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”

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”

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. 

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”

Podcast: Anjan Sundaram – Bad News

“Here was a case of people doing harm to themselves on government orders, because there was no voice in society saying, This Is Wrong”

Earlier this year I recorded a podcast with the award-winning journalist Anjan Sundaram. We discussed his wonderful book Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, an account of the extinction of press freedom in Rwanda.

This week the podcast and an edited transcript of part of the discussion was posted in the PEN Atlas section of the English PEN website.  You can listen to it on SoundCloud or via the player below. Continue reading “Podcast: Anjan Sundaram – Bad News”

The EU is Not A Household Expense—It’s A Trade Fair

The country-as-household metaphor is particularly difficult for Cameron and Osborne to argue against, because they have been deploying exactly the same argument in order to justify their austerity policies

Ever since the EU Referendum campaign kicked off in earnest, everyone—Brexiters, Bremainers and Bragnostics—have been complaining that they can’t get the straight facts out of anyone. “If only we had the facts” they cry, “then we’d all be able to make a sober, rational choice about whether to vote in or out”.

That’s a noble idea but it’s also delusional. Most people aren’t going to do sums. They’re going to vote on gut instinct, emotions, and, if they are trying really hard to be civic minded, then they’ll vote on whose arguments seem most credible.

We don’t need more facts. The facts are out there for those who care to look and who have been educated in macroeconomics.

What we need are better metaphors. Continue reading “The EU is Not A Household Expense—It’s A Trade Fair”

The Newspapers’ Double-Standards on Charlie Hebdo

The newspapers were very happy to publish pictures on their front pages of an actual murder, and yet felt unable to publish pictures of a religious figure in charicature.

Ever since the hideous massacre of journalists at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper, I’ve been relaying a pair of juxtaposed facts about the media coverage of the incident.  I am preparing a talk to some media studies students about the coverage, and I have just realised I have never properly blogged about what I noticed.

Better late than never, I’m doing that now. Continue reading “The Newspapers’ Double-Standards on Charlie Hebdo”

#YouAintNoMuslimBruv: How We Became Savvy Propaganda Merchants For Good

Following the awful knife attack at Leytonstone on Sunday, the hashtag #YouAintNoMuslimBruv has been trending on social media.  It has been so widely shared that it was discussed on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme and even the Prime Minister repeated it during his speech.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

To recap, the phrase was shouted by a passer-by at Muhyadin Mire, who attacked a fellow passenger on the London Underground system, allegedly shouting “this is for Syria”.  Mire has been charged with attempted murder. Continue reading “#YouAintNoMuslimBruv: How We Became Savvy Propaganda Merchants For Good”

Bloggers Plug the Democratic Deficit

I’m quoted in this Herald article about bloggers in Scotland.

Robert Sharp of English Pen, however, stressed that online sources and bloggers were now replacing newspapers in much of rural Scotland – putting themselves at risk.

He said: “The Highlands and Islands cannot depend on the established media to hold decision-makers to account.

“It is bloggers who plug the democratic gap, and they need a simple, clear law.

“If our rights are written in statute and not confusing case law, they would know where they stand and will be better equipped to scrutinise the people with money and power.”

Continue reading “Bloggers Plug the Democratic Deficit”

Discussing the Limits of Free Speech with The Londonist

Do extremists continue to preach underground when they get banned?

Earlier this week I sat down with the author N Quentin Woolf, host of the Londonist Out Loud podcast, to talk about free speech, its value and its limits.

The audio of our discussion has just been published.  You can listen via the Acast player below, and there are download and iTunes links on the Londonist website. Continue reading “Discussing the Limits of Free Speech with The Londonist”