Monday, 21 February 2011

Daft as a brush, but just as useful

David Allen Green, lawyer and libel reform campaigner, on "The daftness of UKUncut" (New Statesman):

However, this campaign is misconceived to the very point of daftness. Companies have to comply with the relevant tax regime: they really have no choice. Companies have to pay all tax which is lawfully due. Lawfully due tax cannot be avoided, regardless of ingenuity or greed. Accordingly, if certain companies are not paying enough tax, then the only solution is to improve tax legislation and properly resource its implementation by HMRC.

I can see the logic here but that doesn't mean there's no logic to the UKUncut campaign. This illustrates a typical catch 22 for protesters: any campaign which captures the public imagination enough to be successful will have simplistic aims and will be directed at an easy target several rhetorical meters away from the real cause of the problem. Campaigns which perfectly identify the best solution to a problem, taking into account complex legal or tax issues, as well as a change in regime, will be accurate but largely unnoticed.

This doesn't mean that no protests can be effective, however. The point is to draw attention to a wider, ongoing problem and create enough pressure that something has to give. Any legal changes which result from this will be more subtle and better targeted than the protests themselves. It may be a little unfair on shareholders and customers of a few high street chains in the meantime, but the government set the standard for unfairness in this battle when it started cutting budgets like an axe-wielding maniac.

Look at any revolution in history and you'll find that the most symbolically effective elements were also the least logical. When the creators of the problem are no longer in power, when the ruling party clearly doesn't give a crap about the consequences of its cuts, when those who could make the changes are shrugging their bespoke-suited shoulders or condescendingly explaining the realities of high finance to a population facing job loss, pension losses, pay freezes, benefit cuts, inflation, increased VAT, repossession of their homes...

In the face of all that illogical, "daft" unfairness, you might as well storm the bloody Bastille, if only to get some exercise.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Taking the peace (just a little)

The other day, this note went up in one of the bathrooms of my friend's house. They have two bathrooms, for males and females, and he routinely uses the male one. I sometimes use the female one, which is quite often swimming in water. They have a pretty powerful shower which is very close to the toilet. I feel that may be relevant.

I really can't stress enough how much I hate notes and signs as a form of communication. They are used almost exclusively by people who know they'd never be able to say everything they want to in person without having to, you know, have a conversation and maybe listen to the other person's point of view. This kind of rant has no function beyond pure, one-sided, vindictive catharsis. They are no better than shouting at someone and running away. In fact it's worse than that because you have to walk past them over and over again.
So, out of all the possible ways in which someone could react to such a pollution of their home environment by a self-appointed head matron, my friend and I settled on a brief post-it note. With an arrow pointing somewhere between the words "made my peace" and "you do fuck all" (it could apply to either of those claims) it read:

[citation needed] -->
The next sweeping accusation will be
submitted to

Turns out matron doesn't have much of a sense of humour. To protect the anonymity she seems so keen on (enough to want to keep it all to herself), the following text exchange refers to her as 'Glenda'.

Glenda: I presume u 2 wrote that note? [9.43am]

Glenda: If uve got enough guts 2 write it at least be able to admit it [9.47am]

(If you squint and wait for the words to overlap a bit, you can sort of see what she was trying to say here.)

Friend: Hey Glenda. Sorry, I've had no signal this morning. What note are you talking about? :-) [10.54am]

Glenda: Ok so you or vicki dont know anything about the reply in the bathroom?x [4.54pm]

(This woman is doing a business management degree. One day she could be neglecting to capitalise the names of the employees under her and using kisses to sweeten redundancy-related emails.)

Friend: No, I've been spending the day installing cat litter under my mattress on the off-chance... :-) [6.13pm]

Glenda: Well to be honest every1 else denies it so that only leaves u and vicki. Did vicki write it? I just want to know because its quite cowardly for whoever to not admit to writing it [6.20pm]


Friend: Does that mean that the original anonymous rant was yours then? Either way, I'll ask her about it next time I see her then :-) [6.36pm]

Glenda: Yes it was because im fed up of cleaning the bathroom after boys peeing on the seat.x [6.38pm]

(If she's going to overreact this much to an anonymous reply to an anonymous note, best give her something she can properly get her teeth into.)

Me: Hello, this is [Friend]'s Vicky. I did stick a post-it to the anonymous note in the bathroom. This would be the cowardly unsigned note which made sweeping, unfounded accusations against all males in the flat, swore, threatened to urinate in their people's beds... I felt a little piss-taking was entirely justified. [1.18am]

Glenda: Thanks I really appreciate being text at early hours when I have work at 8am [7.57am]

(She's got a point there. I also wouldn't appreciate "being text" when I have to work early. Hell, her bathroom's probably full of ink now too.)

Glenda: Actually my note wasn't anonymous because any1 who LIVES in our house who DOES socialise knows I spokt to them about it. I think its disgustin boys pee over the seat and floor and leave it 2 b wiped up so if I wana have a rant in my own house I will. And its not a sweeping a statement because every 1 of them knows they have never hoovered, cleaned or done anything. Cleaning bathroom the odd time in 6 months doesnt really count. I think its damn rude of u who doesnt live in our house or when u r there all u do is keep other people awake that u would undermine me or get involved in something which is clearly an issue. [8.53am]

(Considering she thinks this is none of my business, it's nice of her to keep me so thoroughly informed. Especially 53 minutes into her shift.)

Me: Really can't stress this enough: you threatened to PISS on the BED of the most obsessively clean and tidy man I know. I tried to point out in a very gentle way that the note was unfair. By all means have a rant in your "own house" but don't go off the deep end if someone mildly objects to your tone. [11.06am]

Glenda: And what u dont seem 2 understand is that I dont know who pissed on the seat and why should I have 2 wipe the bathroom down every morning! I will threaten that because I cant use the bathroom! I was aiming at everyone 2 think about their hygiene! And hes clearly not obsessed with being clean or hed clean up after himself! If [friend] has an issue it has nothing 2 do with u! [11.15am]

Me: I am 100% behind your desire for better bathroom hygiene, but if someone really is missing the bowl that often they need a carer, not a page of abuse. However, as I've clearly upset you far more than intended, I hereby promise to keep my concerns to myself in future. And sorry for waking you last night. [11.26am]

(Either she thinks she's won, or all that irrelevant venting has used up her credit. So far, that's been it.)

Friday, 4 February 2011

We Were Promised Nanobots

One claim often made about complimentary or alternative medicine is that it treats the 'whole person' rather than just symptoms. Leaving aside the fact that conventional medicine (you know, actual real medicine) is about interpreting symptoms in order to find and treat the underlying causes, there is a very good reason why this claim is bunk: none of the non-sentient entities within the process, whether they are acting for better or worse, is aware that there is a 'whole person' to treat.

Neither the active ingredients, the passive ingredients people like to believe are active, or the complete lack of ingredients in homoeopathic remedies know a damn thing about human beings. All they can do is react as they always do when in contact with other substances, whether inside or outside a patient. They do not magically transform into those whizzing brightly-coloured, perfectly targeted balls of healing you see on adverts merely by having a label stuck on them. Medicines, conventional or otherwise, are just stuff.

For the same reason, the division between effects and side-effects depends entirely on what it is you're hoping to achieve by using a particular substance. It is highly unlikely that anything you put in your system - even something as pure, natural, organic and additive-free as water - will have only one effect. Oh, and 'good' and 'bad' bacteria are not classifications known to natural history, and no kitchen cleaner will be able to distinguish between them.

Fortunately for the sellers of alternative medicines, people don't like to be reminded that they're essentially a bunch of cells and chemical reactions which by chance have got themselves into jeans and t-shirt. We can feel that we're a whole person, when we're ill then our whole person feels ill, and we naturally want something which will make the whole of us healthy. We want to feel that we're balanced, detoxed, vitamin-rich and with our glowing natural-immunity shield at full power. We especially don't want someone to tell us the inconvenient truth that bits of us are going to deteriorate, no matter what we do, and that we just have to make the best of what's left.

Alternative medicine can sell its customers a more pleasant image of themselves, but nothing can make that a reality.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Feed the troll (to the goats)

In case you've been away from the internet for a while, this happened:
  • Melanie Phillips (never a good name to have in the first twenty words of a post) wrote an article claiming that children were to be "bombarded with homosexual references" in lessons on all kinds of subjects. Tabloid Watch has a good run-down on how the story evolved to that hysterical point.
  • Partly due to her use of the term "normal sexual behaviour", partly because of her clear disregard for the very serious and widespread issue of homophobic bullying in schools, and - I guess - largely because she so frequently writes 'kick me' on her own back, lots of people got very angry about what she wrote.
  • Johann Hari wrote a very good, detailed explanation of how the 'gay agenda' extends no further than trying to reduce discrimination and bullying, and how no amount of references (or avoidance of references) to the existence of homosexuality will change the sexuality of children.
  • Melanie Phillips wrote a follow-up article about how the reaction to her piece proves her point - gays and their liberal supporters want to smother free speech, Johann Hari has missed the point of her article (he really, really hadn't) and, hold the front page, threats against her person had been transmitted via email and Twitter.
What reassures me about this whole kerfuffle is that even though such an outdated, divisive and inaccurate piece was printed in a national newspaper, so many people had a problem with it. This is very definitely progress from a few decades ago. What is less reassuring is the form that this outrage has apparently taken. Even discounting the alleged death threats, most of it wasn't at all productive. On the day the article was printed, my Twitter feed was full of people informing the world, with differing levels of eloquence, wit and strong language, that Melanie Phillips is homophobic, and a bad person. This I knew.

What I didn't learn until I read her article and went looking for the Schools Out website, was what exactly it was that she had portrayed as an "abuse of childhood". It looks like an excellent project. It also looks like it would benefit from some positive public attention, and the cooperation of more teachers and politicians. It would have been nice if, instead of stringing swear-words together and venting against one person's homophobia (which is unlikely to change, no matter how many people offer to beat it out of her) more people had publicised what it is that Schools Out is doing, and why Phillips' representation of this was false.

So here's the project. They have a donate button. If we use it as a Mad Mel-Induced Swear Box, it might bring something positive out of a needlessly negative couple of weeks.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

First-hand account of the Femail sausage-factory

Yo reader(s).

I'm going to try to update this blog every day this month. There'll be a lot of waffle, and a bit of recycling from my Twitter feed, but it's about time I put myself under some deadline pressure and see what I can squeeze out.

Day 1

This is a very good guest post by Juliet Shaw, at No Sleep 'Til Brooklands. It explains, in an admirably calm way, what happened when she - to all intents and purposes an ordinary member of the public - took part in a feature for the Daily Mail, and was well and truly misused. After an interview represented as being on a far less intrusive topic, the tiniest scraps of information about her private life, grudgingly given, were inflated into an almost entirely misleading account, allegedly in her own words, which morphed her into some kind of man-hungry, delusional Liz Jones figure. Relations with the rural community she had recently moved to were understandably damaged, a simple apology was sought and denied... court battle... costs... bullying... and a settlement born of pure exhaustion was reached after two years (reimbursement of costs OR apology, but not both).
What baffles me in all of these cases is why the journalists bother to grow these hideously mutated articles from a tiny seed of truth, when making something up from scratch would be less hassle. They've clearly decided before finding interviewees what the angle will be: rather than use a real person and include just enough truth for them to be identified and have to face the consequences, why not just invent a name, hire a model for the photoshoot, not bother with the expense of bringing someone to be interviewed... and suffer absolutely no risk of a lawsuit because there's no-one to sue you?

Or are they still clinging to the idea that what they're doing is 'reporting', rather than writing fiction?