Reconciling Access and Welfare.

Reconciling Access and Welfare.

TW: self harm, mental health discrimination, mention of suicide, disordered eating

One of the contradictions that I have been trying to resolve in my life is as follows: how is it that I reconcile the work I do encouraging students to apply to the University of Cambridge when I know, from my experience and from the overwhelming amount of evidence, that Cambridge University has serious problems with student welfare?

Having worked in student welfare, and now working in student access, I’m in a position where I can see the two agendas do come into conflict. Frankly, in an ideal world, they shouldn’t – welfare support at University is an access issue, in my opinion. There’s no use working hard to get school students from difficult home or school circumstances (many of whom have or develop mental health conditions or disabilities before or during University) if the University is so fundamentally bad at keeping them there – or, keeping them there sane, I should say. I doubt the University has ever conducted a study examining how many students underwent mental distress as a result of its haphazard approach to welfare support. Indeed, some recent research from The Cambridge Student has suggested that the University might not have been upfront with its figures around intermission.

The problem with welfare at Cambridge is that it is such a vast and disparate University. Each college is a law unto itself, acts like a little feudal island in a very large umbrella institutions, which has the odd contradiction of being on the cutting edge of research, but also deeply, and I would argue, harmfully, traditional. I’m working on a series of blog posts about the specific problems as I see them, but if you want to read some of my earlier thoughts for context, you can find things here, and here.

An issue of which I have had personal experience, and which I’m sure many other students have had, is one of being expected to reach a certain, arbitrary standard. My own time at Cambridge, especially as an undergraduate, was of being told I was very good at what I did, but also being given the very distinct impression (and often being explicitly told) that my mental health problems were letting me down. Not just me, I should hasten to add, but my college. My college had an investment in my doing well. No problem with this on this on the surface, I suppose – all Universities want the best from and for their students. But my prevailing impression of my own college, Sidney Sussex, was that it wanted the from but not the for. I was identified from my first year as having the capacity to get a first. I was also identified as a problematic student. I had severe depression in my first year, developed an eating disorder, often was so divorced from reality due to my mental health problems that I behaved erratically, and to compound all of that, I was political. I took issue with college policies, I went out on demos, I took part in occupations. Even after the end of my first year, one of the hardest years of my life, when the intense, crippling depression lifted at least a little, to the extent that I was capable of social contact, I still was a problem for the college. An example that sits in my mind was this – during my second year, when I was feeling, for want of a better phrase, a bit better, I confided in a member of the college fellowship tasked with my welfare that I was self-harming as a method of coping, and I needed support. After a long conversation, and a thoroughly macabre tour of my various self-inflicted scars, he informed me that my self-harming wasn’t really the colleges’ concern. The college would only help me if I tried to kill myself (in which case I would be sectioned under the mental health act, I was told in no uncertain terms) or if the college thought I wouldn’t, “get that first.” That phrase tended to haunt me – I wanted a first, but I also just wanted to get to the end of my degree, and frankly the only concerns I had about grades related to whether or not I could get funding for a graduate course. Yet, supervisors, tutors and other members of my college kept repeating it. If I was having a bad week and needed an essay extension, I would often be told that I was in danger of “missing the first” and that this was a matter of concern not just for me, but for the college. It became such a repeated mantra that I, having nothing really to value about myself beyond the fact that I was apparently good at my subject, pushed myself. I worked long hours, but stopped caring about what I did. My subject was not my passion, but my burden. Part of the reason I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome now is that I worked 90-100 hour weeks, all because I felt under immense pressure, which I internalised.

In the end I didn’t get the first. I got a 2:1. A bit disappointing, but what the hell. I tried. Except, on the day of my results, I found myself summoned to a meeting with a senior member of my college, who informed me that I was a “huge disappointment”, that “my academic career was over,” and that I should “leave Cambridge forever,” because I didn’t get a first. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that as the absurd thing it is. At the time, I ended up spiralling into a depressive phase that lasted a month, and, to this day, still tell myself on some level that I am stupid.

I think the way I was treated ties into something related to access work. Like all Universities, Cambridge’s access work has two goals – widening participation, and recruitment. The former involves working with bright kids who’ve maybe not been to the best school or had the best family circumstances to encourage and support them getting into Higher Education. The latter is about recruiting the best and brightest students to apply to Cambridge, or to a particular college. There’s nothing wrong with the latter in and of itself – every University does want the best students. But the issue again is not one of getting in, it’s one of staying in, or staying in one piece. Far too many people I know who have suffered mental health or disability related problems at Cambridge have often been belittled by their colleges on these grounds – colleges, and I know Sidney has done this to several friends, framing their depressive crisis or disability related issue as robbing the college of the “bright student” they sought out and gave a place to. The logic is hierarchical; you are at Cambridge, you should be deferential to the great benevolent college who provided you with a place, no matter how awfully they might treat you. Failure to do so is a betrayal of the college. There’s an undercurrent to this of an abusive relationship that I find deeply uncomfortable. The college will cause you difficulties, then berate you for not seeing that it’s acting in your best interest when it tries to force you to intermit, or throws you out of college accommodation, or disparages your mental health conditions, because you are, apparently, just lazy. Of course, this doesn’t seem to accept the state of play with Cambridge students. Everyone at Cambridge is smart. Many of them will have been the top in their year, if not their whole school. Once you get all of them into one space, however, they stop being “the smart one” – they are just another clever person in a city of clever people. Many students find this disorientating as an experience – but the way to resolve it sensibly is to accept that you’re doing your degree for your own sake, and that grades and all of this nonsense matters to you only as much as you let it. Throw into this mix, however, colleges which expect their students to achieve the best (not a bad thing in itself) but have no concept of how to support them in getting their if they have even the slightest problem, and you have a recipe for disaster.

The evidence that Cambridge’s welfare provisions are severely lacking is pretty solid, and seems to varied that its hard to know where to begin in tackling the issue. One thing I might suggest is getting rid of the Tompkins Table. Never heard of it? It’s a ranking of Cambridge colleges, based on the undergraduate student exam performance. A first class degree wins a college 5 points, a 2:1 gets you 3 points, a 2:2 gets 2 points, a third class degree gets you 1 point, and then no points for getting an Ordinary (non-honours) degree. A couple of things to make clear about the Tompkins Table – it is not, in anyway an official University of Cambridge table, nor are the rankings endorsed by the colleges. It is in fact, rather bizarrely, put together by an ex Trinity mathematician (Peter Tompkins) and published in the Independent. The Wikipedia page on the Tompkin’s table makes the rather sound point that

“Most of the colleges fall within a 10% range of one another therefore the table should be taken lightly with regards to determining the academic standing of the colleges.”

Yet, the colleges do take the Tompkins Table very seriously. I recall that, when a member of Sidney Sussex, the college’s ranking in the Tompkins was a matter of grave concern among the academics. Similarly, in St Catharine’s, the sudden drop of 12 places (from 9th to 21st) was felt as some sort of world shattering event in some quarters. It doesn’t take a genius to see, however, that the Tompkins Table is not exactly the best way of ranking the colleges – for one thing, it’s based on undergraduate performance, and so the graduate and mature student colleges (Lucy Cavendish, Wolfson, Clare Hall, Darwin etc) are always going to be somewhere near the bottom due to having a small undergraduate population. Also, one could speculate whether the table does buy into the mindset of 1st class degree above all else, given its way of ranking colleges. But what has always struck me is that the Tompkins Table does have an impact on the student body. I know of several anecdotal cases where people who were struggling academically were told to get their act together, not because of their health or own academic careers, but because the college needed to rise in the Tompkins Table. People don’t get firsts for a lot of reasons – maybe they don’t work. Or, maybe, you know, they have a disability or a mental health problem, or maybe they are burnt out because they’ve been putting themselves through too much in pursuit at a first. Maybe a particular examiner just didn’t like their work; maybe they had a bad day and that was that. Obsession with ranking in a table which I doubt anyone outside of Cambridge cares about is absurd. I’m reminded of something a senior tutor said to me when I was a sabb – “If my students are happy and healthy, they will do well. This is why I want the best support for them.” Sensible man – but I just questions how people are meant to be happy and healthy in the current results obsessed climate?

I’ve been doing a lot of interview workshops recently with year 13s applying to Cambridge this year. All of them hang on my every word as I give them general tips on how to prepare for interview. I can see that they are pinning so much on getting into Cambridge. I remember having that attitude – it’s almost as if Cambridge is a sort of final chapter, a place where a section of your life can end, where you stop being a child and you can move onto being an adult. When I was 18, finishing my A Levels, I saw Cambridge as an escape from the problems I had at home – a place, I had hoped, where I would not be shouted at for my depression, where objects would not be hurled at me because I was “too sad,” where I would be able to flourish as a person, in a vaguely imagined academic wonderland. The reality was rather different. Many good things came out of Cambridge for me – I matured, I became a comedian, I grew to accept myself as a person…but I also suffered. I’m not the only one. Looking round at the classroom of applicants gives me conflicting feelings – I want them to get into Cambridge because they are, more often than not, kids from state schools who have struggled in life, who haven’t come from stable homes, who’ve had to grow up very fast and who can go a step further to breaking down the inherent elitism of Cambridge. Yet at the same time, I want them to know that the place they dream of studying might well break them, mess them up for no good reason at all, and leaving them struggling to cope long after they’ve exited the Senate House, clutching at their degree certificates. If I weren’t employed to encourage people to apply to Cambridge, would I? I just don’t know.

Advertisements

What’s worse than President Donald Trump? President Ted Cruz, that’s what.

If we were to try and pin down Donald Trump’s greatest achievement, there are a fair few options we can choose from. Trump himself would probably claim they are his successful businesses and reasonably sized hands. Somewhat more objective voices have expressed grudging admiration for his consistently high polling among Republican voters, and also his considerable primary wins. Yet perhaps Trump’s biggest success, really, has been that next to him, Ted Cruz looks (on the surface) like a normal human being.

I am not, for a moment, going to say anything nice about Donald Trump in this piece. I hate Donald Trump. I think I hate him more than any other living thing, including fictional characters, and Sauron and Team Rocket are paragons of virtue next to Trump. Donald Trump is a nasty bigoted opportunist, the epitome of the fascistic popularist that political pundits have been waiting for since Germany voted for a single bollocked man with a silly moustache. Donald Trump is best imagined as the what would happen if you hoovered up all the hot air from the lungs of the readers of the Daily Mail, mixed it with the hot air from people who have accounts on Stormfront, added a splash of hot air from the people who are obsessed with the sex lives and drug habits of teenagers, buried it in the cavernous void where Anne Widecombe kept her heart once, then dressed the whole thing in a suit straight of out of a 1980s porno, bribed a small rodent to live on its head, spray painted it orange, and then gave it very small hands.

That said, I’m honestly more scared of a Ted Cruz presidency than I am of a Trump presidency.

In fairness, neither is appealing in its own right. Neither (in my opinion) is a Clinton presidency, as it’s worth noting that Hillary’s attempt to position herself as an LGBT advocate is deeply disingenuous (she consistently voted against LGBT rights... and polls have shown she isn’t likely to beat Trump or Cruz in November). As you can imagine, I’d love to feel the Bern, but then again I’d also like series 2 of Firefly, and we can’t have everything we want.

Trump, for all of his considerable faults, has thankfully never held office, so his ideas, horrifying as they are, are still just that: ideas. Cruz, on the other hand, has undertaken a number of political projects which should strike any sober, rational reader as utter madness. A brief review of Cruz’s political positions shows someone who sits very much on the extreme right of the political spectrum. In September 2015, the rapidly anti-abortion Cruz threatened to cause a government shutdown is his attempts to deny funding to Planned Parenthood. Cruz also played a pivotal role in the 2013 shutdown of the Federal Government over Obamacare.

Rather like his more boisterous opponent, Cruz is also in favour of walling off the border between the USA and Mexico. He also pledged his support to Kim Davis, the county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses for same sex couples. Even if you don’t find such far right views and acts disturbing, Davis broke the law: potential President Cruz backed her. Sociologist Luke March defines “extremism” as radical beliefs which seek to actively undermine democracy and the rule of law. What does that make Cruz?

Recently, distressed Southern belle Lindsey Graham was interviewed by Trevor Noah on The Daily Show. Graham had recently announced that he was backing Cruz, despite having previously, and emphatically, denounced Cruz. Pressed on this, Graham likened the difference between Trump and Cruz as the difference between being shot in the head or poisoned. At least poisoning has an antidote. I would argue that Graham got it the wrong way around.

Trump may be a Capri Sun-coloured racist, but his popularity with Republican voters is matched only by his deep unpopularity with the Republican party establishment, independent voters and Democrats. A Trump presidency would be vile, certainly, but Trump would encounter significant resistance from his own party and Congress on the way to the White House. Cruz might encounter some of the same resistance as another ‘outsider, but he is a very different level of ‘outsider’ to Trump. Imagine the Republican party is like a family Christmas gathering. If Cruz is the uncle who gets exiled to the kitchen for making a naughty joke, Trump is the citrus-skinned monster with a restraining order who isn’t allowed in the same postcode.

Despite the dangers of Trump, Cruz falls far short of innocence and moderation. Does the USA really want to give executive power to a man who wanted to shut down their government because of his unhealthy fascination with what women do or do not want in their uteruses?

In short, ‘President Trump’ is a scary concept, but ‘President Cruz’ is far more likely to happen and barely less terrifying.

The EU Referendum: Voting with my head or my heart.

A few weeks ago I found myself sitting on a patio, sharing a bottle of red with a few old friends and enjoying the pleasant warmth of the evening, when someone asked me “So, Chris, which way are you voting in June?” He was referring, of course, to the upcoming referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Normally, when asked for my opinion on a matter of politics, I can give a simple, decisive answer, followed by some context or nuance (“No, I am against military intervention – unless we do it right,” or “No, I don’t want Scottish Independence – but I can completely see why people do.”). But as I opened my mouth to reply, I realised that I didn’t know what to say, for the first time in a long time, so I fumbled and said “Can I get back to you on that one?”

If the referendum were tomorrow, I would, in all likelihood, voting to stay in, albeit hesitantly. I would make this vote in line with the views of many leftists, commentators, theorists and politicians. Caroline Lucas of the Green Party (arguably one of the hardest working and principled people in politics) has consistently and eruditely argued the case for staying in and reforming the EU into an organisation which prioritises internationalism, welfare support, and a common community. Owen Jones, as well, has written persuasively that while the EU has many elements to it that leftists might find repugnant, that the case for staying in and reforming was stronger than the case for going alone (Jones admittedly called for an vote to leave the EU – for the same reason I have doubts – but changed his mind) These are all arguments I agree with (with reservations, which I shall come to later), but had you spoken to me in the summer of 2015, you would have found yourself talking to a very angry Eurosceptic.

I spent a significant portion of July 2015 in Greece. I will not, for a moment, try to claim I can give an accurate picture or even snapshot of the country from a three week visit. What I can do is give my personal impressions of travelling around a country in turmoil. Over the course of my time there I spoke to dozens of people in sweltering maze like streets of Athens and on the slumbering streets of the tiny town of Edipsos, some few hundred kilometres to the north. I spoke to people of various ages and backgrounds, and the one thing I took away from my time there, and continued to remain in my mind long after I stepped off my plane at Stansted in the August rain, was of the absolute inhuman cruelty of EU austerity.

Greece had elected the radical leftist SYRIZA on a platform of opposing the austerity measures imposed by the Troika in early 2015. At the time of my stay in Greece, SYRIZA had overwhelmingly won a referendum to take this anti-austerity message forward. I was told before visiting Greece that one can read the political temperature of Athens by reading the street graffiti, and it came as no surprise to me that I saw the words “OXI!” (or “no”) daubed on walls, the slogan of the anti-austerity vote. Yet, within a few short weeks, SYRIZA had been brow-beaten, and Prime Minister Tsipras announced that Greece would accept a further bail out, with a package of privatisation and further cuts.

“They had no choice,” Andreas, an elderly man, wearing nothing but a pair of cut off jeans in the oppressive heat, told me. I met Andreas on the low wall of Edipsos harbour at about 12.30pm. Life moved at a different pace at that part of the world; activity ceased as the sun rose to oppressive heights in the sky, and the streets would be deserted from lunchtime till early evening, and life would then re-emerge and continue till the early hours. I was not one for day time sleeping, so I spent this time exploring, skipping from shade to shade, enjoying the warm breeze. Andreas and I began talking because he needed a light and I had one. My Greek was non-existent but his English was excellent, as was the onyx rich coffee he offered me from a flask. He smoked unfiltered cigarettes at a rate of knots, and spoke with one dangling from his lip while I apologetically preserved through two menthol rollies. “We will never win in this cabal.”

By “we” Andreas meant the left. An old communist, he had as a youth fought against the Military Junta in that treacherous period of Greek history where the UK government, in particular, had backed a violent fascistic monarchist group which tortured at least 3,500 political opponents. Now a SYRIZA member (the orthodox Communist KKE were “traitors” for their entrenched homophobia), Andreas spoke about SYRIZA in terms a lot of Greeks did – that SYRIZA had embodied the best hope that Greece had, and it had been crushed but not defeated. Andreas’ breezy manner hid a distinctly darker experience. We met quite regularly over my time in Edipsos, and on our last visit, Andreas told me that had a funeral to go to.

“I’m sorry,” I said, lighting my second cigarette and sipping the thick coffee. “Do you mind if I asked who passed away.”

He looked out across the bay, and his gaze seemed to get lost in the hazy hills on the mainland. “My daughter.”

Andreas’ daughter had done what many Greeks, faced with debts and financial uncertainty had done. She had killed herself. Hers was not the first suicide I was told about since the austerity measures began. I heard stories of Greek people who threw themselves out of the first floor window of their houses as debt collectors tried to break in downstairs; a local shopkeeper told me a friend who, after finding herself unemployed for months, had killed herself, and her children as well. It is estimated that suicide rates had risen by 35% in two years. Speaking to Medscape, George Rachitosis, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Thessaly, noted that:

“Our main finding was that after 2010, when harsh austerity measures were implemented in Greece, we noted a significant increase in suicide rates for the years 2011 and 2012 in comparison to the period between 2003 and 2010,”

The rise in suicides was only one part of the problem. One of the most idiotic things I read that summer was an article that claimed that the rise of the UK Independence Party was comparable to the reign of Golden Dawn in Greece. Such a sentiment is so ludicrously divorced from the reality of fascism in Greece that I have to question the sanity of the author. As repugnant as UKIP are, and continue to be, there is no comparison that can be made between them and the thugs, gangsters and armed criminals of Golden Dawn. As I mentioned, Athens’ street graffiti is a symptom of its woes, and many Greeks I spoke to feared one symbol above all others:

Golden Dawn are not some noisy bunch of louts, swamping local Wetherspoons and bellowing offensive statements. Golden Dawn represents one of the most terrifying examples of militant Neo-Nazism in modern Europe, and is also the third party in the Greek parliament. Golden Dawn are not some existential threat; Golden Dawn, quite simply, murder people. They are not simply Nazis, but frightening criminals. In April of last year, 69 members of Golden Dawn were put on trial for crimes ranging from murder, attempted murder, and serious assaults. Horrifying video footage exists of black clad neo-nazi thugs smashed up market stalls of immigrants. I was told by almost everyone I spoke to about Golden Dawn that the group targets Jews, Muslims, queers, sex workers, SYRIZA members, anyone who did not fit into their political world view. And Golden Dawn is a much a product of austerity, imposed by the EU, as the suicides. Yanis Varoufakis, former SYRIZA finance minister, warned that further austerity would fuel the Golden Dawn, which, like many fascist parties, thrived in times of economic trouble. Similarly, reputable academic work suggests that austerity is a direct factor in the prominence of Golden Dawn. When Greeks spoke of Golden Dawn, they did so with a kind of genuine fear that I, with my comfortable English existence, had rarely seen in discussions of fascism. The fear has stayed with me long after I left the country.

My response to this was one of outrage. How dare the Troika, with the backing of the EU, create the circumstances for a proud, democratic society to suffer in such a way? How dare the Donald Tusks of the world speak of fiscal responsibility when ordinary people felt compelled to take their own lives? How dare the member states of the EU stay silent while the Greek people continued to press on – apparently alone – with such dignity in the face of all I have outlined above?

How dare they?

Of course, I am aware that this, all of this, is not the nuance needed for a political analysis. I am aware that none of these experiences should logically, casually, cause me to vote for Britain to leave the EU. Every fibre of my mind knows that is probably foolish, and that the architects of Britain outside the EU would not be principled socialists and compassionate progressives, but people like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, the kind of intolerant little Englanders who’s proto-forms I, sadly, sat next to in lectures at Cambridge. Yet, to stay in the EU in the hope of “reform” seems a rather hopeless task when the people leading such reforms are people like Cameron? Is it false to hope for such reforms? Is it wrong to let the outrage guide my feelings?

I must, I suppose, belatedly offer my apologies to my friend on the patio. Until I can work out what my head and my heart feel on the EU, my answer to your question is a resounding “I just don’t know.”

Mental health and the need for radical political change

Every year, at my University, the same article is written. It usually has a title along the lines of “We need to talk about mental health.” It reads the same way: it is often a heart felt exposition of the author’s own mental health difficulties, sometimes graphic, sometimes heart rending. The author wants to “start a conversation.” These articles are powerful, sometimes among some of the best personal journalism I’ve ever read.

But they ultimately mean very little.

I hate to be the one to say this, because I have written articles like that myself. And I do not, by any means, want to take away from the individual bravery of the authors who publicly admit to living with mental health conditions (it goes without saying that the stigma still sticks). But the older I get, and the longer I lived with my own mental health conditions, and the more I look at the state of mental health care, the more I come to a simple conclusion: we need radical political change to give people with mental health conditions the care they deserve.

At a local level, articles in student papers often fail to address that people talking about mental health is merely the first step, and more often than not there are immense, structural issues within institutions. I’ve written about some of these elsewhere. The Guardian reported that the spike in tuition fees had resulted in a surge of students seeking counselling. But University counselling services are often poorly funded, overworked and falling behind on student demand. This is reflective on the state of national mental health care. Waiting lists for NHS Counselling can be more than a year, and the Independent reported in 2014 that over 200 full time mental health doctors had been lost in budget cuts to the NHS, along with a huge rise in sectioning under the Mental Health Act. That number is far higher today. More recently, the Conservative Party voted to cut ESA by £30 per week. ESA is claimed by people who cannot work due to serious illness – including debilitating mental health conditions. This is just the latest in a series of Government measures which have disproportionately impacted on people with mental health conditions. Fairly consistently since taking office in 2010, the Conservatives have supported measures which have made the lives of people like me – who do live with mental health conditions – worse. It came as no surprise to many in Cambridge (where I live) that the Tory PCC actually suggested that people with mental health conditions should be forced to wear coloured wristbands to denote their conditions

People with mental health conditions need care, compassion, nurture and support. What we instead have is long waiting times in a poorly funded and stealthily privatized NHS, financial insecurity, and an often damaging rhetoric on the part of politicians which brands use as lazy or workshy. Faced with this reality, it’s not a “conversation” that needs to be started about mental health. Our reality is more sober than that. We need radical political change if we are to face a future which is anything but bleak.

Thoughts on Abuse

I am almost 25 years old, and the life I have lived thus far has been characterised throughout by abuse. The form of this abuse has changed over the years, often splitting up into multiple incarnations which become a presence in one’s life all at the same time, like unwanted neighbours. Yet abuse is the most constant theme in my life. It is abuse that has been with me ever since I can remember; my politics have changed over the years. My aesthetic has evolved and shifted and regressed. My interests have fluctuated and broadened and narrowed. But the abuse has never gone away.

What do I mean by “abuse”? It’s one of those loaded words, like a great stone, that splits the smooth current of conversation. It invites us, unwillingly, into the darkest of places to consider the darkest of things; parents who beat their children, spouses who keep their partners trapped; it speaks of deprivation and violence and all the other things that aren’t fitting for the polite society dinner party we like to pretend is life. But what is abuse? How can we characterise it? Rationalise it? Define it?
In the experience I have had of abuse, there are some characteristics which have remained constant over the years, though the protagonists have changed, the script has been altered, the scenery discretely moved and shifted subtlety, the underlying themes, the repeated motifs, remain the same. I render these below as a sort of public service announcement:

Shaming

A phrase I hate more than any other, I think, is “you should be ashamed of yourself.”

The reason I dislike this phrase is because there is a big, and extremely important, difference between guilt and shame. Guilt, as I understand it, is about feeling bad for something you did. Shame, on the other hand, is feeling bad about who you are.

Guilt can be a healthy thing to feel. It’s a sign of taking responsibilities for the things you have done wrong. Shame, on the other hand, fragments your sense of self, and implies that the only thing you can do to make things right is to be a complete different person.

As a child, I was always made to feel shame about who I was. No amount of good deeds could ever get me any sort of approval in the eyes of my parents. Had my parents not been insane tyrants, perhaps I would have developed a healthy ability to feel guilt for my wrong doings. If a child does wrong, we encourage them to “think about what they’ve done,” not think about “who they are.” We use guilt as a means of teaching life lessons. If shame is used instead, we end up with an adult who simply hates themselves.

I think the difference between guilt and shame is that guilt is about actions, and shame is about identity. If someone is guilty, it’s for the things they do, whereas shame is felt for who, or what, you are. Think about it linguistically – I feel guilty for saying that is a very different statement from “you should be ashamed of yourself.” You can make amends for actions, it’s very hard to make amends for who you are without no longer being you.

I’ve been involved in a number of abusive relationships in my life, and I can usually tell the relationship is abusive because I sudden feel awful for being me. Not for what I do, but I feel bad because the core of my being was simply not good enough for people who mattered to me. My parents were a good example of this – because of my lack of religious belief (a fairly important aspect of who I am) I was not really their son. I was an imposter. I lacked personhood in their eyes. In a desperate bid to get them to care about me, I even considered pretending to find my faith again, just so I could have a place to call home. Of course, if I’d done that, I wouldn’t have been me. I certainly, rightly, feel guilt about some of the things I said to my parents when I was growing up. But should I have felt shame for who I was? No.

Abuse of trust and dishonesty

We hold close people we believe that we can trust. Our partners, girlfriends, boyfriends, best friends, housemates, mothers, fathers, siblings are some of the kinds of people, and by extension the kinds of relationships, we hold close. We bring these people close to use because we place our trust in them, and when that trust is misplaced, it is a form of abuse.

For instance – we presume that our parents will provide certain things that we need – nurture, safety, security, validation, and love. So sure are we in this presumption, that we are shocked when parents do not provide these. When they, like my parents, provide scorn instead of nurture, instability instead of safety, fear instead of security, contempt instead of validation, and insanity in the place of love. Children are meant to trust that their parents will provide these things, and when they do not, the ramifications can be left for years, decades even, afterwards.

Dishonesty is another form of abuse in these close relationships. If we draw someone close to us, we want them to be honest with us, especially if we are honest with them. Far too many of the incidents of abuse I have experienced have come from those close to be simply not being honest with me. Sometimes they lied directly. Other times lies were by omission, or implication. It doesn’t really matter in the long run. Dishonesty on the part of those close to us is abuse, without excuse.

Dishonesty, especially that one the part of someone close to you, can scar you deeply, and also firmly change the way you interact with others. I was recently romantically involved with someone who became increasingly dishonest. Their dishonesty was one of omission. We began to have an open relationship, predicated on the agreement that we would share all the details of our interactions with others. A few week after that, they told me they’d met someone, which was fine, but strongly implied that nothing had happened. A few weeks after that, I found out that they had in fact slept with this person. I found this out during a drinking game at a friends party. My then partner used this opportunity to tell me something she should have said long before. I, rather foolishly, forgave them for it, and hoped they would realise how much that had hurt me and never treat me like that again, never make me feel as humiliated or betrayed again. Sadly, that was just the first in a series of lies by omission. To this day, I find it hard to trust others.

Denying nurture, warmth and safety. 

What, ultimately, do we want from the people closest to us, the ones most likely to abuse us? Why do we seek out close relationships with other people? It’s not simply for company. We want the people close to us to provide for us nurture, warmth, and safety. We wouldn’t want friends or partners or families who don’t provide these things.

Yet more often than not situations of abuse can arise when we are in relationships which should provide us with nurture, warmth and safety, and do not. Often, this can be unintentional. We take people for granted, neglect them all the time without really thinking about it. Intention can come into it, though its debatable to what extent.

What do I mean by denying safety? I’m not just envisaging it as parental safety, if you like, but as an act or series of actions that makes someone feel uncertain, always on the back foot, on edge, around you. I’ll give you an example. I used to be close to someone who had a habit of finding reason to blame others for everything. For example, if someone called them out on their behaviour, they would immediately come up with a reason for it being the other person’s fault. Several times, I would confront this person about things they had said or done which had been hurtful, only to find out that it was, in fact my fault. I was too depressed, I was too needy, I was the route cause of their behaviour. They were acting reasonably and I was not. It got to the extent that, through a combination of this deflecting behaviour, and this person’s quite aggressive temperament, that I simply stopped telling them when they upset me. I kept my mouth firmly shut. I hoped, rather naively that if I gave them spaces they would eventually realise that their behaviour was harming me, they would have an epiphany moment and change. It never happened.

Macro and micro abuse. 

The point I’m trying to get at is this: we live in a society structured around abuse as a form of a oppression. Society abuses women; it abuses people of color; it abuses non-binary and trans folk; it abuses disabled people; it is structured in such a way that certain people are forced to the bottom of the social strata and then subject to appalling institutional abuse. How else can we account for the number of murders of trans people of colour? Or the systemic racism in the American police force? Or the idiocy of countries like Ireland where an abortion can land you in jail? We live in an institutionally abusive society, and that is tragic.

But I must add this other, more sobering fact, which is this – while on a macro level, white, heterosexual, cisgender men are immune from societal abuse, on a micro level, anyone can abuse anyone. This is not a culture as such, or a society – it’s just a fact of relationship. On an interpersonal level, white people abuse people of colour who abuse white people who abuse other white people. Being part of a marginalised group means you are a target of macro abuse, but it does not, in anyway, prevent you of being a perpetrator of interpersonal abuse. On an institutional level, my mother, a disabled woman of colour, cannot be an abuser. On a micro level, she tried to murder me. These two realities co-exist, and being a member of a particular category does not exempt you from trying to treat your fellow human beings with love, care and respect. We’re a society of abusers and abused, and sadly, those can be the same people.

Hero worship and its consequences

Let’s get something straight from the start. I really dislike Germaine Greer. I recall reading The Female Eunuch, and finding it fascinating, but the impact and spectacular wit of that book doesn’t erase the fact the fact that Greer is a transphobic idiot who’s treatment of transgender people is basically hate speech. I wrote a piece for Varsity on that topic about a year ago, and got hounded off Twitter. Amidst the flurry of death and rape threats, I found myself wondering how Greer’s defenders could be so angry at me for really pointing out a fact; Greer has made a series of statements about trans people which are hateful, vile, and deny their legitimacy to live. Does that mean we should not admire certain elements of her work? Not necessarily. But that kind of nuance seemed to be lost on the person who threw dogshit at my house.

Look at any “great” figure of recent or past history, and you will find a moral minefield. Gandhi, for instance, was a hideously misogynistic individual, who once cut off the hair of two of his female followers to prevent them tempting men, an incident he boasted of in later life. Churchill famously talked about his hatred for Indians, and evidence suggests he shared Hitler’s view of a global conspiracy of Jews. Does this change the fact that Gandhi was a great peace activist, or that Churchill’s leadership contributed to British resolve during WWII? No, but it means we have to face the sober truth that they, are many others, had vile aspects to their character and these cannot be simply ignored. When Orwell wrote that saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent,” he might as well have written in a vacuum.  

The Left is no less guilty of hero worshipping dubious figures, and I am no less guilty of this than any other. As I write this, I can see a Lenin flag hanging from the back of my bedroom. Lenin was clearly one of the greatest revolutionary figures of the 20th century, a man who helped lead the first Communist revolution and whose work on transitional phases between capitalism and communism are masterfully insightful. He also founded the Cheka, the brutal secret police who presided over Gulags, the secret arrest and murder of anti-revolutionary elements, and were responsible for the deaths of 12,000 people. Ernesto Guevara is another problematic figure – a beautiful writer and great intellectual, his profession that revolution is motivated by love sits ill at ease with his presiding over dozens of executions without trial. Of course, the heroes of the Right tend to have equally bloody hands (Pinochet, anyone?), but the problem for the Left is that we’re trying to make a moral case for revolution as a step towards the advancement of humanity, and a bit of murdering tends to undermine that argument.

Such uncritical hero worship can be deeply problematic, and not simply in an abstract sense. In 2013, the Socialist Workers Party was plunged into crisis, after a teenage activist brought a rape allegation against “Comrade Delta,” a member of the party leadership. Instead of handling the matter sensitively, or remotely appropriately, the SWP essentially went on a campaign of character assassination against the girl, and claimed, astonishingly, that “no rape had occurred.” The full transcript of various SWP meetings on this incident can be found online, and they make for depressing reading. Comrade Delta was heroised as a great radical, a committed activist and by virtue of that, and that alone, incapable of sexual abuse. The mind boggles. Laurie Penny, writing for The New Statesman, captures this point well when she writes: “It is precisely to do with the idea that, by virtue of being progressive, by virtue of fighting for equality and social justice, by virtue of, well, virtue, we are somehow above being held personally accountable when it comes to issues of race, gender and sexual violence.”

Appreciating the moral flaws in people we idolise is not a pleasant process, and can be hard to reconcile with their virtues. I have a tattoo on my right wrist, “Do I Dare/Disturb the Universe?” – a line from The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T.S. Eliot, one of the finest writers in the English language…and also misogynistic anti-semitic. Trying to appreciate the beauty of Eliot’s poetry when confronted with the horrendous nature of his views in not an easy task. But sadly, we don’t live in a world of black and white. And a sad part of growing up is appreciate that ultimately, we’re all a bit shit. Your dad stole all his jokes from UniLad, your mum has a soft spot for Nigel Farage, your best friend from school now works for Wonga.com and loves it, all your favourite bands don’t pay tax and there really are no clean heroes. Writing on patriarchy, the wonderful bell hooks captured this well when she wrote: “Men do oppress women. People are hurt by rigid sexist role patterns. These two realities coexist.” Appreciating these co-existing realities in our heroes is not easy, or fun, but it must be done – the consequences of uncritical hero worship are far far worse.


The Labour Right is magnificently destroying itself.

Let’s take a moment to consider a fundamental political question:

Is the Labour Right for real?

I think this is a question begging to be asked when you take a moment to really appreciate the reaction of right leaning Labour MPs and Labour donors to the sudden surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn, the leftist candidate for the leadership of the Labour Party. Much has been written about the leadership election over the last few months, and much if it is much better than anything I could write. However, I wanted to share a few thoughts on the impact of Corbyn’s popularity and what it means for Labour more broadly.

What we can learn from the Labour leadership election is two things: firstly, Labour members and supporters want to see a new kind of politics in Labour: anti-austerity, social democratic, and populist. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we have the delightful spectacle of the Labour right magnificently, and publicly, destroying itself.

Let’s focus on the latter point for a moment: Corbyn has been attacked viciously by elements within Labour and those affiliated to it. But the fact of the matter is, for all the mud slinging, none of it seems to stick. At time of writing, Corbyn is on 43% of the vote, according to YouGov, putting him miles ahead of Andy Burnham (the former ‘frontrunner’) who is on 26%, with Yvette Cooper on 20% and Liz Kendall on a measly 11%. According to LabourList, Corbyn has a commanding lead of 73%. Writing for LabourList, Maya Goodfellow makes the simple but effective point that Corbyn has the edge over his opponents in the fact that he is giving a clear, simple message about a kind of politics that benefits everyone, marking a break from the confused political era of Milliband, and the rightist ideologies of the Blair camp. To a leftist, Corbyn’s voting record speaks of principle, vision and unwillingness to compromise on socialist principles. Indeed, words like “principled,”, “honest,” and “straight talking” have become the media buzzwords of the Corbyn camp. Even satircal newsites are reiterating this – NewsThump recently published an article entitled “Experts baffled by popularity of politician with ‘principles'”. One would be forgiven for thinking it was a real news article, giving the responses of some Labourites to Corbyn.

Which brings me onto the Labour Right. It is striking how many Labour MPs from the right of the party, who backed Corbyn’s nomination, are now running scared. This in itself seems an act of hypocrisy. If your reason for backing someone is because you genuinely want to “broaden the conversation”, you don’t then run for the hills if it goes in a way you don’t like. To do so is childish, and, in all honesty, rather spineless. This however, isn’t surprising. Since it became apparent that Corbyn was popular with the membership, and was also wiping the floor with his competitors, Labour has unearth various corpses of bygone political days, to provide warnings from beyond the grave. Yet even this is farcical, and serves only to expose the contempt for which the Labour Right views its own membership. Tony Blair, for example, gave a speech attacking Corbyn and his supporters. A few key details of what he said are indicative of the Labour Right’s contempt: firstly, there is a denial of reality. Blair claims the “traditional leftist position” will not win elections. This is ludicrous not only in light of the clear popularity of Corbyn’s ideas among Labour supporters, but also in light of Labour’s recent electoral wipeout in Scotland at the hands of the SNP. The SNP are not even that far left, in the grand scheme of things, but their message of anti-austerity and protecting the welfare state, trounced Labour, and left them with the vast majority of the Scottish seats. Secondly, and perhaps more insultingly, Blair stated that “People saying their heart is with Corbyn – get a transplant,” The statement is paternalistic, appealing, perhaps, towards a sober, level headed thinking that an elder statesman can aspire to from having years of political experience. It’s also total bollocks, and deeply insulting to the party membership. Even John Prescott, a man who served with Blair, labelled his comments “unacceptable abuse.” Blair’s transplant statement is important because it really does show the extent to which Labour’s Right think that they are above the membership; they have elected themselves to an authority position which allows them to make great enlightened statements on the future of the party. Except, it doesn’t. If anything, it exposes a heart-felt disregard for what the members of the party want. This, lest we forget, is the opinion of public servants, MPs, people who are elected by the will of the people.

More extremely, it is now reported that senior Labour figures will mount a coup against Corbyn within days of him winning. According to the Telegraph, this will “plunge the party into even deeper crisis and division, but would be necessary to prevent an electoral “disaster” under Mr Corbyn’s leadership, senior figures said.”

Let’s take a moment to appreciate this. Labour is in crisis. Labour is a democratic party. The members of this democratic party are leaning towards electing Jeremy Corbyn as leader. And yet the “senior figures” of that party would rather make Labour essentially shoot itself than listen to the will of the membership.

How stupid, crass and utterly contemptible is that as an attitude?

And then we have the idiots who think that the leadership contest in its entirety should be cancelled because Corbyn might win. Cancel the whole thing because someone you don’t like might win. Cancel it.

That’s got to be the political equivalent of rage quitting.

The idea that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable is a patent absurdity. Let’s have a look at Corbyn’s electoral record. He’s been the MP for Islington North since 1983. He has been re-elected to parliament a whopping seven times, and even in the 2015 election, where Labour faced what was portrayed an electoral wipe-out, Corbyn gained 60.24% of the vote and a majority of 21,194. Such numbers are truly impressive, and something Corbyn should rightly be proud of.

Of course, being a successful constituency MP and a successful party leader are different things. A party public leader needs to not just impress a single constituency, but a whole country, and is also seen as the represntative of his or her political party. How “electable” someone is is really a matter of total speculation, and cannot be an exact science in an unfair voting system. Take, for instance, the fact that despite Nigel Farage’s intense personality cult, he failed to get elected as a UKIP MP. Now, of course, UKIP, like the Greens, were treated pretty poorly as a result of the First Past the Post system. Trying to speculate whether someone is electable or not is fairly pointless when the number of votes a party receives does not correlate with the number of seats they can get in Parliament. It says a lot about how broken the system is when 10 million votes give the Conservatives 321 seats, and 1 million votes gives the Green Party just one.

I want Jeremy Corbyn to win the Labour leadership. I want this because, as a socialist, he would stand for my politics. But I also want this as someone who respects the democratic will of the Labour party, which leans towards seeing Corbyn in charge. I do, also, want this because I see an upshot of a Corbyn led Labour Party being the mass exodus of the Labour Right. Frankly, fuck em. If they want to quit because they have become so contemptous of the democratic will of the party, then let them go. We don’t want that sort of politics in our names. Corbyn’s leadership could see a new era cross party anti-austerity politics. A Corbyn led Labour could work with the SNP, Plaid and the Greens to articulate a radical alternative to Tory hegemony. If the price of that is losing the Blairite wing of the party, so be it.

In short, Corbyn’s leadership could see a resurgence of left politics in Labour, and on the national level. It would also be a death blow to the Labour Right, who, let’s face it, have been asking for such a blow with their utter disregard for the very people they are meant to represent.

If you are a Labour Party member, please vote for Corbyn. If you aren’t, like me, you can sign up to be a supporter of the party to vote in the election here: http://www.jeremyforlabour.com/vote