We’re all human

I read Emily Thornberry’s blog for Huff Post for Human Rights Day with the usual sense of disappointment as she explained what the Human Rights Act has done for victims of crime. Because victims are naturally considered more worthy recipients of rights. Compared to the Tories’ sabre rattling over withdrawal from the European Convention of Human Rights completely, as well as repealing the Human Rights Act, it’s something I suppose but…. The blog feeds into the idea that there are deserving and undeserving people when it comes to human rights. This is the kind of attitude that makes me grind my teeth. Anyone whose rights are infringed becomes a victim in that moment. That’s the point: human rights conventions impose a moral standard which grants rights to all. The UN’s use of the word “universal” isn’t a coincidence for crying out loud. We protect everyone because if we don’t we’re accepting some people have a lower value. We have rights like those related to fair trial to ensure the innocent person and the guilty one both get equal treatment under the law because it’s the right thing to do. Because collectively we have agreed on a high standard of justice, even though individually we might have personal feelings about a case which make us question them a little (and for some people a lot).

Human rights are for all humanity. To me, protecting the rights of even a convicted murderer, terrorist, or rapist does protect me. It protects me simply by saying that everyone, absolutely everyone, is equal under the law and that the State is accountable for it’s actions. That doesn’t just protect my rights. It enables me to live with my society’s values. I look at a country like America with a certain amount of bafflement because I just don’t understand a society that continues to use the death penalty. Ours is a far from perfect society but a commitment to human rights gives people very real rights and remedies and makes us all better for it. Everyone is entitled to human rights such as life, dignity and justice. The fact that it’s not politically convenient to say so in the present climate doesn’t change that fact.

The Power of Images

Every so often, for one reason or another, someone suggests that the flood of shocking images we see may damage our ability to feel empathy. It’s an argument which is particularly popular in relation to images of fictional violence when explanations and excuses for violent actions are being sought but there’s also the question of whether the images presented to us by news media just desensitise us, making us care less rather than making us violent.

After cameras and film cameras were first invented they were often used for war photography, bringing the reality of war into the fashionable salons. War artists can produce extremely powerful images but photography is more immediate and a more trusted way of capturing the imagery of war, although it would be naive to ignore the use of photography for propaganda. Of course we know that photos can be faked but on the whole photos, and later films, are their own monument which keep history alive. There’s no hiding from reality and pretending that these aren’t real people. Without films of concentration camps could we really even believe that people did that to other people? They turn numbers of dead so high that we can barely comprehend them into real people. There’s front line footage which does the same, turning millions of military deaths into millions of dead people.

So much has changed since the early days of photography. I always think of the Viet Nam photo of a group of people running from a napalm attack, with a naked child in the foreground as some kind of turning point where photo journalism got rawer and politically more honest. I decided not to include the photo here but if it doesn’t immediately spring to l mind, you can see it on Wikipedia. And then eventually, after years of tv footage and the switch to colour photos in print, came digital and the availability of images and films streamed online. And then came another event too huge for our minds to process it as real. On September 11, I got back from court to find an email from another trainee with a link. I clicked on it and thought “so what? Another disaster film. Why does she think I’d be interested?” Even once I realised what I was seeing, my mind couldn’t wrap itself around it. Yet later, when the decision was made to publish a photo of an person falling through the air, the horror was humanised. I’ll never forget that photo. For a lot of people it’s the symbol of the human suffering that took place in the Twin Towers. It was a heartwrenching illustration of people who had had all hope stolen from them and realised the only control they had left over their lives lay in the power to decide the manner and timing of their own death. It’s strange. The photo is indelibly etched into my memory so I was surprised to come across an article called The Most Famous 9-11 Photograph No-one Has Seen. Initially, I thought the photo had crossed a line too. Now I see it differently. Now it’s not disrespectful. I see the pathos and think it’s right that we have an image which brings home the real loss that day. On 9/11 this year Twitter was full of businesses tweeting 9/11 themed special offers so I’d say we’ve never needed The Falling Man more. The article is an interesting one and makes another interesting point. 9/11 was only 12 years ago but people didn’t have camera phones and there was no Twitter. Fast forward to last year’s Sandy storm and suddenly instagram and Twitter were full of photos of empty shelves in shops and people taking selfies in darkened homes. If you give people cameras they won’t always record the profound for posterity. Still, images and videos taken by private individuals can add to our understanding of events and even have evidentiary value. An example which springs to mind is the death of Ian Tomlinson in London. They can also confuse things and result in the spread of misinformation, as we saw after the Boston bombing.

The most powerful images of war, terrorist attacks and accidents are the ones which show us a human face. The same could be said of natural disasters. Show a trail of devastation and it’s not quite comprehensible, not quite real. Show the people caught up in it and that changes. People are programmed to relate best to individual stories. We feel more empathy for identifiable people than we do for numbers. I’m sure there are other sources for this but Dan Ariely discussed it in Upside of Irrationality and pointed out that charities show individuals who have been or can be helped by them in their advertising because they know that statistics and generalisations don’t engage people who see the adverts. This clip’s a short discussion of the theory.

The grind of horror seems to keep growing, image after image. Stills and video footage of man made and natural disasters taken with mobiles day after day. It sometimes seems like there are no limits any more. A few years back a local paper here had to apologise after publishing a photo (taken with a camera phone) of a dismembered body at Stevenage train station after someone died on the tracks. Have we become immune? Have images lost the power to shock? There has been more than enough horror to go round recently and that’s what got me thinking about all of this. It got me thinking about how images are delivered to us and whether the medium we see them on affects our response.

In August someone I follow suggested following Patrick Kingsley for his coverage of what was happening in Egypt. It was a general suggestion – he didn’t say it to me specifically. I did what he suggested. I looked at Patrick Kingsley’s profile page. Then I opened the photos. Then I sat with tears rolling down my face. I could only stand to look at a few photos before I had to stop. In a strange way, I’m glad images still have the power to shock me that much but a few days later the Syrian chemical attack was on the tv news. Children were writhing, dying and zipped into body bags on screen. I didn’t feel nothing. I felt pity, anger but I didn’t have the same visceral response. Go back in time to another image from Syria: I think it was just before Christmas, after Sandyhook, when many people were tweeting about both things. Simon Ricketts shared a photo on Twitter of a girl in a hospital. Her head was bandaged, at least one of each of her arms and legs was too – the arm was in a cast. There was blood – deep grazes? And she was grinning. I can’t remember what he said in the tweet. I think it was a dig (although probably mildly put because he’s a nice tweeter) comparing her joy, and bravery, to someone else but it’d take forever to find it again. That photo, another Syrian child, hit me hard, hard enough to mention it again now months later. Is there a difference in how images affect me based on the way I receive them? Photos on Twitter are potentially more graphic than tv but not by much these days. An alternative explanation occurred to me. TV is a place of horrors. Even newspaper front pages contain expected horror but a mobile phone? A mobile phone is so much more than a place to look at news. It contains our personal photos and allows us into others’. It holds our families, friends, lovers and pets. It holds scenes of beauty that we snapped in an instant. Through apps like Twitter, Facebook and instagram we share each other’s moments. To some extent, at some internal level, I think a mobile is a “safe” place. It’s like having a photo album with us all the time. Maybe this makes what we see on them more personal somehow. And if it does, I’d have to say that’s a good thing.

Interview with a Job Centre Advisor: sanction targets & corruption revealed

A JCP employee speaks out about practices (particularly sanctions) and leaves me speechless. If he’s right about phasing out Job Centre staff (and it does make sense), I can’t help but wonder what their job options will be when that time comes.


@JobcentreMole is a Job Centre advisor who has taken to Twitter to speak out about the Job Centre’s unfair treatment of people who are claiming benefits. For obvious reasons he is anonymous. I think that what he’s doing is very brave. We did this interview by email. (All emphases are mine).
The Mole says: “I started my career with Jobcentre plus over 15 years ago at such a young age, I have literally done every job at lower (band B) level there is within the Jobcentre. I can assure you my knowledge of Jobcentre Plus is up with the best, I can also assure you I am not alone with my views.” 
Do the management have targets to sanction x number of people, or are your team encouraged to sanction people?

There is 100% no specific target at all, however it is and has been mentioned before that each signer…

View original post 2,691 more words

Hard Out Here

I have breasts. Therefore it’s my sworn duty to have an opinion on Lily Allen’s new video, or something. I’ve talked about body image hypersexualised content in pop videos and a porn culture before so it’s not surprising that I found Hard Out Here, well, interesting. Musically, it’s awful but I watched it a few times so this post wouldn’t be based on a quick view where the only impressions left once the shit music ended were the endless repetition of the word “bitch” and masses of jiggling female flesh.

When it comes to the racial aspects of Allen’s video I’m well aware that I’m a privileged white 30-something woman. I don’t even like hip hop. I don’t feel qualified to get into the race issues but it’s impossible to ignore them completely so I’m going to say that I thought Hip Hop Doesn’t Need Another White Savior was an interesting read which chimed with some of my thoughts as a non-hip hop fan and took them much further as far as race issues go.

I was surprised by the initial hype among some people who’re acting like Hard Out Here should be celebrated as a feminist anthem. Quite apart from the legitimate arguments about race issues, it’s a very limited song. It’s not a complex sociological commentary on women’s role in society today. It’s only a pop song and it felt like a mix of personal bugbears being brought out more than a serious attempt to address problems. Putting the word “injustice” in a song doesn’t automatically imbue it with depth. It felt to me like Allen’s pissed off about a few things and that the difference between her and most women is she can get a few million hits on Youtube, ably assisted by her record company, when she wants to have a rant. You could say it’s better than nobody within her genre talking about feminism at all but the reason I took it to pieces in my head is because of the people trying to make it go too far. It’s not just fans of the song. Some women complaining about race are suggesting it represents white feminism too. It doesn’t even do that as far as I’m concerned.

I get her decision to use the word “bitch” but personally I’ve got absolutely no desire to see it appropriated. It’s one of a very small number of words where I feel some kind of sisterly requirement not to use it (unusual because I’m quite sweary and I prefer not to create even more barriers between men and women by buying into the sisterhood). But it’s a word only ever used for women and often comes with the word “silly” before it. I don’t feel a desire to respond “yeah! I’m a bitch. That’s our word now” just because every time any woman makes a vaguely feminist statement we’re all meant to jump on the bandwagon.

You’ll find me in the studio and not in the kitchen

Allen starts off by defending her right to work. Maybe my lack of interest in what male pop and hip hop artists have been saying is showing here. Maybe they have been making music suggesting women should get back to the kitchen but it doesn’t chime with me at all. If it had been released in the 1950s it would’ve been revolutionary but seems like a really lazy rhyme. It isn’t a choice between work or the kitchen these days. Modern women have to do both and that is hard. I was talking to a few the other day about the utter exhaustion they feel trying to juggle work and home. It feels like a sloppy play on the saint/whore thing too. I’ve never got the idea that women should be passionless about food, which just adds to my irritability over this line. Any man who wants a saint in the kitchen presumably doesn’t care very much about good food.

I won’t be bragging ’bout my cars or talking ’bout my chains

Uh. Ok Lily. Don’t. I sure as hell don’t feel any need to defend the fact that I don’t. My assumption is that she’s drawing a line in the sand between her and materialistic women as well as men so, far from representing all women, she’s having a go at the ones she disapproves of. The article linked to above expands on the race elements of this.

Don’t need to shake my ass for you ’cause I’ve got a brain

I have a brain. It functions pretty damned well. I can shake my ass if I want to. I do shake my ass when I want to (although the line reminds me of the Afghan Whigs’ Somethin’ Hot which is a bit slower than shaking). Nobody’s making me feel I have to. There aren’t roving bands of men demanding I do it out here, in the real world. What’s happened instead, with monotonous regularity, is that if I shake it there’s always at least one who thinks he owns it. It’s my choice whether to give it or not and there’s little doubt some men don’t get that. Back in the days when I regularly went clubbing, I had fake boyfriends who were willing to step in as needed if I didn’t have an actual one with me because it was the quickest way to stop total strangers from grabbing me. When we were in a pretty big group, there were always at least a couple of men in the group making sure us women were ok. That’s the real world outside the rarefied air of the pop music industry.

The music industry demands women should strip down and shake their asses and a lot more besides but by wording the line in the way she has, Allen is dismissing all women do it as stupid. How is that a feminist statement? Some women may feel coerced into it. Some choose to do it. Some do it for stupid reasons. Some are stupid. but that doesn’t mean there’s a causal relationship between stupidity and ass shaking. Again, it feels like Allen’s drawing a line in the sand between her and any woman who does shake her ass. I did something slightly shameful the other week. I half watched a “documentary” on Miley Cyrus. There wasn’t anything else on and I was curious, partly because I’ve never knowingly heard a single one of her songs. It was really a combination promo for her new album and the MTV Europe awards, which were being broadcast after it. After the US Awards I wondered if she was being manipulated. Not according to her. She said she wanted to cause waves bigger than Britney Spears and Madonna did when they performed at the awards. It was all about novelty and pushing the envelope to her. She wanted to shock. She thought her performance was funny. She even said:
“I live in America and we’re the land of the free. If you can’t express yourself you’re not very free”
Yeah. Calling her stupid, I have no problem with. Calling everyone else stupid is a different matter though.

If I told you about my sex life, you’d call me a slut
When boys be talking about their bitches, no one’s making a fuss

It’s interesting that she says “boys” because it makes a clear distinction between men of my generation and boys. I often hope that all the slut shaming stories are blowing the scale of the problem out of proportion but I have the nasty thought that maybe my generation was both the first and the last to come close to sexual equality. Slut shaming takes away a woman’s right to be a sexual person while at the same time pop and hip hop culture is sending young women the message that they should obediently do anything and everything they’re asked to because they’re asked to, rather than because they want to. It’s also notable that Allen’s married. She’s saying people would call her a slut if they knew the specifics of what happens within her marriage? I really hope she’s wrong because if things have reached the point where having a satisfying monogamous relationship makes a woman a slut we really are completely, well, fucked.

Still, there’s also something hypocritical in the line when you consider she’s just called women who shake their asses publicly stupid. She shouldn’t be judged but other women should be? I wonder if she’s ever been in a situation where she’s chosen to shake her ass for one specific “you”.

There’s a glass ceiling to break, aha, there’s money to make

I see the glass ceiling as quite a specific thing. It’s what stops women getting to the top. Women can reach the top in the music industry. They bring something different to the table which has nothing to do with objectifying their bodies. They have female vocals. I pondered the lines and decided the “money to make” is being made by industry execs who tell women they’ve got it made but then require women to do things men would never be asked to as a condition of their label’s full backing but the problems she’s talking about are quite specific to the music industry. For most women, the glass ceiling has more to do with questions over their commitment to work. It starts long before women have children. A partner once said to me he was worried about how heavily the firm had come to rely on young women who might all get pregnant at the same time. A friend was told she wouldn’t want to be a partner because she had a husband at home to take care of. It can also involve stereotyping around “male” and “female” traits and which ones are considered to be more valuable to business. These more mundane problems are a long way from the music industry.

Artists have always been beholden to their audience to a greater or lesser degree. The reality for the past 75 years has been that there’s a choice to be made between commercial success and personal integrity. Some are able to have both but not many. If any artist is willing to just do what they love, they can make a living if they’ve got the talent. That’s about more than just the gender of the artist. Yes, we should question why the most popular artists are expected to play the particular games Allen’s talking about but not everyone does. I love both female and male artists who don’t play the game although admittedly that’s partly because I just don’t like the kind of music that makes the most money, regardless of the lyrics or videos.

Forget your balls and grow a pair of tits

As my generation was the first to whom buying your breasts became acceptable, I don’t see this as a feminist war cry. I see what she’s getting at. It just doesn’t work for me because of those undertones.

You’re not a size six, and you’re not good looking
Well you better be rich, or be real good at cooking
You should probably lose some weight
‘Cause we can’t see your bones
You should probably fix your face or you’ll end up on your own

Within the pop music industry and film/tv there’s an enormous amount of pressure to look a certain way and women don’t help by buying magazines that take the piss out of imperfections. I agree that there’s enormous pressure on celebrities and that it trickles down. My read is this was a major factor in the song ever getting written.

Allen’s justification for using dancers in bikinis while she’s in something less revealing is that she’s uncomfortable with her body after having had children. I’ve said before we shouldn’t be too critical of each other’s insecurities. It would be pretty hypocritical of me to say “hey, you. Stop being insecure.” I could kick myself for my own insecurities and how they affect my actions sometimes (seriously, I annoy myself by seeking reassurance he actually is interested) but I’m not about to kick someone else for having some. That said, I find it really hard to see how it benefits feminism for a woman to complain about the kind of societal pressure that adds to insecurities, concede to it herself in her choice of outfit and then have a bunch of perfectly proportioned backing dancers in bikinis behind her. Quite apart from their race, can’t she see how unhelpful that is? Calling it satire isn’t an answer. Keeping her clothes on meant that the satire was lost as the rest of the dancers did a barely hammed up version of what we’re used to seeing.

Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you?
Have you thought about your butt? Who’s gonna tear it in two?

Well, we all know what this is about and that she’s got Robin Thicke and his pals in the cross hairs. Yes, rape culture sadly seems to be rising but the problem with the simplistic way in which Allen delivers her opinion on it is that it creates more divisions. Who’s her anger actually directed at? Men in general? That would be unfair and anathema to my vision of what feminism ought to be. It ought to be about genuine equality and I’d really like to put the days of crying “all men are bastards” behind us. Based on the exact words, another alternative interpretation to the one that she only has a very specific group of men in mind is available. It could also be read as a criticism of women. Young women mostly. The kind of women who might listen to her music. It reads like she’s calling those women out, telling them to examine their choices and she’s doing it using sarcasm. It’s not wrong to want those women to realise they deserve better but it’s wrong to do it in that way.

We’ve never had it so good, aha, we’re out of the woods
And if you can’t detect the sarcasm, you misunderstood
Inequality promises that it’s here to stay
Always trust the injustice ’cause it’s not going away

The implication of the sarcasm is that other people are saying we’ve never had it so good but not many people really are, are they? There have been improvements in the workplace but very few people are saying we’ve achieved equality. And as for sexual politics, we have an endless stream of unpleasantness coming over from the States, rape apologists from the religious right to rappers, like a particularly virulent disease that’s impossible to ignore.

An anthem isn’t one which concludes we’re fucked and we’d better get used to it. An anthem gives hope. Her final lines bitterly suggest there is none. All in all, I don’t have a clue why anyone would call her a standard bearer for feminism off the back of this song. It hits a couple of hot buttons but it’s personal, clichéd, snipy and divisive. It’s only a pop song though. If she really wanted to be taken seriously I’m sure she could’ve done better. It wouldn’t be hard to improve if she just ditched the pop format and gave herself more space. Not my cup of coffee musically but, in the form she’s delivered it, not my brand of feminism either, thanks very much.

Tories tacitly admit they’re more dangerous than porn

The story’s done the rounds that the Tories have removed old speeches from the internet. Yes, the Tories’ actions do raise questions about the ability of others to hold them to account but, wait. What’s this? It’s the Register pointing out in “Oh My GOD! Have the TORIES ERASED THE INTERNET?*” that the reports are technically inaccurate and Labour have done the same thing (and giving their former colleague, now at Computer Weekly and who started the panic, a swift kick in the shins in the process). Neither of our biggest parties wants us to look too closely at what they’ve said in the past and neither needed to resort to sinister tactics to do it. So there you go. I’d suggest that if you plan on holding the Lib Dems to account for their many many broken promises, you nail the original promises down fast before they do the same thing (if they haven’t already).

Poppy Prejudice

As I’ve read comments about Remembrance Day today I’ve wondered if there’s a note of inverted snobbery in some. It led me to thinking about my own attitude. I’m not talking about the arguments over whether war is glorified in the process of remembrance. That’s a fair debate to have and I agree with those people with an eye on the anniversary of the start of World War One next year who argue that it shouldn’t be romanticised (to me, Rupert Brookes’ poetry should only see the light of day in classrooms accompanied by the commentary that he never saw action in the trenches) or full of patriotic hyperbole (by the way if you’ve never seen Oh What a Lovely War, do watch it – it really is brilliant).

I suppose my thoughts have more to do with poppy wearers than poppy wearing – the people in the public eye who wear them. For the first time today I paid attention to people’s lapels and chests in the supermarket (most of the time they could be in a grizzly bear costume and I wouldn’t notice) and saw how few were wearing poppies. And yet if you put the tv on you can’t escape them. There’s something off about seeing poppies on everybody who comes within 50 feet of a tv camera. Although I haven’t been watching Strictly this year, I assume their glittery poppies are back – those things really piss me off. When every single tv presenter seems to be wearing a poppy but relatively few people are in my (admittedly unscientific and tiny) experiment, I do think it’s fair to suggest there could be an element of corporate compulsion behind poppy wearing. We don’t know unless people are actually asked what they really think (although now it’s in my head I’ll probably Google it to see if there’s anything out there on it) but if that does go on it makes a sham of the act of remembrance.*

There’s that but there’s also the politicians and various other people who grace our screens in the run up to Remembrance Day. I have to ask myself: is the faint lip curl of disgust when I see some people wearing poppies fair? Is it even rational? I grimaced at the sight of energy bosses wearing poppies. For many people wearing a poppy has personal resonance. If the narrative in my head which accompanies that grimace is “like they care” is that fair? Or am I letting my own prejudices get the better of me? For all I know the energy bosses have all been remembering their families today (I hesitate to limit it to men because my grandma was a Wren). If I cast the energy bosses as bogeymen who couldn’t possibly care about remembrance just because they’re willing to defend price rise after price rise, am I guilty of inverted snobbery? I think I am and I don’t like myself much for it. Although it’s not unreasonable to suggest that wearing a poppy has become the done thing in some circles, we should be careful not to let our feelings about entirely separate issues get in the way. On a day which is about remembering I’m reminded not to think of people as two dimensional.

* it’s been pointed out to me that the kind of people who write to Points of View would hit the roof if tv stopped wearing poppies. He’s probably right. That’s just a different kind of compulsion but it’s a fair point.

Fields of Poppies

White poppies have been around since the 1930s and are a symbol of peace. The Guardian’s running a poll to see who wears white and who wears red. I wear red. As far as I know the proceeds of sale of white poppies don’t go to the Royal British Legion and that’s where I want the money to go. I understand some people wanting to wear white and don’t have a problem with white poppies but, for me, red poppies don’t glorify war. They’re just an act of remembrance. From time to time there’ll be people who want to twist the meaning of any symbol but I’d rather carry on doing what seems right to me regardless.

There’s a different kind of poppy I want to mention though because I have a stronger opinion on it. A couple of years ago I heard about purple poppies for the first time. The idea is to remember animals caught up in our wars such as horses and sniffer dogs (ships cats were still around during at least World War One too). I agree we should be conscious that our actions have consequences affecting animals, although when it comes to wars governments have enough trouble recognising that human lives have value. What I’m not happy to do is to donate to Animal Aid by buying a poppy from them. If the money directly helped animals in warzones, I might feel differently. I agree with many of Animal Aid’s campaigns but the fact that they’re a campaign and lobbying group makes it seem inappropriate for them to get involved in Remembrance Day somehow and I can’t shake the sense that someone saw Remembrance Day as a money spinner. I’ve never bought a purple poppy and I don’t intend to.

To me, Remembrance Day is about reflection and recognition of human sacrifice. It’s about millions who died in every affected country during the two world wars (military and civilian) and the survivors, who lived through times my generation can’t begin to imagine. It’s about people who’ve served in Afghanistan and Iraq and died or were injured and I hope poppy donations help to make up for the help the Government fails to give. I believe we were wrong to go into either country but that’s not a judgement on the troops.

Remembrance Day isn’t about governments and it’s not a day for lobbying. It’s always been about the horror of war and the hope of peace. Red poppies and silence speak volumes.

“The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est”

8 November 2013
There was an excellent Comment piece by Harry Leslie Smith in the Guardian today, a man born in the same year as my grandparents as it happens. He shares his feelings, in particular on the risk that the Government’s plans to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War One are likely to airbrush the realities of what life was like at home for most of the people who ended up fighting to create a more acceptable picture of history.

If Big Ben tolled every second starting on 28 July 2014 to mark every casualty in World War One it would stop just 43 days short of the anniversary of the armistice on 11 November 2018 by my calculation. 37 million dead and injured and that doesn’t even begin to cover all the people whose lives were affected.