Tuesday, May 22, 2018

What Makes Us Human?

As luck would have it, I was driving home earlier today and wondering what to write for my post on OGG. There was an item on the radio featuring Peter Tatchell and his thoughts on what makes us human, and as I listened I thought, well, that's it.. 

For those who haven’t heard of Peter Tatchell, he’s a well-known and lifelong human rights activist known mainly for his campaigning on LBGT rights though his repertoire is a lot wider than that. In the opinion of Mr Tatchell., what makes us human is our propensity for protest. And, he goes on to argue, this is a Very Good Thing. I tend to agree.

Little in the way of social progress or enhanced rights and freedoms were ever freely given by those in power. Rather, they were won by the tireless and courageous struggles of campaigners such as Peter Tatchell who saw an injustice, something that needed to be put right so they stood up for themselves – and as often as not for a whole lot of others too.

I think perhaps my favourite stander-uppers were the Pankhursts. It is one hundred years this year since some women in the UK got the right to vote, and only because of the unswerving determination of the suffragettes. There had been women’s movements campaigning for political equality in the 19th century, but they were relatively quiet and peaceful about it. They were polite middle-class ladies.

Not the Pankhursts and their ilk, though. These were still middle-class women, but they had an altogether more belligerent approach. They were downright stroppy, heckling politicians, breaking windows, chaining themselves to railings, slashing paintings, setting fire to buildings, throwing bombs and went on hunger strike when they were imprisoned. One suffragete, Emily Davison, ran out in front of the king’s horse during the 1913 Derby and was killed.

All of this civil disobedience eventually combined with the exigencies of the First World War which had the effect of escalating the importance of women’s contribution to running the country while the men went off to die in the trenches. The government gave in, and women over 30 got the same political rights as men. It wasn’t until 1928, though, that suffrage was extended to all citizens over 21.

Mr Tatchell also mentioned another of my favourites, which I believe is linked to the votes for women movement. There was massive public protest in the UK in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher tried to introduce her deeply unpopular new system of financing local government. The Poll Tax as it was known linked payment of a local tax to the right to vote and it caused outrage. I wonder if the memory of the struggles of the suffragettes still lives in many of us, certainly women, and any threat to that hard-won right was not to be tolerated. The people – including me - took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands. They refused to pay. They protested, and this flagship of Tory policy collapsed. The combined efforts of Her Majesty’s Opposition had failed to prevent this piece of nonsense becoming law, but people power saw it off within months.

I wonder if we are all sort of hard-wired to want things to be good, or at least better, and to reject what we don’t like. The pace of change can be slow, and obviously we differ in our opinions of what is good and desirable and what needs to change, but all of that leads to healthy debate. Peter Tatchell argues that nothing is more democratic than protest, and I think the freedom we have when we live in a country where any one of us can stick our hand  up and say ‘hey, that’s not right’  and live to tell the tale is not to be underestimated.


  1. It's really sobering to realize that some people who protest do not live to the tell the tale.

    People in western democracies don't full recognize how fortunate they are to have the right to free speech. In many Asian countries, there are laws that effectively criminalize protest -- or which can be used as excuses to do so.

    Wonderful take on the topic!

  2. I would add that all anyone really wants is a safe place to live and raise a family, employment that pays enough for you to do so and which gives you a sense of pride in your abilities, and a modicum of leisure time to enjoy.

    Rich/powerful people have a hole at the center of their souls, that can never be filled "enough." No matter how much of either that they get, it will never make them happy. Some of the rest of us can be content, because we know when we have "enough." In that way, we are far superior to the rich and powerful.

    When those same rich and powerful deny us our right to any of the three things we need to be content, that's when the shit flies, and we protest. As Lisabet points out, in some countries that can be a death sentence. Here in the US it has always been a right...which can be abridged at the whim of the rich and powerful, especially if they feel their power being threatened.

    That's what we're living with now. And the natural alliances of the young and discontented with the working poor, have been split asunder by many years of playing the long game: policies carried out by the rich and powerful. Because as they well know, there are a whole lot more of us, than of them. In order for them to continue to rule with an iron grip, they need to divide and conquer.

    So sad that folks can be led to vote against their own self-interests, or to protest against policies which would, in fact, improve their standard of living.

    Maybe short-sightedness should be added to what makes us human? Or gullibility?

  3. Too true that too many vote against their own interests, Fiona, especially if they've been convinced that the country they live in (esp. the U.S.) is classless and post-racial, and that women now have more power than men.
    Ashe, the history you've described is inspiring, and all 3 Pankhurst women (Emmeline, the mother, and her daughters Cristabel and Sylvia) had different styles and somewhat different platforms. Too bad it's not widely known anymore that the Women's Social and Political Union had a flag and an anthem, composed by Dame Ethel Smythe in 1911. (I learned to sing it in the local queer choir when it still existed, about 10 years ago.)

  4. The plot of the novel 1984 (written in 1948) is chillingly relevant to much of what goes on today, especially widespread propaganda and the deliberate erasing and distortion of the history of protest and social change. On the other hand, while Orwell imagined big screens in every home that couldn't be turned off, he didn't seem to predict the internet as a grassroots means of communication (as we're doing here).

  5. Thanks so much for the education on some bits of history I didn't know before!


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