just system, is known as agency.

I have had my own experiences of viewing the incredible dignity and generosity people have brought to life after experiencing social difficulties.  As a person who worked in a police station and listened to survivors of (often violent) crime, I saw women express their desires to walk others home through dark pathways, so that other women would not experience assault.  Over and over again, people spoke about their own, and others, right to dignity and the need for a full and respected humanity, no matter how dignity was threatened or affronted from every side.

This has been the reason that grassroots work has always moved me so deeply.  Working without hierarchy, where the voices of the people who share with you are considered equal, means that people get to explore their own beliefs and experience their own agency.  Before exploring diversity studies, I’d wanted to become a clinical psychologist.  But the questions belonging to critical theory, those questions which focused on identity and the struggles people are born into were the ones which interested me most.  Critical theory, and the views of liberation psychology helped me to recognise how important those questions were.  And they also helped me to explore the importance of ensuring that each person has a voice.

After I graduated, I wanted to carry on working in a way which would respect (and learn from) those voices.  A letter to a left leaning NGO titled “We are poor, but we are not stupid.”  as discussed by Richard Ptihouse, explained the importance of talking to people, rather than at, about or for them.  Richard Pithouse, in his discussion on shack dwellers, spatial social injustices and effective liberation group Abahlali, explains that very often NGO’s:

‘when they do engage with some of the actual people organising the actual protests they usually do so, like the state, via workshops in which they presume to tell people what they should be struggling for and how they should be doing it.’

He shares that:

The assumption that the capacity for thought is a function of class is adhered to rigorously and so the elite discourse rolls on relentlessly and blindly as academic or NGO ‘experts’ are called upon to explain the ‘mysterious’ politics of the poor.

And that:

‘It is clear that citizenship is widely understood to refer to the material benefits of full social inclusion in the material and spatial senses as well the right to be taken seriously when thinking and speaking through community organisations.’

(This work can be found here)

My own experiences with listening and exploring new voices has enabled me to use my own agency to explore, listen, write and contribute to a different society.  But I enjoy this most when I work in collaboration with others.  Henry Giroux (30 June 2015) explained that by forming groups who speak, share and explore together what it means to live in a world where environmental crisis exists, and linking this crisis to conditions such as racism or poverty, asking critical questions and searching for ways of making normality strange, we are able to create new pockets of democracy within an unequal world.


Giroux, H. (2015, June 30). Henry A. Giroux | Orwell, Huxley and the Scourge of the Surveillance State. Retrieved July 8, 2015, from http://www.truth- state

“we are poor, not stupid.”  Learning from Autonomous Grassroots Social Movements in South Africa.  (

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The week gone by…

A penguin came to visit us.

Last week, I attended a penguin festival with Agents of Change and some wonderful teens. Together we explored the value of nature and the ecology around us, the need to take a step back and reflect on the world we’re shown or taught, nature as our spiritual eye which may guide us towards a more just world, and the value of patience, care and respect while working towards change.

Our group then gathered together on the water edge with orange life jackets and 3 meter sticks, engaging with the public on sea level rise. Our group engaged by a sharing of questions. The purpose is to encourage thought, reflection and dialogue, along with making new voices heard. It’s a process we undertake together, and I find that each time we take part, I’m overcome with a sense of peace and a deeper awareness of the value of life.

Standing in the waves always seems to get me to reconnect with a deeper world around me, and the ways that we are interconnected. Agents of Change focuses on the ways of being which have generated climate change, along with possible ways of becoming. But it does this by focusing on the integrity and value we have as (diverse) people, rather than on shame and blame for the environmental crisis.

Andy Fisher (2013) believes that an awareness of nature and deep connectedness with the world around us may just release us from shame. He sees capitalism and the need to sell products as a means of devaluing our sense of worth. He explains that the system has to teach us that we are not enough just as we are in order to encourage us to buy more or try to. Of course, unnecessary products or the continual striving so to acquire them can never meet our needs, and so, frustrated, we seek something else.

Gathering together to explore those things which make us feel worthwhile, or that we really do value, helps to create a different way of being. Seeing the value given to all of life, including small birds, helps me to see possibility of shaping a different social structure, where children, ‘other’ people and alternate (rather than dominant) beliefs have a space to be heard.

The Fees Must Fall protests which took place around South Africa this week show the importance of working towards deeper human rights and a more just society. In Cape Town, students were protesting against an increase in fees. But they were also protesting against the outsourcing of workers, and the need for a living wage. They sought institutional transformation, protesting for a need for alternate voices and insights in shaping a future society and the future of academic knowledge.

The importance of alternate knowledge and a more humane society shaped our Agents of Change discussion too. Sustainability cannot be decontextualized. And so we have to ask what exactly we want to sustain? The world as it is, with a political history of injustice? Or would we prefer to work towards a more humane (and more than human) world?

As we have shared and worked together on a project which adds so much value to my life, I’ve learned about how our connectedness to the life around us, both human and not, are interconnected, and the ways that environmental and social injustices combine. I’ve also realized the importance of adding diverse voices when speaking about sustainability, so that we don’t just give value to the beliefs or needs of dominant groups of people.

As the world is faced with an environmental crisis, it is perhaps a helpful time to explore the impacts of ‘development’ and the terrible lack of caring which has sometimes accompanied this. How may we live in our world? What does the social world allow us to become? And how may we work differently towards a more compassionate world? The Agents of Change Project, alongside the Fees Must Fall protests, have left me thinking about the multiple tiers of social and environmental injustice, the ways they interconnect, and the small choices or possibilities we create each day which may bring transformation to our world.


Andy Fisher. 2013. Radical Ecopsychology.

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Untangling myths around bodies and social violence.

At UCT, I learned to explore social injustice by looking at the myths people create around issues such as race, gender, class, sexuality, physical disability or any other aspect of identity, and work towards completing the complexity of what it means to be a person.  My research focused on what it means to be a person in the world, and the way that making assumptions about other people based on body type is dehumanising.  I argued that a focus on the interconnected world helped to explain the difficulties people face.

To do that meant acknowledging the struggles people face because of social context.  But as importantly, it meant acknowledging the right to personhood.  Deciding what people think or feel, based on body shape, skin colour or hair type means failing to see the complete person behind the myth.  It is explained very well in this open letter which looks at some of the assumptions made about a ‘black woman’ in a yoga class.  The response challenges the assumptions we make about people, based on race.

Taking this approach, race or gender are social constructions which have been created through language.  The focus on language shows that our social world has been imagined (or constructed).  There are material, psychological and social impacts on the lives of people who have to live with the myths.  However, acknowledging that the social world has been imagined and explained in (sometimes contradictory) conversation means that it is possible to change the beliefs or meanings we have about people.  Working towards social justice means that we cannot change bodies, but we can change the ways we (mis)understand the people behind them, and the limits or restrictions we place upon them.

But to do this, we have to work with a conscience.  We have to ensure that we don’t recreate the stereotypes or divides between people even as we work towards a deeper sense of social justice.  The Neo – Darwinist perspective that men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, two entirely different species, where men rape because they are vile beasts, defeats the purpose of understanding social context.  It recreates stereotypes that divide genders of people.  And it disempowers women.

If we simply accept that all men are vicious beasts waiting to pounce on unsuspecting women, then how can a women ever become safe in a public space?  Using this narrative means isolating women, it means that men are violent because ‘they are just naturally that way’ and it means that women have no power in a world where they exist as fragile beings. We wouldn’t want to repeat those myths.

Mandy Smith, who explores the impacts of child abuse has frequently written about the genderless nature of trauma, violence and the impacts of abuse.  Sometimes, the impacts of trauma on men can be overlooked.  It’s important to work against abuse of power, violence and sexual threat.  But we need to do so by refusing to recreate myths or binaries that we have been told about people.  We have to explore how people become socialised into abuse, and the role of bystanders in allowing that abuse to happen.

What is sexual aggression?  How does it present?  What are the myths that uphold it?  How do we work for safer spaces for those vulnerable to abuse?  What are the social impacts or stigmas related to abuse?  How can we work at untangling them?  How do we break down rape myths?  How might we work towards ensuring that courts or magistrates understand Rape Trauma Syndrome (which has been proven to increase conviction rates).

Untangling the myths around sexual violence, and working towards increasing a sense of support for survivors, along with untangling the social myths which make violence (in whatever form) cool or masculine helps to work towards a safer society.  Working towards a deeper sense of community understanding of what violence is means that bystanders are less likely to allow violence of abuse to occur.  Working towards an understanding that all people have a right to maintain their integrity in the presence of others is important.  We need to ensure that power imbalances don’t get recreated when working towards a safer society.

To do this, it is helpful to work sensitively, protecting the rights of all people.  Protecting the rights of the most vulnerable means protecting the rights of all people.  But violence or abuse has to become ‘our’ problem, something ‘we’ work on together, with a deep understanding of the social myths, structures, authorities and institutions that underpin abuse, and the support systems available for people who suffer.

Cape Town based organisations offering support:

The Trauma Centre

126 Chapel St, Zonnebloem, Cape Town, 7925, South Africa
+27 21 465 7373

Rape Crisis

23 Trill Rd, Observatory, Cape Town, 7925, South Africa
+27 21 447 1467

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All voices are important

I remember attending a UCT workshop with a very skilled facilitator.  The woman who ran the discussion group brought together students from my diversity classes, some friends, and students from the technikon who were interested in spatial planning.  Space and identity interest me, so I was grateful to have the opportunity to listen to what the planning students shared.

But while we had an open and lengthly discussion on race, opportunity and the many Cape Towns which exist, depending on how each person is positioned, one of the people pointed out that we hadn’t heard from those people who had truly believed in the values of apartheid.  He explained that he really wanted to understand the motivations and insights that would make a person ignore the suffering of ‘black’ and ‘coloured’ people in South Africa.  He wanted to understand, and he wanted to be understood, when he shared the impacts of the apartheid legacy.

It was then that I first started to understand the value of honest conversation, where correctness is put aside, and people are free to share what it is that they think or believe.  And it was then that I realised that bringing people together sometimes helps to create change.  When we can listen and understand each other (and ourselves) it sometimes brings about subtle changes.  But to do that, we have to share honestly, and with integrity, rather than focusing on what we believe to be right.

Recently, I’ve been reading the work of Delueze and Guattari, who focus on a way of communicating which is called the ‘rhizome’.  Rhizomes are a form of transversal communication which aim to take the hierarchies out of conversation, allowing everybody to talk and share, regardless of social status.   It means bringing people together who would not normally meet up.  In sharing different perspectives, Delueze and Guattari believed that it was possible to bring about transformation based on the new insights which were learned.

I think questioning and sharing create new options.  I’ve been called romantic and idealistic for saying this, but I know that it has been true for me.  When I went to UCT, I carried out a research project which taught me of the struggles that some students from Africa went through, and particularly during a time of xenophobic attacks.  I learned of the struggles some of my classmates shared, and I became aware of some of my own struggles and privileges at the same time.

One of my classmates changed my perspective completely when she shared that as a Muslim student, wearing a veil empowered her, because it was a part of her identity, and one she valued.  I learned of the relief that speaking about ‘race’ can bring, because it enables a deeper understanding into the struggles and challenges people face on a day to day basis.  I learned how talk of a common humanity can sometimes deny identity, and I learned that although my own culture was dominant (and hidden) it was not the only way of being in the world.

AoC Two Rivers Urban Park

AoC Two Rivers Urban Park

When I left UCT, I thought I understood space, identity and the value of dialogue, but taking part in Agents of Change, which looks at climate change and our separation from earth, I started to realise the impacts of connectedness to earth on the children who shared with us.  One of the children explained the wars in west Africa and it’s links to mining and development.  She shared the way that people were discarded, the loss of ancestors, and the current Ebola crisis.  It brought to life the inhumanity and injustice that occurs when development is placed over and above the needs of community.

There’s so much work to be done, but it is only when we have the insights and understandings of how we can sometimes unwittingly be overwhelming that it is possible to do something about it.  And to do this, we have to listen to other people and ourselves, so that we can learn new things, and possibly bring them to life.  Social justice work is about the work that needs to be done.  It’s about bringing in change and new insights.  And we can only do that when we are wiling to share and imagine and explore together, learning from each other and using our shared skills to bring a new world to life.

I love the idea that our imaginations give us insight into the need (and possibility for) change as long as we are willing to give ourselves the opportunity to explore.  There’s no longer a need to impose arguments or debates onto other people this way.  Change becomes about a more humane way of life, and a different way of being.  It no longer seems impossible.  When we see the world as imagined, as a space which both shapes, and is shaped by, us, then it is possible to do something to bring transformation.  Little actions carried out by many people create change in small and subtle ways which eventually create a landslide.  Another world is always possible.

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Hold your own

Mhle from  was kind enough to share this poem with me on Tuesday.  It’s passionately told here:

Kate Tempest at Glastonbury.  

When time pulls lives apart

Hold your own

When everything is fluid and when nothing can be known with any certainty

Hold your own

Hold it till you feel it there

As dark and dense and wet as earth

As vast and bright and sweet as air

When all there is

Is knowing that you feel what you are feeling

Hold your own

Ask your hands to know the things they hold

I know

The days are reeling past in squealing blasts

Stop for breath and know it’s yours

Swaying like an open door when storms are coming


Time is an onslaught

Love is a mission

We work for vocation until

In remission

We wish we’d had patience and given more time to our children

You must feel each decision you make.

You must hold it

Hold your own

Hold your lovers

Hold their hands

Hold their breasts in your hands like your hands were their bras

Hold their cheeks in your palms like a prayer

Hold them all night and feel them hold back

Don’t hold back

Hold your own

Every pain

Every grievance

Every single stab of shame

Every day spent with a demon in your brain giving chase

Hold it

Know the wolves that hunt you

In time, they will be the dogs that bring your slippers

Love them right and you will feel them kiss you when they come to bite

Their hot snouts digging out your cuddles with their bloody muzzles


Look, nothing you can buy will ever make you more whole

This whole fucking thing thrives on you feeling incomplete

It is why you will search for happiness in whatever stupid thing you crave in a moment

And it is why you will never find it there

It is why you will sit there with the lover that you fought for

In the car you sweated years to buy

Wearing the ring you dreamed of all your life

And some part of you will still be unsure that this is what you really want

Glastonbury, stop craving

Hold your own

But if you are satisfied with what you have and who you are

You won’t need to buy new makeup or new outfits or new pots and pans

To cook new exciting recipes

For new exciting friends

To make yourself feel like the new exciting person you think you’re supposed to be

Happiness, the brand, is not happiness

You are smarter than they think you are

They take us all for idiots

That’s their problem

If we behave like idiots it’s our problem

So hold your own

Breathe deep on a freezing beach

Taste the salt of shellfish

Smile at a stranger and mean it

Lose your shit to your new favourite English rapper

Hold your own

And let it be


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(This story is a play on a Cape Town neighbourhood watch, who caught some media attention.  Apparently, the focus was on racial profiling, but as always, the story was hidden in vague terms about ‘people who don’t belong’ or ‘those who linger in cars’.  Media Monitoring SA pointed out that racial profiling is often used to ‘spot’ criminals, and that neighbourhood watches can sometimes be hostile to ‘other’ people).

I’ve started on a new mission.  Almost holy in a way – whenever two or more should gather and all that – but I’ll explain, and you’ll understand.  It’s really cool, and you get to make a lot of noise.  In the spirit of old Brian Adams, I’m ‘Waking Up the Neighbours’.  You have walkie talkies and stuff, and you get to go out at the crack of dawn, when everybody else is sleeping, and shout, at the top of your voice “Alpha, Beta, Charlie, Charlie Four!  Come in Charlie Four!”  Not sure why, but it gets the students out of bed.

Blasted students.  If I’m like Brian Adams, they are like the Counting Crows.  Take them very seriously.  “Round here, we stay up very, very late,” and all that.  Take them a bit to heart at three in the morning, when they come back from the clubs, searching for lost keys and talking philosophy like anyone cares.  But I’m getting off track.

So, Alpha, Charlie, Charlie Two, Charlie, Charlie, Testing.  I’m on hood patrol, that’s what, and I’m starting to get the hang of it.  It was difficult at first.  You’re meant to look for bad people, all those that are a threat to the hard working neighbours, and you’re meant to help keep the area safe.

They said “Search for those people who don’t belong here, and call it in.”

Hard, that.  We live near a hospital, a university, a whole lot of bars and there are all kinds of NGOs here that help people and all that, so who doesn’t belong here?

Posh ladies, that’s who!  Ladies with blow dried hair, the ones who teach literacy to the poor kids at school….Alpha, Charlie, come in…

Apparently this was not the point!  Oops.

So they said “We’re looking for problems, you know, people with hoodies walking together, you know, beanies too, hoods up, every now and then you get somebody glancing into cars!”

Bit busy, that one.  So many students and everything, and teenagers are always looking into cars.  “Alpha, Alpha, come in, come in!”

You don’t always get much appreciation in this line of work.  One of the very neighbours I was trying to protect told me, quite rudely too, to shut up!

Turns out the students in hoodies are fine too!  Ah well, silly me.

So they said “People looking dodgy, you know, suspicious, looking around a lot, checking where you are.”

Followed a group of teenage girls around.  They reported me.

The street manager started to get impatient.

“People who sit in cars for a long time, check out what’s going on around them.”

Young couple fighting asked me to go away.

But who was I supposed to be watching?  Who was actually a threat?  Come on, tell me, please, give me a clue.  I’m not getting it right, people are getting angry.  I’m ready to quit and it’s only my first day.  I’m good when I get the hang of what’s going on.  Help me out.  Please.

And then I got it.  Shouldn’t have been so slow, when I think about it.  I’ve seen Not the Nine o’ Clock news.  I know the skit with Savage, the need to stir up trouble, to prowl the streets arresting people for possession of curly hair and thick lips.  So I started to get it right.  It’s going well now.  I follow people about and I get to shout down my walkie talky, just so they know I’m doing it.

But I understand why you can’t share openly all those signs that make people suspicious.  It would be racist, that.

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Sugarman, won’t you hurry,

‘Cause I’m tired if these scenes…

When I was about to finish high school (can it really be so long ago?) Oliver Stone blew up Jim Morrison’s life to the size of a multi – storey building and condensed it into a couple of hours (as drummer John Densmore would explain). I went to watch it in the cinema to hear the poetry but I didn’t buy the soundtrack, with the marvellous opening poem….’did you have a good world when you died, enough to base a movie on…’ Instead, I bought Cold Fact by Rodriguez.

In the movie ‘Searching for Sugarman’ Stephen Segerman explains the hunt for a lost musician, and the Calvinism present in South Africa during the time his music formed a big part of our community. In apartheid South Africa, with it’s repression and anxiety, ‘I wonder how many times you’ve had sex’ brought the unspoken into conversation, making it the most daring song ever written.

I was more interested in the imagery behind the Sugarman lyrics. What was it that could make your questions disappear? I had way too many questions back then (and still do).

At the time, I’d been reading ‘On the Road’ for the first time, and I’d been fascinated by the sensuality and the joys of everyday life. On The Road tells the story of Sal Paradise and his trips around America during a time when he is between wives.

“Where we going, man?”

“i don’t know but we gotta go.”

Sal shares Mr Snow’s wonderful laugh, which started when his wife said something funny at dinner. And then there was the search for lost fathers like Old Dean, who remained enigmatic.

Although from a different era, without the jazz from the workingman’s clubs, Rodriguez seemed to fit right in.

But if Sal was searching for lost fathers, Segerman was searching for a lost musician. In South Africa, rumor had it that Rodriguez had died on stage. It was a haunting story and like all shades, Rodriguez was to return. As teenagers, none if us believed we would ever get to see him. The documentary, Searching for Sugarman, tells of the connections which were formed, and which would eventually lead to a tour of South Africa.

I got to see Rodriguez in the summer of 2013. I don’t usually go to Grand West, but it’s painted in the nostalgia of lost Cape Town, so perhaps it was the perfect place for the combination of memories, souls thought lost but now found, and images printed on t-shirts and that would move into the dispersed futures of the fans.

Rodriguez was shy and humble then, sharing that he loved our city. He also showed a sense of humour. “So the marriage counsellor says to Mickey Mouse ‘you can’t divorce her just because you think she’s crazy.’ And he says, ‘I didn’t say she was crazy, I said that she was effing Goofy!’ ( Yep, tricking us South Africans into sexy talk again.)

I loved the crowds, the chanting, the atmosphere, the warmth and the energy that made up the concert. I loved it that my daughter could relate just as well as I could, I loved the spirit of a man who hadn’t even known his music had life over here. And I loved the story of his discovery.

“What happens to us when we die?” Sal Paradise asks of Old Bull Lee. Bull first explains that you’re just dead, that’s all. Jim Morrison seemed fascinated by Bull’s later answer, that mankind is constantly in contact with the other world. As Blake shared if the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it truly is, infinite. “That’s what I want to be…I want to be the Door…” Jim Morrison apparently said.

Searching for Sugarman asks a different question, perhaps similar to the one Nick Hornby explores in ‘Juliet Naked’. What happens when you are still alive, you are getting on with your life, and in different parts of the world, others are inventing the myths weave themselves around your name? What does it mean to realize that your music has never really died? What happens when you come back to life?

Searching for Sugarman explored those questions and gave birth to a new story. And now a book is being released which lets us see the perspectives of those who brought the story (and the music)to life. What does the book share? I don’t know, I still have to read it. If you’ve read it first, do share.

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A different psychology

One of my colleagues recently pointed out that racism isn’t included in the DSM ( a guide towards understanding how mental health difficulties present). I was interested in this comment because some of my earlier work explored the importance of taking a critical (or social) approach towards ‘race’ and ‘racism’.

Critical psychology (and critical theory) explores the ways that the social world shapes possibility. What are our roots, and how does this open up or deny routes we can take? This doesn’t deny agency or an ability to respond. Neither does it aim to declare that people are passive. Instead, it tries to focus on the difficulties or struggles people face on a day to day basis. As Don Foster explains, when psychology disconnects people from what it means to be a social, historical and embodied person who exists in time and space, it creates a deceptive view of reality.

Looking at ‘race’ and ‘racism’ therefore means looking at people within a social context. The view of the ‘prejudiced’ or bigoted person from this perspective isn’t enough to create social transformation. Why not? Surely it is helpful to call people out on blatant racism or abusive behavior?

Critical theory sees ‘race’ as a social myth, as is gender. In a wold where body shape, skin couloir and hair type have been used to create barriers between people, and to make comparisons across groups, this has lead to social hierarchies, marginalization, exclusions and genocides. Foucault, in Society Must Be Defended explained that ‘race’ has been used to kill. The term is largely metaphorical, referring to killing off opportunities or possibilities. Foucault emphasizes the cobwebbed nature of power, and the way it spins itself throughout social institutions such as the education system, social welfare, medical care and the legal system, which are very often constructed to benefit dominant groups. Basic questions, such as ‘whose history gets taught in schools?’ Or ‘Who is protected by the law, and how is order imposed?’ Helps to give insight into this system. The question critical theorists use, when looking at a problem or situation is ‘who benefits when we present a story as we do?’

From this perspective, our views of the world are presented and repeated over and over again in the form of stories or myths. Every story has a historical root or origin. By digging up this root, we are able to bring about radical change. A world carved into nation states, upheld by the rituals off passports and visas had been created or imagined. What other imaginings or possibilities could exist if the shadow side of nationality is xenophobia or war? How else may we view people of different race of gender? Who benefits when we present the stories we do to the world? What is the picture we are presented with when it comes to poor people, immigrants or people of different ‘race’? How can we change this?

The emphasis here is the focus on social conversations produced over a great many years, until they are seen as indisputable facts. We have the myth that poor people are lazy or that ‘Black’ men are dangerous or violent. These myths lead to police brutality.

By deconstructing (or breaking down) social myths, it is possible to work towards change. By maintaining or repeating these myths, we maintain the status quo.

In a world built on slavery, land theft and sometimes the deliberately poor quality education given in order to maintain a labour force which benefits the very few, it isn’t helpful to focus on ‘racism’ as an individual personality trait.

To declare that ‘racism’ is an individual quality pathologizes racism instead of accepting it as a social norm which has been used to construct our everyday society. People who utter cultural beliefs which are seen as shocking or outdated in a liberal and politically correct world sometimes present an opportunity for discussion, dialogue, and, in extreme cases, arrest. But this isn’t enough to bring about transformation.

In a world where poverty is very often linked to racism, where people die everyday of preventable infectious diseases, where infant mortality is the shocking norm in many communities, and communities of people live without adequate sanitation, racism often determines the very fabric of he lives people lead. It is woven into the texture of society and that which we accept to be normal.

It is these norms which need challenging, so that all people are able to live with dignity, and so that all lives are seen to matter. When we see racism as pathological, carried out only by the violent or socially inept, and when we see the impacts of racism as individual qualities such as depression or a tendency towards violence or envy, the social word goes unchallenged. And who benefits?

This is why it’s helpful that racism isn’t seen to be a part of the DSM, and why exploring power imbalances helps

Derek Hook adds the importance of acknowledging psychodynamics in critical psychology:

towards creating a more just world.

Foucault: society must be defended.

Don Foster: Liberation Psychology in Critical Psychology edited by Derek Hook.

Derek Hook: Psychopathology and Social Prejudice

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