Safety obsession makes UK unsafe for normal people

I was going to post about how uncomfortable it is becoming to live in the UK, because one risks being declared a criminal if one responds spontaneously to a child, whether in greeting, helping, comforting or challenging, … but I’ve just read an article that says it brilliantly.

So please read Jenni Russell’s article ‘Crazy law leaves a child out in the cold’ in The Times Online: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article6898212.ece. I very much agree with her assertion that the “insistence on the importance of distrust is eating away at our society. ”

She doesn’t describe yet what campaign might be appropriate, but offers her email address, presumably for suggestions.

Addendum (17:07) I emailed Jenni to let her know I had blogged about her article. She replied today and included the following suggestions for action each of us can take right now:

” I think we have to start both by changing peoples’ minds ( we don’t need more laws- terrible things will sometimes happen, and we can’t eliminate risk) – and by lobbying politicians. It’s worth writing to your MP and to Ed Balls and Jack straw now, before Singleton reports on his review in December. Most of all its worth lobbying the Tories, especially Cameron, Chris Grayling, Dominic Grieve and Michael Gove. The Tories want to do what the public wants – we have to let them know. Best wishes, Jenni ”

{Wed 19 March 2008}   Sex as it is and as it could be
This article in The Guardian, I was seen as an object, not a person, by a former lap-dancer about the reality of her experience in that industry provides a counter voice to the one mentioned in my previous post which suggests that there is (or could be) a normality to the sex industry if the parties involved are all consenting. The writer quotes various statistics suggesting that the presence of lapdancing clubs leads to an increase in sexual violence in the areas concerned.

I’ve never had any similar experience, but I can well imagine myself feeling exactly as she says she did, given the context that she describes. I am conscious as I read it, though, that we are still talking of a country where the official line is that paying for sex is bad and that lap-dancing is only allowed because it’s “not really sex”, which doesn’t fool anyone. This attitude inevitably means that the people currently engaging in the activity (clients as well providers) are those who tend to trangress socially acceptable norms of behaviour more easily (although it appears that there are so many of these that it is a norm in itself, a factor which must be considered). They are therefore likely to be more cavalier about abuse and violence too.

Making the entire industry illegal means that the society does not provide any rules or sanctions for conduct within the industry and also does not allow the development of non-official social guidelines of the non-snigger variety that could guide people and provide social pressure for appropriate behaviour. Every accepted non-sexual industry has evidenced exploitation. Governments have instituted rules and policing to curb unacceptable behaviour within these “respectable” industries, rather than shutting them down altogether because of abuses. If abuse and exploitation, rather than the industry as a whole, were strictly and severely policed, couldn’t sex become normal too? Is it possible that people who can’t contemplate this are the ones who believe that sex itself is evil, dangerous and dirty (although they use words like “private” and “sacrosanct” as euphemisms for these terms) and who would actually prefer that everyone has as little of it as possible, even within the “legal” area of marriage?

What if paying for sex were more mainstream, and sexual facilities were available for both sexes, and industry standards were high and policed? Could this mean that everyone could take care of their sexual health as they do of their physical fitness (going to the gym, doing sport, etc.)? Is it possible that then people would not have to feel anxious, guilty, dirty, threatened or unsafe for their interest and engagement in sex? Is it possible that people could have more fulfilling marriages and lives where they can focus on intellectual and emotional companionship and interesting, productive work, without having to deal with the constant distraction of sexual incompatibilities and dissatisfactions? Is it possible that then people could get on with the businesses of educating, creating, working, governing, resolving conflicts, home-making, etc. without paying too much attention to what people wear or who they’ve slept with? Could sexual activity just become acknowledged as something that everyone does in some form or another and that there’s nothing too remarkable about it? Could this defuse the high sexual tension that arises from the constant frustration experienced by most people and which leads to our media being clogged with material about perceived sexual misconduct and our governments grinding to a halt every time a leader is found to be doing what a very high percentage of people do or want to do anyway? In this regard, the recent NYT article In Most Species, Faithfulness is a Fantasy, is relevant.

The sci-fi show Firefly has a powerful, attractive, courtesan character, a “Companion” who is highly respected in a highly regulated industry and is an accomplished and intelligent woman. Of course, this is far away in the galaxy and in time, but could it be a healthy ideal?

{Wed 15 August 2007}   Are you for or against democracy?

There is a heartfelt, rousing cry for people everywhere to choose sides in the battle between democracy and theocracy in the article Time to Attack by Avraham Burg in Haaretz today. I agree 99%, I have to say.

The 1%: I’m not sure I agree that physical death and “democratic and moral death” are exactly the same, because while there is physical life there is hope for change and rehabilitation. So although I do think that all the different theocratic fundamentalist leaders are dangerous, I think that those who advocate physical killing are more dangerous, because there is no possibility at all of undoing that act. I am aware that for many this is a very theoretical distinction, though, because for those trapped inside very closed “heart and mind” belief systems, there is no realistic prospect of change or rehabilitation unless some kind of trauma or crisis ruptures and challenges their structures. However, these challenges do sometimes occur and opportunities arise for thinking differently, and in the mean time people can grow and develop and obtain some satisfactions from the many positive elements of their traditions. This clearly cannot happen at all if the person is dead. Therefore, I do see those religious people who declare their territory to be hearts and minds only and who leave physical death to God as marginally more advanced than those who believe they have a right to take physical life in the name of their religion. This does not mean I think we should leave any of them to continue teaching poison without challenge.

Although I would love to live in a world where nobody ever killed anybody, I accept that this would only be possible if a critical mass were mature, loving and responsible at all times, were able to prevent violence against everybody always, and were able to offer adequate material and emotional support to all disadvantaged people always, and this is not likely. I don’t think we should ever kill as punishment, but we are likely to have to kill for reasons of self-defense or protection of others sometimes and to make hard choices between possible deaths sometimes. But those choices should be governed by the evidence and the individual circumstances in each case, not by the idea that some religious Authority who cannot be proven to exist says that it’s OK to kill anybody who doesn’t believe as you do.

I think it comes down to differentiating between respect for the person and respect for the person’s beliefs. I respect people. I respect their right to choose their beliefs. I do not necessarily respect the beliefs themselves. I expect people to accept the civil consequences of and limitations on the beliefs they choose. I expect to be free to challenge their beliefs. I welcome their challenge of my beliefs. Beliefs that are valid to hold until good information requires them to change are those that concern issues that cannot be examined or proven scientifically. Where it can be proven scientifically that a particular belief is wrong (the earth is flat; all black people are stupid; all women are inferior; all women are better at housework than men; all men are better at providing for and protecting a family than women; all women are natural mothers; all homosexuality is a matter of choice; all humans are either male or female; all men are better leaders than women; covering women prevents sexual infidelity by men or women; AIDS is best cured by noshing on beetroot and garlic…), the belief should be robustly challenged by the institutions of government, not “respected” in a misguided attempt to celebrate diversity. And don’t start on that rubbish that “science is just another form of belief”! Just because some scientists are as misguided and misleading as some fundamentalist leaders and create mythologies to fill in the gaps between things that can actually be proven, this doesn’t invalidate the scientific approach.

I don’t think that democracy is “perfect” or without risks, or that all Western laws are right, moral or ethical, or that existing non-religious civil structures should be accepted without question or challenge, but I see more potential in this route for the evolution of mankind than in closed theocratic systems. I’m for democracy.

Hmmm… it’s happened again. I start to make a teeny tiny comment on someone else’s blog and suddenly it becomes an essay. Well, this time I’m resisting the temptation to reprint it here as a post, because I think it’s actually better if you go to the original blog to see what I’m responding to and read the other comments. This one is on religion’s role in creating or facilitating morality.

See http://de-conversion.com/2007/07/04/humans-do-not-need-religion-to-be-moral/#comment-5651. In brief, I agree with the writer’s assertion that religion isn’t necessary for morality, and support this with reference to Erich Fromm, but also call to mind M. Scott Peck’s assertion that religion may be a useful transitional tool in the movement toward maturity.

Some of my previous posts that are relevant to this topic (and which also began life as Comments on other people’s blogs) are:

Love as yardstick of truth
What do I believe?

Still on the topics of gender discrimination and of hypocrisy, the following articles in the Mail&Guardian today caught my eye:

Sex Bias and Hypocrisy by Lucy Ward begins with the following paragraph:

Teenage girls and young women in the United Kingdom overwhelmingly believe they face a future of discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere, with half worrying that their careers will suffer if they have children, according to a survey by the Girl Guides.

It goes on to say that while the majority of them believe that women can do anything they want to do, and that 94% expect to go back to work after having children, most of them also believe that they already and in the future face discrimination issues due to their gender.

In the same section, I came across an article by Sarah Churchwell (whose surname is doubtless considered ironic by members of the church, given her views) titled Who needs kids anyway? I think the title is slightly misleading, because it gives the impression that she thinks of kids as a burden and wouldn’t want any herself, whereas the article reveals that she is open to the possibility but is making the point that motherhood is a possible role, not the entire definition of a woman. The article starts like this:

Last week brought yet another report in the United Kingdom yelping about women “waiting too long” to have babies. I enjoyed this one, particularly as it was about graduate women born in 1970, of whom 40% have had children. Allow me to introduce myself. I’m one of the other 60%. The report had a clear message: get impregnated now or you shall rue the day. Oh, please. Can we get a few things straight?

She goes on to make four points with which I heartily agree:

  1. Raising children in the wrong partnership is painful and destructive for all concerned and when a suitable partnership isn’t available during the childbearing years then remaining childfree is far preferable.
  2. “… wanting children is not a foregone conclusion just because I am a woman.”
  3. “… not having children is not necessarily a selfish decision.”
  4. “… having children is not necessarily a selfless decision.”

For me, the most compelling reason is the last one. I am really irked by the hypocrisy of those who have had children for a huge complex of psychological reasons including the desire to live out an improved version of their own lives through their children, the need to feel empowered by controlling beings less powerful than themselves, the desire to achieve status in communities that value the number and/or achievements of one’s children, the need not to be considered inadequate by communities who believe that a woman is not fulfilled unless she is a mother, the hope that children will provide some kind of insurance against loneliness and poverty in old age, or even simply because it never occurred to them not to have children, and who then in retrospect justify the difficulties that they’ve faced in childbearing and childrearing by saying that they did it for love, or because they are “unselfish” in comparison with those who have chosen not to have children.

Of course, I understand the need to create meaning and a sense of purpose in order to sustain oneself through the struggles that having children entails, and I do believe that some people who start out selfish may become less so through the experience of having children, but it’s simply not true that the majority of women start out with the altruistic thought, “What can I give to the world? Oh, I know, I’ll have a baby.” Most people do it for themselves, or due to cultural pressure (which, in a way, is still for themselves).

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that this isn’t a good reason for doing it, as it’s perfectly human. Just be honest. It’s no more or less selfish than the choice not to do so. And both choices may or may not have positive consequences for the world. One could be the mother of a serial killer. The other might be Mother Theresa.

The article Discrimination against girls ‘still deeply entrenched’ by Terri Judd and Harriet Griffey in today’s Independent quotes statistics from the Plan International report “Because I am a Girl” which show me very clearly that the issue of gender status is not yet a curiosity for the history books:

    Almost 100 million girls “disappear” each year, killed in the womb or as babies…
    … two million girls a year still suffer genital mutilation
    … half a million die during pregnancy – the leading killer among 15 to 19-year-olds – every 12 months
    … an estimated 7.3 million are living with HIV/Aids compared with 4.5 million young men.
    Almost a million girls fall victim to child traffickers each year compared with a quarter that number of boys
    …. Of the 1.5 billion people living on less than 50p a day, 70 per cent are female
    … 96 million young women aged 15 to 24 (are) unable to read or write – almost double the number for males.
    62 million girls are not even receiving primary school education
    … an estimated 450 million have stunted growth because of childhood malnutrition.

The article goes on to say that while many of the worst figures apply to developing countries, there is still clear statistical evidence of sexual discrimination in the north, and gives specific examples in the UK.

As I write about this, I’m obviously challenged to think what exactly I’m doing about it. I might be making a very tiny contribution by blogging about the status and perception of women (amongst the other things I’m interested in) and by contributing to Amnesty International who run several campaigns specifically on behalf of women, and by creating a website (sheTIME) which is intended to offer a place for women to exchange experiences, tips and information about the feminine cycle in order to change their perception of this definitive female experience from negative to positive. sheTIME has been held up a little while the two of us who’ve created it clarify our vision for its future, but I do hope that it will eventually be released for public view. But all of this seems so little a contribution from someone who comes from a place of relative comfort, rank and power when compared to the women the statistics above describe. I know there is more I can do, and in the next few months I will look for appropriate channels. My instinct is to go for educational programmes that target women, because education empowers in the long-term, but I know there are so many other urgent issues as well, like stopping the rape in Darfur.

This morning while musing and browsing, I came across this site that has a huge number of stories about successful programmes in India: http://www.empowerpoor.com/programmereport.asp When the enormity of the problem threatens to overwhelm one, it’s good to be inspired by such a long list of creative solutions that have made and are making a difference.

Here’s another good one to consider: http://www.plan-uk.org/becauseiamagirl/trafficking/

Yesterday we hosted one of our regular Shakespeare readings at home. The company was jolly and the food delicious, if very simple (crudites with organic hummus to start, then homemade veggie soup with homemade crusty bread at the halfway point, and strawberries and Lindt Lindor Extra Dark choccy balls for the final act!). With the help of some French organic cider and a very good Pinot Noir, the group launched into Measure for Measure with great energy, scrambling bravely over the rocky bits (French velvet and English kersey) and breaking out every so often for a spot of outrage or insight as we are wont to do. We were delighted by the variety of temperaments our readers captured in both large and small parts, with a menacingly sepulchral Angelo, Lucio as a canny, sassy, irreverent ne’er-sit-down whose wordplay gleamed like swordplay, Francisca sporting an Irish accent, a self-righteous Elbow, a truculent Barnardine, the passionate virgin Isabella, and all the other characters whose hilarious and shocking contrasts only fully emerge when embodied.

The play was, as always, very timely. We yielded willingly to the Bard’s genius in creating characters, situations and wordplay that make us laugh uproariously while reflecting on themes of moral hypocrisy, the unequal values placed on the testimonies of women and men, the power-relationships of relative rank, money, reputation, class and gender, over-legislation and interference by the state, and the obsession with sex as a focus for legislation and judgement due to supposed “public interest”, with repression the chosen tool despite the evidence of history that it is neither possible nor desirable to “geld and splay all the youth of the city” (Pompey to Escalus, MforM Act II Sc i).

These topics are so ubiquitous and familiar still from our own everyday politics that it’s hard to blame anyone who takes up an attitude as cynical as Lucio’s, determining simply to follow whichever path (and suck up to whichever power source) is likely to lead to the greatest personal licence right now. However, in Shakespeare’s time one had a lot less choice about one’s position and advancement in society (at least relative to those who live in more or less democratic cultures now — I know that the majority of the world still lacks this privilege). Why don’t those of us who can in the 21st century require our leaders and opinion-formers in church and state and media to concentrate on education, health, gender equality and poverty relief or any of the other things where their intervention could actually be useful, rather than spending our time and our money on the prosecution of people whose service exists because of society’s need and desire to use it?

I say this in connection with “The madam, her girls and a city in fear” in the Mail&Guardian. How much has changed since Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure? Well, I smiled as I thought that it seems clear that the primal needs and the political motivations of the players haven’t altered at all, but at least there is a possibility that Mistress Overdone may get more airtime. That, at least, brings a bit of balance to the exploitation equation.

Overall, the play’s a peachy preach on a theme that’s too little heard these days:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’, when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5

And I love the open question at the end… did Isabella say yes to Vincentio?

{Wed 9 May 2007}   Love as yardstick of truth
Well, this started out as a comment on another blog, but rapidly grew long enough to be a post in its own right, so I decided to open it for further comment here. If you want a bit more background, go to the previous discussion on What Theology Looks Like at Father Stephen’s blog.

In response to Father Stephen’s gentle suggestion that my original conversion experience might have been emotional rather than content-based, I responded as follows:

I don’t think anyone would be able to continue living with the consequences of their conversion if it contained no content, unless they really had a pathological need for rejection by and isolation from family, former friends and mainstream society. Although my conversion experience was emotional and therefore highly motivating, it was strongly founded on a clear intellectual understanding of the Christian gospel and much bible reading.

I experienced many further “proofs” of the reality and effectiveness of my faith over my years as a Christian, being a witness to and facilitator of many other conversions and physical and emotional healings, and was very involved in leadership and church-building in different communities, including one of the first truly multiracial churches in South Africa, based in Soweto before apartheid fell.

All my experiences further convinced me of the truth I espoused, because my framework was adequate to contain and explain them as long as my exposure to other worldviews was limited. When I began to read and travel more widely, this was no longer possible as some aspects of reality simply could not be forced to fit any more. Do not assume that acknowledging this was easy or quick for me. Finding a stance from which I could live positively thereafter was an extremely painful and lonely process over 10 long years. I’ve only recently begun to name that stance “negative capability” after Keats, and I know that name may turn out to be inadequate. The key factor for me (at present) is personal responsibility.

I think the issue is not to do with content or the lack of it, but with the names we give to the content. Our naming systems are impossibly inadequate for the task of codifying suprarational realities, and our attempts to do so, while inevitable as part of our efforts to make sense of our world, usually amount to no more than Babel-building, because we don’t have sufficient humility to acknowledge our limitations.

This is not the same thing as saying that everyone is “right”. I’m not sure whether that is a “quintessentially American idea” – it may be, but I doubt whether it originated in America. In any case, I’m not an American, so my current position is not due to the undue influence over me of what you might perceive as negative forces in American thought!

In my opinion, the state of the world offers clearer evidence that everyone is wrong, than that anyone is right! I do believe that everyone may (although many choose not to) draw some enlightenment and some sharpening of conscience from their traditions, but I do not believe that all traditions are equally right (or wrong). They (and sub-traditions within them) may be closer to or further away from the kind of love that respects all persons equally and facilitates each person’s becoming all that she can be. This love-in-action is the yardstick I choose to use for measuring truth.

I’ve read three articles today on the oppression of women by patriarchal religions. It’s not news to me, of course, but the intensity of these outraged lists of the sins of human against human on the basis of genital differences forces me to face the fury and the fear that always lurk within.

Here are some examples of what in my view are blatantly evil and incredibly destructive religious precepts:

    “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast not made me a woman”
    (Sephath Emeth, p. 10).
    “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife”
    (Ephesians 5: 22-23).
    “Men are superior to women on account of the qualities with which God hath gifted the one above the other”
    (Koran 4:37).

What a disgusting “God” these quotes reveal! Who would want to worship, who could trust, such an insecure bully?

What on earth possessed the men who could institute a daily prayer thanking God that they’re not born female? How about not born stupid, or poor, or apelike, or with three legs, or something? Of course, any of these could cause offense to any being that happens to have these characteristics, so we’d not think of creating a new prayer like that now (at least, we wouldn’t do it in the UK), but because we’re so politically correct, we also wouldn’t challenge any religion that continues to promulgate this oppressive crap. Here’s a novel idea: how about thanking God for what you are, instead of for what you are not?

When one reads these, it is hard to understand how anyone can insist that religion is a good thing. The only people who benefit from it are men, and even this benefit is short-term and deceiving, because how can men truly be served by systems that encourage them to be less-than-human and that rob them of the possibility of living a truly fulfilled life that is enriched and balanced by the female principle, by honest, equal relationships with women?

The huge need to oppress women reveals an enormous fear of women. This cripples both sexes and ties us into continual battles with each other, when there are so many other issues on the planet that would benefit from our pouring all our energy jointly into their resolution instead.

Maybe there’s a poem here somewhere, but at the moment I just feel sick!

{Wed 21 February 2007}   Affirmation: My Best Self
Last night, while reflecting on the creative surge and emergent sense of purpose that I’ve been experiencing recently, I recalled an affirmation that I wrote about twelve years ago. It was during an explosive period of personal growth, when the experience of inner healing through the creative arts was newly exciting to me. My home was filled with my colourful paintings and poems and other objects that were beautiful to me. I was riding a surge of hope that gave me the power to make dramatic changes in my life and risk everything to follow my own passion and choose a life path that no one around me could understand.

That path has since taken me through several homes and jobs in four different countries and turned out to be rockier and more lonely than I could ever have imagined. I have many times berated myself for spending months on end in a state of seeming stasis, despite the continual changes that external realities (which I have chosen) have thrust upon me. For some years, I forgot all about this affirmation, but as I read it last night I realised that it has had a shape in my soul all this time, and has fuelled my continuing conviction through the greyest days that I am in fact journeying toward wholeness.

In preparing the affirmation for this post today, I realised that I no longer agreed with some aspects of what I had written. I smiled to myself as I edited it, realising that in so doing I was expressing one of my convictions about humans’ capacity to know anything—that our grasp of reality is limited, and whatever absolute truth may be, it is not in our power to define it absolutely. The wisest course is a blend of humility and hope. In this spirit, then, I’m sharing with you not an accurate description of the person you might encounter if you met me, but an image of the one I am aiming to become.

Feel free to use any parts of it to create an affirmation for yourself if something resonates with you, but seek to respect and live consistently with your own truth above all.

Affirmation: My Best Self

I love myself. I will not abandon myself. I celebrate my individuality. I appreciate my inner and external beauty. I delight in and am energised by natural and artificial beauty. My creativity makes a real, objective contribution to the world. I contemplate my creations with pleasure. What I do is good. I am patient with myself as I discover the best media to express my gifts. I seek and receive feedback from others and from my universe to help me on my journey.

I respect the otherness of everything and everyone. At the same time, I celebrate the connectedness of all. I am part of a larger whole. I reflect something true about everyone. I acknowledge all of life, the totality of existence. I allow the spiritual to be as real to me as the physical. I value my intuition. I take time to listen to my inner voices. I exercise reason and judgement along with intuitive discernment.

I accept social responsibility as part of the whole. I develop my skills and train my talents in order to keep my promises. I focus seriously, consistently and joyfully on my work in order to add to the world. I look for opportunities to seed or build or contribute to vibrant, nurturing communities.

I listen to others. I affirm their emotional honesty by being there with them. I identify with their struggles even as I celebrate each person’s uniqueness. I express my own feelings to invite connection. I differentiate between my self and my feelings, and between my feelings and those of others. I wait patiently for the resolution of feelings. I act positively toward others. I take responsibility for my actions and responses. I recognise and rejoice in reciprocity.

I understand that the discipline of self is part of my contribution to the whole, because I can only care for others as I care for myself. I evaluate my values in terms of my growing understanding of universal laws. I submit to my evolving conscience in matters of morality and ethics. I incarnate my principles and convictions by acting on them.

At the same time, I am gentle with myself. I laugh at the incongruities in my thoughts and actions, and the paradoxes of my animal-spiritual nature, because I understand that I am always learning. When I teach what I am in the process of learning, I am aware that my truth is only an approximation of reality. With this awareness, I dive wholeheartedly into the mystery of life.

et cetera