Thursday 20 January 2011

In Deep Shift

On Tuesday night Sustainable (aka Transition) Bungay hosted our third themed Green Drinks at the Green Dragon. Since we introduced the themes (the previous two were Economics and Livelihoods and Energy and Community), these monthly events have gone from being rather quiet affairs with between one (!) and six people ‘catching up’ at a table, to vibrant evenings where an invited ‘expert conversationalist’ sparks off lively discussions in a packed bar.

This week the topic was “Shifting Cultural Values”, and Dr. Rupert Read, Norwich Green Party councillor and reader in Philosophy at UEA, our expert conversationalist.

This was the first time Sustainable Bungay had broached a ‘philosophical’ rather than 'practical' subject, at least in public. We felt some nervousness before the event. Was it too intellectual? Airy-fairy? Wouldn’t it be safer to stick to practical subjects - wind turbines, low-carbon entertainment? Was the pub the right place for it? Wouldn't everybody just get distracted and talk about football results? But worst of all, WHAT IF NO ONE TURNS UP?

At twenty five past seven there were six of us. Oh dear, Rupert’s coming all the way from Norwich, disaster turnout, wrong subject choice, all fears confirmed... You stop that, Mark Watson, I told myself. There’s nothing wrong with small meetings. It’ll be intimate. The right people are here… and other things of a self-calming nature!

When Rupert began at a quarter to eight, there were thirty people in the bar, including eight new faces. All the emails and tweets, the press release, the poster and the printed newsletter, the word of mouth, had worked. People did want to talk about these things called cultural values, however vague that might sound. This was the best turnout yet.

Josiah welcomed Rupert and introduced the theme. He said that since the credit crunch, there has been an increasing awareness of a real need to rethink the way we relate to each other as human beings and in society. This evening is part of that process.

Rupert introduced himself as a philosopher of language and politician and said he was coming at the subject from these angles. He first asked us to consider how words shape the way we look at things and how they can be rendered 'congenitally vague', meaningless or misleading depending on how they are used, particularly in politics and the media.

'Sustainable' was a good example of a word that had become jargonised. Rather than denoting a way of life friendly to people and planet and one which we would have to work at from where we are now, the word itself carries implications of being able to maintain roughly our current (quite unsustainable in the proper sense) lifestyle indefinitely, with little or no effort required!

Rupert then introduced the subject of frames or cultural narratives, which he argued were more useful than isolated words for exploring and addressing our cultural values. Some frames are superficial whilst others are deep. You can read more about frames in the report by Tom Crompton "Common Cause" (download here 1.17MB)

The main cultural shift discussed was going from individualism, thinking of everything in terms of 'me' to a kind of collectivism, where we engage more as 'team' or community. Other shifts introduced were:

- Doing the Right Thing rather than the Profitable Thing (I thought this was particularly apposite given the present climate of massive public service cuts which are all based on Profit for the few and to hell with everyone else and our lives)

- Taking an active rather than passive stance and doing things oneself rather than waiting for others - even becoming your own MP!

- National well-being becoming more important than possessions

Rupert's dynamic presentation got the whole room going and was followed by an equally dynamic Q&A. We spoke about the importance of allowing space for people to express our feelings about what's actually going on (e.g. the cuts to the NHS) rather than talking in purely rational, formal or abstract terms; of giving ourselves and each other time to consider our relationships with one another, with the natural world, to think about our sense of place and belonging. To give these things and each other value.

One thing that struck me particularly was when Rupert said 'if you want to support a deep, positive frame, support the NHS.' This is because the founding principles of the NHS are to do with equity and 'healthcare for all', regardless of financial or any other status. So if we support the NHS, we are casting our vote for those principles. We are saying that they really matter.

It was a great evening - some people were shifting cultural values right up until closing time!

Banner: (l to r) WHAT IF NO ONE TURNS UP!; Rupert Read talks Shifting Cultural Values in Bungay's Green Dragon; Rupert and Nick in deep flow conversation

Sustainable Bungay's Green Drinks at the Green Dragon takes place on the second Tuesday of each month. Everyone welcome.

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