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 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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Orang Asli| Voices of Malaysia’s Aboriginal People Reaching Masses

Originally posted on The Human Lens:

Two Sides of Every Story Two Sides of Every Story@Shaq Koyok

The artist Shaq Koyok was born in Kampung Pulau Kempas in Banting, Selangor. He started painting with oil pastels at five years old, using his talent as a way to express his feelings about everything that happened around him, weaving a tapestry of sensitive human emotions and events in his life and most importantly the “rights of indigenous people in Malaysia.” 

As he turned 13, Koyok started drawing portraits and since then has worked with many mediums. Today, this young artist armed with an honors degree in fine arts from MARA, he has produced works reflecting his growing concern about the Orang Asli people in Malaysia. In his own words, Koyok says “My activism activities remain the most important to me. I shed light on issues affecting my community.” 

With growing developmental projects in Malaysia, vast amounts of the rain-forest that once covered Peninsular…

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The Power of Socio-Cultural Programming


Carol Hand explains the difficulty of socio-cultural programming.

Originally posted on Voices from the Margins:

Carol A. Hand

“Critical theory holds that … capitalist social organization is the overarching social problem from which most other social problems derive.” (Luske, 1998, 0. 118)

Living in the liminal space between cultures often provides a confounding but fascinating vantage point. It’s difficult to explain this to others who have had the comfortable privilege of growing up surrounded by only one perspective. Advocacy and teaching are challenging in such a context. How can one provide opportunities to raise awareness about alternative perspectives and meanings? Three rather divergent examples from my time in academia came to mind as I thought about this question.

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Photo: Lac Du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation – 1923 –

My mother at 2 dressed by the wealthy Euro-American woman who wanted to adopt her

norma 1

Photo: Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation – 1928 –

My mother at 7 (her birth mother refused to allow her to be adopted)

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Psychopaths or terrorists? Who says?

When the Charlie Hebdo massacre occurred early this year, we heard how ‘terrorists’ had gone on a rampage. We saw the brutal murder of a police man shown on the television, to the distress and horror of his family. And we were told of the threats ‘we’ faced when it came to freedom of speech, no matter how hurtful that speech may be.

When it came to the murder of nine people in Charleston, we heard of ‘madness’, ‘gun laws’, ‘loners’ and ‘psychopaths’. Analysts have used psychological terms, rather than political ones.

Some of the more social commenters have focused on ‘white supremacy’ and the history of slavery which shaped Charleston’s past. And there are articles which show that the man who walked into a church with the intention to murder may have been a part of an extreme (and lunatic) group.

How are events re-presented, and what does that mean to the populations of people who live with the impacts?

When the #blacklivesmatter tweets were gaining momentum last year, liberal commenters took a humanist perspective and argued that all lives matter. And of course they do. But this reaction deepened my commitment to taking a critical perspective. Because the point isn’t that all lives matter. It is that all lives have not been equally recognized to matter.

My focus on social narratives (or conversations) began with the need to focus on more than just an individual person. This is because a liberal perspective, which sees each person as responsible for going out and living his/her dreams is not enough to explain the way that the social world works. Instead, it is only when we see ourselves as social, historical, embodied and interconnected beings, that we are able to see the ways that we may or may not (unwittingly) perpetuate inequalities.

The right to personhood is still not extended to all. While assumptions were made about the thoughts and beliefs of Muslim people, after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, those who benefit most from social inequalities are free to condemn the murders of nine people in Charleston without being constructed as a threat to the world at large. And yet this injustice has remained hidden as we express outrage. Racism is perpetuated.

Power imbalances remain. And this is what social justice work is about to me. It is about exposing the power imbalances which are re-created over and over again. When injustices are exposed, it is possible to work towards change and to put right the wrongs. But as long as they remain hidden, they are repeated.

What stories are told about women, Muslim men (and women) or the refugee? What images come to mind? Who is spoken at, about or for, but never with? What does this mean in a world where language is used to construct realities?

By exploring our social conversations and how words are used, we begin to see how they (perhaps unwittingly) dehumanize. And how we don’t always question what we are presented with. Which concerned citizens of a town express ‘deep concerns’ at municipal services, for example, and who is seen to ‘mob’ or ‘run rampant’? Who travels or emigrates, and who is seen to hop over borders or flood a country in the form of a natural disaster?

When we look at the way we re-present people, what we take to be normal, and the conversations we take part in, it helps us to see how the specters of an unjust past haunt the present. Talk of ‘development’ or ‘aid’ may show the lingering superiority of a brutal colonialism.

Cruelty and intimacy have long been intertwined in our social histories. By exposing injustices and the way they are shared everyday, we are perhaps more able to work more consciously towards equal rights.

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What can we say?

A couple of years ago, when I found some old ‘Cracker’ box sets at our local DVD shop, I watched Fitz, Cracker’s criminal psychologist, speak about racism.

“Are you racist?”


And then his explanation of a racist system, structured in social hierarchies which had been seeped in generations of belief systems and historical injustices.

How are we a part of self perpetuating system, no matter our best intentions?

On the very first disc of Cracker, perhaps even the first episode, the drunk, broke and very faulted Fitz makes a similar point about a professional woman who enjoys her career even as a different woman cleans her toilet.

And her discipline? Gender studies.

We live in a hypocritical society, where people who fight ideologies very often earn well as lecturers or NGO researchers, while the people most in need of change earn little. People on the streets risk arrest or brutality for protests which may bring sanitation, healthcare or a living wage.

One of my fears, as a student, was my own (continual) lack of insight, and the blind spots I carry. I can’t speak for any other person, and there are times when I really don’t think I should speak at all! Constantly repeated statements get boring, nobody wants to hear them, and anyway, the people who most need to be heard are those who should really be speaking. And so I thought it was time for me to listen.

Hearing conversations in context has helped me to see how ‘other’ * people see and feel. It’s also helped me to see how little I know. And so I wonder, as a person interested in social justice, and committed to understanding agency, how I can go out and point fingers at other people?

Scapegoating horrifies me. In a world where reflexivity and dialogue are perhaps the only ways we believe we can speak to each other, casting others out of the ‘knowledgeable fold’ seems to me the easiest way to close down conversations.

My knowledge (or my taught knowledge anyway) was related to the privilege of being able to attend a university funded by other South Africans, including tax payers who earn little. Not everybody followed my academic path, because not everybody got the chance. Some people didn’t want to. And even within my coursework, we explored different interests.

And so it would be pointless and stupid to go out and declare that people who don’t see the world as I do should be fired, socially condemned or seen as backwards. How fascist would that be? And anyway, there may only be one or two people left, we’d bore each other, and there would be nothing to spark new insights.

The way I see it, true social justice can only happen if we develop empathy enough to understand how the world, as it currently exists, can create pain or harm. And for me, this has been a struggle, because the very unjust world I criticize is the same world which had shaped my own beliefs.

Seeing opportunity for change or transformation isn’t easy. Bringing it to life is both wonderful and difficult. But it’s a process, above all else, and mindless authority which governs what people can or can’t say isn’t helpful.

Perhaps Martha and Clive from BBC’s SILK express this most clearly when presenting a police commissioner in a ‘racist’ hearing with a tape of his own (seemingly) private racist dialogue, while he sits in judgement of a fellow officer who used an ‘incorrect’ word as a jest in the context of a friendship. Which is more harmful, a conversation between marginalized peers, who joke about racism by ‘sending it up’ or a non-reflexive authority who polices the boundaries of what can be said?

I think working towards transformation needs subtle reflexivity. Condemnation, and the belief that if we just follow the rules, we’ll all be okay…well that leads to fascism, and it leads to scapegoating of individual people who didn’t create an unjust system, simply so that there needs to be no more work in trying to resolve it.


* the term ‘other’ as in ‘other people’ is a technical term which means people who are seen to be lesser according to social norms.

Extra edited note:  this post didn’t quite explain the process of reflexivity and cultural programming.  Carol Hand’s post adds depth and context to my goal with this post.  I’m hoping it will add clarity.


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History, memory and ecopsychology

abandoned zoo1 (The old Rhodes Zoo, on the slopes of Table Mountain). Last week, some students at UCT decided to throw poo on ‘that statue on the Jammie Stairs’.  People started to write about it in the newspapers and lots of people had different opinions.  I think it’s probably time to listen to what felt wrong, rather than decide what people should or shouldn’t be doing.  But that might just be because I’m not the person who has to clean up the poo.  It isn’t the first time Rhodes’ legacy has come under protest though.  A couple of years back, a man (who I later met while he was growing a food garden on the grounds of Alexander Hospital) burned down the Rhodes Memorial Chapel in a protest against social injustice.  He made a good argument about why he did it, but it probably would have been better to express it differently.

While I was at UCT, we went out to look at the Rhodes Zoo, which is on the slopes of Table Mountain.  The Zoo is empty now, and has been for years.  The Lion Cage is still there, but the Lions are gone.  A population of thars, part of the Rhodes legacy, were culled off a couple of years ago.  While we looked at the ruins of the old zoo, we spoke about the importance of memory and what it means to forget, or dis-remember history.  We also spoke a little bit about the taming of the wild, and what that means.

James Hillman wrote that the exhausted and disillusioned colonialists had such desire for such a ‘new’ world that they went to battle with geography, or all that was wild.  People have been so afraid of ‘Pan’ he explained, that we have tried for years to convince ourselves of his death.  No co-incidence then that ‘Pan’ sounds like panic.  But in the urge to build, create and rupture the bonds between nature and people, there has been a loss of animal life, culture and dehumanization.  Hillman asked us to return to the animal part of ourselves, and that part of us which makes us unique compared to other animals:  language.

This was where my interest in a radical ecopsychology started to emerge.  I was interested in language and story telling.  I was also interested in climate change, and the ways of being which had contributed to climate change.  But the irony of the ecopsychology movement didn’t escape me.  Whose ‘psychology’ excluded the cosmos, after all?  Western psychology largely does, but western knowledge doesn’t present the only way of knowing or being within the world.

There are so many cultures of people around the world who are fighting for the rights of an earth they value so deeply.  In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein explains that indigenous populations of people explain that ‘only love will save this place’.  In South Africa, a Venda community are fighting for the protection of sacred spaces which link to heritage  http://mupofoundation.org/  and David Abram tells the story of the Songlines of the Aboriginal people, which map the terrain and connect a person to his/her ancestors, who once traveled to new landscapes guided by the words of songs.  These songs are a birthright, and they depend on the land remaining as it is.  By changing the terrain, Abram explains that we render the speech of aboriginal people meaningless.  Self is so deeply connected to land that to remove a person from this land is to quite literally drive them out of their minds.

Forced removals of people from the land are not only part of a colonial history, but are still happening.  Abram explains of the forced removals of tribes of people in Indonesia or Malaysia in the name of commercial foresting.  And then there are the tribes of indigenous people in Brazil who are fighting off a series of dams.  These dams will result in forced removal of people and a great loss of animal life.  Without understanding the deep connectedness to earth that many indigenous people have, there is a risk of creating what Abram calls ‘cultural genocide’. And this is why all voices of people have to be given the opportunity to speak and share what it means to be human in the world.  This is why we need a new psychology, with a deeper and wider contribution from all members of the human family.  The world, as it currently exists, is in the throes of environmental disaster.  And the biggest grief that people share is not that the world will come to an end, but that we, as people, may loose the earth.  An earth which, as children share, is “Just as special as I am.” DSCN1176 When the Brazilian president was reelected last year, and spoke of inclusion without mentioning the Indigenous Population of people, it was an important omission, considering the vital need for recognition and representation in a time of threatened land loss.  And this is why there is a need for a radical and inclusive ecopsychology, as Andy Fisher explains.  This is why the social arm is so important, and why we need to look at the connections between people, society and earth in the form of an interconnected triangle, bringing in critical psychology so that we can understand how human rights and environmental rights intertwine.  Without this, perhaps we unwittingly perpetuate injustices.


James Hillman (1997) City and Soul Andy Fisher (2013) Radical Ecopsycholgy:  psychology in the service of life.  Albany:  Sunny. Abram, D.  (1996).  The Spell of the Sensuous:  Perceptions and language in a more-than-human-world.  New York:  Vintage. Klein, N.   (2014).  This changes everything.  London:  Allen Lane. The Agents of Change Project:  http://www.agentsofchangeproject.blogspot.com

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Cut Off: The artist IMPREINT and perceptions of homelessness


Challenging perceptions of homelessness: IMPREINT’S art project CUT OFF

The cardboard sign sitting outside of a red telephone box looked curiously lonely.  Where was it’s owner?  I searched for him for a few moments, looking for his outline inside the box.  Was he making a call?  Did he choose to go to sleep?  Where was the man who had prepared himself to go out for dinner at an expensive restaurant?  Why did I assume he was a man?

IMPREINT, the artist behind the signs, in a project called Cut Off, succeeds in making normality strange when he presents us with the image of a homeless person’s sign.  This sign refuses us the right to the gaze.  Sometimes we gawp at homeless people, wondering what has happened.  Sometimes we choose to look away.  But the choice is always ours.  I thought about how often I have looked at homeless people, questions in my eyes, but no real words of acknowledgement.  And I thought about how furious or enraged I would be, if the situation was reversed.

The homeless live amongst us, often cast into shame filled spaces where begging for change comes with an apology.  IMPREINT draws attention to the social norms which cast homeless people into the margins, into shelters, soup kitchens or street corners, but never expensive restaurants.  In a world where we think of work as making a profit, people who are not able to generate income are very often seen as failures, drunks or addicts, deserving only the very least.  We draw on the myth that the poor are lazy in order to lessen our own guilt.

Are poor people lazy?  Men who work in the hot sun for very little money work hard.  Sometimes, they are unable to make ends meet.  Sometimes work is irregular.  What do we call work anyway?  What do we call failure?  Why should people who have very little be cast into marginalized spaces?  Why should we be able to gawp rudely, prejudices written onto our expressions?

IMPREINT asks us to see the homeless as fully human, capable of washing, cleaning and preparing to go out to an expensive restaurant, capable of enjoying food, and as deserving as any other person to do this.  The barriers we construct, as a society, which tell us who should ‘stay out’ are overlooked in this work.  The owner of the sign does not accept his rightful place at the soup kitchen.  He does not declare himself unworthy.  And he doesn’t declare himself incapable of making a discerning choice.

Who is this homeless man?  He is unseen.  Any impression I had of him was created by my own stereotypes and pre – judgements.  IMPREINT brought up the face or the image I gave to ‘the homeless’ and forced me to confront my own preconceptions.  I questioned what I believed, and why I thought this.  I questioned my right to stare.  All that seemed normal to me, or common sense, came into question.  I questioned my own hypocrisy in deciding what poor people need.

Finally, I thought about the request for food, and not money.  IMPREINT shakes up our perspective on what a homeless person deserves, but the sign still asks for food.  My community often asks that the poor or homeless be given food, and particularly in the form of meal vouchers.  Homeless people have been known to have a drink every now and then, but the middle class do so too.  I’m of the (contested) opinion that sometimes homeless people really do need money.  Money helps when it comes to transport, shelter, health, and the opportunity to wash or shave in order to be treated as fully human.  IMPREINT’S beggar would be far less likely to acquire a good meal if he was unable to wash, after all.  It would be harder still for him to find work.

Sometimes, the homeless don’t want to go into a system which would dictate who they should be and how they should go about it.  How do we deny them their humanity while they make this choice?  How do we maintain our social barriers?  Who would we deny a meal we would feel we had every right to partake in?  How do we keep others out?

By throwing all of our assumptions up in the air, and asking us to reflect on our own reactions, IMPREINT brings homelessness into conversation.  He asks us to reflect on our prejudices, and to question whether they are really harmless?  Is it okay for me to define my humanity as so different to that of another person’s?  Is it okay to look at a set of circumstances (which may happen to anybody, but are more likely to happen to people without social support) and declare somebody else as  ‘other’ or less worthy of a meal?  Is our everyday way of seeing the homeless the only way of seeing?

IMPREINT showed me that my narrow definitions or ways of seeing were not the only ways.  Perhaps next time I gaze at a homeless person, I will do so differently.  Perhaps, if we learn to see ourselves as interconnected, capable of seeing the world as we wish it to be, and of making an effort to bring this world to life, our gaze will be less harmful.  Perhaps, as IMPREINT’S beggar shows us, the only way of creating a new reality is to imagine a less discriminatory world, and work hard to bring that world into reality.

Thank you to Napsugar Budai for the photographs.
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Reflections About the View from the Margins


Carol Hand gives a lovely example of the need for multiple perspectives and reflexivity when approaching social justice.

Originally posted on Voices from the Margins:

Carol A. Hand

Walking in two worlds may mean feeling one really doesn’t belong anywhere. Yet, it’s liberating in another sense. It provides an opportunity to experience other cultures and settings from the margins. After sharing memories with a colleague about our past adventures working with elders, I suddenly understood the value of living on the margins. During my lifetime, I have lived in many places and worked in many fields and settings. I entered each setting as an outsider, a space that gave me a unique vantage point to see things differently than those who “belonged.” I could think critically about what I saw and envision not only “what was” but also “what could be” based on the expressed purpose that each group or organization publicly espoused. I could also assess my “fit” with group or organizational cultures.

maui 1998 horseback

Photo Credit: Another Pacific View –…

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Silent spaces


I read No Logo by Naomi Klein only recently, even though it’s really old, and most people read it years ago.  The book mainly focuses on branding and the identity or transcendent image which sometimes goes along with that (along with the costs).  While I read it, I thought of Nadine Dolby’s book, Social Construction of Race:  Youth, identity and popular culture in South Africa.  Nadine Dolby’s book looks at how clothing and branding assists in creating identity and sometimes ‘racial’ barriers in a high school in Durban, South Africa.

Exploring how corporate branding and culture intertwine, sometimes for profit, sometimes for exploitation, but also as a means of social positioning  came with a question:  how to pick up the opportunities for transformation and work towards change?

It’s easy to fight against power when you know where it is.  It is when power shifts and hides, maintaining the old barriers and boundaries, that the work begins.  When culture has been internalized, and we believe that if we don’t fit in, if we don’t adjust, adapt or conform, then we are inadequate, this is where power truly lies.  It lies in our sedimented realities, in all that we take to be normal.  When this goes unquestioned, we comply.

Andy Fisher along with others such as Naomi Wolf and Naomi Klein have explained that a capitalist culture often imposes through shame or self doubt.  There is a need to keep people hungry for what is new in order to keep consumer activity at a peak.  Klein speaks of the need to be hip or cool.  Naomi Wolf focuses on beauty and the iron maiden, or a woman’s need to imprison herself into images of beauty to the extent that she is willing to pluck, starve or slice at herself in order to fit a sometimes unobtainable norm.  This is a different version of embodiment to one that focuses on health and wellness as a means of reducing the risk of life style disease.  Both have been used to impose images (and products) of who we should want to become.  These images sometimes interrupt a deeper call for human and environmental rights.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the opportunities for transformation, and what that actually means.  In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein speaks about the loss of what is not yet born, the infertility as much as the extinction, or, from a social justice perspective, the knowledge that didn’t get included into the whole, the perspectives which were not included, the minor deletions which went unnoticed, but which changed everything.  When what is lost gets noticed for missing meanings, or missing opportunities, rather than overlooked, perhaps this leads to deeper transformation?

How is it possible to create less constrained versions of what it means to be embodied people living in a natural world?  Only by a wider degree of inclusion.  It isn’t just the missing stories or narratives, but what they represent.  How about gay families, for example, in the mainstream media?  How about women as socially aware, rather than aware of the latest perfume?  There is also the value of life, animals and insects which are rapidly becoming extinct, but which go unnoticed when life is lived around screens and branded identities.

Indigenous knowledge and deep connection to place as a means of story telling, shared knowledge and communication gets lost when rampant development removes people from homes or travel routes.  When colonialism brought development and emphasized the importance of imperialism, (mis)educating all those people who were forced into an alternate way of being, there was a question which went unasked:  who benefits?

Transformation is about asking those questions.  What is missing?  Who looses out when stories are presented (or re-presented) as they are?  How do we see what lies beneath the surface, the obvious, the unexplored aspects of all that seems to be normal?  How do we hold the paradox of acknowledging the impacts of social categories without recreating divides?

How do we make what has been seen to be ‘strange’ seem normal?  There are many opportunities for transformation, and particularly when questioning helps to make normality strange.  As the world changes, climate changes and the missing parts of the puzzle become increasingly important, it becomes crucial to recognize that maybe there has been too much development, too many divides and too many constraints.  These block alternative ways of looking at a situation.

Instead of fighting about who is right or wrong, it is perhaps time for the face of humanity to prevail.  How are we interrelated?  How can constructed differences become blurred as we work towards solutions for past difficulties?  How can we move towards a citizenship which looks at rights and responsibilities?  Searching for solutions (rather than turning a blind eye towards inequalities) may alter the relationships which exist between us.


This changes everything.  Naomi Klein.

No Logo.  Naomi Klein.

Radical Ecopsychology.  Andy Fisher

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