Diary: ‘If I don’t take myself seriously, why should anyone else?’

IssueDecember 2022 - January 2023
Comment by Cath

I was just at my last annual Cornerstone party as a tenant member of the co-op. After my dark comic (and very middle-aged) contribution of Victoria Wood and ‘Poisoning Pigeons in the Park’ by Tom Lehrer, other younger people came on who spoke very seriously indeed.

One Colombian talked about the pain and damage of the cocaine industry on their people and how they felt about people around them disregarding that for their own pleasure.

I felt so weird – I felt like it was the exactly right place to say it, I felt that I had been inappropriately flippant and now didn’t know how to communicate with the person, I felt like I could never talk that eloquently about something so strongly felt and so strongly critical of people around me.

Mainly, I thought very much about compartmentalisation of principle and pain – the idea that there are times when it is appropriate to feel and act on it and other times when it is simply inappropriate, uncomfortable or inconvenient. In other words, perhaps the majority of the time, we cannot allow ourselves to think about difficult things too deeply, if at all, because it’s not the done thing.

There is something here about passion and allowing oneself to feel pain, to embrace struggle, to recognise that neither avoiding it nor hiding it are possible or desirable in the long term – and arguably not in the short term.

I’ve recently been reading the absolute classic Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century by Barbara Taylor (originally published in 1983, republished by Virago in 2016). The book has been lent to me because of its incredible detailing and analysis of the utopian commune efforts of early socialists. As so often when I’m reading radical history, I’m struck by our political forbears’ commitment to struggle.

I get inspired (some might say carried away) by the concept of dedicating oneself to an ideal – putting one’s time, energy, life, health, liberty to the service of something greater than oneself.

It seems rather out of fashion. Gone are the days when dedicating one’s life to God in a convent or killing and dying for king and country were choices that made sense to society at large. Or perhaps it’s always been out of fashion – ridicule has been heaped on idealists in this country for at least three centuries... sincerity is sneered at, idealism seen as naive at best.

While reading Homage to Catalonia, I remember the recognition hitting me, as George Orwell describes it hitting him – realising the beauty of the sincerity and openness of Catalonian and Andalusian boys, their fearlessness in expressing curiosity or ignorance, in contrast to his own English upbringing where ridicule was the norm, where laughing at naivety or earnestness brings everyone into line. Orwell’s sudden disgust at English social norms was palpable and I shared it and I recognised it in myself.

Let’s get back to Barbara’s wonderful book. I remarked to my new commune housemate, half-seriously, that we should name some part of the commune after Emma Martin.

She epitomised the ‘tireless campaigner’ character, lecturing and debating with clerics all over the country, writing reams of articles, trying to bring up three children as a single mother – she drew crowds of thousands, was massively influential and successful in attracting people to the cause and practically worked herself to an early grave.

I said I could see how celebrating someone who effectively drove herself to her death for her beliefs might not be something the commune wants to do. I got enthusiastic agreement.

And then I asked, but what’s the difference between that and going off to to join the revolution in Rojava? Or protesting in Iran or Russia, with death a fairly high probability?

We see those people as martyrs and we celebrate their motivations and their actions – what’s the difference?

We agreed to come back to the conversation another time.

I particularly struggle with this, because, actually, I do want to dedicate… no, I have dedicated my life to working for revolutionary change.

I’m a bit of a scaredy cat when it comes to getting hurt, and I don’t think I’m much good in practical situations, so I’ve tried to do it through local organising, economic organising, supporting collectives in conflict. And I often feel undermined or demotivated by responses which seem to prioritise a narrative of ‘self-care’ for its own sake, rather than as a necessary tool for continuing to contribute effectively to the greater cause. (Because I’m worth it, presumably.)

How does one strike the balance between idealism and dogma? Yes, it’s sensible to be suspicious of dogma, because dogma is dangerous – commitment without question facilitates tactics and strategies which can lead to terrifying ends. But the opposite is also dangerous: to regard commitment to something beyond one’s own interest as amusing, that people who are prepared to take risks for principle or programme are to be safely ignored, ridiculed or feared – that way lies apathy, constant self-regard, self-policing and social division.

And how does one avoid taking oneself too seriously? Isn’t humour important? How does one judge what’s serious... but not too serious?! Of course this all depends on who you hang out with. This just popped into my head as a question to ponder: ‘If I don’t take myself seriously, why should anyone else?’

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