On Branding Others

When we isolate the problems of sexual assault (or other apparent moral deficiency) to particular men, we risk missing the forest for the trees. Things would be different if our social systems and daily lives were based on consent, compassion and cooperation. In other words, if we were living natural human lives where we recognise that everyone is equally worthy of love, including ourselves. We know humans are capable of this from numerous historical and contemporary examples of vibrant egalitarian cultures. And if you’re not familiar with these, you might simply ask yourself – ‘Do I believe in love?’

The lack of consent (or, to use Edward Herman & Noam Chomksy’s term, ‘the manufacture of consent’) in our current systems is a serious problem, not just for women. It’s damaging to all life. This inhibition of real love in our society is damaging our whole planet. 

This isn’t to suggest that individual men are incapable of taking response-ability for their actions. It’s simply to note that it’s perhaps not surprising that so many people find it hard to be clear about consent and to honour it. Consent is perhaps not an art which we practice as much as we could. 

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, American puritans forced a young woman who was said to have committed adultery to wear a scarlet letter ‘A’ on her dress and stand before the community, branded as a fallen woman. Now, if women weren’t put on a pedestal of expectation, we wouldn’t be imagining that they could fall. The same, of course, goes for men and people of other genders.

When we put someone on a pedestal, we’re putting ourselves down in a way. We might imagine, consciously or unconsciously, that there really is a class of people who are ‘the great and good’ and that we must somehow be outside that (and potentially resent it). This isn’t to say there aren’t some people who might inspire us in some ways. It’s great to admire and appreciate the inspiring qualities of others. And it’s good to remember that they are human, too, and that we also all have wonderful qualities. We might just find it hard to see them sometimes.

It seems to me the habit of putting others above or below ourselves, or our putting ourselves above or below others, is intimately connected with the lack of consent (i.e. the lack of love) in so many of our institutions and daily encounters. When we create an imagined hierarchy – some people are more or less valued than others – then we are treating others (and ourselves) as objects. Whether we make them (or ourselves) into objects of admiration, objects of abjection or derision, or objects to use for our profit and pleasure, it’s the same process. 

Perhaps this is why Yeshua (the indigenous Aramaic name of Jesus) mentioned that judging others is inseparable from being judged. Not because the Divine is some judgemental old git in the sky, but because when we are judging others, we are judging ourselves at the same time. When we are judging, we are not loving. And loving is the key, he and others tell us, to experiencing heaven on earth. 

What if we all stood with our feet firmly on the ground, seeing everyone as fundamentally equal, including ourselves? What if we loved ourselves fully, just as we are, with all our imperfections? 

If we do wish to relate freely as equals with others, in a deeply consensual and mutually respectful manner, then we might want to practice that in all our relationships – including our relationships with ourselves and the whole of the natural world (including all humans) and even with objects. What kind of communities would we experience if we honoured everyone we met? What kind of world might we have if we see how much work goes into creating every item we rely on for daily life? What kind of economy would we have if we respected everyone who helped that item come to us as well as the object itself? 

Real respect, it seems to me, includes compassion for those who are suffering the effects of inequality and objectification. That compassion might even run so deeply that it no longer divides the world into victims and perpetrators. As studies in prison tell us, a very large proportion of those who are incarcerated experienced severe childhood trauma. And the class of people whose criminal activities are largely unpunished are often sent to boarding school which is another source of childhood trauma. Furthermore, we know that those who harm others (physically, emotionally or morally) are also traumatised themselves by the experience. Trauma response inhibits our capacity to either give or receive consent. 

Shifting from a non-consensual culture to one of consent, compassion and cooperation depends on transformation at all levels – psychological, economic, political, ecological and spiritual. The question is, are we willing to begin (or continue) making changes in our own lives, our own relationships? Are we open to receiving the benefits of healing? 

We don’t have to wait for a ‘them’ to sort things out. There is a ‘we’ already here, just waiting to come together in deeper cooperation. Cooperation is always here, ‘like seeds beneath the snow’ to borrow Colin Ward’s phrase. The warmth of our hearts can melt that snow, letting flowers bloom for the benefit of all, including ourselves. 


Vishwam is part of the teaching team for an online course exploring these issues further entitled ‘Heart of the Matter.’ It starts this Sunday afternoon if you would like to connect with others who care about the world and want to really get to the heart of what our society needs to change. Proceeds from the course support projects including: ecological restoration work and an indigenous school in the Amazon, empowering a village in Sri Lanka recovering from the trauma of religious civil war, providing free educational support to the disenfranchised children in Rishikesh and many more. Vishwam also works 1:1 with people who want to heal.


Comments (36)

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  1. Jim Ferguson says:

    this piece had a strong resonance for me, it very much reminded reminded me of Tom Leonard’s poem ‘being a human being’ and of Leonard’s general philosophical outlook, in his essays and biography of James Thomson (B.V.) ‘Places of the Mind’ which was published around 1990., good to see a writer making these connections between love and respect and how these can be a challenge to hierarchical power structures.

    1. Vishwam Heckert says:

      Hi Jim,

      Thanks for the pointer to Tom Leonard’s poem ‘being a human being.’ It is very, very good! We included one of his poems in Anarchism & Sexuality: Ethics, Relationships & Power back in 2011, but I’ve not really looked much at his work for some time. Good to be reminded! I’m glad to hear the focus on love and respect resonates with you, Jim.

      Wishing you a beautiful day,

  2. 230905 says:

    You were doing fine there, Vishwam, identifying the power inequalities inherent in our relationships as a structural problem, until you spoilt it all by then piously suggesting that it could all be sorted by our morally transforming ourselves into good people like yourself.

    We won’t remove the structural inequalities in our society by becoming good people through any of the myriad spiritual healing regimes that are currently on the market; rather, we’ll become good people by removing the structural inequalities from our institutions, which currently distort the relationships they mediate.

    1. Vishwam Heckert says:

      Thank you for kindly correcting me on my mistakes.

      May I ask, what is a power structure made of and by if not people?

      1. 230905 says:

        Nae bother, Vishwam.

        Those structures aren’t ‘made up’ of people; they’re ‘made up’ of the rules that mediate our relationships, and these rules are set not volitionally, by ourselves, but by the exigencies of how we collectively produce our means of subsistence, which are in turn determined by the technology that’s available to us. It’s these relationships and the rules that mediate them (our society) that construct us morally and make us who we are rather than the other way about.

        1. Niemand says:

          But the rules are also made up by people and can only be changed by people.

          But this is an old argument – take a bottom up approach and focus on individuals to change themselves and thus change the world for the better or take a top down structural approach in which a small group of people tell everyone else to change things.

          It is pretty obvious you need both for real change but if I were forced to choose only one, it would be the first as it has the potential to be deeper and more profound. But it is also much more difficult and the latter can get quicker if less stable results.

          1. Vishwam Heckert says:

            Thank you, Niemand, for your encouraging words. The rules can be changed!

            And we might also want to look at what in us makes us obedient to rules that are clearly unhelpful and unhealthy. Transformation from the bottom up (or the bottom sideways!) is made difficult, it seems to me, by the psychological conditioning of inequality, oppression, etc. If we want to change the systems we are part of, we also must change ourselves. Being kind with ourselves and each other helps make that possible.

        2. Vishwam Heckert says:

          I wonder, numerical friend, what you might think of this quote then.

          “A table can be overturned and a window can be smashed. However, those who believe that the state is also a thing or a fetish that can be overturned or smashed are sophists and believers in the Word. The state is a social relationship; a certain way of people relating to one another. It can be destroyed by creating new social relationships; i.e., by people relating to one another differently.

          “The absolute monarch said: I am the state. We, who we have imprisoned ourselves in the absolute state, must realize the truth: we are the
          state! And we will be the state as long as we are nothing different; as long as we have not yet created the institutions necessary for a true community and a true society of human beings.”

          ~ Gustav Landauer

        3. Vishwam Heckert says:

          I wonder, numerical friend, what you might think of this quote.

          “A table can be overturned and a window can be smashed. However, those who believe that the state is also a thing or a fetish that can be overturned or smashed are sophists and believers in the Word. The state is a social relationship; a certain way of people relating to one another. It can be destroyed by creating new social relationships; i.e., by people relating to one another differently.

          “The absolute monarch said: I am the state. We, who we have imprisoned ourselves in the absolute state, must realize the truth: we are the
          state! And we will be the state as long as we are nothing different; as long as we have not yet created the institutions necessary for a true community and a true society of human beings.”

          ~ Gustav Landauer

          1. 211012 says:

            Let’s read Landauer’s words in the context of his wider thinking.

            Central to his thinking is a fundamental comprehension (which he shared with Marx and his immediate inheritors) that the capitalist state by its very nature isn’t something that can be ‘smashed’ but is something that can only be outgrown or surpassed ‘dialectically’. As he wrote in his 1903 book, Skepticism and Mysticism, which I greatly admire, and which I studied when I was working on my doctorate in Nordrhein-Westfalen in the 1980s, the capitalist state is ‘a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently’. Rejecting the ‘bourgeois reification of the state and society’, he argued that in reality ‘we are [alienated from ourselves in] the State and will continue to be [alienated from ourselves in] the State until we have created the institutions that form a real community’. He maintained that, although externally imposed, the capitalist state lives within (or ‘colonises’, as critical theorists say nowadays) each and every one of us, and can only perpetuate itself as long as we exist in this ‘statual’ relationship or ‘establishment’, which makes its coercive order necessary. He therefore insisted that all it takes is for us to be taken out of this relationship by crises for the capitalist state to be rendered obsolete and disintegrate (or ‘deconstruct’, as critical theorists again say nowadays).

            Thus, ‘A table can be overturned and a window can be smashed. However, those who believe that the [capitalist] state is also a thing or a fetish that can be overturned or smashed are sophists and believers in the Word [‘mystics’ rather than ‘sceptics’]. The state is a social relationship; a certain way of people relating to one another [an establishment or ‘matrix’ of social relations within which power is exercised]. It can be destroyed by creating new social relationships [a new establishment]; i.e., by people relating to one another differently.

            “The absolute monarch said: I am the state. We, who we have imprisoned ourselves in the absolute state, must realize the truth: we are the state! And we will be the state as long as we are nothing different; as long as we have not yet created the institutions necessary for a true community and a true society of human beings.”

            For Landauer (as it was for that other great hero of mine, Martin Buber), the work of community development and capacity building (my old career in anticipation of the disintegration of the capitalist state through its immanent crises) is the work of revolution.

            Incidentally, Landauer served in the short-lived the Munich Soviet Republic following the revolution in Germany in 1918/19 and was central in the new government’s efforts to organise councils of workers and farmers to help cultivate the kind of confederalist society he had been advocating for so long. To this end, he served on both the Revolutionary Workers’ Council and the Central Workers’ Council of Bavaria. Landauer was arrested and shot with other members of the Starnberg workers’ soviets by the counter-revolutionary Freikorps in May 1919.

          2. 211012 says:


          3. 211012 says:

            My reply to Niemand’s reply is still being blocked, though.

          4. Vishwam Heckert says:

            Thank you for your explication. I’m also a huge fan of Gustav Landauer.

          5. 211013 says:

            Yes, he’s still largely unappreciated outside the kibbutz movement.

          6. Vishwam Heckert says:

            Have you read Gabriel Kuhn’s translation of many of his essays? ‘Revolution and Other Writings: A Political Reader’ is published by PM Press. It includes these words on love from Landauer who is also greatly appreciated by many peace-loving anarchists.

            “I speak of love. Love is such a wonderful and universal feeling, a feeling that spins us round and elevates us to the stars, because it is a cord that connects our childhood with the universe. There lies a deeper meaning in the fact that the name for the experience of community, the
            feeling that connects us with humanity: love, human love, is the same name that we use for the love between the sexes that connects us with the following generations. […] Love sets the world alight and sends sparks through our being. It is the deepest and most powerful way to understand the most precious that we have.”

          7. 211013 says:

            Oops! The site’s blocking my reply to you again, V. Pity; it’s a good one.

          8. 211013 says:

            I’ve sent my reply to you via your ‘Flowing with Life’ site.

          9. 211014 says:

            It may be incongruous to bring together mysticism and scepticism as Landauer does, as each may be regarded as contradicting the other. For Landauer, mysticism relates to the ecstatic experience of union between the human and the divine, while scepticism concerns a generalised doubt. And yet, Landauer argues, mystic experience is deeply concerned with the doubt that lies at the heart of scepticism. Conversely, scepticism, brings us firstly to a state of mental suspense and next to a state of ‘unperturbedness’ or ‘quietude’, in which we may contemplate appearances as they are freed from our judgements and beliefs, which in turn can lead us to the ecstasy of the reunion of our human being with the ‘Being of beings’.

            Landauer’s existentialism takes him beyond the paths of mysticism and scepticism to an exploration of the diversity of different forms of ecstatic experiences and to the establishment of a non-reductive general theory of atonement or reconciliation. However, such an exploration isn’t possible within the reductive social relations of our capitalist state, which lock us each into their own estranged condition of individuality, but only in the ‘gathering’ or ‘clustering’ (‘kibbutz’) of a communal life, in which no individual life-experience or ‘world’ is privileged over any other.

            Landauer held that, because we’re constituted in our social relations by the capitalist mode of production, we can’t reform those relations voluntarily, from the inside. All we can do is patiently organise kibbutzim or ‘solidarities’ in preparation for the immanent collapse of capitalism and the social relations into which it impresses us, ‘soviets’ which might then fill the vacuum that capitalism’s immanent collapse will leave in the ‘end times’ of the Great War to come. (But, of course, the rumour of capitalism’s death turned out to be greatly exaggerated.)

            Scepticism is, in Landauer’s view, a phenomenology that clears away the judgements that obscure the appearance of the being itself to let that being itself ‘stand forth’ (‘exist’) in our consciousness. Mystic experience, for Landauer, is that resulting experience of beings existing in their own light, liberated by our scepticism from their concealment behind our judgements and beliefs.

            Landauer operated in the same fin de siecle cultural milieu (Mitteleuropäisches jüdisches Leben) as did the co-called ‘father of phenomenology’, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Buber. Husserl exercised a seminal influence on the Jewish scholars of the Frankfurt School of critical theory and on ‘Christian’ scholars like Heidegger and Sartre and, via Heidegger, on later scholars (both ‘Jewish’ and ‘Christian’) like Derrida and Gadamer, all of whom abetted the deconstruction/surpassing of the traditional dichotomy between mysticism and scepticism in the 20th century. Hence, the ‘family resemblance’ between them.

            (Incidently, this ‘family resemblance’ (between the work of Adorno, Buber, and Heidegger) was the original subject of my postgraduate work almost 40 years ago, before it narrowed to the much more specific theme of ‘Interpretation, Decidability, and Meaning: Three German Views: Wolfgang Stegmüller, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Ernst Konrad Specht’’, which – unsurprisingly – fell stillborn from the press.)

          10. Vishwam Heckert says:

            Thank you, numerical one, for kindly writing to me via Flowing with Life. I attempted to reply, but the message bounced. Perhaps there was an error in your email address? Please do write to me again so that I can reply.

          11. Vishwam Heckert says:

            Thank you for these additional thoughtful comments on Landauer. You offer a very helpful situating of his thought within continental philosophy.

            Perhaps his combination of scepticism and mysticism reflects the way he saw both the mind (scepticism or discriminative awareness) and heart (direct transcendent experience) working together to create the possibilities for personal and social transformation.

            Personally, I wouldn’t agree that capitalism prevents our transformation through inner work. There is more to us than our social conditioning and we can connect directly with that, if we want to. Spiritual practice can lead to tremendous change in people, in my experience, and also in the historical evidence of great social reformers and revolutionaries who were and are also mystics, we might say, including: Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Emma Goldman, Dorothy Day, St Hildegard of Bingen, Simone Weil, Gloria Anzaldua, bell hooks, Nelson Mandela, Subcommandante Marcos and so very many more. Reading their autobiographies lets us know how much their practices changed their lives.

            In terms of continental philosophy, perhaps this is more Foucault than Landauer, though both were part of the same anarchist tradition arguably (see e.g., Stop Thief! Anarchism and Philosophy by Catherine Malabou.)

  3. fay kennedy says:

    Great to hear Tom Leonard mentioned. I had the pleasure of his company on a few occasions and must pick up his books again.

  4. SleepingDog says:

    Strange confusion. Of course, many people are sexually abused in creepy religious cults, even here in Scotland (we import the odd one from the USA) who preach love and sexual healing to the confused, poetry-bedazzled and vulnerable.

    This quote is attributed to top Canadian science-fiction-writer Margaret Atwood:
    “I don’t remember where I first heard this simple description of one dramatic contrast between the genders, but it is strikingly accurate: At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them.”

    So if you are asking women to switch off their judgement, in Atwood’s view that might be a death sentence.

    1. Niemand says:

      Hm, I can see Atwood’s point in terms of fear but the equivalence drawn is pretty unfair. Most men have been laughed at by a woman at some point, but most women have not been murdered by a man and never will be. And men will certainly have greater fears about women than being laughed at. So all-in-all, pretty glib. But then I have just spent a few hours reading poetry so my mind is like a limp sieve.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Niemand, you are missing the point about judgement, which can be applied strategically, tactically, contextually, preventatively, reactively and on a case-by-case basis. This might in practice mean that, with strategic and tactical prudence, relatively unendangered women might (if lucky) only occasionally meet a man who is dangerous in a particular context (this also applies to other relations between people, but the Atwood quote is handy for a thought experiment). If all women ‘honoured everyone they met’ as the author of this article enjoins, then this would likely lead to a sharp rise in crimes against them. You should also remember my previous noting the rise in romance scams.

        “Romance scams involve people being duped into sending money to criminals who go to great lengths to gain their trust and convince them that they are in a genuine relationship. They use language to manipulate, persuade and exploit so that requests for money do not raise alarm bells.”
        and of course there are many other such crimes, threats, abuses.

        You will also be aware that I am using the term ‘poetry’ in way which goes beyond verse, harks back to a rather wider original use, and looks forward to adapted, technologically-savvy forms. For example, it was easier to recognise commercial advertising targeting consumers as poetry when they frequently took the form of radio jingles, but the advert persists in many forms, including print, poster, email, web, text message, televisual slug, in-game promotion and so on. These are typically praise poems to a product or service or brand, and often visual elements are more prominent than linguistic or musical. These are not all entirely new forms, of course. Christianity has had its branding, logo, praise hymns, paintings, passion plays and so forth for a very long time.

        My point is that cults exploit hacks in human psychology in similar ways to advertisers, but now the process has been automated for microtargeting individuals on a mass scale. If you associate poems with the cult of the (human) poet, prioritise how they make you feel over their content (or omissions, coherence or semblance of reality), then your mind has a gaping security hole in it, just waiting to be exploited like a server running unpatched software. Judgement is like a security program sweeping input for threats and protocols for violations; it should always be kept running (and if it switched off, you cannot then have consent).

        1. 230905 says:

          But the ‘wider original use’ of the term ‘poetry’ was to designate the process of emergence of something that didn’t previously exist; that is, the process of creation or making. It wasn’t, as you would have it, to designate the manipulation of feelings at the expense of the literal truth. This ‘wider original use’ is retained in semiotics, where it designates the use of symbolic communication to produce meaning.

          The original contrast to poesis was physis or ‘nature’, which was the process by which things arise spontaneously from their own essence rather then emerge ex nihilo by some act of creation. According to Heidegger and his followers, this was a historically fateful contrast that he sought to overcome/go beyond/surpass in his own poetics.
          Anyhow, your idea that poetry leaves people (and women in particular) susceptible to abuse depends on that flawed analogy between human psychology and computer programming, the inadequacy if which theory of mind we discussed elsewhere.

          1. 211012 says:

            I’d love to reply to your post (and to Niemand’s reply to my post above), but I’m being blocked from doing so.

          2. 211012 says:

            @ Vishwam, that is.

          3. Vishwam Heckert says:

            @211012 I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble responding to the thread above. I wonder what’s going on there?

          4. I don’t have any comments pending, nor am I blocking anything.

          5. 211012 says:

            I believe you, Mike. It’s just one of these wee mysteries…

        2. Vishwam Heckert says:

          Dear SleepingDog,

          Honouring others doesn’t mean letting them do whatever they want to you! That wouldn’t be honouring ourselves which is just as important. Our culture encourages us to think of ‘us’ vs ‘them’, but we can have care for both. Of course women (and all of us) need to be clear about men (and others) who can be dangerous, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we need to morally judge them.

          I can, for example, assess whether a piece of wood will be helpful for a construction project. That doesn’t mean I’m making a moral judgement about the piece of wood. We can do the same with each other – is it wise to give time and attention to a particular person or not? Is it safe to be alone with a particular person or not? Is a particular person in a good place to work in a particular role, or not? These aspects of critical intelligence are separate from moral judgement, but they often get jumbled up together.

          Your concerns about romance scams are completely valid. I encourage self-love so we’re not looking for it in the wrong places. If we really love ourselves, and stay awake and aware, we’re not likely to get pulled into unhealthy relationships – whether with an individual or a group. Or if we do, we can extract ourselves with compassion for our own mistakes.

  5. SleepingDog says:

    Technical note. Nobody is being ‘blocked’ from responding to 5th level comments in a nested thread, it will be an administrative site setting to limit excessive nesting. The way to reply is to tick ‘Notify me of follow-up comments by email’ when you submit a comment to an article, then you can use the Reply button on the email. Your comment will appear in the 5th-level nested group.
    My guess is that excessive nesting of comments will be unreadable on most mobile phones, the way a great many people access the internet these days, and the setting of 5 is probably the default.

    1. 211012 says:

      Yep, I too theorised it was a structural issue rather than some conspiracy. I try posting my replies to Niemand and Vishwam on a new thread and see what happens. If the post appears, it will be strong evidence in support of our structuralist hypothesis.

      1. 211012 says:

        Nope, that didn’t work either. It’s curious that I’m not being blocked by structural issues on other threads, and here only sometimes.

        1. 211012 says:

          Anyway, it’s no big deal; the joy’s in the writing rather than the publishing.

    2. 211013 says:

      Technical update.

      I think it’s something in the content of my reply to Niemand’s reply that’s blocking it. I’ve tried reformatting the text and even transcribed it straight into the ‘Comments’ box from my journal, instead of my usual practice of cutting-and-pasting it, and I’ve tried posting it on other threads all over the site, but to no avail; it’s just not appearing. And it’s just this one piece of text; everything else I’m posting is appearing as soon as it’s passed the usual moderating process.

      Curiouser and curiouser…

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