This month, Lyn French (A Space Director) starts to unpack the topic of values by looking at their links to self-identity; considering how can we live according to our own set of values and be tolerant and respectful of those held by others. The blog is particularly timely as ‘British’ values are now part of the UK curriculum in schools. Earlier this year Iniva Creative Learning delivered an Art Lab with artist Shiraz Bayjoo and pupils at Newport and Dawlish Schools in London exploring this theme.
Watch out for two new free resources: A to Z of Values: Introduction to the Theme + Word Bank and A to Z of Values: Worksheets for use in schools, workshops and therapy sessions which will be added to our resources page shortly.
Shared values are a necessary feature of living well together. In the UK, the British government asks that all primary schools teach what they have termed ‘British’ Values. We know that values cannot be defined as ‘nation-specific’ however governments often identify a few to focus on and use them as buzz words in their manifestos and policies. By highlighting four values over and above others – liberty, tolerance, democracy and respect for law – the British government is conveying a strong message. Perhaps we are being reminded that in today’s increasingly diverse world we all need to cultivate a way of living with plurality.
Yet it is not so simple. Take tolerance for instance. In order to tolerate differences, first we have to be able to recognise our own ‘otherness’ and the feelings this brings up. If we fail to do this, it will be difficult to stop ourselves from consciously or unconsciously locating ‘otherness’ and difference in those around us. Projecting our unwanted parts onto others can generate a feeling of being ‘better than’ and might give us a more secure sense of belonging: we’re on the inside – ‘they’ (those onto whom we’ve projected our disowned parts) are excluded. To prevent this kind of splitting into ‘them’ and ‘us’, we need to move away from binary, oppositional thinking by replacing ‘or’ with ‘and’. To return to the example of insiders and outsiders, there will always be situations in which we feel included and those which leave us feeling left out. Our emotional life takes place on a continuum – sometimes we feel more ‘in’ than ‘out’ or vice versa depending on the situation. This can be as subtle as feeling we’ve mis-pitched what we’re wearing and have the ‘wrong’ clothes on for the occasion, or as overt as feeling less included due to our gender, race, culture, class or sexual identity. Recognising this generates empathy and unites us through an understanding that we all share the same feelings.
Feeling on the outside is something we can experience as an individual either within our family or friendships or in our work place. It can also be a whole group experience. For instance, we may be part of a community or nation which is marginalised or ostracised. Dia Batal’s illustration for the word ‘excluded’ in our set of cards A-Z of Emotions features a red section labelled ‘Gaza Strip’. Since 2007 Israel has enforced land, air and sea blockades on Gaza, effectively sealing this region off and excluding it from the rest of the country. This is one example of a longstanding conflict which has at its core ‘them and us’ thinking.
Liberty, tolerance, democracy and respect – or their absence – all have a role to play in determining the lifestyle choices society offers its citizens. In the West, for example, we have the right to choose our sexual identity and orientation. We can decide with whom we will have our primary relationship as well as the kind of family we want to create. Although enshrined in law, these choices may not be so easy to exercise in practice. Many still struggle to align their sexual identity and sexual preferences with their family’s norms or their religious or spiritual beliefs. Some can feel as if their authentic self is as strange and ‘foreign seeming’ as the figure in Ria Hartley’s image from our A to Z of Leadership cards.
Discovering who we really are and arriving at a place of acceptance can be a long process. Feeling comfortable in our own skin relies on being tolerant and respectful of all aspects of ourselves. Most of us are not in a position to change our physical self in any significant way. We also cannot alter our own past or our family’s history. A large number of us have histories with what can be shame-inducing features if we don’t work on tolerance, respect and acceptance. For example, a current or past relative may have had a serious mental health problem or committed suicide or ended up in prison, pieces of history which families often try to bury and forget about. Although we know that when lives go seriously off course, there will always be unresolved and undigested pain in the mix, it is easy to slip into shame about who we are or the kind of family we come from. Maybe, like Barby Asante’s photograph from a performance piece by sorryyoufeeluncomfortable collective, we feel we have to ‘prove we belong’ to the so-called ‘respectable classes’ and that aspects of who we are or our personal histories have to be erased or covered up.
If we are to live according to our values we may need to start with looking closely at ourselves. In common with Lerato Shadi’s image, also from the A to Z of Leadership, we might find that we’ve put ‘under wraps’ parts of who we really are. We may like to think of ourselves as tolerant but we all know how easy it is to reject in others what we dislike about ourselves. Jealousy, envy, and greed, for example, are feelings that none of us like to admit to and probably prefer to ‘bind up and store’ like the figure in Lerato Shadi’s performance. However, they are part and parcel of personal and social relationships. We can’t pretend we don’t have these feelings even about those whom we love and are closest to.
Reflecting on our values can be a useful exercise if we are willing to move beyond the ‘buzz words’ and really look into our deepest feelings and thoughts. Visit the website again in early December to download free A to Z of Values worksheets and commentary.