Thursday, 15 May 2014

In the pit

Like everyone else, I've been following the unfolding story of the disaster in Soma, where over 280 miners died this week. I've watched twin media narratives unfold. One of these is the conventional disaster story, the attempt to convince viewers that there might yet be some hope, that it's possible a miracle could happen and someone could be found alive, despite the fact that's vanishingly unlikely in a case like this and the relatives waiting out there could probably do without the added pressure of being urged to clutch at straws. The other involves exploring the political background to the event, the failure of the Turkish government to provide adequate protection to miners. But this is part of a bigger story that they still seem to be missing.

That story is one in which each of us plays a role, at least insofar as we might be benefiting from the global economic recovery. Because it is on the backs of people like the Soma miners that that recovery is built. We don't hear a lot about it but mining is one of the key industries driving the recovery and, when one considers how others depend on it, it might be considered that most important. It may be people in offices coordinating shipments, brokering deals and buying and selling stocks who are shaping economic growth, but it is miners who are putting their bodies on the line, and without them we could all find ourselves a great deal poorer.

I don't say this purely to celebrate the people who do his job (though it would be nice to see more of them get adequate wages); I say it as a warning. Because we've seen this before - in gold rushes, in South Africa's uranium rush, in the horror of what happened under the conquistadors at Potosí. Although we depend on miners, they often have very little control over their working conditions. When society is hungry for raw materials, miners end up being forced to take risks. There isn't time to manufacture and distribute proper safety equipment, and many pit owners don't care. Less care is taken with geological surveys. Pits are expanded into territory that those involve recognise as treacherous. Poorly trained newcomers are sent into working environments they are not ready for (and in some countries, too often, they are children).

In this situation, we can expect to see more disasters like that at Soma. Most of them will be smaller, involving 'just' injuries or  small number of deaths, and will not make the headlines. Many will take place in areas that the international media pays little attention to anyway, but they will happen. It is imperative, therefore, that pressure be put on governments and industry to ensure good safety standards in mines, with regular unannounced inspections. This is as much an issue for the First World as for the countries where most of the accidents will happen, because as consumers of internationally sourced products, we all have a responsibility to those who are working on our behalf.

Mining is an inherently dangerous profession and we cannot prevent accidents, but we can work together to monitor them and we can stand up for the people on whom our global economy depends. The Soma accident isn't just a tragedy to watch on TV; it's a wake-up call.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Banking on the Pound

Yesterday's speech by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney received predictable responses on Twitter - passionately assurances, from both Yes and No campaigners, that their own cases were vindicated by it as he clearly agreed with them in full. Having watched this go on through the subsequent hours, I hope that I may be excused for sticking my oar in and asserting that, on the contrary, he agrees with me in full: I have long argued that this is a complex, nuanced issue with both positive and negative points.

I'm not a newcomer to this area of discussion; I've run three different kinds of business and I've written on business and financial issues for around a decade. And like it or not, this is a business issue, not an ideological one - those who get further than just lapping up the soundbites or shrugging their shoulders because maths is hard will be thinking carefully about how the decision could impact them financially before they decide which way to vote. They will be thinking not just about their domestic lives but also about the businesses they run and the businesses they work for. Even if they've already made up their minds about voting, many will want to work out how they can prepare financially for what is to come, how much work they will need to do to make adjustments, and what they need to take into account when preparing individual business forecasts.

In any situation of this type there are a lot of unknowns, but as Carney noted, something we can do is to look at other countries that have gone through the same process, and consider what happened to them. Doing so should reduce some of the panic that has attended the independence debate. The question is not - and, to serious minded people, never has been - about whether or not Scotland can survive on its own. What matters is whether or not it should, and whether or not it would be able to provide its citizens with a standard of living not simply adequate but satisfactory.

In asking these questions, we really need to examine two points that have been sidelined or distorted during the bulk of the debate. Firstly, there's the issue of currency use. We need to say goodbye to the nonsense that has been spouted about Scotland perhaps not being able to use the pound. Of course it will be able to use the pound. There's a very simple reason for this: the pound is a freely tradeable currency. Should it cease to be such, the UK (or what then remains of it) can kiss goodbye to its high credit rating. Naturally that isn't going to happen - so what really matters is not the cash we use (after all, we could always choose the bitcoin), but who is our lender of last resort.

This brings me to the second point - it would be unwise for any country already dealing with complexities of establishing itself as an independent force in the modern world to try and set up its own weighty central bank at the same time. But independence does not have to be established overnight. Again, if we look at other recent divorces between nations, we can see how this works in practice. If a currency is shared for a short period of time - five years is probably  good base estimate, but it should be flexible in order to take account of changing circumstances - this gives a new country stability when it most needs it. It will face limitations for the duration, being obliged to follow a similar economic direction to its larger partner, but this can be temporary. Introducing its own currency after that point is much easier and means it then has the freedom to determine its own direction.

So why is nobody discussing this option? In act, a few of the smaller political parties are, but it has been elided from the mainstream debate for two reasons. Firstly, the majority of those opposed to independence find it problematic because it makes the option of independence seem more viable. secondly, the majority of those in favour find it problematic because it requires the acknowledgement that independence would be complicated and some major elements would remain unpredictable for years after the fact. (The desire to make everything seem predictable and safe is a problem on both sides of the argument - it's politically expedient, of course, but hardly honest - there is no political arrangement without uncertainty - and the public are beginning to see through it). This is another illustration of the problems stemming from the media narrative of the referendum as a battle between polarised opponents, focused on sniping at each other rather than on elucidating the issues the public is anxious to understand. We badly need to open up public discussion of a wider range of possibilities where Scotland' political and economic future is concerned.

At present, many Scots find themselves dependent on putting their trust in one financial assessment or another based on how credible its exponents seem, without ever unravelling the details. Carney is to be praised for he clear language he used in his address, and this should be taken not as an opportunity for political posturing but as an opportunity to explore the pros and cons together, constructively, and invite more people in to the economic debate. If nothing else it is an opportunity for education that - whichever way the referendum goes - will benefit Scotland in the long term.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Best Exotic Politico Hotel

This week, First Minister's Questions in the Scottish Parliament opened with a bizarre exchange in which Johann Lamont challenged Alex Salmond over the cost of a 2012 trip to Chicago. There's a reason why this kind of politics is generally discouraged, with people being advised to play the ball, not the man. It's not just about being polite. It's that the ball can't kick back.

Lamont's criticism centered on Salmond's $2,000 a night stay at the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago. It just so happens that, like my many writers, I make part of my living from producing promotional copy, and I've written about the Peninsula Hotel. The reason it's so popular with celebrities, something Lamont ridiculed (she must wish Justin Bieber's latest bad-boy-honest publicity stunt had happened a day earlier), is that it has excellent security. Accommodating politicians in a place like this may cost more upfront but it cuts down on the cost of providing personal security, so it's not quite the waste of money it might look like. Sadly, senior politicians and celebrities do need security these days, and the cost of losing our first minister, even just in financial terms, would be considerable - not to mention that, with increased security, he's cheaper to insure.

What really makes this unfortunate for Lamont, however, is nothing to do with Salmond - it's all about the Labour Party. Let's stick with Chicago. In 1999, Tony Blair stayed in the Conrad Suite in the city's Hilton hotel, another place known for the excellent security, which is partly why it has been used by the likes of Frank Sinatra, John Travolta and Cher. The Chicago Hilton charges upwards of $7,000 a night for this suite.

Far be it from me to attack Blair for this, even if I can't see why he'd need 24 hour butler service. The point is, accommodating famous politicians is expensive. If Lamont herself becomes First Minister one day, she may find herself in the awkward position of having to find a cheaper hotel and security deal for herself. Thursday's conversation may come back to haunt her. She would be wise to do her backtracking now rather than letting this fester.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Burning Chromosomes

Amid all the recent Skeptics related flap about sex and gender, one thing has stood out to me. It is the assertion that people's  'biological sex' is obvious because of chromosomes. This is a dubious statement for many reasons, but prominent among them is this: of the numerous people I have questioned after they made this statement, all of whom have described themselves with confidence as either male or female, not one has been able to tell me with certainty what their own chromosomes look like.

Let's think about that for a minute.

Considering this, one friend told me that he'd be prepared to make a bet. I respect that position - it's not hard to guess the likely outcome - but it misses the point. The argument that sex is obvious because of chromosomes implies that we are looking at chromosomes and then deciding what sex somebody is (generally referred to as 'gendering' them).

This is patently not what we are doing. We are, as a rule looking at secondary sex characteristics or aspects of presentation (or, in the case of babies, genitals) and deciding, on that basis, what sex category to place people in; then, on that basis, we are making an assumption about what their chromosomes are likely to look like.

Ergo, unless the first we see of someone is a cell under a microscope, chromosomes play no role in what is 'obvious'. They may play a role in confirming or contradicting that later on, but it's rare.

Perhaps what is intended here is the advancement of the idea that sex can always be clarified by chromosomes. This relies on a very dogmatic view of sex in a context where scientists and doctors are far from reaching a consensus (sex can be defined by a number of characteristics that don't always neatly line up), it runs into problems when it comes to individuals with variant sex chromosomes (not super rare) and it plainly doesn't fit with our social reality.

When we look at someone's chromosomes, we may well find that they're not what we expect. Some kinds of intersex people have bodies that look completely male or female whilst their chromosomes might lead you to expect the opposite; to claim that they are 'really' gendered by their chromosomes is to dismiss at a stroke their whole life history. Not only does this render the notion of sex pretty much meaningless (lots of us don't reproduce anyway* but sex has a huge effect on how we interact), but any competent biologist will tell you that genotype does not equal phenotype, for a host of reasons, and phenotype is no less biologically 'real'.

Although many intersex people are identified at birth, many don't find out until much later in life (it's reasonable to suppose that a fair number never know at all). Every now and then a story hits the papers, usually with a lurid headline. A fifty year old man has found out he's really a woman! they tell us, except of course he has done no such thing. If he has always felt comfortable with his male identity, with a body that looks the way it does, he's not likely to change that because of a curious medical detail. His family, friends and workmates may raise eyebrows at the unexpected news but they won't suddenly see him differently. He'll still just be this guy, you know?

If you are minded to dismiss somebody as not 'really' male or female because their chromosomes don't match their appearance, you had better (a) actually know what their chromosomes are instead of basing bullying on a guess, and (b) give serious thought to how you would feel and behave if you discovered your chromosomes were not what you expected. Would you really change your lifestyle completely? Would you start thinking of the life you had lived as false, of yourself as fake? Are chromosomes that important to you?

There is a parallel here with many people's approach to sexual orientation. I have had many conversations with men who tell me they would never feel attracted to a man (by which they usually mean a male-bodied person; and so on, for other categories of sex and orientation). Not wouldn't want to sleep with, which is entirely their prerogative, but wouldn't feel attracted to. I find this odd because when I first notice somebody appealing I'm not usually looking at their genitals or peering at their chromosomes under a microscope. YMMV. I usually notice things like their curves, their (ahem) secondary sexual characteristics, and how they move. Despite my many years of living and working in trans and intersex circles, I have no magical power to perceive either the private anatomy or the gender identity of a fully clothed stranger. Simply considering the statistics, I'm sure I must have been attracted to some people where one of both of those things in fact defied my expectations.** Attraction is not a thing we control and, in most contexts, it's really not a thing we need to worry about that much. After all, we cope with other instances where otherwise cute people turn out to have characteristics that are deal breakers (for instance, I know a fair few people who refuse to sleep with folk who vote Tory, and they don't break down in tears if they discover they've accidentally lusted over one).

Sex, gender and sexual orientation are complicated things. Unless we're monitoring discrimination or planning to get intimate with someone then they are also, as a rule, none of our business. We don't need to impose dubious scientific definitions on them or get our knickers in a twist trying to reconcile the inherent fuzziness of
biology with a compulsion to neatly index everything. There is variety everywhere in nature - without it, evolution wouldn't work - and any truly scientific approach must acknowledge that. So in the end, it doesn't hurt science to respect people's lived experiences. In this situation at least, there need be no conflict between good science and good manners.

* One definition of sex used in biology holds that females are those individuals in a species who produce larger gametes than other members (males). It would work fairly well except that a significant percentage of individuals in most species, including humans, don't produce any gametes.
**This isn't to suggest that cross dressers set out to deceive people. I start from the assumption that, like me (when not in professional wear) they dress to please themselves, not because they're sleazily determined to seduce me. Others might want to give this approach a try.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Giant Size Television Thing

Following Jamie Oliver’s latest ill though out tirade, it really is time to call time on the giant size television thing.  There are many ways to attack the poor (as the current Westminster government has shown us) but getting in a flap about the size of their TV sets has to be one of the stupidest.

Let’s start with a simple question: when was the last time you saw a small television set? These days, if you’re going to buy one at all, it’s going to be large. It is also, most likely, going to be cheap. We are far from the days when televisions were a luxury item. One can buy them in supermarkets now for less than some people spend on their weekly food shop. They’re also cheap to run when compared with the old cathode ray models, averaging about three pounds a week. That’s pretty good for a box that keeps the kids entertained if you’re working the long hours that most poor people do, or if you’re looking for a job.

Televisions are even cheaper second hand. They have a very low resale value, so if you lose your job, selling your television won’t help you much. The chances are you will have to part with your internet connection, if you had one in the first place (many poor people still don’t) as internet access constitutes a much larger ongoing expense. This means your television will become your main form of access to news. There have been rulings against bailiffs taking televisions in payment of debt, as they are considered essential for keeping people informed about the world. If poor people are forced to get rid of them, that’s a pretty effective way of barring them from any engagement with public life. Losing access to information about current affairs (bearing in mind that many avoid the expense of paying for a daily newspaper) makes it difficult for them to exercise their democratic rights.

To say that poor people should not have access to television is also to say that they should not have access to entertainment. It means their kids will experience social isolation and have difficulty fitting in at school, with a potentially negative consequences for their education. It means that older kids who probably also have few books or toys will have nothing to do but hang around in the streets, and we all know the kind of problems that can lead to. It means that those adults who cannot look for work—who are poor due to illness or disability, or who are full time carers—are deprived of something that can help fill their time. Bear in mind that these are, by and large, not people with the means to buy books or musical instruments or to make regular trips to the cinema or theatre. Television may be all they have.

So why is the possession of a television whilst poor now the subject of so much disapproval? It’s pretty simple: when we go inside the poorest people’s homes, whether directly or via a camera (whose observations we probably see on our own television sets), the TV is generally the only thing we see that looks like it might be worth anything at all. Think about that. There’s usually no computer, no sound system, no attractive furniture, no sports equipment, no art. These are people with next to nothing. Picking on the television is the only effective way to pretend that they are hanging on to some kind of meaningful resource, thereby depriving others. It’s simple propaganda.

Jamie Oliver, who would not be successful himself without television, should know better than to go along with this kind of lie. How are his crusades to change people’s eating habits going to reach their targets if not through their TVs? Yes, it would be better if people engaged in more active pursuits, but that’s not an option for all of them.  Yes, it’s tragic that many are reduced to living life simply as spectators, but the real problem there is lack of opportunity—depriving them even further will not help. We should not be looking at people in desperate situations and asking what they still have that we might take. We should be asking what we can give, how we can increase their opportunities, how we can help them to connect with the world more effectively and thereby improve their own situations. We should think about the roots of the word ‘television’ and try to see a little further ourselves.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Rape jokes: still not big, still not clever

Over the past 24 hours I have been working with my charity, Trans Media Watch, to try and ensure respectful coverage of Chelsea Manning's decision to come out as trans. The fact we've known about the matter for some time didn't really help; we always knew that when she went public the story would be huge, and it has been very hard for us to keep up. Although we're very pleased with how some media outlets have responded, we've also seen a lot of really nasty stuff, some of it in supposedly professional publications and, of course, a lot of it on social media.

What has stood out about the social media stuff - and some of the comments in national newspapers, before editors got to them - is the number of jokes focused on prison rape, and the number of people who seem to find them hilarious. Rape jokes on the internet may be nothing new but the striking thing about these is how many have come from people (mostly men) who just a few weeks ago were up in arms about the abuse many women suffer online. The disconnect is remarkable. These are people who generally seem to think of themselves as the good guys, even as feminists. They would probably be horrified at the thought of making rape jokes about non-trans women. But because Chelsea Manning is trans, she's seen as fair game.

The issue here isn't simply about how Manning's gender is understood, about when she is seen to 'count' s female; it's about why people think that should matter. To put it simply, rape jokes about a man wouldn't be funny either. Avoiding this kind of behaviour isn't simply a box-ticking exercise to make a good impression on influential women. It has been assumed to represent a genuine understanding of how horrific rape is, or at least an appreciation that the subject can be traumatic to others, and the ease with which Manning has been targeted reveals that, in some cases, that simply isn't there. When people make these jokes about Manning, it becomes obvious how hollow that pretence of sympathy was.

There are no doubt people who have made such jokes, or laughed along with them, as a reflex action, without any examination of their import. It's time for those people to think about how they come across. There are others who have approached the subject as gallows humour, who have understood and have aimed to use humour to expose horror. This always has its place, but it needs to be done with great caution in a context where there's already so much carelessly brutal stuff going around.

There's another aspect to this, and that's that rape jokes aimed at women, ugly as they are, tend to be intended to shock. By contrast, much of the joking about Manning has been giggling, conspiratorial stuff, as if it were no more than a little bit of naughtiness. There's a sense that it's socially condoned, or that people expect it to be. We all need to speak out against this. The developing dialogue about abuse hurled at women online must expand and account for the fact that sexual aggression is just as unacceptable no matter whom it refers to.

I would hope that responsible internet users can unite on this. I don't like to think what it says about our society if we can't.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Counting the Cost

There are several reasons why I don't think campaigning for a report button on Twitter is a good idea. Chief among them - yet barely addressed - is the fact that this is fig leaf politics. It's enabling business leaders and politicians to wriggle out of a much bigger problem, which is this: who is going to pay to fix our broken society and why should women and minorities pay for the cost of leaving it the way it is?

First of all, let me clarify that I am not without sympathy for those who have been hurt by threats made against them online. Whilst I think we need to exercise caution in policing slurs, a threat that places somebody in a state of fear and alarm (or which a reasonable person would assume could do so) would, in other circumstances, be considered a crime, and I don't see why it being made online should be seen as making it less serious. I should note that I've received any number of rape and death threats in my time and I have generally laughed them off (most are, all else aside, terribly badly written), but that's me. I'm not easily intimidated in that way, but we don't say it's okay to go around shoving people in the street because the stronger ones won't fall over. I note that most people saying everyone should laugh this off are not members of those groups who can expect to be threatened in person on a frequent basis. Many women and members of minority groups experience that daily; they may find it hard to brush off online threats if they've been raped and assaulted in the past.

That said, I also have some sympathy for certain kinds of trolling - not the sorts that terrify people but the sorts that aim to provoke people for socially or politically important reasons. We have always needed contrary voices in order to enhance public discussion. Often it is only through this kind of provocation that radical perspectives come to be heard at all, and even if some of it seems inept, our society is richer for it. Furthermore, there are groups out there whose very existence is seen as provocation. I worry for the future of my charity if a report button happens because I know there are people out there who would constantly report it as being offensive simply for advocating that trans people have a right to decent treatment. It wouldn't matter if each instance of complaint was dismissed; if it happened frequently enough, we would not be able to communicate using Twitter. The same could go for any number of socially and politically focused organisations, and indeed for feminist advocates who attract the ire of certain groups of men.

Ultimately, though, what worries me most is that a report button - and similar approaches elsewhere - will allow a symbolic gesture to shut off debate in a really important area. Adding a button does not guarantee that Twitter, or any other organisation, will devote any more resources to following up complaints, or doing so promptly. Facebook has report buttons and yet remains notorious as a home for groups discussing rape and violence. Adding a button or clicking a button will not make the problem go away, it will just boost corporate PR.

Worse than this is the political jumping on the bandwagon (and here I do not include politicians like Stella Creasy who have been campaigning on related issues for a long time). This is a boost for David Cameron's equally ill-thought-out internet porn filter scheme. It allows politicians to look as if they care about violence against women without ever putting their money where their mouths are. If Cameron gave a damn, he wouldn't have taken funding away from battered women's shelters.

Here's the crux of the problem: misogyny wasn't invented by the internet. It may sometimes take more exaggerated forms there but the real reason it's becoming a political issue is not that there's more of it, it's that women are able to raise their voices, en masse, in protest. Projects like Everyday Sexism have helped to demonstrate the scale of the problem, online and off. Men who used to keep their hatred within all-male groups are now expressing it where women can observe it, and are having to contend with the fact that women don't like it. Hence all the nonsensical attempts to drown out women's voices in the name of free speech.

Ever since our society started to recognise that women are human beings with a right to expect the same opportunities in life as men, our society has been heading towards this confrontation. We have reached a point where it is no longer possible to ignore the aggression that many women routinely face from many men. We need to have a social solution, a cultural solution, a political solution - and there will be no persuading women to return to the meek days of accepting their fate. But what really makes this frightening for politicians is that we need an economic solution.

Every debate about dealing with misogyny stops short when it comes to finance. We are at a point where we don't need hand wringing and sympathetic speeches, we need serious investment. We need the police to be adequately funded to follow things up every time a credible threat or rape or violence is made, every time a woman is groped on a bus, every time she faces sexual harassment in a workplace that fails to take action. Restricting follow-up to high threshold cases isn't good enough. It isn't good enough because there is a cost to all this freewheeling abuse and right now women (along with other targeted groups like gay people) are bearing all of that cost themselves. Ultimately, the question must be why our society thinks it's okay for half its members to bear the whole of this cost rather than everyone paying their share, fairly, through the tax system, through government action to tackle the problem.

The same applies when it comes to child protection. We get endless soundbites and new schemes to encourage reporting. We don't see the organisations things are reported to getting anything like adequate resources for follow-up. Once again, one group is left to pay the price, in suffering, of society's failure to put its money where its mouth is.

The real reason very little is done to tackle misogynistic aggression is that it's so endemic the cost would be huge. That's a tough thing for politicians to take on, but what they need to understand is that the cost of doing nothing is also huge. Those who are paying it now will not put up with that forever. They are voters too, and politically, they are waking up to this. They will not be placated for long by being given buttons. It is time for real action.