Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Reflections on time and on loss

[Content: grieving and death, including an oblique reference to suicide]

I don't know exactly when I stopped believing in the Christian idea of heaven and started to develop my own thoughts about loss and grief. At some point I took on board the concept that time has properties beyond those which we experience from our limited perspective. I began to believe in "space-time" in the same way that I had believed in the Holy Trinity: not as a coherent unit of knowledge but as a set of paths down which I could send my thoughts when ideas of existence and its inevitable end became overwhelming. The possibilities of time as something which only appeared to be linear did not form themselves into anything amounting to a philosophy or a conviction I would advocate to another person, but they did act as a source of soothing thoughts. These have developed over the course of several losses - lives, relationships, circumstances - into a set of small candles to be lit as a familiar ritual in my own personal darkness.

An ending does not affect what went before it.

In the immediate turmoil of grief, as we are forced in our minds to wrench someone out of our living present and into our vanishing past, there is no room for such a statement. But when the initial waves of anger and sickness have subsided I try to remember that the act of remembrance itself does not have to be so painful as to be avoided for long. An ending cannot blemish what went before it. As we continue to experience the passage of time, what has passed only passes away for us. The past is only lost to us, it is not lost to itself. The people who are no longer with us do not cease to exist; they had always existed at that locus of time and place and they will always exist there, though they have not moved with us into our present. Everything they ever were is still there, is still happening on its own terms, only we can no longer access it as we continue on our trajectory through time.

The end of a person's life no more defines them than its beginning, or any point in between.

We place a great deal of emphasis on what happens in the final moments of a person's life and while this can be a source of comfort when our ideals are met, we should not let this concept add to our grief. A moment of pain or of isolation is no more significant for having happened at the end of a life. Conversely, a moment of joy and companionship is no less important or definitive for having fallen in the middle of a lifetime. Every second of happiness which we bring to each other carries the same weight and our mere, human desire for a linear path cannot make one moment negate another. We should not underestimate the good which we do for each other, or the immutable light and warmth which we contribute to the wholeness of each other's lives.

I am still angry at every loss and I still grieve for those relationships which now only continue across an incomprehensible divide, but an end cannot sully what went before it. Someone is no longer with us but we are still with them, as we always were and always will be, in the incorruptible moments we share.

The loss is all ours but what we can take with us - what is never lost - is everything a person was to us. The memories, the ideas, the experiences and the emotions which they contributed to our lives reach across that divide and will continue to develop and change as we do. The people who are no longer with us still touch our lives even as they themselves experience no loss. But who is to say that the love and regard which we continue to feel for them cannot also echo across that divide, to that location is space and time which they continue to inhabit? I like to think that those echoes were always there.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Why I, as a historian, really appreciate content warnings

I posted this on Facebook earlier and as it's an argument that seems to crop up every few days at the moment I thought I'd add it here. Two additional points: 1) People can be strong and capable and intelligent and determined and still need things. We should not be shaming people for requesting an accommodation, even if it turns out not to be practical. Equally, just because someone can deal with something when they have to doesn't mean they should always have to. 2) I haven't taught a seminar on the Holocaust although I have covered some harrowing material related to other events. I hope that any student of mine would feel comfortable asking to take a short break / leave the room for a minute if they needed to collect themselves before continuing. If I return to tutoring in a future role, I'll be sure to make that explicit. There's no benefit to shaming people into suffering in silence.

A thought on trigger warnings etc. speaking only for myself...I work in Holocaust education at the moment, specifically looking at photographs of atrocities. I look at and think about a lot of very horrible things as my actual job. This is, as I'm sure you can imagine, not very pleasant. I'm never going to be fully desensitised to it but I can maintain some critical distance in order to do my job. 
If someone springs a horrific image or a graphic description on me without warning, when I haven't had chance to get myself in the right frame of mind, then it will have a strong effect on me. My brain will automatically connect it to similar images or draw comparisons with other graphic descriptions. This could go on for hours. From experience, the images will make their way into my dreams. I'll dream about friends and family members being in these images, having these things happen to them. 
I'd like to be able to choose to avoid certain topics and material sometimes not because I'm a coddled, fragile little snowflake who needs to grow up and accept the real world for what it is, but because I want some control over when and how I encounter this material. I need to carve out a few hours every day when I'm not thinking about genocide, sexual violence, dead bodies etc. so that I can carry on doing this work. Deny me any sort of space which is reliably safe from this stuff and I will have to quit. Just a quick heads-up about what's coming is enough for me to mentally prepare myself, or remove myself from the conversation for a bit. That way you can carry on having the conversation without the interruption caused by my turning green, going dizzy, putting my fingers in my ears and trying to think about kittens, or (for repeat offenders after several warnings) throwing my drink in your face and never coming near you again. 
This is a plea from someone who's never been the victim of an attack or witnessed anything traumatic. If someone who *has* been through a traumatic experience asks you not to spring something on them without warning, then don't bang on about free speech and victim culture. Treat it the same way as an allergy: you can make all the peanut butter cookies you like so long as you warn people what's in them.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Arrow's Laurel Lance writes to the World's Worst Advice Columnist

[Spoilers for Arrow here, in case that's something you're concerned about]

I've been reading advice columns a lot recently (Captain Awkward for self confidence, Ask a Manager for work stuff, and the superbly cathartic Here's that bad advice you were hoping for) and have also been punishing myself with some truly terrible episodes of Arrow. I particularly hate the fact that I've been given no choice but to despair of Laurel Lance - she's just so badly written that none of what she does makes the slightest sense. I'm sure you could replace anything another character says to her in any episode with "What the hell were you thinking?" and the script would hang together, possibly even be improved. Actually, the same could be said of most of the characters' "motivations", but Laurel somehow manages to be even worse that the others.

So I'm choosing to believe that all of them have been turning to a local advice columnist for help with their difficult decisions, that Laurel has been doing this more than most, and that Star(ling) City just happens to have The World's Worst Advice Columnist. All of a sudden, the series makes sense.

Dear Ethic-quette HQ,
My vigilante sister has been killed by my ex-boyfriend's sister and is now buried in the grave we dug for her the first time we thought she'd died. My father has a severe heart condition - how can I tell him she's dead? P.S. He is Chief of Police but please don't print that bit.
Lost Lawyer

Dear Lost,
Do you have any sort of martial arts training, even just a few weeks of boxing classes? If so, simply take on your sister's crime-busting identity! There is absolutely no risk that your father will figure out that you are now pretending to be both of his daughters. He is also highly unlikely to ever mention your sister to you, so don't worry too much about having to control your facial expressions around him. Happy punching!

Dear Ethic-quette HQ,
An update on the dead sister situation: I managed to bring her back to life! Unfortunately she appears to have no idea who she is, doesn't speak, is highly aggressive and everyone thinks she might be possessed. How can I get her back and prove them all wrong?
Lost Lawyer

Dear Lost,
The only way to bring someone back to their senses after the traumatic experience of being dead for a year is to chain them to some pipes in your basement. Make sure that they have nowhere to sleep or relieve themselves and that they are still in the clothes you buried them in. You didn't mention in your letter whether you intended to tell your father that his other daughter has been resurrected. In light of his heart condition, make sure you do this in the most alarming way possible.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

"The country will never stand for that"

The sum total of my opinion on whether Labour can win an election with Jeremy Corbyn as leader is that we don't know enough to make a reliable prediction. Moving on to something that doesn't quite constitute a settled opinion, here are two things I read in quick succession yesterday:

Item The First - The Daily Mash, Man who just got elected 'definitely unelectable'

Item The Second - Paul Addison, The Road to 1945: British politics and the Second World War (Pimlico edition, 1994)

From pp.14-15 of the Introduction:
"The [1945] election gave Labour its first independent majority in the House of Commons and its largest of the post-war era to date - 146 overall. The result came as a profound shock to most of the political world which, having divined public opinion by the old techniques of impressionism and wishful-thinking, was convinced that Churchill's charisma would carry the day. Hence the well-known story of the lady at Claridge's who was heard to exclaim: 'But this is terrible. They have elected a Labour government and the country will never stand for that.'* If one main theme of the home front is the evolution of a new consensus at the top, the other must be the movement of popular opinion below."
The only thing that elections tell us for sure is how people voted in that election. The only thing that press coverage tells us for sure is how the press are covering things. Beyond that, people need to show how they have arrived at their predictions and must be prepared to consider new information and different lines of reasoning. Anything else is just white noise.

* Addison's reference for this anecdote: J.L.Hodson, Home Front (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1947), I.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

They didn’t build this – The “new” Manchester Skeptics group

If you search Meetup.com for “skeptics” in Manchester at the moment* you get the “Manchester Skeptics”. This group is described as being “a new 2015 group” but also has 132 “past Meetups”, 474 members, and was founded Nov 20th, 2009. A pretty impressive feat of time-bending organisation, I’m sure you’ll agree. How have the organisers achieved this staggering success?

Well… they didn’t. These are the successes of the Greater Manchester Skeptics Society, which has been the work of many dedicated volunteers, myself included, over the past six years. We built up that membership. We ran those events. We poured our time and energy into building this community, in some cases putting our own funds on the line where necessary in the hope that the gamble would pay off.

Unfortunately, being human and having a lot of plates to spin, we dropped one of the plates. Through a combination of (well-deserved) summer holidays, work stress, bereavement, job-hunting and side projects, exacerbated by a regrettable but inevitable amount of miscommunication, there was a period in which our subscription to Meetup was up for renewal. With hindsight, we should have sorted it out sooner but then we were naïve enough to assume that none of our members would take advantage of the situation before the final deadline. We are, after all, a pretty friendly, supportive community.

But there’s always somebody who has to go and spoil things. For reasons which are still somewhat unclear, somebody else paid the subscription and took over the Meetup group. Rather than work with the existing organisers they removed our admin privileges and are now removing people from the group for either criticising their actions or for being “inactive”. They emailed the existing members to explain their grand plan, insulting the “previous” organisers in the process. They’ve changed the name, the branding, the description of the group, cancelled future events (on the site only – the events themselves are going ahead as planned) and added links to some rather dubious websites. To all intents and purposes, they have created a “new” group, exactly how they want it to be.

But they’re still passing off our hard work as their own.

That large membership and the long list of past events, both of which lend an air of success to their group - they amount to misrepresentation. You want to start a new group for the discussion and promotion of skepticism (or scepticism, whichever you prefer)? Have at it. The more the merrier. But have the guts to build it yourself, from scratch. The more established groups will be more than happy to help, if asked.

Of course, now that they've caused such disruption to our operation and our members by removing scheduled events from the calendar, spreading misinformation, accusing us of mismanagement or incompetence and refusing to return control of the mailing list (which, remember, was created for a group with different stated aims, different organisers and so on), future cooperation with the wider network of Skeptics in the Pub groups seems unlikely to say the least.

Even when trying to suppress all my anger and frustration (some of which is directed at myself for not realising this could happen) I can’t attribute what they’ve done to pure motives. Why take over a group only to change everything? Why not start a new group? It’s difficult not to assume that they preferred to take the opportunity to buy our membership and our record of events from Meetup.

Not illegal. Not outside the rules of the site. But also not the actions of considerate, ethical, honest human beings.

*That moment being 9:45am, 20/08/2015


Below is a copy of the email they sent. I considered going through it with a red pen but on reflection, I think it speaks well enough for itself. Suffice to say that GMSS exists in the real world, beyond the statistics on Meetup, that the group is active and thriving, and that we have a great working relationship with our fantastic regular venues (none of which deserve the kind of insult levelled at them here).

Welcome to your new skeptic meetup

So you may have noticed a lot of changes to the group lately and have many questions. I hope in satisfy your curiosity and hopefully inspire you back into the skeptic community so lets begin.

Firstly we have acquired this group after the overly bureaucratic leadership team failed to make the small payment fees that are accosted to the organizers. In the several days left to fix the issue no one coffed up the 15£ and just as in real life if you don’t pay your bills your house gets repossessed. Finally to our surprise meetup.com gave us full ownership, this is actually a common occurrence on meetup when groups are failing.


Who is we you say, we are two passionate meetup organizers that already run two fast growing active meetups in Manchester. We live here and support the community via scientifically driven food and mental health groups. We also have been interested in science and the like for many years and have a large collection of materials to share/recommend which to our surprise we notice was totally vacant from the group more on that soon in the pages section.
Out with the Old

Briefly here are some clues as to why the group was failing to grow which likely lead to it changing hands.
One fact that resonates this point most is the very poor active members rates of the group. If you don't run a meetup you won't know about this hidden feature but it gives clear graphs and insight into how much your members actually care about the kind of group you create.

We also noticed a very large users base hasn't even checked the meetup in over a year (insome cases 6 years!), very poor by our standards. It's often a clear reflection that users aren't happy with the group's direction. Meeting new people especially critical thinkers can be fairly daunting if not handled properly. One worry sign of this was how common a users had attended once and never come back, another statistic that is only viewable by organizers.
“Too many cooks spoil the broth” they say and there was a lot we noticed about the overly bureaucratic nature of the organisation. Many leaders and a lengthy list of rules etc seemed very authoritarian by design. We personally prefer conversations in almost all cases whether conflict or nurture. In our previous meetups we have had much success with taking a true liberal attitude. Being down to earth in way that makes members feel they are equal to the organisers seems lacking here and something we really want to change. At the end of the day meetup is a tool that we are part of and nothing more. We want to embolden the group's properties to be the most conducive conduit towards real human connection within the skeptically inclined whether you’re an old member or brand new.

The leadership team has indeed messaged us for a second chance but we feel that it would be doing a disservice to the group's quality to go back to the old ways. Meetup takes a lot of effort and if it’s not there meetups evitable becomes a stagnate contact lists which is mostly what we found. You may have noticed this effect present in a lot of “Top” meetup groups that have over 1000 members but only 10 people at their events.

Last msg sent below by old leader(in our group ther wont really be leaders)

“Hi Sophie, I'm the current elected chair of Greater Manchester Skeptics (and have been for the past three years or so - you can see that I'm the event organiser from the Meetup page). I'm currently on my holidays in Cornwall so have been away from technology for a couple of weeks. I'm sure you have stepped up and taken over our Meetup group with the best of intentions, however could you please step down as organiser so we can carry on using our group. As you can see we are more than a Meetup group, as we also have a website and Facebook page.If you're interested in attending future events you are more than welcome and you can put yourself forward for election at the AGM.”
Unfortunate but no accident...
In with the New

Overall I hope you are starting understand the fact of the matter that it was high time this group needed to relaunch whether it was us or others. I hope you also see that we make a lot of careful consideration towards any aspect possible that we can tweak in terms of quality.  We have already begun to implementing and planning many of our ideas to get the group going with a bang.

We have already and will continue to embolden the ascetic of the meetup which members have already told us has a much fresher look. Notable also was the low quality photography which will be rectified as we have access to high quality DSLRs to make some memorable moments.

We also want to improve the quality of members without compromising on the openness needed to have open skepticism.  Obviously anyone should be able to come along and challenge the strength of the groups skeptical nature that said flakes are flakes. I was reminded of this just this week in a recent Tony Robbins video

The point being not only logically but in our experience culling members that no show or never attend helps the health of the group. We hate the idea of acting like a group that is big when really we have many faux members.

Last to mention will be the improvement of locations the Church Inn being a perfect example of everything that we don’t want. Old, low quality and it has the word church in it. We like the idea of constantly changing the location as there are many quality places in Manchester to explore. Currently we are looking towards Font Chorlton its basically a brand new contemporary facility with high quality service at a similar price.

Lets get together

I hope this honest message takes a good chunk of your queries away and makes you feel safe in our hands. We also hope this message pumps some much needed excitement into your future social life.

As mentioned we want to be leaders only by administration as we feel members should feel equally valued. Equal in conversation and opportunity to speak their views so tell your friends and join for some exciting conversations and connections at our next social.



We realise there will always be those opposed to change as a counselor I can speak with experience that change is gross to most people. So inevitably we expect some drop off from the hardcore fans of the old group maybe even some flames. Ultimately we took over the group without breaking any laws or even meetup.com policy. So threats etc don’t cause us to have any hard feelings either way so if you want to leave the group and think of other options we still support that and you're still always welcome.
Life is too short to be angry.

Good luck in life and everything you aspire to be.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Old, fluffy feminist allsorts from the bottom of my think-bag

None of these things are new, I'm just putting them in an appropriate place as part of an ongoing spring-cleaning operation. The part of the spring-cleaning I've reached is that bit where I pretend to be organising my thoughts in order to avoid organising actual objects such as the large piles of papers which occupy every corner of every room in the flat.

Thing The First: An article from a couple of years ago by Jen Dziura which says a lot of sensible things about how yelling at somebody in a clearly emotional, irrational way is not a debating skill but is somehow considered more acceptable (on TV, at least) than letting your opponent complete a full sentence. I particularly like this illustration of why "dominating the discussion" shouldn't be viewed as "winning the argument":

On a talk radio show, I would undoubtedly lose the fight to grab airspace for myself, just as I often lose the fight for airspace in many barroom discussions and bloviating dinner-table talks. So obviously my ideas are invalid.
The way most “debates” happen, on television and otherwise, is like beginning a writing contest by making all the writers physically fight each other for paper. Obviously, writers who don’t get any paper are the worst writers, right?
This seems especially relevant with all the UK election TV debate stuff. It could be argued that we need politicians who can make their point effectively while being shouted down and jeered at from all sides, because that's what they have to do in the House of Commons. What would be better all round is if our Parliament resembled an intelligible exchange of facts and opinions, rather than a prison riot.

Thing The Second: A piece from last year called "Notes From a Boner", from the truly awesome and invaluable Captain Awkward blog. Most posts contain thoughtful and supportive advice on all manner of life problems and I highly recommend it for anyone who has a relationship, friendship, work or family issue, or simply isn't sure if the thing they've been obsessing over all week is actually A Thing. This post is different, and is a lovely description of those many, many times when idiotic, sexist comments come streaking through life, mooning at everyone in sight:

And in every. freaking. internet discussion, there they are. Fucking boners. Women can be discussing literally any topic, and dudes will come interrupt to tell us how it makes boners feel. Sometimes they want to reassure us, like, when we talk about being fat as a feminist issue, or the constrictions of conventional beauty standards, they chime into say “But I like bigger girls.” Well thanks, Internet Stranger-boner! That totally makes up for every bad thing women have ever experienced at the hands of the patriarchy, which definitely for sure does not include you. Other times women will be talking about particle physics or literature or their very responsible jobs, like, running the world and stuff, and the boners feel left out and confused, so they just say completely inane stuff. As if “I would/would not do her” is the one true standard on earth.
I guess what I’m saying is that I need the boners to shut the hell up for a while. PEOPLE can speak, just, try to go like a month without letting your boner chime in to offer its thoughts on whether someone is sufficiently hot. Please. I beg you. 
Thing the Third: I was chatting to someone the other day and the topic of feminism came up. The conversation ran for a bit in a very well-worn groove: this person agrees with many of the progressive issues covered by the umbrella of feminism but thinks that that it goes too far sometimes and that the "going too far" is reflected in the name. He'd prefer it to be called "equalicism" or similar, to reflect that it isn't just advocating for women. Well... yes, but no. It would be nice if the names of things conveyed to absolutely everyone, with perfect accuracy, the nature of that thing. But they don't. They can't. And on top of the natural limitations of language, some people are always going to go out of their way to assign other meanings to things, especially to political movements advocating for change to which they are opposed.

If we start bending over backwards to accommodate people who can't be bothered to find out what something actually is before kicking off against it, then we will spend our lives as immobile pretzels. If someone said that they'd like to hire you but they've heard that some people with your first name have been known to punch koalas and could you please call yourself something else in future, I suspect you'd withdraw your application.


*** THIS NEXT PART IS ABOUT A PARTICULAR SWEAR WORD AND WILL, I'M SURE, GET RIGHT UP SOME PEOPLE'S NOSES. If you're in a bad mood or are sick of having this argument with people who definitely are sexist trolls and you're therefore likely to dislike me if you read on then please stop here. Please. I don't want to annoy anyone but I do need to get this off my chest.***

Slightly Related Thing The Fourth: On the subject of the word "cunt" and whether using it as an insult is necessarily sexist. I don't think it is in all contexts, no matter how many times I read people's arguments on this matter (and holy crap, this doesn't half come up a lot). However, because a lot of people on a lot of websites I visit frequently find the word offensive, I've decided not to throw it about online. I completely understand the absolutist position. Particularly for websites which are continually under siege from armies of commenters, well-meaning or otherwise, seeking to question or attack every damn thing they say, I can see how the use of the word and a reluctance to stop using it once people have objected would be a huge red flag.

What gets my back up, not that I'm going to go whine about this on someone else's blog*, is the argument that over here in the UK, where we throw the word round more than in the USA and generally with less malice behind it, we're somehow ignorant of how offensive we're being. Especially when someone tells a British feminist that they shouldn't use the word, suggesting that they have somehow missed the fact that it refers to female genitalia, I can feel my claws start to lengthen. Words are complicated things. Context is complicated. I'm not arguing that someone else's feelings and associations upon hearing the word are less valid that my own. If you're upset by something then you have the right to ask someone to stop doing it. Equally, if you know a word upsets someone then by using it at them, you are accepting those feelings as a consequence.

But but BUT... words exist within a web of meanings formed by past usage and other cultural considerations. There are positive reasons for saying "cunt": it doesn't have that creepy, demeaning association with swords that "vagina" does. It can be pretty empowering, as a woman, to use that word about a part of myself, particularly when someone's expecting me to say something infantilised like "hoo-hah". It's pretty damn superb as a plot element in Atonement. It sounds so much better and more subversive than other swear words in a Lancashire accent (which I have, sometimes, depending on who I'm talking to). There are times, when talking to people who I'm pretty sure share my web of associations, when only that word will do. As much as I try to use "turd" or "arsehole" as my go-to insult, sometimes"fuck you, and the crashing wave of self-important twaddle you surfed in on" can only be capped off with the words "you cunt". I want people to stop being afraid of the word. I want it to be reclaimed rather than shunned. I certainly don't want it to become the sole property of Men's Rights Activists and only ever used to reduce whole human persons to the only one of their organs which is considered valuable to those... pigs. Calling someone a "cunt" was never a simple case of demonising a gender-specific orifice**. Yes, it can be used in a sexist way but there's a whole lot more going on and it would be a shame if all of that got stripped away leaving only the sexism.

So those are some of the things swirling round in my head when I consider using the word. And if I've carefully considered all of this, thought about my audience and the effect I'm trying to create, as writers - even ones in this quaint little backwater of Britain - tend to do, it would be nice if that effort wasn't ignored as running counter to the ONE TRUE MEANING of the word. Unlike racist insults, which are imposed by a dominant group in an act of dehumanisation and oppression, the words for body parts belong to everyone. People in that cultural context over there do not get to tell people in this cultural context over here that their word for a body part is always and forever off limits. Again, that doesn't mean that the people who have a reaction against the word are wrong, or that they should be subjected to the word more as retribution, just that both sides should acknowledge that these different contexts, associations and communication needs exist. In other words, if someone says that they don't personally find the word offensive and certainly had no intention of being sexist, try not to be a total earlobe about it.


*I've jumped into a comment section on this topic before and am sorry for having done so. There was an American writer complaining about the use of the word in a British TV show, several British people, including myself, offered our perspectives (which seemed valid as it was a script written by and for British people) and it all got very nasty. I'll admit that some of the pro-"cunt" arguments weren't very persuasive and echoed the defenses of some people when called out on racist or other definitely discriminatory language. It still doesn't make it right to point at another culture's output and declare "that very definitely means exactly what I think it means and it should be stopped" without properly listening to what people from that culture are telling you.

**If that's not a sensible way to use the term gender then please do tell me and maybe point me at some explanatory material. I keep trying to put the time in to making sure I don't get this wrong but I'm going to slip up sometimes and will require some prodding in the right direction. I don't intend to suggest here that the Venn diagram of people with vaginas and people who identify as women is a single circle or that it would be a particularly worthwhile diagram.