This is our truth, tell us yours
There is a an old philosophy problem which has many forms, but basically boils down to, if I replace all the parts of the an object, is it the same object. It asks us to consider function, form, and whether qualities like sameness have any concrete reality.
A recent conversation with Carter brought this problem to mind, as we discussed change, growth and being who we are, with each other and other people. Our conversation touched on some behaviours, in my past, which have sat on my conscience in that box marked “wish I had behaved differently”. However, like my grandfathers axe, I am left wondering who the “I” is in that sentence. As things stood, I behaved a certain way because of experiences in my past, and a lack of knowledge around what was actually happening. Its fair to say I could not have behaved any differently, since I was the sum of my past experiences, and had, and still sometimes have, a tendency to assume my needs will come last in anyone’s considerations. Self esteem does not come naturally to me, and it has been a long arduous process of unlearning to not leap to the idea others will want to hurt me. Anyone who says this was an irrational leap needs to remember, or go away and learn, just how early childhood sexual abuse impacts on people. For me trusting others is contrary to those very first messages I received. Of course I should not be driven by my inner three year old, but I can understand why, at times, they take over.
There is, I hope, more to this than navel gazing. Part of the conversation Carter and I were having was around positive changes, but also around how important it was there had been changes. Perhaps I had not behaved in the past in a way I would now, but, the very fact I had seen there was work to be done, and done it, mattered. People change, or rather, some people change, and some of that change is positive.
So how do we reconcile this with the fact that many of those on the left, or on what might be called “social justice” circles believe very strongly that people must be held to account for past behaviours? If someone has behaved in a way which hurt other people, it is argued, then they are forever beyond the pale, need to be warned against, and put in the box marked bad person. What room does this leave though for change, for working on ourselves and trying to be better? This has happened to me where people have dug up ancient thoughts on sex work, thoughts I have never hidden, but which have changed as I took the trouble to educate myself on the experiences of others.
Sometimes it seems ideological purity is prized over being willing to do the work, and it is work. It is easier to say that your “I” never changes, to hold the same views, and defend your behaviours as always having been correct. It means you don’t have to look at yourself, or consider that you may have hurt others in the past. The easy path of saying “I” was always right, is also a path of a human who is unwilling to grow and change. It helps no one if past mistakes become ammunition to be used to attack someone who now is trying to be better.
Part of the solution is to have an honesty about the work, owning what may have been said or done in the past, rather than excusing it. However to change, and grow you need to understand the “I” of the past, and how it links to the “I” of now. Which parts of the axe need to be replaced can only be determined by actually assessing the axe, not by theoretical musings on what might be needed. We could help each other if this process were not seen to be an admittance of failure, of failing to be perfect in the past, but instead a recognition of reality, no one ever truly meets those standards of ideological purity. Many I think are discouraged from doing the work on themselves because once they admit to previous mistakes they know they will be forever used against them. On the other side, people are suspicous of claims of change because it appears to be only theorectical. If someone claims to have learnt, but repeats past behaviour, then, they clearly are not being honest, with themselves or others about the desire to change.
What worries me though is we have ended up in a place where it is safer to erase any evidence of past mistakes, or different beliefs, because we are so unwilling to accept that people can, and do, genuinely grow, and change for the better.
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