Thursday, May 16, 2019

Ben Elton, where are you now?

So there's to be scrutiny of the support given to guests on reality TV shows. I'm guessing once the Kyle furore dies down, not much further will be done, and the digital Colosseum will continue to trade in bread and circuses for the good and pampered citizens of Panem.

At the turn of the century, Ben Elton penned 2 novels about reality TV and public media consumption, both squirmingly close to the bone, and both relevant to the current public outcry. (Funny that last week nobody had a problem with Kyle). Dead Famous is a parody of Big Brother, but core to the plot is the production team engineering a murder in order to push ratings. Popcorn is even more brutal: 2 vigilantes set up a live TV feed into the house of the man they've taken hostage, along with a monitor which shows them how many people are watching. They tell the viewers: switch off, and we'll spare his life, if you don't switch off, we'll shoot him. The viewers don't switch off.

The likes of Kyle, Big Brother, Love Island, all happen because we provide it with an audience. Maybe it suits us to count ourselves as passive consumers of TV, but in the digital world, everyone knows who's watching, what, and for how long. Every viewing minute is a vote in favour of the programme I'm watching.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Phobia?

This week Parliament will debating something other than Brexit. I know, hard to believe isn't it. The subject in question is a definition of 'Islamophobia' drawn up by the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims. Ahead of the debate, the government has already rejected the definition.

Here's the definition
“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”.

Where to start? Well, several other people have, so I won't, much. But a few thoughts
1. It's not a definition, unless you take off the first 8 words

2. Where 1 type of Muslim attacks another type, for being the wrong type, is that Islamophobia? Or is it more niche- Shiaphobia, Sufiphobia etc.? Or does it depend on whether they come from a different racial group?

3. To pick another trending phobia, homophobia is variously defined, but the definitions all cluster around an irrational fear, dislike and aversion towards homosexuals and homosexuality. This overlaps reasonably well with the psychological definition of a phobia as an unreasonable fear of or aversion towards x (where x is clowns, spiders, enclosed spaces etc.) If Islamophobia really is a word, and not a slogan, then why not define it in the same way: "An unreasonable fear, dislike and aversion towards Muslims and Islam." That sort of definition is transferrable to prejudice against Jews, Christians, Buddhists, devotees of the Flying Spaghetti Monster et al.

4. In the political and public sphere, us of the '...phobia' label carries more than just the connotation of fear and aversion. It is mainly attached to words and actions, rather than mental states. The label is often used in a similar (but less potentially fatal) way as accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan - someone has said or done something you don't like, and an accusation of 'xphobia' is the easiest and clearest way to label them as an enemy of the people, and someone to hate, ignore and pour invective upon. Whereas a medical diagnosis of a phobia is descriptive, a politically defined phobia is performative, it is public language used to claim or defend territory, to win or shut down discourse, rather than a description of a psychological state.

5. But does that help? In the Islamophobia definition, there is no reference to fear or psychological states at all. It has cut loose from its etymological moorings. It also, oddly, brings in racism: a Christian living in Pakistan may have an irrational fear of Muslims, but it's more likely to be based on Islamic terrorism and mob abuse of the blasphemy laws than on race. In fact, they may have a deep fear and aversion towards Muslims which is entirely rational, if their experience includes repeated examples of anti-Christian violence, church burnings etc.  Some Islamophobia may have a racial component, but some doesn't. So if it doesn't, would it qualify for the APPG definition, or is that something else? What if Muslims themselves are irrationally afraid of their fellow Muslims, and their forms of 'Muslimness'? Or rationally afraid of them?

6. At what point does a 'definition of Islamphobia' cease to be a definition of Islamophobia, and simply be a definition of something else, which has been labelled 'Islamophobia' for political and rhetorial reasons? In the film The Princess Bride, antagonist Vizzini keeps declaring that things are 'inconceivable!' eventually sidekick Inigo responds "you keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means". Repeated use of a word to mean x doesn't entail that x is what the word means. Humpty Dumpty famously declared "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, no more, no less", which results in 'impenetrability'. If the definition of a word is down to the user, rather than a commonly accepted meaning, then we lose the ability to communicate, and with it the ability to reason together.

7. The medical definition of a 'phobia' carries no moral baggage, but the political definition does. With two diverging understandings of what a phobia is, which one will give way first?

8. There is a danger that Islamophobia, and along with it homophobia, transphobia, and all the modern phobic family, will cease to mean anything. That it will just mean 'Booooo!', rather than communicate any clear content. If a word becomes 100% condemnation, 0% content, then another word will be needed to explain the phenomenon behind it, if we are actually serious about tackling it.

9. In order to be fair, we would not just need a working definition of Islamophobia, but a word for every other form of irrational prejudice and antagonism towards other social, racial, religious and demographic groups. At what point does this just get silly?

10. The (hopefully) blindingly obvious point that any definition needs to allow for rigorous analysis, critique and legitimate criticism of Islam, from historic sources right through to contemporary behaviour, without being used to shut this down.

11. And finally, which is more effective, running backwards away from something bad, or running forwards towards its opposite? It's easier to avoid negative behaviour if there is a positive culture of love, respect, hospitality, generosity and altruism. Focus on those positive things, and the negative behaviour withers away. Perhaps our focus on phobias is a symptom of a wider dis-ease, that we no longer have a shared ethos of goodness which we strive towards, and to which we can hold one another to account. Wrapped up in the supremacy of individual personal choice, a culture of rampant individualism is barren ground for a communal ethic. So more and more we find ourselves policing language, attitudes, and behaviour, so that you cannot be a threat to my rights. That's not a way of being society which has much of a future.

Maybe one day a traveller in an ancient land will stumble across a plaque, inscribed with descriptions of all the phobias defined in the early 21st century. And around it, the lone and level sands will stretch far away.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Why think when you can emote?

I've been following the Roger Scruton saga with interest. Scruton was recently sacked as an unpaid government advisor on housing, following an interview in the New Statesman. The selective quotation of Scruton by the journalist, and faux outrage on social media, led to a rapid sacking without, seemingly, anyone exploring the evidence, or the agenda of the journalist involved. The Spectator has got hold of the interview tapes, and Scrutons remarks, in context, are often saying the precise opposite of the spin put upon the by the journalist.

It's tempting to see the parallels between this and the recent no-platforming of Jordan Peterson by Cambridge University. In neither case has there been an attempt to engage with the actual thought of the person concerned. Instead, short circuit to dog whistle, emotional responses, and play your chosen  Ace of Trumps ('Offensive!' 'Racist!' 'Homophobe!') so quickly that nobody can check you actually had it in your hand, or whether it was produced from a secret drawer under the table.

Are we losing our ability to think? I'm no great letter writer, but the advantage of handwriting is that it takes time. And by the end of the letter you've maybe already decided you're writing nonsense, or you know that by the time it's written, sent, and received, the party at the other end has already had 3-4 days, and so have you, to gain a longer view of whatever you're writing about. For a philosopher like Scruton to be publicly accused, tried and found guilty within the course of a day, none of which would be possible without the social media/24 hours news cycle, is a worrying development. George Orwells '5 minutes hate' has become a daily feature, or even hourly feature, of social media. We know what trigger words to use. We know how to stir the crowd. We know how to signal virtue, and which virtues to signal - the protests over Donald Trump's visit will dwarf anything seen for the savage despots of China and Saudi Arabia.

Another post on the Scruton case laments the disappearance of serious thought within the Conservative party. It has disappeared in the nation at large too - a telling example of this was Tim Farrons (electorally disastrous) attempt to explain how liberalism works in practice. That someone might hold one set of views, but believe that the ideal democratic state was one where people could hold other views and openly practice them, seemed a thought too far for Farrons critics. Far easier to play the Ace of Trumps and add another body to the pile.

Orwells 5 minutes hate had two objectives. One was catharsis for the baying mob (who have always needed it, the cries of 'Crucify Him' echo down through history from the first Good Friday), and the other is to intimidate anyone who might feel like identifying with 'the enemy'. Alongside this was 'newspeak', a progressive editing of language so that it became impossible to think in a way which the state didn't want you to. I re-read 1984 last year and it was chilling to see how prophetic, still, Orwells depiction is. If you fear actual engagement with opposing arguments, its obviously tempting to simply erase them, saving you the bother of a) debating and b) the terrible inconvenience and existential threat of discovering you were wrong.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Who Do We Talk To?


A YouGov survey published this week found that 71% of us have someone we can talk to about big personal issues - 76% for women, and 65% for men. There's a sizeable chunk of people who have nobody they feel they can turn to, and not far off half the population who only have 1 person they can turn to. That's pretty precarious. 

A lot of services I'm aware of, both Christian and secular, have some form of mentoring, befriending or accompanying scheme, recognising that accountability and ongoing support help people with life change, and perhaps reflecting the scarce social resources out there to many millions of us.  

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The End? The gospel (of Sherlock) according to John



Good Friday: 'The End'
Easter Sunday: God adds a question mark

Of course, the two characters in the final scene would have to be called John and Mary, the first two believers in the resurrection. I'm sure it's coincidence...

Happy Easter! Christ is risen!

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

What to Boycott - Cut Out and Keep List for Celebrities

Brunei is late to the party, Saudi Arabia has had the death penalty for homosexuality, along with conversion from Islam to any other religion (Brunei just did that too but nobody noticed because it's not about sex), for as long as anyone can remember. Brunei has simply caught up with what a raft of hardline Islamic regimes have been doing for years.

I obviously don't need to point out the irony of Elton John using Twitter to promote a boycott of hotels owned by Brunei, when Twitter itself is part-owned by Saudi money.

So just to help Elton, George Clooney, and the couple of dozen other people who can afford to boycott the Dorchester hotel chain, here are some of the institutions supported by Saudi money in the UK, just to help you avoid them:

universities
Oxford University
Cambridge University
Durham University
Newcastle University
Exeter University
School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)
Edinburgh University
Dundee University
Bristol University
University College London
London School of Economics

Media and PR
The Independent
The Evening Standard
Vice
Freuds
Snapchat
Deezer
Virgin
Twitter
Snapcat
and several others

Industry and Commerce
BAE systems
Jersey Financial Services
HSBC
Uber
General Motors
Standard Chartered
The Savoy

It's also worth checking the money trail behind whichever Premier League football club you support. The UAE also has the death penalty for homosexuality, and 'apostasy' (conversion from Islam). Arsenal play at the Emirates stadium. Nobody has mentioned that. Strange.

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Cambridge University goes on the 'avoid' list

Should university fees be paid to institutions which support censorship? The case of Jordan Peterson, a Canadian academic whose invitation to a visiting fellowship Cambridge was withdrawn via a tweet, highlights again the erosion of free speech in our supposed centres of academia. The vast majority of universities have restrictions speech or publications. At the acceptable end, I'd happily back anyone who didn't want sales of the Sun on their premises (until recently I'd have said the same about the Mail, it has moderated a bit under a new editor). At the unacceptable end is the 'no platforming' of speakers whose views are too difficult for tender liberal ears to listen to.

Universities are places of learning. Part of learning is working out how to defend your own ideas, and to critique those of other people. We have anti-terror laws to police the worst excesses of hate speech and incitement to violence. But hearing a view which makes you feel uncomfortable is not the same. As a Christian, I heard lots of things said at my university, many by lecturers, which I found offensive, insensitive or just difficult to hear. I even went to a debating society which featured Jacob Rees-Mogg and lost a robust debate on whether capital punishment should be brought back (you can guess which side he was on). But I'm glad we could debate it. It helped me think through my own position, and the arguments I used to back it up.

In a few years time I may become a 'customer' of one of these universities, what with being a parent of children at secondary school. I'm already composing a mental list of the ones I don't want to finance, if this is what they are going to do with the money. Cambridge has become a house of fools if it thinks the best way to advance learning is to no platform one of the leading public thinkers around. It's on the list.

Monday, April 01, 2019

Brexit: Pictures from an Alternative Aural Universe

first meaningful vole

second meaningful vole

third meaningful vole

indicative vole

cut-stems onion
peoples vole
gin rail all-action

There, I hope that makes sense of everything.