Courage from wherever you stand

If there is one thing I wish I could give my readers these days it is the feeling that the climate crisis is like a war.

For some it is easy to see it as a war of us against them—us, the ordinary people who mostly want to do something about it, against them, the greedy one-percenters who run most of the industry and make most of the political decisions. But it isn’t at its core an us-versus-them war.

It’s an us-versus-ignorance war. Slowly the ignorance is falling away and we will focus more and more on fighting to mitigate the collapse of our ecological life-support system. But still it will be an us-versus-ignorance war. It will just be against the effects created by the ignorance of the past.

Even the wealthy have to eat and even if they may have bunkers, there is no possible future in which climate collapse goes forward unchecked and they don’t seriously regret not paying attention earlier. It is still primarily about ignorance. “Ignor-ance” has its roots in willfully ignoring and denying reality. That is what we are up against—the denial ignorance of the wealthy, the misled ignorance of the poor and the despairing and apathetic ignorance of everyone in between.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Plenty of people are saying that we need to respond to the climate crisis the way we responded to World War Two. It’s true on so many levels. The climate emergency is already claiming hundreds of thousands of lives and it will soon claim millions and then billions, if we do nothing. The scale is at least as massive as the second world war was and it will reach into every person’s life just as that war did. It will require many personal sacrifices, political focus, economic manipulation and social solidarity, just as that war did.

It already requires a great deal of courage.

Of course, there is the courage of people protesting and putting their bodies in the way of fossil fuel extraction, processing and transport. There are the people chained or glued to government or corporate doorways. There are those sitting down in front of police wielding chemical weapons and people standing in the middle of intersections, demanding that other humans do indeed stop business as usual, stop driving, pay attention and treat science as a real-world matter.

Some people look at these protesters, often dressed up or in a excited, bonded group, and assume it must be fun or they must be in it for the adventure. And there may be some who are in it for adventure the first time around. But a lot of people are doing it again and again. They are willing to be roughed up by irritable police on extra shifts and willing to spend long, cold nights in improvised cells. They know what they are in for.

That is courage. I’ve seen a lot of people grasping courage these days, more than I think I’ve ever seen in my lifetime.

There’s the courage of a young mother, so scared she’s trembling, who he accepts the role of press spokesperson for an action anyway, because all the people without babies are either on the blockade line or doing risky conflict deescalation work. There is no one else who can address the TV cameras. So she does it, even though she’s never been an activist before.

There’s the fourteen-year-old girl who signed up to learn to be a field medic with her parents’ consent, willing to wade into fields of tear gas and distribute clothes soaked in antacid to people gasping for breath. There’s the courage of those worried parents who know this is something she has to do.

There’s the woman who I watched stumble through a workshop presentation for new climate action volunteers in which two young men decided to pick apart her every statement. Walking to the subway together after I helped her lock up the office in the evening, she confessed that it wasn’t just her first workshop presentation but the first time she had ever spoken in front of a group of people in her life.

I have not chained myself to anything strategic or refused to move under police orders. Not yet at least. Some of my rebel friends are willing to forgive me this reticence because I have a disability and a disabled child. “Well, that’s why Arie isn’t out there getting arrested.” I’m the one teaching the medics and the deescalation teams. I’m the one holding the hands of new volunteers, giving a dozen pep talks a day.

But I’ve had to poke deep into my own reserves of courage. When I first signed up my family and close friends were all warning me to be careful, even asking me not to join Extinction Rebellion because whenever I have joined community organizations before it has always ended in pain, social rejection and deep depression. The fact is that, especially where I live in the Czech Republic, a disabled. middle aged woman with strange-looking eyes and awkward social communication is not well accepted. My family didn’t want me to go through all that again.

When I go into groups, I can’t make eye contact or play out the little exchanges of non-verbal communication. Mostly people don’t realize this or understand what it means. They just get the feeling that I’m aloof or uncool, or most oddly, calculating and competitive. The inevitable result has been a lot of social isolation. I join groups enthusiastically, get a lot of confused reactions and soon find myself mysteriously dropped off the invitation list.

So joining Extinction Rebellion, I was so scared that I lay awake all night shaking after every meeting in the beginning. But I knew I had to go anyway.

I wish I could tell you those fears were entirely unfounded. I will say that Extinction Rebellion tries hard to be open to all—people with disabilities, older people and people with children included. It’s a real topic of discussion and those discussions matter. I’ve never found a group where I did feel this welcome. But I have run into people who reject me out-of-hand, even in the consciously inclusive culture of XR.

Facing fears doesn’t mean facing down only illusion. Much of the fear is real. Those protesters in France really did get viciously attacked by police while sitting calmly and quietly. Some people really did needlessly torment that first-time workshop presenter. And every time I play the role of social greeter at an XR event, I will get some hard looks and some cold shoulders, which cut deep because of the social context of long-term ostracism.

It’s a time for courage. Whatever terrors you have to face, now is the time.

And there is another part of courage we all have to seize together. Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t ask me some version of the question, “Isn’t it too late and hopeless anyway?”

There are a hundred arguments why the key strategies to mitigate climate disaster won’t work. Most solar panels are made in China using minerals mined at great environmental cost and then there’s the methane in the arctic lakes, all the tipping points we may have already crossed, And that’s just the science part. We have only just begun to demand real political and economic change and those systems don’t want to change. We may well not be able to bring our society to change quickly enough. And if we manage it here, will we be able to get China and India to join us? The odds seem awfully long on stopping CO2 emissions in the time frame scientists have said we must, if we want to avoid global calamity .

In 1938, when the allies signed the Munich agreement with Hitler to allow the Nazis to take Czechoslovakia in an attempt to deny the inevitable, people who warned of the encroaching tide of fascism were called “alarmists.” And then when the allied forces did go up against fascism, it looked hopeless. It looked like we had waited too long.

That’s what Hollywood portrayals of World War Two don’t show. They say they’re showing courage, the heroic battles in which good conquers evil in the real world. But the reality is that those French resistance fighters, those nurses in Blitz-torn London, those teenage girls holding the Eastern front in some Russian town, those Romani prisoners rebelling in a concentration camp, those boys on the Normandy beaches, those fighter pilots over the North Sea and those victory gardeners on the other side of the Atlantic waiting for husbands, sons and fathers to come home did not have good odds. We look back at them through the lens of what did happen. They fought and they won, so of course they had the courage to fight.

But it wasn’t an easy choice for many of them. There were times during the war when it looked very bleak. In our struggle now, it looks bleak. It looks like the risks we take and the sacrifices we make may be for nothing.

In that too, we need courage—not because we know we’ll win but because the only way to live well now is to fight this war against ignorance,

Conflict Resolution: A manual for inclusive resistance, social justice and environmental defense groups

Conflict resolution is a process using the principles of non-violent communication in which we explore the competing needs that lead to arguments, tension and conflict among people.

In Extinction Rebellion, we are working together toward the same goal. But we may have different ideas of how to do that. Some of us may be focused on our particular tasks and not realize that our actions somehow interfere with the tasks of other rebels. We may find ourselves in a situation where resources we need are scarce. Sometimes another rebel may cause another’s needs to go unmet, usually unintentionally.

Creative Commons image by charlieCe of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by charlieCe of Flickr.com

This is how conflict arises in all activist and volunteer groups. It is inevitable. We have learned from generations of civil disobedience and non-violent protest movements around the world that internal conflict is the single greatest threat to our movements, much more destructive than any outside hostile force. Most non-violent protest movements that fail collapse or gradually decline, due to internal conflict.

And yet, we have also learned from experience that suppressing conflict, pretending it isn’t there, smoothing it over or forcibly shutting it down do not work. In the long-run, suppressed  conflict returns in one form or another and the longer it simmers, the more disruptive it becomes.

Therefore, we must find ways to resolve conflict which actually mitigate harm to all. The key to that kind of resolution is recognizing and meeting everyone’s needs to the best of our ability. Conflict resolution is the process of understanding and then meeting those needs, so that conflict dissipates rather than simmering or disrupting.

What standards guide conflict resolution?

We developed this guide for Regenerative Culture workers in Extinction Rebellion in the Czech Republic but it can be used effectively by anyone working in community, social or volunteer organizations. Here are some principles and standards that will help.

  • We recognize that conflict is inevitable. There is no need for shame or blame when conflict arises. Non-violent communication is the primary tool in conflict resolution.

  • If it is necessary to intervene with someone who is behaving in a disruptive or abusive manner, we do not confront this person in public online spaces. We use the non-violent communication process to address the problem directly and openly either in person, if at all possible, or in private messages, if a personal meeting is impossible.

  • If a conflict between two or more rebels affects the group or threatens to harm a group, the conflict resolution process is open to the group. Conflict that affects the group’s functioning is not a private matter. It affects us all.

  • Conflict resolution can be carried out within a local group or a working group autonomously using this handbook and non-violent communication skills. If a conflict resolution team is available to mediate, mediation may be called for.

  • We are committed to confronting elements of the toxic system which cause harm to vulnerable groups. If a conflict involves social exclusion, bullying, racism, misogyny, ableism, nationalism, homophobia or other manifestations of toxic social systems, we take this into account and confront these systems and their residues in ourselves.

  • Mediation will favor more socially vulnerable persons, if there is an accusation of harassment or bullying.

What practical guidelines will help ensure these standards?

  • Review and renew your group’s principles and values against discrimination/oppressive behaviors and for inclusion, equality and ethics. Hearing this announced to the group periodically has been proven in studies to decrease incidence of harassment as well as social exclusion in groups. It also makes vulnerable demographics feel welcome and safe.

  • Make clear at the start of trainings and intermittently in meetings that non-violent communication ought to be used and is part of your commitment to non-violence.

  • Review and renew your shared vision. In Extinction Rebellion, we are all fighting for our lives. When we have conflict between us, it is crucial to take a moment to bring forward the awareness that the person or people standing on the other side of the tension from me are fighting for their lives as well, possibly in a different way or with different priorities or communication/work styles.

  • Encourage short feedback loops in listening - feeding back in real time something that you had a reaction to, e.g. ‘It sounded to me as though your tone was a little tense just then. Is that correct/is everything OK?’ or ‘I don’t like it when you call me that - I feel very uncomfortable when this interaction happens,’ as long as these remain within the non-violent communication structure of observation without evaluation and statements of feelings in reaction.

  • Encourage a “step forward/step back“ attitude - taking personal responsibility and self awareness, making space for others to speak/be seen when one has been prominent for whatever reason OR challenging ourselves to speak up if we don’t usually.

  • NO GOSSIP policy: NO conflicts to be taken on social media at any point.


There are two processes for conflict resolution

  • Process ONE is for situations in which all participants in a conflict can meet.

  • Process TWO is for situations in which participants cannot meet because it would not be safe and there is a risk of harm to someone.

Process ONE

This is a Clearing Process for dealing with conflict--mutual or highlighted by one party. This requires both parties and a facilitator to be in the same space and only works if all participants agree to follow the process and bring good intention and a listening ear.

Agree a time and comfortable space to meet, agree on length of process and make sure you have everything you need, e.g. water, tissues etc 

Use I statements and allow time for reflection and pauses in process. 

Step 1: Setting up the atmosphere and intention

  • All participants to share some element of gratitude, e.g. ‘the sunshine on my walk here’

  • All participants to share their intentions - how they will conduct themselves through the process and how they’d like to feel at the end, e.g. ‘I will try and listen with an open mind and I’d like to feel at peace with you/this situation and be able to work well together’

Step 2: Seeking unity on the Facts:

  • One or the other party in a conflict may volunteer to go first. If an accusation is at the center of the conflict, the accuser should generally go first. If it is difficult to agree who should go first, flip a coin.

  • Person A shares their perception of the facts of what happened, the time, context, content etc. What would a video camera have observed? (No interruptions beyond reminders to avoid evaluation or judgmental terminology. Time limits may be set and may be amended if there is need.)

  • Person B does the same.

  • Facilitator: Observe where the facts are the same and where they are different. Acknowledging that two different perceptions may both be honest and authentic. We perceive differently from different perspectives.

Step 3: Awareness of feelings

  • Person A shares when they first felt negative emotions in the interaction, e.g. “when you said, xyz I felt angry.” Ask person A to try and go deeper into what is under the initial reaction ‘under the anger, I felt undermined/afraid.’ Get to the most basic feeling. 

  • Remind participants that the fact that someone feels something is a fact. The feeling is indisputable and does not imply blame. We are ultimately responsible for our feelings ourselves. Empathy lies in acknowledging the difficulty others experience when they feel negative feelings.

  • Peron B reflects back, e.g. “I hear that you felt angry when I said xyz and below the anger you felt that I was undermining you and you were afraid.”

  • Any clarification needed?

  • Peron B can then share how they feel in that moment in regards to what A has shared and how they felt during the triggering interaction.

  • Person A reflects back what they have heard. Any clarification?

  • Ask both participants to reflect silently or openly if they wish on previous experiences when they felt the same difficult emotions they experienced in this interaction. How is the situation different this time?

  • Ask both participants if they want to ask for forgiveness for any hurt that was caused, any action that was out of alignment with that person’s good intentions, any ripple effects that came from that person's words/actions.

Step 4: Awareness of needs

  • Both participants now reflect and share needs, e.g. “I need time and attention to take a breath before responding in the heat of the moment, I need reassurance that my work is valued, I need to clear boundaries to feel safe in interactions.”

  • Guide participants to break down their needs to universal human needs, rather than requests for specific actions at this time. “Reassurance” is a universal human need. “For you to reassure me” is a specific request.

  • Each participant reflects back what they have heard the other participant needs. The needs are statements of fact. That a person has a universal human need isn’t disputable.

  • Needs may conflict. It is not automatically the responsibility of the other party to meet the needs spoken. Solutions may begin to become apparent at this stage though. We resolve conflict by first developing empathy by understanding each other’s perceptions and feelings and by finding creative solutions in which everyone’s needs are met.

Step 5: Making requests

  • Personal A may have requests of the other person, eg “Would you be willing to…” Requests may attempt to find a way to ensure that needs will not conflict.

  • Person B may agree or say, ‘No, but I could do …’ also with meeting the needs of all in mind. Note that self-sacrificing so that one’s own needs are overly delayed will likely not be sustainable.

  • Person B may have requests, also begining with the word, “Would you be willing to…”

  • Person A may agree or offer a different solution. 

Step 6: Finding resolution

  • Review action points that A and B are taking away.

  • Agree on times for A and B to check in again soon.

  • A and B reflect on how they feel at the end of the process and what they take away from it. Give gratitude as appropriate.

  • Check in with A and B later to make sure the follow up check in between them happens. Some issues may require another cleaning process, if something new has arisen.  

Process TWO

 In case of individual feeling unsafe to go through Clearing Process with other person present this procedure for dealing with cases of harassment, bullying or unwelcome behavior is in place.

 If a complaint of harassment, bullying, ostracism or unwelcome behavior is brought to the attention of the Conflict Resolution Team, prompt action must be taken to investigate the matter and action taken to remedy the complaint.

Anyone who wishes to make a complaint of harassment, bullying or unwelcome behavior is encouraged to first discuss matters with someone who they trust, ideally a Group Coordinator or someone from the Regenerative Culture Group. This is to take some time to get clear on what happened and how to engage with the process, e.g. finding a facilitator to hold the Clearing Process and approaching the other person to see if they will engage with process

If the person feels unable/unsafe to sit in the Clearing then the advocate can approach them on the complainant’s behalf. The complainant does not need to prove they are unsafe. However, complaints should be clear and specific, when brought to Process 2. Counseling may be sought from the Regenerative Culture group in order to clarify complaints.

It may be possible in this way to resolve the issue by getting the individual(s) in question to see how their behavior could be classed as harassment or bullying and to agree to desist from that behavior. Very often people are not aware that their behavior is unwelcome or misunderstood and an informal discussion can lead to greater understanding and agreement that the behavior will cease. Complainants are therefore encouraged to try, if they feel able to do so, to resolve the problem informally by making it clear to the alleged harasser that their actions are unwanted and should not be repeated.

An individual, who is made aware that their behavior is unacceptable, is asked to:

  • Listen carefully to the complaints and the particular concerns raised;

  • Respect the other person’s point of view; everyone has a right to work in an environment free from harassment, ostracism, intimidation, discrimination and social exclusion;

  • Understand and acknowledge that the other person’s reaction/perception to another’s behavior (the impact) is more important than the intention behind the behavior;

  • Agree the aspects of behavior that will change;

  • Review their general conduct/behavior when working with others.

  • Confirm that they actively want to follow respectful and inclusive principles and values. Failure to do so could result in them being asked to discontinue association with the group, regardless of what seniority, authority or responsibility they have attained in the group.

If, between the complainant and the supporting individual the issue seems too complex or serious to handle alone, a meeting of some members of the Conflict Resolution group and those trained in non-violent communication and Peacemaking can be called to look at the details of what has happened and decide on appropriate course of action.

When dealing with a complaint of harassment in this way, 

  • Full details of the incident(s) should be taken in writing from the complainant and their supporting person (if appropriate). Complaints need to be as clear, objectively-worded and specific as possible to enable specific resolution.

  • Full details should be taken from any witnesses/other complainants who come forward and may have witnessed the alleged behavior

  • The alleged harasser should be informed of the complaints against them. They should be invited to a meeting in order that they can comment on the allegations against them. 

  • People’s involvement with the group could be frozen whilst investigations are being made.

  • All parties need to be kept informed of expected timescales for how the situation will be dealt with.

  • All parties should be fully informed of the outcome and any action that may be required.

A decision will be reached collectively by appropriate members of the Conflict Resolution Group, and any appropriate Coordinators as to the best course of action, working with the complainant to ensure they find the course of action acceptable to their sense of safety and peace of mind. This may include, but is not limited to:

  • Making clear to the harasser that they are no longer able to work with the group (in sufficiently serious cases).  

  • Giving a warning that the harasser will only be able to continue working with the group if their behavior does not revert, at which point they will be asked to leave.         

  • Finding a way for the complainant and harasser to work in different groups where they will have little overlap. The complainant should be given priority in where they want to work.

  • In more serious cases: The group may announce publicly that they are not associated with the person in question or a restraining order may be placed.

  • False accusations of harassment or other inappropriate behavior—found to be false through investigation—may also result in the group distancing from the complainant.

Instances of harassment, bullying and unwelcome behavior are rarely neatly defined, and processes dealing with them will require flexibility. As such, some flexibility from the above procedure is both likely and acceptable (i.e. doesn’t necessarily invalidate the entire process).

Guarding against poison

Commuter trains in the Czech Republic are strange, almost surreal places. They are often packed so tightly that you are touching several other human beings and breathing their breath even if you are all trying not to.

And yet these trains are often utterly silent.

In some places where I've ridden trains, subways or buses--for instance in New York, the US west coast or Western Europe, not to mention the global south--commuter vehicles are noisy, crowded and full of local culture, often featuring someone making impromptu music.

But in the Czech culture, there is a social contract that holds silence and pretend privacy as the highest virtues.

Creative Commons image by Eric Wüstenhagen

Creative Commons image by Eric Wüstenhagen

That was why the man sitting across from me yesterday sounded so loud. He was speaking into his phone, his voice pitched a little low but not nearly low enough. All around us everyone else was painfully silent. And this man's voice was audible throughout the train car.

"I told you, I turned it off... What you think you know is irrelevant. I know I turned it off... Well, listen to me. There are stupid people, as you well know. I am an intelligent person. I turned it off.... If you cannot accept reality, you are just what you are... I told you, I turned it off. I don't care. It's there on the counter. I turned it off. Maybe you turned it on in your sleep. I know what I know."

It wasn't so much his words, going on and, on mile after mile, that had me gagging on rising vomit. It was his sickeningly condescending tone. Superiority and contempt dripped from his every word.

I couldn't help imagining who he might be speaking to. Maybe a child or an elderly, senile parent... but most likely his wife or female partner, given the context.

The more I was forced to listen, the more I didn't give a flying rat's ass who he was talking to, how difficult they might be or what was the truth of his history with the device on the counter.

I couldn't hear the person on the other end of his line, not even a peep, despite sitting just a few feet from him. But shrieking would have been a reasonable response to his tone, in my view.

Am I oversensitive? Possibly.

I have known contempt. I am intimate with it. It is the natural child of delusions of superiority. I would wager that every person born with a significant disability has met contempt as well as its somewhat prettier but no less poisonous little sister, condescension.

Their existence is often hard to prove in a digital world. Reading the words of this man on the train, you may wonder why I was upset. Ninety percent of it was in the tone.

It often is that way. The person who wields contempt or condescension must maintain--at least for themselves--the illusion that they are superior, in-control and beyond reproach.

Last week, someone criticizing me for firmly insisting that my child not play in the water until she had changed out of her clothes and into her swimming suit used that tone on me. Parents of children with neuro-diversity are often judged by those who see the difficulties those children have and assume it\s all about bad parenting. Far too many people jump immediately to feelings of superiority.

A police officer patrolling a climate-crisis protest I was involved in used that tone on me just yesterday because he was convinced that I was holding a white cane as a media stunt and only pretending to be visually impaired. When people leap to conclusions about another, they are often wrong.

Haven't I ever felt contempt myself? Yes, to my regret. There is a fine line between disgust and contempt. Disgust arises when a we encounter something utterly abhorrent.

The man's tone on the train filled me with disgust, but not with contempt. I heard his abusive words and suppressed anger. I knew he wasn't doing well. I felt sorry for the person he was speaking to, but I also was well aware that I am not on a different level from him. I have to remind myself of that, which is why I know I am not "above" such negative thinking.

Contempt is disgust with the added punch of a belief in one's own inherent superiority. I didn't feel contempt that time on the train, but I think I have at times slipped down that slimy slope a little and had to pull myself back through shame and remorse.

The fact is that no one is superior to another in that way. It isn't easy to keep that belief firm in today's world in which so much is horrible. But the knowledge that I might be wrong in my perception, that I don't really know the experiences of others, keeps me back from contempt now.

I swallowed back bile on the train and spoke firmly and calmly to the man across from me. "Sir, I don't care who you're talking to or what they may have done. That tone you are using is inappropriate and abusive. I have to ask you to stop because that tone is poisoning the air for everyone here."

He glared at me for a second as if ready to argue or fight. Silence reigned all around us. The other passengers turned their faces a fraction more away from him. Finally he hung up his phone without any further comment, got up and left.

This is why I don't want to perpetuate contempt, no matter how disgusted, outraged and furious I may be at the injustice, greed and cruelty practiced by some human beings.

Simply put, contempt is poison. It poisons the one spoken to, the one speaking and all who hear or read it. It is the poison that has made social media toxic and broken our public discourse. Open display of contempt is the thing that most sets Donald Trump apart from very bad presidents of the past such as George W. Bush.

Contempt comes from a belief that one is inherently superior to another, who is irredeemable regardless of future actions. So, this is the first thing we must guard against, like the key component to a lethal poison.

It wouldn't even matter if true superiority and inferiority existed in humanity. The poison such assumptions create is too toxic, like hot nuclear waste. It cannot be born.

Superiority and contempt destroy families, communities and nations. "A little innocent superiority complex" is actually the diametric opposite of trust and goodwill.

Let us then set our hearts to a conviction of basic respect for others. This doesn't mean I don't tell that man on the train that his tone is poisonous. It means that I nurture the hope that he might question his assumption of superiority. Many people don't change. But everyone could change.

Tolerating those with beliefs you (strongly) disagree with

I live among many people with beliefs I dislike—often abhor.

I live in a small town in Central Bohemia in the Czech Republic. It is almost entirely white and affluent. Recently a few Asian families have moved to town to open businesses. There are also a handful of oddball people of color—one kid at school with a mother from the Caribbean and so forth.

The opinions of most of my neighbors reflect that. They are inexperienced, fearful of people with different skin tones, and resentful of the hardworking Asian business owners (who keep their shops open hours after everyone else has closed up). They blithely “pop out to the Vietnamese” at 8:00 pm to get a snack when no one else in ten kilometers is open, but they’ll be back at the Asian-bashing the next morning… or often as not, on the way home from the store..

Beyond that, the country is not very diverse. We are among the handful of countries in the EU who have taken in the fewest refugees as a percent of population. My neighbors are always telling me about why we shouldn’t take in refugees, particularly not from Muslim countries.

This isn’t backwoods ignorance but rather pseudo-intellectual rhetoric:

“European culture is founded on Christianity and the enlightenment. Even though most of us are not really Christians anymore, that’s our cultural foundation. Muslims don’t fit in here and they will make enclaves where they enforce their culture and beliefs. They’ll also change our overall culture. They have a lot more children than we do. In the end, you know they want to force us to live under Sharia law.”

There are so many false assumptions in this common public story that I hear from every side daily, even within my own family. that it would take at least five blog posts to cover them all:

  1. No, Europe was actually Pagan. Christianity came from the same general area as a large number of the refugees.

  2. Refugees don’t erase your cultural foundation. Throughout history, nations that accepted refugees have done better economically and become more culturally enlightened. I’ve never seen a historical exception to this fact.

  3. Poor and desperate people have more children. Secure people with access to education and health care have fewer children. That’s a very basic biological fact about humans as a species. If you want to curb population growth, give people education and health care.

  4. The majority of Muslim immigrants don’t want Sharia law. Fanaticism is often a top reason they left their homelands. Even in Muslim majority countries, opinions about Islamic extremists are overwhelmingly negative.

Creative Commons image by Andy Blackledge

Creative Commons image by Andy Blackledge

The fact remains that I live next to, converse politely with and even maintain a shallow level of friendship with many people who hold a lot of bigoted, inexperienced and hateful opinions. I have little choice, since I live in a country where these are the views of the vast majority of the population. Unless I want to be a hermit, who only shops at the family owned Vietnamese store (with nice people) and who doesn’t even use social media, I have to learn to live in the vicinity of horrid opinions.

But the original question that sparked this post on befriending or respecting those with beliefs you don’t like came from these same people—just the other way around. I have been asked many times how I can have Muslim friends and express respect for Muslims, when I am not a Muslim and I clearly disagree with some common Muslim beliefs and even the very basis of that religion.

Once I had a party with a lot of international friends from the city. There were probably thirty people in my yard and living room. One of my foreigner friends from the high-energy activist culture of Prague, a Palestinian student, had brought a couple of his friends.who I didn’t know as well. At one point they approached me as a group and asked if there was some quiet place where they could pray, given that they really did pray five times a day.

The choices weren’t spectacular. The yard was full and mostly dirt at the time anyway. The house was tiny with the main room, one bedroom with too little floor space and my office area, which also included a couple of beds behind a curtain. I took them to the office, which at least had a door that could be closed.

The office not only had rumpled beds and a pile of my folded clothing but various Pagan statues and artwork scattered around. I noticed that the Muslim students seemed a bit uneasy about the arrangement, but it really was the only viable option. They quickly rallied and expressed their appreciation. I pointed out the direction of southeast, which was easy since my practice involves compass points as well. Then I left them to it.

Before that, I once accompanied a Muslim woman in Kazakhstan on a pilgrimage to a holy site in Turkestan (which is a town, not a country). My interest was journalism and personal experience. This woman narrated much of her beliefs and practice along the way, while I went through the motions as a sign of respect and as a way to broaden my own understanding.

All this, and I can still say I really don’t agree with Islam.

I know some Muslims like to point out that the word “Islam” is closely connected to the word “peace,” but let’s face it, the history of Islam has been far from peaceful. Show me a major religion without copious amounts of blood on its hands.

The Koran says some violent and intolerant things, whether about the particular battles of Mohammed’s time or about the way the world works in general. And so does the Bible and so do lots of original Pagan myths. I’m not arguing that we have to take these things literally or that I’m better than anyone else. But the fact is that there are plenty of things in the Koran that I don’t like.

There is that controversy over the “Verse of the Swords,” which can be read to mean that a Muslim should fight, hound and persecute non-believers wherever they be found or it can e read to be referring only to a specific incident when some Pagans broke a treaty with Mohammed. Mohammed sounds to me like a pretty normal leader, trying to deal with the realities of the world and getting confused about how much force should be used in defense of what he believes—hardly someone copying down directly the words dictated by the one and only true God.

Another controversy arises out of verse 4:34 of the Koran regarding relations between husbands and wives. It states that women should be obedient because God put men over women and if a wife disobeys, her husband should first advise her, then refuse to have sex and finally“strike” her if she doesn’t submit. Scholars like to argue over the many possible meanings of the word “strike” in Arabic, some insisting that the verse does not actually condone domestic violence.

But that isn’t even my primary concern. I’m still stuck on the part about women being obedient and God putting men over women. I know this was written for a violent and harsh time and women did often need the protection of men. But men needed the life-giving power of women. And this is supposed to be directly inspired by God. And hopefully God—even a regular god, let alone the one and only God—surely ought to be able to see beyond the local, current context when dictating the ultimate rules for everything.

So, it isn’t a religion for me. I can’t go with both believing the Koran is literally inspired by the only true God and that we have to take the stuff about women being inferior in social context. I really don’t like these beliefs. But it is the peaceful way of life and the respect toward women shown by the Muslims I meet that makes them welcome for me.

A few years ago, I decided to read the mythology of every major religion to my children for a year. I obtained children’s versions of the important stories from Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and a wide variety of Pagan and indigenous faiths.

Some of the Jewish and Christian stories made me pause. I skipped a few of the more gruesome ones that I just couldn’t conscience reading to young children. But when I got to the Islamic stories, I couldn’t find ANY that were not deeply problematic from the perspective of modern, sheltered children. Maybe I had the wrong book, though it had an author who professed to be Muslim and it was specifically for children.

I’ll grant that Pagan stories have been sanitized over the years. We don’t have such old texts, so we will likely never know how gruesome the versions of our stories from 1,500 years ago would have been, if we could read them in the original. And again, I don’t encourage literalism in mythology.

But there is also the matter of the whole Islamic thing about how there is only one God and some intolerance toward those who believe otherwise. I do have many gods and I dislike intolerance in Islam as much as I dislike similar intolerance in my neighbors.

But here is the thing. I tolerate in society those who do not impose their beliefs on others.

Islamic extremists do impose their beliefs on others. I will always speak out against such extremists and I won’t tolerate them or welcome them to a community. The same goes for Christian fundamentalists who seek to impose their beliefs on others. The same goes for those who may call themselves Pagan or Heathen, while usurping my spiritual symbols for the purposes of intolerance and hate.

Those Muslims I do tolerate are those who have been, in my substantial experience, considerate and accepting of others. I do not claim to understand why they believe in a faith I don’t always like.

All I ask in return is that they don’t instantly judge me for the actions of white supremacists who steal Pagan symbols and defame my spiritual path.

Those people I befriend are those who are willing to have open conversations, those who come into my home and treat me, my family and my beliefs with respect and care. Again, I don’t have to like or agree with all of the beliefs of my friends, although to be friends I do hope to have conversations about such things and at least seek to understand each other’s perspective.

Europeans who fear Muslims often ask me, “How can you trust them? I read that Muslims are taught to lie to non-believers and behave nicely so that they can get into a position to either kill us or force us to convert.”

I have read the same allegations. And I know for a fact that some Christian groups teach this very thing in the US: “Work your way into their confidence. Use gifts and friendship to get close to them and then bring them to Jesus.” I haven’t personally encountered an emphasis on killing unbelievers among American Christians, but my pacifist brother was once beaten by kids in a youth group while Christian adult leaders looked on and encouraged them to “beat the devil out of him.”

So, yeah, I believe Muslim extremists probably teach something like this too. I don’t have real personal experience or evidence of it. But it stands to reason, given the similarities to other religious extremists and their preferred interpretation of the “Verse of the Sword.”

Do I believe that my Muslim friends are secretly plotting to someday stop being nice, force us to convert and kill us if we refuse? No, I just don’t believe that.

Why don’t I? I have several other friends who were raised Muslim but aren’t practicing Muslims, who are critical of the religion or just turned atheist. And I have no doubt that if Muslims across the board were taught that doctrine, many such people would have talked about it openly by now. It just is not a mainstream Muslim thing,

So, I don’t actually find it at all difficult to tolerate or befriend Muslims who probably hold beliefs that I dislike. They don’t bludgeon me with their beliefs. They are tolerant and respectful of others. Do I understand? No, not really. But I’m willing to have deep philosophical conversations with them and maybe someday I will understand.

I find it harder to tolerate and befriend racist and isolationist neighbors. I mostly do it because I have little choice. I have friendships where I have to avoid a lot of topics of conversation. Those friendships are shallow, utilitarian and mostly for the children involved.

And even so, I entirely avoid those who really go overboard with expressing racist and isolationist opinions. I don’t want that around my kids. I don’t really even want it in my own ears.

Do I fully understand them? No. I am willing to have deep philosophical conversations, if they’ll stop bludgeoning me with their caustic opinions long enough to have a deep philosophical conversation, and maybe someday I will understand.

Note to younger self

If you could send a message back in time, what would you tell yourself as a child being bullied?

I was recently asked this question as an intellectual exercise, but I had to wonder at the deeper reasons for the question. Is there something we can learn from adult memories of bullying or retrospective advice that might provide some practical help for those in similar circumstances today.?

My experience is only mine. It is particular and specific, possibly too specific to be applicable to others. But I do know this. There are things I did not hear from adults or peers that would have helped and some things I heard a whisper of but not enough. I know there are ideas that would have helped because I eventually found these ideas myself and they helped a great deal.

But I had to invent this wheel and the chariot that rode on it. No one gave ,me the pieces. It is possible, of course, that someone tried and I didn’t listen. Or that I wouldn’t have understood these things as a child, even if someone had told me. But I don’t think so. I think these words would have helped.

So for what its worth and in case someone out there must give advice to a child facing pervasive bullying or social ostracism, here is what would have helped me: .

Yeah, the kid in red and black with unmatched socks looking hopefully toward all the kids in pastel colors, that’s me in first grade.

Yeah, the kid in red and black with unmatched socks looking hopefully toward all the kids in pastel colors, that’s me in first grade.

1. It is not you. It is them.

2. It is not you. It is them.

3. It is not you. It is them.

4. Even if there is something you could do to make them bully and ostracize you less, it would only be less. You didn’t do something to “bring it on yourself.” Adults who say that want to believe it because they don’t want to believe kids will really do this to a disabled child for no good reason. It makes them really uncomfortable about the state of the world and the nature of humanity. And they don’t want to take responsibility for making ethics education a major priority. It is not your fault. You don’t have to figure out how to be more perfect. They are the problem.

5. “Social skills” are good. You should pay attention to well-meaning adults who try to tell you how to respond in ways that will help you. BUT those adults do not know what it is like. The social skills are a band aid to an epidemic. They are not worthless but your social skills are pretty average. You can figure out how to be a little more perfect, and maybe that will help. It will definitely help you win in job interviews someday. But it is still not your fault. It is them.

6. You are being bullied and ostracized because your eyes look different, because you are physically different and because of your family background. None of those things are actually bad about you. You are not the problem. The problem is in the minds of other people, in how they were brought up to be judgmental and bigoted and in the kind of society we have. It is not you. It’s them.

7. All the constant hype about how the most important thing in life and happiness is your friends, their number and their fun-ness, is wrong. People are only saying this to help kids who don’t get good grades feel that they aren’t a failure. There are plenty of ways to be happy without a bunch of friends. Find fun by yourself and with one or two friends. Being alone is not shameful or a failure. It can be lots of fun.

8. You are inherently an introvert. Even if you didn’t have a disability and you looked just like everyone else and you came from a typical family, you wouldn’t be the life of the party or the center of a crowd of friends. Some people get their energy from being with people. Some people get their energy from being alone. You will have fun with people but you need to be alone a lot. Being alone is not shameful or sign of a failure. Being alone will help you to be energized and to have fun with your friends when you do go hang out with them. Look at the things you actually like to do. Most of your hobbies, the things your really love, are hard to do in a big group and work better alone or with one or two friends.

9. Decide to be happy, even if no one will accept you. You will one day do this and you will be much happier. No one told me this, so it took me a long time to get. Maybe you could do it earlier and be happy sooner. Build yourself a happy life. Discover the joys of creating, art, writing and nature. Find work you love, no matter how little it pays. Focus on your passions and those good people who will stand by you, even if they aren’t perfect or if they live far away. You don’t need the rest of them to be happy.

10. Bullies shame themselves. Bullies destroy their self-respect. Self-respect is crucial to happiness. Your self-respect gets battered and bruised by being bullied but at least you still have yours. Theirs is gone forever, at least any honest self-respect. They can only ever lie to themselves about being a good person. I never did stoop to their level. but there were times I wanted to.

11. Don’t worry. Those adults who tell you that you have to fight back to stop bullying, even though you’re blind or one against ten and it is clearly a stupid idea—those people are just wrong and they think bullying is something completely different from what it really is. You really are worthy. Their sickness is their own problem.

12. You will be told to be quiet a lot. The people you trust most, your family and close friends will tell you to be quiet because it is hard for them to hear what is happening to you. When people exclude you, they will tell you to be quiet. They will tell you they are excluding you BECAUSE you are not quiet enough. They want your silence. A lot of people who have a disability or other difference have been silent. It does not help. Silence can help you to survive for a moment or two. Don’t be ashamed of the times you were silent to survive but know that it is not what you have a right to. You have a right to speak the truth. You have a right to be heard.

13. Those who love you need to listen, but it is hard for them to hear when you have been hurt so much that mostly what comes out is screaming. Start with “I feel…” State the feeling first. That helps them hear. When they still don’t listen, it is not your fault. It is not your fault that you are emotional or that your words don’t come out all concise and coordinated. Keep working at expressing yourself in ways people can understand. It is helpful. But there is no perfect. Being gentler and calmer will help sometimes. Sometimes it will make them comfortable with dismissing you. Being concise will help sometimes. Sometimes it will let them make their own assumptions.

14. You are enough. It won’t go away because it is them, not you. And you can’t change them without a major change in society. But you will escape from the power of bullies someday.

As i said, this is not a universal message. Bullying comes in different forms. For some kids it is only a few times. For some the physical part is worse than the psychological part, and for others it is visa versa. This is just my message to myself. It would have helped. Now I know what I needed to hear, what could have saved me a lot of dark years, but no one knew it then.

Those who meant well, meant well. They couldn’t know but maybe someone who knows a bullied child will discover a bit of transferable truth in it. I hope so. Feel free to share.

Jokes that hurt without meaning to

This post is not about racists, homophobes, ableists, sexists and other recognized deplorables telling deplorable jokes that we can all agree are damaging and not funny.

Sorry. It’s been done. Here are some links (on people who get mad that women don’t fake laugh at sexist jokes anymore. and how bigoted jokes change who it is socially acceptable to hate), if you need a post about that. It is also a real issue.

This is the “dig a little deeper” post.

Jokes that hurt image.jpg

We—and here I mean progressive, kind, good-hearted people who don’t want to hurt anyone—need to think about what happens when we accidentally or carelessly tell a joke that hurts someone.

There’s a Facebook meme that says, “If I ever confuse ‘their’ versus ‘there’ and ‘its’ versus ‘it’s’ in the same post, you should take it as a sign that I have been kidnapped and I’m signaling for help.”

I’m a linguist, a grammar buff and an ESL teacher. I get why this is funny.

Those who know and care about the differences in words and who feel that the integrity of language matters get frustrated with the apparent lackadaisical attitude of many on social media toward the written word.

To many of us, sloppy spelling and grammar is the equivalent of going out in public with your fly down, food on your chin, morning breath, body odor and your hair not brushed for three days. It reflects poorly on the person posting a message and discredits what they have to say.

Meanwhile, to many people on social media, typing is simply a different way of talking and the faster it’s done the better.

The joke is funny because:

1. The person who posts the joke is poking some fun at her/himself for being a bit of a grammar nerd,

2. We all know a lot of people online who just don’t care whether they make those mistakes and there is a light rivalry between them and the grammar nerds.

3. Some people’s grammar and spelling is really hilarious.

Um… What? Wait just a minute there.

Number three is a problem. If poor grammar on social media is the equivalent of going out in public disheveled, then laughing at people who present poor grammar is the equivalent of ridiculing a person in public who looks disheveled.

And that person might just be homeless.

Or in the online version, they might be dyslexic, blind, an ESL learner, uneducated due to generational poverty or so stressed by difficult life circumstances that they can’t check over their posts.

Imagine if you will a similar Facebook meme stating, “If I ever start stuffing my face and turn into a fatty, you should take it to mean that I’m trapped in an abusive relationship under threat of violence and that’s how I’m signaling for help.” Imagine a really slim friend posting this.

Okay, it is no longer funny at all. We can probably all agree that this would be insensitive and cruel.

The analogy is closer to home than you may think. Obesity is often considered a product of lazy, lackadaisical habits, just as poor spelling is. But both are often actually caused by or exacerbated by factors beyond a person’s control. Both are also the focus of a lot of overt harassment and ridicule.

I cannot count the number of times someone has called me out online for mixing up a homonym, for a dropped comma or for not catching a bad autocorrect. My specific reasons for these mistakes are being 90 percent blind, using voice recognition to type and being a stressed-out parent on modest means. I’m geographically isolated enough to need social media for both work and social interaction. So I try anyway, but my online escapades are far from perfect.

I’m a professional writer and I graduated suma cum laude in linguistics, so I shouldn’t be sensitive about this

But... ridicule is hard to take, and growing up with a disability I’ve received my full measure. When I see other people ridiculed for it online, even when they are my political opponents, I feel threatened.

Okay, I’ll agree that a president really should check over his tweets. If I were president, I wouldn’t be sending out anything I hadn’t had checked by someone else. There’s having a text disability and there’s being smart about your personal strengths and weaknesses. Presidents can afford line editors and so there isn’t much excuse beyond arrogance and lack of care.

But I still don’t engage in those particular jabs at 45.

I think I did once find that grammar meme funny, years ago, when I first got on social media. I had the same problems I have now with text, but I had not yet encountered the online ridicule over it. A person’s experience of having been ridiculed about the point of the joke does matter.

I recently overreacted to such a joke and called out a friend over it. I felt bad later. I don’t want to be harsh or mean, especially when I’m pretty sure the person who posted it had the first two reasons for humor in mind, not so much the problematic third.

But it is an issue worth thinking about. I have seen my friends who are only intermediate in English be dismissed and laughed off of social media, when it took significant courage for them to speak up in a foreign language. I have been ridiculed for posting in the language of the country where I am an immigrant. It is also a second language for me and I know I make mistakes.

And this is by far not the only joke that many of us may find funny, while it hits someone else like a sucker punch. Some jokes about family relationships may really hurt people who have lost family through adoption or estrangement. Some jokes may reference something sensitive for one group that the individual telling the joke genuinely didn’t realize would be sensitive. Think bananas, jungles and “gypsy” fortune tellers for instance.

I may be experienced enough to personally avoid these, but I’ll guarantee you one thing. There is a joke out there somewhere that I will think is hilarious and either laugh at or share, which will actually hurt someone. And I can pretty much guarantee that the same is true for you.

We don’t know for sure and we’re all likely to make this mistake, no matter what our personal background is. A lot of people will take that as a reason to dismiss the whole thing and say that we should all grow thicker skins and learn to take a joke.

But we know where that leads.

If we say it is all right to tell jokes that hurt people with invisible disabilities or ESL learners, we will be that much closer to social acceptability of overtly racist jokes.

And yet laughter and humor is in desperately short supply. Our hearts cry that the solution cannot be that we walk on eggshells around sharing anything funny.

The best I have for you is this:

1. When I am hurt by such a joke or comment in the future, I will say simply, “That hurts. Here’s why.” I will go back to psychology 101 and use statements starting with “I” rather than accusing the other person of something. I invite you to join me in this resolution.

2. When that unhappy but inevitable day comes when I am told that my humor hurt someone else, I will listen and truly think it through. I will delete jokes that hurt people if it’s online. And I’ll apologize for hurting that person, even if I had no intention of doing so, even if I don’t quite think they are justified.

The experience of hurt is a fact. If it comes from me then I did the hurting. Intention is not irrelevant but it is also not everything. Neither is reasonableness. Saying, “I’m sorry my joke hurt you. Thanks for letting me know. I will try not to hurt you in the future,” costs little.

This isn’t going to solve all the problems of social media or dinner party discourse, let alone the broader world. But it can make our personal circle of social interaction more aware and safer for those who have already had their full measure of hurt.

Not all opinions are equal

I have always wanted to be for peace.

The peacemakers of today’s well-connected world cry, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion! Just scroll on past!”

And I find that I cannot be a peacemaker because all opinions are not created equal.

There are opinions about whether this or that candidate is better. There are opinions about how we should manage the city water problem. There are opinions about which health care or tax policy is best. And generally those opinions are all equal. I may disagree with one or more, but I am happy to listen and let live.

Hate is hate no matter its shape ableism meme.jpg

It’s when an opinion is hate against a person or group of people due to circumstances beyond their control that it is no longer an opinion, or at least no longer equal.

Many pundits blame social media for the angry divides of today’s society. And I can see why. Social media is where a lot of arguments happen.

But social media is designed to send us what we like. The algorithms of the various sites don’t send us everything available but rather place us in bubbles of mostly those who agree with us. We only encounter a fraction of the differing opinions out there.

Social media doesn’t set out to create conflict. Quite the opposite. But technology has become a great leveler.

I think it is more that relatively cheap and portable technology has given voices to everyone and blurred lines of geography. It makes the saying, “Injustice somewhere is injustice everywhere,” more palpable.

The fact is that the world was NOT less divided thirty years ago or a hundred years ago. It was more divided.

But privileged people didn’t know about most of it and those experiencing the most injustice had only each other to talk to about their exploitation. The world was more segregated and groups deemed unsightly either stayed out of sight or were put out of sight.

Today the world is not any more divided than it was, but we know about more divides than we used to. Opinions and the actions they engendered which harmed less privileged groups were not often challenged because the harmed groups had no voice and no access to the places where the privileged relaxed and talked.

Now that social media is that place and technology has allowed almost everyone in, we are confronted by those we have opinions about. And they talk back..

I grew up in remote, rural Eastern Oregon, an area that voted 70 percent for Trump in 2016 and which was almost entirely white when I was a child.

When my mom first arrived in the area to homestead with my father, she saw a black family at a gas station in the tiny town of Elgin. She went up to them gladly. Black people had taken her in when she had to leave home at seventeen and she was overjoyed to see their faces. But the father told her they were leaving because of the rampant racism and ostracism in the area.

They left and that was that. No more “divide” in the community.

When I heard racist jokes at school as a child, I didn’t call them out the way I do on Facebook. I kept my head down because as a kid with a disability, I got plenty of bullying as it was. It wasn’t a “divide” because I had no voice, no possibility of standing up, and People of Color were simply elsewhere.

Now we see a divide. Before we could pretend it didn’t exist because those who were vulnerable hid it to survive or were so far removed from us that we never saw or heard from them.

Opening up, people who were shut away walking out in public, the formerly silenced having a voice—these things are not divisive. It is not the “evil” of social media that creates the strife.

It is bigotry and judgementalism. It has always been there. Now it is being challenged.

I welcome differences of opinion when they are not about judging and mistreating others. It is really that simple. Not all opinions are equal. You are entitled to your opinion so long as it does not incite hatred or judgment against others for characteristics they did not choose… or even for things they did choose in so far as they have no bearing on anyone beyond themselves.

Ridiculing a person with a disability, accusing them of “faking” or declaring what you think they should not be allowed to do or have responsibility for is not an “opinion.” It’s an attack for the purpose of silencing and dismissing people.

I am fine with discussing health care policy and climate policy and immigration control and medical ethics with varied viewpoints. What is not open for discussion and what will get comments deleted without warning are those opinions which specifically judge and attack people for reasons that are innate to them.

People standing up to judgement, on the other hand, are welcome. Our voices only sound strident or hot-tempered because they are rusty from too much silence.

Fair warning.

Doing poverty well: How to actually deal with clutter

I’ve run across at least a dozen blogger responses to Marie Kondo’s new Netflix series on fighting clutter for a less stressful lifestyle. Several of these have already pointed out that the show is deeply classist.

I’m not going to belabor the point. It is. Getting rid of everything you haven’t used recently and assuming you can just buy one later if you need it is a choice only viable for the economically privileged. Berating people who don’t currently have or recently didn’t have that privilege for “clutter” is classist. And environmentally unsustainable to boot.

These are the shelves directly on my bed and they combine active bookshelf with cosmetics and jewelry stations, spiritual practice supplies and things I really need to hide from my children. - Image by Arie Farnam

These are the shelves directly on my bed and they combine active bookshelf with cosmetics and jewelry stations, spiritual practice supplies and things I really need to hide from my children. - Image by Arie Farnam

I’m sure the show and its advice is helpful to some. There are people who senselessly horde or acquire stuff without planning or a focus on reusing and upcycling. There probably are middle class people who have a lot of junk they really legitimately don’t need and will never use. The show may well be helpful to them and might result in less stress in their lives.

That’s a good thing and if there was any indication of compassion or understanding that we don’t all have this luxury, I wouldn’t be even mildly irritated at the show. It’s the support of the bubble of privileged comfort that some in the western middle class, which is actually in the top one percent of the world’s wealthiest people, dwell within that bothers me and a few other bloggers. The show doesn’t mention that it is only designed for a very select group, because some in that group don’t feel comfortable when they are reminded of their privileged status in the world. It’s just a thing you don’t say if you want their approval ratings..

The show irritates those of us who stumble across it, but don’t fit into its demographic. And yes, some of us have a broad definition of the word “family” when it comes to both the dinner table and Netflix family passwords and thus some of us occasionally have Netflix.

But I digress. This post isn’t so much about the show as it is about solutions for the rest of us.

You see, clutter is a problem for those with modest means. In fact, it is likely to be a bigger problem for us than it is for the middle class.

First, let me define “us.”

Some will rightly complain that I’m not “poor enough” to talk about doing poverty well. I live a reasonably comfortable lifestyle after all. My children have never gone to bed hungry, except for those couple of nights when they went on strike from regular food in a desperate bid to force a one-hundred-percent noodle, ketchup and candy diet that simply didn’t pan out with Mama bear in the kitchen. So what am I complaining about?

I’m not. Complaining, that is.

My family lives well below the US poverty line in a middling Eastern European country, where we’re actually pretty middle class. I grew up more genuinely poor and in my twenties I went through some winters where cabbage and potatoes were really all I could afford. But my point isn’t to bemoan “poverty.” I, in fact, hold that if most of the world lived close to our consumption level, we could be environmentally sustainable and comfortable enough.

My goal isn’t to become wealthier but rather to live better with what we have. And dealing with clutter is part of that. My solutions are just different from Marie Kondo’s.

When you live close to or below what has been arbitrarily (but in this case handily) designated as the US poverty line, you are in a situation where you can usually buy one small item that you need at a time or save up for a larger item, but you can’t simply acquire what you need when you need it. If you have lived this way for long, it is unlikely you “throw away” anything that isn’t actually useless. You most likely have a running mental list of those who could use, recycle, upcycle or re-enliven something you no longer want.

This is my office and writing nook. Shelves hold reference materials, taxes and official documents, daily office supplies, electronics parts, paper, tea pot and a few display books. There is a fold-out table that hides my ESL teaching center and doors on the bottom cover the household herbal pharmacy and herbalist supplies. - Image by Arie Farnam

This is my office and writing nook. Shelves hold reference materials, taxes and official documents, daily office supplies, electronics parts, paper, tea pot and a few display books. There is a fold-out table that hides my ESL teaching center and doors on the bottom cover the household herbal pharmacy and herbalist supplies. - Image by Arie Farnam

You may well store a lot of things that you don’t need immediately. Your first thought when finding an odd castoff mechanical part is more likely to be, “I wonder what this could be useful for?” than “Why is this old thing still around?” You plan and save and put together what you need.

And there’s another thing. Your entertainment is more likely to be self-made. You don’t go on distant vacations. If you go on vacation, it usually requires a lot of stuff—like tents, sleeping bags, cooking equipment and so forth. And if you don’t go on vacations, you have other interests, many of which entail making things, which requires supplies and equipment.

Your job likely also requires supplies. You likely fix clothing, cars, furniture and other things when they are broken rather than throwing them out, which means your home may well have the necessities for sewing, auto work and carpentry. You are actually more likely than the middle class to own your own cement mixer, sewing machine, towing cables or power saw. I own all four. Lacking a home of your own, you may not own these things, but you very likely own a sewing kit and a set of tools, no matter how makeshift.

And all these things are clutter when piled up into a small home, apartment, car, backpack or whatever you live out of.

Does that mean you should take Marie Kondo’s advice and get rid of anything you haven’t used recently and then every object that does not give you joy. The toilet plunger would be top of the list for me… and how would that go?

The worn-out clothes I garden in aren’t comfy old favorites. They are very specifically, clothes I hate that I expect will be torn and dirty beyond repair in a rough season or two. My cracked mismatched dishes don’t bring me joy. The set of nice dishes brought out only for holidays and adult company do. And the reason they are still nice and joyful is that we don’t use them for everyday.

Nope. That method isn’t going to work for dealing with our clutter.

This is a topic near and dear to my heart. I live in a small, compact house. There isn’t an inch of space that isn’t in planful use. I run a business out of my home that requires me to meet clients in my home daily. My home has to be neat and tidy. Local social norms require it for such a business. Beyond that, I’m ninety percent blind and a pile of junk is truly a problem for me to wade through. Things need to have places.

But all the above still applies. I cook all of my family’s meals from scratch because instant food that won’t kill you is expensive. Thus I have a fully stocked kitchen and a jam-packed pantry. I also have a vegetable garden and that means I have a shed full of tools and supplies, window sills full of seedlings and a cellar and freezers full of produce.

My business requires extensive teaching supplies. I also have kids and they have stuff. We live hours from the nearest English-language library, so we have our own library shelves, particularly full of children’s books. Modern technology has meant some slimming of our bookshelves, DVDs and CDs but subscription services cost money and reference books get used a lot around here.

Beyond that, there is my mental health. Like most people in my situation, I don’t have relaxing vacations or spa treatments or even weekends away. I have interests instead. I study medicinal herbs and recently I’ve taken up candle and soap making. These also require stuff—materials, supplies and storage space.

So it goes for many of us. I go through my pantry regularly from top to bottom every six months and reorganize a bit every month or two. I am always weeding through clothing hordes, swapping out tattered and laundry-shrunken clothes for clothes from the hand-me-down network or bought at an amazing second-hand shop we hit on a trip two years ago that finally fit my kids.

This is my ESL teaching center. The messiest paper part is covered by this fold-out table which can be lowered to accommodate students or paperwork as necessary. - Image by Arie Farnam

This is my ESL teaching center. The messiest paper part is covered by this fold-out table which can be lowered to accommodate students or paperwork as necessary. - Image by Arie Farnam

My kids each have a few drawers for the clothes currently in use. There are are also three bins in their closets that contain clothes. The lowest, easiest-to-reach bin contains still-useful, only mildly tattered clothes that are too small for my kids. These are fed back into our hand-me-down network on a regular basis. The second bin contains off-season clothes—winter clothes in summer, summer clothes in winter. The final bin contains the hoard of clothes that don’t yet fit my kids. Most of these are a year or two from fitting but a few particularly nice bits are being hoarded for a distant future.

That’s how I handle clutter. Or at least it’s one example.

Mostly handling clutter well when you live the way I do means organization, labeling and taking periodic inventory..

I have bins for tools, wire, glue, rope, rubber bands, nails, small boxes, plastic bags, art supplies and plenty of other categories. The skeptical will inevitably remark that there is a lot there that we will never actually use. It’s true that about a third of it eventually gets cycled out when its usefulness is determined to have been overestimated. But all of these things are things acquired free, extremely cheaply or by mistake, as everyone sometimes acquires things. We don’t seek them out but when they come in, if they might be useful, we store them rather than fill the landfill.

Once I observed a middle-class American doing an art project and gaped in surprise at the clean-up, which was apparently routine. Not only were the drop clothes not washed and hung to dry. They were simply bundled with all the scrap material inside and tossed into the garbage can—unused paints, barely opened glue tubes, brushes and all. In my world, only a few stray scraps would have ended up in the garbage, and even then only if they couldn’t conceivably become confetti, decoration for children’s projects or… fire starter.

Yup, there’s a bin for tinder as well, containing candle drippings, soiled wax baking paper, nutshells and paper scraps free enough of chemicals to be deemed compost-safe once burned.

The crucial thing is to be able to find what you need when you eventually do need it. That’s where storage systems, labels and bins come in. Last year, I had what is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in my class. I got to design my own work space and actually see it built. The photos in this post are from my new space, which features many small shelves and storage compartments. Some of the storage has doors to cover it. But much of it does not, in order to allow quick and handy access.

These are my teaching supplies for both homeschooling and my ESL classes for children. Some bins have been labeled with Norse Runes because of a memorization project I was doing. They ended up coming in handy keeping children out of bins they shouldn’t be dumping out.

These are my teaching supplies for both homeschooling and my ESL classes for children. Some bins have been labeled with Norse Runes because of a memorization project I was doing. They ended up coming in handy keeping children out of bins they shouldn’t be dumping out.

I learned valuable organizational principles during this process and here is my advice to rival Marie Kondo’s.

Before you shop, always take inventory and organize:

  • Categorize items by type and label clearly.

  • Store categories near where they are most used. Have at most two places where the same category is stored. (Glue may be in the wood shop as well as the office.)

  • If an item has a single use only, store it with the items used with it rather than with it’s type. (Gardening sheers are stored with gardening things, not with scissors.)

  • Use up one package or container of a material as much as possible before opening another, even if it isn’t convenient. Recycle or re-purpose the packaging.

  • Be creative in finding storage space. Not everything must be stored in heated rooms of your home. Building raised beds or hollow kitchen benches with lids for seats will often dramatically increase your storage space. If you are able to build your own shelves, carefully plan out what you need to store where and plan the depth, width and height of shelves with the storage containers you have and are likely to have in the future in mind.

  • While building a separate pantry or walk-in closet may seem like it significantly shrinks your living space, if you can line it with shelves and store what you need inside it, it will significantly decrease clutter and increase the usability of the space you have.

  • Designate a storage space for repourposed materials like boxes, bags, building scraps and paper supplies. Containers which the given material won’t quickly overflow out of are ideal. When space is limited, consider carefully the storage needs of given materials. Paper boxes must be kept in a dry place, but heat and cold don’t matter. Cans of paint can tolerate occasional moister but cannot tolerate great differences in temperature or any frost. Some materials, like cloth, are susceptible to pests.

This is half of my herbal pharmacy which is normally covered by doors. - image by Arie Farnam

This is half of my herbal pharmacy which is normally covered by doors. - image by Arie Farnam

Getting rid of things you don’t need

  • Certain types of supplies tend to accumulate more quickly than others. Cardboard boxes and water-proof bags (usually plastic up until recently) are essential for many activities and expensive to buy when needed. They can accumulate quickly, depending on your activities. Keep a supply of a dozen smaller boxes and several larger boxes. Keep a plastic bag full of plastic bags of similar size. If you have more than that and don’t need them for a specific reason, recycle those that are getting tattered.

  • Keep spare parts together. If you really have the skills to use a spare part to fix something later, it is okay to keep spare parts which are in good condition. Recycle parts that are damaged or which you would not be able to use given your skills and tools.

  • Fix broken tools when possible. If it is not possible to fix a tool, it is best to separate it into materials to be recycled.

  • Store craft, cooking and gardening supplies well, usually in air-tight containers. Don’t throw out half-full packages unless the contents are damaged. If the packaging is damaged, repackage and store for later use. If the material itself is damaged, dried up or spoiled, dispose of it in the most conservationist way possible.

  • The hierarchy of disposal should be: 1. Repair/reuse/repurpose, 2. Channel to those who can repair, reuse or repurpose in your network, 3. Give to charity, 4. Use as or give to others for animal feed, 5. Use as compost, mulch or construction material, 6. Burn as fuel, 7. Breakdown and recycle, 8. Landfill. An item that you don’t need or can’t use starts at the top of the hierarchy. You assess its possibilities for usefulness and put it in the first category in which it can be truly useful.

  • The upper part of the hierarchy is focused on disposal which will benefit someone else. Some of this may be actual charity. Much of it is not charity at all. One of the key elements of doing poverty well is to have a hand-me-down network, and hand-me-downs are not all clothes by far. Lettuce scraps are a welcome hand-me-down to a chicken owner or gardener.

  • There is often not a direct return of the favor but those who give into such a network also receive when others have a surplus or an unneeded-but-still-useful item. I calculate that about 30 percent of my family’s food supply comes free or very cheaply from our network and it is all top quality organic products. This is one of the main reasons I can claim to live quite well below the US poverty line. As a result, not a day goes by when I don’t find myself considering if an item or materials I need to dispose of could be used by someone else in my network.

  • The other methods in the disposal hierarchy get as much residual use out of materials as possible and minimize both the costs of acquiring other materials and the harm to the environment. There is a stereotype that poor people don’t care about environmental issues. Sometimes people have been misled to misunderstand what “environmentalism” means, but people of modest means are also more vulnerable to ecological disruption, whether we are urban or rural dwellers. In the same way that you feed and protect your hand-me-down network for your own benefit, it is in your interests to nourish and protect your environment.

Restocking

  • When you live with modest means, it is good to be on the look-out for items or materials that you may need in the future that are being offered free or extremely cheaply. Stocking this way is an imperfect science or even an art. You will inevitably misjudge some things and end up storing something you will never need. The most important consideration is making sure that getting rid of something will not be an undue burden before you acquire it. Secondly, think of where you will store it while you are considering acquiring something. And finally, make sure there is actually a reasonable likelihood you’ll need what you’re acquiring. Ideally you’ll turn down far more than you bring in.

  • Each person’s needs are quite different. If your job requires you to dress in an expensive fashion, you may have to store a fair amount of clothing to make it work. This is different than simply hording clothes for fun, although that can be a hobby for some. Inventory and reassessment still applies, unless you consider this a hobby.

  • When new disposable items come in, place them UNDER or BEHIND older or half-used equivalents and use the older and half-used equivalents first. (If you acquire new tape very cheaply before your supply has run out, do not place it on top of the old supply.)

  • Some people will become so good at this that they will become a network hub and acquire things they don’t personally need in order to feed them into their network. As with many other parts of this barter economy, there is a fuzzy line between the skilled networker and the out-of-control pack rat. The difference will be in both organization and generosity.

I hope my experience may be helpful, whether you are voluntarily or involuntarily living on modest means. These are some of the ways to both contain clutter and organize materials to be both sustainable and useful.

Best wishes to all!