on ismism

all we are saying is…. John & Yoko

I had the most curious experience last night: someone who came to my session at WordPower’s Radical Independent Book Fair offered me some feedback. I’d given the impression somehow that I was covertly rightwing in my perspective. Huh? Where’d that come from?

The session had posed a question, rather than offering an answer: a question with its origins in Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science. In that book she offers a broad outline of three areas of science (quantum physics, chaos theory and self-organising biological systems) and conjectures about their possible implications on theories of organisation. From there I wondered how these ideas might advance our understanding of unions and how they operate.

Ah, now here’s where my acquaintance probably lost me: when I suggested that unions have failed in the big game. Unions aim to protect workers from exploitation – utterly admirable and worthy – yet they’ve not managed to prevent the horrific steamroller of damage and corruption caused by capitalism over the last centuries. In my opinion, unions are fighting battles in a war which has already been lost, fighting for the crumbs of dignity and survival within a paradigm of reality which condemns the living world to a one-dimensional existence as material and product. I don’t think that recognising the limits of unions is the same as criticising their value or purpose, nor a signal of rightwing political views – but I can see how big a bite I suggested we chew during that session, and how easily it could catch in the throat – a lesson for me to take away for the future.

In any case, my initial response when this acquaintance suggested that I’d come across as rightwing, was an immediate gut-level flinch: yikes! That’s not me! A vivid flood of indignation at this challenge to my sense of self. Who am I if not my political persuasion? Who am I if not a reflector of my values, as communicated by the positions I take on issues? Who am I, if not a collection of touchstones telling you about me: my favourite books, my favourite bands, my nationality, my birth order, my zodiac sign and my affiliation with the political left or right? Who am I if not the proud possessor of a unique and personal combination of isms?

Then this morning I came across this article on Bella Caledonia, which tugs at a similar quandary: how do we acknowledge and accommodate complexity and nuance while at the same time taking a position and acting upon it? At what point does uncertainty and openness become fuzziness and lack of commitment? What happens when we draw our lines in different places? What happens when our frames of reference capture different angles, one speaking apples and the other speaking oranges? Does it mean necessarily that one angle is good, and the other bad? At what point does open-mindedness and flexibility become moral relativism?

Finally my friend Tony has pointed me to this intriguing and utterly resonant post about coherence, in which the author writes:

Coherence [might be understood as] meaning leads to values leads to actions.

When we aren’t clear, we aren’t coherent, and our actions testify to this.

Howard Zinn said it best: “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Our choices have consequences no matter which way we move. Being alive means making a difference, having an impact, in some way or other – and however small that difference may seem, it contains a monumental and sobering responsibility. But uncertainty isn’t the same as being neutral, just as being quiet isn’t the same as having nothing to say.

Well, at the end of the day, my opinions and choices are as riddled with contradiction and variability as anyone. We’re messy, and organic, and our experience as humans – existing together in a mysterious and complex universe – binds us all far more closely to one another than anywhere we stand on the political spectrum. Life-ism. Love-ism. Taking-each-breath-as-it-comes-ism. Clear and coherent, I am.