Challenge: Waking Up to the Poverty in Your Streets

Posted on 24 March 2017 | No responses


I would like to challenge people. I want you to take a pocket full of coins, go out into the streets, give that change to various beggars, then wait for them to look up at you.

Don’t expect them to thank you, but accept their thanks if they give it. Look into their faces and give them the dignity of recognising their humanity.

Do that a few times and see what you can read for a moment in their faces.

These people aren’t pretty. They will be dirty and some will look pretty hardened. Some will look utterly despaired. Others may smile at you. With some you may feel the drag of their wishing you could give them more.

Don’t try to rationalise who you give money to. You will still probably find yourself preferring some beggars to others. It will feel safer to give money to women and children. It might feel easier to give to those who don’t look as needy, because you won’t feel as much drag.

Some beggar’s neediness may look like an act. The problem is that some people don’t feel the need to give unless the person is so destitute they could be at death’s door. In fact for the homeless because they don’t have an address, they cannot receive government benefits. So, they are forced to become professional beggars and must use all the same tactics as advertisers. This is not their fault, this is what they are forced to do just to survive.

Recognise how little these street people have. All the items you see surrounding them are the entirety of their worldly goods. If they leave those items for even a few moments to use the toilets, the city government confiscates all their things. Those items include water bottles, blankets, and genuine medicines. They then have to beg to recover those things and in the meantime do without water, blankets, or medicines.

The homeless have chosen food over shelter, which is why they are living in the city. In the city they have CCTVs to help keep them safe. In the suburbs certain homeless people have been anonymously kicked to death by drunken youths. You will notice homeless people don’t often sleep in alleys these days.

Because I write for musicals and work with singers, I know what breathing looks like. I know when someone is breathing deeply. I know when someone is using their diaphragm correctly. I know when someone is having trouble breathing because they are nervous. A month or so back I saw a man lying on the street clearly not breathing. A couple police were standing on either side of him, smiling and directing people around. They were waiting for the paramedics. Most people passed that afternoon without noticing this man was dead. He had to die alone in the street.

Only a couple weeks ago a thirty year old woman, her boyfriend and her fourteen year old daughter were sleeping in an abandoned rope factory in Footscray where they had been squatting. On that day the owner of the factory was told by the city council the property could be redeveloped for housing. That night he set the factory on fire and burnt those people to death.

You might feel terrified that you can’t give enough, that these people will want to take everything you have until you are one of them. Perhaps you will feel angry that you have been made to feel guilty and/or responsible. Perhaps you will feel anxious that you will never be able to do enough. Perhaps you will become afraid that being near these people may rub off. You might even be afraid that they will rise up and become violent.

All you have been asked to do at this time is to give a little change directly to these people: not through some charity that takes their cut and sanitises the experience. Give a little change and encourage a lot more change in the society around you. You have looked into the faces of these people and, if you are any kind of human being, you have seen yourself but for the grace of fate. You alone cannot fix all the problems of the poor, but you can help. Let this be a start. Start with some understanding.

Peace and kindness,


What Governments Are For

Posted on 13 March 2017 | No responses

WPA Poster: Work Pays America

“The WPA (Works Progress Administration/Work Projects Administration) provided jobs and income to the unemployed during the Great Depression in the United States. At its peak in 1938, it provided paid jobs for three million unemployed men and women, as well as youth in a separate division, the National Youth Administration. Between 1935 and 1943, when the agency was disbanded, the WPA employed 8.5 million people. Most people who needed a job were eligible for employment in some capacity. Hourly wages were typically set to the prevailing wages in each area. Full employment, which was reached in 1942 and emerged as a long-term national goal around 1944…It was liquidated on June 30, 1943, as a result of low unemployment due to the worker shortage of World War II. The WPA had provided millions of Americans with jobs for eight years.”

Currently we are experiencing employment crises all over the world. With increasing robotisation (and I’m not talking Robbie Robot but ATMs, self checkout, self-driving cars, etc) this crisis will worsen. People are wailing that not enough jobs are available. In point of fact many jobs need doing.

We have been bamboozled into thinking that only those jobs that are paid by large companies are “real” jobs. Volunteering is not considered real work, arts aren’t considered a “real job”, people staying home to care for children, elderly parents or disabled family members are not seen as contributing to our society. Yet, this invisible work holds our society together, makes our lives liveable, and protects the weak and the endangered.

Work is not simply those things that have a dollar sign next to them. Right now we need more people working than ever—people doing the jobs that are not under the thumb of large non-democratic businesses.

We need people planting trees. We need people building the infrastructure for more sustainable energy. We need cities to be made more liveable and with less impact on the environment. We need homes for everyone: efficient homes. We need people protecting our wilderness. We need people coming up with solutions to Global Climate Change. We need people who will change farming practises, so that we have less polluting run-off. We need people producing creative works that help us bond with one another, feel concern for one another, and thereby learn how to cooperate. The list goes on and on.

One answer is to give people an Unconditional Basic Income. People are then freer to volunteer as a profession. They are freer to innovate and set up businesses that address what needs doing in the world. People are also freer to leave jobs that are abusive and oppressive. I personally believe all businesses should be at least half worker owned to ensure a healthy and democratic workplace. A basic income would at the bare minimum give people the right to vote with their feet.

Another answer, which I believe should be in combination with a basic income, is for our nations to set up modern Work Projects Administrations. The government has the means to initiate large projects for the greater well-being of the populace who they serve. This cannot possibly be work for the dole; it must be full paid jobs with all the same workplace rights as any other job that people freely choose. It must in essence be an extension of the public service and public works.

In the eight short years that the WPA was in place it had a tremendous impact on US citizens lives. In that time the country saw the rise of many new and important buildings including housing, the construction of utility plants, the recovery of the dustbowl, etc. US culture flourished in long-ranging ways that under current governments we aren’t seeing any more. It ended the depression.

The answers to our current woes are right in front of our faces. We just have to find the will to make them happen.

Peace and kindness,


We Have Enough

Posted on 10 March 2017 | No responses

What if we have enough provided we share?

What if we have enough…provided we share.

What if we decided we would all be better off if, rather than playing a competitive game of hoarding, we did what we could to distribute what we collectively have such that everyone has enough to thrive?

The world is having problems because of over population. However, it has been found that whenever women are educated and treated equitably, their fertility rate goes down, and the survival rate of those children born rises due to improved health.

Whenever a population is stressed, a certain amount of isolationism occurs. A certain “everyone for themselves” mentality kicks in.

If we start questioning who we can trust, suddenly immediate family becomes important. Surely we can trust our families? The same is true if out of fear we want supporters to protect us: immediate family become our team, our cushion, and our army. Family codependency seems like a solution. We evolved as social creatures who require one another for survival. If we no longer see our community as a source of support, then we are going to want all the directly related babies to raise that we can produce.

If we share, the stress becomes alleviated. Populations have the opportunity to stabilise and shrink to manageable levels. We reconnect with our communities. We find that we have even more to share. Our collective wealth increases as does our collective well being.

To gain these benefits we have to be willing to let go of wanting all the power and all the stuff. When you are stuck in a fearful rut it seems counter-intuitive that sharing those things will save you. However, if on a sinking cruise liner you threw everyone but yourself overboard, you would not have the human capacity to stop the boat from going under. You need all those crew members who might be able to stop the sinking, or at least get people to lifeboats and direct those lifeboats to safety.

When we improve everyone’s lives we suddenly have more human resources. We have more people who can conceive of solutions, build solutions, and make the solutions work. To think only a few have the answers to save us is a deeply broken way of seeing the world that comes from racism, classism, sexism, and any number of other “isms”. Whether we like it or not, we need each other.

As I keep saying about the current state of our world: the answers are easy. The problem is getting people to look up and cooperate.

Peace and kindness,


A Right To Our Existence

Posted on 9 March 2017 | No responses

Defend and Extend Public Housing

(This speech was given on the steps of the Victorian State Parliament 08 March 2017 as part of International Women’s Day and the Defend and Extend Public Housing Rally. Melina Wylie and Benjamin Newall kindly played the parts of “Woman” and “Man” in the short play. This work can be performed by others CC BY 4.0.)

“The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right.”
UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
Ratified by Australian Federal Parliament 10 December 1975

We have rights!

Without question, we have rights!

Australia co-wrote and signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that says we have a right to housing. Australia also signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a binding treaty that makes our country responsible by law to uphold rights such as our right to housing. Victoria then enshrined in its own laws a Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act in 2006 directly making use of the language found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

What sort of people are governing us if they will not abide by their own treaties, they will not abide by their own laws and principles, and do not keep their promises to their people and to the whole world? The United Nations did not impose these ideas upon us. We helped create them and we agreed to them. Where is the integrity? We need to let these people we put into office know that building developers and other corporates didn’t put them into office. Our votes put them into office and we will vote elsewhere if they are unwilling to represent their people’s best interests.

A society is only as secure as its worst treated members because anyone, absolutely anyone, can fall between the cracks.

As we all get poorer, we all become too distracted trying to get by. We lose a grip on dealing with core issues and our lives get worse.

We all need more freedom—two freedoms in particular:

  • Freedom from want
  • And freedom to choose.

Anything less and we are not citizens of our country but its subjects, forced to live as others choose: dehumanised and without respect.

We must have the freedom that comes from having our basic needs met such as food, clothing, medicine, education, and housing, so that we can more securely stand tall whenever oppression raises its nasty head. This then gives us the freedom to choose where we work, where we live, who we spend our time with, and more.

Only oppressors seek to keep a people desperate and in want. It is your right to live free of poverty. Endangering people’s lives simply because they don’t have an address, can’t always jump through difficult hoops, and most especially because they are already poor is tyranny. Their incessant questioning of whether or not you deserve help is a way to get you and all of Australia to question your rights. It’s manipulative and its abusive.

No question corporates are oppressors.

No question our governments from city to state to federal are failing us and adding to the oppression.

We must stop the oppression.

We must withdraw power from corporations and those politicians who are not doing their duty.

And that is the crux of the matter.

We must understand our role in our dysfunctional society, so that we can well and truly end our suffering. Because once we understand and cooperate, we have the power to change everything.

To help illustrate the primary issues I have brought along a couple acting friends.

The core fear that sits inside all of our bellies is that perhaps there isn’t enough for everyone in the world. In fact it grinds at our guts as a firm belief: “The world is harsh and there isn’t enough.”

Here is a bag of biccies.

Katherine holds up a golden bag with wrapped biscuits inside and places it on a top step of Parliament.

We don’t know how many biccies are in it. There could be just a few, or the bag could be brimming with biccies.

These two are going to assume that there aren’t enough for them.

Much body language here.

If those biccies are a matter of life or death: comfort or starvation, the stakes are going to be high as to who gets access to them.

Woman: I should have the biccies, I have children in need of feeding. (Goes up one step closer to the golden bag.)

Man: I should have the biccies, I have important work to do. (Goes up two steps closer to the golden bag.)

Katherine: Let’s say that even though they are aiming for the big biccies, they have some biccies of their own. Because the man is closer to the prize, he has more than the woman. (Give actors bags.)

Man: If you give me a biccie, I will make you beautiful.

Woman: Why would I want that?

Man: You will look like a rich person.

Woman: Yes?

Man: You will be desirable to rich people.

Woman: I suppose.

Man: You will become a rich person.

Woman: If I give you a biccie?

Man: Oh yes!

Actors go through the exchange as Katherine talks.

Katherine: So she gives him the biccie. But does she become rich?

Woman: I still don’t have enough to feed my children and have shelter.

Man: It’s because you’re ugly.

Woman: I am?

Man: You didn’t give me enough biccies. You have to give me more biccies to make my beautifying work.

Woman: But when will it work? Mouths need to be fed now!

Man: Soon enough. And when it does you will have to keep giving me biccies to keep it working.

Woman: Really? What happens if it stops working?

Man: You will lose everything: your home, the people you love, your self-respect.

Katherine: As you can see, she’s terrified now.

Woman gives Man more biccies.

Man: Oh and you have to pay a tax on this purchase.

Woman: What for?

Man: To help those poor souls who are too ugly to receive any biccies.

Woman: I suppose we don’t want anyone starving.

Man: No, you don’t.

Woman: This is all I have. (empties bag and turns it upside down to demonstrate)

Man: Is it now. Dear me, that isn’t enough.

Woman: Are you sure?

Man: I made the rules, so I know for a fact it isn’t enough.

Woman: Are you paying these taxes?

Man: Me? Oh no, no, no! Of course not!

Woman: But I thought everyone was paying. Isn’t that fair?

Man: (laughs) That’s funny. I don’t pay because I do important work.

Woman: I have children.

Man: And whose choice was that? You can’t afford children.

Woman: But I didn’t know.

Man: In fact what kind of person are you to bring children into the world if you can’t afford them? You don’t deserve your children. You know I’m going to have to fine you and take away your children.

Woman: What? But I don’t have anything! You’ve taken it all!

Man: You are such ugly scum.

Woman: But what about the taxes?

Man: What taxes?

Woman: The ones to help the poor ugly souls? You said there would be help. You said there would be help. Where is my help?

Man: Are you getting aggressive?

Woman: No, I just want help.

Man: I’m going to have to pay for police. We’ll have to take it out of social services.

Woman: That doesn’t help me.

Man: We have to protect the public.

Woman: From who?

Man: (Looks at her.)

Woman: No! How can you do this? I demand my rights!

Man: What rights?

Woman: The right I have to my existence!

Man: But you’re poor.

Woman: I still have a right to my existence.

Man: You’re barely even human.

Woman: I…I…

Man: I can even cite scientific sources to prove it.

Woman: I’m getting my friends.

Man: How many friends?

Woman: I don’t know.

Man: All right.

Man takes out a biccie packet, drops it to the ground, pointedly crushes it beneath his foot, then picks up the package. He grabs her hand and pulls it in front of him. He opens the packet and pours crumbs into her hand.

Man: You…can have…that.

Katherine: What has happened here? Can you see the dynamic?

Man puts hands on Woman’s shoulders.

He is basically saying, “My needs—my wants first.” He then finds ways to enforce this.

However as soon as he tries to enforce his will, he can’t let go. To stay in control he has become a prisoner. And the more strongly he tries to hold her down—the more in danger he is from her and her friends.

And what if there are plenty of biccies in the bag?. Maybe nobody is getting fat, but they will both have all the biccies they need. All they ever needed to do was share. This (point to tableau) has become an act of self-destruction.

Actors start giving away biccies.

Sharing and kindness are much better solutions to our problems. Everyone should have access to a secure and healthy home. We should be giving people homes because it works. It works in Medicine Hat Canada where the government has experienced significant savings in their social services budget. It is working in the US state of Utah, and it is being done in Seattle and San Francisco. Funding slum lords who squeeze the poor dry doesn’t work. Acts of genuine compassion and generosity do. Who are we to lag behind the rest of the world in doing what is right? We have all the resources to ensure everyone’s needs are met.

Defend and extend public housing!

Peace and kindness,


What Homelessness Is Like:
A Letter by Keely Swannie to Lord Mayor of Melbourne Robert Doyle

Posted on 5 March 2017 | No responses

No more bandaids & bans: We need housing for all! Photo CC BY Katherine Phelps 2017 March 03

Dear Mr Doyle,

I just wanted to send you a personal message to let you know how I am feeling about your proposal to ban homeless people from sleeping rough in the city. I think it absolutely sucks.

First of all Mr Doyle, let me remind you that anyone can become homeless. Even you. All it takes is one thing to happen and your world can come crashing down. Maybe you lose your job, maybe you’re trying to escape domestic violence, maybe you have a mental breakdown or maybe this or maybe that. My point is there are a multitude of reasons why a person can become homeless.

My understanding of the situation is this: we have 247 people sleeping rough in the city of Melbourne at the moment and you have only offered housing to 40 of those people. I’m not very good at math by any stretch but I’m pretty sure that means 207 people miss out. Why? And how do you choose who gets a place and who doesn’t?

That brings me to the statement that “they’re not all homeless, we have offered them rooms in rooming houses but they decline….” when was the last time you set foot in a rooming house? I was in one on Sunday. I do not blame these people for declining to live in these pits of pure hell.

I am a volunteer social support worker for a lady with mental illness in a rooming house in Coburg run by Unison (it was Yarra Community Housing but they merged with another company last week). This “house” is absolutely deplorable to say the least. You open the door and are immediately assaulted by the smell of rotten food and urine in the halls and common areas. Her room is kept very clean but is now infested with mice because it’s opposite the common room where people have left food, refuse and even dirty laundry that has now been there for about 2 weeks. On top of this, she can’t lock her sliding door properly and it leads out to a courtyard easily accessible to the street.

She has made phone calls and sent numerous letters to her “manager” with little to no response. Her rent is around $230 a week which is almost half her weekly income and it rises at the drop of a hat. I gave her some plants out of my own garden and she almost didn’t accept them because she fears that her “manager” will think she bought them and increase the rent again. I could go on but I won’t. Rooming houses are unregulated and unsafe.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is this Mr Doyle: if you want to eradicate homelessness in our city, you are going the wrong way about it. Instead of criminalizing homelessness and punishing the most vulnerable of our citizens even more than they are already being punished, you should be thinking about how you can minimize the risk of homelessness more by funding programs that are trying to help marginalized and disadvantaged people from becoming homeless in the first place. Offer every single one of those 247 people a proper house. And make rooms in rooming houses a more attractive option by regulating them, cleaning them up and making them safer!

Yours truly,

Keely Swannie

It Starts With Fear, It Must End With Peace

Posted on 3 March 2017 | No responses

White Doves at the Blue Mosque in Mazar-e-Sharif. 2011 March 21 Peretz Partensky from San Francisco, USA. Modifications by Katherine Phelps 2017 March 03. CC BY SA 2.0 Generic
This society has two gnawing doubts we have allowed to destroy ourselves and this planet:

Life is harsh.
There isn’t enough for everyone.

“Enough of what?” You may ask. Enough of almost anything you could place on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: physiological needs such as food and shelter, safety needs, love and belonging needs, esteem needs, self-actualisation needs.

We manipulate and bully one another and the rest of the planet as a way to satisfy these needs, because we haven’t examined our fears closely enough and realised that alternatives exist. We know that we can mitigate the harshness of life, but with no faith in sufficiency, we are more likely to hoard than to share. In order to achieve this we have to take from others, then keep them from taking things from us. This is a prison dynamic for all people. To justify the harsh treatment we are doling out to others, we have to switch off our capacity for empathy and active caring.

Some people manage this within themselves, perverting their own in-born capacity for pro-social behaviour. Some feed themselves stories that justify their poor treatment of others, coming to believe that the vulnerable deserve their mistreatment (and they deserve their privilege). Still others just keep themselves cut off and separate from those whose lives they are destroying through a selfish lifestyle. They don’t know, so they feel they can’t be culpable and have no reason to care. Then there are those who use all the fear and all the manipulations to set themselves up in a secure position.

We are all guilty of letting these basic fears take over, left and right. Here’s what it can look like:

I am not being harmed by Climate Change: so, I don’t have to care about Climate Change.
I am not being harmed by homelessness: so, I don’t have to care about those people who are homeless.
I’m not gay: so, I don’t have to care about what is happening to the gay population.
I’m not being harrassed for my ethnic or religious background: so, why are these people complaining?
I’m not female, but we’re both human: so, the problems women talk about must be in their heads.
I don’t feel any pain when someone is smashing your hand with a mallet: so, you must be making it up.

Those with these beliefs and those countering them will present each other with rationalisations. The fact of the matter is no reasons or rationalisations are going to work because we haven’t gotten to the core problem: these people don’t want to care because it seems to be safer that way.

We have to give people reason to believe they are safe. With that safety they are more likely to open up and consider others problems. No amount of stuff and admiration will make them feel safe, so long as they are aware that they are at the top of a dog eat dog world and some day they will get eaten. We are only as safe as those we treat worst. That’s the imprisoning fear. The answer is to start treating everyone better. The answer is finding the courage to share. The answer is to stop relying on punishment as a way to keep the world in place.

This is why I talk about why we have to change attitudes, values, and priorities if we want to genuinely change the world. We want an attitude of peace, because we value peace, and our priority is to create a peaceful world.

Peace and kindness,


Desperate People

Posted on 21 February 2017 | No responses

This cartoon says almost everything I said in a lengthy article. Brilliant! I just wish I knew who the artist is. Clearly an Australian.

Desperate people make ideal workers and distracted citizens.

What Can We Do?

Posted on 20 February 2017 | No responses


Things are going seriously wrong in the world. Many people are finally concerned enough that they want to take action.

A lot of different people have the populace running around like chickens with their heads cut off. “Do this! Do that!” Soon people are confused and weary. We need to reduce the busy work, while still supporting consistent action. That action may sound like stuff you have been told many times before, the point is that we finally need to listen. So, I suppose I am giving you another list. Today is the general list. On another day I will give you a more specific one. I just hope they are particularly effective ones. I want to get at the ugly roots of our problems, so they are more likely to go away for good. That will take a deep courage worthy of great respect.


In order to put our to-do list together properly we have to set our priorities. The two most pressing concerns that are driving a long list of woes are:

  • Poverty and
  • The abuse of our living world.

These two issues are profoundly bound up in each other. We must be willing to grapple with why these problems have become so entrenched in our culture and find genuine solutions for overcoming them. My sense is that at base this is about fear and our felt need for control. Fear is a very broad term. So, let me provide an example of fear and what it can do.

Fear and Power

In 1971 Philip Zimbardo ran the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which students role-played guards and prisoners. Early into the experiment things went horribly wrong and Zimbardo had to cancel it after the students roleplaying guards began to abuse the students roleplaying prisoners, some of whom experienced mental breakdowns. Zimbardo describes the incident in an article published by Nautilus.

Students in 1971 were anti-war activists. Many students on many campuses protested against the war, were beaten up or suffered abuse by their local police. So nobody wanted to be a prison guard. Initially, it was very difficult for the boys playing prison guards to get into their role. But, the second day of the study, the prisoners rebelled. They did not want to be dehumanized, because one way to take away power is to take away your name, your style, the way you wear your hair and so forth…

All 12 guards came in, and they crushed the rebellion. At that point, the guards said, “These are dangerous prisoners. We have to show who is in charge, who is the boss.” That changed everything. That’s when it became a prison. No one used the word “experiment” again. The guards used physical force—stripped the prisoners naked, put them in chains, put them in solitary confinement. There was actual fighting. The guards used psychological force to make prisoners feel helpless and hopeless.

Example: Poverty in Melbourne Australia

I am currently helping the homeless of Melbourne to stop a new set of laws targeting them. These laws mean those who have been forced to sleep on the streets can be fined or have their belongings confiscated, simply for having the bad luck of having to do so in the city. These people are caught in a nightmarish trap. People who have lost jobs, are refugees, had to run away from home, etc have to choose food over housing. Because they don’t have an address, they are ineligible for Federal support. This forces them to become professional beggars. Most of their time is taken up with simple survival.

Unemployment in parts of Melbourne is as high as twenty percent. A single unemployed person on Newstart Allowance is receiving $528.70 per fortnight. Currently, private rooming costs $130-$200 per week for one person. This leaves people with as little as $64 per week on which to get by if they are getting funding. This kind of money is beyond the beggars. Victoria has 35,000 people waiting to receive public housing and the state government is selling these properties off to developers. This creates more homeless. It doesn’t take long living in the streets for clothing to be damaged and for people to become dirty. Not only are they not getting Federal help, there’s no way to make it possible for them to get jobs.

We are already seeing the outcomes of these changes in Melbourne city policy. If a homeless person has to use the toilet and leaves their things to do so, the police come and take their things. People have been told they can pick their items up at town hall, but when they arrive they find the items have been taken to the rubbish tip. One homeless man was frantic when the police threw away genuine medication for a serious medical condition. Unsurprisingly these people become upset and angry. They are desperate. What is being done means the difference between life and death. And the homeless come from all walks of life: children from middle class families, former university lecturers in astrophysics, people from the building trades, and more. Those who are living secure lives want to see these people behaving peacefully before they are willing to give them help. To be honest all I have seen at the homeless rallies is peaceful behaviour albeit peppered with angry colourful language.

Sadly, homeless anger is being used by the city council to justify their strong measures. At the council meeting I attended people told stories of their degrading treatment and I watched councillor’s faces shut down and their manner become formal. The place was utterly surrounded by police. We had to have our items checked and many of them left outside before we were allowed to enter the council chambers. The news reporting largely painted a picture of the event that was imaginary. They pointed out how aggressive they found the homeless. If you were there it was clear that all the power was in the hands of the council. We were all completely vulnerable to the whims of the city government. Evidently the council plans to spend money on a public education campaign to discourage people from supporting homeless people with donations of money, food, and basic supplies.

Can you see how similar this situation is to what happened in the Stanford Prison Experiment? The more dangerous the powerless were portrayed as, the more control was enforced upon them, the worse the situation became.


The frightening core of this situation is that as a society we are only as safe as the people we treat the worst. Anyone for any number of reasons can fall between the cracks. You could fall between the cracks. Our security is an illusion and many people sense this without consciously acknowledging it. The more poor and homeless we all see in the world, the more frightening it becomes to lose a job. With that fear we all accept worse and worse working conditions to make sure we are the ones who survive. We can convince ourselves that we are getting by because of our virtuous work ethic. This is also a tool for toadying up to employers: “You want to keep me, see how much harder I work than anyone else?” Yet the more we work, the less time we have to ensure we live in a fair and humane society—the less time we have to even love, reflect, and feel human.

When most of our day and most of our life is dictated to us by a company where we have no say in how we are treated or what we can do, we do not live in a democracy. Then when people are subsequently coerced to work for the dole, because there are so few jobs to be had in our increasingly technological society, that is slavery. It is work when people are being given public service jobs with full pay and full workers rights that they can take or leave by choice, anything less and they are being used as captive menials.

So we now have levels of captivity. And the more we struggle to stop the abuse, the more force the people at the top use to control us. Sadly, we are often complicit in this in our attitudes toward those below us as we imbibe in the Stockholm Syndrome cup. We can become desperate for status. That desperation equates to a need to consume in a manner that will make us feel secure. We will want to live like we are rich, so that we can become part of the rich club, so we will hopefully be beyond poverty. And so we use up our planet’s resources. We find we need the poor to prop up excessive lifestyles. Those who are poor will kill endangered species and destroy forests, rivers, oceans, and ecosystems just to eat. More destruction. Hence we create a planet that can no longer support us…any of us, rich or poor.

The To Do List

Don’t focus on Trump. Don’t focus on particular politicians or wealthy corporate heads. You do away with them without changing our culture and nothing gets better. Learn how to best care for the vulnerable and do it. Learn sympathy and how to help one another. Learn how to live simply. Find intrinsic satisfaction and peace, rather than always chasing after extrinsic validation and false security.

The crazy thing is, even though those in power are immensely wealthy, they only have as much control as we give them. So few people are calling the shots that collectively we could knock them over with a feather. Doing so through violent revolution would be a complete waste of time and lives. War is a lose/lose less situation. All we need to do is not play their games, and replace those games with better ways of living.

Create a world where all energy is renewable, all needs are met sustainably, all businesses are democratic nonprofit cooperatives, and all people and all creatures are treated with respect and dignity. We can do this at a community level. If enough communities do this then cities, states, and whole countries will be carried by a public tide.

As dark as things seem. Change could be easier than we all realise.

Peace and kindness,


Beyond Rage

Posted on 15 February 2017 | No responses


For twenty-three years the right-leaning Liberal-Country Coalition government had led Australia when in 1972 Gough Whitlam and the left-leaning Labor party made it into power. The Whitlam government instituted universal health care, free university education, and legal aid programs. The opposition worked hard to obstruct Labor programs. In 1975 they demanded a new election. Whitlam arranged to meet with the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr in order to call a half-Senate election. Instead Sir John Kerr dismissed Gough Whitlam without warning and commissioned the opposition leader as prime minister.

Gough Whitlam was shocked. In his speech to the public after the event he exhorted the Australian people to “Maintain your rage”, so as to ensure the upcoming election would reflect their anger. Their right to choose representatives and leaders had been over-ridden by an inherently un-democratic system.

Since that historic moment “maintain the rage” has been a popular expression in Australia when people feel their rights are being abridged. This inspite of the fact that people were unable to maintain the rage on the behalf of the Labor party in the 1970s. It wasn’t until 1983 that another Labor goverment was voted into place.

Anger has an important place in our lives. However, chronic anger is known to be damaging to people’s emotional and physical health. Medical studies have found strong links to anger and higher risk of coronary disease and type 2 diabetes. People also drive in a riskier manner and are more likely to be in car accidents. Fight, flight, or freeze responses are biologically meant to be temporary.

Right now people all over the world are having their rights eroded by corporations and politicians who are supporting corporate agendas. The US is experiencing a tidal wave of rage as the Trump administration attempts to perpetrate one human rights violation after another. Already we are seeing discussion about people facing protest fatigue.

Change can and must be made to create a safe world: a world of peace. Such change will require long-term dedication. Rage feels like power. Rage feels like the hot steam needed to propel a train at high speed to some sort of victory. Humans are not made of iron and all we will achieve using rage is our personal self-destruction before we achieve the needful.

Bonding with others through a shared enemy is not very sticky. That’s because tolerance has been established through distraction. So long as we are focusing hate on one person, we are too busy to look closely at the flaws of our compatriots. Worse we overlook the fact that the problem is more far-ranging and systemic than that single enemy, and therefore miss our target and fail. We need people bonding out of shared values and a shared vision. That’s much stickier for a long-term effort. What is the thing you are aiming for beyond the current conflict?

Political manipulators will polarise people, drive them to extremes, then take over. This time we did it to ourselves. We created a culture of rage where we have polarised ourselves such that people like Trump were able to just step into power. We have people putting the hate on anti-vaxxers without considering that these same people can also be strong supporters of environmental conservation. We have people putting the hate on Christians, without considering that a number of them believe Jesus when he said to love your neighbour as yourself: Christians like Martin Luther King Jr.

What deeply worries me is that the US Republicans will let masses of their citizens exhaust themselves in protest, then remove Trump replacing him with Pence. They will be all, “Look now, we have replaced the bad man. You no longer have any reason to worry your pretty heads.” In this way they may take the wind out of our resister’s sails and get people to accept even fewer human rights. I’m not certain how long this would last before the US either completely collapses economically and/or deteriorates into even more violence. Either way the future is bleak unless we change tactics.

What we need more than anything are cultural changes to do with our values and our priorities. Part of that will be learning how to recognise each others humanity, then acting out of goodwill for all people and all living beings. We are passengers on one tiny solar satellite. We need each other to ensure our mutual survival. Let’s learn how to be good friends, good neighbours, good allies, and good stewards. Genuinely, it takes so little to be kind and so little to be happy. We just have to agree to share and coexist.

In peace,


The Heart of Storytelling

Posted on 13 February 2017 | No responses

The problem with storytelling as conflict

A popular dictum found in English classes and books about creative writing goess “Storytelling is about conflict.”

Even worse is the corollary: the bigger the conflict, the better the story. This is largely a Hollywood formulation that has crept into our universal understanding of stories. It has more to do with cultural priorities and toxic masculinity (bigger is always better) than a genuine core to narrative.

Conflict certainly helps to sell blockbuster films. This solidifies its place in a dogma of storytelling that is more about status and domination than experiencing and understanding the world both within and without.

What is most telling is if we go back to the original formulations of narrative conflict as taught in English classes. I remember being taught these in high school. I have books that list these formulations, but do not cite their source. The oldest work I have of my own is A Handbook To Literature (fourth edition) by C. Hugh Holman published in 1980. Conflict was said to come in the below flavours.

  • Man vs himself
  • Man vs man
  • Man vs nature
  • Man vs society
  • Man vs God/Fate

The first most obvious cultural imperative in this list is the primacy of males in narrative. If you check for Conflict (narrative) in Wikipedia it also uses the word “man” rather than “person” or “character”. The second imperative is the necessity of a win/lose formulation that comes with the word “vs”. Finally, this list frequently no longer includes “God” in modern texts, or combines it as “fate” with “nature”. Recently, “Man vs Machine” has been added to some lists. These are strongly indicative of the cultural nature of this list, given such shifts can occur.

Modern revision

In the past I have reformulated this list and included it in my own lecturing. My list looked like this:

  • Character vs themselves
  • Character vs character(s)
  • Character vs nature

I remove the sexist language. I remove character vs society. A person never reallly fights society per se—they fight individuals within social structures in order to create change among a wider circle of people. Besides, the more you personalise a story, the more emotionally effective it becomes. Character vs God/Fate can be subsumed by either “character vs character” or “character vs nature”. However, I’m not even convinced by the separate designation of “character vs nature”.

If in Moby Dick Ahab’s relationship with the whale was a personal one, where the whale was consciously participating in the conflict, it was “character vs character”. If the whale had no intrinsic motivation for interacting with Ahab other than a simple predator/prey arrangement, then the conflict itself is more inside Ahab’s head, making this a “character vs themselves” scenario. A mountain, rock, tree, or animal with little to no conscious engagement can be dangerous, an obstacle, and a challenge but there is no conflict.

This leaves us with “character vs themselves” and “character vs character” as the only legitimate conflicts. For me this is indicative of where the true heart of storytelling lays: relationship.

Narrative and Relationship

Relationships will certainly include conflict upon occasion. Because we are all unique, we are all constantly negotiating with other people in order to get our wants and needs met. Sometimes these negotiations break down into conflict. To see all such negotiations as win/lose conflicts leads to a narrative of paranoia which is reflective of a need for control through dominance.

I will stand by the formulation that a story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end as per Aristotle in Poetics. A literary work of art can do away with this formula for dramatic structure, but it is no longer a story: perhaps a prose poem. As such storytelling represents human life in process through characters relationships with themselves and one another. The chief component of this process is problem-solving. The greater the challenge to overcome with this problem-solving, the more dramatic the story. Yet, even stories with smaller challenges can be made engaging (ie slice of life stories such as Mon Oncle by Jacques Tati). Conflict can certainly be a component of problem-solving, eg a problem is resolved when one character hits the other one over the head.

To make conflict central to the vast majority of stories is to teach ourselves and our children that we live in a dangerous world where relationship is usually conflict. We even romanticise the notion of domination. It’s seen as a good thing to beat up an enemy in order to prove worthiness and win your very own princess—surely we have outgrown this.

If we want to live in a peaceful world, we need to rediscover the heart of storytelling. We need to tell a broader range of stories that help us to heal and to grow as a culture. Change our stories and we can change the world!

Peace and kindness,


image: 2015 July 14 CC BY 3.0 Marie-Lan Nguyen

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