Category Archives: Life

How We Use Words: Blog Action Day 2013


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.

The Memories of 9-11

9-11 now seems to inhabit a historical hinterland; far enough away for us to be able to place it into some sense of context, but still recent enough for tears and loss. In a talk given for TED earlier this year, designer Jake Barton spoke about the challenge of designing exhibits for the 9-11 Memorial Museum, realising that visitors wouldn’t just be spectators of history but participants – the survivors, the bereaved, the first responders. It’s a haunting, moving talk that’s well worth checking out, showing ways in which a community can preserve its stories, and how museums can react when the first draft of history is still a thousand painful memories.

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.)

World Book Day 2013

I used to read all the time: seriously, all the time. There was always a book in my rucksack, or under my pillow, or in my hand as I walked, somehow dodging lampposts and pedestrians. I read fiction and non-fiction, following my interests at any given time, and it was glorious.

For me it wasn’t the use of language or the intricacies of plotting and narrative that attracted me to books, it was the ideas. I’m a big geek, so of course I compiled too-big spreadsheets trying to track the whole of human history, just because I read a book that explored what was happening in China and South America while Jesus was being born.

That spreadsheet was part of the problem, I guess, because if I’d spent less time on that and more time on, you know, reading even more, because then I might have sooner developed the wisdom to realise that it’s pretty much impossible to confine the entirety of human experience in an Excel workbook. Books make the world a bigger, busier place, harder to pin down and explain and commodify. They raise questions and send you running down unexplored lanes just to see what’s there; they make you look at one thing and see something else entirely, its atoms and its history.

Now, you can argue that TV and the Internet serve a similar purpose, and that’s true to an extent, but the user experience often lacks breadth or depth; they increasingly provide stuff based on what we like rather than their neighbours on the shelf. With the rise of an experience targeted specifically at an individual, the Internet increasingly becomes domestic, leaving a battered second hand bookstore looking like a Wild West frontier town. I remember when it was the other way round.

I still read now, of course – blogs and articles and reports for work, but I’ve been infected by the tl;dr bug. “Too long, didn’t read” – I’d blame it on the Internet, but really the only excuse is laziness. I miss reading, and fundamentally there’s nothing stopping me doing more of it; I live in a country with free access to Kindles and libraries and the few high street bookstores that haven’t been replaced by pay-day loan companies.

Maybe that’s the biggest threat to books in the digital age – people like me who don’t read them enough while blogging about the importance of reading.

I really need to put together a reading list…

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.