Tag Archives: news

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.

In Memory of Sophie Lancaster

I wrote this a while back, on the International Day Against Intolerance, Discrimination and Violence Based on Musical Preferences, Lifestyle and Dress Code. As today would have been Sophie Lancaster’s birthday, I thought it was worth a repost.

Back in 2007, Sophie Lancaster and her boyfriend were attacked and beaten in Rossendale, Lancashire. Sophie subsequently died from her injuries at the age of 20. The motive for the attack? Sophie and her boyfriend were goths.

I remember the news of this attack breaking, and being shocked at the senselessness of it all. That senselessness has lead to August 24, the anniversary of Sophie’s death, being commemorated as the International Day Against Intolerance, Discrimination and Violence Based on Musical Preferences, Lifestyle and Dress Code. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but in a world where the Sophie Lancaster Foundation is necessary, the day is worth remembering.

While labels can sometimes be used positively – consolidating a community, perhaps, or drawing together those with an affinity to each other – they’re also a curse. Too much of our worth can come from labels, superficial tags that can’t possibly represent the whole person, and at some point that can become dangerous. The teenagers who attacked Sophie and her boyfriend were living under a label, culture and mindset that saw ‘moshers’ as The Other, aliens to be attacked rather than fellow humans with different preferences in fashion. And while it’s horrifying that musical taste should become a life-and-death issue, it’s sadly unsurprising when we’ve been spending years killing each other over race, religion, gender, sexuality… Too often we base our labels around what we’re against rather than what we’re for, and when we do, bad things inevitably happen.

(Of course, this affects public policy too. In the wake of the UK riots, politicians were quick to blame things on criminality, dismissing such issues as poverty and a breakdown in authority. Maybe there’s some truth in that, but it’s still a them-and-us mentality.)

So maybe there’s an opportunity today; to listen to a genre of music we’ve never bothered with before, to chat with someone outside our clique, to rise above our labels and comfort zones. Because no-one should die because of what’s on their iPod.

PS. It’s just occurred to me that this story has thematic links with Deborah Bryan’s excellent but heart-rending posts on bullying over at The Monster in Your Closet…

Remembrance Day 2012

94 years ago, in a railway carriage in the north of France, the war to end all wars was ended with signatures on a piece of paper. The fighting was over, technically, and for those who survived the nightmare of the previous four years it was the start of a tidal wave of emotion – joy, relief, exhaustion, numbness. They were going home.

Only twenty years later, and the insanity would begin again, Blitz and Blitzkrieg and Dresden and Hiroshima. And after that, Korea, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan… And with every one of these, another list of the fallen, another reason to wear a poppy, red or white. Or, I guess, the freedom not to wear a poppy at all, to remember in your own way. Some might want to forget, and who are we to deny them?

At 11:00, the country will fall silent, because silence and dignity are perhaps the only ways to approach the enormity of what’s being remembered. Perhaps with distance from the original Armistice, we’re starting to lose sight of that – the poppy runs the risk of becoming a Shibboleth rather than a symbol of mourning, and that carries with it the danger of making it a fashion accessory, or a form of self-expression (as argued in this article).

But today isn’t about us, is it? “We will remember them”, that’s the key quote, the reason we’ll stop and reflect later this morning. If it becomes about us, our self-expression, we start to forget them, the troops that were sent out: those who died, those who returned, those who are still out there. We forget the medical needs of those who come home with terrible injuries. We forget PTSD. We forget that ex-forces personnel face issues that often lead to homelessness or prison. We forget poverty. We forget why we remember in the first place.

Today, nations will fall silent. Elsewhere, guns will still be firing. And we will remember.

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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.

Ada Lovelace Day 2012

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So it’s Ada Lovelace Day, and while I was thinking of writing about Mary Anning (I like dinosaurs), that post got overtaken by events. Because only last week, a 14 year old girl was shot because she wanted to be a doctor.

The whole concept of this is almost beyond belief – no, scratch that, it’s horribly believable. After all, this isn’t the first time girls have been attacked because they dared to try and get an education. And while it’s bad enough that women face a hard time working in STEM subjects (and in geek culture in general), the idea of teenagers being killed for having that ambition is just…

So let’s celebrate Malala Yousafzai. She’s fourteen and decided to speak out publicly about the Taliban’s edict that girls shouldn’t attend school in her home town of Swat in Pakistan, an edict that has lead to the destruction of 150 schools. Malala wrote a blog about all this for the BBC, and thanks to this and her activism (which has lead to her being awarded a number of peace prizes), she was shot by the Taliban last Tuesday.

She wanted to be a doctor.

Malala Yousafzai

Now she wants to be a politician to help fight for those other girls who want to become doctors, or engineers or programmers or whatever. And yes, that’s a noble and necessary goal, but isn’t it horrific that the world loses a doctor because the fight to see girls receive a decent education is so necessary?

Now I know that I’m a white western male, and am therefore up to my eyeballs in privilege, but it seems ridiculous that we’re marginalizing and persecuting the ambitions of around half the world’s young people. Look at all the talent and passion humanity is squandering because people like Malala not only receive a lack of encouragement but are shot at. Yesterday was Blog Action Day, and it was all about ‘The Power of We’, about how working together and forging communities can change the world. Well, this is the flipside – disenfranchised teenagers and dreams and ambitions being destroyed by extremists. And yes, we can demonise and hate those extremists, but 150 schools don’t get destroyed, women don’t get paid less, without some level of tacit approval from everyone else. That should be a wake-up call; for the sake of young people like Malala, let’s hope it is.

(Okay, so I got a bit political this year. For a less politicized response to ALD, here’s my post from last year…)