Change Writer

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Category: Values (Page 1 of 2)

There’s a bit of Boris in us all

Back in 1890, a young Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about Burma. The poem, The Road to Mandalay, was written from the perspective of a British soldier once stationed there. The soldier reminisces about the place, an encounter with a local girl, and describes his surroundings with the kind of paternalistic grandeur of someone who believes his empire, the British Empire, to be the ultimate expression of civilisation.

The text is also dismissive of Burmese culture and religion:

An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:
Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud 
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd

For Kipling’s soldier, this is an uncivilised, heathen place, albeit alluring.

Interestingly, Kipling only visited Burma once, for three days, on his way elsewhere, and he never visited Mandalay.

This lack of experience didn’t prevent him from becoming influential in shaping the perspective of his countrymen on the place. The words he penned on paper describing this destination he barely knew became a go-to text for understanding what Burma is like.

A 20-year-old shaping one people’s understanding of another.

Which brings us to Boris Johnson, who, on a recent trip to Burma, began reciting The Road to Mandalay at the site of a Burmese shrine, while a Channel 4 camera crew filmed him.

The UK’s foreign secretary reciting a poem praising colonialism and dismissing Burmese culture, at a Burmese shrine which he is being invited to visit by his gracious Burmese hosts.

Fortunately, Britain’s ambassador to Burma stopped him before he had a chance to complete his recital and embarrass the UK further, but the episode was a glimpse into the attitude that Johnson has towards the Burmese.

Just days later, at a Conservative Party Conference event, he commented on how the only thing getting in the way of a “wonderful” group of UK businessmen turning the Libyan town of Sirte into the next Dubai was the dead bodies that needed clearing out of the way.

For Johnson, it seems that the British Empire still stands, and he’s happy to brush aside any dead bodies or cultural inconveniences that get in his way.


But this post isn’t just about Boris and his blunders. I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the very real ability that we each have to see people who are different from us as somehow less valuable than we are.

And how if we don’t pay careful attention, we can end up using other people’s small ‘incivilities’ as a way of building our own sense of superiority and worth.

In 1978 Edward Said wrote Orientalism, which looks at what happens when this natural human tendency becomes a system of thought. He demonstrates how literature and art shaped the way that Europeans understand ‘The Orient,’ and the effect that perspective has had on justice and international relations.

Orientalism in its essence is about seeing ‘Western’ culture as superior to other cultures, and the actions which accompany such a perspective.

One example from Said is how ‘oriental’ women are portrayed in colonial era literature. They are usually passive, rarely speak for themselves, and are usually there to serve the various appetites of the men around them.1)Orientalism, 1979: 187-188 They are objectified: helpless and inferior.

Said might argue that this way of understanding non-European women has paved the way for our attitudes towards them when they enter our societies. When it comes to discussions like enforcing a Burqa ban, the voices of the women who wear them are usually crowded out by those who choose to speak for them, in the name of justice.

While we would usually offer a European woman (in a similar scenario) the opportunity to explain why she dresses a certain way, the women of the Middle East are still seen as helpless and inferior.


From his many gaffes and blunders, it’s clear that Boris is something of an Orientalist. He adores Britain’s colonial era, and apparently has little respect for other cultures: Britain is best.

But this post isn’t just about Boris and how he is embarrassing the British people.

It’s about how easy it is to view others as inferior, and how much damage that can cause in a globalised world.

Because we each carry a bit of Boris inside us.

We’re all capable of dismissing people who are different from us as weird, uncouth, uncivilised, inferior.

It might be a neighbour. It could be a refugee. It could be someone who votes differently from ourselves.

And in coming to conclusions about people who are different from us before we’ve taken the time to get to know them, we carry perspectives about them which are, at best, naive, at worst entirely false. And we miss the opportunity to promote the kind of understanding upon which justice and change can be built.

(Image by Andrew Parsons)

References   [ + ]

1. Orientalism, 1979: 187-188

The utility of refugees

There are several strands of conversation, or discourse, on the subject of refugees and why they should, or should not be offered the hospitality of our national borders. I find two of them particularly disturbing.

First, the idea that refugees are worthy of help because of who they may become.

The argument goes something like this: we should allow refugees into our countries because they may become the next Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein: they may end up contributing to history in such a way that it would be a huge mistake not to let them survive and thrive in our country. They are valuable because they contribute to our sense of the common good, and thus because of their utility.

The flaw in this argument is that it fails to recognise that human beings are valuable. They’re valuable not because of what they contribute to the greater good, but because of the basic fact of their humanity. We should offer hospitality to refugees not as some kind of high odds gamble in which we may hit the jackpot and find ourselves hosting a genius, but because we recognise the humanity we share.

The second is the idea that refugees should only be understood through the paradigm of victimhood.

There is a good reason why refugees tend to appear in the media as either victims of a great injustice, or as villains seeking to portray themselves as victims.

The reason is that the former is the easiest way for organisations like the UNHCR to raise funds.

They make a video that talks about how helpless these people are and how we must save them, otherwise they will die or face some other terrible injustice. How do we save them? By giving money to the UNHCR, who in turn promise to convert cash into changed lives.

The competing story about refugees has its roots in the same concept, but is the antithesis of the victim discourse. It says that refugees are not victims, but opportunists using political unrest in their homeland to further their personal ambitions. They leave an otherwise peaceful part of Syria and move to London or Stockholm in order to improve their standard of living and to give their kids a chance at getting in to better schools. Refugees, in other words are not victims but scroungers who don’t deserve to be helped.

My issue with the idea that refugees are victims is that it ignores the agency, the decision making powers, that the individual refugees have and use throughout their process of relocating.

Most of the people I have met who have obtained refugee status are extremely creative, strategic individuals who have used all their abilities to get to Europe and begin building a life for themselves here. They are doing what any of us would if we found ourselves in a similar position: finding a place that is more stable – somewhere that future generations can succeed. I don’t understand why we can’t learn to celebrate this creativity, to recognise their agency, rather than seeing it as a threat.

The victim narrative paints the picture of someone who is utterly useless once they arrive in their host country: they’re all take and no give, which is the opposite of the experience I have had as I’ve gotten to know refugees in Sweden and Jordan.

What Downton Abbey Can Teach Us About The Future

When my wife told me that she wanted to start watching Downton Abbey, I was a little reluctant. Although I enjoy reading the Brontes and Dickens, I’m not usually enthralled by TV period dramas. That said, after sticking with it for a season, I started to enjoy it for several reasons…

Before I get onto them, I want to talk about StrengthsFinder. When I got my results from Gallup’s personality profiling tool, I learned that Futuristic is one of my strongest themes. This means that I’m always looking ahead, and can picture fairly vividly what it might look to take certain turns in life. I gravitate towards ideas about the future, so am more naturally engaged by Sci-fi than by period dramas.

But there’s something interesting about Downton: it’s all about change.

After a few episodes I began noticing the overarching narrative: a traditional aristocratic family in the first part of the 20th Century coming to terms with a rapid succession of changes.

Transitioning from Honour to Guilt

Right now I live in the Middle East. The dominant culture here leans towards collectivism and honour much more than the individualism and guilt of my birth culture. People recognise themselves first and foremost as members of a particular group – usually a family or tribe. Even in Europe, Middle Easterners can learn a lot about each others’ history by exchanging last names.

Honour is a big part of collectivism. What one person does affects the standing of the group as a whole, so it’s important to make decisions that honour your family.

The family in Downton Abbey are on the knife edge between collectivism and individualism, and this is incredibly interesting. An example of this from season 5 is when Lady Mary decides to stay at a hotel in Liverpool with her potential fiancé in order to decide if she wants to marry him or not.

In the collectivist mind, this is outrageous. Think of the damage she could do to her family! But Mary is making a decision that she believes is in her interest as an individual.

Of course, because she is still living in an honour culture, her grandmother goes to great strains to cover up Mary’s behaviour, in order that the family, and her future prospects, are not harmed.

Embracing The Other

One of the intriguing things about the Crawley family is that they are continuously faced with opportunities to accept or reject people who are outside of their social sphere, and who others would consider outcasts.

One of the first of these is Tom Branson, the socialist chauffer who wins the heart of Lady Sybil. The family are faced with a choice: lose Sybil, or accept Tom. To begin with they reject Tom and push away their daughter, but over time, and with the untimely death of Lady Sybil, they begin to accept Tom as one of them.

As time goes by, the Crawley family become adept at absorbing people from outside into their family, whether it be ex-convicts working as servants, nouveau riche businessmen, or Lady Rose marrying into a Russian Jewish family.

The Best Educated Are Not Always The Best At Embracing Change

It’s easy to think that society’s elite are the best suited for embracing change. They’ve been to the best schools, had access to the most information, and been exposed to the highest standard of art and culture. However the Downton story shows that these things don’t automatically result in people with open minds.

In reality, Lord Grantham has been raised to maintain a system. His goal is to maintain the honour and reputation of his family, and that means stewarding Downton well. He and his butler, Mr Carson, are kindred spirits. They see the world that was as the way it should be. If possible, they must uphold the old ways and traditions.

But the world is changing and the foundations of the old system are beginning to crumble. The finances of the aristocracy are no longer entrenched. The working and middle classes are asking for more opportunities and exerting themselves politically.

For each character in the series who is intent on maintaining the norm, there is another who embraces change. The Dowager Countess has Mrs Isobel Crawley, Lord Grantham has Tom Branson, Mr Carson has Mrs Hughes. Each of these relationships is a mix of polar opposite attitudes to change, and extreme fondness for one another.

Why is this important to the future?

Each of these themes is important to our world at the moment: Exploring honour culture should help us better understand the challenges refugees face when coming to terms with European society.

As our cities and towns become increasingly multicultural, it’s good to ask ourselves if we will open the door to embrace and include the outsider, even if it means that we may be changed in the process. Check out this small town in Finland that did just that.

And when we see the entrenched elite squirming at the rise of new leaders from more ordinary backgrounds, we can remember that they’re not always the best suited for facing change. We mustn’t fear change just because they do.

Who knows, perhaps the trouble Lord Grantham had with accepting the future is the same that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were expressing at the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn gaining power 🙂

The Psychology of Conflict

It can be so easy to view institutions as unshakeable, fixed perspective, entities. They stand for something that is public and impersonal, something unchangeable.

But what if we looked at organisations more as the sum of their individual parts than as an official whole?

A few weeks ago I was listening to the wonderful Analysis podcast from the BBC. In the podcast they interviewed psychologists who were working with groups long in conflict.

Listen to the episode, “Will They Always Hate Us?” here

They carried out experiments to see if they could increase levels of empathy of one side in a conflict towards those on other side. They showed Palestinians fake news articles of an Israeli leader criticising his own government. After reading this news article, they found that the group had greater empathy towards Israelis. They reversed the test, and found that it had the same effect on Israelis.

By observing self criticism, the readers started to see that the unified group that they were used to thinking of a single identity was actually made up of people with many different perspectives. They began seeing people as people, not just a category.

The researchers also questioned the leaders of these conflicting groups about what it would take for them to begin discussing solutions for peace in their region, and the answers they received were fascinating.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the president of The Israeli Government said,

I have nothing to discuss with Hamas until recognise the right of the Jewish people to be here. If they’re ready to recognise that right, then anything is on the table to discuss.

Khaled Mashal, of Hamas asked researchers,

Will they ever apologise for the harm they did our people in 1948, for their dislocation and dispossession?

Many of the answers surprised researchers because they weren’t based on monetary or material restitution, but on showing recognition and respect for the other’s story.

Each side in a conflict has a different history on which their worldview leans. In order for meaningful dialogue to take place, the other side needs to recognise this alternative history.

As I listened to it, rather than hearing an institution at odds with another institution, I heard the voices of people who have been wronged and who need their pain legitimised, recognised, owned up to, so they might move forward into something constructive.

Essentially they were saying time and again something akin to “we need forgiveness.”

Too often in popular society forgiveness is seen as either something easy and insincere or too costly (the Husband forgiving his wife’s murderers the day after she’s killed). But at the core of it there’s something essential to forgiveness that frees both parties to move forward into the present. It’s something divine, the effects of which have the potential to unstick centuries of misunderstanding.

But it also takes daring. It takes leaders who won’t let pride stop them taking the first step.

(Image credit: hjl)

When Values Trump Profits

Like many aspiring writers out there, I’ve read my fair share of “How To Grow Your Readership, Publish A Book, Make A Six Figure Salary And Get Voted President In Just One Year” posts. I’ve done my best to understand how people build platforms and tribes. I’ve memorised mantras like “don’t guest post without making sure there’s a link to your email sign up form.”

But a few days ago I went against all that advice and published an article that was heart felt and values based, anonymously.

There were a variety of reasons that I published it anonymously, and I knew in doing it that I would lose the opportunity to create a “call to action” that would gain me readers.

But the piece just didn’t belong here on changewriter.net, and I had to get the message out.

So I did. And with a lump in my throat I hit publish.

Over the last 72 hours, I’ve watched it become the most widely read piece I’ve ever written.

Even though I haven’t grown my personal empire through it, I’m still happy that I chose this way to get my message out. Because sometimes the value of what we have to say outweighs the gains we can make by saying it.

Two examples

Several years ago the outdoor clothing brand Patagonia made a plea to their customers that surprised them: Don’t Buy This Jacket. Their message was that if they had the choice between buying a new jacket and a recycled one, they should take the option that causes the least damage to the environment: the recycled one.

Patagonia: Don't Buy This Jacket

They released their campaign during Black Friday. The day in America when many people go out of their way to shop the latest products at discount prices.

They told people:

“The environmental cost of everything we make is astonishing…Consider the R2 Jacket shown, one of our best sellers. To make it required 135 liters of water, enough to meet the daily needs (three glasses a day) of 45 people. Its journey from its origin as 60% recycled polyester to our Reno warehouse generated nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, 24 times the weight of the finished product. This jacket left behind, on its way to Reno, two-thirds its weight in waste.”

Their message made one thing clear: here’s a company that puts their values before their profit margins. These are people who care about the environment, and taking care of their planet is a higher value for them than selling jackets.

On their company website they explained:

“It would be hypocritical for us to work for environmental change without encouraging customers to think before they buy. To reduce environmental damage, we all have to reduce consumption as well as make products in more environmentally sensitive, less harmful ways. It’s not hypocrisy for us to address the need to reduce consumption. On the other hand, it’s folly to assume that a healthy economy can be based on buying and selling more and more things people don’t need – and it’s time for people who believe that’s folly to say so.”

Fairphone are another company that have impressed me with similar commitment to values over profit.

This summer the company tweeted a link to an article entitled “Why I Love The Fairphone — And Why I Won’t Buy One”

The article explained that the best way to take care of the environment and the supply chain of electronic devices is to buy less of them. The best way to serve the core values of Fairphone is not to buy their phone, but to continue using your old one. Until it wears out.

Of course Fairphone didn’t go as far as to launch a campaign to stop people buying their phones. After all, they don’t yet have the committed consumer base of Patagonia, but in promoting this tweet I caught a glimpse of a company that puts their values before their profits.

So, with that said, who wants to sign up to my email list? 😉

Dear Henning (A Tribute To Henning Mankell)

Dear Henning,

With the news of your death, today is a sad day for many of us.

We devoured your novels, whether the Wallander series, or lesser known works. We revelled in your storytelling, which despite being fictional always felt deeply honest.

We were inspired by your actions, how you consistently spoke up against injustice and tried to do things that would help. Like your theatre in Mozambique, or the memory project for victims of AIDS. You found a way to put your skills and influence to use for the benefit of the poor and voiceless.

We were delighted when you joined a group of activists on a ship headed for Palestine with the desire to break the Israeli embargo on aid.

3594924447_6b79c5d455_b

But there’s another, more personal reason why I’m going to miss you and your stories.

For me, you were one of my early guides into the world of Swedish culture. Not because of the factual accuracy of the stories – Ystad isn’t the victim of as many murders as your stories would have us believe – but because of the zeitgeist you captured so well. Through Kurt Wallander and his adventures, you beautifully painted the atmosphere of change that exists in modern Sweden. Such change isn’t always clearly spelled out to newcomers like myself.

In the years since World War Two, Sweden has become a haven to those fleeing war and instability in their homelands. That is set to continue. Unsurprisingly, in the face of such change, those who grew up in a very different Sweden have had some adjusting to do. Many have made these adjustments with incredible grace. They’ve chosen to personally embrace the outsider. Others have adjusted more slowly, as if waking up to a whole new world that doesn’t quite feel like their home.

Inspector Wallander guided me into that world and helped me to understand a little of what that conflict must feel like. He gave me a glimpse into how a values driven society comes to terms with its decisions, as they’re worked out in the earthy reality of day-to-day life. And he allowed me the opportunity to mourn the Sweden of my parents-in-law’s youth, a Sweden that is now just a memory.

For all of the above, I’m very grateful.

With much respect,

Jonathan

(Image credit: PalFest)

Stumbling Over My Words

Learning a new language opens a world of opportunities to experience vulnerability, especially if navigating your every day life depends on it.

Arabic writing

Just over a year ago, my wife and I relocated to Jordan in order to learn Arabic. In the future we want to work with Syrian refugees, and we know that speaking the language will open up a world of opportunities to connect with those who are most vulnerable.

We live in an area made up of refugees from different eras. There are the Palestinians who began arriving during the 1940s, the Iraqis who arrived during the 1990s and 2000s, and now the Syrians who arrived here during the last 5 years.

Everything from ordering drinking water, taking a taxi or buying vegetables depends on us finding the right combination of words, tone and pronunciation.

Each day in school, we take classes in formal Arabic grammar (Modern Standard), and the Jordanian spoken dialect (known as Ammiya).

Out of our many experiences of facing vulnerability through language learning, our reading class is the one I find the most humbling (humiliating).

In these classes we take it in turns to read out loud to a group of 8 people, while the teacher corrects mistakes and assists with pronunciation. When we’re finished reading, we summarise what we’ve just read in formal Arabic into spoken Arabic.

During the class I sit there anticipating my next turn to read. I feel tense, I mentally assess the abilities of my fellow students (comparing them with my own). The closer it gets to my turn, the more agitated I get and the less my mind focusses.

It’s exhausting.

The main source of tension during these classes comes from the fact that I really want to be good at reading.

I want to excel at the language and for others to recognise that I am good.

But the pressure to be good hinders my performance.

I so badly want to perform well that I psych myself out and end up stumbling over my words. When the teacher corrects a mistake, instead of absorbing the feedback and jumping right back into the passage, I waver and my mind jumps around the page. I start second guessing and totally lose my flow.

The problem with pretending is that with it comes the fear of being found out.

It requires maintaining a facade of competence, that requires a great deal of energy.

Learning to Let Go

So I’ve decided to work on my vulnerability issue. Instead of pretending that I’m good at reading Arabic, I’m admitting that I find it hard.

I’m accepting the fact that in order for my language to blossom, I need to take myself less seriously.

And I’m trusting that, as Brene Brown discovered in her research on the subject, vulnerability is the pathway to creativity and wholeheartedness.

By giving up worrying about what other people think of my abilities, I might just have the space to begin improving.

(Image credit: Neil Hester)

Change Maker’s Manifesto

change-makers-manifesto-coverLast week I finished work on my new eBook, Change Maker’s Manifesto: Simple Steps Toward Making a Difference.

This quick start guide is for you if you want to get started in making a difference in the world, but don’t quite know where to begin.

For those of you are already on this journey of change, I’ve added a section on sustaining change. It’s all about developing the habits of long term change makers.

It’s a short book that one of my friends finished during a lunch break at work.

You can download it for free by joining my (weekly) email list below*

*You’ll receive an email with a download link once you complete the sign up process.

The Upside of ISIS

The Imam and The PastorYou know how sometimes something really horribly grotesque somehow ends up having a positive, unintended byproduct?

Like when you see someone who has faced the worst kinds of abuse find their way out the other side. And they’re not just the same person they started out being. They’re stronger. They somehow turn the utter shit-that-should-never-have-happened situation into something that gives hope to others?

I think something of a similar ilk might be happening in the sphere of East-West relationships. Let me explain…

I think that most of us agree that ISIS/ISIL/داعش (DAESH) is not a good thing.

In fact, if we took a vote, we’d be close to unanimous in saying that they seem, much of the time, to incarnate evil. They behead, kill, rape, drown, burn, shock, force convert and displace people.

It’s very hard to imagine anything good coming from them.

But I’ve noticed a strange byproduct of their unholy rampage: people who didn’t used to talk to each other are starting to.

And it’s not just that they’re talking that’s interesting. It’s what they’re talking about.

There was a time not so long ago when Christians and Muslims didn’t have very much to do with each other. Especially Evangelical Christians.

At best, Christians pretended Muslims didn’t exist. At worst, they regarded Islam with deep suspicion.

In fact, back in the 80s and early 90s, it wouldn’t have been uncommon to come across Christians who, if you got them talking about the subject, would echo the sentiment of what Franklin Graham said just last month:

“We are under attack by Muslims at home and abroad…we should stop all immigration of Muslims to the US until this threat with Islam has been settled.”

But recently the church, or at least many within it, have begun asking “if we say we are following the teachings of Jesus, and he says ‘love your neighbour’, and even ‘love your enemies’, what should we do about our Muslim neighbours?”

And, at the same time, Muslims have started asking: “if our Holy Qu’ran teaches us to love and respect Christians, how can we practically do that?”

People are setting aside centuries of confusion and misunderstanding and are working together for the sake of peace.

And the thing that has added an urgency of life-or-death to this movement is the work of ISIS.

ISIS, in all their savagery, are polarising people. Some turn to violence (in the West against Muslims, in the East against Christians, Yazidis, Shi’a), but others turn to peace.

If you’re like me, this sounds like very good news.

It puts a smile on my face when I hear about Evangelical megachurch pastors standing up to Franklin Graham because he’s not being Jesus-like towards Muslims.

Not to mention when Muslims help to rebuild burned down churches.

And when I got to visit a mosque in the UK (in a city that has spawned several well-reported ISIS members) and I see Christians and Muslims sitting side-by-side, listening to each other attentively, answering questions in the spirit of peace, I feel optimistic that ISIS’ days are numbered.

Life Hacks for Successful Change

I’ve moved countries a few times in my life. First to Sweden, then South Africa, and now, just 6 months ago, to Jordan.

Change can be exhilarating, but it can also be a challenge, especially when the “honeymoon phase” begins wearing off.

home sickness

Here are a few things that have helped me to embrace change…

Decide to ignore the less appealing aspects of your new culture
Anyone can find things they don’t like in an unfamiliar culture. But if you take a closer look and step outside of your comfort zones, you can find beautiful things anywhere in the world.

Nest
One of the things that has helped me to feel more settled is to set up home in a place. Ask yourself: “would someone visiting my home when I’m not there know that I live there?” and work at making the answer “yes.”

Hang pictures. Grow plants. Do whatever it takes to make your house feel like a home.

Develop routines
It’s easy to feel at sea when you first arrive. Everything is new and unfamiliar and everyone except you has things to do and places to be.

Get into a rhythm.

For us this has been easy, because we have language school every day. Outside of language classes, we visit people for about 2 hours a day and we study our books and memorise vocabulary for at least another 2 hours a day.

Usually when you first arrive in a new place, life isn’t so structured. Do your best to build a routine.

Stay Thankful
I’ve blogged about this before, but make sure you notice the beautiful things about your host culture on a regular basis.

When I start to feel homesick I like to take a walk and look around at all the things that I don’t get to enjoy back home: falafel stands, friendly faces spontaneously inviting you to drink coffee, the way the city comes alive at night.

Make local friends
When faced with a foreign land, many people gravitate to those who share the same cultural background. This is definitely the easiest thing to do, but it’s not necessarily the one that will make you feel most at home. It’s important to make friends with local people as soon as you can.

To begin with, this might mean showing up on your neighbour’s doorstep with a plate of cookies, or making a bit more small talk than you usually would with a local shop owner.

How about you? What tips do you have for a successful transition into a new place?

(Image credit: Emile Krijgsman)

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© 2014-2017 Jonathan Morgan