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On responsibility, paradigms and social change

February 7, 2013

In mid-January, I went to see my parents and had a conversation with my mum about responsibility. You see, my mum feels responsibility for my behaviour. I’m 29.

The usual ‘but I’m not a child any more’ thing hasn’t ever worked, and it has always played on my mind that my mum feels this responsibility for me, especially as I live my life so differently to how she’s lived hers.

My mother’s reasoning has always been that she still feels that the way I act is her responsibility since she was the primary caregiver when I was young. A saying that my parents often quoted when I was little was the Jesuit saying, ‘Give me a child until the age of 7, and I will show you the man.’ I am, by myself, comprehensive proof that this is not so.

My parents raised me Christian. I didn’t know that gay people existed until I was about 14 (I’m not joking). My family is upper middle class with links to aristocracy – we’re very much ruling class, and I was raised in an atmosphere of power and responsibility with the expectation that I would grow into both. I think my parents are more shocked that I quit Christianity than they would have been had I ended up CEO of Shell or prime minister. My parents met at Cambridge, my father was a classmate of Rowan Williams. I often jest that my parents were essentially training me to be the wife of an investment banker, but really, it’s not that much of a joke.

And me? My hair is short and dyed deep pink. I have multiple tattoos. I’m the sort of person who needs annual STI check ups where my parents have never needed any, ever. I’m bisexual. I’m at least agnostic. I’m polyamorous. I’m kinky. I don’t have a degree. My career is patchy, which is in large part attributable to my being disabled, which I didn’t choose, but was also very definitely not in The Plan. I have friends who are trans*. I have friends who are pagan. And, above all of these, I am pretty far left, and an activist – I have politics tattooed around my wrist.

In short, despite my mother’s best intentions, all she accomplished was, through not knowing that my path was going to be so different to hers, to leave me unprepared for the life I’ve ended up leading. I know how to set a table properly, but I’ve had to learn that I can’t trust the police. I have to actively fight the instinct to just smile when someone says something hugely offensive or actively damaging to me. I’ve had to learn to not apologise when someone else steps on my toes.

Because the context in which she lives and the context within which I live are so different, on both a social and generational level, many things I was taught don’t map over. In the conservative Christian setting she grew up in, so many things were taken for granted that, for me and my peers, really can’t be.

In my parents time and social setting, education was always worth it. Everyone you met was straight. Everyone you met was monogamous. Almost everyone was celibate until marriage. Non-white people were oddities, and without exception, hugely to be admired and discussed for their invariably inspirational story. Everyone you met was happy with their birth gender (or, if they weren’t, they knew damned well the social cost of being not happy with it). Politicians could be influenced, and probably were by people you knew, sometimes by you, and in any case were easily accessible. Sometimes they were friends or family. The language of political exchange was the same as the language spoken at the dinner table. The dinner table that your family had a house with room for, and that it wouldn’t be inappropriate to invite your boss or PA to dine at. The police were benevolent and helped keep the peace. Courts were always just, and had good reasons for their actions. Appeals to authority were actually a fairly good way to win an argument, especially if the other person couldn’t come up with a specific rebuttal. Political radicalism always led to or justified terrorism, and was to be resisted, without consideration of the merits. If you were clever enough, you could be impartial and objective, and not let your personal feelings on a matter interfere with your judgement.

These are things that I can’t assume, and that, if I did, would be damaging to me and those around me. Different norms hold true now, and I doubt I have to give you chapter and verse for why each of the above assumptions can no longer be held uncritically. And it’s not just that those assumptions are a little off – it is no longer truly possible to live a harmless life in the UK if you hold those assumptions. The world has changed.

How could my mother possibly prepare me for a world she didn’t know? And how, given this, could she possibly be responsible for decisions I’ve made in this altered context that she is so far from understanding, even now?

(Incidentally, at the age of 18 I went, assumptions unchallenged, to live in working class Western Cumbria. Looking back, I’m amazed I didn’t get lynched for some of the phenomenally inappropriate bullshit I spouted. I’ve had to do a lot of work, and a lot of self-reflection, to get to the person I am today.) The above list comes from extended conversations, experiences, reading and observation. The most affecting have been conversations in which I’ve acted and spoken as though ‘everyone’ surely knows that MPs can be influenced, by real people, and that if you do, they have a duty to respond, and the person I’m talking to has looked at me like I’ve got two heads, because from their setting, MPs are entirely unapproachable and can barely be comprehended as actual people let alone communicated with. Politics is, for many, another country, because of assumptions similar to the ones I grew up with, but from another perspective.

I’ve noticed this because things are changing and have changed, and because the context for which I was raised no longer exists, meaning that I had to graphically and painfully learn how unprepared I was. It has changed, and that is good. I now believe that the pursuit of objectivity is a red herring, so let me say straight up, we are closer now to intersectionally fair feminist social relations than we were 50 years ago, and for me, that is nothing but a good thing, and a trend which I hope continues.

But we can’t just sit back and hope that things continue to improve. My attitudes and assumptions changed as a result of hard work on my part, and, I now realise, phenomenal patience from people around me who kept on saying ‘we’re not there yet, and what you’re doing and saying is hurting us’. (No doubt there are people with whom I agree today (quite possibly me, although I’ll try to avoid it) who will, in 40, 50 years need the same patience from those younger than us who will see injustices where we are currently blind.)

Social change, and the evolution of paradigms, doesn’t just happen. It is driven by people who are awkward. People who say, ‘this joke you’ve been telling for 10 years actually makes me feel really crappy, and like you think I’m not a real person’.

It’s easy (and a bit cruel) to say that social change is just a generational thing, and we just need to ‘wait for the dinosaurs to die’. I’m not a fan of this for two reasons. The first is that some of those dinosaurs are people I love. The second is that I used to be a social dinosaur. In fact, some of the social dinosaurs that I love are family members or former colleagues who are younger than me.

Attitudes, assumptions and paradigms do change. They change all the time. This is both a positive and a negative. The positive is that we can know that the assumptions and cultural mores that currently hurt us and those around us are not set in stone. We have had a concrete example of just such change in the progress made towards equal marriage in th UK this week. For examples of the negative, we need only look at the changing attitudes which the American tea party have fostered.

The way that discussions develop and attitudes change is driven by activism on both sides. It’s nice to think that the side who win are always the goodies, but that’s not always the case, and it’s often the side who shout the loudest, for the longest and at the most influential people.

For this reason, I see many reasons for optimism at the moment, but none for complacency. I am lucky to be living now and not 100 years ago, and am grateful for the work of those who have made my life possible, even though they couldn’t have predicted it. I am free now in a way that women a century ago, or even my mother 30 years ago, couldn’t have imagined. I hope that the work we do now will enable people 100 years from now to write the same sentiment.

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