Would anyone want to be called a bigot?

This BBC story that popped up yesterday is truly serendipitous as I had planned on writing a post about bigotry anyway (honest!)

Gay Rights group Stonewall have named Cardinal Keith O’Brien as “Bigot of the Year” following his comments on gay marriage earlier this year.

I genuinely find it baffling that someone can with an absolutely straight face demand their rights are being infringed because they are being prevented from denying other people their rights, (or as is more accurate in this case, not even be prevented from denying other people their rights, but just being told that to do so makes them a horrible person.) But that is an issue for another post. For the time being I want to dwell on what it means to accuse someone of being a bigot.

To my way of thinking, calling someone a bigot is a pretty damning insult. The word connotes intolerance, stupidity, lack of education, fear of difference, defensiveness of one’s own lifestyle and generally failing the ‘do as you would be done by’ maxim which is the cornerstone of many if not all moral systems. Unsurprisingly the first free online dictionary I found lists lots of other bad adjectives alongside: chauvinist, homophobe, racist, zealot etc.

But words can be funny things. One person’s insult can be another’s compliment. Their meanings can change over time, and can have different connotations in different places. When I was planning this post – before the Cardinal’s objection became a news story – I had been thinking of Jimmy Smitts’ fabulous diatribe in The Debate, the episode of the West Wing from Season 7 broadcast live to a studio audience where he ‘reclaims’ the term liberal from a sneering Arnold Vinnick.

Clearly the Cardinal feels that to be called a bigot is a Bad Thing and wants no part in that. But could someone logically take the ‘insult’ on the chin and stand their ground? For instance Nick Griffin is clearly proud of his racist and homophobic policies, so might he wear the term Bigot as a Badge of Honour? Taking an example from a very different context Hermione Granger takes back the term “Mudblood” at the end of the Harry Potter series. Sick of hearing this derogatory term to describe her Muggleborn status she declares herself Mudblood and Proud. (As a side note I found this a very interesting reflection of the line Dumbledore has in the books, but Hermione gets given in the films, that fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself.) Actually the example is not entirely facile, given the fascinating work done tracing how genetic theory maps onto the Wizarding world.

So I would argue that the term bigot could easily be co-opted by the extreme right as a rallying point for their ilk, and that can make it that much harder to have a meaningful dialogue. And from that I actually take slight comfort in the Cardinal’s reaction. Because if he had responded by saying “Yes, I am bigoted and proud of it!” that would indicate things were much, much worse.

Testing psychics

Someone has managed to get a couple of self proclaimed psychics to agree to a scientific test of their alleged powers. Unsurprisingly at the end the two psychics were deemed to have failed the test. The BBC has the story here:


In keeping with the BBC policy of ‘balance’ they have printed comments made by one of the tested psychics who claims that the test was “designed to confirm the researchers’ pre-conceptions – rather than examine the nature of her psychic ability.” Furthermore she opines that “Scientists are very closed-minded” which got a big laugh in my office (I work in a university science department.)

The Guardian has the same story with a more pro-rational slant and a bit more background. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/oct/31/halloween-challenge-psychics-scientific-trial

According to Chris French, one of the test supervisors, the psychics were asked to confirm they were comfortable with the test, and asked to rank their confidence in each reading as they gave it. This indicates to me that a psychic who felt this was not a fair test would be wise to point this out when invited to; as opposed to taking the test, failing, and then making the claim that it wasn’t an appropriate test in the first place.

The BBC reports: “But one of the mediums, Patricia Putt, rejected the suggestion that this showed any absence of psychic powers – saying that she needed to work face-to-face with people or to hear their voice, so that a connection could be established.”

Perhaps Ms Putt fails to grasp the significance of the fact that ‘establishing a connection’ might not be due to psychic abilities but instead consist of making statistically safe guesses based on age, ethnicity, sex, body language and other bits of information that could be gleaned from looking at someone’s appearance.

If the point of the test is to isolate the ‘psychic ability’ from the capacity to do everything I’ve just mentioned (which is quite skill to do well – but surely couldn’t be classified as a paranormal ability) then you need to remove the possibility of some other factor causing the tester to get a positive result.

Except that if psychic ability *was* a real sense then hypothetically couldn’t it be subject to restrictions in the same way that our other senses are? I can smell stuff with my nose, but only if it is sufficiently close enough. If someone doubted my sense of smell they could test this by asking me to identify an orange by removing my ability to see it or touch it. But if they did this by placing it in a sealed box which also meant I couldn’t smell it, then I would appear to fail said test but would complain that my sense of smell was being inhibited by the confines of the experiment, so it couldn’t be deemed a fair test.

Ok that’s a pretty bad analogy. (But as this is NaBloPoMo I’m not letting myself dwell on that for days to come up with something better.) Nonetheless it got me thinking: why on earth did they agree that it was a fair test in the first place? For that matter why did they agree to do it all?

In the absence of any actual evidence that psychic powers exist, and knowing that where they are perceived to exist there is usually a much better explanation (which doesn’t turn everything we think we know about the universe on its head) I am confident in stating the following: Psychic Powers Don’t Exist.

If we are prepared to accept this as fact, then anyone who claims to have psychic powers is either a charlatan or suffering from an acute delusion. Anyone who knows full well that they are making it all up isn’t going to submit to any kind of genuine test that would expose them. (Setting aside for a moment the notion that they might think they can somehow rig the test to ‘prove’ what they say is true.) So if a ‘psychic’ is in that category then I feel an emotional response of disgust that they prey on vulnerable people for their own ends, much as I feel about banks mis-selling PPI’s. However, much as I may abhor what they do, I will accept that they are in possession of their critical faculties, if not their moral ones.

But if someone is in the latter category, then all bets are off. Ms Putt’s behaviour is not only irrational, it’s internally inconsistent. In answer to my earlier rhetorical question, I don’t suppose she has grasped the flaw in wanting a test which allows her to see and/or hear the sitter. And from her comment about scientists being closed minded, being rational doesn’t appear to be at the top of her agenda.

All of which leaves me feeling rather sorry for her. And slightly uncomfortable about the notion of the test in the first place. Perhaps the testers were hoping to help her get over her delusion by showing her scientifically that her claim was false. But if someone has already rejected the validity of science and rationality then that’s likely to be a lost cause. Perhaps they had reasons for supposing her to be of the Charlatan type and feel that by exposing her she would justifiably get her come-uppance. Perhaps they accept she is mentally ill but wanted to laugh at her: a horrible prospect but history is full of scientists who may have been rational but were nonetheless utter bastards (see above re the difference between critical and rational faculties.) Or perhaps they weren’t thinking of her in terms of being a person at all, but simply an example of a dangerous, exploitative but virulent form of hokum which needs debunking in the public consciousness.

Although the last one sounds callous, I don’t necessarily disagree with the thinking behind it. I’m aware I might be starting to sound like an apologist for unscientific nonsense but I really do think it’s important to expose bullshit for what it is. I’m just aware that this approach is unlikely change the mind of anyone who doesn’t think science is important to start with.

Why I’m doing NaBloPoMo

I started blogging earlier this year, and had managed to produce maybe 3 or 4 posts which were reasonably well considered, edited and proof read. By that I don’t mean the result was that they were well thought out, written or devoid of mistakes, but I did spend plenty of time on them. I’d have an idea, hone it over a few days, write a draft or two, get a second opinion and then post when I felt it was ready to share with the world. It was a fairly leisurely process and it was nice to think that whatever the outcome at least I could say hand on heart that it wasn’t done impetuously.

But that attitude doesn’t lend itself to great productivity. Weeks and weeks could go by, and I would write nothing despite the constant stream of current affairs upon which a misanthrope might be inclined to muse. I didn’t want to write unless I felt a) that I had something to say, and b) that I had the time and energy to at least try to say it well. By summer my reluctance to pin my thoughts down on digital paper started to feel less like prudent forbearance and more like a neurosis. It was at this time that I trotted off to BarCamp Berkshire, and after a couple of tantrums (yes really) agreed that I would abide by the ‘rules’ of BarCamp and I would lead a session. I decided to speak about my difficulty blogging.

My session went really well, and everyone was really supportive. The most concrete bit of advice I received was that the best way to gain confidence is to practice. Not everything has to be perfect, not everything has to be prescient, and most crucially for me, not everything has to be profound. To get over my fear of blogging I needed to get more comfortable with writing in general and that meant putting my more mundane thoughts out there as well as the grandiose ones.

So I’m a few months down the line, I’ve written a few more posts and I’m building confidence, but I’m still hardly prolific. And so I thought I’d give NaBloPoMo a shot. It’s a slightly scary prospect, but with 30 posts due in 30 days, I know I won’t be able to procrastinate, dither, and generally over-think which are my major problems when it comes to writing. What I produce maybe nonsense, which is scary in itself, but the structure of NaBloPoMo means I won’t be able to use that as an excuse anymore. Unless I crash and burn. In which case I might write up a post about failing sometime in 2013.

Why losing 2 stone was hard

On Valentine’s Day 2010 I hopped onto the Wii Balance Board we had borrowed from some friends to try out the Wii Fit game. As part of that I weighed myself for the first time in ages, and realised that at just under 12 stone, I was quite significantly overweight.

A couple of months ago I wrote about how my subsequent weight loss contributed to my eventual conclusion that maybe the Olympics weren’t all bad after all. I had learned to embrace my new found enthusiasm for physical activity and the health benefits of losing excess weight. A few weeks before the Olympics kicked off my gym held a competition to see who could rack up the most attendances in the 8 week duration. To my enormous surprise I came 3rd. A few weeks after that I got my weight down below 10 stone for the first time since I was at university. Since that Valentine’s Day in 2010 I have manged to lose 2 whole stone.

I feel good about this. It was difficult but I managed it. It was something I decided to do for myself, and I broadly speaking did it by myself. I think that I’m entitled to feel a bit self congratulatory.

However I’m also aware I’ve spent the last 2 and a half years feeling slightly embarrassed about this endeavor. Weight loss is a vast industry, and I wonder if everyone is thinking that I’ve bought into the overpriced nonsense, which I didn’t. I’m also slightly concerned that I’m somehow selling out a bit. The problem is that for all my logical conviction that losing excess weight is healthy, is seems a bit against the mindset I grew up with. That looks don’t really matter, that it’s what’s inside that counts, and that women who strive to be a size zero are vain, foolish, insecure and have poisoned themselves on a diet of Hollywood films and anorexic models glaring from magazine covers.

I’ve struggled with concepts of feminism and femininity since puberty (I’m not saying for a moment that I think I’m somehow unique here) and mostly I get along by convincing myself that the issues simply don’t apply to me. But with weight loss I found myself wondering if I had to confront that for me fat was in fact a feminist issue. (With apologies to Susie Orbach – I’ve never actually read her book but I gather she was making a different point entirely.)

One of the things which concerned me was turning into one of those people who spent all day banging on about their diet, and obsessing over calories. I have a vivid memory from years ago of a male friend complementing me on my attitude to food over my birthday celebration. I was at the time heavier than I am now, but not as heavy as I would get before I started doing something about it. I was joyously tucking into an Emu burger (which was delicious incidentally) and he voiced his wish that more women would be like me, regarding food. Even though I was happily partnered with Terry and didn’t feel any specific attraction to this man, I remember feeling happy that my care-free approach to dining was regarded as a desirable quality.

I’ve written before about my paranoia that someone might think badly of me, even if it unspoken. By the time I started losing weight the friend who had made the remark had relocated to Australia, and I’ve had no contact with him since. But what he said was still fresh in my memory, years later, and I felt slightly ashamed that I was about to become one of those other women against which he had compared me so favourably.

A couple of months ago I was talking to an acquaintance and the subject came up briefly. I admitted I was ‘dieting’ (although I hate that term as I honestly haven’t been following any prescribed food plan whatsoever) in a slightly begrudging way, and she instantly responded “You don’t need to.” Because I am pathologically inclined to over-analyse and also struggle to take compliments at face value I was immediately concerned I was coming across as vain and desperate.

I have been telling people that I lost weight because of the health benefits, which is broadly speaking true, but I wonder if I’m kidding myself and the size-zero-striving-itis has affected me more than I realise. Moreover I also wonder why I would feel so bad if it turned out that it was in part, vanity. After all, once I reach a point where even if I let things go a bit I’m not going to go above a dangerous level, why carry on, as I am likely to do?

Being a bit vain is hardly the worst failing a person can have, and I’m sure I have far more destructive faults than that. If, ultimately, my reasoning was that I want to be thinner as I equate slimness with attractiveness and success, would that be the worst thing in the world? Somehow it feels like admitting this would be some great betrayal of the values I was brought up to hold, which makes it rather difficult to analyse dispassionately to see if that is what I actually think.

The sick husband dilemma

I’m currently reading Bruce Schneier’s book Liars and Outliers – a fascinating analysis of security, trust, and game theory.

The section I’m on at the moment (I’m only a quarter of the way through) concerns his descriptions of the different kinds of societal pressures which aim to reduce incidents of defection. Defections occur when an individual is faced with a dilemma, and chooses to act in their own immediate interest at the expense of the interest of the wider group or society. That’s a clumsy and simplistic description of what he says but as this isn’t a book review I’m not going spend time trying to do it justice properly. Suffice to say: it really is very interesting – go read it!

Right now I’m faced with a dilemma. Terry is sick. (Not seriously – just an unpleasant cold.) Looking after a sick husband is kind of a drag. He’s all gross and snotty, his IQ has dropped about 15 points, he’s whiny, and he’s not doing anything except sitting on the sofa watching Lesley Nielsen movies and stinking the flat up with Olbas Oil. The rational self interested agent in me would quite like to get out and go and do something fun, leaving him to it.

However, there’s a good chance that I’m going to come down with this too. I might get lucky, and not get it at all, or have something milder, for a shorter period of time. Or I might be unlucky and have something as bad or worse. When I get sick I want to be looked after. I want someone making me soup, and fetching medicine, replenishing tissues and watching films with me which make me feel better (either Fargo or Monsters Inc depending on the severity of the case.) So the expected reciprocity is a substantial factor in resolving my dilemma. If I look after Terry now, he is more likely to look after me later.

Schneier covers moral, reputational and institutional pressures as well as security systems in detail as types of societal pressures which discourage us from acting against the group interest. As I’m only part way through I haven’t finished the sections on institutional pressures or security systems yet. From what I’ve read so far they don’t seem that relevant, so I’ll ignore those.

Reputational pressure does seem relevent. One example given in the book concerns the dilemma of a spouse with a wandering eye. The potential damage to reputation within one’s circle of friends if one is caught philandering can be a powerful motivator. I imagine that if I were to tell Terry I was heading off to a hotel for a few days until his mucus cleared up he would vent his sense of rejection and betrayal with our mutual friends. Assuming they took his side (which in this case is likely) being on the receiving end of whatever group censure they came with up would I imagine be very unpleasant. There might be snide comments, I might be ignored or abjured completely. Even if nothing overt actually happened, being the kind of person I am, I’d be intensely paranoid that they thought worse of me. I don’t want my friends to think I’m a horrible person, and if I abandon Terry in his time of need they will probably find out, so that provides another strong incentive to look after him.

As part of his discussion on Moral pressure, Schneier has this to say:

At the risk of opening a large philosophical can of worms, I’ll venture to say that morals are unique in being the only societal pressure that makes people “want to” behave in the group interest. The other […] mechanisms make them “have to.”

Since philosophical cans of worms are totally my bag, this got me thinking a lot. I disagree with Schneier here, as in my experience the anticipated guilt from ignoring moral pressure can be the same thing as the anticipated rejection from ignoring reputational pressure. Earlier I mentioned that the mere thought that others are thinking ill of me, even if they do nothing to demonstrate that ill thought, can be enough to make me behave in a certain way. Similarly any particular action taken because I know I will feel horribly guilty if I don’t, is me not wanting the disapproval of myself. I don’t know if Schneier’s model is set up to think of a person’s conscience as an external party exerting a reputational pressure.

So I’m also worried about feeling guilty if I don’t look after Terry, which Schneier might think of as a moral pressure, but I think of as an extension of a reputational pressure.

So there are lots of compelling rational reasons why I should decide to look after Terry, even though it can be icky and a bit boring. Is that why I decided that’s what I would do?

Well, no. I don’t feel like I made a decision at all.
Supplying comfort and a small measure of palliative care makes my sick husband feel a bit better, and I am so invested in his well being that him feeling a bit better is enough to make me want to help him any way I can. Perhaps Schneier would account for this by saying that the moral pressure exerted on me from the outset was so great that it doesn’t seem like a dilemma at all. For the avoidance of doubt, it genuinely didn’t seem like a dilemma. My first instinct was to get Terry set up on the sofa with drugs, juice, tissues and blankets, and it was later I started considering the parallels with the societal dilemmas as an academic exercise.

Most of the above can therefore be summed up by saying that I have chosen to look after my sick husband because it feels like the right thing to do, and that decision was made so quickly and perhaps subconsciously that it didn’t feel like a choice at all. With rational afterthought I can see how considerations of reciprocity, social standing and the avoidance of guilt might have contributed to my eventual decision, but I didn’t actually sit and think about all of this; I just got on with it.

At the start of the book Schneier discusses security in various ecosystems, where organisms have evolved to behave in mutually beneficial ways, without decision making or rational thought ever having played a part.

I love my husband very much. I feel it in my proverbial extremities as The Troggs put it. And since I put infinitely more stock in the biochemical explanations for this than silly concepts such as souls and destiny, I am very curious as to whether I made a complex rational decision so quickly that I didn’t even notice I was making it, or if I’m just following the software that helped my species survive and evolve in the first place. After all, looking after my temporarily indisposed hunter gatherer would seem to be advantageous, particularly as I’m also presumably still running the software telling me that he will be a good genetic match.

However since we’ve agreed that our respective genes terminate here, I wonder if that will stop someday.

Playing Portal

Following my husband’s gleeful purchase of an Xbox 360, and the fact that he has now started his new job and isn’t hogging it anymore, I’ve been playing some new and exciting computer games. (New and exciting to me. I appreciate the rest of the Western World was over this in 2009.)

I really enjoy playing computer games, although I feel I’m not very good at them. In a sense this is a good thing as I get hours more use out of a standard game than most people, simply because my ineptitude means everything takes ages for me to do. But it can get ugly. I shout, I scream, I throw things. After failing to execute a fairly simple jumping puzzle in Ocarina of Time on the Wii I got disproportionately angry and rage quit. For 3 and half years. And you do not want to interupt me in a boss fight. I have called Terry every ugly name under the sun during a frenzied, uncoordinated attack on Ganon. I may have actually threatened to feed his Grandmother to the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal at one point. It was not cool.

Despite this Hyde-like transformation into a monster whenever I have a controller in my hand, my devoted husband continues to find new games for my edification and delight. And I have to say, the Portal series is a doozy! I’ve still done all the shouting, swearing, rage quitting and so forth, but in my more rational moments I realise that I really enjoy this game. Here’s why:

It’s a First Person Shooter without the Shooting.
Ok, you have a gun of sorts, and you are shooting, but it just feels different to other FPSs. There’s a lack of pressure when doing the aiming and pulling the trigger, which makes a huge difference to me. I don’t handle stressful situations that well, hence the rage quitting. I couldn’t deal with something requiring constant lightening fast reactions and dead on accuracy 100% of the time. I need time and space to plan my move, aim and execute, which in Portal is generally afforded in spades, with few exceptions.

You can die with no consequence.
Unless you have very good motor skills, and/or are using a walkthrough there’s a good chance you’ll die at some point in the game. Doesn’t matter. You don’t lose points, lives, hearts, or anything as far as I can tell. You just respawn at the last save point. Coupled with the frequency of the autosaves, after nearly every section of a puzzle has been completed, you are unlikely to lose more than a few minutes of action. For some people I’m sure this is a drawback, as the risk of a semi-meaningful termination is part of the appeal. But due to my aforementioned lack of proficiency, the fact that I can die as many times as it takes to get it right is critical to my having an enjoyable experience. A game which punishes me constantly for my lack of hand eye coordination, is not something from which I’m going to get any pleasure, and I’m unlikely to be sticking with it for very long.

It’s atmospheric but not too scary.
I don’t enjoy the feeling of being terrified, so a game which utilises every cheap psychological trick to engender a sense of being stuck in a torture porn flick is not going to push my buttons. For my money, Portal gets the balance bang on between a slightly grimy sense of menace, but nothing that’s going to cause emotional damage. Furthermore, the threat which is there, is accompanied by a slightly knowing, sardonic humour which allievates the the tension nicely. Related to which it’s pretty much entirely non violent. I say pretty much as there are a few altercations between you and some non sentient anti-personel devices, but that’s about it.

It’s cerebrally challenging.
Yes, you need some standard FPS skills: hand eye coordination, quick reactions etc. but the most part this game is testing the little grey cells. The puzzles are inventive, and in my opinion quite difficult at times. I like to think of myself as reasonably logical, but spacial imagination and laterall thinking were never my strongest suits. It was a little galling to admit that this time my rage quits were becuase I was too stupid to work out the solution. After years of feeling defensive because it wasn’t my fault that I can’t press more than 3 buttons at a time whilst staring a screen, now I had to accept that it was my critical faculties that were at fault. Cue more shouting and swearing. But with some time, and a little bit of help I got to the stage were I realised I enjoyed the challenge, even if I couldn’t see the solution straight away.

Portal 2 has an awesome co-op mode.
Terry and I have a great tradition of gaming together, occasionally in competition with each other, but mostly, working with each other towards a common goal. Portal 2 requires real team work, and figuring out puzzles together was loads of fun!

Big thanks to @tomscott & @mseckington for the recommendation!

Do I hate the Olympics or not?

So the Olympics are now upon us, and the interwibbles are chocka with people having their five pence worth. Here’s mine:

Good things about the Olympics

Celebrating achievement is a good thing.

I know it’s something of a cliché to go on about how the Brits are all snide and self deprecating, but as sweeping statements about an entire nation go, it’s not totally off the mark. Celebrating genuine achievement is healthy, inspirational and should be encouraged, but we don’t do it enough. There is something awesome about watching someone do something that you couldn’t achieve in a million years, like watching a Cirque de Soleil performance. And there is something inherently watchable about any form of competition. Whether it’s watching a marathon or a game of pooh sticks, as a breed humans seem to enjoy the anticipation of waiting to see who or what is going to win.

Apparently it’s boosted the economy.

Supposedly for every pound spent we are getting 3 back, said the BBC yesterday morning. This sounds like a rather suspicious statistic to me, but I haven’t got anything like the time to research that fully. Suffice to say, if that’s actually a true reflection of the overall situation, as opposed to a grossly misrepresented and over-extrapolated statistic that is almost entirely void of meaning then that seems like a good thing.

It’s raised the profile of sport and fitness.

I’m not a sporty person. At school I embraced the self righteous defence of the clever nerdy kid who hated PE, thinking that anyone who actually enjoyed it was basically a dumb jock. (Even if I didn’t have the rather useful dumb jock moniker at my disposal back then.) I grew into a non sporty adult, and took ill advised pride in my inactivity. Then when I was about 27 I figured out that I was actually quite overweight. Not massively, but enough to realise that I really ought to do something about it before I hit my 30s and it started causing the kind of health problems which get rather tricky to fix. So I changed my eating habits, started exercising, and slowly but surely the excess weight came off. It was difficult, and at times I almost gave up and started piling pounds back on, but I’m basically not overweight any more. Hurrah! And with this comes the utterly predictable change of heart than maybe physical fitness is actually quite important after all, and perhaps for all the years I spent sneering at joggers and gym bunnies I was actually in the wrong. So, if this results in a bunch of other people thinking “Hey, sports and being active is fun and cool and maybe I’ll do some of that” and then get healthier, that would be a positive.

It’s channelled much needed funding into sports facilities around the country.

So having reached the conclusion that fitness and sports is important and worthwhile after all, I’m quite happy that some money has gone into improving the facilities that will enable our population to engage in said activities. The problem with money is that there is never enough of it, whoever you are, whatever you are trying to achieve. Sports centres in the UK had funding problems. Just as the arts, sciences, charities, education, health, defence, engineering, transport and pretty much anything else you care to name has funding problems. No one has enough, everyone wants more, and everyone has different priorities. So there will always be complaints that the money which went to one thing would have been better off going to another thing, there will never be a consensus on what is the most deserving of available funds, and that’s not likely to change any time soon. So, while I appreciate this is a very superficial way of looking at it, sports facilities needed some money, then they got some money. Yay.

Without them we wouldn’t have had Twenty Twelve.

Ok, I accept that the whole tone of Twenty Twelve is snide and self deprecating, which I decried earlier, but it does it so very, very well! Of course, for satire to flourish you need something to satirise, and I’m not saying getting great telly makes bad things ok. Without the ENRON crisis we’d have never have got The Smartest Guys in the Room and without the Deepwater Horizon disaster we wouldn’t have had the opening episode of The Newsroom (well, actually we probably would but about something else) but the world would probably have been a better place if those things hadn’t happened in the first place. Brilliant, thought provoking and insightful entertainment about something bad is a silver lining, that’s all. But as silver linings go, Twenty Twelve is as sparkly as it gets!

It’s brought people together.

Not all the people, and certainly not all of the time, but there are indisputably a lot of people who are really enjoying it all. There are tens of thousands of volunteers giving up their time to contribute to the running in one way or another, and seem to be relishing in the camaraderie, and the feeling of contributing to something greater than themselves. In addition there are millions more supporting and encouraging, watching in person or from home, who are eagerly anticipating the whole spectacle. Circling back to my first point, this is a major achievement, and achievements should be celebrated.

Bad things about the Olympics.

The sponsorship is appalling.

As above, I’m on board with raising the profile of sport, and from that the health of the nation. So sponsorship by the corporations who shoulder a substantial portion of the blame for the state of our Nation’s health seems utterly perverse. There is the extreme protection surrounding their exulted sponsor status, which has really got some backs up. (Although this has had some rather amusing results, such as the Boris Bikes, sponsored by Barclays not being allowed in the park, because Lloyds TSB are the official banking sponsor.) But then there’s some much nastier stuff, like the involvement of Dow Chemical, who are associated with the Bhopal 1984 Chemical spill disaster. Their sponsorship led to the resignation of a member of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012. Once upon a time the Olympics were about great amateurs coming together from all over the world to showcase sporting excellence. This now feels very overshadowed by corporate greed.


I couldn’t possibly better Stewart Lee on the subject of legislation regarding what you can and can’t say. The heavy handedness with which LOCOG have cracked down on who is and isn’t allowed to show official support is, well, not actually that surprising, but disappointing to say the least. It certainly seems a far cry from the spirit of togetherness they are meant to be promoting. Apparently there are columns of words, and if you use a given number of words from a given number of columns then you are infringing the something or other. Apparently this includes using the phrase. “London 2012.” They’ve appropriated an entire chunk of the space-time continuum, and I’m not ok with that! (It’s worth noting that I am not lumping #savethesurprise in with this, as I think that’s perfectly reasonable.)


One of the things that made Twenty Twelve so great was the feeling that this wasn’t actually that far from the truth. There were reports from people involved in the organisation and infrastructure that it was actually scarily prescient. I imagine this is how the Homeland Security in the US felt when they realised everything they were doing was being aired in 24. The BBC actually had a rather sweet little quiz a couple of weeks ago inviting participants to guess if a particular screw up was from the TV show or from real life. Now I appreciate that with an event of this magnitude some things will go wrong, and there’s a limit to what you can do about that, but there are suggestions of far more systemic failures which come down to the kind of penny-pinching and short sightedness that will reliably bite you on the bum and yet seem to have been ignored. Then yesterday there was the North Korea flag thing. A mistake so utterly basic you can entirely imagine the writers of Twenty Twelve dismissing it as “too obvious”. Seriously, did they not think to put someone with at least a GCSE in Geography in charge of the stuff with the potential to cause a major diplomatic incident? I mean, of all the countries to risk insulting, surely North Korea is up there with the ones you really don’t want to piss off if you value your life? And flag wise, it’s a fairly straightforward situation. It’s not like the episode of the West Wing with the Taiwanese flag which genuinely is a bit complex.


The whole damn thing has cost far too much money, and yet there still doesn’t seem to be enough. A couple of months ago they announced that the event would come in under budget despite being approximately 5 times more than they said it would cost back in 2005. Furthermore, given the vast quantities of both taxpayer money and corporate sponsorship going into the great Olympic machine, it seems very peculiar that they aren’t prepared to pay the 70,000 odd volunteers who will be “making the games.” I appreciate that the majority of these people volunteering are doing this because they enjoy the involvement and privilege associated with this experience, but ultimately they are working for a huge company for free. It’s not a public company and it’s not a charity. It exists to make the IOC a profit.


Games lanes are causing traffic chaos, and there does seem to have been some debate as to whether they were necessary in the first place, given that London already has priority bus lanes basically everywhere. The advice given to motorists has been confusing, and in places contradictory. Rather amusingly, it emerged a day after the games lane on the M4 opened, that no organisation was actually accepting responsibility for enforcing its exclusivity. Apparently the tube and trains are going to combust under the pressure, which is a delightful prospect, and then there are those announcements from the beloved Boris, which annoyed the London populous so much that the shared anger got its own hashtag. I’m lucky that I have the option of working from home for parts of the next 2 weeks, but there are plenty of people less fortunate in that respect. The get ahead of the games campaign has been telling us for months that we should all basically get out of the way, except that for many people that isn’t actually an option.

So am I on board or not?

At this point I’m now more or less inclined to get on the “it’s happening anyway so you might as well enjoy it” bandwagon, and there are some things I’d genuinely like to see. There’s not a great deal I can do about the stuff I find unpleasant or unethical, and sitting at home and enjoying the opening ceremony doesn’t invalidate my misgivings about everything else. And if the whole thing becomes unbearable I’ve got the complete Bablyon 5 boxset to work through!

Equal Marriage

A couple of weeks ago my husband wrote to our MP petitioning him to vote in favour of equal marriage. The letter he received back was much as you would expect from a Conservative MP: polite, seemingly open-minded, and leaving a strong impression that they weren’t going to take anything you had said into account.

I’d responded to the consultation on equal marriage online already, but I decided to take the opportunity to write to our MP myself, specifically addressing a few of the points he had made.

The consultation on equal marriage closes on 14th June. If you haven’t already, please respond.

Additionally the excellent service WriteToThem makes it easy to write to your MP.

Dear Jonathan Lord MP,

I am writing to ask you to vote in favour of the change in law which will allow same-sex couples to marry.

In your response to my husband’s email, also asking that you vote in favour of this change, you advised that you would review the outcome of the current consultation. You also advised that you would consider the correspondence from constituents asking that the law stays as it is, espousing the traditional view that marriage itself has always been between a man and a woman.

It has been said by those who are against this change, that allowing same-sex couples to marry will undermine the value of marriage. As I’m sure you are aware, the ‘value’ society places on marriage has changed significantly over the course of human history. For centuries the value of marriage was predominantly as a business transaction. Then a shift in social attitudes took place, and the view was espoused that people should marry for love.

Now that we are in this current paradigm, that marriage is first and foremost a celebration of a romantic relationship, the only reason to maintain that same-sex couples cannot marry is because you don’t like the idea of gay people having a romantic relationship.

It is my strong belief that there is nothing wrong with being gay. However the law in the UK does not currently support this view. Despite the progress that has been made in the past few decades, the law still indicates that being gay is sub-optimal. The law regards same-sex couples as being inferior to straight couples, and the state would prefer that the family unit was based on a relationship between a man and a woman.

Marriage has increasingly little to do with raising a family. A straight couple who can’t conceive naturally can now use medical intervention to have a child, or they can adopt. Many of these options are available to gay couples, and there’s no evidence to suggest that gay couples make ‘worse’ parents than straight couples. Additionally many straight married couples, such as my husband and I, choose to remain child-free. We wanted to get married because we loved each other, but we never wanted to have children. Because we are a heterosexual couple, this was legal and acceptable.

If, as you stated, you are a huge supporter of marriage and the family, then you should embrace this opportunity to allow same-sex couples the same access to the institution of marriage, while at the same time showing your support for the gay community.

As a matter of historical accuracy, you referred to “the traditional view that marriage itself has always been between a man and a woman.” This is factually incorrect, as the Catholic Church regularly conducted same-sex marriages throughout the 300 year period of the 10th to the 12th century. In addition the Catholic Church was vociferously opposed to heterosexual marriage up until the late 9th century. This shows not only that part of the argument against gay marriage is based on a false understanding of social history, but further illustrates the point that society has changed its attitudes to marriage before.

I sincerely hope you will use your vote to show that our society’s progression towards equality and tolerance should not be impeded by the illogical and incorrect views of those inexplicably obsessed with the romantic and sexual relationships of other people.

Thank you for your time.

Mrs Liz Eden



Please shut up!

It’s pretty tempting to tell people to shut up when they’re wrong isn’t it? And, if you have the clout to let you do it, it’s even more tempting to make them shut up. On an individual level, stopping someone from espousing their poisonous opinions can be one of the ways of demonstrating to them that their prejudice is not socially acceptable.

So is the same thing true on a bigger scale? If ‘society’ wants to show it does not accept a prejudice what better way than shutting down those who spout prejudicial garbage?

Hang on, isn’t that censorship?

This week the BBC reported TFL’s announcement that they would ban the bus adverts paid for by the Core Issues Trust which would have read “Not gay! Post-gay, ex-gay and proud. Get over it!”.

News of the planned adverts sparked substantial outrage amongst those who felt that the campaign strongly implied that homosexuality was an illness which could be cured. Personally I think it’s fairly clear that the minds behind this campaign are deeply homophobic, and I’m delighted that on this occasion a large, powerful body has chosen to use that power to stop these adverts. As well as reducing the harm that these adverts could have done, this sends a clear message to those homophobes that their prejudice will not be tolerated, at least by TfL who said the adverts did not reflect a “tolerant and inclusive” London. Hurrah!

Unsurprisingly the Core Issues Trust described the move as censorship.

And in censorship is bad right? Or is it only bad when you are censoring nice people? But if you are censoring baddies, does that make it OK?

So, censorship is a tricky subject. How do you tolerate those who refuse to tolerate others?

One of the roots here is the do-as-you-would-be-done-by principle. You wouldn’t like it if someone told you that you weren’t entitled to your opinion right? But if someone’s opinion is prejudicial derogatory to a particular group of people, should they be entitled to shout it from the roof tops, and furthermore, is society obliged to provide them a soap box to stand on?

Any possible structure of society has its advantages and disadvantages. And one of the disadvantages of a ‘free and fair’ society is that you are going to get people who think they have the right to disrespect the rights of others. One way of dealing with that element is censorship, but this can be a dangerous thing.

So, in this case, should we exclaim “Yes, this is censorship and a damn good thing too!”. Do we accept that censorship is a necessary evil but still feel guilty about it, even if it is that cliché of ‘the lesser of two evils”? Or should we try to argue that it isn’t actually censorship at all?

TfL doesn’t appear to have published a press release about this yet. Out of academic interest I tried to visit The Core Issues Trust website to see if they had released anything nicely quote-able about what they presumably see as a huge injustice to them. I couldn’t – because their website is throwing up a 509 error (bandwidth limit exceeded.) I sincerely hope that’s because of the large numbers of people wanting to point and laugh, rather than gratefully racing to get ‘the cure’ thanks to the increased publicity the CIT are getting because of this.

The Last Remaining Socially Acceptable Prejudice

Over my lunch hour I spotted an article in the Guardian written by Kevin Smith about the furore that erupted when he was chucked off a plane for being “too fat”. In this article, I came across the following phrase:

I learned first-hand that fat people are the recipients of the last remaining socially acceptable prejudice. Racism and sexism will get you ostracised in more enlightened communities, but you can mock fat people all you want.

I realised I’ve heard the phrase “The Last Remaining Socially Acceptable Prejudice” a lot, in various different forms, about lots of different things. So out of sheer curiosity I googled the phrase to see what other injustices were being heralded as the last remaining socially acceptable prejudice.

One of the first hits was a comment on a blog about weight, raising the same issue as Kevin Smith:

What about prejudice against fat people – have you experienced it? Do you agree that it’s the last remaining socially acceptable prejudice? Do we blame the victim, and if we do, is it a fair criticism? Can we do better than “eat less, move more”?

The interesting thing I noticed here was the date – Summer 2007 – over 5 years earlier than the Kevin Smith article. So, does that mean that fat people have rightfully held the top spot on the scale of Socially Acceptable Prejudices for more than half a decade?

James Farrell, writing in Irish Central would appear to disagree. In 2010, 3 years later, he reports that American Catholics believe the coveted position of Victims of the Last Socially Acceptable Prejudice is theirs, and theirs alone.

Anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice it seems to me in America.

So is Kevin Smith a bit out of touch then? Maybe 5 years ago vilifying someone because of their weight was socially acceptable, but that’s no longer the case?

Except that chronologically speaking, if the America Catholics are right in being the Victims of the Last Remaining Socially Acceptable Prejudice, that means that back in June 2007 , fat people were only the Victims of the Penultimate Remaining Socially Acceptable Prejudice. And let’s face it, that just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

But wait! As time has moved on, someone commenting on the @U2 Forum wants in on this:

If kids are being punished for using the N word in schools, why is the homophobic language allowed?
Because it’s the last remaining socially acceptable prejudice.

So if being persecuted because you are gay is the LRSAP, that pushes Catholics and Fat people down to silver and bronze position respectively.

Hold your horses! Not according to this Editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal:

Health professionals too often think and behave negatively toward addicts and addiction. In this, we share the attitudes of our society, in which substance abuse is one of the last remaining socially acceptable targets for public discrimination.

So now we know that contrary to what Kevin Smith says, Prejudice against fat people is so far off being the LAST remaining socially acceptable prejudice it wouldn’t even place on a medals table.

Here’s one more that’s bang up to date:

The last remaining socially acceptable prejudice. You can’t discriminate against someone for their sex, age, religion, nationality, skin colour, sexuality, politics, marital status, parentage or social class but it is apparently still all fine and dandy to take the piss out of gingers.

– Comment in description of t-shirt bearing the slogan “Shut it! Or I’ll beat you like a ginger step child” Sold by Meanfellas.com (In “Offensive T-Shirts” section.)

So, according to these upstanding citizens, the Fat People, American Catholics, Gays and Drug Addicts can all breathe a sigh of relief that any Prejudice they encounter is in fact NOT Socially Acceptable. You could argue until the cows came home about the order in which the social ills crossed the collective line of the criteria by which you aren’t allowed to pre-judge a person. But what really matters is that as of right now there is only ONE GROUP left to whom it is still socially acceptable to be horrible. It must be true because the people who run a website selling clothing bearing slogans says so.

So, what are the chances that we could get a consensus between these groups of which of them is actually, objectively speaking, as a matter of fact rather than opinion, the Victims of the LRSAP?

Supposedly, each of these groups is asserting that any prejudice they encounter because of their weight/religion/sexual orientation/drug addiction/hair colour has still got the Seal of Approval from Society. I would imagine they feel that way because the behaviour of Society has led them to believe that Society deems what was said or done to be ‘socially acceptable.’

Someone gets thrown off a plane because the airline staff said they were too fat, and no one around them seems to be morally outraged? I guess that’s because it’s Socially Acceptable. Someone is vilified because of their religious belief, or they face a daily barrage of homophobic slurs, or they are denied health care because the prevalent view is that they did it to themselves, or someone is bullied for having red hair, and no one around them does anything about it? No-one speaks out on their behalf, or confronts the source of the offence, or intervenes in any way? I can see how this would lead someone to conclude that no one actually thinks that This Behaviour Is Not Ok.

So far, I’m happy for these groups to assert that the prejudice they encounter is still Socially Acceptable. But what exactly makes them go one step further, and proclaim that face the Last Remaining SAP? Is it because they are utterly blind to each others’ plight? Do the gingers of the world genuinely think that no one believes it’s still ok to call someone fat? Do all fat people hold that drug addicts have nothing to fear from those who believe that addicts bring their problems on themselves and therefore aren’t entitled to healthcare? Do drug addicts believe that any time a gay person gets attacked because of their sexuality someone will leap to their defence because no one lets that slide any more?

And how might you feel if you are an overweight, gay, drug addicted, ginger haired American Catholic? There’s no question that you are going to face some pretty unpleasant behaviour from the rest of the human race? But for which of these qualities will you feel that you have no one who will fight your corner?

The idea that there is only one prejudice that is socially acceptable seems ridiculous. In certain circumstances, people will consistently disappoint. Society accepts (by which I mean allows to happen and/or fails to challenge) all manner of despicable prejudices which are demonstrated through actions and inactions constantly.

Of course there are people who are sometimes prepared to stick their neck out for someone else, and on occasions will face down prejudices where they encounter them. But for a lot of the time, humans as a breed will do no such thing – either blinded by their own prejudices, paralysed by fear of retribution, or otherwise rendered inactive by their own apathy.

A lot of the time people aren’t very nice, especially when an opportunity comes along to either actively make someone else’s life worse because you don’t like, or don’t agree with something about them. Or when you witness someone being victimised and don’t do anything about it. I’m fairly confident in asserting that most people are guilty of one or other of these – and probably both.

So what’s my point?

I’m generally misanthropic, and I spend a fair amount of time thinking people are basically stupid, mean, cowardly, selfish and jealous. So that isn’t my point.

Quite a lot of people disagree with my assessment of human nature and like to focus on the positives. That’s fine – good luck to them. That’s not my point either.

My point is this: why is each of these groups suggesting, at least rhetorically, that Society as a whole is wise, generous, brave, just, and kind-hearted, except when it comes to the particular characteristic for which they are attacked?

If they actually believed that position – that Society as a whole condemns all other forms of prejudice – then I can see the logic in demanding that the last socially acceptable prejudice also becomes socially unacceptable.

I find it hard to believe that they do actually hold that position to be true. So would they be better off joining forces and ‘embracing’ my misanthropic world view? Are we likely to see more social change if we accept the enormity of what still needs to be done? Or is it more advantageous to kid ourselves that we are nearly there?