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Saturday, 26 March 2016

Who Can Talk About What? Who Can Talk About Whom?

I often think about things in which I have no personal stake and sometimes come up with what I think of as my own solutions to other people’s problems. So I think that Armenia and Turkey could resolve in a positive way their hundred -year conflict if Turkey ceded to Armenia  Mount Ararat – it’s national symbol – and if Armenia in exchange accepted that as full and final reparation for  the wrongs it suffered in the First World War. But I’m not a Turk or an Armenian and I have no personal stake.  I have visited both countries and read quite a few books about Turkish and Armenian history. And maybe my interest in their conflict may have been triggered by the fact that my mother once confided to me a Family Secret – her sister Queenie married an Armenian after the First World War. His name had been Mostichian (born about 1890) but he changed it to John Ashton. I knew him as Uncle Jack (he died when I was a young child) and my mother may not have told me this interesting fact about him until after his death. But she said nothing about a genocide or how it was that Uncle Jack had ended up in England and changing his name.

But visits, reading and a chance connection aside, do I have a right to think about Turkish-Armenian relations and, more pointedly, go into print with my idea for how the two countries might get along better than they do? (They have to live side by side, that’s agreed; it’s just a question of whether they do it well or badly). Surely how they settle their dispute is a question for them. Well, yes, of course. But they are not doing very well. In such circumstances, parties in dispute often call in mediators and mediators often come up with their own ideas. My idea is no more than unsought mediation – and that, you might say, is its flaw. The obvious retort to it is this, If we want your advice, we’ll ask for it.

Well, I am willing to back off tactically but I am not sure I am willing to back off strategically. It seems to me that everyone has a right to think about anything they want to think about and, in addition, say what they are thinking. Of course, their thinking may be ill-informed, unhelpful, inopportune or just plain wrong. This will often enough be pointed out to them but it does not remove their right to think their own thoughts and express them. True, we should avoid expressing ourselves unthinkingly because if we do then we just risk making bad situations worse or, self-interestedly, we will lose credibility on any topic we choose to talk or write about.

I will accept a further qualification to my right to speak about anything I want to. If you belong to a marginalised or (very) oppressed group, then one aspect of your experience may well be that discussion of it has been entirely or largely framed by others who haven’t shared it. It’s not just that a group’s experience may have been framed in hostile terms by a surrounding culture, with – for example - settlers settling an image onto native Indians or Aborigines.  You may also have advocates even before you know you need advocacy. An important first step in gaining more control over your situation may well be to talk in groups closed to anyone except members of your own group, closed even to your would-be advocates. I have no problem with this.

But when you emerge from your group to confront the world what you cannot expect is that everyone just rolls over and treats your account of your situation as undisputable. Other people have to feel that your narratives are true and important (there is nothing more tiresome than a group protesting loudly about minor inconveniences).  And since you are confronting them with your own narrative, they will feel free to respond both with questions and with their own narratives, and to that they are entitled. Once you enter the public arena, you can no longer use as a silencer, “But you have not had the experience I have had!”

An example. If you put up a resolution at a National Union of Students conference with the headline title “My Identity is None of Your Business” (it’s been done) you are simply telling other people that they should roll over and do as they are told. Unfortunately, there is no obvious reason why they should agree to do so, without debate, whatever the substance of the Identity in question (in this case, transgender self-identification). That is a straightforward implication of every notion of equality and equal rights that I can think of.

Of course (once again, of course), it is rational and respectful to pay special heed to someone’s authentic narrative of their own experience and to the political or policy implications which they derive from it. But those implications are never indisputable.

Consider the situation of a very marginalised and oppressed group, people in prison. They do have rights and those rights should certainly include the right to articulate their experience of jail and make claims against their jailers for changes in their regime. If prisoners claim a right to a diet which enables them to eat their Five a Day, well, how could you be against that?  It’s not part of our notion of what imprisonment is about that prisoners should be deprived of the right to try to keep themselves healthy. But that does not imply that all deprivations of rights are wrong; the whole point of imprisonment is to deprive you of some rights you would normally have, either to punish you or to protect others from you. We just have to be clear on what deprivations we intend. Prisoners are out of sight and out of mind and we don’t often have to think clearly about what deprivations we do indeed intend.

You may think that I have chosen a perverse example. But it’s not so perverse. In other cases, demands are made which are clearly demands for equal rights or equal treatment which should be recognised, but sometimes they are mixed up with demands for special privileges. Everyone is entitled to debate the merits of each particular case.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

The Huffington Post as a Stylistic Disaster zone

David Cameron Wants Us All To Get S**tfaced For The Queen's Birthday

A long time ago now, I deleted BBC News from my Favourites bar. Tired and tiresome propaganda, much of it  devoted to promoting Cardinal Keith O'Brien ( the BBC backed the wrong horse there; safer to stick with the Queen). I replaced the BBC with Al Jazeera which has survived the test of time. I recommend it along with the Financial Times.

I have been wanting to dump The Guardian for some time. There is just too much spoilt brat whining in the far too large Comment section. So I have been trying out Huffington Post which turns out to be no improvement. It behaves like a giggling,naughty schoolchild which wants to say the Fuck word but can't quite manage it. Instead, the headlines are littered with ** * as illustrated by the example above cut and pasted from today's website. David Cameron is going to keep the pubs open longer on the Queen's 90th Birthday - God only knows why -  and Huffington Post has given its own take on that. Or rather it hasn't.

I have a simple question: Why, if it thinks "Shitfaced" can't it say "Shitfaced"? It's not an isolated instance. There are ***  all over the website, it's one of the most striking features of its design. It's as if it wants to be hip but then realises it is speaking to its Maiden Aunt, though a bit too late so that the words are only half-suppressed.

I can't be doing with this kind of  nonsense. It's now deleted from the Favourites Bar. *

* But when in a moment of weakness today 26 March I took another look, what do I find but:

Britain First Use Picture Of Kids Doing Yoga In Attempt To 'Stir The S***"

April 12 and still no signs of a learning curve:

Osborne Accused Of Talking 'B****cks' About How Much Money He Earned

April 19 and still completely oblivious:

April 28 and at last I feel I am having some effect:

April 29, nope, I'm not:

May 5, maybe this post will run for longer than Agatha Christie's Mousetrap:

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Jeremy Corbyn, Mary Wollstonecraft and statues to dead people

Erecting monuments should really be left to dictators. Whether stone or bronze, they never have any aesthetic merits and no one regrets it when they are pulled down. They are loved by pigeons and gravestone makers (“Monumental masons”) short of work and that’s about it. They clutter up pavements and spoil otherwise aesthetically pleasing vistas. Rather than trying to fill the fourth plinth, Trafalgar Square would be better with no plinths at all.

Step forward well-known conservative Jeremy Corbyn in support of a monument to Mary Wollstonecraft. Well, Jeremy, can we do a deal? In London, the rule should be this: One up, One down. For every new monument put up to a dead person some old monument to a dead person should come down. Ideally, one with some scrap value. Otherwise, it’s just clutter on clutter. After all, it’s what they do in graveyards, clearing out the old graves and gravestones to make way for new ones.

The rule should only apply to proper life-like statues, not to public sculptures. We could do with more of the latter but far less of the former, one hundred percent less if you ask me. If you want to erect a public statue to some dead person, find a graveyard willing to oblige with a space. 

Anachronism Corner

Bea Rowlatt, one of the campaigners for the Wollstonecraft monument calls her "a pioneering writer on gender equality". Your Starter for Ten: How many times does the word "gender" appear in Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman?

Answer: The correct answer can I believe be found by going to and applying the search term "gender" to Wollstonecraft's text

Monday, 7 March 2016

Safe Space or Circling the Wagons?

A Woman’s Refuge is a place where a woman can go and be reasonably confident that she will not be harassed, typically by a violent or intimidating male ex-partner. The need for such Refuges is, unfortunately, indisputable. The capacity of men to behave badly seems to be fairly inexhaustible. In that context, a Woman’s Refuge is most definitely a Safe Space and most definitely a place that deserves public funding because it is a practical way of providing protection to those who otherwise would almost certainly be victims of crime.

This is a clear cut case because the threat is plainly and correctly identifiable and a physical space is the most practical way of reducing the likelihood that the threat will be realised.

Not all cases are so simple for at least the following reasons. First, a physical space may not be a practical option – in a society where all gay men are at risk from public violence, you would need not refuges but a collection of what would be, in all but name, concentration camps - hardly an improvement.

Second, the actual threat may be local or intermittent so that rather than safe spaces what is needed is something like a system of safety alerts and safe behaviour guides combined with pressure on authorities for better street lighting, better policing, and so on, to which could be added agitation and propaganda, consciousness raising and confrontation. Here the real challenge is to find a practical response to dangers which may be hard to predict and hard to police – the dangers come and go and return in unexpected places and so on. Probably, a great deal connected to women’s public safety belongs in this category.

In relation to these first two problems, a possible response is to try to ensure that at least some institutions – a workplace, a study place – are as free of threat as is humanly possible so that at least in those places, everyone can move about fear free. That sounds like a good idea though it should be noted that the greatest threat in the workplace is often posed by insecure and aggressive bosses, who can come in both sexes, all colours and any sexual orientation.

But there is a third problem. In all cases one relies on individuals or groups correctly identifying the threat to which they are exposed. But it’s possible to get it wrong. It’s possible to imagine a threat which isn’t really there and end up circling the wagons against an imaginary enemy. Meanwhile – and this is really a fourth problem – there may be an elephant in the room, a threat you have not noticed or noticed only sub-consciously.

I am trying to understand the current emphasis and enthusiasm in student politics on much-extended and constantly expanding notions of “Safe Space”.  Is the world off campus really so hate-filled that the university has to become a kind of bunker in which one can shelter? Are one’s fellow students really so awful that one has to be on constant alert against them, defensively carving out micro-spaces and offensively trying to repress others? Are Outsiders in the form of visiting speakers whose views you dislike really no better than club wielding thugs?

I rather doubt it. I think there is at least some exaggeration. But I do think there is an elephant in the room. It is the insecurity which arises from the knowledge that there won’t be nice jobs for everybody and neither will there be nice houses. Many students know that their future lies in low-paid work and shitty accommodation. That would make anyone feel that they live in threatening times. I am inclined to think that insecure employment and high rents make the world rather more threatening than the things which now preoccupy organisations like the National Union of Students. Bring back great employment opportunities, bring in cheap quality housing, bring in a situation where people have a bit of money in their pockets and there would be fewer - phobes and fewer people focussed on those - phobes.