• Ian McClellan

Week 29: I will reject labels.

Growing up, we would visit my grandparents on my mum’s side, at least every few weeks, and usually on a Sunday. It was only about twenty-five miles away, but it seemed to take forever. We’d sit in the back of the car with our minds full of anticipation and our mouths watering for what was to come. There was of course the love and small gifts that are synonymous with all of our grandparents, but also we knew the table would be full of home-made open egg sandwiches, scones, fruit pies, coconut macaroons.

My grandma was a prolific baker. The smell of baking would fill the kitchen of their bungalow. Every surface when we arrived would be covered with the progress of baking. Cooling racks and doily-adorned plates. This was the 1980s after all.

We’d always hope that Grandma was a little behind in the baking, because the last to be prepared was always a Victoria sponge or chocolate cake, and we hoped to get there in time to lick the last bits of cake mixture from the bowl and utensils.

My own mum has admirably picked up the baton, and is now a grandma herself. She has perfected our family’s famous mince pie pastry recipe, has created her own legendary shortbread, and growing up could knock up a seeded loaf with enough substance to keep a football team going for a full game, extra time and penalties on just the few slices that framed a cheese sandwich.

Mums bake. Grandma’s bake. That’s what they do.

The reason for this whimsical and self-indulgent journey, if you are still reading, is because initially this week I was going make a small, planetwise change that was relevant to baking.

However, this is not a diary entry about baking, because my consciousness and time this week has been taken with much more urgent reflections. And as I wrote about my family, it somehow led my writing down a different path.

The reason for the story is because this week felt like a good moment to write and record some thoughts about labels. And by that I mean the labels that we put on ourselves, or we put on each other. What struck me as I wrote, is that in my life I have had things very, very easy. I have never been subject to systematic prejudice or unkindness. Perhaps even saying this gives an indication of what is to come are my reflections only. I have no qualifications or experience aside from being human, and am aware how uneducated I am in a balanced way about this topic. Perhaps even admitting that admits that I am part of the problem.

But I have to risk making a mistake, to show solidarity and support. I want to write about racial prejudice, and hatred. This week I therefore commit to noticing, learning, supporting, and taking action not just for the planet but for each other, starting with support for Black Lives Matter.

The reasons that labels sprung to mind, is because I do not believe that grandmas and mums are the custodians of baking or are somehow born to bake. As well as being a grandma, my mum is a veteran of the NHS, and before retirement had several decades of service and career behind her. She is also amongst other things a tennis captain, a chorister, a food bank volunteer, and someone not to be messed with. My grandma encouraged this, and for the time was a reformer and on the end of withering criticism for bringing up two independent, strong minded women that she encouraged to dismiss gender stereotypes.

It was not easy, and it was not that long ago, that a woman who decided to go to university was not that normal at all, and it makes me very proud that my mum achieved that.

It was labels that also I was struggling with, when I began to write about being planetwise. At the time of inspiration of this idea to spend a year trying to be better and kinder to the planet, environmental protesters were being called ‘crusties’, and in return the blame for the current state of the planet was being thrown indiscriminately at ‘boomers’. It was uncomfortable and frustrating, because it felt that we were uniting in a negative way against one another, not positively against a cause.

I tried to understand why there is anger and defensiveness on both sides. I do not agree that labels should be used to weaponise the climate or the planet in a way that pitches humans against each other. I do not agree that the choices of those who feel strongly about a cause should in turn be ridiculed and diminished. If we do this, then we create winners and losers, whereas being kind to the planet should be a common cause.

I can understand why labels have become something we use a lot in our society, and with self-reflection I can understand why I use them myself.

Labels are a way of creating a shorthand of understanding, and a sense of order in a very complicated world. They are a way of understanding an individual’s or group’s similarities in a way that helps to distinguish our views or our appearances from each other. You might identify with my image of a grandma, or have your own image of what defines a grandma, and their role or place in the world. I am very lucky to have had the privilege of knowing my grandparents, and knowing them in the role and the way that I did. As I say, I’ve had it pretty easy. I have been very privileged to see my grandparents, and live my life, through my eyes.

The trouble with labels, is that they can also be used to divide us, to create stereotypes and barriers to understanding by pitching one group against another, or one group seemingly above another. Used in this way, labels are also at best unconscious generalisations or simplifications, and at worst conscious and dangerous prejudice. What we are interested in or what we look like, does not define us. As humans, we are way too complex to be captured in one box or another. When I talk about grandma, I am simply talking about my relationship with a family member, and just one dimension of her life. It is not derogatory, in fact it’s the opposite and my grandma was proud of the label, but still it is a simplification.

In other words, at least being a grandma is a relationship and a label that we can agree on. Race, on the other hand, is a completely invented label. It is an illusion that was created to create a false perception of one thing above another. An excuse to systematically create inequality.

This is not a political diary, but as a reflection and as a moment in time, this week it feels important to add this small voice and go further and darker into labels. I have written in previous posts that if there is one thing that should unite us, it’s the ground on which we all walk. The air that we all breathe. The plants, the creatures, the oceans, the fragile ecosystems that we might not see but that affect us all. And that we should show those things more kindness.

But we also need to add each other to that list. We cannot justify and feel good about being kind to animals for example, if we are not kind to each other too, without exception.

My opinion of why this is true, comes from the origins of kindness, and how learning kindness in any way, is a progressive learning that can impact all parts of your live and relationships.

Learning kindness starts with the notion that we do not wish harm on others. That we are less quick to judge, and more quick to find common ground. It is easy to see how this can be the case in our own behaviour towards our planet, because we can control that, and the planet does not react in the same way as people do to each other. The planet sustains us, and is not perceived to be seeking to get ahead at our expense, or take away our freedom, to survive in some way that impact us. It also responds in a predictable way to kindness. If we water the plants, generally they grow. If we pump less unnatural gas into the air, then it is cleaner, and we are healthier.

I believe that people are the same, unless affected by each other. Humans can introduce unpredictability, and can introduce unkindness which can escalate over time or situation – both on the individual level, or through individuals joining together in fear, anger or generally because they feel real or perceived threat to their own existence and view of the world. The balance is upset, and if we then bring others along with us, or create systems that confirm our fears, we create a perpetual cycle that becomes a normal. Before we know it, we are unconsciously reconfirming this unnatural state over generations, and we don’t even realise it. Or perhaps we choose not to, because we don’t have to consider it in our own lives.

If instead we all learned and wired kindness into our DNA, then we can get some of that balance back. If we learned to try and see our world through each other’s eyes, and understand that we are not born unkind, and that there is likely a reason for a reaction or a behaviour that is rooted in fear or unhappiness, then perhaps we can understand each other a little more. We can also understand unfairness, because kindness does not mean you don’t have a moral compass, and that you simply allow others to do whatever they want to you, or to others in your name.

If we learned more balance in our human interactions, and understood kindness and fairness, it would create a world where we put togetherness above self-interest, and this is good for everything, from each other to the planet.

I don’t know how to unpick this further, or how this gets warped into labels. But it seems to me that labels have become a justification for not being kind. They allow us to invent ways that we do not have to consider others, because they are different to us. But we are really not different. We are all humans, and we are all the same.

Turning a blind eye to a lack of kindness to each other, and ignoring the fact that labels are being used as a vehicle for a lack of kindness, or even hate, is not acceptable. Creating a future for our family that is better, is linked to creating futures for us all that is fair and equal, even if we are not suffering at the hands of unfairness. We are all connected and if we acknowledge that then we also need to recognise and unlearn perceptions, as uncomfortable as that is. Supporting any kind of inequality or injustice is important.

This means also that I need to encourage anyone who is reading this, to support what is becoming the biggest human rights protest I have seen in my lifetime, in your own way. You don’t have to take to the streets, there are other ways to take action and we can all make a difference through our actions and our behaviours today, tomorrow, and forever. The world appears to be finally waking up to racial injustice, but this is just a moment, and it cannot be a moment – it needs to be normal.

I will participate how I can, in moments when the world comes together against prejudice. But I will also recognise that the problems that are there in the moment, will be there the next day, and the day after that. I will donate where I can, but understand that no one sum of money can truly and finally eradicate hatred.

The change needs to be deeper. I need to also learn. I will try to learn more about scenarios in the world where labels, prejudice and unkindness exists. I have seen many inspirational individuals, organisations and even brands share resources and references. I will commit to consume as much of this as I can, to make sure that I can look in the mirror when referring to others, and see myself as they might see it.

The current feeling towards racial injustice, is another sign that perhaps the world is going through a necessary chaos or revolution of kindness. That we are starting to collectively realise that what we think or do, not only impacts our own families, but also the person next to us, or up the street from us, or across an ocean from us. Our modern world is hyper-connected and enables us to see and experience the lives of others, and learn about the lives of others to create understanding and kindness. It is not easy to re-learn some of our perceptions of the world, but we have to be open to that together and connect ourselves through love to overwhelm hate. Because sadly it is also as easy to publish words of prejudice as it is words of tolerance.

Our beliefs become our thoughts. Our thoughts become our words. Our words become our actions. You cannot separate being kind to our planet from being kind to each other. You cannot protect the planet, unless we also protect each other, and find common ground with each other. Perhaps we are waking up to the realisation that looking forward, and backwards is important, but also that really looking at each other and through each other is important too.

And we should never, ever, look down on someone.

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