The Fall and Rise of Respectability

My parents and grandparents went to some lengths to instil in me the importance of respectability. This concept was one I struggled to understand when I was young and then realised wasn’t important as I got older. What I did learn was that it was important to my older family and the older generation and discovered through my friends  that our generation didn’t give respectability any real value. So what I learned was how to play the game of respectability to not upset older people.

I think my main objection to respectability was that it was so complicated and seemed to lack a coherence or a logically related set of premises, it seemed like a fairly random set of rules and thus required commitment to learn. Really respectability had been important for generations, bound up with the issue of class that bound society together for a long time. Respectability is about showing that you have learned this very complex set of rules. Hence it is showing that you have been educated. This was an important badge of respectability during a period when a large chunk of society didn’t receive any formal education. The older generation are very impressed when our generation wave around degrees or have letters after our names, when my generation isn’t at all.

Much of these complex rules were not just about respectability and education but also about our culture and it’s traditions. I think the older generation have been fearful of the way my generation unpicked all the traditions and worked out which ones had sense or useful purpose to them and which were remnants of things that had once been useful but no more. I think they feared we would lose our culture and sense of who we were.

I kind of get that fear, but the rules are so harsh that they hold a culture bound to arbitrary rules that actually inhibit cultural growth. What I mean is that you can spend so much time and energy following the rules that you lack  the time to realise why something is valuable.

To illustrate this idea by example. As a child I was taken to a music concert, great, but this involved such things as dressing in uncomfortable clothes that I wasn’t comfortable wearing, sitting still and receiving instructions on how to appear I was appreciating the music. So, being an anxious child, I felt obliged to follow all these bizarre rules to keep my parents and grandparents happy, so much so that i didn’t get to enjoy the music! It was only later that I was able to relax and open my ears and really start to appreciate what the musicians were doing. So I now look down on anyone who suggests there should be ‘dress codes’ at musical concerts, if you like dressing up, great, if it’s not your thing, that is just as cool. I personally, make a point of not dressing up at all as all music should be accessible to everyone, whatever helps you open your ears is what is of paramount importance.

The other issue my cohort had when growing up was that we realised that we were growing up in rural Wales. We could look back on our families tilling the land for generation after generation and for me that meant I was one whole generation away from the land and that tradition.My cohort have been realising that in European terms our local culture hadn’t undergone the rapid changes experienced by those who went to the large towns and cities, that we also needed to learn the new etiquette of a more globalised world, especially those of us who had lost the farming tradition.

For my generation the world isn’t one of knowing the arcane rules of respectability. Perhaps we are more interested in what things are valuable and useful and disparage those things which aren’t. In a way all this is is just a completely new set of rules of respectability, with the difference in that the rules relate to the world we know rather than old traditions.

We live in rapidly changing times. Rural Wales was late in awakening to industrialisation, so when my parents generation realised that they weren’t to continue the agricultural tradition, Europe was beginning to struggle with post industrialisation, we had missed out perhaps almost entirely on the industrial era, apart from tractors replacing horses. Tractors replacing horses was surely progress, saving so much time and not needing to grow crops to feed the horses. However these very changes meant that fewer people were needed to work the farm. Many farms became one or two man operations and the rest of the family had to go and find work elsewhere, which almost invariably meant moving away.

Until that is, broadband came, and the transport network got so congested that staying at home for administrative jobs started to become the best option. Furthermore the beginnings of the effects of climate change are starting to have real unignorable impacts and the era of cheap oil and indeed it’s tractors is coming to an end. Perhaps I am witnessing the end of that  flight to cities to find work and all in just one generation.

Welsh farmers have largely always looked down their noses at all the city people, sitting in offices not producing very much of any real use. They are largely right of course. Whilst they have been spending all their days proudly producing food for people to eat. After all owning land was the height of respectability. European history has always been about the those at top of society who own the land.

The thing is anyone can farm. Humanity for most of history has been made up of farmers. It was only during the industrial period when modern conveniences enabled rises in living standards that land, farmland, for a time lost it’s value, enabling a generation of farmers to finally own their own land. It can be viewed that they got lucky to have ended up with the the thing that meant respectability to the very last generation that valued respectability.

I grew up with the concept of ‘look smart and wear a collar and tie’. The dual meaning of smart of being educated and dressing well, is perhaps no accident as both meanings are really about respectability. There is some evidence of this word ‘smart’ flipping in meaning as the meaning of respectability changes. We now talk about being ‘street smart’ and making smart decisions. These newer meanings of smart are not about old respectability but more about being a useful individual and contributing to rather than exploiting society.

The great irony for me growing up of wearing of ties is that the people who wore ties all the time were and still are the big business executives and politicians who made decisions for their personal gain and failed to appreciate what the communities they effected needed. It seems to me that the wearing of a tie is a mark of the disrespectful. I grew up during the Miner’s strike, and the baddies were all wearing suits. I only wear them when etiquette and tradition demands though.

Anyone who analysis society realises that the things that respectability valued, such as land or education are largely acquired by luck or an odious obsession with garnering the facets of respectability through acting in a disrespectful way, such as the acquisition of land to be a rentier, rather than actively working the land. Somewhat paradoxically respectability regards those who are respectable by luck of being in the right family  in the right place much more highly, rather than those who have acquired respectability by behaving disrespectfully by the new generations definition. Perhaps because the mistakes of the previous generations of the powerful were more innocent and on a smaller scale than those made by those in power today.

So, whilst my generation watch as the old respectability does, we are witnessing the rise of a new one where what is regarded as respectable has flipped and  is utterly different and instead values being true to yourself and your community, rather than learning the rules to be someone different and of entering a sub-community. Where diversity and difference is at last valued and conformity isn’t. The interesting question now is whether or not respectability will flip again in a new direction with the next generation or whether we stop valuing people’s acquired traits at all. I’m sure if either of these two directions is more worthy than the other.

 

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#Llangennech School

I did say I was going to write about why supporting Welsh independence wasn’t  nationalism. However I’ve constantly seen this issue flare up on my media feeds over the last few weeks. Really it’s merely a storm in a tea cup. Yet the whole furore is kind of a case study of how discussion of events becomes ugly very quickly these days, with many wild accusations flying around, even arguments about motives for appealing for calm! Both sides of the argument accuse the other side of being nationalists, whether ‘Welsh nationalist’ or ‘British nationalist’

IActually there is an interesting discussion to be had about this topic. The difficulty is that a reasoned argument is buried quite deeply beneath the froth of opinionated voices.

Briefly the situation as I see it is that there is a Welsh government policy to increase provision of education in the Welsh language and have bilingual schools as this has educational benefits. There is also the option to be educated solely in the English language in Wales too. The school on Llangennech is currently dual stream, there are two cohorts of pupils, one being educated bilingually and one in English. The local council have decided to phase out the English stream and make the school a full Welsh medium school, when the current English cohort have progressed to high school.

The complaint seems to be that those families wishing to educate their child in English will have to apply to schools a few miles outside the village and these schools may have to expand. Of course it is usual in any community to resist change that makes life more inconvenient for people in those situations. This is just local news. However it has kind of erupted into mainstream mass media.

If only we lived in a perfect world. Having education in two languages does present challenges, particularly in rural areas. The problem is that small schools are being closed due to budget cuts, with children having to travel further and further to get to school anyway. In reality the educational problems in rural areas are far greater than those faced in the more populous Llanelli area. So, when primary schools are split by medium of education depending on parental choice these distances can further increase, which is detrimental to education.

From my perspective having gone to school in Mid Wales, these Llangennech families are lucky in that they have a school on their doorstep and have the choice of alternative schools within a few miles if they want an alternative. Such things get forgotten in the heat of these arguments.

Because of the rural nature of much of Wales, sometimes dual stream high schools is the only sensible option as the next school may be 30 miles or more away. However there is an argument that dual stream schools are detrimental at a primary level (5 to 11 years old). Detrimental, because one cohort are being taught in Welsh and for children from English speaking homes language immersion is important for the children to develop skills and confidence in the Welsh language, especially where there is little or no Welsh spoken in their homes. It is also detrimental to the English cohort who will be surrounded by a language they are not being taught the skills to be  able to use that language. So, from an educational perspective ending dual stream primary schools makes sense.

The educational matter doesn’t get discussed, the process of finding solutions to challenges. Instead we have a media frenzy where one side gets accused of being anti-English and the other side accused of being anti-Welsh. Whereby people are allegedly forced to speak Welsh or forced to speak English. No-one is forcing anyone to do anything, can we not all just get along with each other and find solutions that work for everybody? It would seem not.

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What incensed me was an article in this weeks Western Mail (the supposed ‘national’ newspaper of Wales). The article reported that someone had slashed  a cars tyres in Llangennech, perhaps as a consequence of the heated discussions. However the article featured a picture of two ladies holding a Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh  Language Society) banner in support of the councils decision. The point is simply having Cymdeithas yr Iaith associated with tyre slashing, suggests that they are responsible for the tyre slashing without a shred of evidence. This false connections just inflame the debate, rather than report what is going on. The newspaper have since apologised, but the damage is already done. The ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ that the modern mass media thrive on. We live in the world where if you repeat the same lie often enough, large numbers of people who don’t dig any deeper begin to accept it as fact.  We see this sort of thing going on the mass media and in social media, all the time, its just sickening. We are living in a post-truth world.

It just seems a part of all these division the mass media seem to relish stirring up. We have the Brexit divisions, everything seems us and them, so when you are somewhere in the middle and just want a practical workable solution, your voice is discounted,  it is unsettling and just seems quite quite mad. I am neither  for or against EU membership, I am not a fluent Welsh speaker (yet), nor am I completely disconnected from the Welsh language. If you’re not binary, you somehow don’t count. Well, we all count!

It’s this debates never truly end thing. There is a tendency to make things binary by going back to first principles, whether it’s the re-awake the language debate or the EU debate. Hence so much energy is spent re-hashing old arguments that there seems very little space left for: Ok, there is a broad consensus, how do we make it work and where do we go from here? This applies both to education and Brexit.

There is evidence to suggest that children in Welsh medium education, from non-Welsh speaking homes do have a tendency to struggle. Such children should be identified and given extra support and by and large they are but some do fall through the cracks, which is where the wider community can and should help. This is what pressure should be put on, not on attacking the existence of the supposed ‘other side’. These children can be supported by the Welsh speaking community and as part of that the English speaking community can help the Welsh speaking community.

Sometimes in some circumstances, like when a child from an English speaking home doesn’t receive the support for schooling in Welsh, the best option for that child is an English medium education and that option should be available just as readily as a bilingual education. Generally in most of Wales, the nearest school is an English medium school. What is desired is the option of bilingual or English medium schooling to be accessible wherever the child lives in Wales.

It is entirely possible for everyone to work together for mutual benefit. It’s called society, where we all have the time and space to develop new ideas, increase efficiency and grow our economy. We do not have to go through deciding which side we are on and then struggle to fit in because hardly anyone   actually fits in with a rigid interpretation of that sides philosophy. What is important is the children’s education, giving them the skills to succeed in the world, not to be pawns in someone else’s pointless battle.

This is Wales, some of us speak Welsh, if you don’t like it, get over it, no-ones forcing you to stay, yet of course you are welcome to stay if you wish to!

Literalism and Authority

The recent tragic death of Leelah Acorn, and her suicide note plea, published on tumblr to ‘fix society’, is something for us, as human beings to reflect upon.

I am not a parent, but I know that parenting is a tough challenge as someone is brought into this world for whom you have unconditional love, but that someone is their own person. Parents are people who are in a position of authority over their children. Children have an insatiable curiosity about the world and themselves and often, especially with younger children the role of the parent is often to curtail the childs freedom to explore, to prevent them getting into danger, for example keeping knives and matches away and telling children not to play with them.

As children grow decisions about what behaviour to restrict become more complicated as young people become capable of making their own decisions. One of the hardest lessons to teach children concerns authority.

The lesson being to respect authority, whilst developing a healthy disrespect for authority itself. This seeming contradiction is a challenge as parents are an authority figure themselves. It is important to distinguish that authorities do make the wrong decisions, but that such poor decisions are not a reason to completely reject the authority entirely. The territory of grey areas and compromise is a difficult arena for developing people to appreciate.

As adults we live in countries with systems of laws created by governments. Most people are aware that governments generally don’t make the best decisions. Government decisions should be the result of compromises and the production of laws that are at least an improvement on previous laws. As citizens we have to obey/ respect the law of the land even when we know some laws are unjust, that our economic systems are imperfect. As individuals we learn to accept the imperfection of laws. For example, when homosexuality was illegal and homosexuals had to respect this law by not expressing their sexuality publicly.

I have a disdain for those who take a fundamentalist literal interpretation of the Bible. This is overly simplistic and restricts the ability of the individual to interpret Gods love for themselves. For example the creation story of Genesis that the world was created in seven days whilst containing truth, is not literally true, it seems that some people, the ‘creationists’, have difficulty with this distinction. There is immortality for good souls in Heaven, but Heaven is not a realm where souls have corporeal existence, there is no sense in attempting to define literally what heaven is as a single concept. The concept of heaven is not a literal one but a spiritual one. As a scientist, I am aware of the distinction between the scientific method of testing of theories in a logical manner and the personal subjective view of existence. The teachings of Christianity are not about a dogmatic adherance to a set of rules, but provide the means for accessing the tools with which to help make decisions.

Generally there seems to be too much literalism in the world. For example the pop star,Charli XCX has recently released a track with the lyric: “I don’t wanna go to school I just want to break the rules”. Some of the YouTube comments of the video suggest that the singer is being irresponsible in encouraging young people not to go to school. Such comments demonstrate how pervasive literalism is, for the message of the song is not discouraging people from attending school, but rather an expression of the importance of questioning authority. This is very similar to Pink Floyds “we don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control”, the members of Pink Floyd, themselves University educated.

Parents wish their children’s lives to be perfect and for their children not to suffer from issues that they themselves struggled with as young people. It could be argued that people spend their teenage years and 20’s in getting over their parents, to continue to love and respect their parents for trying to be good parents whilst acknowledging their parents imperfections and mistakes. The struggles an individual person has growing up to realise themselves and find a workable compromise with various ‘authorities’ will be different to the individual experiences of their parents. Sometimes parents need to take the time to reflect that their children are different, that society has changed and whatever the rules are, they are in a continuing state of flux.

Basically, as humanity we need to be less literal, appreciate the fussiness that there are no absolute authorities for individual experience in the real world outside of scientific laws and learn to love and respect each individual person for who they are, especially as everyone continues to better define and be more at ease with themselves through reflection and interaction with other voices. For all authorities to be open and honest about their limitations.

Beyond Feminism

I’ve discussed Feminism briefly as a movement promoting equality and working towards the prevention of males dictating how women should behave, a movement against oppression. We live in a multi-cultural world where cultural traditions, historically patriarchal, continue to dictate and enforce conformity to convention. These pressures are beyond simply telling women how to behave, they dictate how men should behave as well and they dictate what our sexuality should be amongst other things. The further you are from the conforming archetype the tougher life can be. For example, pity the poor, mixed race, disabled, lesbian with a mental illness, however this person is so out there that perhaps they understand that trying to conform will get them nowhere and at least may find it easier to be themselves!

Often parents strive to help their children conform to society. The motivation for this is to educate children in how the world is and by implication conforming will yield social benefits. For example the message: Don’t be gay if you can help it, as your life will be harder. I discussed bullying earlier, or how conformity is enforced. However what these strategies often lack essentially is advice on how to deal with not conforming. As someone who isn’t quite the conventional male archetype, I know that it is important to acknowledge difference and being an outsider, to be comfortable and confident in who you are, as it is this confidence, this connection with oneself that provides the social benefits, rather than conformity itself. I don’t understand why my own parents, to some degree, made me feel that certain activities I liked were wrong, because it meant i spent my teenage years and much of my twenties dealing with unpicking these imposed restraint on finding out who i really was. I gather most of my contempories underwent similar processes.

If individuals really were free to choose there who they are, people would choose to be the dominant archetype, as life is easier. Being conventional relieves you from discrimination and the world its around you like a glove. for example you pick up a magazine and it is full of articles about things you are interested in, the people around you are sufficiently versed in these topics that social discourse is straightforward. However if that isn’t you and for the majority it isn’t it is better to accept the difference.

Why does society inflict this conformity? Economically, perhaps it is more efficient if everyone wants the same things, rather than a variety of options to cater for? I don’t think anyone really would want such an Orwellian dystopia. Historically, there was the landed gentry, and there still is,a ruling class, who obtain great wealth and wish to keep it that way as it affords them a life of luxury with built in maintenance of the system. This minority can then inflict the conformity they wish in the rest of the population, as those that conform receive preferential treatment. I am against such a system and in western society, generally there is an objection to such a system, but often we lack collective awareness of it and the ruling class control the media, a divide and rule system.

Culturally, diversity is now cherished. For example Christianity in Britain, once a bastion of dictating the rules of society, no longer does this. The church is now a minority group, instead the principles of the faith and spirituality are preached,  people are expected to form their own conclusions to moral questions with reference to interpretations of biblical teachings.

Music, as many art forms, has never been about conformity. Interest is maintained by constantly looking for new ideas and different ways of expressing ideas. With the rise of recorded media and the birth of pop music an even greater diversity of musical styles flourished, often despite the attempts of the record industry (the ruling class) to dictate popular tastes. But then music has always been about rebellion and exploration. and it still discouraged by the powers that be: Restricted performance licensing, poor sound insulation in new build housing etc. Nonetheless generally Britain is a society that actively promotes unconformity in comparison with other countries, yet there remain forces against this openness. Are these forces simply grumpy older people who wish they had the choice to be themselves instead of conforming?

Creating Art and Education

I am delving into the question of what creativity is, whether it exists at all. This raises the question of what art itself is. I have this idea that creation and perception of art are almost opposites: In creation the intellectual idea is transcribed into artistic/emotional form by the artist. Whereas the perceiver senses the emotion and then rationalises the emotions to an intellectual idea, which may or may not be similar to the artists idea.

So what is this concept of an ‘intellectual idea’? it could be defined as an amalgamation of separate elements, brought together in a particular way.so what then are these elements?

In in a piece of pop music there are many elements, such as : Rhythm, Melody, Lyric, commentary on culture, commentary on music, commentary on the individual, expression of feeling, direction, dynamics, pitch, genre. I’ll have to look up if there is a formal quantification somewhere! Other art forms can be described in a similar way.

The creation of a piece of music, is simple putting some of these elements together, some familiar, some from fusings of two separate individual elements. Described thus, a random generator could produce a piece of music, so where then is creativity?

A computer can reproduce  a score. Indeed, I can play a piece from the score and it will sound clinical. This isn’t music. Music occurs when the performer no longer concentrates on the technical production, switches off the intellect and lets go, allowing the emotions or soul of the music to come out. A great singer will have a number of qualities: technically brilliant, controlled power and the ability to express their emotional interpretation of the music.

There is a sense that this is the creativity. That creativity is allowing oneself to be free and emotional express the music, whilst relying and trusting their body to produce sounds and ideas technically well. To perhaps express the intellectual idea, without actively thinking about it, yet informed by the memory of the intellectual idea.

I play musical instruments. Learning to play them initially consists of learning the technicalities: how to produce notes at the correct pitch, what to do with fingers to produce individual notes. Physically it’s a complicated process, demanding a range of skills. The purpose of this learning is to be able to produce a note at a particular dynamic with specific qualities, automatically without thinking about it, to free the performer to let the music flow, to concentrate on interpretation and interaction with other musicians/ audience.

Every performance of a piece of music is slightly different. Hence something unique has been created by a fusion of various elements. The creation process is tiring because it involves switching off parts of the mind which are focusing on telling you that you are breaking self-created rules, but this is necessary to create.

From this it seems as though the intellect has no control over the creative process, that it is just a pure connection to emotional response. Except, musicians don’t perform a piece of music only once. Between each performance there is a period of reflection. During this reflection the intellect is engaged and hence influences the creation. Both the intellectual idea and the emotional response interact and ground each other into new forms.

No-one taught me what creativity was when I was at school. I had a series of art teachers whom I frustrated and they gave up on me. I remember a lesson where I had to create a couple of different shapes and then apply these shapes to a canvas. I didn’t get it, it just seemed a random exercise. I wondered how I was supposed to create meaning from these random shapes. I think I wanted to know technically how to do the task effectively, rather than just create something. I ended up trying to make the shapes into the form of a rather abstract cat and the teacher complained that this wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing. This put me off art and creativity for so long.

Years later, I had a go at drawing/painting. I did have ideas of what I wanted to create, but was incredibly slow in learning technically how to produce the desired effects. It applies to music as well. I passed grades on musical instruments at school, I was technically sound, nut didn’t know ho to unleash the ‘creativity’. Recently I’ve been teaching myself accompaniment on the keyboard. I realised I had the technical skills and instead of thinking about what I needed to do and instead just did what the music informed me to do, which was much better.

Creativity can perhaps then be defined as the fusion of intellectual ideas and emotional responses. Great art is produced by people with great technical ability and the ability to express strong emotions though their productions.