Category Archives: Politics

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.

Superman, Orson Scott Card and Diversity in Geek Culture

It’s a strange thing, becoming estranged from your own sub-culture. Things happen within a close-knit community that once you’d be in the middle of, but now it feels like it’s happens to other people.

Problem is, sometimes those other people need support; that the stories and characters you love become tainted by association and bad decisions, that your community gets bruised and battered and threatens to tear itself apart.

So when DC Comics announced that their new Superman title would by written by outspoken anti-gay activist Orson Scott Card. As PR moves go, it’s been less than successful, almost immediately attracting a boycott. Do I think DC is fundamentally homophobic? No – I think they hired successful-writer-of-space-opera Orson rather than person-who-doesn’t-like-gay-people Orson, no malice intended. It’s a screw-up.

That’s the problem. And it’s bigger than Orson Scott Card.

Geek culture is often blind to the implications of the media it produces, which leads to things unravelling when people on the receiving end of those implications dare to point them out. Key flashpoints in recent years have been the treatment of women in comic books (with ‘Women in Refrigerators’ being one of the key tropes) and the grief black cosplayers get when they’re dressed as white characters. DC recruiting Card is just the latest controversy that exposes a prejudiced undercurrent in geek culture.

Part of me thinks it’s because of the small-c conservatism of the key geek texts – Superman was created in the 1930s, Lord of the Rings in the fifties, Doctor Who in the sixties, all products of eras with a less inclusive approach to society, their launch years coinciding with Kristallnacht, McCarthyism and Governor Wallace declaring “Segregation forever” in Alabama respectively. Of course their histories are going to have problematic moments; racist caricatures of Japanese soldiers during war time, a lack of decent roles for women or anyone who isn’t white. For the most part, the worst excesses of this get left behind as society moves on; unfortunately, alongside this, stories calcify around particular images and scenarios – they become iconic, in the positive and negative senses of the word.

The problem is, because geek culture holds true to these iconic texts, it creates havoc when, say, a film adaptation wants to beef up the roles of female characters or wants the next Doctor to be black. “That’s not how it’s always been,” comes the inevitable response, and so genres that should be dynamic in exploring possibilities shut down and remain dominated by white men. And while I’ve got nothing against white men (I am one), they don’t exactly give geek culture a multiplicity of voices. And where does that leave you if you’re not one of those voices? Do you get labelled a fake nerd because, say, girls can’t possibly be into comics?

This is where the ‘don’t change the icons’ excuse runs out, because the treatment of people outside the ‘mainstream’ of geek culture can be abhorrent. For a community that has historically been defined by standing on the margins, it’s capable of doing its own share of marginalising.

Superman shouldn’t be about that. More than any other superhero, he’s the one who’s defined most purely by his desire to help and protect others. He’s the guy who gets between you and a killer robot. Or a slumlord. Or corruption or abuse or prejudice. Superman helps people. That’s his job. The key moment of All Star Superman, the best work on the character for years, isn’t a gonzo sci-fi concept, it’s Superman gently and simply talking a girl out of throwing herself off a building. If Superman can’t say “It gets better” then he’s outlived his usefulness. I don’t think he has, but that usefulness has to be more than him picking up asteroids.

I don’t think for one minute DC editorial would let Orson Scott Card use one of its titles to promote a specific political stance. That doesn’t matter. Homophobia has become the elephant in the room, and the fact that Card was even considered for the role, seemingly without anyone considering that it might just be controversial, is problematic. There are already very few black and female creators working in the industry; to pick an outspoken, homophobic author to write DC’s flagship character just adds insult to injury. What does it say to gay creators trying to break into the industry? Heck, what does it say to those who are already established?

Geek culture, in both professional and fan communities, needs to take a good look at itself. Questions of race, gender and sexuality need to be addressed, (and not just by a tiny minority) but more importantly, the community needs to show respect – respect for fellow fans, respect for customers, respect for those who will love Man of Steel this summer but don’t want to buy a comic because it’s written by a homophobe. This isn’t about ideology or politics, this is about humanity.

Superman was once used to fight the Ku Klux Klan for real. We forget the power of our stories; this current controversy acts as a reminder that these characters are important and have meaning for millions of people. Superman is about truth and justice; the moment his books work against that, it’s a problem; it’s even more of a problem that people remain blind to those problems.

Geek culture needs to lose its blinders and live up to its own ideals; needs to be less of a customer base and more of a community. How we go about that will be the real test of whether comic fandom deserves to survive the years to come.

Holocaust Memorial Day 2013

There’s a garden in Jerusalem, at the Yad Vashem institute, in which an avenue of trees commemorates those who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust. I find that idea powerful, that in a bustling city at the epicentre of religion and politics and geopolitical tensions there’s a place for contemplation and peace and history.

It exists within a wider context, of course, a context of tragedy and horror and violence. It’s right to remember those who survived, the heroes who saved others, but the bigger story is that of the millions killed, industrialised slaughter and the vicious, brutal explosion of racism and xenophobia. I visited Yad Vashem years ago; it’s a place that changes you. I remember a room full of candles and pictures of murdered children. It wasn’t a room to simply walk away from.

More people died than were saved; it’s that simple. We memorialise what happened, not just because of it’s horrific history but because it happens again and again and again, in Rwanda and Cambodia and Bosnia and Darfur, and maybe if we keep remembering, sooner or later we’ll take the damn hint and it won’t happen again.

And yet remembering the rarer stories of the rescued and the rescuers remains important. Holocaust Memorial Day coincides with National Storytelling Week, and maybe telling stories of survivors and rescuers will, if not prevent another genocide somewhere in the world, strengthen reactions to it, light beacons of hope.

So I’ve blogged about Irena Sendler and Astrides de Sousa Mendes before, and then there’s Leopold Socha. A Polish sewage worker, Socha, his wife and a colleague hid a group of Jewish refugees in the sewers under Lwow – a year after the end of the war, Socha was killed saving his daughter from being hit by a truck. I think it’s safe to say that he’s my new hero.

But while I’ve heard of these, and while Oskar Schindler is a household name, I know less of the stories of the death, survival and saviours of gay people and Roma and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Trade Unionists and… The Holocaust is overwhelming in its scale, terrifying in how communities seemed to collapse so suddenly, neighbours colluding in putting the people who lived next door on trains to death camps. The reasons for this – fear, propaganda, malice – all seem painfully inadequate, but they serve as a reminder – these things can ultimately only happen when communities turn against each other. A military can bomb a town, sure, but to operate an infrastructure of identification, registration and murder? That requires communities to turn toxic.

And maybe that’s a reason to remember the Righteous Among the Nations; this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day theme is ‘Communities Together: Build a Bridge’, and stories of survival demonstrate how various individuals fought to maintain those communities, not simply labelling those around them as Jewish or Gay or Gypsy or Tutsi, but as people, friends, neighbours; a community.

It’s so easy for communities to fracture: a few cynical political and media comments and suddenly attacks on the disabled are on the rise; suggest opening a mosque in certain places and see what reaction you get. It’s terrifying, but the capacity to run that infrastructure I talked about earlier is never as far away as we’d like. “It couldn’t happen here” is only true until it actually happens here.

The stories we tell define our communities; let the stories of the Holocaust, of all the other genocides we watched on the news, act as warnings and testimony, yes, but also as inoculation. Let’s tell stories, not lies; let’s build bridges, not camps.

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.

Anti-Slavery Day 2012

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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.