Category Archives: Current Affairs

How We Use Words: Blog Action Day 2013

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Language evolves. It’s a fact of communication; words twist, change and merge, they take on new meanings and become adopted by different groups. Gay, surf, wicked, computer, all words used by our forebears in very different ways. Heck, thirty years ago, who’d’ve thought that ‘Google’ could mean ‘search’?

How we use words is important. They often shape our actions, shape how we see others and yes, how we see their rights.

An example: go online, find a post or a video in which a woman says something even vaguely feminist, or even simply reasonable. Now look below the line and wait for the first rape threat. When the hell did such a heinous crime develop its own culture of jokes and attitudes and badly written ebooks? And what impact does that have on reporting rape, on the lives of rape survivors, on a medium where threats of violence and sexual assault are commonplace?

Maybe we should have seen this coming, at least since not being racist ended up being described as “political correctness gone mad” and the idea that employers shouldn’t accidentally kill their workforce is sneeringly described as “health and safety” (cue eye roll).

All this has an effect on human rights. Okay, maybe in the civilised west we’re not herding people into concentration camps at the moment, but the language we use eats away at the lives of those around us: female journalists and activists leaving Twitter because of no effective way to report people threatening to blow up their houses? Immigrants seeing themselves described in newspapers as a flood, a tide eroding the very foundations of the country? “That’s gay” has become a synonym for “that’s stupid”, so how does that impact the phrase “they’re gay”?

In the UK, even ‘human rights’ is subject to this. Linked by politicians and media to frivolous law suits, the government is talking about repealing the Human Rights Act. The message given is that human rights legislation protects terrorists, not, for instance, hard working families. Now don’t get me wrong, we should always be considering if human rights legislation is fit for purpose, but watch the language used. Human rights aren’t trivial. Human rights aren’t frivolous. And we should rage against language that turns rape into entertainment and individuals as somehow less human than ourselves. Because language can inspire action, and sometimes we deny the humanity of others through the very words we use.

Let Freedom Ring: 50 Years of the ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech

imagesCA9KA8DRFifty years ago, in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC echoed with the greatest speech of the 20th century.

This was long before I was born, inhabiting a world of both literal and figurative black and white, grainy film footage and crackly audio being my only connection to Martin Luther King’s iconic moment. From that perspective it’s history; inspiring history, yes, but history nonetheless.

But it’s easy to close the speech’s borders, to assume it’s only about the Civil Rights movement and racism, but it’s not that easily contained. It’s about economics and history and poverty and non-violence, themes with destinies that, like our own, are bound together with one another. How we treat refugees and the poor influences how we treat our neighbours; the decision to go to war made in plush London adn Washington offices impacts six-year-olds in Syria; one trolling joke about rape pollutes starts to pollute the whole of Twitter. King saw this, recognised how our destinies are intertwined and how our attitudes create policy and attitudes.

King says this better than you or I could though, his words carrying the weight of history and literature and scripture. Echoes of the Emancipation Proclamation and Richard III resound alongside heart cries of King David and the Prophet Isaiah. And yet that’s not all – about halfway through, King deviates from his original notes and improvises, and that’s the point everyone listening goes to church as Reverend King kicks into gear. The speech wasn’t originally meant to be about a dream; its most famous moment is the beginning of the improvisation and, possibly, the moment the orator becomes the prophet.

The Dream still isn’t a reality, not in the US, nor in the UK. The Trayvon Martin case points to that, as do the ‘Go Home’ vans driving around Britain. The narrative here is informed by racial tension, but is grounded in fear, fear of the outsider, fear of the unknown, and fear so often manifests as brutality. That’s why King’s call for nonviolence is so powerful – do you really win by using force, or do you just postpone the fight until the other guy comes back with a bigger stick? Besides, isn’t it better to live in a community defined by cooperation, not conquest.

“I Have a Dream” isn’t history, it’s a reminder. A reminder that the world isn’t equal, that racial tension is still real, that people still automatically equate ‘Muslim’ with ‘Terrorist’, that women are still forced to survive domestic and online abuse, that in some places you can still get arrested for being gay. Fifty years on, Dr. King’s words still matter.

World Autism Awareness Day

Worldautismday260_tcm4-675038In December 2011, Helen Green Allison MBE passed away. It’s fair to say she wasn’t a household name, but for those who came into contact with her work, her legacy and impact have been immense. As a founder of the National Autistic Society (NAS), she was responsible for creating an organisation that is now the leading UK charity for those with autism.

And yet despite the work of Allison, the NAS and their counterparts throughout the world, autism is still something that remains misunderstood. Over the last few years, in film and TV, a new stereotype has arose – the child with autism who struggles to communicate but who has the innate ability to not only tackle complex mathematical problems but use that to… Well, predict the future, or see the fundamental patterns behind the universe. And this isn’t intended to be anything other than sympathetic, as in Kiefer Sutherland’s series Touch, but it does portray autism as, effectively, some kind of superpower. Maybe this is a narrative conceit that allows writers and producers to sneak autism awareness onto primetime TV, but how helpful is it really?

Today is World Autism Awareness Day (WAAD). I have a vested family interest in this and so it’s worth supporting WAAD just so that people can get some idea of what autism and Asperger Syndrome actually are. That’s not an easy job – the autistic spectrum covers such a range of traits at differing levels of severity that everyone needs to be treated as an individual. There are no generic, one-size-fits-all answers.

But this is a good thing, because we all deserve to be treated as individuals; no-one should be labelled by their disability or their diagnosis, they should be labelled by their personality, likes, dislikes, their story and their heart.

That may come across as somewhat idealistic, especially in a world where misunderstandings of autism lead to things like the controversy over whether it’s caused by vaccines or the Gary McKinnon case. But the fact remains that Autistic Spectrum Disorders affect a significant part of the population and anything that can raise awareness of its realities is a positive thing. The child you think is misbehaving in a supermarket as people make muttered comments about poor parenting may be autistic; the socially awkward IT technician at work may have Asperger Syndrome. And each one of them is an individual, not a diagnosis.

(More information on autism is available at the NHS website.)

Human Trafficking Awareness Day 2013

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Today is Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Here’s a repost of a piece I wrote for Anti-Slavery Day last year – the issues remain relevant.

We think we know what slavery is, most of us. It’s Wilberforce and ‘Amazing Grace’, the American Civil War and and Abraham Lincoln. It’s a thing of the past, a historic barbarity.

And yet human trafficking to the UK is rising. Rising.

It’s almost unbelievable. This sort of thing should be non-existent, not getting worse. Sure, it’s not endemic in this country – 946 victims last year, a tiny fraction of the population – but that almost makes it worse. It’s a hidden sin operating in a shadowy world that most of us fortunately never encounter. I mean, people are being trafficked here for forced organ removals. It’s near impossible to comprehend, like the news and a exploitative horror movie have somehow got scrambled.

But the reality is that 712 adults and 234 children were thought to be victims last year, forced into prostitution, street crime and the sex industry. Slavery’s not a thing of the past, it’s still alive and getting worse.

That’s just in the UK though. Globally, human trafficking is up there with drugs and arms dealing as one of the top criminal money-spinners. Statistics are hard to come by, but World Vision states that between 500,000 and 4 million people are trafficked, 80% of them being women and 50% being children.

Well of course they are. Because this sort of thing always seems to lead back to the exploitation of women or children.

And let’s not kid ourselves. This – Well, let’s be crass and brutal and call it a market – exists because there’s a demand for it. Victims end up working in brothels and sweatshops and lap-dancing clubs and fields and mansions because they’re seen as just another commodity. And it’s not just the traffickers involved in this, it’s those who use these ‘services’ – heck the porn and mobile phone industries are massive and neither of them are particularly fair trade.

Hey, look, I own an iPhone.

The demand’s there alright. Some of it comes from me. Not intentionally, not really knowingly, but maybe that’s what happens when the primary model of human interaction prioritises consumers over community.

I don’t know how to fix this problem. I know there are organisations out there fighting for the victims of trafficking and modern slavery, and God bless them every step of the way. But I recently heard something wise – how do we fight things that are bigger than us if our engagement with organisations or politics has to be limited? Sure, we donate, we write to MPs, but that doesn’t feel like enough, so what then?

Just for a moment, forget they exist.

In other words, we can’t put all the onus on the Government or Stop the Traffik. We can’t leave them to fight a battle for which we ‘re all responsible. So forget they exist for a moment – what choices do we make, day-to-day, that could minimise slavery? What purchases have to change? When do we have to open our eyes?

I don’t do this anywhere near enough. I’m glad there are people out there fighting, but I’m fractionally making their job harder. That’s a tough admission to make, but it’s true.

And slavery is getting worse.

December 21 2012: It’s not the End of the World (2)

Part 2 of my previous repost:

So, anyway…

Did you know that one of Christopher Columbus’s motivations behind his expeditions was a desire to help fulfill conditions so that the Second Coming could take place? Me either. This tied into the millennial twitchiness that surrounded the approach of the year 7000 (7000 Anno Mundi that is; this calendar counted years from the Creation of the world), twitchiness that influenced a bunch of mystical works throughout Europe, which in turn influenced Christopher Columbus. The unnerving thing about this is that 7000 AM is the equivalant of 1492 AD, which is when Columbus discovered America. He saw the discovery of the New World as being a culmination of God’s plan, and although it didn’t lead to the end of the world, I guess 1492 could be seen as apocalyptic for the Native Americans, the Aztecs, and everyone else who got trampled in the rush to create a new world in the New World.

Of course, Europe had just experienced the development of the printing press, and was about to embark on the Reformation, which meant the ability to interpret the Bible was suddenly available to the masses. You can see this in England in the mid-1600’s; the Civil War shook the foundation of society, and maybe it’s no coincidence that the execution of Charles I in 1649 coincided with the development of a bunch of millennial and apocalyptic groups – the Levellers, the Diggers, the Ranters, the Quakers, the Muggletonians, the Fifth Monarchy Men. And because of the whole ‘666’ thing, 1666 was expected to see the End of the World. I guess if you were in the middle of the Great Plague and then the Great Fire of London, it might have seemed like it was.

This all burnt itself out – after all, how many times can the world not end and a complete overhaul of society fail to come about? The apocalyptic vibe jumped across the Atlantic and really kicked off in the mid-19th Centrury. The main example of this is the story of the Millerites. William Miller figured that the Second Coming was due to happen on October 22 1844. An estimated 100,000 people eagerly awaited the moment when Jesus came back to Earth. It didn’t happen.

This become known as the Great Disappointment which, frankly, is the greatest example of under-statement in history.

Twitchiness wasn’t just seen in the big religious movements. I guess the end of A world, the mutation of a society, the moment at which things stop being how they used to be can be seen behind some of the moral panics that keep cropping up every so often. Hidden enemies threatening to undo civilisation are seen behind every shadow. Witches stalked the fields of Europe, and of New England, and some figured they had to be stopped. It’d be nice to write that off as something that only happened in history, but look at fifties America – the McCarthyite anti-Communist witch-hunts kicked off in 1950, ruined the lives of a lot of people, then faltered in 1954. This just happened to be the year in which Dr. Frederic Wertham published The Seduction of the Innocent, a tirade against comic books that saw homosexual propaganda in the relationship between Batman and Robin, and corrupting, hidden images hidden within the art. The brief flap surrounding this lead into the age of Rock and Roll, when the bottom half of Elvis was banned from TV.

So what’s the point of thinking about all this, about flicking through a bunch of books and reading a whole lot more Wikipedia entries? Well, maybe the idea of the END is hardwired into us, just like we seem to be pre-programmed to tell certain kinds of stories. This theory is a double-edged sword; on the one hand it can get out of hand, exploding into fanaticism and bloodshed and people achieving infamy over a pile of corpses. Today it threatens to explode into a modern crusade, fought with nukes and satellites, passenger planes and dirty bombs. Be honest, seeing those planes fly into the WTC…There was something apocalyptic about that.

On the other hand, the idea of the End – if not of the world, then of the live upon it, if not of that then of our way of life – forces us to confront some home truths; truths about the way we treat our environment and the effect we have on the species that surround us, truths about the way we treat our neighbours and the ‘other’, truths about the way we abuse our beliefs to justify the darker angels of human nature.

So if the End is due to come from environmental collapse, maybe we should look at the way in which we contribute to pollution or climate change. If the End is going to be the result of a clash of ideologies, maybe we should be more interested in building bridges than stockpiling canned goods. And if the End is going to come from the hand of God, then maybe we should consider the spiritual side of our nature, and in all things be as prepared as we can be when the End finally comes.

But for now, the End hasn’t come. So turn round, hug your loved ones and make the most of life. It’s the only one you get.