Hopes and Resolutions

I don’t go in for new year’s resolutions. I’ve always thought the greater challenge, and reward, is simply to be resolute in oneself; not for any particular year or endeavour, but as a way of living and engaging with life. My view has not changed. But given the real and present dangers that 2016 made clear to us, the challenges not only of the age but of my own advancing years, the insults and assaults to which so many are increasingly subject, the victories of parochialism and the triumph of mediocrity, I think it’s time to reiterate some of the principles  by which we hold to our own truth and become our better selves. They are not British or Jamaican or American values; they are not wedded to politics or geography or religion or language or nation; they are not better suited to the young or the old or the rich or the poor. They are human values and I commit to upholding them, this year and every year.

Kindness

Courage

Creativity

Optimism

Fortitude

Clarity

Rigour

Compassion

Inclusion

Empathy

Communication

Perspective

I’m Running Low on Hope Today

I’ve always been aware of how lucky I was to be born in the 1960s and not the 1930s; how privileged to arrive into a family and cultural milieu which took post-war progressive politics and social equality for granted; how fortunate to be part of the resulting generation of educated liberals. I’ve always known how different and how much more grim my life would have been had any of those things not been true. I used to feel that it was my great good fortune to be in the world at a moment of humanitarian, social and intellectual evolution that rejected dehumanisation and division, that had egalitarian ideals and honoured the social compact, that holds that whoever and wherever we are, we are all equally important. Like the rest of my cohort, I never doubted the narrative of our own inevitability; that the world and worldview we represented were the leading edge of what would eventually be a generational, global transformation.

Only in the last few years did it begin to occur to me that this moment may prove to be just that – an instant, an anomaly, an aberration. That the mood of the 1930s is far more easily reproduced than that of the 1960s. That culture tends more towards conservatism than progress, and that adherence to social hierarchies may be too ancient and ingrained ever to be abandoned. That education is easier to resent than to pursue. That freedom of thought is less valued than a licence to hate. That we are as a species too inherently tribal and territorial to truly wish for others what we expect for ourselves.

I have chastised myself for thinking this way, without ever quite being able to convince myself that my fears were unfounded. Now, in the era of President-elect Trump, and the Brexit rejection of post-war political alliance (which, let’s not forget, was intended to prevent future wars), and a sweeping populism that is more comfortable with foreign children dying rather than living next door, and a populace that appears to positively revel in its own ignorance of facts … it may be time to confront the folly of my own optimism.

In a weird way I feel luckier than ever. I still have my education and my privilege. I’ve got a little money in the bank (though my US$ account is going be to worth a hell of a lot less once the markets open). I’m a respected writer. I’m fifty years old; if this is the end of a story we believed in, at least I got to spend the better part of my life living in it.

But there’s my brown gay nephew in Florida. There’s my sister and her husband and their three small boys, also brown, also in Florida. There’s my filmmaker brother now doing post-production in California, already an easy target for harassment when he travels because with that colouring and beard and accent and all this fancy equipment, something just doesn’t smell right. Their friends and colleagues and classmates, the kids on the corner and in the nightclub and on their way to the mosque.

I could go on, but you get the picture. I have other sisters and brothers, other nephews and nieces. I always took it for granted that the younger members of my family, and yours, could look forward to at least as good and safe a life as mine. I believed that being born in the 1980s and 90s and the 21st century was even better than the 60s; that those generations would also live my story of progress. I believed that the momentum was with those of us who cherish and uphold that vision of humanity. I can no longer convince myself that this is true.

I’m running low on hope today. I’m going to do what I do, what educated liberal progressive intellectuals do: read, think, write. Debate, argue, engage. I won’t stop fighting for the kind of life I believe everyone is entitled to. But for the first time – and I cannot express how hard it is for me to write this – for the first time, I am no longer certain that we’re going to win.

The Right to Speak

I’m reading Shami Chakrabarti’s On Liberty, and thinking about what it means to be able to speak one’s mind; to have the right to speak it, no matter how unpleasant or uncomfortable others may find your views. I’m also thinking about the perverse misapprehension that’s developed in our society, whereby defending a fundamental human right – to free speech, a fair trial, political expression – is too often characterised as an endorsement of the views or actions of unsavoury persons whose rights we uphold. And I’m thinking too about how much of that wilful misperception is tied up with what seems to me a pernicious, widespread and interestingly apolitical conviction: that we somehow have the ‘right’ not to be offended – not to have to see, hear, think about or respond to that which we find repugnant. It’s intrinsic to the belief that those of whom we disapprove should not have access to the same platforms that we do. It’s the notion that equality of access should be contingent on whatever is currently deemed to be socially acceptable by whichever faction is currently ascendant.

Even with all the other crises which beset us, I find this among the most worrying of social trends – not least because it appears to be becoming ever more prevalent on both the left and the right, among the young and the aged, the rich and the poor, the religious and the atheist, the conservative and the progressive. It is the idea that whatever offends is inherently illegitimate, on the grounds that it causes offence. It is intellectual and moral laziness of the highest order: it eschews the opportunity, and responsibility, of unpacking and refuting the offensive proposition on its merits. Under the guise of being high-minded, it ducks the argument.

I’ve been turning this problem over in my head for a while, trying to decide where – if anywhere – the line should be drawn on free speech. Incitement to violence is clearly unacceptable, but expression of opinion is a subtler matter, even if the opinions themselves are not. I am deeply offended by Germaine Greer’s assertions about trans people. I am deeply offended by Donald Trump’s views on Muslims (and just about everything else he has to say). I am deeply offended by Ken Livingstone’s use of mental illness as a slur and a moral value judgement (I’d expected better of him). I don’t doubt that my views on those subjects, and indeed on those individuals’ moral and intellectual probity, might prove deeply offensive to them. Should they have the right to silence me? I think not.

I’m increasingly frustrated by the insularity of public discourse; by the willingness of politicians, pundits, priests and regular folks down the pub to elevate their sense of outrage over every other consideration. By their unwillingness to have unpleasant conversations, unpack contentious issues. To use the right which we, unlike so many others around the world, possess: the right to have the argument.

Here’s my argument against silencing those who offend us. It’s simple, unashamedly self-interested, and so obvious that it doesn’t actually get said out loud nearly enough. If I want to retain the right to hold opinions others may find objectionable, it follows, ipso facto, that I have to grant them the right to hold opinions I may find appalling. I must acknowledge that they have the right to speak, just as I do. I must be able to uphold that truth, alongside my own responsibility to tell them, loudly and vigorously, that they are wrong.

This is the challenge of social democracy – to believe as strongly in the rights of others as we do our own. To imagine that we could be them, and they could be us. It’s an excruciatingly difficult thought experiment – until you consider the cost of not doing it. Until you look at the lives of those who have no voice, and realise just how much the rest of us have to lose.

It’s the challenge of liberty, and the reward. It’s worth the effort.

R.I.P. Melissa Mathison

I woke to the news that Melissa Mathison died yesterday, in Los Angeles, of neuroendocrine cancer. Most people will know her as an astonishingly gifted screenwriter, the woman who gave us all the cultural touchstone that is E.T. the Extraterrestrial, along with screenplays for other notable films: Kundun, The Black Stallion. She was also, as she wryly put it, a Famous Ex-Wife. Much will be written today about her contributions, and her trials. This is as it should be; public memories, and memorials, are important. But they never tell the whole story: and there is a resonance, an echo, a terribly sad symmetry for me in the news of Melissa’s death.

I met Melissa almost exactly ten years ago, shortly after my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. They’d become close friends over several years, and my mum had often told me about her; but as they mostly met up on Melissa’s visits to Jamaica, whereas I lived in the US and then the UK, our paths never happened to cross. And then my mother became ill, and by the time we finally got an accurate diagnosis the disease was advanced and the prognosis was dire. My family was stunned, horrified, overwhelmed by the calamity that is a terminal illness. Mum headed for a clinic in the States, in the hope that they would be able to provide us with more information, more options, some kind of hope. I headed for Heathrow, got on a plane and met her there.

Over the next year, as my mother went through brutal bouts of chemo- and radiotherapy, I would make that crossing several times. And I would finally meet her best mate Melissa, whose practical and emotional support became the rock that we clung to. There was nothing, it seemed, that she was not prepared to help us do in our efforts to find some kind of reprieve. She activated her network, enabling us to access doctors and clinics and people who had been through this particular hell before, and knew the things we needed to know. We stayed at her house. I drove my mum back and forth from chemo sessions in her car. She was there, in person, on the phone, endlessly gentle and resilient and generous. Her first and most basic question was always: “What do you need?”

What we needed then was the same thing she needed now: a cure. Neither of us got it.

This is one of those moments that make me wish I believed in an afterlife: I’d so like to think that Mum and Melissa are hanging out somewhere, catching up, comparing notes, trading stories about their kids. Cursing cancer.

I truly don’t think my mum would have been able to fight as hard or last as long as she did without Melissa’s help. She gave us a very great gift: not of life in the end, but of time. I am so grateful for those extra months she helped us to win back. And I am so heartbroken at the thought of her own children, whose time with their mom has run out. I remember how shattered I was, when it happened to me. I remember how incomprehensible the world suddenly seemed.

Malcolm and Georgia, I send you all my love. I send you my memories, too few and too brief, of your brilliant, funny, stalwart, immensely kind and endlessly generous mother. And I send you a truth that I could barely believe in when I was where you are now: it will get better.

Black Birds Grazing

London Fields are full of jackdaws, checking and quartering the sodden grass in a strangely methodical manner. Though clearly here to eat, they are not cattle-like at all; they put me more in mind of a regiment of shiny-coated soldiers, making the best of a muddy bivouac. There is a confidence, almost an arrogance about them – as though we walk through camp only on their sufferance. Jackdaws in London Fields Jackdaw

  • Stephanie Saulter

    I love stories.
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