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  • East of Otley Action Group

The Shrug

Updated: May 11, 2021

Personal blog: Martin Gaskin, member of East of Otley Action Group, Otley 2030, and Otley Community Land Trust

Lockdown has robbed us of many of the physical interactions and nuances of communication that we relied on – and enjoyed – so much in the ‘old’ normal. The lack of the visible shrug of the shoulders is one.

It’s a cliché, of course, and probably both true and untrue in equal measure that the Gallic shrug, accompanied with the ‘Bon, bah – je n’en sais rien, moi’ is a beautiful extension of the language. Depending on context, nuance of delivery, and inference, it says: ‘I don’t know’, or ‘I don’t care’, or ‘I’m not getting involved’, or ‘I do know, but I’m not telling you.’ It can mean so much more, too, including the perhaps more dangerous, ‘I do care but there’s nothing I can do about it.’

Alongside so much else, I miss it – that expressive shrug. And yet we can feel it all around, all the time, in an individual and also very connected, collective way. We can feel it in the big stuff:

  • In relation to refugees, whether it be, ‘I can’t do anything about the global conditions that mean people are driven to uproot themselves dangerously’, or ‘I can’t do anything to stop them coming in’

  • In relation to Black Lives Matter, whether it be, ‘I can’t do anything to make them matter’, or ‘It’s nothing to do with me’

  • In relation to the Rohingya, or the Uighurs

  • In relation to Yemen, or Eritrea, or Syria

  • In relation to climate change and its effects

We can feel it in closer proximity with political posturing in Scotland, England, Europe; vaccinations; independence; intra-party in-fighting.

And, we can feel it in the very local arena:

  • When the vast disparity in incomes between some areas of Otley means that a number of residents in our community are amongst the 20% most deprived in the UK, whilst others, living about a mile away, enjoy living in the 15% least deprived – and we don’t even know it.

  • When we ignore the potential criminalising of some of our residents as a result of the passing of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021

We certainly feel it when a big, rich, powerful development consortium and alliance threatens to further damage the climate, biodiversity, green spaces, wildlife and quality of life in our local community, when the possibilities – even with the addition of a substantial development – could be so much more positive.

The shrug at least reflects that ‘I’ve heard’. In many cases, it probably reflects active listening as well. But, whatever it means (‘don’t know’, ‘don’t care’, ‘not involved’, ‘not saying’, ‘nothing I can do’) when it is a collective shrug, across a huge range of connected – sometimes difficult, often social or political (small ‘p’) – issues, is it not dangerous?

I worry about the point at which a collective shrug is not just a sign of benign or of passive compliance but becomes active complicity. When you can’t actually see the shrug and the visible nuances, it’s even more difficult to distinguish between the other meanings and a simple, devastating, ‘I don’t care’.

Care. Get involved.

Don’t shrug.

What do you think? Has Martin’s blog spurred you into action, or do you have an alternative view? Email us at

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