Tag Archives: ethics

The problem of good men, doing nothing

To understand how to deal with the Roman Catholic Church’s silence about paedophilia and other forms of abuse we need to look at experiments performed by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s. Milgram’s famous experiments were designed to understand how normal people could perpetrate abnormal acts such as those comitted in Nazi Germany.

The most relevant experiment was summed up by Raj Persaud in a review of Milgram’s biography in the BMJ:

Milgram found, surprisingly, that 65% of his subjects [who thought he was testing the link between punishment and learning], ordinary residents of New Haven, were willing to give apparently harmful electric shocks—up to 450 volts—to a pitifully protesting victim, simply because a scientific, lab coated authority commanded them to, and despite the fact that the victim did nothing to deserve such punishment. The victim was, in reality, a good actor who did not actually receive shocks, a fact that was revealed to the subjects at the end of the experiment. (My emphasis).

Many of Milgram’s experiments have been repeated. One interesting re-working of the experiment re-cast it as a Reality TV show and was reported by the BBC:

A disturbing French TV documentary has tried to demonstrate how well-meaning people can be manipulated into becoming torturers or even executioners.

The hugely controversial Game of Death … showed 80 people taking part in what they thought was a game show pilot. Before the show, they signed contracts agreeing to inflict electric shocks on other contestants. They were … asked to zap a man they believed was another contestant whenever he failed to answer a question correctly – with increasingly powerful shocks of up to 460 volts. …

Egged on by a glamorous presenter, cries of “punishment” from a studio audience and dramatic music, the overwhelming majority of the participants obeyed orders to continue delivering the shocks – despite the man’s screams of agony and pleas for them to stop…

Only 16 of the 80 participants stopped before the ultimate, potentially lethal shock.

In this case the experimenters had stripped out the back-story about the attempt to understand the mechanics of learning so the participants did not think they were acting for any kind of greater good.  This was social pressure pure and complex.

These findings are central to understanding the scandal welling up from within the Roman Catholic Church.

There are two separate outrages here.  Firstly there are the acts of abuse themselves, and we should remember we are not just talking about paedophilia, but also the bullying and abuse of children ‘cared for’ in by nuns in Church-run orphanages. And secondly there is the  systemic cover-up of these acts to protect the perpetrators.

The whole thing has been one giant Milgram experiment lasting centuries, and viewed in this light, we have to concede that although the cover-ups were evil, they were not necessarily the acts of evil men.  As Edmund Burke said:

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

These experiments tell us not to be surprised that few in the church stood up and said “Enough’s enough; I am not willing to collude in this any longer”.   In fact it would have been surprising if anyone had: these are not college students or game-show contestants with little loyalty to those telling them to conform. These are people who have given their free will over to those they think of as their seniors and betters, whose world-view and entire careers are based on creating a reality out of  the notions of spiritual authority and clerical obedience.

The question, of course, is how to break the Church’s authority on this issue? How do we make it clear that there is no ethical dilemma, no weighing up of “the career of a good priest and a good man” against justice for the abused and broken victims? That paedophilia and covering up paedophilia are not merely sins to absolved under the seal of the confessional, they are also crimes to be tried and punished in the secular world.

Oddly, I think the red-tops have a place here. Screaming headlines about “Paedo-Priests” serve to crack open the tight grip the Church has assumed over defining what is “right” and “wrong”, and it is crucial that we break that sense of god-given authority within the church. The bishops thought they were better judges than the secular authorities of what was right and wrong. As a result church members  kept silent who looked to the bishops for leadership kept silent, like Milgram’s experimental subjects, because the bishops were indeed providing leadership. Once that grip is released and it is clear that society expects the Church to hand over its paedophiles for punishment, then the institutionalised dilemma of whether to protect the priest or the child goes away.

Besides which, those sort of headlines polarise the debate, and this is one of the few debates which requires less nuance and a lot more polarity.


Useful links:

BBC article about the French “Game Show” documentary (quoted above)

The Situationist – a good Social Sciences and Psychology Blog

Book:  “The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram” at Amazon

Raj Persaud’s review of the above in the BMJ (restricted access) (quoted above)

Wikipedia’s entry on Stanley Milgram

Murphy’s Law and the NHS Spine

I am very conflicted about the NHS spine.  This is (will be) the computer system whereby all patient records are stored in a single system and available to any appropriate NHS worker in the UK.

As a cynical IT professional, I laugh in the face of quotes like this:

The NHS Care Records Service uses the strongest national and international security measures available for storing and handling your information.

Ha ha!  I chortle. Tee hee.

I am sure they do use the strongest etc, etc.  But let’s face it, it’s going to leak like a sieve. Health service staff are not particularly IT savvy. There’s professionalism and an awareness of patient confidentiality on the one hand, and there’s keeping your notes on a USB stick and having your handbag nicked on the other.  There’s IT policy mentioned in your induction day, and there’s using someone else’s log on because yours isn’t yet activated and the patient’s going to die (or the Daily Mail will dance with glee) if you make the wrong decision in the next 3 minutes.

One Nation under CCTV - Banksy, photograph by unusualimage

One Nation under CCTV – Banksy, photograph by unusualimage

But a far greater worry is the scope creep that surrounds any government technology. Of course they shouldn’t use our medical records to vet public sector job applications.  Of course they shouldn’t create an MRB check like a CRB check to ensure that people with – I dunno – chronic mental illness don’t get jobs as clowns (all that working with children and animals…)  Of course they shouldn’t let the anti-terrorist bunch trawl through to find whatever it is they look for these days.  Of course they shouldn’t. And of course they will.

So Ha ha! I say again.

But…

A lack of joined-up medical record-keeping kills.  I don’t have the stats, I don’t even know what audited stats exist, but hospital medics of my acquaintance assure me that a lack of vital and timely medical histories is a killer. And you only have to talk to anyone with a chronic condition to glimpse the exhausting grimness of having to explain their history to whoever it is they’ve landed in front of this time.

So… do I allow this privileged position to ease me out of the data danger zone? I am relatively healthy and check No, No, No, No on life insurance forms. Not being on the database won’t kill me. If I turn up in A&E what they see is what they have to deal with because there’s nothing nasty in my medical history.  And I am very well aware of how hard security is to achieve (I’m an IT worker in the financial sector). And I am old enough and cynical enough to know that if great big databases are there, they will be used by self-serving governments. Do I opt out at no risk to myself because Big Data is Evil and Should Not Be Encouraged?

Or should I support the health service’s laudable attempt to save lives not to mention reducing wear and tear on the patients’ patience, even though that will only encourage Big Government?  It’s a nice gesture, and with my nice clean bill of health when the CID looking for a sex killer search through the database for local nutters prescribed nonutterherein there is minimal risk to precious me.

What would Pastor Neimueller do?

What would he wish he had done?

I find this a tough ethical call.

No more kool-aid any more: Sherron Watkins and Enron

Power Failure

  • I am taking an ethical stand
  • You are a whistle-blower
  • He is a grass

The ethical complexities of whistle-blowing tap deeply into the issues of divided loyalties.  It is hard to predict what you’d do faced with this sort of dilemma, and I’ve always been interested in the stories of those who have. Power Failure is co-credited to Sherron Watkins the woman usually described as ‘the Enron whistle-blower’.  I was eager to compare it with Cynthia Cooper’s book Extraordinary Circumstances about blowing the whistle in Worldcom which I reviewed a while ago.

I was curious to understand the differences in the two women’s experiences. Cooper was head of internal audit and her job was to prevent just the sort of fraud (simple, but huge) which she found at Worldcom. The horns of her particular dilemma were her professional accountability vs corporate loyalty. Watkins on the other hand was only one of dozens of insiders expressing concern about Enron both within and without the company, others had leaked for years to market analysts, to the press, even to Yahoo message boards. Watkins just happened to be the one who failed to maintain her anonymity.  The irony is that she kept her concerns within the company, taking them to CEO Ken Lay instead of narrow-casting them outside.

This is one of the few books about Enron not put together from clippings, and it shows.  Swartz clearly obtained access to a number of senior or at least central insiders.  It provides a real sense of why Enron was an addictive place to work, which I’ve not found in any other book.   The only other book with an Enronian’s name on the cover Brian Cruver’s book, ‘Enron, Anatomy of Greed‘, but he arrived late and was just one of thousands of low-level employees dismissed with a $4,000 pay-off just before Christmas 2002.

Reading both these books though, three things stand out for me other than the eye-wateringly huge amounts of money.

The first is the absolute importance of operational controls. Yes, ethics and risk management matter both morally and in business terms, but operational controls come first, because operational chaos not only permits these kinds of fraud it may even require them.  Frequent organisational re-structures and high levels of executive churn are bad signs.  Beware of companies which are overly acquisitive or growing too fast, because things will fall down the cracks.

The second is that it is hard to be faced with the morning-after when you have stopped drinking the kool-aid.  ‘Power Failure’ and ‘Extraordinary Circumstances’ both touch on how difficult it was for Watkins and Cooper to determine what the right thing to do was, let alone how hard it was to do it.  I’d like them to have covered the consequences to themselves in a bit more detail, but I guess we don’t like the idea that good people can suffer for doing what’s right.

Finally, while reading the book I found myself wondering what it is like to be Jeffrey Skilling or Andy Fastow right now, in jail.

Enron was a long time ago and I do feel that I’ve read all I need to on the subject, but Lehmans, Goldman, RBS and HBOS remind us that arrogance, chaos and greed enable companies to fall as well as rise.

PS – ‘Power Failure’ is written in the third person by journalist Mimi Swartz. For a more a direct insight into Watkins herself look at the BBC programme Hard Talk where Watkins exchanges wry regrets with the HBOS whistle-blower, Paul Moore.  (This will only be watchable for another two months).

Enron – a case of moral bankruptcy

Enron Logo - “The Crooked E”I’m currently reading a couple of books about Enron and fascinating they are too, if you like that sort of thing, which I do.

What happened with Enron then?

Very briefly: they borrowed from the future to make themselves look profitable in the present, but no-one can do that indefinitely. Astonishingly, for most of the time they were within the letter of the law. Remember, a company’s Annual Accounts are supposed to be an account or an explanation presented to the owners which explains what their officers and employees have been up to during the previous 12 months. However, by the late 1990s there were many different ways of accounting for any given set of facts.

Of course, after a while the actions they took were definitely outside the law. In some cases corporate officers defrauded Enron itself in a complex game of financial cups and peas, in others they defrauded Enron’s owners by lying to Wall Street, and a huge number of senior executives quietly jumped ship during Enron’s last year of trading cashing in tens or hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Enron stock in the process, walking and quacking like insider traders as they pocketed the cash and “retired”.

Reading the various books on the subject, it’s clear that most of those involved either had no sense of right or wrong or let it erode over time. The question always seems to have been “is it legal?” not “is it right?”. These were people who had ferocious intellects but who had no moral sense and no internal breaking systems. Some of them saw laws and lawmakers as opponents to outwit. Others among them didn’t take laws that personally – they just thought the law applied to other people.

Reading the books though, I find myself wondering how such seriously intelligent people could be so stupid. How could they think that they could operate the company on a giant Ponzi scheme forever?

They separated out economics from accounting, and separated cash from profit. The economic reality – the truth of the cashflow – was that they frequently cut unprofitable deals. You see, they booked all the future profits of a deal when it was struck regardless of when or whether the cash flowed in by using what is called “mark to market” accounting. Worse than this: executives were rewarded regardless of how profitable the deal turned out to be because they got their bonuses when the deal was signed.

As time went by, and a deal proved itself to be less profitable than they had said that it would be, Enron should have shown that as a loss. But they were immensely reluctant to do that, and of course the bonuses were long spent.

An example (please skip this bit if your eyes glaze over whenever you see numbers)

Let’s say they built a power-station at a cost of perhaps $1bn and that they struck a 20 year agreement to sell the power at a rate of £100m a year. By normal accounting methods, the power-station would show a cash income from year one, but would take 10 years to pay for itself. What Enron did was to show £1bn as profit in the first year, on the basis that this was how much profit they thought they’d make over the whole 20 years of the deal.

There are lots of problems with this, but here are two to start with:

It is much harder to show an increase in profits if you book all your profits in the first year. Using normal accounting rules, the power station would not clear its building costs until year 11, but from then on if you want to show $2bn profits, you only have to make $1.9bn because you’ve already got $100m coming in from the power station. But using mark-to-market accounting rules you are starting from zero every single year.

This effect is exacerbated if your power station does not in fact have an income of $100m every year. Say it only makes $75m. Then if you are using mark-to-market rules you should actually declare a loss on your your books of $25m every single year even when you’ve cleared your building costs and are actually in profit.

Ok, that was very technical thank you Aphra, but what makes it interesting?

The focus on the here and now, on the deal and not on its fulfilment, was the nub of Enron’s problems. But you cannot run a business not serve your customers, you cannot run a business and ignore the cash.

It seems simple doesn’t it? Simplistic even. And that’s what I find fascinating about Enron: how so many very clever people (and they were very clever – they came from Harvard and McKinsey and Arthur Andersen) how so many very clever people could be so incredibly stupid. If you have no cash income, you’ll have no business.

The second thing I find fascinating about Enron is how many people outside Enron happily pocketed the consultancy fees and commissions that Enron paid them to hold the cups and hide the peas in my previous metaphor. Enron asked the banks and other institutions to “invest” in “assets” which Enron would then “buy back”. That sounds like a securitised loan to me. Doesn’t it sound like a securitised loan to you? But Enron called it a sale, and booked the first half of the deal accordingly though I’ve no idea how they booked the second half. The banks and other investors were paid handsome fees for these transactions. Again, these are very bright boys indeed so it is no surprise that some of them worked out that the deals were not entirely as Enron was painting them, but as Kipling puts it “them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie”. There was money to be made.

The third thing that I find fascinating is how many of Enron’s corporate officers came from relatively humble backgrounds. Kenneth Lay (Enron’s long-term CEO) grew up on a mid-western farm. Rebecca Mark (who dashed around the world, riding on elephants, building power stations and running Enron International) was from the Midwest. Jeff Skilling (who was the inside guy to Lay’s outside guy and was briefly CEO) came from a blue-collar background in blue-collar towns. These were not decadent second- third- or fourth-generation American aristos, not Hiltons or Bushes or Kennedeys. The guys that ran Enron liked the part of the American Dream which gets very rich indeed, but ignored the part that learns all it needs to know at kindergarten.

The fourth thing I find fascinating is that every single person involved seemed to think that someone else was checking up on things. Enron blamed its auditors, Arthur Andersen, for letting them get away with it. Andersens blamed Enron’s financial officers for pushing the line too far. Wall Street was told that “Risk Assessment and Control” stopped risky deals from being cut. But the RAC employees claimed that they merely there to advised and could not veto. The fascinating thing is not that everyone blames everyone else, it is that everyone genuinely seems to think that they themselves were not in any way to blame.

And finally, and this is what really gets me, they were a bunch of fucking amateurs. Highly educated amateurs, admittedly, but none of them had actually run anything. Kenneth Lay’s CV comprised academia and a little bit of government work until he got given a company to run. He was a supreme politician and played good cop to Skilling’s bad cop. One cannot call Skilling an amateur: Harvard MBAs and McKinsey consultants are not amateurs, but he was a dangerously brilliant and lop-sided specialist who should never have taken on general management by becoming CEO of various subsidiaries and ultimately of Enron itself. Andrew Fastow, who became CFO, was not even an accountant: his background was financial instruments.

I think it’s the lack of self-awareness that fascinates me; and integrity is the sternest form of self-awareness. Were they venal or just un-reflecting? I don’t know.

So there you go. If you want a quick rattle through Enron’s last 200 days then read “The Anatomy of Greed” which was written by an outsider on the inside, an Enron employee who was kept in the dark and fed the same bullshit as everyone else. If you want to get down and dirty with the detail read “The Smartest Guys in the Room” which is fascinating and dispassionate especially where the authors’ shocked incredulity occasionally breaks through. If you want something online that’s more informative than Wikipedia go to Risk Glossary.

The second book is particularly thought-provoking, and I guess the thought it provokes the most is “just how unusual was Enron?”

The devil and the deep blue sea

We were discussing religion over a curry, as one does. The one I discuss religion with (and have curries with, for that matter) expressed the view that religion is incompatible with science. He is reading Dawkins at the moment. NLPer that I am, I started challenging the generalisations: “All religions?” “Entirely incompatible in every way?”

What bugs me about evangelical atheists, and I’ve drunk wine and broken bread with a few in my time (secularly of course) is that they assume that all religions are based on The Book and slag them off accordingly. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all monotheisms and in that direction – if you ask me – madness lies. The problem with monotheisms is the dualities they set up: Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, Heaven and Hell, Sheep and Goats, God and the Devil. Someone once said to Abraham Lincoln “I am so glad that God is on our side” to which he replied “I don’t set my sights that high, Ma’am. All I hope is that we are on God’s side”. Bush and Blair and Bin Laden all know god is on their side, and so they have far more in common than they have differences. I’ll stop wandering off in that direction now, before get so enraged I forget to breathe.

I know very little about Hinduism which seems polytheistic (though the one I was having curry with knows a bit about it). I know barely more about Buddhism and Taoism, which are atheistic. Isn’t that a thought to conjure with? An atheistic religion. A religion without a god. Roll it around your mind’s tongue. Taste it, savour it, find out what you think.

If you strip god out of religion you are left with a whole load of other stuff which (because it is my post and I can do what I like with it) I am going to put broadly into four categories:

Societal

Ceremonial / Rites of Passage / Social glue / Social contribution / Ritual

Explanations

Creation myth / Higher purpose / Why bad things happen / Why are we here

The supernatural

Spiritual practice / The shamanic / Good luck charms

Social control

Ethical precepts / Moral guidance / Greater cause

Jesus as ShamanThe one that interested me the most, as we were discussing it over our curry, was the Shamanic. This is all mixed up with ritual, energy, altered states of being, sexual power and the power of the personality. In the 60s and 70s Rock stars were our shamans; in the 80s there was even a band which took the name. I’m not sure who our shamans are now, but I am pretty sure that the popularity of fantasy films appeals to our need for the shamanic. Looking at that list of nouns again – ritual / energy / altered states / power – maybe terrorists view themselves as shamans. I dunno. Which reminds me. The obvious thing that that is missing off that list is Sacrifice, which is common to so many religions. I’m not sure where it fits though.

It is interesting to see what is happening now to those areas of human life.

The societal stuff (ceremony, rights of passage, social contribution) is pretty hollow without religion. Don’t get me wrong, it is all much better done with integrity by atheists than with hypocrisy by those who claim to be religious, but I am not sure how well atheists do it. I’d rate the ceremonial of a Russian Orthodox Eucharist over the Oscars any day of the week. Mind you, I prefer my schools, hospitals, orphanages and childrens’ homes to be run by the state, so maybe I am arguing myself out of that one after all.

Structures and explanations. This is the scary one. This is the one that gets Dawkins’ blood boiling. “Where is the evidence?” the atheists cry. And they are right of course. There is no evidence that the world is the result of Egyptian gods masturbating or of great cows licking the ice, and plenty that it isn’t. Sane Christians yield this ground gracefully admitting that the world is not flat and does in fact go round the sun. Insane ones promote something which is neither intelligent nor design and call it science. (Breathe, Aphra, remember to breathe). Unfortunately these follies lead evangelical atheists to throw the baby of spiritual practice out with the bathwater of creationism. Or something like that.

The supernatural. This one is trickier than it looks. It’s a mixture of stuff which has quite clearly demonstrable effects such as meditation, and other stuff which is just wishful thinking. Add in the human need to seek patterns, mix it with the human inability to estimate odds, and sprinkle with the human responsiveness to spontaneous hypnotic suggestion, and you end up with all sorts of nonsense like numerology, astrology, Bach flower remedies and (goddess help us all) spiritual channelling. Scientists can now see the parts of the brain which fire off when someone is having a spiritual experience. The question is, of course, whether the brain is responding to an external stimulus analogous to its response to sounds, or whether the sparks are flying at random or for some electro-magnetic or chemical reason. The fact that stuff like meditation works doesn’t make it spiritual any more than the fact that the world exists proves that it was hatched out of a giant egg.

Social control. This is the one where religion leaves the biggest gap behind it. Ethical precepts just aren’t the same if they aren’t backed up with violent weather, rugged mountain scenery, Charlton Heston and the threat of everlasting damnation. (This is the place where I point out that I rather like the idea of terrorists achieving martyrdom and waking in Paradise to find that their sherbet will be delivered by 70 Ann Widdicombes). We’ve lost our moral compass and don’t appear to be able to adopt irreligious ethics in the way the Greeks did. They took pantheistic shamanism to blood-thirsty extremes, but came over all rational and philosophical when considering ethics. The Norse gods couldn’t be bothered with all that Good and Evil stuff either so far as I can make out. Monotheism makes me spit.

I rather like the idea of a Schroedinger Deity; a god comprising the sum of an increasingly complex and sophisticated life force, evolving in power and sophistication in the way that the chemical richness of our world is based on elements which evolved from hydrogen and that all living things have evolved from random amino-acids losing their randomness and forming RNA. This would be a god who may or may not exist, whose existence will only become apparent at the end of the universe at which point in time (and space) it will turn out has existed all along. Or not, as the case may be.

Sorry to whitter on for so long. It was a good curry. Thank you for asking.

Jade Goody to be interviewed by police

Police to talk to Goody over ‘Big Brother’ racism row
Hertfordshire police said yesterday that they are trying to interview Jade Goody about allegedly racist comments aimed at Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty during her stint in the Big Brother house. So far the 25-year-old has been unavailable for the inquiry … There was further bad news for Goody when she accused of “legitimising” bullying in schools ….
The Independent
Also the BBC

I said that Channel 4 was thinking in legal terms not ethical ones. As another example, the editor of the News of the World waited to resign until after the jail sentance was handed out to his journo. No point in doing the decent thing if you can get away without it, is there?

It seems that today’s cynics know the laws about everything but have values about nothing.

<spit/>

Sisterhood is for bitches

I tumbled across a this on FtM Doctor’s blog today, and have been choking on my reaction ever since.

The story is about a feminist music festival in Michigan which is explicitly for “womyn-born womyn” and explicitly excludes trans women. Presumably they also explicitly excludes trans men. In fact, it is not actually a story, it is a press release, explaining the organisers’ point of view.

The language is interesting, veering between the hate-filled and the overly emotive. At one point the organiser of the “womyn-born womyn” sends the following email to the leader of “camp trans”.

I deeply desire healing in our communities, and I can see and feel that you want that too. I would love for you and the other organizers of Camp Trans to find the place in your hearts and politics to support and honor space for womyn who have had the experience of being born and living their life as womyn. I ask that you respect that womon born womon is a valid and honorable gender identity. I also ask that you respect that womyn born womyn deeply need our space — as do all communities who create space to gather, whether that be womyn of color, trans womyn or trans men . . . I wish you well, I want healing, and I believe this is possible between our communities, but not at the expense of deeply needed space for womyn born womyn.

The self-righteous emotional manipulation of this is nauseating, with its talk of “deeply desire[ing] healing”, “respect” and “deeply needed space”s.

We strongly assert there is nothing transphobic with choosing to spend one week with womyn who were born as, and have lived their lives as, womyn. It is a powerful, uncommon experience that womyn enjoy during this one week of living in the company of other womyn-born womyn. There are many opportunities in the world to share space with the entire queer community, and other spaces that welcome all who define themselves as female.

Is it unkind of me to consider the spaces and places that I have spent with “womyn-born womyn” this past week, which include a women-only gym and the WI? It is not hard to find women-only groups, if that’s what you need for a while. I’ve been on women-only holidays and women-only retreats. I was educated in part at an all girls’ school.

Of course the gym, and the WI aren’t full of radical feminists or …

womyn who could be considered gender outlaws, either because of their sexual orientation (lesbian, bisexual, polyamorous, etc.) or their gender presentation (butch, bearded, androgynous, femme – and everything in between). … gender variant womyn …. ” or women who ” … consider themselves differently gendered

… so far as I know.

I find myself wondering why the organisers exclude trans women if the spread of women at the festival is so broad, (yes, I know, the “deeply-needed space” thing) and also whether or not there are any straight married mothers there, or whether monogamous heterosexuals are not welcome either.

Rather than rant on and on about this, I will conclude with three final comments.

Firstly, it would be acceptable for the “womyn” of Michigan to create an activity exclusivly for “womyn-born women” if, on other occasions, they created events which were exclusively for other sub-sets of women, for example women who have been abused, or widowed, or who are lesbians, or indeed trans. But to exclude trans women and only trans women smacks of the “all men are rapists” school of separatist radical feminism which de-personalises half of the human race in a way which is as unjust and unacceptable as the de-personalising of women by men which went on for centuries before.

Secondly, I wonder if this is actually personal. If it isn’t about all trans women, but about one particular trans woman, if the organisers lacked the balls to exclude her and if they therefore decided to exclude them all. I find this theory rather compelling, given how petty, emotional and factional groups of women can become. See quotes above.

Finally, I put the press release through Gender Genie, and it scored 30% female and 70% male. Which made me snigger. Bitch that I am.

Scrambled eggs

I heard a news item about stem cell research on the radio today. It seems that there is a shortage of human eggs to work on, so researchers are hoping to inject human DNA into animal eggs to do early days research. This seems complex, ethically ambiguous, and only indirectly useful.

Stem cell research is, in my opinion, rather amazing:

The eventual aim is to develop a way of creating stem cells to grow new tissue that is genetically matched to individual patients. For example, scientists hope to take a cell from a patient and re-programme it so that stem cells can be extracted to grow new tissue for damaged body parts without fear of immune rejection.

http://www.ncl.ac.uk/press.office/press.release/content.phtml?ref=1162836050

However, they have do do this complex cow-stuff because there is a shortage of donated eggs.

Well, I have spare eggs. I’ve had a lifetime of spare bloody eggs. Three decades, almost, of entirely pointless ovulation.

I would rather my eggs were used to help alleviate the suffering of people with Parkinson’s disease than went to waste, and I would not be comfortable donating them to infertile couples. If I inflict this world on my children, then I owe it to them to be around to help them through it, so if anyone raises my children, I want it to be me. But I am comfortable with my embryos multiplying for two weeks and being used for research. These are embryos which otherwise would not exist, the egg-parts joining their sisters month by month in a long trailing queue of pointlessness.

I have therefore emailed the university concerned to find out more about what would be involved in donating my rather elderly eggs. There is a long way between sending an email, and actually – you know – doing something about it, but I have at least sent the email.

I guess the definition of a spontaneous action is that it should take you by surprise.

Mary Kay II

When I came to my rather frightening conclusions about Mary Kay, I did so in the course of other musings about multi-level-marketing in general as well as Mary Kay in particular. While neither as big nor as hairy, they are still substantial and hirsuit.

The first and obvious thing is that multi-level-marketing simply does not work. I’m not sure if it ever did, but the internet has blown it out of the water altogether. Lovers of irony are delighted that Mary Kay’s mansion is available on ebay. One of the fascinations of Mary Kay Sucks (now moved to www.pinktruth.com) is that it gives such insights into an imploding world. Train crash. Slow motion. Cannot take my eyes away.

The second thing is that there is an unresolvable tension in the business. The consultant wants to sell retail, but every single other person higher up in the organisation wants her to buy wholesale. The business model is not about selling retail: the reward model is based on wholesale sales. If the reward model was changed so that retail sales were rewarded the great big lies about how easy or hard it is would be exposed. Yes, the schpiel is that it is about selling retail, but it seems that the only person who benefits from retail sales is the consultant herself. It is no surprise that the consultants are at odds with the rest of the organisation, the rest of the organisation really is out to get them.

This also means that the true customers for MK Corporation are not the public at large. The true customers are the consultants. Most business models are based on fair exchange: I get softer skin, you get money. However this business model is based on exploitation: I use my credit cards to buy wholesale and you get money. The product is irrelevant, to be honest.

This highlights what is so deeply shocking and exploitative about the MK model. People are encouraged to go into personal debt to finance inventory. It really is a scam. Some friends of mine who were involved in the multi-level-marketing of water filters in the 1990s invited me to join them on the basis that I could make umpty thousand a year. Fortunately at that time I had just started a real business which actually was netting the sort of money they were talking about, so I passed on that ‘opportunity‘. Hustlers and con-artists say that you can only con a greedy person. Well, the situation I was in meant that I did not need to feel greedy and so I was protected. But MK are working a con. Some of the women they draw in may be greedy, but I suspect that most are just aspirational. The schpiel about ‘executive level incomes’ simply does not work when people are ok with their situation in life. Not only is it a con. It is worked like a con, and I keep on coming back in horror to the thought of tens of thousands of women who are in poor financial circumstances to start with who then take on debt to finance inventory. Doing that to people is wrong. The hypocrisy of doing that and claiming to be doing it in a Christian way sticks in my throat so badly that I cannot bring myself to discuss it.

MK’s use of cult techniques has already been discussed extensively so I won’t add to it other than to say “what she said” and point you at the original.

As I said, I find the whole thing deeply shocking. I was relieved not to be involved in the MLMing of water filters in the 1990s, but far more relieved that my ex husband did not become involved in the selling of fake perfumes in the 1980s. I was desperate that he should not. It felt seedy. My skin itched. The reason he did not was pure chance. At about this time we threw a 75th birthday party for my father who was a particularly clear and honest man. Talking to my father’s friends, my ex realised what a greedy-seedy world MLMing is, and decided not to plunge into it. I was grateful for that throughout my marriage

Mary Kay: an abusive business model?

Like most people on WordPress I’m sure, I’ve become an addicted reader of Mary Kay Sucks (now moved to www.pinktruth.com), and originally this post was a series of musings on multi-level-marketing in general and MK in particular. However, it morphed half way though into one single Great Big unaMusing on the subject which, to be honest, has spooked me. I’d welcome any thoughts from any ex MKers, or anyone else for that matter.

You see, it seems to me that the dynamic of Mary Kay is very similar to the dynamic of abusive relationships.

I’m reminded of the character in Terry Pratchett’s book Guards! Guards! who ends up enslaved to a mind-reading dragon. All he can do is mouth “help me” in silent desperation to the head of the Assassin’s Guild. And what sort of help can an assassin provide? Quite.

Taken as a whole, posts and comments and all, it would appear that the entire organisation is made up of just such people; women who know that they are destroying their own lives and who are actively destroying the lives of others, but who are caught so deep they dare not think for themselves and cannot escape.

This is so like an abusive relationship that there is a doctorate in sociology or psychology right there, waiting to be done.

  • Testimony from women who were in too deep to leave? – Check
  • The realisation that their thought processes were not their own? – Check
  • The experience of being lied to?
  • The conclusion that they had been brainwashed?
  • A history of being alternately praised and damaged and praised again? Check, check, check.

In an abusive relationship, the abuser isolates the abused person from friends and family members and strips away the abused person’s sense of self and their sense of self-preservation. Once the abused person is stuck in the situation, then the abuser creates and fosters guilt and duty and, more than anything else, creates and feeds a fear of leaving. Meanwhile somewhere in the back of the abused person’s brain there is one part which whispers “help me”, but it has to whisper it silently in case the other part of the brain hears.

I am not for a moment suggesting that the people currently still involved in MK realise that this is the dynamic that they are presenting to the world, and everything I have said here is my opinion only. However, the more I consider my own experience of relationships and of MLM, and compare it with what I read on MKS and on the internet, the more the thing chimes in my head.

Really nasty, isn’t it?

I’ve got other thoughts on MK, but this was the Great Big Hairy one.