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Poetry On the Street, Is Freedom of Speech Antisocial?

01/12/2014 13:06 GMT | Updated 29/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Yesterday, I walked into the shopping centre of my local town, and I came across an artist at work. His poetry, written in chalk, spanned the pavement and I, like many others, paused to read. His work seemed to be aimed at generating thought and reflection, and if this was the case, it was certainly working. Many people were stopping to read and I was hearing very favourable comments.

I found myself engaging in conversation with both the artist and another passer-by. The observer found it disrespectful that some people simply walked over the words, oblivious, but the artist felt differently.

"I like the impermanence of my work", he said, "and people have a choice, they are not obliged to read or take notice, unless they want to".

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We continued in conversation and he explained that he had started doing this as a way of earning money when he was moving around, a kind of busking and he had been surprised at the response that he received. So many people were interested in his work and as a result he had continued. He had returned to Swindon, the town where he came from, and had started to do the same here. He went on to say that he might not be able to continue as the local council were planning to take out an antisocial behaviour order against him.

The other passer-by was clearly infuriated by this and I myself, found that I wanted to defend him. I couldn't see anything in his work that would be considered offensive; there were no expletives, nothing being voiced that was inappropriate or particularly controversial. Passers-by seemed to fall into two categories; some simply walked over the words, either oblivious or uninterested; others stopped and engaged, at the very minimum with their own thoughts, but also for some, in much deeper thought and conversation.

When I got home I logged on to the Gov.uk website and read the terms of an antisocial behaviour order. One of the categories is "vandalism and graffiti". I didn't feel that this could be classified in any way as vandalism as no damage was being caused, but would this be considered graffiti? My own perception of graffiti is of something that involves permanent change and impact. Something difficult to remove and that simply by its permanence is imposed on others. The transient nature of writing in chalk challenges this. These words had been written in the knowledge that they would disappear overnight, either washed away by the rain or swept away by the council road sweeper that patrols the town centre overnight, picking up rubbish and cigarette butts left by the daily shoppers.

I write about emotional health and psychological well-being and I work with people from all walks of life, all of whom are inevitably struggling with emotionally fuelled difficulty, including on occasions some very challenging behaviour. It is interesting because regardless of the exact circumstances that bring people into my working world, the roots of their difficulties inevitably come from a background which has been lacking in reflective thought, the very thing that this artists work was generating. There are three key areas that I often need to help people with when they are struggling in their lives and needing to make changes.

Firstly, they need to develop the capacity to press a pause button, and engage in some kind of reflective thought within themselves. Without this, people will continue to engage with their daily lives life from a reactive and more volatile position, frequently without really understanding the origins of their own behaviour.

Secondly they need to come to terms with the emotional instability that we feel in a world that is continually changing. The impact of change is huge for anyone that has come from a difficult and inconsistent upbringing.

Thirdly to know that choices are available to them, and that their choices can be respected. Abuse in whatever form it takes is a violation of choice. Many people live reactively because they have never learned how to negotiate the world in a way that will bring them the responses that they need. They don't know how to approach life in any other way.

It seems to me that any creative work that generates the possibility of reflection and thought deserves support, particularly when it can engage with people of all ages including younger people who may already be lacking in this crucial area of self-development. I also think that any work that by its very nature symbolically represents something of the impermanence of life is of profound value. Most people inherently struggle with change and this struggle generates all kinds of emotional difficulty, which in turn can generate emotionally reactive behaviour. Bearing witness to somebody's ability to create and then let go, to literally embrace change, demonstrates the possibility of emotional durability. Likewise, bearing witness to somebody's ability to have a voice in a manner that is peaceful and non-confrontational, a voice that is willing to engage in thoughtful conversation but is equally respectful to those to choose not to, is testimony to the importance of choice.

Surely any creative endeavour that supports the core values of respectful healthy living; "choice, reflection and emotional durability"; deserves to be actively encouraged?

Jenny Florence welcomes conversation with her readers, via Twitter or on her website forum. a-z-of-emotionalhealth.com

Jenny's new audio book, Emotional Health, the Voice of Our Soul, has recently been released. It is also available in Kindle.

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