Thanks for the trust…

I’ve just listened to an interview with Walter Brueggemann on the topic of money, and as a result have his book on the subject on my wish list. I wrote a fair amount about property a little while ago (this is a link to the earlier post in that series), and it is very good to hear Brueggemann endorsing my view that possessions and money are not to be regarded, if you wish to follow the Biblical witness, as being “yours”; I like the concept of “holding on trust” which he talks of.

Of course, I anticipate the argument that we can’t actually run a society based on these Biblical principles. G.K. Chesterton wrote “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried”, and I am very tempted to agree. As I’ve written before, there seems evidence in Acts 2-5 that the very early church was trying to take a view of economics which was essentially communitarian (particularly Acts 4:32), but the experiment does not seem to have persisted all that long, and the injunction in Leviticus to hold a regular “year of Jubilee” when all debts were cancelled and all land returned to its original owners does not seem to have been followed for very long, if at all – certainly there is no trace of it in the historical record; I ask myself whether the Pauline efforts to support the Jerusalem Church were in fact famine relief, or whether trying to follow Jesus’ and the Hebrew Scriptures’ injunctions regarding property might have had significant negative effect, in which case there would be some justification in saying that Chesterton was wrong in saying the ideal had not been tried.

But I really like the concept of “held in trust”. That would mean that I don’t necessarily have to pauperise myself, but can hold assets and money as long as I acknowledge that the primary purpose of this is to benefit people in general, rather than just myself and my immediate family; I hold them subject to an obligation.

OK, there is a general principle of trust law that trustees should not benefit from the trust, but a well drawn trust deed will include provisions for the trustee to be reasonably remunerated for the work they do – and besides, I am one of the class of beneficiaries of this particular trust anyhow, as are my family!

I think I can extend the principle, as well. I have (whether by nature or nurture, but in any event largely not by my own doing) a reasonable intellect and a good memory, and regard those too as something I hold in trust for the benefit of people generally.

And, of course, to regard my money, possessions and abilities as a gift is in and of itself something which can contribute to my own happiness, given the finding that people tend rather strongly to be happy in proportion to the extent that they feel grateful!

What tribe are you from?

It’s curious how linked things seem to come together – one might almost think someone is trying to tell me something when I’ve been thinking about “privilege” for a week or two, someone posts in a private group about coping with the guilt of being white and male, and I also find a criticism of “colourblindness” on my main feed and an article about balancing religious conviction against ethnic identity.

I don’t really feel significant guilt about being white or male, both being things which I have not chosen. I do not accept concepts of inherited guilt, such as original sin; I am inclined to rely on Ezekiel 18, particularly vv. 1-9. OK, I am aware that it is possible to be transgender, thus perhaps stopping being male, but this is only feasible if you have a mismatch between your physical body and your internal mental image; I pass quickly over those who claim to self-identify as being of a race which they don’t appear to belong to; they tend to look foolish in the eyes of others of both races, though I will come back to that. I have enough guilt arising from my self-identification as Christian, given the long history of persecution of other religions and of slightly nonstandard theologies which Christianity as a body should rightly be ashamed of and guilty about, and from my participation in a neo-liberal financialised capitalist state, given that I consider that to be little short of supporting Satan… Those are things which I could, in theory, change, though in the first case I would have immense difficulty in not identifying as a follower (albeit a bad one) of Jesus, and in the second it would be substantially difficult to extricate myself from the system in which I live – I have spent a lot of time working politically against the slide towards neoliberalism, but that doesn’t necessarily excuse completely.

I could, I suppose, still change the fact that I was born British (subset English, though about half Scots, subset Yorkshireman). That comes with another potential load of manure stemming from the country’s colonial past and a lot of wars. Indeed, I’ve contemplated that – I feel very much at home in France, where I can cope fine in the language, and have also considered a number of other European countries where I’m less linguistically able. I’ve particularly contemplated it given the results of the last two elections, which have cemented the political slide into neoliberalism and given the Brexit vote, which I consider toxic – but it isn’t really a live option now given mine and my wife’s age and mental and physical disabilities. That said, I’m inclined to think that the negative effects of past colonialism have been balanced against a significant number of good things; I don’t know where the balance lies, but it isn’t actually unmitigated evil.

But, past colonialism has had an impact in meaning that I am privileged in at least one way; I live in a first world nation, and though not particularly rich by the standards of the society I live in, I’m very rich compared with the vast majority of humanity. That privilege isn’t built entirely on colonial exploitation, of course, it’s also built on the inventiveness of past Britons and on our exploitation of each other – one side of my family clawed their way up, over about 200 years, from being distinctly among the exploited in the mines of Yorkshire to being, arguably, among the exploiters. My grandfather was the first generation to be an employer, and my father and myself have also been employers, and while we have all had a distinct tendency towards regarding employees more as family than as opponents or material to be exploited, nonetheless we have benefited from the “surplus value” of other peoples’ labour.

Actually, having done one of those “check your privilege” questionnaires a while ago, I find that overall I’m not particularly privileged – I have enough negative privilege points to counterbalance the huge “privileges” of being born white, male, first world and middle class. The questionnaire didn’t advert to the fact that I was also endowed by genetics and upbringing with a fairly high intelligence and a very good memory, nor to the fact that I happened to be born, worked and retired during a period in which it has been possible to provide decently for my retirement, which is probably a privileged position compared with that of my children. I have, therefore, significant “privilege” in my own eyes.

But should I feel guilty about that? I tend to think not, as long as I haven’t got there by means which are unfair to others, and I’ve tried very hard to be fair to others since my mid teens. What I do feel, and I think it is right to feel, is an increased obligation to help those less privileged than me. I have, due to the privilege, some ability to do that, and I answer that call. Probably not to the extent which would be ideal, but I answer it nonetheless.

My felt obligation to be fair to others, however, does mean that I feel it right to be at least somewhat colour blind. Referring to the article I linked to earlier, it didn’t actually occur to me when watching “Thor” that Idries Elba is black and therefore could be regarded as a rather strange Norse God. To my mind, he makes a perfectly convincing Norse God; he is a very fine actor. The article, however, suggests that by not noticing his skin colour, I am denying him his heritage.

The thing is, for that role, Elba’s skin colour is not (and to my mind should not be) a factor. He is an actor, and he is portraying someone (granted a mythical someone) from a different milieu – which is what actors do all the time. In most of my interactions with other people, their ethnicity is just not a factor – unless it impacts on what the interaction is about. It was, for instance, irrelevant in considering who I might employ or with whom I did business. My own ethnicity was equally irrelevant. In point of fact, so was my gender and that of employees and employers. At least for the most part – there were times when I had to consider (for instance) if a client would be more comfortable with a black, or asian, or female advocate – but that was acknowledging that the client was not colour-blind. I will grant that I was occasionally considering whether the tribunal would react better to an advocate of a particular sex, which does concern me as it was potentially playing to the sexism of the court, but cannot recall having ever considered that a jury would think of a black advocate (for instance) as anything other than just a barrister. While there were times when I needed to consider the ethnicity (or, sometimes, just religion) of an advocate due to the fact that the case revolved in some part round that ethnicity or religion, that impacted on what the interaction was about, and so falls into my earlier exclusion.

Should someone, just based on their skin colour, be forced to adopt an ethnicity which the rest of us consider consistent with that ethnicity? As I mentioned earlier, adopting an ethnicity apparently at odds with the way you appear can invite ridicule from both camps – but that generally only applies where the individual in question is by appearance from a majority ethnicity but wishes to adopt a minority ethnicity. Personally, I’m entirely happy to accept any ethnicity someone wishes to adopt, irrespective of whether their skin colour or facial features seem to me to be a “good fit” for that ethnicity. There are other ways of displaying most ethnicities via appearance which can be changed – dress, for instance, or hairstyle, or patterns of speech (though that latter is problematic, as, for instance, those who have a different native language often cannot adopt a new one without perceptible accent). When playing a Norse God, Elba is not wanting us to consider his African heritage, he is wanting us to consider his assumed Norse ethnicity, which is amply displayed by the way he is costumed and the way he talks.

I will grant that I wouldn’t contemplate saying something like “I don’t see your colour, I just see you”. Of course I see someone’s colour, just as I notice if they have ginger hair or are seven feet tall (I did for a while have a client who would say that he was six feet fourteen tall; his height wasn’t something you could remotely ignore on first acquaintance, but where it didn’t impact on the work I was doing for him, the only result was that I tended to warn him about doorways where I wouldn’t have for a less vertically endowed individual). Is it relevant to my interaction with someone? Usually not. My seven foot two client  mostly didn’t want to talk about his height, and if he did, he could introduce the topic. However, when he injured himself walking into a road sign which would have cleared the head of anyone in a more normal range of height, and wished to sue the council, clearly it was a factor.

In the same way, if someone is clearly suffering because of some physical aspect they have, I have to consider that. Mostly, that’s been because someone else has made a comment or acted in a way which is prejudicial. Of course I’m going to notice that. The article does, however, make me worry slightly that because I don’t immediately assume that the most important thing about someone is their physical appearance, I might miss some systematic bias against them. That’s true, but the alternative would be to force on people an identity which they might not want to accept.

And that is because there’s what I regard as a flaw in the beginning of the article. It conflates “race” with “skin colour”, and then talks about the two interchangeably. A lot of the time, when it refers to “race”, it’s actually referring to ethnicity. I don’t think ethnicity should depend on skin colour, or that for a lot of people (in my country, at least), it does.

Ethnicity is another matter. It’s the overlapping set of ethnicity, culture, nation and (if you really dig deep) tribe which is significant; “race” is a corrupted term which tends to allocate ethnicity on the basis of colour, and it shouldn’t – as witness this clip from “Crocodile Dundee”.

What tribe are YOU from? I’ll be coming back to this…


Working for the joy of it?

A few weeks ago I wrote a post which touched on working, and my need for it to be useful in some sense (while in general complaining about the general assumption that the value of everything is measured in money). Today, I find an article on Intrinsic Motivation, which I strongly recommend.

It certainly reinforces my general thesis; there is a disconnect between what makes us want to do things and the money we may gain as a result. I’m actually in the relatively happy position, being retired from my original main occupation, of being able to do pretty much what I want to; I don’t have to get income from what I do. However, as the earlier post says, I do need to feel that it’s useful, and to some extent that ends up having to be measured in money. In effect, it puts me in the position of someone who receives what I would dearly like to see instituted in my society, an universal basic income.

Some years ago I analysed how I approached something which looked as if it needed doing. My first question was “Does it really need doing?”. If yes, there followed “Is someone already doing it?”, and then, if no “Is this something I could do?”, with the subsets of “Do I have time to do it?” and “Is there something more important which I should be doing?”.

If the task survived those steps, I considered it to be “my responsibility” to at least some extent – but I was frequently frustrated by the “Can I get paid for doing it?” which, of course, interacted with “do I have time?” and “is there something more important?” – having to make money in order to live frequently meant that I didn’t have time because there was something more important, namely keeping myself and my family fed, clothed and housed. I don’t have that frustration these days; instead my biggest frustration is that there’s a huge swathe of things I could once have done but now can’t, because I’ve got older, sicker, weaker and more prone to exhaustion than used to be the case.

“Is this something I could do?” is more multifaceted than might originally meet the eye, and not just because of age and disability; the first issue is whether it is something I could do well (if I couldn’t do it well, I’d prefer it to be done by someone who could do it well), and into that plays the question “could I enjoy doing it?”, because unless I could, I would be much less likely to do it well. As it happens, I’ve found that I can enjoy to some extent even the mindless mechanical and repetitive tasks which efficiency experts have historically wanted to divide labour into (which the article dwells on) – I can manage a form of working meditation in such circumstances without prejudicing my performance – but that may be a peculiarity of mine. (If you find this hard to accept, consider rosaries or other forms of prayer beads or the chanting of mantras as examples of such tasks…) Generally, however, I think that work which doesn’t engage the mind and which can’t be done well or badly, it can only be done or not done, though perhaps slower or quicker, is something best left to robots – and, of course, it increasingly is being left to robots.

So, to quote the article, “Now imagine for a moment that we were to reorganize the modern workplace to be keyed to everybody’s intrinsic motivation. It would mean an incredible revolution. CEOs would slave away out of faith in their companies, academics would burn the midnight oil out of pure curiosity, teachers would teach because they feel a duty to their pupils, psychologists would treat only as long as their clients require, and bankers would take pride simply in the services they render. Skill and competence would be treasured, instead of yields and productivity.”

One can but hope…