When democratic institutions fail, what next..?

Set up our democratic institutions side by side, knock one over and see what happens…in the UK we began with the media, a crucial element of democracy, yet one of which large swathes are now regarded by the public with caution, if not outright distrust. And so we set up an inquiry.

Some of the fall-out of the Leveson inquiry has been to turn our attention to the government, parts of which are fatally enveloped in the mire of media’s undue influence. We can’t be simplistic about apportioning blame, since both media and politicians appear to be locked in a continuous cycle of dependence, the balance of power shifting from side to side as they wrestle over the question of who drives policy. However we have seen enough to lose more than a modicum of faith in parliament’s ability to put the needs of the public on at least the same par as their own influence and income.

And now we are faced with a crisis in the banking sector, which while not itself an institution of democracy, is required to be transparent and accountable in order for democracy to function as it should. As we’ve seen over the last few days, these characteristics are laughably absent from some key aspects of British banking. And so the trust is broken again. Depressingly there are already indications that the current scandal over LIBOR could also implicate the government on some level, though perhaps such a conclusion ought to have been inevitable.

Our government is going to have a long uphill struggle to build up public confidence in the functioning of British democracy, if indeed it is in their power to do so. Perhaps democracy, being now stripped and all its flaws revealed, can find new directions for growth. The internet is a valuable resource for many things, but I begin to see that in the upholding of democratic principles it is more than valuable – it is essential. Through social media people across the world, in countries far more restricted than our own, voices are being heard and stories are being told. Accountability is more possible because news of injustice can be more widely shared. Who knows what the internet could become in the pursuit of stronger democracy if it continues to be the place for free expression that it currently is? It is quite significant that there are movements within those great bastions of democracy, the US and the EU, to enforce greater control over internet traffic and reduce individuals’ privacy when they are online. Just knock our confidence in democracy even more, why don’t you?

I don’t hold British democracy in complete contempt. We have the core structures for it to work well if it is overhauled, and (so far) the judicial system is intact (though who watches the watchman?). It has weathered several centuries, and grown and developed over time. It has the potential to shake off the dust that’s settled and disguised the worst flaws, and be reinvigorated if we who condemn it will invest energy into it. Perhaps if new growth is permitted, British democracy will emerge stronger than it has ever been before.

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Can conflict ever resolve?

For someone who hasn’t been in a fight since those sibling battles of childhood, I somehow have picked up an interest in the conflicts of others. Perhaps it was living in Belfast for a while and working for a charity that engaged in peace and reconciliation that did it, though I can’t say for certain.

And of course the whole area of conflict creates all sorts of questions, huge questions. Well I’m not going to look at them all here and now, or I’d end up filling a library full of books. But I had a very interesting experience this morning which caused me to reflect on conflict and how it is present in all of us, every day. Here’s what happened.

I came across a report on Twitter about a group of people protesting against the destruction of their village in the West Bank. There were reporters at the village live-tweeting what was happening, and since the Israeli army was present, clearly prepared for an escalation of tension, it seemed appropriate to employ Twitter in what it does best and spread the word. Perhaps some international attention might have a dousing effect on the situation, you never know.

There was some response to my communication, some of which was heartening and some of which was mildly upsetting. Of course you expect that when delving into such a sensitive subject there will be a wide variety of responses, but the difference between expectation and reality is like the difference between seeing a picture of the Niagara Falls and actually standing in the midst of the spray and hearing the massive roar of the water in your ears. In this case, comments of a personal nature were made about me (!), judgements that surprised me, and yes, offended me. Of course I wanted to challenge the assumptions that were made about me, certainly I did…and it took a fair bit of self-consultation to decide not to respond at all. And a fair bit of discipline to stick to the decision.

So that was my own experience of conflict today. And given how much work I had to put into not engaging with one person I had never met before, making completely unfounded judgements about me based on one single tweet, I can’t imagine the scope of work that would be necessary for one society to disengage with another, with all the historical complexity of politics, religion and culture to unpick, never mind the economic implications present in any modern conflict. But I can’t help thinking that without some attempt to help individuals living with conflict to work through their own responses to it, any international negotiations are only pasting over the cracks. Political treaties are important in bringing about peace, yes, but only when drawn up alongside the grassroots work that allows individuals to understand their own place within conflict and how they can contribute to coming out the other side. Where the incentive comes from to engage in such work, well that’s a whole other question…

Twitter and the art of democracy

Hello to any who reads this…I’ve decided to pick up the blog again, since my time is slowly becoming more available for such things once more, and I’m buzzing with questions about the incredible upheaval that our society seems to be going through at the moment. I have also recently begun being active on Twitter, which has opened up a vast new realm of facts, opinions, news before it breaks, hilarity, satire, grief, contentiousness and oh so much more. I’ve read and absorbed more news in the last few weeks than I had in the last year BT (before Twitter, that is), but the problem therein is my maximum capacity for information. It doesn’t by any means allow for the scope of what is flying around the social networking sphere about the Leveson Inquiry, about the Queen’s Speech and government policy, about the local elections last week, about the new Israeli goverment or what’s happening in Syria, or about what people think of all those things. Fortunately, what I do find is that with practice it is possible to skim and sift, pick the stories of immediate interest, and even to build connections between facts that, on the surface, are completely unconnected. A wider picture of the living, breathing entity that is our society, both local and global, begins to emerge. The picture is undoubtedly skewed towards my preferences of who to follow (among the best being Graham Linehan, or @glinner, I have to say), but follow enough hash tags and it becomes possible to see through the eyes of people whose views differ widely to your own.

The picture is broader and wider and deeper and longer than any one mind can hold, and is by no means restricted to the two-dimensional. For example I have been following the Leveson Inquiry with great interest – and on this and closely related subjects, there is reams and reams of material to sift through. I had to delete my #Leveson column for a day or two as my brain began to go into meltdown, though I will be picking it up again tomorrow with avid interest, no doubt. But it has left me with much to think about – I have by no means forgotten all of it! – and the biggest question I am left with is this: for a man of Rupert Murdoch’s character, intellect, power and wealth, just how much control has he exerted over the exposure of his company’s illegal activities and work ethic generally? It’s just one to throw out there, really. I’m not one for conspiracies at all, but I can’t help suspecting that he had at least some idea of what was coming, and self-preservation is a natural human instinct, after all. If he anticipated the exposure he could perhaps have done something to mitigate for the worst effects, to protect himself and those close to him from the full impact of these events.

So where do I see this question fitting into the broader picture? I think it’s of particular interest that in the UK we are going through this seismic shift in media accountability alongside economic chaos in Europe signified by our own double-dip recession. At least when the government has bad news to tell us about the economy, it can do so under cover of exciting revelations at the Leveson Inquiry, and if there are some particularly indicting details about its media connections to be told, the announcements can be timed to coincide with news of supposedly positive policy changes. Or cabinet re-shuffles, perhaps. We are, after all, easily distracted. However the connection between these two significant facets of UK life runs deeper than a mere distraction technique for the government. How much of our confidence in our government’s ability to restore economic growth is knocked by the apparently inextricable links with News International staff? We are left with little faith in our government and our own democratic process – we are a nation with the wind kicked out of us, and declining economic conditions to boot. If the national confidence in itself and its government is lost, then we will of course slip several rungs down the ladder of economic prosperity.

We struggle because so much has been hidden from us, so much that runs deep into the core of what our society is or has become. But the great, the marvellous thing about Twitter, and social networking generally, is that there will always be someone who notices that which is trying to remain hidden, and thus, despite all its glorious (and not so glorious) faults, information spreads uncontrollably. Twitter offers us greater transparency than any government can, and is therefore a highly valuable cog in the machine of democracy.

Taking a break

To those who read this blog, it may have become apparent that the posts have been appearing more and more irregularly and infrequently in the last couple of months. I find the routines of life usually change for me in the autumn; with a new school or nursery start, or new activities at church, there is usually something that affects the rhythm of my days. Within the last week I have confessed to myself that writing this blog has become too difficult for the present, I think for two reasons; firstly, my youngest child is growing out of the afternoon nap phase, which used to give me time to do non-child related things. Secondly I’m working on a project for my church which is likely to take up the majority of my creative capacity at least until the end of January. So I have decided to lay this blog to rest at least for a few months, though I may perhaps come back to it later on.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the process of looking for the questions that particularly make an impression on me, and working out my own responses in this medium. I hope I have stayed true to my original principle of treating the questions as something to be respected for themselves, not diving straight into the answers as though they are my human right. If I have achieved anything with this blog I hope that it is to have been an encouragement to others to engage with the difficult questions, and to take courage in the absence of answers – especially when sometimes the answer is what we feel we need to survive. I feel that somehow holding on to those questions makes us stronger, more confident and more able to help others who ask the same questions.

With blessings for the road ahead,

Sarah x

Why do we need heroes?

It occurred to me recently that the concept of the hero is one of the most powerful storylines present in any film or television show. Those who have the courage, confidence and strength to make the brave choices, to take the difficult path in order to protect the rest of us who are weak and vulnerable – these characters are prevalent in so many stories. Even films in which the hero theme isn’t obvious still use the idea of characters who drawn on courage and internal strength in order to achieve something for themselves or for others, and this seems to hook us into the story. Be it justice, freedom, personal growth or anything else, a struggle is involved. It may be less evident in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind than it is in the Dark Knight, but nevertheless the exertion of courage is present in both. So, I ask myself, why on earth is that? Is it because we’re drawn to those who bear the heavy burdens and make decisions for us, or is it because we see in those heroes a reflection of what we know is inside ourselves?

I think that what makes me a bit cross is that so often the implication is that there is only one hero, and the vast numbers of people they fight to protect are passive and incapable. It feels to me like a misrepresentation of humanity to say that one person fights the incoming aliens while the rest of us run fleeing and screaming off the screen and into obscurity. I know that stories wouldn’t be believable if they didn’t reflect the reality of human experience, and it is true that we struggle to overcome fear in dangerous situations, but I do think that the ‘one one behalf of millions’ representation is a bit of an overexaggeration. Do we love the hero more, the more people they have to protect? I suppose that’s possible, and that’s why we devour the films with the obvious hero theme. The cynic (or perhaps realist) in me says that it is a distortion of reality used by producers to make lots of money at the box office. But then perhaps there is some value in the hero story as it opens up the question to us, if we’re willing to engage with it, of how we might respond when a hero is needed.

Perhaps the draw to a hero story is both about the desire for protection and the need for our own courage to be revealed. Perhaps it needs to be both. There are times in which we need to be comforted, protected, defended; times when our need is greater than our ability to be strong. There are also times when we are called on to be brave for others, to protect them in turn as they go through their difficult times. To deny that humanity reflects the entire breadth of the spectrum of giving and receiving courage, would be to deny the fulness of our nature. And perhaps, after all, the best kind of hero is the one who enables us to both understand our own limits and unlock the potential within each of us to find the courage that life sometimes requires.

Bargain Hunting

The phrase ‘Sale Now On’ is more often present in shop windows than it is absent these days. Apparently, we don’t buy anything unless we’re convinced we’re going to get a bargain – at least, that’s what the advertisers seem to assume. My confession is that these days I live in bafflement at the time, care and attention that some spend on the pursuit of ‘getting a good deal’. Perhaps it’s simply a consequence of having small children, that I’ve got enough to do without trawling round five shops to find the cheapest kettle, or even spending an hour on the internet in the same pursuit, but secretly I think it’s just because I don’t enjoy the process of shopping.  But why would that be? And am I the only one with this dark secret, or are there others hiding in far flung corners of the country? And what is it about the hunt for a good bargain that does interest some people so much?

I think my major difficulty with searching for the best deal is knowing that no matter what I’m trying to buy, I’m being lied to. Oh, probably not overtly (at least most of the time), but in the subtlety of not including quite all of the information about the product, or of emphasising certain qualities relating to it whilst hiding the unfavourable ones. It’s tiring, trying to work through the fog of lies and get to the actual truth about the thing; and it’s insulting to my intelligence to assume I’ll fall for the idea that there is such a thing as the perfect product. Then there are the constant lies about making savings; buy two get one free! Well actually, I only needed one, but now I’m going to pay double the amount of money because it sounds like good value even though I don’t need the extra two.

Last and worst are the lies that are far more personal and deeply influential, because they weave stories about me and the kind of person I am without the product, and what I can become because of buying it. They are powerful and invasive, and can have long-lasting and damaging effects. Can I really only be beautiful if I spend a fortune on a beauty regime? Am I really only a good housewife if my house is as clean and tidy as that one on the television? Is it unattractive to have grey hair? (Of course not!!). Will my family be happier if I take them on that particular holiday? We are subtly led to believe that products are capable of achieving what, in truth, only internal maturity and wisdom can achieve; a healthy, content life and the strength to cope with what storms are thrown at us along the way.

So where does the urge to engage in bargain hunting come from? This question draws me back to the process of bargaining (or haggling, if you will) that used to be the standard form of transaction in the exchange of goods. This changed to a great extent at some point, probably within the last half-century, when fixed prices for stock were introduced (at least in larger retail outlets and chains). Perhaps it had something to do with the introduction of computers to the retail industry – I suspect so, at any rate. But it sometimes almost feels as though the constant sales to which we are enticed are the new form of haggling: we’re starting with this price, but only for fourteen days and then it’ll be selling at a much more reasonable rate because we know so few of you will like that price. In the process of hunting for bargains, therefore, we engage in haggling by choosing whether to purchase the item now or to wait until its price is lowered. Shrewd shoppers will have a good idea of whether or not to buy: I’m afraid I’m not one of them!

Perhaps the inclination to bargain is so deeply rooted in our psyches because it is simply a continuation of something that we have done since before recorded history. Computers have been unable to rid us of our most basic instincts. Of course we look for value in the things that we buy; of course we want to get the best deal for our money; we do it because we want to look after ourselves and also those for whom we are responsible and who we care about. We prefer not to be lied to because it makes the whole thing so much more difficult, but we have to accept that whether simple or complex, whether only about the product or attacking our very sense of identity, the lies will always be present. Learning to discern them and reject the effects they have on us, now that’s the work of a lifetime.

Greenbelt questions

Another August Bank Holiday weekend at Greenbelt Festival has come and gone, and as usual has thrown up a whole host of questions, such as; why do we take three young children camping for six nights with limited washing facilities? Will it ever take less than four hours to get us all up, dressed, breakfasted and ready for the festival day? Will there ever be a year that I don’t cry when I see the breathtaking number and spectrum of people present at the Sunday morning communion service? What on earth are people doing wandering around dressed as sofas? Where did the giant policemen come from? And so on.

From all the things that got thrown up at Greenbelt, there was one question that I thought important enough to write down in order to come back to. I can’t even remember where it came from, but it’s essentially about becoming a member of a church: what is the best path to becoming fully integrated into a church community, i.e. to feel comfortable with both giving and receiving one’s time, energy, compassion and commitment?

On the one hand, there are those in public ministry in a church such as the incumbent, the curate or the youth worker. Beginning work in a parish in such a role results in what could almost be described as ‘forced entry’ into the church community. From the very outset you’re in a fairly central position within the life of the church, you quickly get to know those with influence and involvement, and having a specific role to play you begin immediately to implement that role, in the ways that best seem fit to you and others in authority.

On the other hand there are those who begin coming to church for various reasons – they have a friend who goes, they’re curious, they feel drawn, they’ve had contact through a wedding, baptism or funeral – who probably begin by knowing one or two people at the most. If they don’t feel socially confident, or remain unsure of the church’s particular idiosyncrasies (e.g. its language or worship style) they may remain known to only a few people and never feel they have the opportunity or even the ability to participate.

Of course those are two extreme examples of the process of integration, but even for those somewhere in the middle, how many who do play a role in the church community are actually doing what they are built to do? How comfortable are they in the work they are doing? It does sometimes have to be the case that people take the jobs that need doing because there really is no-one else to do them, but I think it’s very unfortunate if people aren’t able to engage with the kind of work that really inspires and fulfils them. And I think it’s possible for a church to have a vision where everyone has the opportunity, should they want it, to explore their gifts and abilities safely as they get to know the congregation, the rhythm of church life and themselves.

What the implications of this question are for church leaders is also part of the question, though we can hope that they have had some measure of preparation for the way in which they integrate into church life, having already had opportunities to explore their strengths and weaknesses, their gifts and abilities. The better they have been prepared, the more equipped they will hopefully be to enable church members, new and old, to explore and develop their involvement in the living, breathing entity that is the Body of Christ.