I am very grateful to Dawn for the fabulous photos.
The cupcakes stole the show.
I am very grateful to Dawn for the fabulous photos.
The cupcakes stole the show.
I’m struck that we don’t have a folk-memory of women escaping from domestic captivity in the way that Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight have escaped in Cleveland, and Elizabeth Fritzl and her siblings, and Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, Shawn Hornbeck and Natascha Kampusch escaped before them.
The stories of these escapes are new.
Women being captured is not new, it’s not even specific to our species. At a recent Skeptics in the Pub Talk, Dr Alison Craig told us about “coercive consortship” in dolphins.
Women running away isn’t new either. Allegedly, Wilkie Collins took the title for his book “The Woman in White” from his first meeting with Caroline Graves, the woman who became his mistress. Collins was walking through London one night past a suburban villa when
“the iron gate leading to the garden was dashed open, and from it came the figure of a young and very beautiful woman” …. she had been imprisoned at the villa under the mesmeric influence of an unnamed suburbanite.
What appears to be new, is that the escapes are successful, they are reported, and the victims are reunited with their families. Today Caroline Graves’ story would be international news. But in the 19th century it was not told by the men who witnessed her escape. (Of course, it may not be true).
There are so many possible reasons for this change.
It is finally clear that a man who prevents a woman leaving him is committing a crime not exercising a right. A line has emerged between a consensual domestic relationship on one side, and imprisonment on the other. This is new. In the 19th century and before, you would have happy love-matches on the one hand, pragmatic civil contracts and arranged marriages in the middle, and who knows what hells of captivity and servitude at the far end. Then, as now, a good marriage could go bad. But how many young women were kidnapped in a world where the neighbours all assumed they were wives not prisoners?
Women are free to leave in a way they weren’t before. Divorce gave women the the legal freedom to leave. Before divorce was available, women were chattels in a very literal way. I was checking references for the Mayor of Casterbridge auctioning his wife and I found a Wikipedia entry about Wife Selling, which apparently took place as recently as 1913. Later, women gained the cultural freedom to leave. However, in living memory in the 1970s and 1980s what went on behind closed doors stayed behind closed doors and the police would not intervene. Putting it bluntly, if a woman runs away now, whether she is a wife or a kidnap victim, she will be listened to. There is somewhere to escape to now.
But I think there’s more to it than that. We see the victims as unambiguously innocent and wronged. When there is no religious fundamentalism or misogyny at work we do not see them as someone whose moral worth has been destroyed. However, Elizabeth Smart said:
… she “felt so dirty and so filthy” after she was raped by her captor, and she understands why someone wouldn’t run “because of that alone.” …
I have tried to find out more about Smart’s upbringing in Salt Lake City to discover if it was particularly religious. She certainly expresses herself powerfully:
“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’”
Smart felt worthless as a result of her repeated rapes but we see her as a victim not as “damaged goods” and we celebrate when a kidnap victim escapes. And if we have not yet managed to stop blaming the victims of rape we have at least progressed beyond flogging them, stoning them or forcing them to marry their rapists.
So I am encouraged by the fact that when victims of kidnap and imprisonment escape they now do so into the relative safety of a supportive and rejoicing world.
This was written a while ago; I am publishing it now because time has passed.
I am about to go to Peter’s funeral. Peter was a friend from uni days. To be accurate, Peter was a friend from the year immediately after we left Univeristy. When I knew him he was doing a PGCE and living in Newton Hall (“the largest private housing estate in Western Europe”) and I was living in a cottage in Pity Me. (I kid you not).
I find death confusing.
How can something as varied, complex, multi-dimensional and spontaneous as a human being suddenly stop being? How can a person simply cease to exist? For years re-incarnation made sense for me; I could not comprehend that such vitality and life could be snuffed out – a brief candle. Unfortunately for me I read Reincarnation – a Critical Examination by Paul Edwards and had to acknowledge that there simply is no good quality evidence for re-incarnation. Schmevidence, yes. Evidence, no. So I am left reluctantly staring annihilation in the face every time someone I know dies, and blinking in incomprehension. I simply do not understand it.
Grief is about life, not death. If someone ceases to exist, there is nothing there to pity. You can only feel grief about life – about the things they suffered during their life, what they missed during it or what they miss by being dead. Or else you feel grief for yourself: for the absence you feel, for the jokes you won’t share with them, for the conversations you’ll never have.
As well as confusion, death leaves me feeling angry. Not at the unfairness of it. Life is far too full of unfairness and suffering for anyone to consider early death as particularly unfair. A good life and an early death is preferable, surely, to some of the truly dreadful lives doled by the unjust hand of random chance. So there’s no reason for me to feel angry, but still I do. Anger might be too strong a word. When my friends die, I feel cross.
There’s a distinct John Donne-ness to my reaction to Peter’s death. I know very well for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for me. Peter’s not here, any more, after all. Grief is selfish. It’s all about me, me, me. I’ll miss Peter. I’m feeling confused and cross. I’m too young for my friends to die.
So tomorrow, when I go to his funeral, I hope that I will get a glimpse of Peter, and aspects of that complicated, private, gentle man that I never knew about. I want tomorrow to be about him, him, him.
So far, I have seen four strands of commentary in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre.
There is the predictable outcry against the lack of gun control in the USA. The rest of the world finds it obvious that there is a causal link between guns and gun crime. However, all the opinion pieces, statistics, mashups, charts, infograms and cartoons on Facebook fail to convince those wedded to the 2nd Amendment. Instead they repeat the mantra that guns don’t kill people, people do. But, as Eddie Izzard observes, the gun helps. On the same day as the Sandy Hook murders, another man attacked primary school children, this time in China. But he used a knife and none of them were killed. So, yes America, start on the long road to taking the guns away.
A second set of commentary doing the rounds is about denying murderers their 15 minutes of fame – what Thatcher called the “oxygen of publicity”. This is Charlie Brooker’s argument that sensationalist reportage turns the murderers into celebrities and makes mass-murder a career move. There is a logic to this: Mark Chapman murdered John Lennon to make Jodie Foster pay attention to him. Cho Seung-Hui mailed videotapes to NBC before killing 32 people at Virginia Tech. Fame transforms violence into heroism; it does it in gangsta culture, but it’s as old as the Saga of Erik the Red, as old as the Iliad. So, yes, do not glamorise mass murderers.
The more egregious the crime, the more important it is to the rest of us that the perpetrator(s) should be either sick or evil or both. We need them to be safely “other” or else it’s just too damn scary. This is the mental health strand and the reaction here has been more varied reflecting the greater complexity of the issue. On the one hand you have this piece by someone whose concerns about her own son led her to assume that Adam Lanza suffered suffered a similar condition. In the middle you have the USA’s failure to treat those with mental health issues which in turn suggests a culture which demonises those who are mentally ill. And finally you have the urgent need to put out the clear message that having Aspergers Syndrome or Autism, or having a mental health issue does not mean you are a killer. Kate Donovan puts it explicitly: I’m asking you not to make “being a good person” the standard for [being] mentally healthy. The importance of this message for the safety of those with neurological-diversity or mental health issues cannot be over-emphasised. And in terms of what to do to reduce these killings? Is it cheap of me to mention universal health-care at this point? It seems to me that treating mental illness is in every way better than criminalising and imprisoning people who are mentally ill. Certainly we need to start with a de-stigmatised, evidence-based and rational model of mental health.
Then there are a few people characterising school shootings as a “problem of male white crime”. William Hamby draws heavily on a paper succinctly and shockingly entitled “Suicide by Mass Murder” by Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel. Kalish and Kimmel observe that school shootings since 1982 have been mainly by young white males, often students themselves, and mainly in rural and suburban areas. It’s a middle-class crime. They suggest that killing provides the murderer with a sense of power and give meaning to their subsequent suicide. They think this happens when a sense of aggrieved entitlement turns into frustration and hatred: Anders Brevik springs to mind, though he did not commit suicide. It’s tempting to look askance at the more extreme Republicans exposed by the 2012 election who reacted so madly to their white, male privilege slipping away. This is a plausible thesis, particularly if you aren’t American, aren’t white, or aren’t male. It’s clearly not the full story, but it forms a promising starting point for the mental-health-issues argument. It’s also worrying, in an America where the middle class is shrinking and whites will soon be outnumbered. (The comments on Hamble’s first article prompted this second one, which is equally fascinating).
I for one find all these arguments compelling. However, I doubt that these are the only causes for these brutal crimes. Sadly, I see no signs of the rationality and self-control needed to tackle these four issues: gun control, media sensationalism, the irrational pathologisation of mental health issues, and aggrieved entitlement causing “male, white crime”.
This post was first published on The Twentyfirst Floor.
It’s not only possible to be good without god, it’s much easier to be good without god. All sorts of dilemmas just go away.
Want a tattoo? Have one. Poly-cotton shirts? Sure. Ham and cream cheese in your bagel? Coming up.
Prefer that animals should be humanely killed? Object to male and female genital mutilation? Think there are better responses than stoning someone who cheats? Believe your choice of spouse should not be restricted by gender?
Think that child abusers should be brought to justice?
Think women should have the same rights to study and teach as men?
These are all easy peasy things for atheists to decide on; but many seem to be sources of moral anguish for christians, jews and muslims. Or for some christians, jews and muslims, anyway.
(In the interests of full disclosure, I should say there’s one ethical dilemma that atheism has made harder for me: My transition from vague-Buddhism to actual-Atheism has made it harder for me to accept abortion. I am 100% pro-choice, but belief in reincarnation let me off an ethical hook and atheism requires my position to be more nuanced.)
Back to women teaching in church.
The recent events at Bristol University Christian Union have highlighted how much harder it is to make their moral choices when you have to base them on the translated, reported, edited and often bat-shit crazy opinions of apostles and prophets. Put briefly, Bristol CU will only permit women to teach in certain specific circumstances, and then only with their husband present. This is based on two verses in Paul’s letter to Timothy: 1 Timothy 2:11-12 “Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.” This is also the “theological” basis for the opposition to women bishops. The Guardian summarises the Bristol CU stooshie nicely.
The irony is that Bristol CU’s position, which has generated a predictable shit-storm in twitter, is in fact a softening of their previous position. They are aiming at exclusivity by trying to include the evangelical men who side with Paul. (I am unclear whether and how the women can object.)
There are pleas on twitter for us to be kind and patient with the young people who are out of their depth, and I have a certain sympathy for the well-meaning lad, probably in his early 20s, who is facing this unnecessary moral dilemma. He is trying to accommodate evangelicals who quote Paul at him (good, sincere and maybe even lovely people) while I assume he is struggling with the blatant injustice of this prohibition. Not to mention all the other biblical inconsistencies and culturally sanctioned brutalities. Looks like a recipe for cognitive dissonance to me, and no wonder so many believers seem to be saying “la la la, I can’t hear you” so much of the time.
Life is so much easier when you say “sod this for a game of angels” and decide for yourself that child abusers should be brought to justice, that women should be the ones who decide whether or not they can cope with a child, that we should inflict as little pain and stress as possible on any animals we slaughter, and that the only qualification for speaking should be having a voice and the only qualification for teaching should be – you know – an actual qualification. You don’t even need to be an atheist to do this: I come from a tradition which acknowledges the fallibility of scripture (life is much saner when you disregard Paul and Leviticus). Then of course you have to take responsibility for your moral decisions, you cannot just out-source them. But as Bristol CU are finding, you can’t out-source them anyway.
Here are a couple of other relevant links:
http://www.bristolcu.org.uk/ – which is currently showing Bristol CU’s statement
This post was first published on the Twenty-First Floor –
Ooops. This one got through the net without all its facts checked and links in place. I know I should finish editing it, but life is short and events have moved on. May 2013
Orwell portrayed a world where people feared Big Brother’s ability to monitor their every move. Our reality is stranger: it seems we crave attention so much that we rush to open up our lives to the public gaze, authoritarian or otherwise. And not just the wannabes on X-Factor, but those of us who tweet and blog as well.
The online reactions to the twitter joke trial and the joke itself shine a light on how we think about private and public spaces online, and just how much we have handed over to those in power.
I hadn’t paid much attention to the twitter joke trial until the #iamspartacus hash tag splashed itself all over my twitter feed and @TwJokeTrialFund raised the £10,000 needed for his appeal in [nnn[ hours. Paul Chambers was found guilty of [charge] and [sentence]. The criminal record means that Chambers cannot qualify as an Accountant, so his career has gone up in smoke. All in 140 characters or less:
Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!
Now there are a lot of different strands to this, and we need to disentangle them. It’ll help if I pin my colours to the mast. (Your colours may vary, and that’s ok).
Firstly of course the punishment indeed disproportionate: I’m prone to flippancy myself, and I’d hate to lose my job and my ability to qualify in my career and get a criminal record for nothing more than a throw away remark.
However, and this is important, what Chambers did was stupid.
Katherine Whitehorn used to sense-check her plans for children’s activities by asking herself “what would the coroner say?” and it’s a useful question to ask. If this goes completely tits up, what would the headlines be? What criminal prosecution would ensue? Could I end up with a Darwin?
Tweeting threats to blow up an airport is stupid, no matter how common that sort of joke is on Twitter. It’s been likened to shouting “Fire” in a crowded theatre, which is [reference's] famous example of the limit to freedom of speech. Let’s be clear; if the security guys at Robin Hood airport had seen the threat but not drawn it to the attention of the police, or if the police hadn’t then checked that Chambers isn’t a terrorist, then they would themselves have been criminially negligent as custodians of public safety. It would be lovely to live in a world where people aren’t killed and maimed by terrorists
I’ve read several counters to this argument, and to save you the time, I’ll post them here:
But you just don’t get Twitter
Hang on a moment here, who doesn’t get it? Who’s behaving as if the new world is the same as the old world? Twitter, Facebook and the Blogosphere aren’t the pub, but we behave as if they are. So I am not won over by this argument, or by the tweeters saying “but he didn’t me-e-e-e-ean it”.
But lots of people make jokes on Twitter
Yeah, and..? Lots of people smoke. Lots of people eat so much that their weight damages their health. The fact that “lots of people” do something does not make it either intelligent or morally right.
But we shouldn’t have to live in a world where we jump at shadows all the time
Yes. I agree. But we do.
So what do we have here? As I said, we have several strands:
The orginal draft of this post ended like this:
It is Chambers’ irresponsibility which stopped me claiming to be Spartacus. My position is logically identical to anyone whose sympathy for the McCanns is tempered by the thought that they should never have left the children unsupervised.
But now I think that conclusion is fair but harsh, because I’ve changed my mind slightly after reading the pages I’ve linked to.
What has been done to Chambers is unfair and disproportionate. Yes, the Robin Hood Airport were right to get him checked out, but he should have been slapped across the wrist and told not to do it again, like a kid caught scrumping apples.
Two stupids do not make good sense.
How important is presentation? Does it matter what your work looks like so long as the thinking is sound?
It’s all in the context. I’ve worked in very large organisations where high standards of accuracy, detail and presentation were the norm. I work now for a company which is smaller, more entrepreneurial, fleeter of foot, and where what matters is the message not the medium. Some environments – academic, technical and medical for example – take great pride in making sure their presentations don’t look “too corporate”.
Accuracy matters in Great Big Organisations (the ones with customers in the millions and employees in the tens or hundreds of thousands) because of the way that scale multiplies the effect of errors. Herding 10,000 cats (pcs, people, pension payments, whatever) is not just 10 times harder than herding 1,000 of the wretched things. It’s nearer 10 to the power of 10 (or 100) times harder. Trust me, I’m a cat.
Detail matters in these behemoths because the systems are too big for one person to understand them, while completeness matters because people cycle in and out of the two year and three year change programmes taking their knowledge with them. Documentation is the baton that passes the knowledge from one team to another.
But the reason presentation matters in these modern-day Versailles is not because it contributes to profit or effectiveness, it is because your credibility is on the line: an obsessive focus on presentation standards is a product of power imbalances. This makes it understandable in companies with corporate clients; in fact some consultancies have entire teams whose job it is to take a document and make it look beautiful. Institutional clients judge the book by its cover and assume that a lack of effort in the sales process indicates a lack of effort in the delivery.
But where is the value-add in highly polished work when it’s only being done to negotiate internal fiefdoms? I am talking about work-places where people use phrases like
trying to get traction
socialising the idea
I have spent weeks of my life polishing slide decks while I waited for my five minute slot in front of – say – the Heads of Strategic Operations Support at the monthly Governance Committee Change Review Meeting after next. Where is the value-add in that? I found it comforting, mind you. It meant I’d done my best and wouldn’t be damned with the faint praise of “could try harder” in my next 360. It also meant that the Heads of Strategic whatever whatever were less likely to find something to criticise in my proposal. And – best of all – it looked and felt like work and didn’t require much thought.
Don’t get me wrong, some aspects of polishing do add value. I am hot on spelling and grammatical correctness because they reduce confusion and stop you annoying your reader. When a colleague who translates everything they say to me from French to English in their heads and says
We are giving the test scripts to Pete so we can test him
I have to remind myself it is the system we are testing not Pete. My French colleague is entitled to make grammatical errors in English, but anyone whose first language is English has no excuse. Good grammar and spelling mean that what you say doesn’t get in the way of what you mean.
But when we get down to that extra round of refining and polishing, what a Danish friend of mine called
how necessary is that? Fly-f***ing is when you move a comma from one side of a word to the other because you’ve revised the damn thing to death. I’m fond of the term, but the English equivalent isn’t as blue. It is:
And clearly, no, messing with insects doesn’t add value, outside the situations where professional credibility affects the bottom line. Quite the reverse: I have discovered with joy that stopping when you’ve got the meaning down is a great way of clawing back some time.
PS – I’m fascinated that just thinking about Great Big Corporates has re-jargonised my language. Have a link.
As a skeptic I have a shameful confession to make: I once had an imaginary condition miraculously cured by a placebo treatment.
Some conditions have symptons but not signs. Symptoms are felt and reported by patients, signs can be detected using some form of test. Headache and nausea are symptoms of migraine, vomiting and pallor are signs.
About 10 years ago I went through some high-stakes changes and made a career-move which required full-on keyboard use. But I developed Repetitive Strain Injury which affected my hands to the extent that I experienced pain up to my shoulders. Lawyers have a field day with RSI, because some repetitive strain injuries such as Carpel Tunnel Syndrome have signs, but others are just painful with no measurable physical changes. The long and the short of my story is that I bought a wrist magnet and strapped it on my right arm. Within half an hour my right arm was considerably less painful than my left and over the next few days the pains disappeared completely. I was able to take up my new job with no problem at all. A miracle cure! For a condition my doctor had been powerless to treat! Woo hoo!
Doctors are often exasperated by patients who turn up with functional conditions (ie ones which have symptoms but not signs) because there is nothing concrete to treat and no objective way to measure outcomes. In the worst case, they consider the patient to be a malingerer and even in good cases trust between paient and doctor break down and create a space for kindly Alternative Medical practitioners to step into. Functional conditions are for Alt Med of course because the intervention needed isn’t medical. It’s in the realm that Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax calls “headology”. The wrist magnet really did cure my RSI. It worked, not because it improved the flow of fluids in my body, but because I thought it improved the flow of fluids in my body.
Placebos are a side-effect free way to treat conditions which can’t be treated using evidence-based medicine. Let’s be clear here: these conditions are honestly experienced by people of integrity. Just because their minds and bodies are lying to them, doesn’t mean they are lying to the doctors. But there are no symptoms that can be measured and treated so the medical model and the patients’ experience simply don’t overlap. This creates a gap in the market which alt med happily and sometimes effectively fills. But not all alt med is innocent and all of it is expensive and based on false models and premises. We need medical science to admit there is something going on here that needs treating, rather than dismissing functional conditions as hysterical, imaginary or psychosomatic.
Unfortunately, medics who accept that placebos may indeed be appropriate for these conditions cannot bridge gap by prescribing them, even if they will work where “real” treatments fail. Doctors consider it unethical to lie to patients, and I think most patients would agree with them. So at the moment there is indeed a place for alt med in providing these interventions. Alt Med has no place in treating pathological conditions of course (ie “real” ones): flower drops and sugar pills cannot treat cancer, and magnetic bracelets can’t cure Carpel Tunnel Syndrome.
I’ve finally seen Enron on stage. Briefly, for those who don’t know, Enron used clever and initially legal accounting techniques to big up their profits and tuck their losses away out of sight and, for a while at least, out of mind. Not the most obvious material for a play. However my initially-not-very-interested-in-the-subject husband came away enthralled by the story and with a reasonable understanding of hedging, trading above book and the role and effects of the raptors. So kudos to Lucy Prebble for that. Plus, it’s excellent.
Enron is not a Greek tragedy of our times, even though the tale includes hubris, ethical dilemmas (not that many of those, actually) and a suicide. It’s too technical to be a farce, not quite funny enough to be a pantomime (“We did nothing wrong” “Oh yes you did” “Oh no we didn’t”) so a musical play is just about right.
The staging is arresting: the two main numbers are the trading floor in the first act (which is the poster-piece for the play) and the California power-cuts in the second. Both of these are great set pieces, but I was mightily irritated by the first which showed traders in the brightly coloured trading jackets of an open outcry trading floor. You see, Enron’s not just a story about greed, it’s a story about vision. Like it or lump it Skilling really was a visionary and the people who worked there really were the smartest guys in the room. So Enron pioneered online trading – “Enron Online”: the clue was in the name. I accept that having 8 men wildly gesticulating their buy and sell messages is much more theatrical than having 50 of them crouched over computer terminals. But the inaccuracy annoyed me so much I couldn’t pay attention to the rest of the first half. And it detracts from the tension between bricks and clicks which is one of the more interesting things in the Enron story. You see, they weren’t just crooks, they were also visionaries. Skilling really was trying to bring about a technological future the rest of the world just didn’t get at the time. A future that we live in now. Video on demand, anyone?
The four main parts in the play are Chairman, Ken Lay, CEO Jeffrey Skilling, CFO Andy Fastow and hot business babe “Claudia”, whose career and character echoes that of Rebecca Marks. (Marks left before the proverb hit the fan, was not involved in the frauds, and would be in a position to sue if her lawyers felt like it). This drastic pruning is I think fair. However I was unconvinced by the characterisation of Fastow as a jittery nerd. From my reading of just about every book available, Fastow was neither fawning nor socially inept; like the others he was clever and corrupted by his own ambition. I was also surprised by the presentation of Skilling and “Claudia” as sexual partners. Their rival visions for the organisation were more than enough reason for them to dislike each other without any need for urgent and unsatisfactory sex. Which brings us back to the bricks and clicks tension: ”Claudia” in the play and Marks in reality focused on traditional businesses, power plants, water companies, pipelines and the like. Ok, they were hubristic failures, but they did raise cash in the fire sale. Skilling’s vision was to change the nature of business by introducing trading into markets which hadn’t been traded before. They were both wrong of course, which ultimately was why Enron fell.
One thing that fascinated me was that at no point in the play did the Edinburgh audience applaud when I was there on Saturday night; not the set-pieces, not the soliloquies, and very nearly not at the end. There must have been several people in the theatre that night, or over the run at least, who could have written the equivalent play about RBS and I could have had a good stab at writing one about HBOS myself. Edinburgh is not unsophisticated financially, even if its financial services companies are banks rather than trading houses or accountancies.
Maybe the sights and sounds of plunging share-prices, lost life savings and venial leaders were just the teensiest bit too close to home.