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Happiness is, happiness ain’t. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

Outside of ecumenical discussions, far too little is said about the subject of happiness. This is a drawback of western secularism, as discussed below. In the world of work, Occupational Health and Leadership have taken up this mantle, yet still only manage to approximate happiness through measurable factors that contribute to increasing satisfaction and decreasing dissatisfaction (i.e. Herzberg’s 2-Factor Theory). Taking Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs into greater account, that understanding eventually incorporated terms such as wellbeing. Yet, again, outside of ‘continuing professional development’ aimed at improving workplace efficiency and effectiveness, far too few resources seem devoted to higher needs such as belonging, esteem and self-actualisation.

Maslow

Those management terms all circle back to mindfulness, to personal empathy and the ability of both the individual and environment to foster dialogue in order to transform conflict. Be it conflicts or differences in needs/wants between co-workers – or across the bargaining table – the ability to communicate and find common ground is increasingly the skill that distinguishes human talents from Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Now, at least, there is a greater focus on developing so-called ‘soft skills’.  This trend responds to our failure to contend with an increasing reliance on, and addiction to technology. What’s more, still, as technology increasingly supplants entire portfolios of routine management duties, how will future workplaces valorise empathy within known matrices?

How do we teach students the value of happiness, the practice of compassion and the skills for effective communication, negotiation and conflict resolution? In so far as leading culturally diverse workforces, the research is as clear as a prayer bell: Innovation requires dialogue – actual talk between equals. Innovation is therefore built on collaboration. Collaboration requires cooperation. Cooperation requires commitment. Commitment cultivates inclusion. Inclusion fosters commitment. Commitment depends on trust-building. Trust-building requires dialogue. Cooperation must be practiced and rehearsed, in addition to celebrated and applauded. We are effectively teaching how to work within a community. Those tools must play the greater part of management toolkit, over and well-over more punitive means of enforcing compliance to rules.

“I’m not here to be your friend.”

Those are words I hope no one would ever hear neither in the classroom from educators, nor in the workplace from managers. It implies the speaker’s inability to distinguish friendliness from being friends. It is indeed a thin line. Social media interactions with colleagues have virtually erased that line – at least re-drawn it. Irregardless – as we say in Kentucky for emphasis – kindness matters! I genuinely pity those who have not learned kindness at home or school; it’s traumatic.

In order to collaborate, to genuinely work together, requires some level of friendliness, beyond cordiality. It is irrational to lead through control and project the image of being in control through distant, dispassionate unfriendliness. BTW, the notion of dispassionate rationality and objectivity have been historically valorized academia even when it was clear.

I would not be the first university student to observe (though lacking the skills to explain): “The professors who prided themselves on their capacity to be objective were most often those who were directly affirmed in their caste, class, or status position” (hooks, 2003: 128). Their inability to connect, acknowledge and come to peace with their own emotionality and spirituality. “At times objectivism in academic settings is a smokescreen, masking disassociation (ibid: 129). Objectivity is a crutch:

“Denying the emotional presence and wholeness of students may help professors who are unable to connect focus more on the task of sharing information, facts, data, their interpretations, with no regard for listening to and hearing from students. (ibid: 129).” 

The smoke and mirrors masks a pain so cutting so deep that skilled educators carve it out of their work, and further discourage it in peers and students. Sadly, I believe that managers have been taught to operate under the same logic. Hurt people hurt people.

Hurt people hurt people.

Today, we’re better able to acknowledge the maturity needed to reveal both one’s strengths and weaknesses – including with subordinates. The key skill is emotional flexibility and consequentially, the ability to seek and offer support. Failing to do so reduces opportunities for team members’ whole-hearted contributions of knowledge and skills. While it is still professional to keep some amount of distance between one’s private and personal lives, social media is a typical example of how those norms no longer apply. Yeah, it’s weird if you’re not Facebook friends with at least some of your colleagues.

What are responsible ways to use one’s public image that aligns with our own personal ambitions and goals? This was simply NOT an area of thinking in the classroom prior to social media. Yet, ‘bullying’ is a relatively modern concept brought to light by the LGBTQ community response to the suicide of a university student as a result of cyber-bullying because he was gay.Itgetsbetter

In 2010, Tyler Clementi, a first-year university student in America, was secretly filmed being intimate with another man by his roommate and a mutual friend, (or so he believed). The two colluded to threaten to out Clementi in what they all knew as a homophobic (university) environment. This resulted in Clementi’s suicide. Imagine such blackmail, bullying and harassment at work! What skills should the educational environments have provided Tyler and his roommates?

The response from the queer community was clear: Hope. For example, activist/journalist Dan Savage launched an internet campaign that encouraged LGBTQ+ youth, which was picked up by mainstream media outlets and entertainment. The #ItGetsBetter campaign quickly amasses hundreds of posts by celebrities of all flavors to combat anti-gay bullying. Things did get better. We put bullying on the map! Be it work or school, bullying is no longer tolerated…at least formally.

Yet, what of genuine happiness, not just survival? While I can’t speak for every faith, the notion of happiness if central to Buddhist philosophy. “The gratification of desire is not happiness,” writes Buddhist teacher Daisaku Ikeda in his 2017 essay collection, Hope is a Decision. What’s more, individual happiness is tied to our interconnectivity. The Soka Gaikkai, a global Buddhist organisation mentored by Ikeda, operates under the slogan “World peace through individual happiness” to acknowledge the interconnectivity of both humanity as a whole, and the place of happiness with the broader objective of peace.

Seen one way, happiness is neatly balanced at the tip of the pyramid of needs, and its inverse: wants and desires. For clarity: While adults may scoff when a teenager says they “need” the latest iPhone or they’ll ‘die’ we responsibly know that those youthful aches and pains are as real to them as any physical trauma one might suffer. We know that showing up at school with the latest cool gadget has as much to do with the higher-order needs for them as we may wish them to perceive their basic needs such as food, shelter and security. Hence, the parenting task becomes one of teaching skills to contextualise such desires and value delayed gratification.

These lessons are too often relegated to parenting due to the secularisation of schooling and workplaces in the west. Western secularism often fails to distinguish religion from spirituality, to the detriment of the latter since we remain staunchly Christian societies, especially to the extent of chauvinism when faced with an ‘other’. Any non-Christian in the west can see the secularism is superficial – even Stevie Wonder can see that. Echoing her own call for greater attention to spirituality in secular education bell hooks quotes HH Dalai Lama’s thoughts in the need for the distinction in the second installment of her seminal teaching trilogy:

hooks-hopeSpirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit—such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony—which brings happiness to both self and others.  … (hooks, ‘Spirituality in Education’ in Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, 2003 pg. 157-164)

Makes place in and around the classroom. As a lecturer, I am a coach, guide, mentor, leader and have even befriended students (particularly after their graduations). One primary aim and source of satisfaction in the classroom is facilitating values-based dialogue across differences in perspectives. My role is not just to dump selective parts of my knowledge into students’ heads, nor simply to train certain skills. Nay, we’re always teaching how to live in a diverse community.

 

To get more in-formation:

Friday the 13th

Odd thing superstition, it makes reasonable and seemingly rational people think and behave in the most irrational and inexplicable manner. Always we notice these behaviours and thoughts in other people, but so many of us carry in the back of our minds equally irrational ideas and beliefs. We hear of football club managers who always wear the same clothes at a game, athletes that engage in the same pre-game routine and of course, politicians who act in certain ways during their election campaign. For the rest of us there are ladders in the street, black cats, that we may avoid or there are dates in the calendar that we take notice. Friday the 13th is one of those Anglo-Saxon dates that people take notice of.

I am sure that some of my historian friends will be able to give a good account of the origin of the unfortunate date, but I can only go with the “official tradition” of Jesus, the 13th student, (Judas) and his subsequent arrest on the Friday before the Crucifixion. The day, somehow, became one of those that we notice, even when we are not superstitious. There is even a psychologically recognised fear of the date Triskaidekaphobia; which in Greek means the fear of 13! Of course social fears are blended with wider social anxieties, whether that is the fear of the unknown or the realisation that in life, there are things that we have little control of.

In the days leading up to this Friday the 13th we engaged with political discussions about what direction the country shall take. The health service, the justice system, the state’s responsibility, all the way to welfare and the state of the union, were all eclipsed by one topic that has dominated discourses, that of the execution of leave from the European Union commonly known as Brexit. Ironically the “exit” preface was used before for Greece (Grexit), and Italy (Italexit) but seems that Brexit has won the battle of the modern lexicon. The previous “exits” where used as a cautionary tale for the countries being forced out of the union, whilst Brexit is about leaving the Union.

Having considered all the issues, this one issue became the impetus for people to give politicians a mandate. Complete this issue before and above all the rest. It is an issue likened to a divorce, given a texture, (soft/hard) and has even been seen as the reason for generational conflicts. Therefore the expectation is clear now . Leave the European Union, and then let’s see what we can do next. The message is fairly clear and the expectation is palpable. Beliefs and hopes of the people narrowed down to one political move that shall terminate membership to the European Union. Of course there are subsequent questions and issues that this act of national defiance may come with. As for the state of the Union, that may have to be the next thing we discuss. This follow up conversation may not be as welcome, but it is definitely interesting. If joining the EU back in 1975, warranted a discussion, then the 1536 Act of Union may become the next topic for conversation. As for healthcare, justice, education and welfare, we may have to wait a little bit more longer. Whether this will mark Friday 13th December 2019 as a date of fortune or misfortune, that is yet to be decided, but that is the same for every day of the week.

Just for your records and for the Triskaidekaphobians out there, the next Friday the 13 is in March 2020 followed by the one in November 2020. Just saying…

‘Guilty’ of Coming Out Daily – Abroad. #BlackenAsiaWithLove

I am annoyed that our apartment-building manager told my husband that a two-bedroom had recently become available, and that we should move in because we would be “more comfortable.” My husband always takes such statements at face value, then performs his own cost/benefits analysis. Did the manager offer a discount, I asked? I mean, if he’s genuinely concerned about our comfort, shouldn’t he put his money where his mouth is? That’s probably just the American in me talking: He was either upselling the property or probing us to see what the deal was – not at all concerned about our comfort. I speak code, too.

 

The most homophobic thing that anyone has ever said to me is not any slur, but that gay people should not “flaunt it.” As if concealing our identities would magically erase homophobia. This reveals that the speaker either doesn’t know – or doesn’t care to know – how readily people everywhere speak about our personal lives. There are random people I have met in every single part of the world, that ask my marital status. It comes shortly after asking my name and where I’m from. The words used are revealing – just ask any divorced person who has engaged with any society’s traditions. Is it deceptive to say that they are “single,” instead? What’s more, regardless of language, preferred terms like “unmarried” reveal the value conferred upon this status. You’re not a whole person until you’re married, and a parent. It is only then that one is genuinely conferred what we sociologists call ‘personhood’. Also, are married lesbians called two Mrs.?

Come out, come out wherever you are.

In many parts of the world, being ‘out’ carries the death penalty, including parts of my father’s homeland, Nigeria. I’ve literally avoided visiting Nigeria because of the media-fueled fear of coming out. I hate the distance it’s wedged between my people, our culture and I. There was a time when coming out was literally the hardest thing I ever had to do. Now, l must come out daily.

Back in the UK, many educators would like to believe that they don’t discuss their personal lives with students. But who hasn’t been casually asked how one spent the weekend? Do I not say “My husband and I…” just as anyone else might? Abroad, do I correct co-workers when they refer to us as ‘friends’? Yesterday, I attended an academic conference. All the usual small talk. I came out a dozen times by lunch.

In teaching English here in Asia, isn’t it unfair for me to conceal from my students the gender of my “life-partner,” which is actually our formal legal status?  Am I politicising my classroom by simply teaching gender-neutral terms like ‘spouse’ or ‘partner’? Or, do I simply use the term ‘husband’ and skim over their baffled faces as they try to figure out if they have understood me properly? Am I denying them the opportunity to prepare for the sought-after life in the west? Further, what about the inevitability of that one ‘questioning’ student in my classroom searching for signs of their existence!

I was recently cornered in the hallway by the choreographer hired by our department to support our contribution to the university’s staff talent competition (see picture below*). She spoke with me in German, explaining that she’d lived several years in the former GDR. There are many Vietnamese who’d been ‘repatriated’ from the GDR upon reunification. So, given the historical ties to Communism, it’s commonplace to meet German (and Russian) speakers here. Naturally, folks ask how/why I speak (basic) German. My spouse of seventeen years is German, so it’d be weird if I hadn’t picked up any of the language. It’s really deceptive to conceal gender in German, which has three. I speak German almost every day here in Hanoi.

Kuku-HUST-performace.jpg

The word is ‘out’.

In Delhi, we lived in the same 2-bedroom flat for over 7 years. It became clear to our landlady very early on that we slept in one bedroom. Neighbours, we’re told, also noticed that we only ever had one vehicle between us and went most places together. Neither the landlady nor any neighbour ever confronted us, so we never had to formally come out. Yet, the chatter always got back to us.

As a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Mali in the late 90’s, I learned to speak Bambara. Bambara greetings are quite intimate: One normally asks about spouses, parents and/or children, just as Black-Americans traditionally would say “How yo’ momma doin?’” In Mali, village people make it their business to get single folks hitched. Between the Americans, then, it became commonplace to fake a spouse, just so one would be left in peace. Some women wore wedding bands for added protection, as a single woman living alone was unconscionable. The official advice for gays was to stay closeted L. While I pretended to be the husband of several volunteers, I could never really get the gist of it in my village. Besides, at 23 years old, being a single man wasn’t as damning as it is for women. I only needed excuses to reject the young women villagers presented to me. Anyhow, as soon as city migrants poured back to the village for Ramadan, I quickly discovered that there are plenty of LGBTQ+ folks in Mali! This was decades before Grindr.

Here in Hanoi, guys regularly, casually make gestures serving up females, as if to say: ‘Look, she’s available, have her’. I’ve never bothered to learn the expected response, nor paid enough attention to how straight men handle such scenarios. Recently, as we left a local beer hall with another (gay) couple, one waiter rather cheekily made such gestures at a hostess. In response, I made the same gestures towards him; he then served himself up as if to say ‘OK’. That’s what’s different about NOW as opposed to any earlier period: Millennials everywhere are aware of gay people.

A group of lads I sat with recently at a local tea stall made the same gestures to the one girl in their group. After coming out, the main instigator seamlessly gestured towards the most handsome in his clique. When I press Nigerian youth about the issue, the response is often the same: We don’t have a problem with gay people, we know gay people, it’s the old folk’s problem. Our building manager may be such a relic.

 

*Picture from The 2019 Traditional Arts Festival at Hanoi University of Science and Technology (HUST)

We Want Equality! When do we want it?

Defend_equality_poster_cropped

I’ve been thinking a lot about equality recently. It is a concept bandied around all the time and after all who wouldn’t want equal life opportunities, equal status, equal justice? Whether we’re talking about gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, age, marital status. religion, sex or maternity (all protected characteristics under the Equality Act, 2010) the focus is apparently on achieving equality. But equal to what? If we’re looking for equivalence, how as a society do we decide a baseline upon which we can measure equality? Furthermore, do we all really want equality, whatever that might turn out to be?

Arguably, the creation of the ‘Welfare State’ post-WWII is one of the most concerted attempts (in the UK, at least) to lay foundations for equality.[1] The ambition of Beveridge’s (1942) Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services was radical and expansive. Here is a clear attempt to address, what Beveridge (1942) defined as the five “Giant Evils” in society; ‘squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease’. These grand plans offer the prospect of levelling the playing field, if these aims could be achieved, there would be a clear step toward ensuring equality for all. Given Beveridge’s (1942) background in economics, the focus is on numerical calculations as to the value of a pension, the cost of NHS treatment and of course, how much members of society need to contribute to maintain this. Whilst this was (and remains, even by twenty-first century standards) a radical move, Beveridge (1942) never confronts the issue of equality explicitly. Instead, he identifies a baseline, the minimum required for a human to have a reasonable quality of life. Of course, arguments continue as to what that minimum might look like in the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, this ground-breaking work means that to some degree, we have what Beveridge (1942) perceived as care ‘from cradle to grave’.

Unfortunately, this discussion does not help with my original question; equal to what? In some instances, this appears easier to answer; for example, adults over the age of 18 have suffrage, the age of sexual consent for adults in the UK is 16. But what about women’s fight for equality, how do we measure this? Equal pay legislation has not resolved the issue, government policy indicates that women disproportionately bear the negative impact of austerity. Likewise, with race equality, whether you look at education, employment or the CJS there is a continuing disproportionate negative impact on minorities. When you consider intersectionality, many of these inequalities are heaped one on top of the other. Would equality be represented by everyone’s life chances being impacted in the same way, regardless of how detrimental we know these conditions are? Would equality mean that others have to lose their privilege, or would they give it up freely?

Unfortunately, despite extensive study, I am no closer to answering these questions. If you have any ideas, let me know.

References

Beveridge, William, (1942), Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services, (HMSO: London)

The Equality Act, 2010, (London: TSO)

[1] Similar arguments could be made in relation to Roosevelt’s “New Deal” in the USA.

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