Ban the Burkini Ban

As someone who blogs about freedom of expression I really can’t let the ridiculous burkini controversy in France go by without comment.

Policemen have literally been forcing women to disrobe in public. That is deeply illiberal and wrong.

The arguments for enforcing such a policy do not stand up. Continue reading “Ban the Burkini Ban”

Can Courage be Learnt?

The author Malcolm Gladwell wrote the popular book Outliers: The Story of Success.  ‘Outliers’ is term he gives to incredibly successful people, but I’ve used the same word to describe that particular sub-genus of political activist, who persists in challenging authority when others are intimidated into silence.  These people are often sued, imprisoned, attacked and even murdered because of what they write. It is my great privilege to work with and on behalf of such people at English PEN.  They are compelling because they are so unusual in their societies (a fact that makes them even more vulnerable as people in power seek to make a public example of them). What makes such a person?

Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast series Revisionist History has only recently been launched but it’s already in the Top 10 downloads on iTunes. Episode 03 ‘The Big Man Can’t Shoot‘ revisits the idea of what makes some people take different decisions to others, told through the fascinating story of two basketball players.  It gives some insight into what makes both types of ‘outlier’—the successful sportsman; and the tenacious political activist.

The episode asks why barely any professional basketball players shoot free throws underhand. It’s a technique that is proven to yield more points for a player… but it’s also deemed ‘cissy’ or a ‘grandma shot’.  Social pressures prevent basketball players from making a simple change to improve their game!

The reason for this bad choice is not ignorance.  Basketball player Wilt Chamberlin said he knew he was better shooting underarm than over, but he chose the inferior technique anyway.

Gladwell explains that we all have a psychological threshold that must be met before we change our behaviour.  Towards the end of the episode he describes what’s going on in our heads when we make these kinds of choices:

He doesn’t care! The kind of person who would let bad things be said about him in his own autobiography is the kind of person who would shoot a free throw that other people think looks ridiculous. … Someone who puts the responsibility of mastering the task at hand ahead of all social considerations. Who would rather be right than liked.

It takes courage to be good. Social courage. To be honest with yourself, to do things the right way.

To my mind, the idea that someone like Lydia Cacho or Liu Xiaobo or Mazen Darwish has ‘courage’ is true, but also slightly trite, because it only describes what they have done, not why or indeed how. Courage is difficult behaviour to discuss because it is unclear whether it can be learnt or whether it is innate.

Malcolm Gladwell’s contributions here offer arguments for both.  First, his discussions of a low psychological ‘threshold’ that can inspires radical behaviour (or a high threshold that can discourage it) implies that something innate. It’s just a part of our personality that we acquire at an early age. However, as he describes elsewhere in Outliers, a great deal of talent can actually be acquired through practice (specifically, focused practice).

Perhaps courage, as displayed by the political activists and writers I work with, can be similarly taught!? I wonder what this looks like in practice?


Photo: Syrian journalist and activist Mazen Darwish (right), recipient of the 2014 PEN Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage.  Darwish spent 4 years detained without trial in Syria. © Robert Sharp

Quoted in the Guardian, Praising Debating Societies

I’m a week late in logging the fact that I was also quoted in the Guardian last week, praising debating societies.

If a perception of this kind of competitive debating as old-fashioned and the preserve of public schools and university societies goes unchallenged, then we lose a great deal. Robert Sharpe [sic] of the worldwide writers’ association English PEN sees charges of elitism as a shame, because “the skills one learns through a good debate are crucial for modern life. Political events continue to remind us of the importance of persuasive arguments and good oratory that appeal not only to our rational side, but our emotional side too.” He also thinks the ability to see the other side is particularly important. “The essence of free speech is that we allow people with whom we disagree to speak. Wrongheaded views will be aired. But free speech means no one gets the last word. We can – and indeed, we should – use our own right to free speech to challenge expression we think is unpleasant or wrong. To do this we need to be equipped to argue in public. Debating competitions are a fantastic way to teach this important skill to young people.” Later this year, English PEN will join the Chamber Debate in the House of Lords, in which students from state schools across the country will discuss the issue of free speech.

I was never in a debating society at university but I have debated at both the Cambridge Union and the Oxford Union in my time. Continue reading “Quoted in the Guardian, Praising Debating Societies”

Quoted in the Mail on Sunday

I was quoted very briefly in the Mail on Sunday this weekend, in an article about a new police strategy for cracking down on Twitter abuse and threats.

It is feared that this will lead to large numbers of comments being reported to social media providers or police as inappropriate, even if they were only meant jokingly or had no malicious intent.  Robert Sharp, of the anti-censorship group English PEN, said: ‘Threats of violence must of course be investigated and prosecuted, but the police need to tread carefully.’

Continue reading “Quoted in the Mail on Sunday”

How Women Are Covered

Last month I suggested that the satirical focus on Philip May’s wardrobe was because of the social media backlash against sexist media reports.

Sports reporting is particularly bad in this regard and the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro has thrown up some ur-examples, so its only right that we call them out. Continue reading “How Women Are Covered”

Stronger Together: America is a Collaboration

The keynote speeches at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia were a fantastic reminder of just how potent is the idea of ‘America’. The President and the First Lady are perhaps more comfortable speakers, but I thought Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech on Thursday evening (which I’ve only just watched) was actually the most persuasive analysis of what the country stands for and what it can be. Continue reading “Stronger Together: America is a Collaboration”

Calling LBC to Debate Our Response To Terrorism

What a hideous few days for terrorist attacks in Europe.  First, a spate of incidents in Germany: an axe attack; a shooting that killed nine people; someone with machete; and most recently a suicide bomber that injured 15 people. 

And then on Tuesday, the despicable murder of Fr Jacques Hamel at his church in Rouen, France. It’s less than a month since the Nice attacks, when a man in a truck deliberately ran over hundreds of people celebrating Bastille Day.

The regularity of these attacks only adds to the fear that the terrorists seek to sow.  There is a sense that Europe is a battleground, that things are falling apart.  The Far Right will seek to exploit this fear to their advantage.

We need to remember that these incidents are still extremely rare.  After the Nice attacks, the author Tom Pollock wrote a post on the likelihood of someone being hurt by a terrorist:

In France, in the last two years, there have been 8 attacks for which responsibility was claimed by Islamic Extremist Terrorists, killing a total of 247 people. There are 66,000,000 people in France. At the current level of activity, their odds of being killed in a terrorist attack in a given year are less than two ten-thousandths of one per cent. That’s 27 times lower than their odds of dying in a car accident. …

In Iraq, by contrast, the chances are much higher.

We would do well to remember this… but of course it’s not the whole story. Being told that they are extremely unlucky is no comfort to the victims or their families. And even though the chances of you or me being caught up in a terrorist attack are vanishingly small, we still do not want to live in a country or on a continent where this happens so frequently.  There is a psychological impact on everyone. 

Yesterday, I heard the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy on the radio, suggesting that everyone now needs to alter their mental state. We must, he said, become far more cautious and suspicious in public spaces. He offered Israel as an example of the permenant state of alert that Europe needs to adopt.

I think that would be sad and wrong. The Israelis perpetual expectation of attack is one reason given for the continued occupation of the West Bank.  It’s an attitude that leads to soldiers shooting at children throwing stones.

But Something Must Be Done, right?

Perhaps not. What seems clear from the recent attacks is that the level of co-ordination with the leaders of Islamic State / Daesh is minimal and perhaps non-existent. There may not be any networks to infiltrate or many conversations on which to eavesdrop. The security services are surely already doing all they can, but there is no easy way to prevent so-called ‘lone wolves’ using everyday objects to hurt ordinary people, as happened in Rouen and Nice.  

At least, no way that would preserve civil liberties and the open society that we value, and which the terrorists loathe. Security guards outside churches, really?  It’s a problem that can only be solved with long term social policies, not quick-fix increase in the security presence.

On Monday, I called into the Breakfast Show on the talk radio channel LBC. During the programme, plenty of callers had been discussing the latest terror attacks.  Some people advocated racial and religious profiling, and The host, Nick Ferrari, seemed to be imply that the terrorism was essentially the fault of asylum and immigration policy.

I called in to say two things.  The first was to point out that (pace Tom Pollock, above) terrorists kill a tiny, tiny proportion of the population of Europe.

My second point was that we should not introduce any new policies, such as banning Muslims or ignoring refugees, that would compromise our values.  Such policies are exactly what the terrorists want because they ‘sharpen the contradictions‘. Demonising Muslims and turning away refugees will only boost recruitment to ISIS.  I am shocked that there are still people in this country and around Europe who do not understand this.

At the end of my impromptu contribution to Nick Ferrari’s show, I tried to introduce the idea that we should accept that some people will die from terrorism, in the same way that people die from cancer, in wars or car accidents. In this, I had in mind the short article ‘Just Asking‘ by David Foster Wallace, written for Atlantic magazine in 2007.

What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea?

If we must change our way of thinking, let us internalise this: We cannot live in a state of total security.  Some crime and even terrorism is always likely to be with us. This idea is something that liberal people, who support human rights and a free society, often try to avoid talking about.  I have written before on the need for campaigners and those who advocate for civil rights to be honest about the negative consequences of advocating freedom. We need to better explain why the freedoms and rights that we hold are worth preserving, even if bad people can do bad things with those freedoms. 

When I made this point on my LBC, Nick Ferrari accused me of being “sanguine” about terrorist deaths! I cannot decide whether he was right on that point: perhaps in the moment my argument was poorly put. Or conversely, perhaps accusing rights defenders of such things is a standard tactic deployed by those of a more authoritarian tendency?

Incredibly, the audio from the show does not appear to be readily available online, so you cannot judge for yourselves. 

Crises and Conflicts from NewCon Press

My story is featured in this anthology of space opera and Military SF

I’m delighted to have a short story featured in Crises and Conflicts, a new anthology of space and military science fiction, just published by NewCon Press as part of their 10th Anniversary celebrations.

My piece, ‘Round Trip’ is a tale of loneliness, obsession, patience, and the tedious experience of waiting for a no-frills budget space shuttle to Jupiter (we’ve all be there).

The central science fiction idea in the story is that the universe is finite and curved, a theory developed by the cosmologist Professor Janna Levin. I can highly recommend her book How The Universe Got Its Spots and her beautiful Moth story ‘Life on a Mobius Strip‘. Continue reading “Crises and Conflicts from NewCon Press”

Fashionista Philip: The Sartorial Choices of Mr May

Our constant call-outs of sexism in the media are slowly having an effect

Societal progress moves at a glacial pace. Sexism didn’t go away when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and it’s still with us even though Teresa May now occupies Number 10 Downing Street.

Still, it’s interesting (to me, at least) to watch our societal attitudes change, even at the quantum level.  In fact, I think it is particularly worthwhile to note the most granular changes in our discourse: in this case, how we talk about women and men.

Many people have shared this article by Nicole Morely in the Metro: ‘Theresa May’s husband steals the show in sexy navy suit as he starts new life as First Man‘.

Continue reading “Fashionista Philip: The Sartorial Choices of Mr May”

No-one In The Labour Party Has Staged A ‘Coup’

Any political party that did not have a mechanism for a sitting leader to be ousted would be pretty much the definition of anti-democratic

The worrying news from Turkey has made me think about the way in which the recent political machinations within the British Labour Party have been described (usually by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn) as a ‘coup’.

I’m sure the people who use that word do not mean to suggest that the 171 Labour MPs who want Mr Corbyn to resign are equivalent to soldiers with guns.  But use of the word does imply that the manoeuvrings are anti-democratic.

But they are not.  They are profoundly democratic. Continue reading “No-one In The Labour Party Has Staged A ‘Coup’”