I was talking to friends about ordering from Amazon and Tesco’s and they responded saying, in principle, they would never use either. I understand their reasons. It led me to think about how passive I had become in some of my ethical pathways in the last few years. I am sure there is a relationship between convenience, an important commodity when unwell, and willingness to stand up and act on your principles. Your steadfastness can be weakened by just finding ways to get through the day. I shall return below to ask how far has this occurred as I first try to reflect on the origins of my moral compass and where it came from?
As a pre-teen I attended church, Church of England by parental choice, and I went through the ‘confirmation’ process. School also taught religious studies through Christianity, as the norm, also Church of England, so I guess my initial moral code came from Church and family. Simple principles of morality, right v wrong, but it felt very laissez-faire and I do not recall any conversations which challenged my thinking. I internalised the prejudices of the day, it was the 50s and 60s, (though would not realise that until much later). For example I remember eating bread and jam often for tea, featuring the ‘golliwog’ logo and not reacting at all, nor did anyone around me tell me to react either. My parents pushed education as a route out of a lower middle/working class background and for that I am really grateful. Real awakening started for me in the sixth form with an English teacher, who introduced ideas through reading literature and poetry, the delights of DH Lawrence, Auden, Brian Patten, Philip Larkin, and Wilfred Owen particularly remain in the memory. It was to be education, specifically, higher education, which challenged my ethical thinking in a fundamental way, helping me to develop a moral code through continuous reflection, a process which goes on to the present day, in fact that is a key part of my moral compass always analysing, reflecting and reacting to new situations.
University at York brought so many questions as an undergraduate. I studied history and education. I loved what was known then as ‘intellectual’ history, the study of ideas. I was bombarded with a smorgasbord of different philosophies, from Karl Marx to Antonio Gramsci via Illich, Freire and many others. I took positions in dorm room discussions on a whole host of topics just to test out my thinking. What I had seen in the real world I could begin to relate to these ideas. But to be honest my early life now appeared relatively sheltered and reading and learning about class, privilege, poverty and discrimination opened my eyes and made me really think about the world around me for the first time. It was uncomfortable and wonderfully challenging in equal measure. I joined some marches including one against Bloody Sunday and a sit-in but the most practical outcome was focused around the rejection of teaching as a career. Influenced by the ‘de-schooling’ movement, seeing Illich speak at York being so transformative and memorable, studying ASNeill, Paulo Frieire, Montessori and others I had decided teaching was about indoctrination and I did not want to do it. This was a life-changing decision based on principles I could not ignore.
I moved to Hull University to study for social work though sponsored by the Home Office. This forced more focussed examinations of my moral compass and I began to identify my moral standpoints ironically as much by what I rejected as what I stood for. Around a broad base of socialism I began to look at ideas, mainly operationised in the criminal justice system, to identify structural disadvantage by class, race, gender, age, mental health and sexuality. Criminals, or clients as we were taught to call them then, seemed to be at the cutting edge of discrimination, disadvantage and poverty. Probation became my spiritual home. Politics felt then too Centre-right from both political spectrums and with the coming of Thatcher then Blair a place not to be. I found myself disappointed/disillusioned with the political process and so my moral compass was exercised through my work. This had its own challenges as changes in the political agenda had a negative impact on progressive practices in Probation.
I would describe my moral education as continuous, one step forward and two steps back. It involves unlearning as well as new learning. Taking ideas which were an unquestioned part of my upbringing then subjecting those ideas to interrogation and if necessary change. In this process you rarely get it right but the journey remains relevant. This has been reinforced through direct practise with clients, through work as a trainer where you seek to challenge others, in my trade union work, in my writings and then as an academic. In a long career ideas which seemed worked out at 25 were questioned and questioned again for over forty years. Class had been the dominant feature of my early thoughts but increasingly mediated through the lens of diversity, difference and discrimination.
So fast forward to today. Retired, ailing and tired, it is not always easy to retain that self-reflective lens on the world plus there is always the possibility of disillusion setting in after one too many setbacks. I have seen too many lost opportunities in the world of criminal justice as well as the political scene. How many moral challenges can you stomach when you are not feeling 100 %. I have seen some compromise evident in my personal life around ecological and environmental issues. I must confess that every new bin which arrives for the rubbish feels like a bin too far.
The exception to this passive trend is, surprisingly, politics. Disappointed across my lifetime by the failure of Labour to maintain the kind of social democratic politics which gave us the NHS, the welfare state and social housing I have stayed a little aloof from it. This was transformed by the last election campaign and the politics of Corbyn and the progressive momentum of the labour manifesto. I became excited, engaged and felt there was (is) real hope in this agenda reflected in the slogan of ‘for the many, not the few’. Facebook friends were sometimes concerned with the amount of material I shared during the election but this was the first election in which social media had a real impact and exposed the inadequacies of the mainstream media. I could not get out on the streets so I did my bit. Ideas which have driven my work, my life, were there to be fought for. I felt that my moral compass was ignited in ways which encouraged me to stay up most if election night feeling I would see the kind of government I had not dreamt was possible in my lifetime. Though falling marginally short I really hope I can see that Government happen. Have re-joined Labour and feel optimistic about real seismic political shifts.
I am still a little lazy/passive to protect my energy and will still use amazon and Tesco delivery. But the moral compass I found in the election still burns in my soul and I still get so angry at the injustice of the world around me. Sometimes my health feels like its put me on the margins but I will never soften my beliefs.
Have a lovely holiday and new year, thanks for reading and commenting. This is Blog 43. I promised a blog a week at the beginning of 2017 and fell only a bit short. In January six years since diagnosis I can’t celebrate that enough. Enjoy every day you can. Life is short but wonderful.