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Principled or Naive ? How can CD keep its intelligence and its heart ?

Thursday 23rd December 2016, 11:12

In December I was at an “Our Society”  meeting in Cheetham Hill, Manchester, where we discussed the North’s attempt to remake  Big Society in our image and on our terms .  My little talk was streamed across the internet, and attracted the ‘Twitter-ings’ of a right-wing activist who labelled everything I said as “Naive”. Scorn was poured in dollops.

It would be easy to shout back, “You’re naive if you think...” (fill in the blanks with any objection you fancy making about current Big Society thinking – see our last SSEC Magazine for a few hints) . But it made me think about “Naivety” . 

Is it naive to try to live by principles of social justice and equality when reality seems to contradict them ? Is it naive to care when caring is not going to be financially rewarded in this society ? Is it naive to campaign for Community Development when the only game in town is the Community Organisers programme ? Is it naive to try to occupy the rhetoric of Big Society and help to make community empowerment a real challenge to power at all levels of society ?

Living by principles can be a pain in the bum, to ourselves and our critics. As CD workers we make a big deal out of our principles and values, trumpeting our commitment to social justice, equality and anti-discrimination, collective action, community empowerment  and working and learning together.

 These principles clearly irritate people who don’t share them, and also alienate people who prefer to live more pragmatically.  And these big words are often vague and confusing. What’s the difference between principles and values ? Are they two ways of saying “I believe” ?

So let’s try to clear it up a bit.

Values are rooted in our feelings about what is personally important to us. Things we care about most, things which motivate us but which often aren’t visible from outside. For example, I value honesty and openness and believe everyone should have a chance to think things through without being told. (So that’s the end of this article, then. I’ll shut up now)

Principles, I think, are concepts which we use to guide us in putting our feelings into practice. So if I value everyone having a fair say, I follow the Principles of Democracy and Facilitation. So if I value everyone from all walks of life being able to be involved, I am guided by principles of Equality and Anti-Discrimination. Principles are like codes or standards which guide me in putting my values into action.

How do these values and principles affect me right now, when I hear Government talk about principles of Fairness instead of Equality ? People who prefer Fairness to Equality  seem to value rewards for the deserving and punishment for the undeserving , based on their judgement about who deserves. So the Principle of Fairness in this context is clearly different from Equality (which suggests everyone has  rights, not just those deemed to be deserving) .  It’s not just playing with words or acting like a Pub Philosopher – this is a clear dividing line between CD and Government thinking.

Back to Naivety: the fact is that the Government has the power to enforce their values and principles while CD lacks power in the highest realms of this society. So CD might want to see its values and principles widely shared but can’t influence the powerful right now. Does that make CD naive ? And is “naivety” a terrible thing ?

Well ... ‘naive’ has positive as well as negative definitions, depending on your point of view. Naive can mean gullible and credulous, a foolish innocence. But it can also mean ‘a natural way of being, free of deceit and embracing simplicity’. A pure heart untarnished by cynicism, anyone ? (I’m not claiming to have this virtue by the way, but hopefully you get where I’m going)

What is the opposite quality which critics of naivety would pat themselves on the back for embodying  ? Shrewdness ?? Living in the ‘real world’ ? Are these turning into a principle called  Pragmatism  (the ugliest word in the language, I think – it reeks of mechanical punishment) ?

 I want to know this: can we get beyond these polar opposites ? Can CD be shrewd in its idealism ? Can we be unyielding in our commitment but flexible in our behaviour and emotionally intelligent in how we apply our principles? Can we stay true to our beliefs without becoming a statue ?

Yeats’ poem on ‘Easter 1916’ simultaneously praised the unyielding strength of the executed rebels, while lamenting the hardness which can arise from commitment to principles:

“Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.”

Can we keep our humanity and ensure we don’t become hardened and obnoxious ? Or must the polarities  prevail – naive or shrewd, principled or cunning ?

Here’s my response: CD always been about taking one step at a time towards a shared vision , staying close to communities and working at their pace.  Our principles guide us as we journey together. What will harden us into dogma is when we forget this slow dance and try to crash through obstacles  on the communities’ behalf.

Can we embody the change we wish to see ? Can we keep the fun and the commitment in balance ? Can we look after ourselves and each other as we struggle against these “diminishing times” ?

Or am I being ‘naive’ ?


Paul Barnes






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