Most homeless people have a roof over their heads, surviving by sleeping in hostels, on friends sofa’s or through similar arrangements. Last year 113,000 people in the UK approached authorities for help because they were in this situation. This is a massive under-estimate of the true numbers.
Some homeless people, especially the most vulnerable, are forced to sleep rough because no roof is available to them. London has a relatively sophisticated system for tracking homeless people, known as CHAIN. This allows the figures for London to be reported more accurately than elsewhere in the UK, however the problem is replicated in cities across the country.
CHAIN tells us that 6437 people slept rough in London in the last year:
- 4,353 people were new rough sleepers, 1,413 people were seen sleeping rough sleeping for two or more years, and 671 have returned to rough sleeping after a gap of a year or more.
- 88 per cent are male, 70 per cent are white.
- 58 per cent are aged between 26 and 45 years with 11 per cent under 25 and 9 per cent over 55.
- Many have one or more support needs: 41 per cent alcohol; 28 per cent drugs; 44 per cent mental health. The proportion of rough sleepers with no support needs has risen to 31 per cent, compared to 17 per cent in 2010/11.
- 32 per cent have been in prison at some point, 10 per cent in care and 10 per cent in the armed forces.
- Where nationality was recorded, 2,923 people rough sleeping were UK nationals – 47 per cent of the total. 28 per cent were from CEE countries. For more information see ‘Homelessness among different groups’.
This data was taken from the Charity Crisis who in turn mined the CHAIN database.
Add to that the following facts:
- Rough sleepers are 35 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population
- The average life expectancy of a homeless person is 47 (for the general population it is 78, a loss of 31 years)
- Homeless people I have known have included literary critics, academics, businessmen, builders and musicians.
- Homeless people are just that, people without homes. They span the whole of humanity from nice to nasty, intellectual to slow, pacifist to angry. They are people like any other who have often run into bad luck and fallen away from ‘normal’ society.
Please do not walk away from this no matter where you live. People are dying. People you walk past every day. People are dying because our society does not value them and because we don’t value them politicians think they can be ignored with impunity. It’s time we stopped sending that message.
I was recently reading an excellently written short article that spoke directly to feelings that have forming within me for some months. I encourage you to read it here:
In essence the author says that as a man he does not feel he can be a feminist even though he supports the goals of the feminist movement. In essence this is because he has neither been raised as female or lives as a female in this society, therefore he cannot have the shared experience of female gender oppression that is necessary to comprehend the feminist position and so cannot take a meaningful role in the strategy to combat it. He can however act as an ally in assisting feminists to achieve their aims
I recognise much of what is being said here because I am a white middle class male who was not raised female. Unlike the author I have experienced societal discrimination due to my innate attributes but in my case it is because I am manic depressive and not because I have lived as a female. So, can I truly be a feminist or should I cast myself in the more marginal role of a feminist ally?
The answer to my titular question is heavily reliant upon the often fluid definition of what feminism and feminists actually are.
If the definition is taken from the dictionary we see feminism as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.” (although I’d prefer equality of the genders). Such a definition clearly allows non-females to be feminists.
However, if we go to an extreme separatist feminist viewpoint – “”Life” in this “society” being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of “society” being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.” (SCUM Manifesto) then I most certainly cannot be a feminist.
Of course most groups lie between the extremes of complete equality for males within a feminist movement and the outright rejection of males in their entirety. In my experience feminist groups lean strongly toward acceptance of men who have developed an understanding of the nature of patriarchal oppression and demonstrated a willingness to learn from the oppression of others.
What I take from this is, as with all movements, feminism is factionalised and I am welcome (or even encouraged) in some areas whilst being rejected in others. A situation not so different from any other collective organisation in this world.
For me personally it is feminist groups that have adopted ideas based around the intersectional feminism of Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks and others that speak most credibly to the topic of making successful and realistic alterations to society to achieve female equality (and, hand in hand with this, racial, disability and many other equalities). Within this context I can be a feminist and, even if I choose not to be one, I have a duty to engage with feminism from the the viewpoint of the oppressions that I experience. This is because a final feminist equality must necessarily include a liberation of men from patriarchal oppression alongside the liberation of people of colour, mental disability and many other oppressed groups.
It is this intersectional definition of feminism that speaks most clearly to me. To my eye it is a definition of feminism that transcends feminism itself in that it acknowledges that we live in a society that includes powerful inbuilt negative influences on multiple groups on the basis of gender, sexuality, religion, mental disability, physical disability, race and many other aspects of normal human variation. With that understanding it becomes clear that each of us is to some extent oppressed and to some extent an oppressor. Each of us has a duty to attempt to locate ourselves within the web of oppression and aid each other in extracting ourselves as best we are able.
To successfully end discrimination against any group will require the dismantling of significant aspects of the current societal power structures and replacing them with new structures better designed to promote equality. Dismantling the power structure is too great a job for any single oppressed group acting on its own and building a viable alternative is impossible for a single group as it will automatically incorporate the invisible oppressions inherent to that group. We may well achieve a society that is equal for women, but it will not be equal with respect to race and other oppressions unless we have previously embraced and learned from those groups. A truly equal society can only stem from multiple oppressed groups that have acknowledged the fact that their societally inherited viewpoints are often oppressive to others and strive to find a way to work together without mutually oppressing each other. When that goal has been achieved these combined groups will not only have a more comprehensive understanding of how to build an equal society but will have the strength of numbers necessary to achieve meaningful societal change.
So. Can I be a feminist? On current reflection I believe a feminist is not something you are or something that you think, I believe it is something that you do. When I am holding a placard or taking some other action to support equality of the genders then I am a feminist. When I am campaigning for the rights of the disabled I am a disability rights activist. When I am working with the homeless then I am a human rights activist. When I am sitting at home then I am just me, I still have my views and beliefs on all these things but they are intermingled and can no longer be easily attributed to a single viewpoint. I choose not to label them unless they are in action.
The Oxford Feminist Network, of which I am a member, adopted the following guiding statement:
“This group is for any person of any gender identity in Oxford and all are welcome to be members whether you are just beginning to explore feminism or whether you have decided your views. This group is about recognising that feminism is an inherently political movement connected to and through lots of other social justice movements and challenging other forms of inequality. We meet once a month in Oxford for discussions, activism planning and networking and at other times to conduct events, protests and projects. The Facebook site is an adjunct to face to face meetings.
“We aim to be an accessible group; to meet at accessible venues and put up information and important points raised in our meetings for those unable to attend.
“We are still learning to challenge our own learned prejudices. If someone in the group has said something or done something prejudiced or discriminatory, please feel free and safe to raise the issue without retribution (either directly or with the moderators) and we will all work to resolve it. Be respectful, encouraging and kind.”
I believe this statement marks the first step along the right path for many of us.
I have spent the bulk of today in a meeting in the North of England. Actually that’s a lie, I spent two hours in the meeting but the travel time is 4 hours so it still counts. Why not do it by Skype? Nothing’s as good as meeting someone face to face to make sure you all understand what each other needs. Anyhow, enough of the meeting, all that matters are the introductions when I first arrived. I walked through the door and the guy I was there to meet greeted me with a smile, shook my hand and said ‘Wow, you’ve lost weight. You look good!’. It was meant as a compliment and I took it as a compliment but somewhere in the back of my mind wheels started turning.
My bodily appearance is especially prone to variance. Today I am just overweight but my stomach is not particularly protuberant and I feel healthy (I am apple shaped, my weight shows up on my stomach). A year ago I weighed nearly two stone heavier (about thirteen kilo’s), my belt size was four to six inches larger and I had a tendency to lean slightly backwards when I walked, to bring my centre of gravity in line. Four years ago I still weighed two stone heavier than today but I was running marathons and, although I was technically overweight, the weight was predominantly muscle (which is denser than fat although I’m not sure the difference accounts for the entire observation) and so my belt size was lower than today even though I am now significantly lighter than I was then. Ten years before that I was so underweight that my doctor advised me to eat high calorie snacks whenever I could. In total it’s a seven stone (fourty five Kilo) variation throughout my adult life. Add to that the fact that I bloat when eating certain foods due to IBS and the variance is notable.
Through all of the above body change, maybe even because of it, I’ve never particularly felt that my weight was part of who I was. Rather it felt almost as if my weight were something I did or an accoutrement that I chose to wear. On me but not of me. Other things were relevant of course, if I felt unhealthy, got out of breath climbing a hill, that would worry me. But the weight itself and the appearance that went with it was never of overriding interest to me. It appeared to be of great interest to others however – in this society it is completely acceptable to mention someone’s weight change (especially weight loss) and to judge weight loss as a good thing. I would get comments regularly, positive or negative depending on my direction of travel.
In this society it is increasingly unacceptable to judge on skin colour, age or sex but it is still OK to judge on the basis of weight and the appearance of weight.
It’s long been observed that western society treasures physical thinness above almost any other attribute. It’s an obsession taken to extremes for women but vies with a second ‘ideal’ in men – that of muscularity. As such men are judged by their thinness but they need to be careful not to get too thin or the lack of muscularity starts to extract a social toll. This gives men a useful get out in that as long as we do not wear form fitting clothes (and few but runners and cyclists choose to wear spandex) we can at least give the illusion, the possibility, that we have a well balanced thin/muscular body beneath. As far as I can tell women are just encouraged to starve or develop eating disorders to be acceptable. We are all striving for a societally sanctioned norm that has a strong negative effect on men but an even stronger and more harmful effect on women (I don’t know enough to comment on the effect it has on other genders but I’m prepared to bet it isn’t good).
I wont try to explain how this societal norm has formed over time – I don’t have sufficient understanding of it and others are far more qualified than I am to theorise. Suffice it to say that every culture and every era that I am aware of seems to have imposed a norm of some sort. However, rarely has a single norm been so dominant as the current drive toward thin (a fact that I perhaps naively attribute to the globalisation of anglo-american culture and ideals) and rarely has the ideal been so at odds with the realities of medical knowledge. To be morbidly obese has severe health risks but to be as underweight as the current media ideal has far greater risks associated with it.
A great deal has been written about the effects this has on people and I want to be careful to talk about and theorise upon my own experiences. All of this is my own experience and as with any experience of an individual it does not encompass the whole. However, it is a part of the whole.
So, what of men and their internalised understanding of physical desirability to a partner. To many, including me, physical desirability is strongly correlated with the possession of a ‘six-pack’ (protruberant abdominal muscles, not the arrangement of beer cans). To have a six pack a male must have less significantly than 10% body fat and be engaged in strong abdominal exercise on a regular basis – the average male has about 25% body fat and (in the west) works in a seated position for eight to ten hours a day. Therefore, to meet the societal ideal of attractive most males would need to be on a strict diet and spend a significant proportion of their free time exercising – an option that is simply not realistic, nor healthy, for the vast majority. What’s more the possession of so little body fat makes a person ill suited to stamina based exercise, it is rare you will find a marathon runner with so little body fat because some fat reserve is actual vital to sustained performance. I find it unlikely (although I do not know for sure) that the majority of women are actively seeking partners that spend so much time in self-interested exercising or that cannot partake in a full and pleasurable diet – even if those women do buy into the media norm of the attractive and desirably muscled male. Therefore males are feeling a strong pressure to sacrifice elements of their personal health in order to achieve a societal norm of attraction that is not actually attractive to the majority of people they are attempting to impress. Physical appearance aside the mental effects of this pressure to conform with the near impossible and the emotional ongoing damage caused by failure is huge. The equivalent occurs with females and I believe that to be even more damaging due to their lower status in western society and the fact that their ‘ideal’ is even more physically unhealthy.
I have observed an indication of the falseness of societies ideal of female attractiveness through discussion with male friends (predominantly white and outwardly identifying as heterosexual). It needs to be made clear at this point that I believe a persons weight is their own business and shouldn’t be dictated by anybody else. However a great deal of advertising attempts to equate thin with sexually attractive to the opposite sex and this is especially true when directed toward females being attractive toward males. So, this observation is offered in an attempt to highlight an interesting dissonance between this advertising and reality.
When outwardly heterosexual men are together (or at least when they’re together with me) and conversation strays to partners and what we are looking for in relationships it is very unusual for somebody to express desire for somebody based on an appearance of being under-weight (indeed general appearance, whilst relevant, is not normally high on a man’s wishlist for a long term partner – this appearance obsession seems to be more for teenagers or individuals with self esteem issues who need a ‘trophy’ to shore up what they perceive as their precarious position in society) . Many times I’ve heard people make comments along the lines that ‘[insert currently popular super-thin model] is beautiful to look at but I want my partner to be a real woman’ or even ‘I prefer a partner that I don’t feel will break when I squeeze them’. These comments raise a plethora of questions that I cannot begin to address but two really hit me. Firstly, the idea expressed by these men that a ‘real woman’ is not extremely thin is extremely dehumanising to women who, by choice or otherwise, are thin and secondly there appears to be a significant disconnect between what many men find beautiful or sexually arousing in the media and what they find beautiful or sexually arousing in person.
I am not convinced that these points can be disentangled from each other. If these men genuinely find super-thin women attractive within the sphere of the media but not in reality then there is some kind of dissonance present whereby they cannot consider what they see on the screen as being real. Perhaps through a process of desensitisation they cease to be affected by the unreality of the ideal they are witnessing in the media every day. What then when they are confronted by a particularly thin female in reality? Can she be considered to be real or is she a non-human in the same way that the televisual images are non-people, to be desired but not to be allocated human rights and considerations? This strikes me as an extremely dangerous space to inhabit.
So, to achieve societies ideal of beauty and to therefore unburden himself of the negative comments of his peers a man must heavily control his diet and spend unhealthy amounts of time exercising to build muscle that he either doesn’t need or that actively impedes him. Probably making himself less desirable as a partner to the majority of women.
A woman must reduce her body mass to such an extent that she endangers her health and well-being whilst simultaneously reducing her attractiveness to the majority of men. Furthermore her relatively low status compared to men mean that she must exist in a potentially dangerous culture of dehumanisation that may put her, and all women, at significant risk.
How did we allow this mutually harmful disconnect between perception and reality to form? I don’t think anybody truly knows but my suspicions are that the perception is connected to the fact that it’s easy to sell product to people who are chasing the unobtainable. The desire for new things can only be based upon dissatisfaction with the present status quo and a need (real or perceived) to improve that situation. What could be more powerful, and more lucrative, than to convince people that one of their deepest and more basic requirements, the desire for companionship and procreation, is dependent upon their acheiveing and maintaining an unobtainable ideal. Now every new product that comes out can be hooked to this desire and made saleable to a population desperate to overcome their perceived failings.
I don’t see a conspiracy, I see the natural progression of the market toward the creation of a sustainable demand for the purchase of multiple product categories. I see the unforeseen physical and mental fallout of creating a self-sustaining desire to strive to achieve something that for the majority is unachievable. Whether by desire or by happy accident today’s marketeers have created the perfect conditions for perpetual sales and perpetual human dissatisfaction.
Diamond mind welsh child riding the rails
Sweetly inquisitive now grown up impressive
Just because we don’t talk anymore
Doesn’t mean I’m not your friend
Melancholy man with your head full of tricks
Knowing smiles of whimsy borne from your lips
Just because we don’t talk anymore
Don’t think I’d spurn your call
Tear stained crazy hair crying frustration
Black cape aswirling as you tumble through time
Just because we don’t talk anymore
Doesn’t mean I’ve stopped searching
Pensive and powerful quiet worded traveller
Walking worlds pathways that my feet wont tread
Just because we don’t talk anymore
Does not mean you have no harbour
Far flung recollection of moments of magic
Sweet fossilised life filled with memories of joy
Even if we never make contact
You have free acccess to my heart
”The sea is the same as it has been since before men ever went on it in boats.” Ernest Hemingway
In the reality in which I live (and we all live in our own realities, intersecting but never converging) the concept of change is a terrifying thing. There are solid reasons for this, the lack of internal stability that comes hand in hand with my manic depression means that I compensate by enforcing external predictability. By limiting the number of new external inputs I can reduce the number of potentially harmful mis-reactions to a manageable degree. This manifests in a number of ways.
In order to limit my potential exposure to chaotic inputs I will only let a small number of individuals get close to me. I can have many colleagues but a very limited number of friends who I will seek to be with. These friends do not have to agree with me, or treat me with kid gloves – we can argue (indeed, I enjoy it) – but they are all people who I can trust to be responsible with my feelings. They are all people who will not push when I need to have my space.
To avoid fatigue I will avoid going to events on two consecutive nights, and by ‘going to events’ I generally mean leaving the house. This again relates to my experience of manic depression and the observation that I become restless and mentally agitated if exposed to too much stimulus over consecutive days. I may enjoy the actual events but when I come away the insistent thoughts and ideation are far stronger than they were before. The ever present haze of depression is harder to penetrate, the rushing of my mental processes that much more difficult to dam. I cannot go out night after night and simultaneously maintain control of my mind and emotions and so I don’t go out night after night. My manic depression does not control me, I control it; but some of the tools that I utilise cost me in time.
I tend to avoid excessive planning (or even any planning as my fiancée can attest). This seems unusual at first glance. To minimise uncertainty you would assume that thorough planning was a requirement. However, in my world, the feelings associated with deviation from a plan can be extreme. Before the event my thoughts will fixate upon the pre-determined timings involved and obsess about the potential to fail to meet those deadlines. During the event I will fail to enjoy anything that is taking place because I am worrying about the next waypoint and, ultimately, if we go off track I experience a terrible sense of fear and failure for having been unable to adhere to the plan. I cope with this by having no plan, by placing no timings upon events and pre-selecting no list of goals or requirements except, perhaps, ones so general as to be easily achievable. My decisions are taken, as much as can be possible, in the moment. I rarely fail to achieve an objective because my objectives are usually short-term, vague and easily achievable. I attempt to pass from one moment to the next without judgement or expectation. In my ideal world I have no history and no future, I am only now and I am at peace. The parallel with Buddhist teachings is not lost on me.
Of course the ideal world in which I only meet individuals who are responsible with my feelings, who do not press me to accept more inputs than I can easily process and who are happy for me to exist in a bubble of immediacy does not, can not, exist. Accepting the non-existence of perfection is something that can be hard for those who are ‘mentally different’. It is hard for me because I judge myself against an extreme of perfection that solely exists as an idea contained within me. If I cannot reach this perfection then I label myself a failure, but intellectually I know that the best I can hope for in such a contest is to occasionally reach perfection and that therefore only very occasionally will I be satisfied with anything I do. Perversely my judgement upon others is wholly reversed – of course they cant achieve perfection, it is an unattainable goal, and so I find myself willing to forgive them any transgression and reluctant to levy any punishment for a wrongdoing.
That, the above, is the day to day. It is the tension between theoretical need and actualisation. It is how I live from minute to minute and hour to hour. It is an adaptation designed to let me survive in what, essentially, is a hostile reality of my own invention. However, as I alluded to in the opening paragraph there is another time-frame that I am forced to address, that of lifelong happiness.
There are times in life when change, or the option for change, inserts itself. Moments of crux when we must make a concious decision to take one path or another and where the need for a decision is hard coded into the reality itself. The decision must be made because either the status quo has become untenable or doing nothing is a decision within itself. If your landlord decides to stop renting your home, you must move on somewhere. If you meet someone you love and, against all expectation, find you cannot imagine being without them then you must adjust. If you are offered a better job nearer to your home then you must choose to move forwards or forever wonder at the opportunity passed.
I have encountered all of the above and at these times I have no choice but to abandon the day to day. No choice but to turn the incumbent order upon its head and make those changes necessary to encode a new normality, find a new day to day. The transition between different day-to-day realities is hard. I must un-moor myself and ride for a time upon potentially treacherous waters in order to attain the new port – I must take a risk that I am extremely uncomfortable taking. But, there is no choice, and furthermore to refuse to take the risk would be foolhardy in the extreme. The option itself has shattered the current day-to-day and will quickly erode its comforting safety if I try and ignore the new possibilities that I have been presented with. The choice is no real choice, to stay in the safe mooring is to condemn myself to certain downfall, I must take the risk. I must make the attempt.
Next year, in January, I will be starting a new job, a job of frightening complexity. Next year, at a date yet to be set, I will be getting married to the most wonderful lady in my reality. I will be co-arranging a feast for friends, relatives and acquaintances that will be judged and talked about. Next year is set for a great deal of treacherous water and the possibilities of sparkling new ports of destination.
I have cast off from the day-to-day and am adrift, looking to find that sparkling port, looking to find that better place one step closer to perfection.