How to turn ‘no’ into ‘yes’

Once upon a time, there was a woman who got really ticked off because her disabled brother was unable to get a job. Employers told him ‘no’. So she started a business herself and offered him a job.

The year was 1999. The startup location was in Amsterdam, right around the corner from where I was living back then. Today that business has 17 branches all over the country. Two years ago, in 2012, it was acquired by a larger enterprise, but the business philosophy remains the same.

Valid Express only employs couriers who are physically disabled or chronically ill.
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Why love matters

“Love is a political emotion,” I read the other day. This quotation, apparently ostensibly ascribed to Pablo Neruda, continues “that inspires people to fight for something higher than selfish interests.”

Or does it? Depending on who’s sent the tweet, the quotation can also go as follows.

open your heart!“Love is a political emotion that transcends the petty materialism of bourgeois ideals.”

Never having read anything by Pablo Neruda, it made me feel pretty clueless, though I liked the sound of the first quotation, probably because I have never had bourgeois ideals. “Love is a political emotion that inspires human beings to fight for something higher than selfish interests.” It’s likely what Anthony Robbins calls a need of the spirit – or soul – in his classification of human needs. The need to contribute beyond ourselves.

Then I wondered, a political emotion, what is that exactly?

Martha Nussbaum, Professor of Philosophy and Law at Chicago University, explains it in her book “Political emotions. Why love matters for justice.”

It asks “How can we achieve and sustain a ‘decent’ liberal society, one that aspires to justice and equal opportunity for all and inspires individuals to sacrifice for the common good?” The book is described as part of Nussbaum’s explorations of emotions and the nature of social justice.

White shoes and magic circles

England often seems to have a big problem with them. White shoes. Sneakers. Trainers.

trainersI’ve been wearing them for decades. No, not the same pair, ha ha.

I love to walk and I love to run and I love being able to make that bus, train or tram on account of a last-minute sprint instead of being hampered by my high-heeled footwear. Wearing those white shoes also helps if you have to traverse long corridors and many staircases in university buildings a lot, like I used to do.

My Dutch GP used to compliment me on my sensible shoes, but many English people seem puzzled and amused or even alarmed by it when I wear white shoes. Trainers. Sneakers.

I don’t know the exact background for the strange looks I sometimes get because of my white shoes – something to do with ‘chavs’ ? – but I can’t be the only one who gets them. Those looks. Next time you catch one or dole one out, remember the following, and smile.

A white shoe firm is a top firm in law, management consulting or investment banking. Clifford Chance, as one example, is usually seen as part of the magic circle, but would be called a white shoe law firm much more often if it weren’t English and the description weren’t of American origin.

And next time someone comments on my white shoes? Maybe I will smile, and counter that I work at a white shoe firm.

If the British pay more attention to substance and less to color-coordinating their acccessories, and hire more people on the basis of their capabilities instead of on size of tits and perceived fuckability or the fact that someone is the son or nephew of the Duke of Dipshitz, Britain may soon be in much better shape than it is today and be a better place for everyone.

I usually wore my white sneakers while at work at Clifford Chance. Because Clifford Chance cared more about what I was able to do than about what I was wearing. (Might that be because HR was Dutch?) Yes, I was on a contract. Yes, I quit, but I was overqualified, only there to make some extra money, and they were aware of that. They looked after their legal secretaries pretty well and most of their lawyers were pretty damn good. Some were even better than pretty damn good.

The power of peaceful negotiation

Negotiation is an important part of civil proceedings. Even before you start those proceedings, you must have taken reasonable steps and reached out to the other party without the involvement of a court. When you’re trying to resolve a conflict, slinging mud at the other party and voicing anger are rarely useful, but when you feel wronged, remaining reasonable can be hard.

Negotiation is a skill that most Britons lack, at all levels in society. Even British Prime Ministers regularly behave as senseless raging bulls or adolescent bullies when it comes to negotiating internationally. It makes them look like utter fools. It works only when they are dealing with the likes of George W. Bush, who was not exactly known for his finesse, intelligence and diplomatic skills either.

yay!In 1985, a stranger broke into my home overnight and raped me in my own bed. When he was done, he reached around for something to tie me up with. One thing he grabbed and tugged at was the cable of a lamp. Oh no, I thought, if this guy ties me up, it may take weeks before anyone discovers me! I had just started my Master’s and was living in a high-rise filled with student flats. One of my neighbours was deaf, and the other one didn’t give a toss and was rarely home anyway.

So I negotiated.

I quickly spun a story of how I was in bad mental shape, already seeing a shrink (nope) and how tying me up would be very damaging to me psychologically, that I wouldn’t be able to handle it, that it would break me.

You know what? He listened. He took one of my pullovers and tied that around my head, and not too tightly, so that I wouldn’t be able to see him or wack him on the head with something and knock him out instantly as soon as he’d turned his back. When he was gone, I took the pullover from my head, and dialed the numbers of a friend and of the police. (Of course, I would never have called police if this had happened in the UK.) A women’s self-defence course was part of how I chose to deal with the matter. I also did a great deal of reading, talking, writng and some painting.

Later, I had a downstairs neighbour who blasted me out of bed many nights with loud music. Oh no, I thought every time while the bass shook my bed till 4 or 5 because I had to be in class at 9 in the morning.

One day when I was well-rested, I knocked on his door.

I asked him if he was ever bothered by noise coming from my place. It is usually very hard to tell whether someone in an adjacent home can hear what goes on in your own home or not. No, he said, and then he asked if he himself was ever loud. So I told him. Indeed, he had not been aware of the effect of his music at all.

He paid attention to it for a while and then slowly, the noise built up again. He was on mental disability benefits so he was home all day and all night, didn’t have a place where he needed to be at 9 the following morning. So I bought him headphones. I knocked on his door again, and gave him the headphones. Problem solved.

When I was walking back from the Winn-Dixie supermarket in central Saint Petersburg one day when I was living in Florida, there was a sudden pull and tug and gone was my shoulder bag. Oh no, I thought, my passport is in that bag, and my bank cards, and my driving licence! As a foreigner, I had to carry ID with me at all times.

I negotiated.

a sense of elationFirst I put my shopping bags down, then picked them up again. No way I was going to lose my groceries too. I walked after the thief and kept calling out to him. “I am a foreigner and my passport and driving licence are in that bag. I need those. Please let me keep my passport and my driving licence.” I didn’t give up.

You know what? He listened. He stopped and told me to stay back. He went through my bag and my purse, took the money – peanuts – and dropped the bag with the rest still in it on the ground. Then he took off. I picked up my bag and got to keep everything that mattered to me. It made my day! I was elated!

People asked me what I would have done if he had pulled a gun on me. I had no idea. Duck behind a car? The thought had never crossed my mind. I focused on what was important to me, and went for it, by negotiating.

I do this without thinking. If you believe in astrology, you might say that my zodiac sign explains it. You know what I think? It comes from having had a partly crappy childhood, and also from being Dutch.

When I was a young child, my parents often fought on Sunday. I hated it. I hate senseless fights. I would often buy pastries (“gebakjes”) after church or the day before and hide them in my dad’s walk-in cooler room where he stored his dairy products. I would wait until the fight seemed to be reaching an impasse, and then I’d shuffle to the back of the building where the cooler was, and timidly shuffle back with my pastries, hoping fervently that they would create a breakthrough distraction and end the fight.

When I was a teenager after my mother had passed away, my dad would often go berserk, as if he had a sudden short circuit in his brain. He would for instance threaten to crash the car with my siblings and me in it, and floor the pedal. For some reason, this often happened while we were on a twisty German Autobahn with plenty of bends to lose control in. Let me tell you that that is bloody scary when you’re a youngster and don’t know how to drive a car. No degree of phantasizing about grabbing the wheel gets you out of such a situation.

So I’d negotiate.

I’d talk to my dad like crazy, trying to find the words that would pull him out of his craze and make him slow down the car again. I always succeeded, otherwise I would not have been typing these words here today. I guess that’s how I learned to negotiate. I don’t think in those moments. I act.

(Okay, except that time when my dad tried to set fire to me. Then I froze because there are limits to what a human being can handle. That’s when my two younger sisters acted for me.)

reaching outReal-life situations without an immediate urgency are often very different. Then, it can really help to think. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and focus on a compromise that benefits all sides.

It’s amazing how two parties can be equally convinced that they’ve been wronged and that they’re in the right until they start looking at the situation from other angles and gain some distance.

Food bank row

This morning, the first news today’s papers informed me of was a row over food banks.

fruitApparently, someone – an aide to the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions – threatened to have food banks shut down if they continued to raise awareness about their activities and about food poverty in the UK. This aide has the wrong idea.

Only a few years ago, in 2011, I noticed a major discrepancy in this area. The Trussell Trust – which runs the food banks in the UK – wasn’t accomplishing even 10% of what Dutch food banks were doing.

  • UK food banks handed out 40,000 parcels per year.
  • 900,000 per year were handed out by Dutch food banks.
  • The population of England & Wales on 27 March 2011 was 56,075,912. The population of Scotland on that day was 5,295,000.
  • On 1 January 2011, the population of the Netherlands was around 16,700,000 persons. That’s almost 45 million people less!

So, while British food banks were handing out 0.00065 parcel per person per year, Dutch food banks handed out 0.054 parcel per person per year. Or did my calculator trip me up badly?

cheeseAround 83 times more food parcels were being handed out in a tiny country with much greater equality and almost none of the appallingly deep poverty of the UK!

That is not the Trussell Trust’s fault.

While the number of food parcels handed out in the UK has gone up substantially since then, it still is nowhere near enough. The Trussell Trust gave emergency food to 913,138 people in the UK in 2013-2014. Presumably, that means ‘once’.

According to the Trussell Trust, 13,000,000 people in the UK live below the poverty threshold. (That’s what it also said three years ago.)

Addressing the UK’s persistent poverty problems would improve the lives of everyone here, not just the lives of the poor. When UK scientists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett investigated the impact of inequality on society, they had to conclude that a higher degree of equality would lead to overall improvements for everyone, not just for the so-called vulnerable.

Conquering poverty would also benefit the nation’s budget, as the estimated cost of child poverty alone in the UK is £25 billion per year in terms of costs to business, the police, courts and health and education services.

Inhabitants of the Netherlands rank among the happiest people on the planet, year after year after year. Dutch children consider themselves very happy children, regardless of their socioeconomic background. The same cannot be said for British children.

At the end of 2010, UNICEF research into child inequality in 24 developed countries showed that income poverty has the greatest impact on child inequality in the UK. The UK ranks alongside countries such as Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. There is little inequality in the Netherlands, however, and the lives of children from the richest families differ little from the lives of the poorest Dutch children.

UNICEF UK commented that addressing income poverty is the crucial factor. ‘David Bull, Executive Director UNICEF UK said:

‘We must not lose sight of the importance of family income to eradicating child poverty in this country. We must ensure that no family with children has to live on an income which cannot provide the warmth, shelter and food they need.’

We need to hand out many more food parcels. There is no shame in handing out food, and none in accepting it either. The embarrassment is in not handing it out.

UKIP’s libertarianism

Right after the elections of 22 May 2014, in which UKIP made significant headway, I resumed catching up on Harvard’s course on justice. It is available to anyone who has access to the internet; the material usually stays online after a course has finished. (Register for EDX and then sign up for the course, even if it took place in the past.) It discusses various principles and moral ideas and their connections to the application of justice.

I was not highly aware of what UKIP is, other than that it is a nationalist party. I think that essentially, all parties promote the idea of sticking together, except that some apply it only to their own small circle and others to a much larger whole, sometimes including those with different views and different backgrounds.

I became curious.

Then I noticed something that seems peculiar to me. In its constitution, according to Wikipedia, UKIP describes itself as a democratic, libertarian party (Objective 2.5).

The word ‘democratic’ stands for ‘of or according to democracy’ and ‘supporting or constituting democracy’, according to my Oxford Reference Dictionary. It describes ‘democracy’ as ‘government by all the people, direct or representative’ and ‘a form of society ignoring hereditary class distinctions and tolerating minority views’.

But what does ‘libertarian’ mean? The word is not in my dictionary, but libertarianism and its ideas happen to be part of Harvard’s course on justice. I am sure that my current understanding of libertarianism is much too simple, but in spite of that, it puzzles me that UKIP calls itself libertarian and that its views have become so popular.

Libertarianism is a political philosophy, one of the theories of distributive justice. It is better than an outright feudal aristocracy, and it’s also better than utilitarianism (in which people can be used for the greater good, and are not so much seen as individuals to be treated with dignity and respect).

But libertarianism appears to accept that those who are born to wealthy families have advantages in society. Libertarianism does not appear to feel that any unfairness deserves measures that help those that are less well off and, for example, start life at a disadvantage for no other reason than that they were accidentally born in a relatively poor family and hence have fewer opportunities.

Libertarianism appears to accept that pupils who are from a wealthy family are much more likely to go to top colleges and universities and, for example, also that the wealthier people are, the better their health tends to be.
Economic diversity at top colleges in the US: On the left are the richest and on the right the poorest

The image on the right shows economic diversity at top colleges in the US. On the left are the richest and on the right the poorest. (I don’t know what year this refers to, but it was accurate a year ago.)

The situation won’t be vastly different in the UK, as the UK and the US have comparable degrees of inequality. To be specific, the UK has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the developed world.

I looked for UK data and found a 2009 study of diversity at British medical schools, which says, among other things: ‘The majority of students still come from professional and managerial backgrounds’ and ‘An important factor in the under-representation of other socio-economic groups seems to be their low rates of application – a phenomenon that is likely to be due to a complex combination of factors – and a consistently lower acceptance rate’.

If libertarianism has no problem with this, then similarly, libertarianism would also accept a situation in which justice naturally favours those from wealthier, more knowledgeable families as libertarianism does not support a fair equality of opportunity.

Libertarianism seems to shrug at unfairness.

That said, libertarianism comes in many varieties, and I don’t know which particular libertarian philosophy UKIP is founded on. It’s time to print UKIP’s constitution and read it thoroughly, to see if I can make more sense of this apparent riddle.