The name of this blog, Rainbow Juice, is intentional.
The rainbow signifies unity from diversity. It is holistic. The arch suggests the idea of looking at the over-arching concepts: the big picture. To create a rainbow requires air, fire (the sun) and water (raindrops) and us to see it from the earth.
Juice suggests an extract; hence rainbow juice is extracting the elements from the rainbow, translating them and making them accessible to us. Juice also refreshes us and here it symbolises our nutritional quest for understanding, compassion and enlightenment.

Tuesday 24 May 2016

Empathy: A Novel Approach

In the late 1920s a young man tramped around the streets of London and Paris – where he fell ill and was robbed.  Becoming destitute he took a series of dishwashing jobs and immersed himself in the downtrodden life of Paris.  Five years later this young man published a novel based on his experiences.  The young man’s name was Eric Blair, although most of us will recognise him more by his pen name – George Orwell.  The novel he published became one of the English language classics – Down and Out in Paris and London.1

Whether Orwell knew the word empathy at the time is uncertain – the word had only entered the English language twenty years before.   However, during his tramps around London and living a destitute life Orwell certainly came to understand the life of those on the margins of society and was able to identify with how they felt and behaved.  In short, his experience enabled him to empathise.

Not all of us will have the chance to experience what Orwell did and thus enhance our empathy.  Perhaps we don’t need to.  Maybe reading his novel and others could help expand our empathy.

Research in 20132 showed that following the reading of fiction the reader’s ability to “infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions increased.”  But it wasn’t just any sort of reading that did this.  The results following the reading of non-fiction or popular fiction ranged from unimpressive to insignificant.  It was literary fiction that made the difference.

What’s the difference between popular and literary fiction?  Popular fiction tends to be exciting and has a wide range of emotional responses.  Within popular fiction the characters are often stereotyped and their responses tend to be consistent and predictable.  Literary fiction, on the other hand, more often gets “into the head” of it’s characters, with the reader having to imagine more and discover for themselves the psychology of the characters and the relationships they have.  The reader of literary fiction has to take on the mind of the novel’s characters.  The reader must empathise.

Literary fiction often takes the reader on new, often unexpected, journeys of the mind.  It disrupts, undermines, and challenges the reader’s ideas, prejudices and notions of other people.  It helps the reader to understand people who are different in some way. 

Another study, in 2014,3 discovered that when we read about the experience a character is having in a novel then the part of the brain that is lit up is the same part of the brain that lights up when we are having that same experience.  So, by reading about an experience, our mind perceives it very much as if we are living that experience ourselves.

Why is any of this important for social change?

The Egyptian novelist, Alaa Al Aswany,4 has an answer to this question.  Aswany was also a prominent character in the 2011 Tahrir Square demonstrations that heralded the beginning of the Arab Spring.  When asked about social change and his writing, Aswany had this to say:
“I don’t think literature is the right tool to change the situation right now.  If you would like to change the situation now, go out into the street.  Literature, to me, is about a more important change: It changes our vision, our understanding, the way we see.  And people who are changed by literature, in turn, will be more capable to change the situation.”
Aswany first noted the power of the novel to enhance his empathy when he read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead.  In that novel Dostoevsky describes a scene in which a prisoner, lies dying.  Another prisoner stands by his bed and begins to cry.  A soldier/guard stands nearby watching the crying prisoner.  The prisoner turns to the soldier and simply says: “He, also, had a mother.”

In that simple sentence, and especially with the word also, Aswany says that he recognised and understood that although the dying man was a criminal, although he was not useful to society, he also had a mother like all of us.  Aswany goes on the say:
“We should understand that people are not bad, but they can do bad things under particular circumstances…. Literature is not a tool of judgment – it’s a tool for human understanding.”
Roman Krznaric has researched and written a lot about empathy.  He is the founder of the world’s first Empathy Museum.  He is also a fan of George Orwell and his novel, Down and Out in Paris and London.  Krznaric  has put together a list of 6 Habits of Highly Empathic People, one of which is to inspire mass action and social change.

As this blog began with George Orwell, it is appropriate for it to end with a quote from Krznaric, perhaps the world’s foremost thinker on empathy, describing how he links empathy and social change in the novels of Orwell.
“The traditional way to think about social change is about changing political institutions – new laws, new policies, overthrowing governments and so on. I think social change is actually about creating a revolution of human relationships. About changing the way people treat each other on an everyday basis. That’s what Orwell was learning about. He was talking to individuals – understanding the minutiae of their lives – and after his time living in the streets of London he went on to do journalistic work which was really about trying to connect with human lives.”
Epilogue: A Caution

It may be tempting to think that it is possible to forego reading a novel and watching the movie instead and still gain the benefit of enhanced empathy.  Be warned – it may not be so.  Certainly, some movies can evoke an empathic response, a la the lyrics from the 1961 song: sad movies always make me cry.

The advantage of novels however, is that the internal dialogue of characters is embedded within the novel.  Internal dialogue can often get lost in a movie, however, with the attention of the viewer being distracted by special effects, big-name actors, or the scene setting.

Movies may have some impact on our empathy, but television can have a negative effect.  Research involving pre-schoolers in 2013 found that pre-schoolers who are exposed to more TV than others have a “weaker understanding of other people’s beliefs and desires, and reduced cognitive development.”5

1. George Orwell is also well-known as the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Animal Farm, The Road to Wigan Pier, and others.
2. David Comer Kidd, Emanuele Castano, Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind, in Science 18 Oct 2013: Vol. 342, Issue 6156, pp. 377-380
3. Wehbe, Murphy, Talukdar, Fyshe, Ramdas, and Mitchell, Simultaneously Uncovering the Patterns of Brain Regions Involved in Different Story Reading Subprocesses, PLoS One. 2014; 9(11): e112575. Published online 2014 Nov 26.
4. Alaa Al Aswany’s most well-known novels are The Automobile Club of Egypt and The Yacoubian Building.

5. Quoted in, accessed 24 May 2016

Wednesday 18 May 2016

Morality Before The Law

In the mid 1800s two French political philosophers engaged in a long running debate.  One, Pierre Proudhon, is famous for his assertion that “property is theft.”  The other, Frederic Bastiat, is less well-known but has given us one of the most incisive quotations about the conflict between morals and the law.
“When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law.”
he is quoted as saying.

Both of these quotations are relevant today, more than 150 years later.  In a world where just 62 individuals own as much wealth as half of the world’s population we have a situation ripe for contradiction between morals and the law.  Were he alive today, Proudhon would be aghast at the inequality of the world.  He would be amongst the forefront of those claiming that those 62 individuals are stealing from the world’s poorest people.

Why do we have laws at all?  Three of the primary purposes of law are to: maintain social order, resolve disputes, and distribute social resources.  What happens when the law protects wealth accumulation and punishes the poor for attempting to obtain some of those social resources?

An Individual Case

An Italian court was faced with exactly this situation recently.  In 2011 Roman Ostriakov, a homeless man, was caught leaving a Genoa supermarket with cheese and sausages worth €4.07.  In 2015 he was convicted of theft, fined €100 and sentenced to six months in prison.  However, on 2 May 2016, Italy’s Supreme Court of Cassation, overturned his conviction, with the Judges stating that the "right to survival prevails over property,” mimicking Proudhon’s phrase.

Every day in Italy 615 people are added to the list of homeless, according to an Italian commentator.  Across the OECD homelessness is relatively high, with anywhere between one and eight people in every 1,000 experiencing homelessness each year.  Poverty levels are even higher.

Fortunately, for one of those homeless, the Italian court system recognised Bastiat’s dilemma, and opted for morality over the law.

A Community Case

In Western Pennsylvania, Grant Township is home to just 700 people, with 1/5th of them living below the poverty line.  The median household income is just $27,500 – the median household income for the US as a whole is almost double that at $52,000.

Notwithstanding that there are just 700 of them, with very little income or assets amongst them, these residents are upholding their moral right to stand up to the might of Pennsylvania General Electric (PGE) – an oil and gas exploration company that wants to undertake fracking operations in the area.

In 2014 the elected officials of Grant Township passed a Community Bill of Rights Ordinance that included “the rights of human and natural communities to water and a healthy environment.”

Within two months of this Ordinance being passed, PGE filed a lawsuit objecting to it, and threatening the residents with litigation if they tried to stop fracking operations going ahead.  The US Environmental Protection Agency sided with PGE and issued them a license to inject fracking waste into the watershed that Grant Township relies on.

Residents feared arrest and prosecution if they took civil action to oppose or block PGE.  Acting for the entire community Grant Township Supervisors passed a law that legalises direct action by its citizens to protect their access to social resources.  The law states that if courts do not uphold the right of communities to stop large corporates threatening them then “any natural person may then enforce the rights and prohibitions of the charter through direct action.”

Furthermore, this law “prohibits any private or public actor from bringing criminal charges or filing any civil or other criminal action against those participating in nonviolent direct action.”

The law is believed to be the first in the US that specifically upholds the rights of communities to use direct action to oppose corporate greed and power.  It effectively says that the communities moral rights supersede those of court imposed laws, and that citizens would not have to choose between Bastiat’s cruel alternatives.

These two examples, enacted within 24 hours of each other, indicate that occasionally morality can prevail in the face of unjust laws.

Tuesday 10 May 2016

My Participation In Groups (An Exercise)

It is almost a truism to say that no community development work, nor any social justice advocacy works without there being at least one group.  By now the famous quote of Margaret Mead’s exemplifying this is well known:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
Humans are gregarious creatures and the way that we express our humanity and our wish for betterment is often through interaction and communion with others.  It would seem important then, for us to understand how we work in groups, both individually and collectively.  Group Dynamics its called.  Here is a simple exercise1 designed to enable us to work out how we participate and what we need from a group in order to optimise our participation.

Materials:  Not much really, just some large sheets of paper, some pens, markers or pencils.

The Process:
  1. Participants take a large sheet of paper each along with something (pen etc) to write with.  The facilitator asks people to spend whatever length of time is needed (10-30 mins) to list down on one half of the sheet how they think they participate in the group.  It may be worth giving some examples (eg questioner, big-picture contributor, humorist, quiet thinker, pessimist, recorder).
  2. On the other half of the sheet participants are asked to make a list of those things that they need from or in the group in order for them to participate effectively and creatively.  Again, some examples may be given (eg time breaks, fun, food, sense of achievement, learning, respect).
  3. When people have completed their lists, ask them to  consider their lists and decide the most important items from each list.
  4. Each participant then spends 2-3 minutes sharing with everyone else the things they consider important from their lists.  They do this without comment from the rest of the group.  The listeners should use this time to practise deep listening.
  5. Once everyone has shared their lists the facilitator asks the group to think of how the various needs within the group can best be met.  The facilitator should allow for plenty of discussion here with the eventual goal of the group coming to an agreement on what can be tried within the group.  Arriving at this goal should not be rushed however, as it is the discussion and sharing of ideas here that is of importance, rather than the final outcome.
  6. Once agreement has been reached, the facilitator can lead the group in a discussion about the processes, roles and functions that were displayed within the exercise itself.
Notes for the Facilitator:

It is important to keep a positive tone to this exercise and to dissuade participants from accusing or suggesting that others in the group are responsible for their irritations in the group.  Reminding everyone that everyone is there for similar reasons (something that is to be achieved, learned, or researched), and that individuals operate, usually, from the best they know.

1. This exercise is adapted from Resource Manual for a Living Revolution, Coover et al., New Society Press, Philadelphia, 1977

Tuesday 3 May 2016

Can We Vote For The President Too?

One of the basic tenets of community development is that those affected by a decision should also be involved in making that  decision.  For many people around the world one of the decisions that most affects them is the decision as to who becomes President of the USA.  Shouldn’t we have a vote in who becomes President of the most powerful, dominant nation on Earth?

Remember Henry Kissinger?  He was the Secretary of State for Presidents Nixon and Ford.  In 1999 he spoke at Trinity College in Dublin on “Globalisation and World Order.”  In that speech he made a remarkable, candid admission that
“… globalisation is really another name for the dominant role of the US.”
Think about it.  Of the ten largest foodstuffs companies in the world, 6 of them are US companies: Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg, Mars, Mendelez, and PepsiCo.  If it’s fast food we are after, then the top 10 companies are all US companies.  I probably don’t even need to name them, their logos and advertising hoardings are in just about every town and city in the world.  Headed up by McDonalds, the list includes KFC, Subway, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and Burger King.

When we go to the movies, what do we see?  The 100 top grossing films in 2015 were all made by US companies.  Musically it is not much different.  The Big Three music companies make up over 80% of the world’s market in the recording (and our listening) sector.  And those three are based – you guessed it – in the US.

Who is it that lets us know the news?  US companies.  The four largest news corporations are all US based: Comcast, Walt Disney, 21st Century Fox, and Time Warner.  And if we think we can bypass such giants of news and head for the Internet, then think of which companies largely control the content on that: Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.

Okay, we won’t buy anything, we’ll stow our money away in banks, and not be part of the globalisation/Americanisation of the world.  Unfortunately, that won’t be easy – four of the world’s ten largest banks are US owned.

It seems we can’t escape.  If we do try then the US is not likely to leave us alone.  The US had 662 military establishments in 38 countries, in all continents except Africa, around the world in 2010.  By comparison, Russia had military bases in 10 countries, all in Eastern Europe and Asia.  The UK had bases in 18 countries and France 14.

Bases are one thing, military incursions another.  The US has by far been the nation most likely to have sent troops or other military personnel to another country, often in an aggressive manner.  To list all of these would take many lines of text.  But it doesn’t take much delving into history or our memories to name many of these.  Since the end of World War Two there has not been a year pass when the US has not deployed military operatives to someone else’s lands.  We all know of the “invasions” of Korea, Iran, Vietnam, Guatemala, Panama, Indonesia, Dominican Republic, Cambodia, Laos, Oman, Chile, Angola, El Salvador, Grenada, …. Over the past 50 years the US has been militarily involved in at least 35 nations around the globe, on all continents.  For the reader that would like to see a thorough list of these incursions (or whatever euphemism may be used) since 1890, then click here.

When there are US bombers flying overhead, naval ships in your ports, and soldiers in US uniforms in your land, it is hard to pretend that you are not affected by the decision as to who becomes President of the US.

Perhaps somewhere in the world there is a community, or maybe a few individuals untouched by US movies, fast food, the Internet.  Perhaps there is somewhere that has not been “invaded” or had a US military base established.  Even somewhere like this is not immune to the effects of US policies and practises.

No-one is immune to the effects of climate change.  Here, the US has again played the most significant part.  Carbon dioxide is a long-term gas.  Hence historic emissions are just as important, if not more so, than current emissions.  Since 1850 almost 30% of the accumulated carbon in the atmosphere has come from US sources.  Even today, China, the second highest cumulative contributor, has contributed only 9%.

Around the world we are all affected in many ways, some significantly so, by the decision as to who becomes the POTUS (President Of The United States).

So, can we vote for the President too?