“Colour blindness” and equalities legislation

Last week, I watched this programme on Channel 4 about race. It was a fascinating breaking down of a lot of the myths we have been fed about race and racial stereotyping and it certainly made me think. However, the section which stood out for me was when Trevor Phillips interviewed UKIP leader, Nigel Farage.

You probably saw something about this interview, as it made it onto social media and into the national news programmes before it was broadcast. Mr Farage was asked whether he would scrap all equalities legislation, with particular reference to the sections on race prejudice. He said that he would, because “as a party, we are colour blind”. I’ve also heard him say similar things about other equality-legislation-protected minorities like women and the LGBT community.

But these statements just don’t stand up to scrutiny. As a person, I may believe that people of any race, women and LGBT people deserve the same rights and protections as anyone else in society. However, the person standing next to me may well hold exactly the opposite opinion. It’s all very well for Nigel Farage to say that, if UKIP get into power in May, they will be able to scrap equalities legislation and everyone will live happily ever after in a miraculously unprejudiced and equal British society. This is a pipe dream.

Equalities legislation exists because of the sizeable minority of people in this country and all over the world who persecute people of colour, LGBT people, women etc, because of who they are.

Just a few days ago, a woman was beaten to death by a male mob on the streets of Kabul, in Afghanistan. It’s not clear why, and the Afghan authorities have so far falsely claimed that she was mentally unstable and had been seen burning a copy of the Qur’an. It seems likely that all she did was stand up to a man in the crowd. Afghanistan has a sizeable women’s rights movement which is working hard to end this type of prejudice and violence. The Afghan government has pledged to support this cause, and the president has publicly condemned this killing. This is only the start. Ending this type of violence and prejudice is about education and social acceptability.

In the 1950s, advertisements like the one below regularly appeared in newspapers and magazines all over the Western world (this one is American):

1952 advertisement for Chase and Sanborn coffee

We look at these advertisements today and we laugh with horror that it was ever socially acceptable to hit your wife if she displeased you in some way.

But the reason it is no longer acceptable is because many women (and men) fought for the law and social attitudes to change. As it became more acceptable for women to be seen as strong human beings in their own right, this sort of advertising and the behaviour it encourages became socially and legally unacceptable.

The same can be said of any minority group currently protected by equalities legislation.

And it only takes a change of government to change social attitudes. Look at the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s. I’m sure that most of the Nazi German forces, if asked before they took up arms in Hitler’s cause, could never have imagined the pain, murder and destruction they would inflict on the Jewish people, gay people, people with mental illness and the disabled.

We need equalities legislation because not everyone is accepting of everyone else. Some people even have so much hate and disdain for a particular minority that they are prepared to kill because of it. The law must be there to hold these people to account.

Posted in Activism, Advertising, Crime, Education, Feminism, Holocaust, LGBT, Media, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Fashion police

An excellent post about social media campaigning and where it falls down. Food for thought for all of us.

a paper bird

Accessorized at the altar: Model Bianca Balti displays devotion in the Dolce & Gabbana Fall/Winter Collection. Shot by Pierpaolo Ferrari for Tatler Russia, September 2013 Accessorized at the altar: Model Bianca Balti displays devotion in the Dolce & Gabbana Fall/Winter Collection. Shot by Pierpaolo Ferrari for Tatler Russia, September 2013

I agree; fashion is an art. But it’s a strange one. The other arts always held out promise of escape, or at least aloofness, from the ravages of time; they gesture at a world more lasting than our fragile and fugitive flesh; from a vantage mimicking eternity, they pass judgment on our inconstancy, like Rilke’s marble statue: “You must change your life.” Fashion, though, is within time and of the moment. It feeds on the awareness that what’s beautiful this spring won’t last till next season. Impermanent in essence, it inflicts the same transience on its consumers. You merit fashion mainly in those evanescent years when you are young and thin enough to be worthy. Brightness falls from the air; Prada has no patience for middle-aged weight gain. “The grand problem,”…

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The challenge of reverse sexism

I was watching “The Voice UK” on Saturday night, the second episode of the battle rounds. Whilst enjoying the amazing performances from all of the competitors, something stuck in my craw.

The battle between Jake and Stephen was amazing, with both singers giving it their all. Then it came time for judges’ comments. Rita Ora was first, and her first comment was that they were two “sexy fellas”. Then Ricky Wilson chimed in, saying that Stephen had an “OK body”, which drew wolf whistles from the audience. Both Stephen and Jake looked incredibly uncomfortable with this exchange.

When I hear comments like this about male contestants on reality shows (and there have been plenty of instances on other shows, such as “Strictly Come Dancing”) I try and imagine the reaction if something like that was said about one of the female contestants. The women on these shows are often referred to as pretty or good looking, but if anyone dared to refer to them as “sexy gals” or commented on their bodies, there would immediately be complaints to the BBC about sexism and objectification.

I think that for some years, we have been sleep-walking into a media and social world where reverse sexism and the objectification of men is becoming commonplace and acceptable, even considered to be a joke. We say we’re only “poking fun”. That these men should be flattered that we find them so attractive. Where have we heard these arguments before?

“The Voice UK” is a show which is meant to be about the contestants’ voices, not how they look. Of course, looks do come into it as we are programmed from a young age to value good looks over almost anything else, but they certainly shouldn’t be the first thing the judges comment on.

I felt sorry for both Jake and Stephen that their performances were somewhat devalued by the comments about their appearance. It would be great if such comments about male contestants on shows like this, and about good looking males in general, became just as socially unacceptable as sexism and the objectification of women are today.

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Justice must be blind

Yesterday, amidst all the furore about Mohammed Emwazi, I heard the research director of the campaign organisation, Cage, being grilled on Radio 4’s Today programme about the charity’s supposed “support” for Omar Bakri Muhammad Fustuq, a well-known Islamic hate preacher who is currently being held in an underground cell in a Lebanese prison and may well be being tortured.

As is now sadly expected in BBC news interviews, Mishal Husain reduced the issue to a very black-and-white one: Cage is supporting a hate preacher, therefore Cage is tacitly supporting terrorism.

The young man she was interviewing tried to explain. Cage vigorously condemns what Omar Bakri stands for and what he preaches, but it believes that he has a right to all the avenues of justice which we, in this democratic country, recognise as our right too: the right to know what we’re accused of, access to representation from a lawyer and a fair trial. They believe that his detention and probable torture in Lebanon is wrong and goes against his human rights. I agree.

Think about this for a moment. Imagine that someone you love was accused of murder. There is no question that he has committed this crime as there is too much evidence to prove otherwise. Even knowing all this, wouldn’t you want him to have a fair trial? The famous statement that all solicitors and barristers adhere to is that everyone deserves a defence in court, no matter how heinous their crime or evident their guilt.

There is no doubt that hate preachers and Islamic State fighters are terrorists. They incite and perform terrorist acts. But however repulsive we find their crimes to be, they still deserve all these rights that we take for granted. No one deserves to be tortured or held without charge, no matter what they have done.

Cage’s situation is not black and white. They are not supporting terrorists if they demand that these men and women receive justice. They may condemn the crime, but they recognise the common humanity we share with them. Hard though it may be to accept, terrorists are not monsters, they are human beings. And human beings have the right to justice. They will still be punished, but justice is blind, and she must be served.

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Help, I’m being persecuted: Hypocrisy and free speech

Something to keep my followers stimulated while I’m away from my desk…

a paper bird

Trans Trans activists in Mexico City protesting violence against LGBT people and sex workers, August 13, 2011. Photo: Alfredo Estrella for AFP

In long years of human rights work, I’ve seen plenty of hatred inculcated and discrimination enforced; but I can’t think of anyone more fitting the profile of les damnés de la terre than trans people and sex workers. Bearers of those identities (of course they often intersect) risk arrest almost daily across nine-tenths of the globe; police, if they don’t throw them in prison, can shake them down or rape them with impunity; on streets or in private places violence menaces their bodies constantly; the media mocks them, mutes them, fetishizes them, but mostly vilifies them; stigma, chasing them through life, bars them from jobs or homes or education; they die because health care systems ignore their needs; they die because people slaughter them. Why? Why are they hiding their lights under…

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Why so-called “Islamic State” won’t be stopped by bombs and drone strikes

The sad death of Kayla Mueller at the hands of the so-called Islamic State brings the death toll of IS hostages to an alarming level. I am aware that IS are claiming that she died in a Jordanian air strike, but we will never know the truth, and IS have proven time and again that they have little respect for human life unless it conforms to their narrow view of the world.

And it is this narrow view, or ideology, which means that fighting them is extremely difficult. Like their fellow fundamentalists in the Taliban and Al Qaeda, where we kill one, two more will spring up in their place. These ruthless terrorists recruit angry young men and women from all over the world, tapping into their sense of alienation and perceived lack of opportunity. It was not surprising that the two terrorists who opened fire at Charlie Hebdo were of Algerian descent. France has a long history of conflict in Algeria and this has led to a generation of disaffected Algerian youth in France and elsewhere. These two radicalised brothers would have had no qualms about executing fellow French citizens.

Despite knowing all this, countries in both east and west keep bombing IS targets. This places civilians in the line of fire, most of them moderate Muslims simply trying to live their lives in an impossible and dangerous situation. Children all over the middle east live in constant fear of drone strikes and yet, if their families try to escape them, they become refugees and enter another kind of hell in refugee camps. And none of this carnage stops IS even for a second.

In my opinion, the only way to fight this onslaught of radicalisation and cold-blooded murder is to tackle the ideology which leads to it, and that is no easy task. The human brain is deeply suggestible, and poisonous ideologies take root very easily. If they are then nurtured by clever people who know how to manipulate us, they grow bigger and can lead ordinary human beings to do the most extraordinary things. Cast your mind back to the Nazi death machine of the Second World War and you can see how dangerous and difficult to combat this can be. Once one human being begins to view other human beings as less than human or dangerous, then it’s only a small step from there to mass murder.

Education is the key; and we must start to use the internet to combat the radicalisation of our young people. IS and their affiliates are extremely adept at using the web (aptly named in this case) to draw in and capture young minds. Using the web is clever. It allows them to access their targets privately, in the seclusion of their own homes, even their bedrooms. It’s very difficult for the security services to track it quickly enough to put a stop to it.

Instead of pouring money into defence and drone strikes, the government needs to give the security services money for software, staff and training in the use of the internet, and social media in particular, so we can catch these young people before their whole world is consumed by hate and fundamentalism and they are lost to us.

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Do we really need the welfare state?

A few days ago, a complimentary therapist told my wife that she thinks we should get rid of the welfare state and rely on charities to help those in need. This was during a discussion about the rise in the use of foodbanks over the last few years.

I have to say that my jaw dropped when I heard this. She appeared to be implying that foodbanks and other charity initiatives were doing a better job of looking after our most vulnerable members of society than the state.

This may well be true, but they are doing this in conjunction with the welfare state, not despite it. People are coming to them for a variety of reasons, but many of them are either working or claiming benefits but are still unable to feed themselves and/or their families. Imagine the chaos that would ensue if there was no money or housing provided by the state and these people were not only hungry but also destitute.

But we don’t have to imagine it. We only have to go back a few decades or so to see exactly what the absence of a welfare state and the reliance on charity did to our society.  Many people lived and died in conditions which are hard to imagine in our (mostly) clean and tidy world. Charities did their best to help, but it was like the famous story of King Canute. They were simply trying to hold back an unstoppable tide of poverty, disease and squalor.

So how would charities fair today, if the welfare state suddenly disappeared? Many people would become destitute, with nowhere to live and little or no money to support themselves. Charities rely on fundraising. Whereas in the time before the welfare state there were a generous number of rich philanthropists, who saw it as their Christian duty to give money and set up schools, orphanages and the like to help the poor; now we have super rich people who are getting ever richer. As this article states:

There are now 447 billionaires [in the world]. According to calculations by an American think-tank, their combined wealth is now worth more than the annual incomes of at least half the world’s population.

Ever since the rise of the right wing parties across the world, and in particular the Thatcher government in this country, we have been encouraged to be selfish and self centred. To view those poorer than us as “scroungers”, people who can’t be bothered to work to earn an honest crust and who are beneath us “hard working families”. Recognise those words in quotation marks? They are being spouted daily by our millionaire political leaders today. The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate. We don’t need to avoid singing that verse of “All Things Bright and Beautiful” any more, because it’s only too true of our unequal and selfish society.

Some might say this is also due to the increasing secularisation of our society, but I don’t believe that religious belief makes a person any more likely to give to charity. I think it depends on a person’s mindset, and we are being conditioned into believing that people aren’t worthy of charity. One of my rich relatives sneers distainfully at charity gifts (the kind where you buy a goat for a family in Africa to provide them with a living, rather than giving your gift recipient something they neither need nor want) and tells us that he’s sure the people we gave his gift to will be very happy (insert sarcasm here). Yet he can be incredibly generous to his family and friends. He just doesn’t see the point of charity.

And I think this malaise and conditioned thinking is why the welfare state is still so vital. As someone famous once said: the measure of a civilised society is how it treats its weakest members.

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