By John Davis
The last post in this blog attempted to understand the context of Benny Lynch’s life and challenged deficit model assumptions about him, the community he grew up in (the Gorbals) and the city in which his life was located (Glasgow). The post connected ill health in people’s lives (particularly illnesses of despair) to a lack of power (a democratic deficit). Todays post seeks to build on this idea by: highlighting the power of equitable relationships; arguing that relationships can enable us to overcome our fears; and concluding that supportive relationships can enable us to live the change we seek to achieve. In so doing and in order to put forward the positive idea that change is in the hands of us all, this post connects the lyrics of Kris Kristofferson (e.g. the idea that isolation is not good for us) to the ideas of Muhammad Ali (e.g. that anything is possible if we have the courage to re-write the rules).
Several years ago I worked with a group of young people who had taken part in a process which sought to make mental health services more participatory (responsive to their perspectives). The process sought to encourage professionals to take more account of the views of young people. The project was not revolutionary – the adults mainly kept control and power – but it was innovative in the sense that children and young people were listened to and they were enabled to set up their own group to put forward ideas for change.
The young people concluded that we needed to question the way that we assess children in relation to mental health because some adults fail to take account of children’s own views. They argued that practitioners needed to question their personal assumptions and recognise the difference between medical model presumptions which focussed on what young people couldn’t do and strengths based approaches that viewed children and young people as capable people who could take an active role in developing solutions to their life problems (see Davis, 2011 for more on this).
The children and young people, that I and my colleagues worked with, critiqued professionals who claimed to take scientifically neutral approaches to ‘treatment’. They argued: that ‘neutral’ merely masked adult bias; that we needed to consider the power politics of local services; that we should judge professionals on the basis of whether they cared, were trustworthy, enabled choice and took time to explain processes; that professionals needed to be clearer about the different ways that they assessed, characterised and treated children and young people; and that professionals should revisit the ways that they evaluated and reviewed their services to take more account of other people’s perspectives.
In particular, one example stays with me. A young person asked me to think what it is like to be forcibly removed to a secure unit that was miles away from your home. She asked me to think about what it is like to be forced to go: somewhere (without giving your permission) that had no public transport links to your local town; somewhere where there was no possibility of your family visiting; somewhere where no one took the time to explain why you were there, how the unit functioned and what the staffs expectations were. She asked me to understand that even when you are having a mental health episode you should still be provided with information because there will be a bit of you that does understand what is going on.
Three messages were clear, 1 Illnesses of despair are exacerbated by processes that remove power from the person experiencing the illness. 2 Even when we are having mental health episodes we should still be treated as human beings who understand things, have rights and are capable of thought. 3 We should not break the bonds of children and young people’s existing relationships when seeking to ‘treat’ or support them.
This idea came back to me when I was listening to various Kris Kristofferson song’s. For example a song called the Pilgrim – values the different aspects of the Pilgram (The Pilgram is a composite of various singers Kristofferson had worked with). I like the song because it makes our flaws and imperfections part of the everyday – it speaks of the idea that there is no ‘normal’.
There are a lot of messages in Americana songs about relationships, about connecting, about sharing your fears with other people and about the dangers of being alone and isolated. For example, Patsy Klein (Let The Tear Drops Fall) tells us that our loneliness, ‘Since you`ve been gone’, means that the sun won’t shine and the moon won’t glow.
Kristofferson is a master of this genre, whether it is the claim in Loving Arms (written by Tom Jans) to have been too long in the wind and rain (and chains), the plea in Help Me Make It Through The Night, that ‘I need a friend’/‘its sad to be alone’ – or the lonely relationship in Stranger which talks about the need for someone to help you, ‘shut out the shadows’ – Kristofferson’s songs encourage us to connect with other people, whilst engaging with our pain, facing our demons and valuing our incomplete identities.
None of us can control the way our lives are told but does this matter, if we have loved others who have shared our journey? If we have trusted others with our stories? If we have placed our future in the hands of others? And, if we have co-constructed our identities through sharing our life fears, ideas and tears? The concept that we can be courageous in and through relationships – enabling, sharing and opening doors – can be found in another of Kristofferson’s songs – Loving Her was Easy:
Comin’ close together with a feelin’ that I’ve never known before in my time
She ain’t ashamed to be a woman or afraid to be a friend
I don’t know the answer to the easy way she opened every door in my mind
But dreamin’ was as easy as believin’ it was never gonna end
And lovin’ her was easier than anything I’ll ever do again
Kristofferson’s lyrics play with male/female power relationships and put the male in the learner role. They invite us to consider the relationship between self and other – whilst feelin’, lovin’, dreamin’ and believin’.
Similarly, an earlier post on this blog talked of the unifying messages in Muhammad Ali’s life. It argued that Ali’s life, when taken over its full journey, demonstrated that there was no contradiction between establishing a positive self-identity and also seeking to unite with other people to improve the world. For Scots – the message is that we can be both an independent country and a country interdependent with other countries. We can take a different road from the united kingdom but still build constructive relationships with our neighbouring countries (near and far). From a position of strength that understands who we are, where we are going and what the lie of the land will be when we get there, we can work together with other countries to foster a more socially just world.
Ali got this message across loud and clear and this was never more obvious than during his exceptional funeral . For example, Qubilah Shabazz (the second daughter of Malcolm X) talked of the support that Ali and others had given her over the years and stated:
‘While he and I had a treasured relationship, the genesis of this love was through the love for my father. Muhammad Ali was the last of a fraternity of amazing men bequeathed to me directly by my dad… …what was significant as brothers, my father and Ali, was the ability to discuss openly anything, all factors of life… ….of how to make an equitable difference in the lives of others.’
The lesson Qubilah Shabazz teaches us, is that we should never apologies for seeking to create dialogue and change. For searching for innovations that look to make an equitable difference in the lives of ourselves and others. We should never apologies for seeking to bring about an independent Scotland that will enable the children of Scotland (what ever their birth country or heritage) to live in a more equitable society. And we should be willing to make sacrifices to ensure that our values prevail. Lonnie Ali also made this clear in her eulogy at Muhammad Ali’s funeral:
‘Muhammad indicated that when the end came for him, he wanted us to use his life and his death as a teaching moment for young people, for his country and for the world. In effect, he wanted us to remind people who are suffering that he had seen the face of injustice. That he grew up in a segregation, and that during his early life he was not free to be who he wanted to be.
But he never became embittered enough to quit or to engage in violence. It was a time when a young black boy his age could be hung from a tree. Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, in 1955, whose admitted killers went free. It was a time when Muhammad’s friends, men that he admired, like brother Malcolm, Dr King, were gunned down, and Nelson Mandela imprisoned for what they believed in. For his part, Muhammad faced federal prosecution. He was stripped of his title and his license to box, and he was sentenced to prison. But, he would not be intimidated so as to abandon his principles and his values…’
As the world explodes around us, as the democratic deficit grows wider and as the illnesses of despair seek to take route in our minds, we need to remember Ali’s message and neither abandon our principles nor forsake our values. We must seek out and work with those who would comfort us, those who are ready to listen, those who will share our aspirations for a better life and those who will help us build the bridges to a better place. As Lonnie Ali stated:
‘So even in death, Muhammad has something to say. He is saying that his faith required that he take the more difficult road. It is far more difficult to sacrifice oneself in the name of peace than to take up arms in pursuit of violence… … His timing was impeccable, as he burst into the national stage just as television was hungry for a star to change the face of sports. You know, if Muhammad didn’t like the rules, he rewrote them. His religion, his name, his beliefs were his to fashion – no matter what the cost. The timing of his actions coincided with a broader shift in cultural attitudes across America. Particularly on college campuses… … And I think Muhammad’s hope is that his life provides some guidance on how we might achieve, for all people, what we aspire for ourselves and our families.’
So, if we don’t like what is going on in the world today, if we don’t like Brexit, if we don’t like discrimination, if we don’t like an economy that only serves an elite, if we oppose the suppression of our fellow humans and if we seek to promote alternatives – we need to change the rules, challenge the vested interests, stop accepting that things have. ‘aye been’ and remove the persistent structures of inequity that inhibit our lives. We can only do this – if we collectively work together for change in local settings, in regions and in our countries.
The British state does not care for change – establishment figures, such as Gordon Brown, mope around in the hope that a passing camera crew might once again put them in the spotlight. Saddest of all, people like Brown call for new thinking on federalism from a state that is unapologetic, unthinking and unrelenting in its promotion of inequity.
We can only achieve change in Scotland if the working and middle classes come together in ways that recognise our common goals, yet respect our different cultures. If Scots born here and Scots who have come to live and work here unite against the tyranny of Westminster. It is time for an Independent Scotland to chart its own course, it is time for us to trust ourselves and believe we can construct another way of being – it is time to show that love (hope fuelled love), collective effort, common decency and everyday kindness, over comes all. It is time to show that by respecting our diverse identities, valuing our difference and working collaboratively we can overcomes fear, division and discrimination with a common weal economy, a culture of civic nationalism and respect for the contributions of all our citizens – what ever their backgrounds.
The final words for Todays post highlight: our ability to be the change we require; our ability to challenge the imposition of discriminatory conventions/standards; and our ability to unify without ironing out difference. They were so eloquently spoken, at Muhammad Ali’s funeral, by a young woman called Natasha Mundkur from the University of Louisville, who reminded us (as always) that you learn a lot when you listen to young people:
‘Let me tell you a story about a man. A man who refused to believe that reality was a limitation to achieve the impossible. A man who once reached out through the pages of a textbook and touched the heart of an eight-year-old girl, whose reflection of herself mirrored those who could not see beyond the colour of her skin.
But instead of drawing on the pain from that distorted reality, she found strength just as this man did when he stood tall in the face of pelting rain and shouted: ‘I am the disturbance in the sea of your complacency and I will never stop shaking your waves’. And, his voice echoed through hers. Through mine. And she picked up the rocks that were thrown at her and she threw them back with a voice so powerful that it turned all the pain that she had faced in her life into strength and tenacity.
And now that eight-year-old girl stands before you, telling you that Ali’s cry still shakes these waves today; that we are to find strength in our identities, whether we are Black or White or Asian or Hispanic, LGBT, Disabled or Able-bodied, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or Christian. His cry represents those who have not been heard and invalidates the idea that we are to be conformed to one normative standard. That is what it means to defeat the impossible, because impossible is not a fact. Impossible is an opinion. Impossible is nothing.
When I look into this crowd, I smile. I smile to recognize that he is not really gone. He lives in you and he lives in me; and he lives in every person that he has touched in every corner of this world. Reality was never a limitation for Ali, for us, just as every punch his opponents threw. Impossible is never enough to knock us down, because We Are Ali. We are greater than the rocks or the punches that we throw at each other. We have the ability to empower and inspire and to connect and to unify, and that will live on forever.
So let me tell you a story about a man. His name is Muhammad Ali. He is the greatest of all time. He is from Louisville, Kentucky, and he lives in each and every one of us. And his story is far from over.’
Our story of Scottish Independence is only over if we chose it to be so – and we do not so choose. Let us join together when we feel week, let us unite when we feel despondent and let us share each other’s pain, love and aspiration when we feel oppressed – Muhammad Ali lives in all of us and we can support each other to be the change we seek, to be the smile of hope and to be the light that guides.