Tag Archives: Human Rights

Traditional Marriage Paves The Way For A Return To Polygamy

Adam and Steve

Photo by Dave Schumaker on Flickr, Creative Commons Licence

Its great news that MPs voted for marriage equality yesterday.  We should remember that the debate yesterday was only one of several stages in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill.  There will be other votes on this issue, and the arguments for and against the reforms will persist for a little while yet.

The anti-family campaigners’ main argument is this: If we re-define marriage to include same-sex marriage, what is to stop a future parliament from re-defining the concept again, to allow polygamy, or inter-species marriage, &ct?

The usual rebuttal to this is that marriage has often been redefined – The Liberal Democrat campaigner Mark Pack’s recent post on this topic is a great example of this argument.  There is, however, another argument, that is admittedly less persuasive but worth an airing.  It is this:  If we acquiesce to the traditional, religious conception of marriage, what is to stop future parliaments making further reversions in the future?  The religious books are pretty clear that the male has primacy in a marriage, and a religiously motivated politicians might seek to restore that inequality by redefining marriage.  Likewise, the Bible has passages that warn against inter-faith marriage, such as 2 Corinthians 6:14:

Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?

Stern stuff.  The Old Testament also endorses polygamy.

So giving credence to anything proposed by the religious or social conservatives risks a similar if different ‘slippery slope’ argument.  “Traditional Marriage Paves The Way For A Return To Polygamy”.

This is a reminder that it is in the very nature of our political system that laws may be changed, and that any change to any law means that it could be further reformed in the future.  This is not a bad thing (although those who see their values falling out of fashion tend to see it as such).

Are there any immutable laws that are not open to revision by future parliaments?  In times past, God’s Law performed this function.  But this was a flawed system, not least because religious authorities seem happy to re-legislate the Word of God when it is convenient.  Countries with a written constitution seek to encode some underlying laws that frame what legislators can and cannot do… but constitutions are open to amendment and repeal.  In Britain, the European Convention on Human Rights can trump domestic law.  Its incarnation in British law, the Human Rights Act, has a certain meta-status, governing what other laws can or cannot say.  But even these laws are open to repeal or withdrawal by law-makers.

There is no final arbiter that can prevent the slippery slope towards mad laws, dangerous and unethical laws, if a parliament wishes such things to be so.  This is why the vigilance of the people is so important – to ensure that the law keeps pace with, but does not go beyond, our values.  This seems to be happening in the case of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which reflects the new public consensus that marriage should be available to all.

David Cameron makes a statement on the Leveson Report

Cameron and #Leveson: My Dilemma

The extraordinary political drama surrounding the publication of the Leveson Report yesterday leaves me with something of a dilemma.

On the one hand, I want to commend David Cameron for making a principled stand for free expression in Parliament yesterday.  This Prime Minister seems hostile to the Human Rights Act, so his words on the importance of free speech are noteworthy:

The issue of principle is that, for the first time, we would have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land. We should be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press. In this House, which has been a bulwark of democracy for centuries, we should think very, very carefully before crossing that line.

Cameron also said he was “instinctively concerned” about changing the rules on Data Protection and journalistic sources (Hansard link ), which, from a free expression point of view, is also a welcome attitude.  Some might argue that these are platitudes, but they are on record in Parliament and there is no reason why free speech campaigners should not trumpet these comments.

However, these statements are tempered by the concern that, in appearing to reject Lord Justice Leveson’s key recommendation, it seems as if the Prime Minister is undermining the Inquiry he himself set up.  This is likely to further alienate people from parliamentary politics.  Labour and the Liberal Democrats are right to ask what the point of the Inquiry actually was, if the central conclusion is summarily dismissed.  In taking an early position against ‘statutory underpinning’, Cameron has aligned himself with the newspapers, rightly or wrongly symbolised by the hated Murdochs.

https://twitter.com/stephenfry/status/274179392127762432

The Prime Minister has also placed himself in opposition to the McCanns, the Dowlers, and Hugh Grant, which politically speaking seems an incredibly risky manoevre.  It is so counter-intuitive to the project of re-election that I am persuaded that he has indeed taken the position on a matter of principle.

I am no fan of David Cameron’s policies, and usually enjoy watching his poll numbers fall.  But I worry about a situation in which a Prime Minister loses public support because he makes statements in favour of free expression.

Yes, This Is Political Correctness Gone Mad

I am usually a supporter of ‘political correctness’, especially when it concerns speech. I think it is far better for someone who says something offensive to be criticised and recieve a social sanction for being ‘politically incorrect’ than for them to suffer any kind of legal censorship.

It is therefore incumbent upon me to condemn genuine acts of ‘political correctness gone mad’ when they occur. These are usually instances of local government officials take progressive legislation too far. There have been two ridiculous cases of this kind in the past week: A man won an employment tribunal case against Trafford Housing Trust after they saw he had posted comments against gay marriage on his Facebook Page; and a foster-couple in Rotherham had a couple of kids removed from their care when it was discovered they were members of UKIP.

I note that the authorities acted on information gleaned from the aggrieved people’s private lives. The couple’s membership came from a “tip off” apparently, and the demoted Christian man was posting on his own Facebook wall. Both these things acts of political expression took place in that liminal space that is not private but not necessarily fully public either. But the fact that the employers and Rotherham Council have been punishing these people, based on their actions and beliefs expressed in this mid-way space, is highly disconcerting. This is the sort of thing we need human rights legislation for – to protect the overreach of the state and employers into areas that are not their business. It’s ironic that the concept of human rights is also often derided as ‘political correctness’. Had Rotherham Council and Trafford Housing Trust had a better understanding of free expression, freedom of association and the right to a private life, they may not have made the mistakes that made the headlines.

De-humanisation

Ugh. I just unwhittingly clicked on a YouTube video showing the immediate aftermath of the assasination of Ahmed Al-Jabari in Gaza. A passer-by drags out dead body from the car… and half of it is missing. It is sickening and certainly Not Safe For Work or children. I wonder how long it will remain live on YouTube before the company removes it for being too graphic.

The video is a huge contrast to the clinical black and white footage distributed by the Israeli Defence Force. Ever since Operation Desert Storm there has been discussion of the way in which TV pictures frame our view of war, sanitising the horror. In recent years there has also been much analysis of the ‘gamification’ of war, as soldiers brough-up on video games join the army and begin shooting real people. The two contrasting images of the same incident speak to that dehumanising tendency.

The gruesome, visceral aftermath also provides some understanding of the hatred towards Israel that steams out of Palestine. In the background of the video you can see children observing the scene. I am glad that I never saw such sights in my childhood. Is it any surprise that those who experience such visual traumas grow up to hate those responsible? Time and again, I find my thoughts returning to this 2005 essay by Laurie King on the symbolism of the body in war, occupation and resistance:

These violations [at Sabra and Shatila] of individual bodies were not haphazard or random acts carried out in the heat of murderous rage, but rather, part of a grammar of political exclusivity, a systemic and coherent — though certainly deranged — message that an entire group could be violated, perhaps even eradicated, with impunity. The message of that massacre endures and echoes a quarter of a century later. Its scars are social, physical, and symbolic, and are felt far beyond the scene of the crime.

So what we have here are different methods of dehumanisation. The fact that these people we fight against are our fellow humans is forgotten in the melee and the maelstrom. Some comments psoted below the video of the half-body:

Lol, not much of him left, and nice slug trail to boot (link)

I wish wars still involved swordmanship and valor but now we got this lame no effort shit. Oh well. (link)

Where’s the rest of him? Ah well…One less scum bag polluting the world (link)

These are not the comments of those who see the other side as human.

See also: Twitter and the anti-Playstation effect on war coverage.

Two Essential Testimonies on Date Rape

Occasionally, this website forgets it is a blog and descends into sheer self-promotion. Not so today, when we share a couple of pieces posted elsewhere on the sensitive issue of so-called ‘Date Rape’ (the qualifying prefix to which is actually superfluous).

Two things have sparked another collective conversation over this issue. The first is the ill-advised, point-missing defences of Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, who is wanted for questioning in Sweden on sexual assault charges. The second is the wilfully ignorant remark by US Congressman Todd Akin (R-MO), that a victim of ‘legitimate rape’ rarely gets pregnant.

In response, two women have bravely written personal testimonies about how they were forced to have sex without their consent, and the feelings of confusion and shame that followed the ordeal. Both articles are accompanied by the phrase ‘Trigger Warning‘ (which I confess I had not encountered before). Continue reading

The £15m Civil Recovery "Racket"

Originally posted at Liberal Conspiracy.

I was in the House of Commons Committee Room 9 earlier this week, listening to the 5th sitting of the Defamation Bill Committee (on behalf of English PEN and the Libel Reform Campaign). During the exchanges, Denis MacShane brought to light a case where the Citizens Advice Bureau and others have been threatened with libel action for discussing and criticising civil recovery schemes, specifically the practices of a company called Retail Loss Prevention.
Continue reading

Interviewed on 2ser 107.3

A protestor holds up a demand for Free Expression inside the 'market focus' area at the London Book Fair.  Photo by yrstrly.

A protestor holds up a demand for Free Expression at the London Book Fair. Photo by yrstrly.

Both readers of my blog were subjected to a significant amount of London Book Fair comment and linkage last month.  I was asked to give opinions on the controversial China Market Focus programme.

During the Book Fair I gave an interview to an Australian radio station, 2ser 107.3, based in Sydney.  I’ve only just discovered the link to the archive of the interview – My contribution is the first segment of the show.  Hilariously, I was credited as John Sharp!

The Great Banner Wall of China

This week English PEN has been at the London Book Fair. China was the ‘Market Focus’ country and as such, there were a lot of Chinese state-run stands at the fair.

I joined with activists from the Tibet Society and the Independent Chinese PEN Centre to stage a poetry protest in front of the Chinese Government stands. The poetry we recited earned their authors a ten year prison sentence.

Later, GAPP officials used a load of pull-up conference banner stands to block the protest from view. “The Great Pull-Up Banner Wall of China”. Not a good look, in a trade fair designed to promote openness.

I was also reprimanded by the security guards for holding up a sign saying ‘Free Speech is not a crime’ on carpet owned (or at least, paid for) by the Chinese government.

The Worrying Censorship of Expression on Social Media

A quick aide memoir for the future: Examples of people being arrested or convicted for stuff they wrote on social networks.

1. Paul Chambers:

Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!

A chap made an obviously ranty joke in a tweet, and was convicted of ‘menace’.

2.  Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan

Organised riot events on Facebook.

3. Azhar Ahmed

Charged with a ‘racially agravated public order offence’ for posting an immature anti-war rant on Facebook.

On this last story: Index on Censorship notes that there was no actual racial content in Ahmed’s message; author Tony White points out that the same sentiments, expressed more eloquently by Guardian readers, went unremarked and are run-of-the-mill; and Kenan Malik suggests that Ahmed’s arrest is part of a growing appetitie for “the criminalisation of Islamic dissent”.

Me, Interviewed on Word Salad

Last week, I was interviewed by Peter Spafford for East Leeds FM. He asked about the work of English PEN and the free speech campaigns we are running.

You can listen to the interview here. My five minutes of fame comes at exactly 61 minutes into the show. There’s a funny point in my monologue where Peter takes a breath to ask another question, but I carry on talking. I should learn to speak in shorter sentences.

Later in the same show, my English PEN colleague Irene Garrow talks about her experience as a writer-in-residence in the prison system, and the reading and writing workshops she organizes with prisoners.  Her slot starts at about 105 minutes.