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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Love's Lesser Known Twin

If you have ever had the chance to visit the capital city of London, you will know of the statue in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. It is affectionately known as Eros, the God of love. The image is evocative of the city as much as the old clock-tower erroneously Big Ben.

Except the statute is not depicting Eros, but his less well-known twin brother. It was designed by sculptor Sir Alfred Gilbert as a memorial to Lord Shaftesbury, who was a champion of the masses. Rather than commemorate the tireless reformer with a straight portrait statue, it was decided to represent his selfless spirit with Anteros, the symbol of altruistic love. Fitting for a man whose biographer said that, "No man has ever done more to lessen the extent of human misery or to add to the sum total of human happiness".

Outrage ensued after its unveiling however; public opinion wasn't ready for a naked youth frolicking above the traffic, even if he was quickly renamed The Angel of Christian Charity. Then he got to be called Eros, and Londoners took him to their hearts.

I was in London recently, and going round the circular lanes of Piccadilly Circus I thought that, to some, this story could be analogous with our Western world today. Our societies, and their constantly turning flashing neon signs and traffic lanes, have become a powerful symbol of the 24-hour commercialised society - with a confusion about love at its centre.

It would be useless of me to demand here that society slow down and deem what I think think is relevant, because this isn't about me joining my peers to come down on the next generation, or the throwaway culture that feels so prevalent. After all they inherited a poisoned chalice.

That is what our previous generation did with us. When we were younger, there was all this grumpiness over "the younger generation", and now I see so many of my peers fantasising about some mythical used-to-be past that actually never was, as their parents did before them.

If the world is indeed going around in ever increasing circles down a future sink hole, then somewhere along the road towards that generational car collision we have to accept responsibility. There was no great peaceful time when everyone loved each other, and art was so much better, and the culture was amazing and we were all holding hands and singing "Kumbaya". That never happened, but the reason we think it did was that we were more in tune with change back then.

Today our brains are changing, becoming more accustomed to speed, and given the number of problems we are leaving newer generations, maybe that is a good thing. They will need to be able to switch attention and make the decisions about what is important quickly, and they are now more self-aware (although some call it narcissistic) than ever.

And although stuff like social media networks are lamented for making us more inaccessible to each other, it also has the potential to unite us in a common cause like no other medium has done in the past.

The Parable of Stephen

An example that highlights the integrity of youth and the usefulness of social media is the story of fundraiser Stephen Sutton, who has died at age nineteen. But don't be fooled by his young years. Don't cry for him, either. Applaud him, instead. He probably achieved more in his few years on this planet than many of us will achieve in a lifetime multiplied by three.

After being diagnosed with cancer, Stephen refused to take it lying down, literally, and travelled extensively to complete his bucket list to raise awareness and money for other sufferers. His goal was to reach a million pounds in donations. He thought he would die before reaching his target, but his personal campaign was picked up by celebrities. Thanks to the speed made possible via social media networks, he managed to raise over £3 million pounds before he finally succumbed to his disease in the early hours of this morning.

Of course he didn't really succumb; he had beaten the cancer long before that. In refusing to give up and die, he stood up and lived. In doing so, his is a legacy that can inspire us all to do the same in our own lives - to take note of what is really important in life, and what matters the most, and grab hold of it with both hands.

Stephen's story is there to tell us that the best time to be alive is right now. Not in the past. Not waiting for some future that can't come quickly enough. It also tells us to trust kids these days.

Like us, some are sorted, and some are not. But only they have the potential to fix the absolute bucket load of garbage my generation and those older have left for them to recycle. What they make of it will be up to them.

Will they, like Lord Shaftesbury, strive to lessen human misery and extend human happiness? Will they take what is handed to them, like Stephen, and show how something as superficially banal as social media can rise to the challenge of being greater than the sum of its digital parts?

Losing Love for Thy Neighbour

For there is still a lot of work to be done. My generation is still doing their best to erode the liberties already hard won - especially in my field of law.

In England, we are in the midst of the most shattering attack on the legal aid system since its creation in 1949 by Clement Attlee's post-war Labour government. On 1 April 2013, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) came into force.

At a stroke, LASPO took whole areas of law "out of scope" of public funding including (subject to very limited exceptions) all debt, employment, immigration, welfare benefits and private family matters.

I was lucky enough to be privy to the Labour peer Lord Bach's speech in the House of Lords when he condemned LASPO as "outrageous legislation" that will harm the "disabled, poor and vulnerable, and those least able to defend themselves". This isn't about protecting a welfare state; its about human dignity being trampled upon, and glaring errors being made in the name of fiscal austerity. The law must be made available to everybody, not just to those who can afford it.

Naturally we shouldn't just throw aid at those in need. We need to get away from the complacent consensus that all aid is good. Aid is merely money which can do good as well as harm, and the same is true here. The point therefore is to have systems in place that ensure the proper usage of the money, not the removal of the aid.

We are never going to succeed if - in this way - we always go for the easy route. Change is hard work, and hard work is essential - not only because it means we have the stamina to build our proverbial institutions on strong foundations of stone, but we will be leaving legacies that last, thereby inspiring those who next take on the responsibilities of governing our living communities.

Unless we do, we shall find ourselves shifting uncertainly on quicksand. Collapse in such societies is always imminent.

The Parable of Soma

Nowhere is this more clear than in the Turkish coal mine disaster that came about after an explosion caused a pit to collapse, killing hundreds of workers.

People have protested their anger at the disaster in the Western town of Soma, because it was mistakenly believed that an electrical fault triggered the blast. Safety has long been a concern, but union officials said the privatisation of the mining sector had made working conditions more dangerous.

Public anger has been so great over the Soma deaths that even public sweetheart Tarkan has got the rough end of its stick.

Taking to the stage to perform at a concert for a spring fest on the day of the disaster, which he had already cancelled once because of rain, brought down the ire of the social networks on the pop star, when he didn't cancel the concert a second time and failed to mention the plight of the miners and their families during his show.

UPDATE: Turkish columnist defends Tarkan >>

Tarkan had to take to his Facebook to post a message explaining he had not been made aware of the situation, and that he was truly sorry over the senseless loss of life. He is the best example of an entertainer who is sensitive to these issues, and in my opinion the criticism of the singer was far too fast. Had they given him a chance, the pop icon would have made his feelings known in time; he is a good role model in such circumstances.

Read more new stories on Tarkan >>

The speed of which this was done is again testament to the fast track culture we are in, and that as great an aid as social networking is and as inspirational as taking to the stage to sing might be, we need to all do some profound thinking and soul-searching and see where the road lies before we take a step.

Similarly with being too quick to judge, sometimes making decisions on the fly, however necessary, carry their own risks, too. Making quick decisions when there are no emergencies to warrant it, creates its own bigger emergencies.

Additionally, Tarkan's message was more symbolic of the erosion we are all feeling in society over the worth and dignity we attach not just to human life, but to all life in general. This has been the shame of my generation. It is the greatest institution we have, it encompasses everything else within it, and yet it seems to hold very little value to us outside of ourselves and those we love.

We have for far too long neglected this altruistic love for our living world, and allowed it to become blighted by notions of religion and race, competitiveness and money - when the truth is unless we destroy the prejudices these bring with them, they will destroy us.

Finding Love for Thy Neighbour

Thus, when heads of religions comment on society, wealth, sexuality, politics, housing or anything whatsoever, and they use external texts with a "privileged truth" that cannot be proven or questioned - and for which billions of people have died as a result - they cannot expect to carry any more moral weight than a celebrity, politician or the Regius Professor of Greek at the university of Cambridge.

No particular faith gives you a mastership over morals. Your faith gives you a purpose for your own life; it's not a platform on which to judge others. Whether you observe the Sabbath, pray five times a day, or pray in your head with no need for a place like the Buddhist, it makes no difference to the sanctity of life.

If you believe it does, then in your prayers ask this: if we are God's doodles, then what would God have us draw in our lives? Would he really want us to erase each other out for the sake of this image or that? Does that make sense to you?

Because the simple fact is, if you are going to make a speech on morals, there is no qualification other than making sense. What makes sense is giving up what doesn't work (or worse what is taking lives), and utilising what does work to save lives.

It is for this reason that personally the only ministries who earn my complete respect and admiration are certain Sufis, the Quakers, the Unitarians, and some Liberal Reform Jews. As models on what works in humanitarian terms, there is no better.

Although I do not belong to any of these denominations, the truth is they keep at their heart love's lesser known twin, that of a greater love that exceeds romance, because it is the very essence of who we are, not just who we want to be with.

Make no mistake, only when we learn to love people like that, shall more of us think twice about harming another, and will work hard to make sure our institutions work in the same way. Believe me, it's only in such communities that we shall produce far more Stephens than Somas.

And if we keep having this confusion at our core over loving our brethren, then we will continue to go round in circles more raucous than Piccadilly Circus. This doesn't meant I am diffusing romantic love; how can I? Ninety percent of my poetry is focused on romantic love. That's how it means to me.

However, this is a time for love and courage on ALL our behalves - kin, kinsman and stranger. Bound together with love's lesser known twin, we can stand together to protect this life we love, by standing up for dignity to all.

Read more: Turkish culture | What I have to say >>

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