Challenging Entitlement

20 01 2013

Most of the blogs I write come from things that I have heard, seen or read.

This piece is no different in that respect.

Mostly I try to reflect on how an issue may be viewed in a different way in order to reveal new dimensions.

This piece is very different in that respect.

I’m writing after having read of a second gang rape on a bus in India. This second, well second widely reported incident, follows just two weeks after Jyoti Singh Pandey was raped, brutalised and murdered. Her father, contrary to the wishes of the Indian authorities, released her name and in doing so expressed his desire that the increased publicity would prevent another woman having to suffer the fate of his daughter.

That this second incident followed so closely after her death shows not only that the horror of that event has not prevented further gang rapes but might even suggest that it has acted as a template for further attacks.

I cannot find a way to view these incidents with anything other than horror and revulsion. There is no way that these events can be seen in shades of grey that could explain the actions of these men but I am moved to write this piece anyway. From any approach I take to the story there are no mitigating factors; educational, cultural, circumstantial or otherwise that can possibly excuse the premeditated assaults on two young women by two gangs of men.

The rape statistics cannot be tackled by telling women how to avoid being raped. When a similar situation as we find today occurred in India in the 1960’s Indira Ghandi was urged to implement a curfew on women to keep them safe. To her credit she responded by arguing that if any curfew was to be introduced that it should be imposed on men.

In South Africa the rape statistics are even more horrifying than those in India. What is also worrying is the response of young women who were interviewed after a rape on their university campus – it was to shrug and say, “these things happen.” Acceptance of a situation is not, of course, the same as agreement with it, but it’s close. By failing to challenge each case of inequality, abuse, assault and rape the feeling of entitlement of the perpetrators grows. Bad things happen, and will continue to happen, when good people stand back and shrug.  Margaret Hefferenan’s book “Willful Blindness” is full of instances where failure to speak out has had catastrophic consequences. More recently,  the Jimmy Savile  case has demonstrated that doing nothing puts others in danger.

My concern is to address the entitlement that these men seem to have felt in allowing them to behave in this way, as in this they are not either alone or unique. In 2012 we had US politicians touting the idea of “legitimate rape” and in the UK we were asked to consider date rape as just a case of bad form. There are countless people, no doubt many well-meaning, many of whom are women, who wish us to complete this sentence, “Women get raped because……” when we should be addressing the issue of why some men become rapists. It is much more likely, as with murder, that women are abused by someone that they know. Telling women to stay off the streets will not address this issue, it will merely reinforce the current situation where women are encouraged to live in fear of walking the streets at night.

Some men, exemplified by the apologists above, are willing to excuse certain types of behaviour, to shift the blame from perpetrator to victim. They do so from a position of power which entitles them to treat women as the cause of any of their indiscretions.

So while I cannot add to the understanding of how individual human beings can behave in such appalling ways towards other human beings I can urge that we all should challenge every single act of suppression that we see, whether that be of gender, race or class as the only way that things will change is if we all challenge the feeling of entitlement that the strong have over the weak.

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Racism for white folks

15 11 2012

I don’t understand why abusing someone due to their colour is worse than berating them for being fat or ugly or having a big nose. Colour is simply a physical attribute.

When Louis Suarez responded to the outrageous comments allegedly made about his sister by a fellow professional footballer by calling him a negrito I felt that, on balance, the words directed at his sister were more hurtful, damaging and distressing than any reference to skin colour.

I consider myself to be a thoughtful, well-balanced person who treats everyone regardless of skin colour or other physical characteristic, equally.

My comments only serve to illustrate how difficult it is for a white person, even one that considers themselves as a champion of diversity and equality, to fully and completely understand what racism means to a non-white. I have demonstrated that I don’t understand. In fact I cannot understand as the impact of racism is experiential.

The truth is that racism is not just about skin colour. It has it’s roots in the economic, social and political dominance that generations of those of us with a white skin have exercised over people of colour from the moment we left European shores in search of new worlds.

And we are still doing it. The treatment of the aboriginal peoples of Australia by the immigrant and dominant white population is a continuing affront to a civilised society. We seek, by means of force and sanction, to persuade the ruling classes of countries in the middle east to adapt better standards of human rights for their peoples yet we ignore the behaviour of white Australia in respect of their treatment of the indigenous non-white population.

For people of colour there can be no white version of racism and abuse based on skin colour is not analogous to verbal aggression based upon any other physical characteristic. I cannot judge the depth of hurt that a racist comment causes for the simple reason that I am white.

Me and the rest of us white folk who have benefited directly and indirectly from the exploitation and subjugation of those with coloured skins would do well to remember that.





Collaboration and the me generation

15 11 2012

There are some facts that are taken as read; men are better at parking than women, women are better multi-taskers than men; women are better listeners and so on. Amongst the list is the fact that women are better collaborators than men.

A recent talk made me think. The gist of the argument goes like this.

In the workplace women often take the jobs in what can broadly be called the care sector. Women are nurses, care workers, support workers and assistants. It is only natural, therefore, that when they seek self-employment they start businesses in these areas; becoming therapists, beauticians, health and well-being specialists. The common theme in these businesses is the focus on the self.

How do I look? How do I feel? Or rather, How do I feel? How do I look?

This is bringing the focus narrower and narrower onto the individual.

It is interesting to think on this dynamic.

Women in apparently nurturing businesses, based on caring skills but working to promote a very individual perspective.

Women’s magazines are full of images of women who we are encouraged to admire not for how they behave but for how they look. And these photographs of painfully thin catwalk models presented as perfect body forms are creating all sorts of problems as women try to make their bodies fit that body image. Again we are being encouraged by women to look inwards, to look at our bodies.

And massage and spa days all focus on the self. The advertisements all encourage women “treat yourself” “you deserve it”. Again the focus is on the self. What can you do for your self.

This focus on the self seems to me to be the opposite of collaborative thinking.

Far better to look outwards and see what we can do for each other don’t you think?





Paying your way

1 10 2012

On Thursday morning I took the bus from Leith to St Andrews Square. It cost just £1.40 for a journey that took around half an hour. The bus was full, which was brilliant. In fact the picture is even brighter as I could have travelled the whole route for the same charge. For £3.50 I could have spent the whole day travelling on Lothian Buses across Edinburgh. When I got back to Bute I paid £1.90 for a single trip of less than 3 miles.There were only 3 other people on the bus, one of whom was the bus driver..

The pause there was deliberate. What do you think I’m going to say next? I do tend to rant a bit, so you could be forgiven for thinking that I’m going to complain about the Bute fare. Not this time. I am happy to pay a premium so that the service continues to exist. And this, coupled with the fact that I am part way through reading Margaret Heffernan’s book Wilful Blindness, which includes discussions around the type of morally bankrupt behaviour that led to fall of banks, corporations and financial institutions, got me thinking about taxes.

I am now, and have always been, happy to pay my taxes. Paying a higher rate of tax, I believe, should be a badge of honour rather than something to be avoided .

I believe that those who can afford to do so, should pay more through the tax system in order to provide the public services, like the NHS , on which the majority of us depend, and the services, like rural bus services, on which many depend.

Earlier this year I was involved in a project on Skye that included a young man who called himself an anarchist, but who was happy to take unemployment benefit. He felt it was OK to take money from the government as they were all corrupt and incompetent. He was, however, happy to send his kids to school and on to college and complained if the bins weren’t emptied on time. Now I’m sure that we all recoil from benefit cheats and scroungers, which he was, but are the guys at the top of the earnings heap any better? I would argue that they are worse as the young man I knew was stupid whereas bankers, industrialists, property billionaires are not. They very cleverly and with aforethought hide their money away from the tax man.

Even if you are not particularly altruistic, or if you are unlikely to ever support measures that would promote re-distribution of wealth, or if you consider the acquisition of personal wealth as a 100% positive thing, I would urge a bit of “there but the grace of God go I” mentality. There are many stories, over the past few years in particular, of those who have built businesses and wealth then subsequently crashed and burned. In fact I challenge you to find an entrepreneur, including myself, that hasn’t got a failure in their portfolio.

Now this is OK when you are younger and the failure can be put down to experience, and indeed catastrophic failure is often a great learning experience, but what if your mistake happens late on? What happens if your first mistake is your last? What happens if, like doctors in Greece, the system crashes around you and you go from being pillars of the establishment dispensing medicines to queuing for free drugs as you can’t afford to buy tablets to treat your own headache? You may feel invincible right now but trust me you are not, as Tom Wolfe coined in Bonfire of the Vanities a “Master of the Universe.” Shit happens and sooner or later it will happen to you.

***

After completing this article I read this and felt compelled to share this too
JK Rowling in The Times on tax…
“I chose to remain a domiciled taxpayer for a couple of reasons. The main one was that I wanted my children to grow up where I grew up, to have proper roots in a culture as old and magnificent as Britain’s; to be citizens, with everything that implies, of a real country, not free-floating ex-pats, living in the limbo of some tax haven and associating only with the children of similarly greedy tax exiles.

A second reason, however, was that I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that Mr Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall. I cannot help feeling, therefore, that it would have been contemptible to scarper for the West Indies at the first sniff of a seven-figure royalty cheque. This, if you like, is my notion of patriotism. On the available evidence, I suspect that it is Lord Ashcroft’s idea of being a mug”.





A plea for thinking for yourself

22 09 2012

I am an advocate for something that we seem to have lost,or at least lost respect for, namely thinking.

Nowhere is its loss more clearly demonstrated than n the inaptly named group thinking. This has been evident recently in the situation surrounding WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

In this case, the fact that he took an anti-establishment position in exposing government secrets via the WikiLeaks website puts him beyond reproach. That he took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy to prevent extradition to the USA, where he would not receive a fair trail, is accepted as Gospel. Whether or not this is actually the case is not important at the moment, what is important is that each of us should feel free to think about the situation and feel free to comment.

For example, what has he to hide in refusing to stand trial in Sweden? Someone who has put their head above the parapets and exposed the secrets of those who would prefer to have them suppressed must surely respect due process when faced with a charge made against him, surely? A claim made in a country, Sweden, where one could reasonably accept a fair and open trial compared to, say, Ecuador?

And if we are talking about justice, what about justice for the two women who have brought the charges against him? Do they not deserve to be heard? Throughout history and on into the 21st Century influential men and the authorities who protect their interests have far too often dismissed allegations of rape. Reporting of rape, serious investigation by the police and successful prosecutions of rape are lamentably few. We must not dismiss or belittle accusations of rape. Advances for women’s rights in this area have been hard-won and remain fragile.

We  have to take these allegations seriously and not simply assume that because Julioan Assange did good things with the WikiLeaks website that he is a wholly good person and incapable of doing any bad thing. History is full of good men doing bad things. I only recently read o statement from a man who is serving a 16 year prison sentence for stabbing his wife to death in which he said, “ I have done a lot of good things, beneficial things, donated to charity. No-one remembers these things. All they remember is that I murdered my wife.”

And it is not for me to judge Julian Assange. He may well be innocent of the charges laid against him. But we have to be able to question the situation and not just go along with the group think that sees the only reason for his reluctance to stand trial is fear of onward extradition. When I posted a thoughtful, well argued piece by Laurie Penny to my Facebook page I was confronted by group think from his defendants. So I am using the case of Julian Assange to illustrate the group think phenomenon. I might just have easily have used the case of the Catholic Church who are asking all parishioners not to think for themselves but to place themselves fully and without question behind the churches opposition to gay marriage.

My assertion is that we need to think for ourselves. We need to think and apply thought all the time and not be uncritically accepting of anything, irrespective of who is relaying the message. If the investors in Bernhard Madoffs Ponzi scheme had done their own thinking, conducted just a little research, rather than relying on information from friends they could have saved a themselves a fortune





Dressing Up

18 09 2012

Recently the West Midlands police were criticised for launching a poster campaign aimed at giving information to women about how to avoid being raped. While I haven’t seen the posters I understand that they focussed on how to dress in order to avoid “sending out the wrong signals” and thereby becoming a target for rapists.

They were immediately harangued by feminist groups who insisted that the message should be “don’t rape” rather than “don’t get raped”. I agree. I have long advocated that we should teach the boys not preach to the girls. However on the issue of dress I find myself conflicted.

When I see young girls walking around scantily dressed I do wonder about the signals they are sending out. Not that wearing ultra short skirts means that you deserve to be raped but rather that this display of the body can only serve to continue to objectify women purely as objects of sexual desire. It caused one male comedian to speculate recently as to whether the feminist revolution of the sixties and seventies was actually masterminded by a man, as the result of the revolution has been exactly what men wanted – streets full of scantily clad women.

Clearly women should be allowed/able to wear what they want but are these young girls really dressing for themselves or dressing to attract the attention of men and as a consequence attracting the attention of specifically those type of men that see women just as sex objects.

Dressing for attention isn’t a new phenomenon. I recently viewed an exhibition of the lovers of Charles I and II. All of the portraits showed women with their ample bosoms prominently displayed; the bodices plumping up the breasts to the point of overflowing, the waists pinched in. Theses women were dressing almost exclusively with the intention of attracting a monarch or a courtier. In the past making a good match was vital for women as their was no hope of advancement other than by association with or marriage to an influential man.

So my question is really, has nothing changed? Are young women still just dressing to advertise their availability in the same way as Nell Gwynn and her contemporaries did centuries ago? Are the rules the same now in attracting a premier league footballer as they were in attracting a king? Do women still see that their only route to success is on the arm of a man; dependent not on themselves but on the match they make?

In wearing anything that they like, a freedom I would not want to deny, it would seem that some women do still choose to dress not for themselves or for comfort but continue to use their bodies to advertise their availability to potential a potential mate/match.

Having fought so hard for the freedom to dress as we like it does seem to me that it is reasonable to consider just how we use that freedom. Dressing scantily does not send out the message “rape me” but it does perpetuate the idea that women must put their bodies on display in order to succeed.





Is any woman better than no woman?

10 09 2012

Those reading this who are ages with me will remember a programme fronted by Ester Rantzen called “Children of Courage”.The format was to profile children who had been struck down by illness and illness and highlight their courage in facing adversity.

I remember disliking the programme immensely. Not just for it’s mawkishness and patronising attitude towards the young people featured but for the fact that I didn’t believe that they were truly courageous. To me courage was a matter of choice. Courage came when individuals chose to put themselves in danger and overcame their fears by doing so. It was unfortunate to be born with a disability or to contract a disease not a choice, so the possibility of exhibiting courage just didn’t arise

As I have seen more of the world I view courage differently. It is nothing to do with putting yourself in danger but rather a measure of how we face and overcome fear. I see courage in the articles that Lynne McNicoll writes for this magazine each month. Courage from the young people who face their illnesses with strength that I doubt I would be able to exhibit and courage from Lynne in putting herself in the path of suffering with little concern for her own health and wellbeing in order to help ease the pain of youngsters and their families.

So, do you show courage

I suspect that I am not alone in never having heard of Chloe Smith until this week. Her inability to answer questions put to her by Jeremy Paxman has since filled many a news programme and fills many column inches in the Sunday broadsheets. Her bosses are being blamed for letting her out alone but the fault is hers and hers alone. She performed badly on Channel 4 news and compounded this failure by not getting herself better prepared in advance of her later appearance on Newsnight. Had she never heard of Jeremy Paxman? Did she think that having seen the earlier mauling he would go gently with her?

And what has this to do with courage?

The problem is that there are so few women in public office that when one individual performs badly it is frequently represented as being a collective failure of womankind. The premise that her bosses shouldn’t have sent a woman to do a man’s job is clearly preposterous but one that has established a foothold in the aftermath of her performance. When Ed Milliband performs badly we reflect on his shortcomings and do not project these onto all men. The boss shouldn’t have sent Chloe Smith but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have sent a woman.

It is often said that women don’t put themselves forward for public office as they are unwilling to face public scrutiny and high profile disasters like the one that has floored Chloe Smith. I think that there is some truth in this. I certainly wouldn’t want to be in her shoes reading the newspaper reports this weekend but until more of us are prepared to put our heads above the parapets the few women who do put themselves out there, good or bad, will be seen to represent us all.

So while I cannot defend the incompetence that is Chloe Smith I have to accept some responsibility as she was the best that women in politics could offer – and, by the way, so do you.