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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Mindfully reflexive


Last week, one of my favourite writers decided that mindfulness was nothing more than “capitalist techno smegma”.  This perspective had more to do with the use of apps as stopwatches and  corporate mindfulness than it had to do with any real urge to go out and disprove scientific facts or careful practice. But whatever. I was intrigued.

What was interesting for me had nothing to do with whether mindfulness was scientifically helpful or not.  It probably is.  But it was the reflexive and more social approach which interested me the most.  There were some very insightful questions.  If we use mindfulness to feel better in a world where polar bears are dying, is that okay?  Do corporations use mindfulness as a way of reducing anxiety because they cannot drug their workers?  Is mindfulness a way of reducing dis-ease at our unhappiness with the world?  In other words, is mindfulness a form of anesthetic which stops us from using our own power of agency?

I haven’t looked at mindfulness from this (or any) angle, but I have explored what it means to detract from social problems or unbearable situations by focusing on the need to be more ‘contained’ (or to keep quiet).  And I’ve explored how psychology and its focus on the ‘individual’ can sometimes be used to deny what it means to be a contextual, social, cultural and historical person who lives in a world which is unjust.  The minute we deny what it means to be a feeling person in a complex and interactive world, we can sometimes prevent helpful transformation.

Although mindfulness is perhaps a different concept (I don’t know), any form of practice which focuses on how we live in or with our world should be open to reflexivity or difficult questioning.  The psy disciplines have therefore been interrogated and questioned.  Nikolas Rose, in Governing the Soul has shared how all that is ‘normal’ has sometimes been defined by what isn’t.  What is seen as socially undesirable has been constructed as abnormal in the past.  Think of homosexuality.  He speaks of the powerful gaze of the psychologist, and the way that authority can intervene (and sometimes interfere) with family life.

Sheldon Kopp, in If you meet Buddha on the Road, Kill Him, questioned our concept of madness or dis-ease by declaring

“I prefer the madness of Don Quixote de la Mancha to the sanity of most other men,”


“…in a world in which true madness masquerades as sanity, creative struggles against the ongoing myths seem eccentric and will be labeled as ‘crazy’ by the challenged establishment in power.”  

He explains

“Attempts at social change are after all usually left to the youthful idealists, while older cynics wait for young fools to outgrow their folly….If this be the wine of madness, then I say: “Come fill my cup.”

We who are sane know that our technology will save us, that war is inevitable, that poverty and hunger of a few of the undeserving poor are necessary to the well-being of the many.” 

Those who question the system, who have ideas which make other people uncomfortable, who just won’t accept the ways that have been set out for us, are sometimes placed under the gaze of the professional.  The hope is that they will learn to  shut up.  It is important to question or take a reflexive approach on the ‘psy’ disciplines.  We have to question whether it is people or social structure which is most in need of change?

Knowing our thoughts, our views and our own minds is very helpful.  I’m a fan of psychotherapy.   I don’t see questioning as a threat, as much as a form of exploration. I explored and questioned an out of context perception of individuality while I was a psychotherapy client, and I shared my work with my therapist.  He was not threatened in the least.  The biggest problem he seemed to have was with my desire to procrastinate.

Questioning the practices which influence us and the authority they sometimes hold is important.  We should question.  Why do we want to be mindful?  Are we upset?  What does this relate to?  Should we learn to mange our emotions, or can we use them as a source of agency?  Why do we want to change?  Do we want to learn what we feel so that we can use these feelings to create change or do we want to be more peaceful and passive (and if so, why?).

There are times when we have to live with the fact that there aren’t any set answers, that life is ambiguous, and that sometimes we try and try and we still don’t get anywhere.  I had to learn to live with myself and to realize that I was never going to become a different person, no matter how hard I tried.  I still have moments of shyness where I want to go bloody nowhere if it means crowds or parties.  I can be just as awkward or uncertain as I was when I was a teenager.  I say daft things to other people if I feel pushed for immediate answers.  Nothing changes. I’ve learned to live with that.

If sitting by the water and gazing at the reeds helps me to acknowledge what I think or feel, then I’m all for it.  If it’s a means of living with my own limited power in the world while I try again anyway, well that can be helpful.  Awareness of my own emotions often brings insight into my own response-ability.  If that is true, then good.  But I have no intentions of sitting with my own insights or emotions until they subside, simply so that I can become an obedient servant of an exploitative system.  Nobody should have to do that.


If you meet Buddha on the Road, Kill him.  Sheldon Kopp.

Governing the Soul.  Nikolas Rose.

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“It’s possible to do something about it…”


I read a post recently in which the writer stated that just so many people in the world are brokenhearted.  Made sense that he would feel this way.  After all, he was describing war, mindless crime and the general state of the earth.  After watching a war scene on the television where children were harmed, he describes sitting on his bed and crying “Fuck.  Fuck.  Fuck.”

I’ve read about “The Age of Grief.” (by John Zerzan) and the need for so many people to go on anti-depressants.  I don’t want to dismiss anything.  Medication may be very necessary for some people to take.  But it seems to me that we should feel brokenhearted when terrible things happen to other people, or to the more-than-human-world.  Care or compassion, pain or distress gives a reason to go out and do something about it.  I would find it far more frightening to live in a world where we shrugged our shoulders and said “Oh well, whatever, nevermind.”

Last year, a year ago actually, I too sat on the bed and felt my own utter horror at the brutality of the world.  27th January is the day that Auschwitz-Birkenau was freed from German rule.  2014 was the 69th anniversary.  I went to sit by the water, which, where I live, means there is an awful lot of choice, and I thought about situations in life which had caused me pain.  It was a question which I was exploring as part of the Agents of Change Project.  And the answer, that stories of the holocaust had brought pain, helped me to understand how our actions in the present can impact on future generations of people we don’t even know yet.

I’ve heard people explain that the holocaust happened a very long time ago, and so there’s no real point speaking about it.  It is painful to think about.  And it is over.  In 2008 though, I saw how holding the painful memory of the past was used by Rabbi Aharon Hayon to bring about a powerful act of compassion.

In 2008, xenophobic attacks threatened the lives of immigrants from Africa.  Many people ran away from their homes, and one group of people, the Caledon Group, didn’t want to go to a refugee camp.  This was because many had been to camps before, and didn’t feel safe.  Some had work close to town, and didn’t want to be deported to a space which would be far away.  It was a Friday afternoon, it was raining, and Rabbi Hayon had a call asking him if he could find shelter for this group of people.  “I thought and I thought…” he would explain, “And then I thought of the (school) hall, and the hall is a part of our shul, so I phoned and I asked the relevant people if we could use the hall.  Then I quickly put the phone down so that there couldn’t be a change of mind.”

When the children learned that the Caledon Group of refugees would be staying in the school hall, they learned of the shelter that some Jewish people had been offered in Europe during the time of Nazi occupation.  “It is because of people like this that some people were saved.  What would have happened if people had closed their doors?” Later, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and the Caledon Group marched together to request government to open up halls around Cape Town for refugees.  Some people went home to different countries in Africa, and some people stayed in South Africa, with no real homes left.  Rabbi Hayon would share that he believed he hadn’t done enough.  However, one of the men in the group was a writer, and he shared that seeing the humanity within people during difficult or painful times means restoring a sense of dignity.

For my daughter, this story brought an incredible insight.  She learned that when people are treated badly, it is possible to try to do something about it.  And she learned that by understanding the horrors of the past, it is possible to work towards a different future for all people.

There have been a great many genocides throughout history.  All are important to re-member, placing them within a historical context and understanding the impacts on the present.  The danger isn’t that we forget, but that the conversations are so uncomfortable that we dis-remember, or choose to declare that history is over, and so the stories of the past no longer matter.  The “Never Again.” narrative reminds us of the importance of humanity over the economy, social categories or any ideologies we may believe in.  And in a time when we debate free speech, it teaches us the importance of ensuring that everybody gets to have a voice or make a contribution, in order to ensure a just and inclusive world.

Pain or sadness at what happens around us is the root of agency.  If we don’t feel anything, then there is no motivation to do anything about any situation.  If we numb out everything that makes us anxious, uncomfortable or sad, then how do we use our emotions to respond?  It isn’t a heartbroken world which is unsettling, as much as a numbed out world.  What would we do then?

(My understanding of agency was guided and inspired by the Agents of Change Project)

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I wonder, if we saw the reverence, the beauty and the wonder of life, whether we would see the world and other people differently?


Last week, I spent time with children fascinated by insects and flowers.


This is work that I love, because I become aware of the beauty and wonder which is around me all of the time.


And I get to see life through the eyes of other people.


Opening up to the many different lives which are constantly taking place around us brings joy.


I think if we see the wonder all around us, and the right that every life has, there wouldn’t be such a need to hurt, destroy and kill.

riverstream waterfall_1409168147599_o

“The sensation of connectedness is overwhelming.  It is like floating in a buoyant ocean of feeling that I can’t really begin to describe unless I evoke the word love.  Before this experience I would have used the word to separate what I love from everything I don’t love…us not them, heroes from villains, friend from foe…everything distinct and separated…” (Sting, Broken Music, p 46).

Working within a process which shows us the interconnectedness and beauty of life is a privilege.  It helps to take away the dark and sad spaces, and brings forward the miracle of the world we live in.

Thanks to the Agents of Change photographers for the beautiful photos.

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Charlie Hebdo shooting|Points to Ponder Muslim or Not Muslim

Originally posted on The Human Lens:

A shocked France and equally shocked global community are trying to come with terms with the atrocious attack of January 7, Charlie Hedbo magazine, let’s look deeper into some crucial issues at stake.

  1. Muhammad Cartoons Controversy

The overall fascination in European Union focusing on making cartoons, caricatures of Islam’s Prophet is not new and wont end anytime soon.The larger issue at stake is that Charlie Hebdo cartoons were offensively humiliating to Muslim migrants, one cartoon showed a barrage of bullets striking Muhammad PBUH, who is holding a copy of the Quran. This cartoon was titled “Quran is crap, it doesn’t stop bullets.” Clearly Muslim migrants are struggling with a fast rising Islamophobia within the continent and most don’t really grasp “satire for satire” because to them it feels another tactic of expressing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim migration sentiments.

  1. Freedom of Expression Versus Freedom of Respecting Religions

This is certainly not the…

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Multiple perspectives…becoming Charlie wouldn’t be helpful

“All beginnings are hard, especially a beginning that you make by yourself. That’s the hardest beginning of all.”

(Chaim Potok, In the Beginning)

The world is in shock at the murder of journalists in France.  And we should be.  The tyranny of violence, even if this violence is a form of an emotional or mental backlash, should always be challenged.  And in this case, where people were killed, it should be utterly condemned.  Writing may offend, shock or mock, but it doesn’t threaten anybody’s life.  Killing off writers is a violent act carried out by lunatics.  When a person can tolerate no perspective apart from his/her own, then I think we always run into dangerous territory.

And this is why we can never see the world from a single perspective alone.  That would give us only one layer of insight, and we need many.  We need to challenge the anti-Islamist perspectives which rise to the fore when horrible acts of the depraved few become seen as the beliefs of all Muslim people.  We need to challenge people who say the journalists died only because they had written offensive articles, and sometimes, we need to explore the content without insulting or harming the people behind this content.

When I write, I need to know I can do this without it meaning that somebody else will hit, hurt or kill me.  But I need to write as myself, from my own voice, and with my own perspective.  I cannot declare that ‘I am Charlie’ because need to say what I want to say. By being any different, I abdicate my own response-ability.

I don’t want to do this, because by giving up my own views, I risk contributing to a  polarized argument.  Today, in my inbox, for example, were opinions which shared the importance of free speech, questioned why the journalists had to write what they did, and shared both fears and concerns about ‘muslim’ people.

Free speech

I see free speech as very important, and a voice for every person is the root of democracy, in my opinion.  At the same time, we sometimes have to look at who gets to speak, and who doesn’t.  That doesn’t mean speaking for another person, it means taking time to acknowledge missing voices, or the missing parts in a debate.  And when I use free speech, I don’t expect that another person can’t speak back in return.

I find conversation is most helpful when I learn to see the world in different ways, and from different angles.  Some conversations produce turmoil or upset.  I think it demands personal transformation a lot of the time, and if not that, then at the very least, a willingness to acknowledge or tolerate what another person is actually saying. Dialogue can help us to build bridges and to straddle boundaries, but only if we respect another person’s voice.

The journalists

Certain work is meant to be offensive.  Satire mocks, and it ties into the concept of free speech.  Who gets mocked, and how easily can that person speak back?  What can we learn about society because of this?  I think the very best satirists present society with a mirror with which to look at itself and they speak back to power.    If the cartoons were anti-Islamic, does society as a whole have a right to place all responsibility for this onto the journalists? Who were the cartoons aimed at?  Who were they really representing?  Were they aimed at the people depicted, or at the right wing beliefs who portray people in this way?  Could they bring the elephant of marginalization into the room for helpful discussion?

Some work is offensive for the sake of being offensive.  But how do we fit that into a greater context and bring about a deeper understanding of how we see the world?  Who else holds such beliefs?  How does this impact on society as a whole?  If people feel marginalized or discriminated against within a society, we have the responsibility of trying to address these concerns.

By creating stories to share about how the journalists ‘should never have done what they did’ we absolve the rest of the world of any responsibility.  If, at the same time, we  declare that the people who got hurt (as readers) were somehow wrong or had misjudged a situation, and so we ourselves remain safe.  All work is contextual.  We don’t have to agree with it, but how does it form a part of the social world we live in, and what does that mean?  While I prefer work that questions or exposes the missing pieces of any puzzle, rather than work which seeks to offend, I cannot claim not to be part of a system that perpetuates injustice.

If we abdicate responsibility for our own views (and the ability to present different perspectives) and our own place in the world while we condemn other people for speaking out offensive beliefs that shape the world, then we create scapegoats.  If one person gets killed or is seen to be a threat, then all of us can be seen as a threat in different ways, within different contexts.  Belonging/inclusion into set or ‘safe’ beliefs can change at any time.  This is why people need to be able to speak or share without coming to harm, and we all need to protect that right.  But we also need to respond, and create or make space for alternate perspectives.

Terror and the role of Muslim people

Although we see our identities as solid and very individual, the way that people are seen by society can shift and change depending on the social beliefs which dominate.  This can limit a person’s social freedom.  Naber explains that after the Twin Towers bombing in America, Arabic or Muslim people were suddenly seen with very different eyes.  From being rather anonymous, men were suddenly seen as fundamentalist beings, and women were seen to be passive victims.

Whenever we construct social categories and determine who people are, rather than question the dangerous stories or conversations which produce violence, we risk threatening people’s freedom.  Categories are deadly.  When we decide, based on physical appearance, that ‘other’ people are a threat, we risk creating human rights violations and identity threat.

This was why the #I’ll ride with you tweets were so positive in Sydney, after a gunman held people hostage in a coffee shop.  It meant that people recognized the threat which could impact on Muslim people, and they were willing and able to do something to try to reduce it.


Protest should occur, whenever people are killed for having an opinion or fulfilling a certain identity.  We should speak out.  But speaking out as ourselves, with our own concerns, our own voices and our own stamina helps more than becoming somebody else for a day and then forgetting all about it.  There are still journalists who need to have a voice.  There are women, men and children who have lost lives to fundamentalist or oppressive beliefs.  And there are people in our current world who are being marginalized and threatened because of this situation.

Let’s remember the children who died in Pakistan just before Christmas time, and the teachers who died along with them, and recognize that all human rights violations are horrific.  All of us, not some of us, need to live in a way which values dignity and respect.  A sustained effort to increase the value of life is what is truly needed.

Some alternate perspectives:




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Being who we are…in psychotherapy

Yesterday, I got to see a TED Talk by Andrew Solomon, called “How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are.” He focused on identity and the struggles he has been through as a gay man, and  explained that:

Identity politics always works on two fronts: to give pride to people who have a given condition or characteristic, and to cause the outside world to treat such people more gently and more kindly. Those are two totally separate enterprises, but progress in each sphere reverberates in the other.

And followed up by saying:

But properly understood and wisely practiced, identity politics should expand our idea of what it is to be human. Identity itself should be not a smug label or a gold medal but a revolution.

If you haven’t read or seen “Love no matter what” by Andrew Solomon, it’s really worth taking time to explore.  That particular work was about parents’ acceptance and love for their children.  But this new talk is about self acceptance, while still working to change the system.

I found the talk while I was exploring social media sites.  I wasn’t doing anything yesterday, because it was the end of the holidays.  I took time out to read and look around the internet, and I found a couple of very interesting articles along with the TED Talk.  One of those articles focused on stigma and psychotherapy, and linked into Andrew Solomon’s perspective that we learn who we are from our worst moments, but only if we don’t try to hide them away from ourselves.

While I was reading, I realized how true that had been in my life.  I’m a big fan of pyschotherapy, even though my work (as work I consciously chose to do) focuses on systemic change.  I’d initially wanted to become a clinical psychologist until I started counseling.  At that point I began to see very clearly the impacts of systemic injustice, and the idea of how we shape identity was what I wanted to explore most.  But for me, therapy wasn’t something for ‘other’ people, and the motivation for wanting to become a psychologist connected to my own first hand experience of how beneficial therapy can be.

I didn’t feel stigmatized, as a client.  I felt relieved.  And this was because I was anxious.  About everything.  All of the time.  And my anxiety would attach itself to absolutely anything at all.  If the wind blew at nighttime, I would worry that the tiles would fall off the roof and fall on the baby.  If I wrote an exam, I thought I had failed it.  Everything was overwhelmingly worrisome, and if anybody said it wasn’t, I became irritated that they JUST COULDN’T SEE what was wrong.

University became a series of imagined failures:

“I failed this paper.”

“You said that last time.”

“Yes, but this time, I really, really did…”

People can tell you to contain your anxiety, or to stop worrying (and lots of people did), but it doesn’t help if imagination gone haywire is either completely sure that failure is around the corner, or, if it proves itself not to be, can dream up another horrible situation which is bound to happen.

It was annoying.  My husband, Scott, felt as though he couldn’t celebrate anything I’d managed to do, because he was too busy saying “I TOLD you it would be okay…” None of the cognitive books or self help tricks helped at all.  How could they?  Self talk which aims to be calming doesn’t help when you grow anxious about being anxious.

“You’re making a catastrophe out of nothing.  Stop worrying!”

“Am I?  I am!  Oh, my G_d, I must be delusional!”

Psychotherapy helped, and it helped big time, because all of those anxieties covered old and buried feelings which, when they finally came out, both startled me because I’d had no idea they were there, and made perfect sense at the same time.  How else could it possibly have been?  Very sudden loss of a family member never quite dealt with comes out as “something terrible could happen at any minute!”

As Andrew Solomon explains:

Some of our struggles are things we’re born to: our gender, our sexuality, our race, our disability. And some are things that happen to us: being a political prisoner, being a rape victim, being a Katrina survivor. Identity involves entering a community to draw strength from that community, and to give strength there too. It involves substituting “and” for “but” — not “I am here but I have cancer,” but rather, “I have cancer and I am here.”

My brother died and I am here.  Therapy gives you the ‘and’ part.  It also taught me that the ‘and’ part was okay.  A trusting relationship where you can talk and share without worrying that you’re going to upset somebody else terribly, and where you know the other person can handle however you feel without spiraling into pain means a lot.  There shouldn’t be stigma with psychotherapy, because it makes a lot of difference to people who struggle.  It helps you to see into those dark spaces where you’d rather not look.  And then it stops those spaces from controlling your life, or dominating your relationships.

Those worst times did make me who I am.  I became aware that life is to be treasured, and I think this has given me a deeper relationship with my husband and child.  In the end, it also meant that I would see the value of life all around me.  And I would make the choice to do work which uses agency, because there’s always a way of using imagination in a helpful way to bring about change.  I don’t feel comfortable with the ‘destiny’ theorists, because learned helplessness is not something I feel comfortable with. But I understand how destiny can impact.

A couple of weeks ago, I read a post which declared that it isn’t the struggles we face which kill us, it is the stigma which comes with them.  And one of the ways of working against stigma is to share.  The bigger and more open the group of people who refuse to hide away, the more likely that stigma will reduce.

The gay activist Harvey Milk was once asked by a younger gay man what he could do to help the movement, and Harvey Milk said, “Go out and tell someone.” There’s always somebody who wants to confiscate our humanity, and there are always stories that restore it. If we live out loud, we can trounce the hatred (Andrew Solomon).

I learned that questions and fears are okay.  When we doubt the paths or insights we have, we learn to explore new answers.  I learned that I have choices, and I have a past.  It’s a part of who I am, and it shaped my life today.

Forge meaning. Build identity. Forge meaning. Build identity. And then invite the world to share your joy.

My journey into psychotherapy began with relief, but it brought joy.  No matter how insightful critical theory is, and no matter how important it is to realize that people should never adapt to oppressive circumstances, I would never speak out against my own experience of psychotherapy.  It shouldn’t be stigmatized.  Actually, health care should award points for people who go to therapy in the same way they award points for people going to gym.

People told me that therapy could make me selfish.  They said it was about navel gazing.  But I found the opposite to be true. I’m still anxious at times, but I know what to do with it and how to ride the waves.  I haven’t lost my sensitivity.  By focusing less on what could go wrong (with my life) I’ve been able to take far more interest in the world around me.  And so I share my joy.

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