The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the tag “travel”

Why your brain hates other people

It’s been a long time since I posted anything – been a bit too occupied with running election campaigns!  Although I try to keep my political activities separate from social work, there is so much that overlap.

Living in an area where racism is rife this one particular subject has been close to the forefront of my mind.  What a treat then to find this rather long article by entitled Why Your Brain Hates Other People, by Robert Sapolsky, on the the root causes of so many different areas of prejudice, whether we call it racism or not, whether we talk of hate crimes or bullying or something else.

Fundamentally, whether we like it or not, our brains are hard-wired to “stick to our own kind”, whether that’s race, religion, politics, or class.  It’s in the amygdala. We won’t, in our lifetimes, overcome our biology, but understanding is the first step in lessening the negative impact in our own lives.

[The article references the Implicit Association Test – a brilliant way of testing your own prejudices.  Much of what Sapolsky talks about here can also be found in the work of the Human Givens Institute.  Both easily found with Google.]

I had a conversation with a political friend the other day.  I was reminiscing about being in Africa and noticing that people kept staring at me.  And then I realised I hadn’t seen another white face in three days.  I was passing through their land, albeit slowly.  I loved Africa and I hated it.  I was travelling on a shoestring, yet by virtue of my race, my colour, I was seen as rich.  And I was rich.  I had food in my belly.  I was travelling in a car.  But I knew that sooner or later I would have to face up to the fact that my travels were being increasingly funded by debt, and I would soon have to return to work to clear those debts.  Could I explain that?  No.  I was rich. I had access to debt I could hope to work to pay off.  My European passport (soon to be lost to Brexit, don’t get me started) gave me a freedom of movement not afforded to others. White privilege.

But as I reflect on Sapolsky’s article I wonder how else ‘they’ saw ‘me’?


Powerless – Empowered – Powerful – POWER

The rain was belting down.  The traffic on the roads was inching slowly forwards.

It’s rare for rain to be this heavy in Santiago city.  It happens only a couple of times a year.  When it happens the city is not prepared for it.  A bit like snow in England!  Huge numbers take to their cars in defence against the rain.  And then sit in long traffic queues.

The day we drove in to Santiago city to buy a new windscreen for our car happened to be one of those rare days when it rained.  It was the kind of cold relentless rain we are used to in England.  We did not know at the time that the people of Santiago are not used to this type of rain.  We thought the city traffic must always be like this.  Along with everyone else we sat in the traffic queue.  In three hours we covered three kilometres.

Out on the pavements many people were carrying umbrellas, or had covered themselves with plastic bags, or simply allowed their clothes to become saturated by the rain.  Some people were walking, while others stood at bus stops, attempting to get some respite from the rain from the small bus shelter.

As we inched our way forward in the traffic we noticed the aggressive actions of many of the drivers, forcing their way forward in front of another car and then another, being pushed back by someone else, all vying for that bit of tarmac in front of them.  No doubt they were feeling the frustration of knowing a dinner would be ruined, an evening class missed, a child’s bedtime missed, or even a child still waiting at the school entrance waiting to be taken home.  Every so often there arose a chorus of tooting horns, as if that would make any difference.

Each person in their own way was feeling the powerlessness of being stuck in the traffic, trying to exert a little power, even if that power could only be exerted in the tooting of a horn.

Despite the rain, despite getting wet, many of the pedestrians seemed happy as they smiled and chatted with others as they walked.  Perhaps they had chosen not to travel by car, or wait for the buses that were already late and getting later by the minute, stuck as they were in the same traffic as every other vehicle on the road.  Some pedestrians had made choices to walk and get wet, others had made efforts to protect themselves from the worst of the rain while they walked.  Others seemed to be sharing the camaraderie of their plight as they stood under bus shelters (oh, how very British!).  Whatever their reason for not being stuck in a traffic queue of stationary cars and buses, they were exercising choices and power over their situation.

If I were a medic conducting an experiment I’d expect to find that the pedestrians had lower levels of stress hormones in their bodies, than of those trying to force their way through the rubber, plastic and metal forest of throbbing engines.  And it all comes down to POWER.  As pedestrians they had power of choice over their situation – shelter, stand still, walk, run, cover up or get wet.  The drivers could only sit still and let their stress hormones build up, unable to get respite except in aggressive driving, angry words and the occasional tooting of horns.

Feelings of powerlessness can cause aggressive behaviours as the powerless try to claw back a little sense of control in their lives, whether a parent who is being told their child is being taken away, an elderly person who is being told they have to go and live in a residential home, or a child in foster care who is told they cannot see their parents.  Others have less obvious causes: bullies in the school or workplace, perpetrators of domestic violence, or the outburst of a stranger in a public place.

Who are the non-indigenous?

Modern society is coming to realise that the wisdom of many of the indigenous populations around the world has some profound insights into the damage done to our planet through the processes of industrialisation and subsequent technological developments.

Campaigns and advertising have highlighted the plight of those same indigenous populations, whose lands have been raped and their cultures all but annihilated.

But who are the non-indigenous who are getting the blame for the woes of the world and indigenous populations?

Travelling the world and meeting people from different cultures and lifestyles to my own has brought home to me just how much I have taken my country’s history for granted.  I may not have been a star in history classes but I can still rattle off references to Bede’s History of England; the Doomsday Book; and the time when the town of my birth was part of an actual island, the Isle of Thanet, separated from mainland England by the River Wantsum, until the monks of medieval times set about land reclamation, reducing the flow of the river water until what is left today is no more than a ditch in most places.

With Columbus discovery of the Americas in 1492 Europeans became the architects of invasion in the name of progress. From the early 1500’s the Spanish in particular were successful in colonising the Central and South Americas, most famously wiping out the Inca civilisations and leaving behind Catholic colonialism, Catholicism remaining the dominant religion to this day.  In the light of modern thought the methods of the conquistadors, the enforcing of their religion, seem inappropriate and unduly harsh.  Yet, for many, although trade was a part of their goal, what they did was in the sincere belief that the peoples in these countries needed to hear their message, needed the gift of salvation that they brought.  Their descendents can only trace their heritage no more than some five hundred years before they have to go to another culture to follow their ancestry.

The conquest of the North Americas took a little longer but still destroyed many of the native cultures.  The early settlers brought with them their developing knowledge of what would become the industrial revolution, along with guns and gunpowder and a determination to mine the ground for gold, silver and other precious metals.

Modern North Americans have a cultural history that goes back only a few generations in their own homeland.

The pioneers who broadened the early settlement areas to reach the west of the continent faced unknown dangers, crossing barren and hostile territory, carrying few possessions: blankets to sleep under, a few clothes, pots and pans for cooking, and, often, their Bibles.  They demonstrated physical and emotional strengths beyond imagination.  Many died before they reached their destinations, some from the harsh elements of the lands they travelled across, others at the hands of the various tribes of North American Indians (the local indigenous populations) who soon realised that the white man did not have much sympathy for either their lands or their cultures.

2011 02 25 (255) - Death Valley - Queen of Sheba mine

Mechanical relic at the Queen of Sheba Mine in Death Valley

The relics of the “forty-niners” who settled from 1849 to mine in the harsh dry desert of Death Valley still stand as a monument to their achievements: the remains of mine shafts, topped with the rusting hulks of the machines they used to ferry the rocks to the surface and begin the process of extracting the precious metals.

With those who settled on the west coast came new needs: communication with the east coast and Europe: friends and family left behind.  It could take several weeks for a mail coach to cross through the harsh lands of what are now the central states of the USA.  The Pony Express fast mail service, started in 1860, brought down the mail delivery time to just ten days.   But even this was not good enough for the new settlers.  Instead they developed the telegraph and railways, putting the Pony Express out of business in just eighteen months.

In doing so they defended themselves against the local populations who were alarmed at the changes being brought to their homeland, so much so that they all but wiped out the heritage of the indigenous North American Indians.  Their old lands have all but disappeared under the sprawling cities that have sprung up over the years, their old hunting grounds turned over to ‘management’ in the form of national parks.  The stories of their battles became the legends of children playing “Cowboys and Indians” for years to come, the stuff of John Wayne and spaghetti westerns.

Today, the descendents of those pioneers are the non-indigenous population of North America.  They are people who can only trace their history back a few short centuries before they have to look to the history of the cultures of their ancestors.  They are faced with the dilemma of admiring the amazing achievements of their forebears in overcoming tremendous physical difficulties, demonstrating amazing emotional and mental fortitude, against coming to terms with the cultural destruction of the indigenous populations that that involved.

But the North American population of today are not the only non-indigenous in a foreign land.

From the late 1700’s until 1868 those lovely British people decided they were did not have room to look after criminals of all sorts and so shipped them all off to live in another New World: Australia.  Their crimes might have been varied, from petty theft to murder and everything else in between, but these people had nothing to lose.  They may not have made the same choices as the pioneers travelling to North America but they too brought with them the knowledge of the developing industrial revolution and settled in to make the best of what fate had brought them.  Mostly survivors of the poverty wrought by the English industrial revolution they too were fighters and survivors.  Between 1851 and 1871 their numbers were swelled dramatically by the Australian gold rush.  But again, their descents, the non-indigenous of Australia, have only a little over two centuries of history before they too have to look to the cultures of their ancestors in Europe.

Whether by choice or force these were people who found themselves forging new lives in new environments.

But what of the non-indigenous today?  Their identities are rooted in short histories in their lands.  They have to live with the criticisms of their ancestors.  They are denied pride in the strength, determination and suffering endured by their ancestors.  They are left with the shame of the knowledge that their ancestors, despite what they thought were good intentions, caused damage and harm.  Will social workers one day ask questions about the emotional damage caused by current policies to the non-indigenous?!

In asking the question “Who are the non-indigenous?” there is no intention to undermine either the indigenous populations or their beliefs or cultures.  Only to recognise that there is always more than one side to a story, and to recognise the impact on the descendents of the perpetrators of the crimes against the indigenous populations.  It has taken many years but we should now know that everyone loses and suffers when it comes to violence and war, domination and destruction.

Asking Questions?

Whatever we like to think, we all live in the confines of our own experience, finding it hard to imagine how others might live.  For those who live in countries that consider themselves to be the most advanced and richest nations, it can be hard to even recognise that the rest of the world is actually in the majority.  And their priorities may be different for good reasons.  Certainly, we all need to love and be loved, eat and have somewhere to sleep, but we don’t all approach these needs in the same way.  Or the other things that occupy our minds and time, which can vary enormously.

Taking time out to travel around the world overland has brought me into contact with ways of life that I would not have seen by simply going on holiday.

In Mexico we have seen life lived in ways we have not seen outside of our history books.  Oxen pulling the plough in small fields, followed by an old man hand sowing seeds from a bucket.  These are Biblical illustrations, not modern farming methods.  Yet, quite logical when you see the size of the fields, small spaces that are cultivated in the natural rocky mountains, even, in some cases, the almost impossible forty five degree angle mountain slopes on which some fields have been created.  These are not the spaces for large tractors and other farm machinery.  The old methods are sometimes still the best.

In Mexico we have also seen and heard small lorries carrying pigs, three tiers high.  In England this was outlawed many years ago, the legal achievement of animal rights activists.  Should those activists be working to save the suffering of pigs in Mexico?  In a country where animals are looked after because they are a valuable resource, not out of sentimentality.  In a country where donkeys are still kept and used to transport wood from the forests for the fires at home.  And, where donkeys are not available, on the backs of men, women and children.  In a country where dogs are kept not out of sentimentality but because they provide an early warning system in the event of intruders and help with the herding of other animals.  It is undoubtedly true that not all animals are well cared for but in countries that pride themselves on caring for animals there are plenty of people who are still prosecuted for the suffering they cause dogs and cats, for cruelty to wildlife, often for no reason other than the fun of it.  I suspect the majority of Mexicans eking out an existence in the mountains would consider the concerns of the animal rights activists to be rather bizarre.

In Mongolia there is little agricultural farming, the land is far too unproductive to bother.  Animals again have an important role to play in the daily life of the Mongolian.  His family will probably have a horse or two for transport, alongside a small motorbike.  Several nomadic families may share the use of oxen and cart, or even a small tractor, to move home every two months.  The family will also probably have a couple of cows, sheep, goats, or yak or camels, depending on where in Mongolia they live.  If their livestock is undernourished it is because the weather has been cruel this year and the land has not produced enough of the sparse vegetation their animals feed on.  In this case, the Mongolian nomad and his family may well face the real risk of starvation themselves.

In other respects the animals’ lives are much better.  There is comparatively little factory farming.  Cows in Kazakhstan and Mongolia are left to wander around during the day, finding grazing where they can, returning home through the village on their own as dusk falls.  Pigs, turkeys and chickens living in fishing villages along the coast of Mexico have the run of the beach, or at least the run of the beach outside the home where they live, for the dogs of other homes do their job and chase them off if they wander too far from their own territory.

The obsessions and worries of the so called ‘advanced’ nations are often of little or no concern here.  Children and teenagers are left alone caring for animals, each other, livestock, and elderly relatives.  They are trusted and trustable.  If chores need to be done they do them, and occupy themselves in play in between times.  Responsibility is given at a young age, but only to the degree that responsibility can be handled.  Life, human and animal, is too precious to entrust it to the not yet trustable.

Two young men work together in Mongolia.  They harvest the marshland for grasses for winter feed for their animals.  They work as part of a group of maybe twenty men, the oldest of whom is probably in his fifties.  One young man is sixteen, sometimes shy and a little childlike in unfamiliar company and the older men cover for him at those times.  But he is also strong and well-built and able to work as well as men much older and more experienced than he is.  In the fields he is listened to as an equal by his colleagues when he has something to say.  The other boy is a little younger, maybe fifteen.  He is shy and childlike in all his dealings.  His thinking is not as quick and he says little.  Physically he does what he can but he is slim and with little muscle on his frame.  His uncle, one of the group of men, watches over him and protects him.  No-one seems to mind the difference.  Both have a role to play in this society.  Both are equally accepted.

In the majority world childhood is a transition from infancy to adulthood where responsibility and duty are learned through being a part of a community.  Chores may be a chore to some but for most they are just the way of life.  To what extent are we doing our children a favour if we protect them from the hardship of chores and responsibility?  How will they learn to be trustable contributing adults if not by experience?  Or do we leave this learning until adulthood has been attained?  If we think childhood is lost in the majority world to what should be adult responsibilities, I wonder what the parents of those children think of the alternative of childhood being lost to early sexualisation in the ‘advanced’ nations.

Material poverty is real in these countries, but they still have family and community.    But there are changes.  In the bigger towns and cities, where the influences from the west are greatest, the beginnings of a move away from dependence on community and family can be seen: children are more likely to group together in Internet cafés, the young and the old don’t mix together so much.

Global warming and recycling have become mainstream concerns in the advanced nations, where councils and governments have introduced legislation to force people to recycle their paper and plastics in their weekly waste collections.  This works well in countries with highly developed waste collection systems.

However in countries such as Mongolia and Mexico waste collections are non-existent in many areas.  At a micro level this is not such a problem as it might be in England.  People buy fewer goods that come with lots of packaging, vegetables are bought from local markets and shops, not wrapped in several layers of plastic.  The same goes for meat.  There is not the dependence on tinned or packet foods, or pre-prepared and packaged ready meals outside of the main cities.    What little rubbish is produced is easily burned, and in both countries people in the rural areas do just this.  The Mongolian burns his rubbish behind his ger before he packs up to move to a new site every two months.  Where there are villages or small towns there is often a collective site on the outskirts of the settlement.  On such a small scale there is little thought or concern for the risk this might cause to the ozone layer.  Better surely to burn the rubbish than leave it for the rats to make nests in right outside their kitchens.

In Kazakhstan there is a growing problem with waste plastic bottles.  The water is largely poor quality and not good for drinking and it is possible to buy lemonade, colas, and other sweet drinks as well as water in various sizes of plastic bottles.  But in such a vast country there is little in the way of organised waste collection and these empty bottles are increasingly littering the countryside.  A similar situation could exist in Mongolia, except in this even more sparsely populated country the continued nomadic culture sees these bottles added to the periodic fires in which waste is burnt.

In Mexico there continues an otherwise outdated system of using returnable and recycled glass containers.  Coca-Cola in particular has many small delivery vehicles moving around the country, taking advantage of the good road infrastructures that do not exist in Mongolia.

In England and America there are no more returnable glass bottles. It is all plastic bottles and cans.  There Coca-Cola have fallen in with the market needs of the big supermarkets.  Huge outlets requiring massive deliveries to central warehouses.  Customers who travel to centralised locations or shopping centres.  The big supermarkets do not operate in a system that is conducive to collecting returnable bottles for individual manufacturers.

In England there is a plethora of campaigns to support, whether it be related to global warming, destruction of the rainforests, food waste, recycling, child or animal welfare, the obesity and health crisis in the west, medical research such as for the treatment of cancer, reduction of poverty or provision of resources such as clean water and sanitation for those who do not have such things.  We each choose our own causes to support based on our interests and experiences.  And it’s right that we do so.  Yet for the most part we only see what’s under our noses, what ‘our’ media pick up on, which in turn is largely the campaigns of those who shout loudest or have the most famous patrons.  It’s good that social media is now able to bring international support to bear on issues that affect the world, and Facebook has done just this, yet so often this gives us yet more causes, campaigns and concerns to worry over and spread our support to.

It seems that every issue of concern, every campaign, has a value.  But there are so many.  How to choose the ones that are worthy?  Perhaps one way to help make that decision is to step back and view the issues as a whole.  Perhaps as the leaves on the branches on a tree.  The leaves are the causes and the campaigns.  The branches are the problems that are to be resolved.  The trunk and the roots are the human greed, selfishness and lusting after power, that are behind so many of the problems the world faces today.  These are the causes of the problems mankind face.  The reasons there are wars, poverty, starvation, inequality, global warming, and concerns about diminishing resources.

We plough the fields and scatter – in modern day Mexio

transporting live pigs in Mexico

Let is snow, let it snow, let it snow

The news of deaths during the current winter weather is always sad but why is the wintry weather so much more of a crisis and so much more ‘difficult’ to deal with than it used to be 40 years ago?  Even the current weather, which is more severe than we have seen in perhaps the last 10 or so years is no worse than I recall from my childhood in the 1960’s.

Or perhaps it’s society that’s changed.  In the 1960’s we were more dependent on walking and less dependent on travelling by car.  It was more likely that our families and our jobs were within walking distance and we hadn’t yet developed the habit of holidaying abroad, especially at Christmas. We were less likely to expect it to be our right to travel whenever  and wherever we wanted, regardless of the weather.  We knew the dangers of getting hypothermia and took more precautions to protect ourselves.  And I can’t help feeling that our news services were a little less inclined to hype up into such a drama every negative bit of news and comment that came their way.

So let’s recap.  It’s winter.  It’s cold.  It’s snowed and is snowing still.  Now lets strike a blow for common sense and just get on with it.  Help the old and vulnerable if you are able.  Use modern communications to keep in touch.  Instead of moaning about what we cannot do lets boast about how we coped and how much fun we had instead.  Like we used to in the old days.  And plan next year’s special long distance visits when it’s less likely to be dangerous to travel (or so expensive).

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