What kind of internet do we want?

The following post was inspired by a debate at Mumsnet BlogFest 2013


As we communicate more and more online, abuse or ‘trolling’ seems to get more common and more worrying.  A campaign to have a woman included alongside notable men on the new bank notes resulted in women receiving horrific abuse including death and rape threats. Opposing the inclusion of Jane Austen on the £10 note is fair enough, threatening to kill someone because they suggested it is irrational and frankly scary. It is difficult to imagine why anyone feels the need to victimize another person through a computer in the first place, but should we try to control how social media and forums are used?

Free speech is an important part of democracy but the line between the right to voice opinion, no matter how controversial, and abuse isn’t always definite. Threatening physical harm is much too far but they grey seeps in when one person’s idea of robust debate is another’s intimidation. The speed of communication has also given everybody the ability to press send just as the red mist descends or before the brain is fully engaged. Speech can’t be confined to carefully considered, restrained responses or there is no freedom, nor can people be sanctioned every time another feels offended.  Our comments appear on a screen without any context. Whether something is sarcastic, aggressive or teasing is wide open to interpretation, perhaps of those we have never met or even know who they are.

So is the opportunity for anonymity to blame for online abuse? A good analogy might be a normally reasonable friend who gets drunk and starts being racially abusive. Drunken bigotry is the result of losing inhibitions, not altered reasoning. They were always racist, but previously chose not to voice their opinions because society considers it morally repugnant. Likewise people don’t just troll others online because they are anonymous. Anonymity simply allows them to spout bile without having to worry about any consequences. Conversely there are very good reasons for wanting to be anonymous online, from campaigning again oppression to seeking advice without airing your dirty washing in public. Forcing people to be identifiable online would be detrimental to free speech, but is a name enough identity? I suspect many people would not want to be charted around the internet by personal details for very legitimate reasons, far removed from wanting to be abusive.

An important side note here is that labelling trolls as mentally ill, in particular having personality disorders seems to be a common feature but armchair psychology helps no-one. This is incredibly unfair and discriminatory to the people who struggle with mental health difficulties and the stigma that is still attached to them. Many people with mental health problems don’t hurt anyone except themselves, but struggle to get the help they need because of attitudes like this. On the other hand some people are just cruel; blaming their behaviour on illness outside their control absolves them from part of a responsibility very much theirs to shoulder.

There have always been arseholes in the world. Online though they are more visible and able to get a kick out of bullying others in front of an audience – whether that audience shares their view or is outraged; trolling provokes a response. Having an audience to play up to is perhaps responsible for the escalation of abuse and noticeable competition to be the most hurtful. That insults are public is inherent in social media, so aside from banning persistent offenders, or trying to regulate on a case by case basis it is difficult devise a way to prevent bullying or offensive behaviour using rules or the law.

As the world around us changes and people begin to occupy new niches, rules and expectations develop to keep pace. The internet has raced through our lives, joined everything together and made us more contactable.  Technical advancement has gone before the practicalities, just because we can do something doesn’t say much on whether and how we should. Is there enough debate on how the internet is used and regulated?  I don’t think so. It’s there but it’s happening in big glass buildings and government offices. Most homes have a computer – they are in libraries and schools – we all use the internet so surely it shouldn’t be left to a select few to decide how far is too far and what should be done about it.

That some people choose to use the internet to harass and threaten others is far from being a grey area; this is a crime and needs to be better dealt with by the police and individual websites. Look around at some of the things that are said on social media sites, would they be tolerated in the pub? Perhaps we don’t respond in the same way as to physical threats or offence because it’s not as tangible or we just aren’t used to it. Constantly phoning someone who doesn’t want to speak to you is instantly recognisable as harassment but the connection to bombarding someone online doesn’t always seem to be made. Online stalking became more widely covered because it often escalates into physical stalking – but surely it doesn’t have to be physical to be scary.

Where people seek to cause offence and hurt, without committing a crime it is more difficult to see how to prevent it. However the harm, attrition of confidence and self-worth it causes are just as pernicious. It may be a bit fuzzy and difficult to prevent, but how many children have to die as a result of bullies being able to get at them where they should feel safe before someone decides to try to focus the lens? The answer is predominantly education; our children need to be better online citizens than we have been. To understand that the online and the physical are tightly bound together and bullying a faceless person across the ether has frighteningly real consequences. A big part of using the internet in a better way is not being intimidated by it. Anyone that has watched a small child with a smart phone will know that technology is somehow intuitive to children. Adults need to learn too. When technology isn’t scary and the consequences of actions online are understood we will be in a much better position to shape the internet in time with making it faster and shinier – then the ‘wild west’ will be tamed


Finding Creativity

One day I’d like to be a writer, to earn a wage doing something that I love. The main problem with this is that I’m not certain my ability to write is entirely under my control. Since I began blogging, posts have wandered into my head, fully formed and a little bit fuzzy around the edges. Writing them down brings them into focus, but really they create themselves. The idea of relying on this ‘black box’ process in the face of a proper job with deadlines doesn’t fill me with confidence.

I was thinking about this when I couldn’t sleep last night, trying to work out how to discipline the unruly workings of my brain. Yesterday whilst volunteering, I was asked if I’d like to write another post about the homeless shelter. I haven’t written a thing for weeks and got that sinking feeling, I tried to forget about it and enjoy the evening in the shelter. I shouldn’t have worried – going to the shelter never fails to wake my writing brain up.

I think it is probably because of the diversity amongst the many guests and volunteers and everyone’s enthusiasm for having a chat at the end of the day. With such a variety of experiences and backgrounds you always learn something new or get a new perspective on something. It also reminds me how much more time we spend in front of the TV or computer these days instead of talking to each other – and what a shame that is.

I sat talking to a guest about lifestyle choices and the difference between ‘want’ and ‘need’. After working all day I would normally say I needed my gadgets to relax. Sat at a table with friends though, I have everything I could possibly want to enjoy an evening, even without battery power. Eventually we started talking about the difference the project had made to guests, I expected them to say that having a meal and a bed to sleep in was most important – but that wasn’t it. Someone said he’d got meetings lined up, to move on from the shelter, he looked thrilled when he told me how many emails he’d got from people and agencies that were able to help him. I hadn’t really thought that not being able to see how to improve the future could be worse than the cold or being hungry. Over the years, watching guests do courses to improve their English or allow them to find work has made me realize that not only is a bed just the beginning but that once you give someone an opportunity to improve things, their eagerness comes back and the whole situation is improved.

I decided to sit the chess match out this time. Having downloaded the game on my phone to practice for a rematch, I’ve become a bit too reliant on the ‘hint’ function to play on a board! I am always pleasantly surprised when guests and volunteers remember me as I don’t help out on a very regular basis. That said I suppose I remember the people I talk to and look for them as soon as I arrive.

The shelter is ending for this year very soon. I have to say I will miss it and my friends, (both volunteers and guests) who have made every shift interesting and an absolute pleasure.  I wish everybody all the best for the summer and look forward to seeing new faces during the 2013/14 shelter season.

Social Justice – too expensive for a recession?

This week the Conservatives are on a(nother) mission to rebrand. Far from being the party that put more children into poverty and reneged on the promise of deficit reduction, they see themselves as the only option for restoring the country to greatness. Arguing that Labours opposition to the welfare cuts is patronising people, giving them benefits removes their incentive and keeps them in the poverty trap. Well I would like to argue that a society should be judged on the way it treats its vulnerable; poor, unemployed, disabled children and animals. Perhaps an even better measure is the way they are treated in times of hardship.

The simple fact is that none of them are able to protest, there are no expensive lawyers and embarrassing protests – they are too concerned with keeping their heads above water. The other thing they have in common is that they weren’t taking the financial risks that brought the whole recession about. Yet who is paying for it?

There was the fitness to work testing designed to get people off incapacity benefits and cut the welfare bill. The DWP seems convinced that a significant proportion of its disability benefit claimants are to be found on golf courses or doing a spot of cash in hand labouring, limp or dodgy back forgotten. Why not re-assess all claimants; if they are genuine they have nothing to worry about. Except if your situation and needs cannot be understood by someone using a tick box form with very little time to spare. The mentally ill seem to come out of the system particularly badly, how do you prove that everything is falling apart when there are no outward signs?

Young people are often charged with not conforming to society’s ideals of behaviour and responsibility. Would that be the same society that fails to give many a childhood and an education on which to build a successful life? Cutting the welfare bill may look good on paper and in soundbites, but living it, especially as a child, looks completely different. It’s not even one thing is it? More children are forced into poverty as their parents lose jobs and benefits, many of the programs aimed at getting more young people into higher or further education were also scrapped as part of austerity, tuition fees were trebled and youth unemployment is far too high. With the apathy and resentment of a lull floating around, can we expect to be living some kind of dystopian post-apocalyptic scenario in 10 years? Probably not.

Human beings are tenacious and constantly find ways to survive and thrive even when the odds are against them. The critical misunderstanding of the Tories is that welfare isn’t a trap, it’s a start. No-one lives comfortably enough on benefits to want to stay there but its solid ground to build on and it protects the weak and vulnerable. Would you like to start with the bare essentials or in some kind of revived workhouse? The system does need changing in a sympathetic way to give people the best opportunities and prevent fraudulent claims. Writing a whole swathe of the population of as ‘scroungers’ at a time when unemployment is high, the economy stalled and more people suffering depression is as counter-productive as it is inhumane. In the Tory vision the hard-working are rewarded and the lazy can whistle, but money and affluence beget money and affluence. The children placed into poverty by the coalition are disadvantaged on so many levels but still judged against their wealthier peers. Those who are disabled are judged against their able counterparts, without any support being given. Where is the equality and justice in that?

Powerful women

Having read the Radio 4 Women’s Hour ‘Power List’, a list of 100 most influential women in Britain, I must confess I wasn’t sure who a good few of them were. It reminded me of a debate I heard in school entitled ‘Are men better than women?’ The boys used illustrious examples as diverse as Pythagoras, Caesar, Shakespeare, Mozart and Jesus, claiming that there are no female equivalents. The counter-argument was that women have never been allowed to fulfil their potential but as mothers have played a key role in male success. I don’t disagree with this but I think it sells half the population woefully short. Historically women have enjoyed power, influence and success – they just learnt to wield it in a uniquely feminine way.

Personally my favourite period of history is the Tudor era; I love the intrigue and complexity. My first example of an influential woman is Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII. On the surface she is a pawn, used by her family to gain power and influence and then left to be executed when she failed to produce a male heir. It’s harly the stuff of feminist legend and whilst this simple description is true it reduces Anne Boleyn to being a helpless passenger. The king pursued her for 7 years, during which time she encouraged him whilst refusing to become his mistress – something that would have taken intelligence wit and will. It is also worth noting that the Boleyn family were Protestants and for all Henry VIII needed a divorce he was not. Anne Boleyn carefully drip fed Henry VIII the views of ‘heretical’ thinkers striving to reform the church, successfully persuading him of their arguments that he as monarch was God’s chosen authority in his realm as he became more disallusioned with Cardinal Wolsey and the Catholic Church. There can be no doubt that Anne herself played a fundamental yet discreet role in the creation of the Church of England and other decisions during her relationship with the King. It is telling that her arrest and trial were orchestrated so that she was never given the chance to personally persuade Henry VIII of her innocence.

Another female ‘victim’ of the Tudor dynasty was Lady Jane Grey, known as the 9 day queen. Named as Edward VI’s successor to prevent the Catholic Mary ascending the throne, she was overthrown 9 days later and subsequently executed. Perhaps lesser known is the fact that despite being executed at 16 years of age, she spoke many languages and was considered one of the most learned women of her day. At the time even basic education was considered wasted on a woman, who would simply use it to write love letters, Jane put her education to good use and wrote to other leading scholars, becoming very much admired for her work.

In modern history the work of women during the Second World War is also often overlooked. They took over physically demanding agricultural jobs, worked in factories and showed immense courage in patrolling rooftops to put out incendiary bombs.  It took until 2009 for the Women’s Land Army to be formally recognised for their contribution during both world wars.

Looking back through history and at society today there are countless examples of influential women. Think Eleanor Roosevelt, Joan of Arc, Marie Curie, Florence Nightingale, Rosalind Franklin and Rosa Parks. It is perhaps hard to see them at first glance but they make and have made significant contributions to society as a whole and particularly for women. It is important that future generations are aware of this so that the tradition can be enriched and made more apparent.

Anonymity for ALLEGED rapists

It’s easy to forget that society has made real progress in terms of sexual crimes – we have. Not the ‘problem solved – lets go home’ kind of progress but nonetheless it’s there. The statistics for reporting and conviction rates are scrutinized and the attitude that victims are somehow responsible for the crime because of what they were wearing or how much they’d had to drink is being eroded.

Understanding of ‘rape’ is being re-moulded. It’s easy to see the stranger in a dark alley as a criminal but most rapes don’t happen there – they happen in comfortable bedrooms, often perpetrated by a person who is trusted.  In that setting grey starts to seep into the picture because everything hangs on consent, a legal act becomes illegal because of a participants viewpoint not because of a particular action. It isn’t that long since rape in marriage was recognised, yet the idea that getting married entitled someone to have sex with you with our without your consent is unthinkable today.  The idea of consent is amorphous, can you withdraw consent during the act? Where is the line between persuasion and compulsion? Is that the same for everyone? Ultimately it comes down to how a person feels and if anyone feels pressured to have sex they have been raped. How does the legal system cope with that though?

There is a special type of vilification reserved for sex attackers, rightly so because their crime is to attack the centre of a person, to make them feel vulnerable in their own skin. Rapists deserve to be treated like scum – to lose their jobs and friends, to become pariahs.  That is people (men can be raped too) who have been tried and found guilty ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ of the crime they were accused of, not simply those accused.

The central pillar of British justice may be ‘innocent until proven guilty’, but put someone in front of a rolling news camera with a banner proclaiming their crimes splashed across the screen and that word ‘alleged’ disappears and ‘mud sticks’ because after all ‘there’s no smoke without fire’. Remember Christopher Jeffries? The man implicated in a murder, who had done nothing except perhaps be a little eccentric who was left to face the full roar of a trial by media. In the age of 24 hour news, no-one is innocent until proven guilty.

The idea that by advocating anonymity for the accused as well as the victim is somehow disbelieving the victim or wrongly shielding the accused is a red herring.  Has anyone stopped to think that being confronted by (often lurid) stories of your rape may not be particularly helpful for victims either? They might not be explicitly named but I’m sure aside from the constant reminder, any speculation that they are making spurious allegations is deeply painful. Should the alleged rapist be acquitted he is then able to claim that his ‘victim’ is a liar, without any fear of contradiction from his anonymous accuser. Particularly in rape cases where it is often the word of one person against another it seems unfair that just because a crime couldn’t be proven, the accused is automatically held to have been the victim of a malicious allegation.

Another argument for the publicity surrounding rape accusations is that it encourages other victims to come forward, but that is backward. If more were done to support victims in reporting sex crimes, and investigations were more robust, the publicity wouldn’t be needed.  The number of victims that have come forward in the Jimmy Saville case could be cited as an example of the power of publicity, but I’d like to argue the reverse. The trouble is that his crimes were an open secret amongst some of his colleagues, yet nothing was done to stop him.  It shouldn’t have taken a documentary, just one person accusing him and it should have been investigated. Perhaps the idea of prosecuting a celebrity might not have been so daunting under the cloak of anonymity.

Might we in fact reach a situation where the police are deterred from investigating an allegation because of the damage done to a person’s reputation without any real hope of conviction? Often there’s no hard evidence of a crime but that shouldn’t stop victims from reporting it and expecting it to be taken seriously. There has to be a balance between the rights of the victim and the accused. Wouldn’t the interests of all parties be better served if both parties were anonymous until a verdict had been reached? In the event of a conviction by all means name and shame however you like.



What’s in a name?

This week parliament voted in favour of allowing homosexual couples to marry, although it is noteworthy that more than half of the Conservative MPs voted against the proposal. If you missed it the segment of the BBC’s Question Time that covered this subject is well worth a watch – both for the points raised and the strength of feeling in the debate.

Many of the MPs opposed to the bill argue that marriage is by definition between a man and a woman and they are simply defending one of our oldest traditions. The problem is that traditions and moral beliefs evolve in society. The royal succession laws have been altered to take no account of gender in primogeniture – is that not an old tradition? In the 17th century it was widely believed that animals were incapable of thought or feeling and their welfare should be given no consideration. The cries of dogs unfortunate enough to become subjects for live dissection were explained as mechanical reactions. Society moved on so it is no longer acceptable to inflict pain on animals for sport. The ‘tradition’ argument doesn’t really hold water, instead it begins to look like a cover story for opinions that people dare not publicly voice for fear of being accused of bigotry.

The other argument is that the introduction of civil partnerships gave same-sex couples the same legal rights as heterosexual couples and that should have been the end of it. On the face of it, it does seem reasonable to argue that equality has been achieved, but are civil partnerships a rose by another name or a ruse? I would argue for the latter because whilst it’s reassuring to know that you can see your partner if they are in hospital and have tax breaks, that’s not the point. I don’t have any personal experience here but I hope that’s not the first thing you think of when making a lifetime commitment to someone! Marriage has a status of being a lifetime commitment to the person you love, it has gravity and a sense of enduring that civil partnerships just haven’t established yet. It means that heterosexual marriages are seen as somehow ‘better’ than homosexual partnerships, which isn’t equal at all.  It is interesting that the image of marriage as a central pillar of society remains, even amongst the high divorce rates and decisions not to get married.

Then there is the question of people wanting to include their faith in a ceremony to formalize their relationship. I think religion is a very personal thing and religious freedom is as important to protect as sexual freedom, for that reason no-one should be forced to marry a couple if it is not in accordance with their beliefs. I don’t understand why religious groups feel the need to make unilateral decisions for their clergy; surely if rejection of homosexuality is so central to a faith each member can make that decision for themselves? As is usually the case everyone interprets religion differently and just as it’s possible to be gay and religious, it’s possible to be a minister and believe that all relationships between consenting adults are equally worth celebrating.

I don’t consider myself religious (although I do dabble occasionally) but in my head I imagine getting married in a church, precisely because to me that is how you make a promise to someone ‘til death do us part’. Now I use the Lord’s name in my daily life in a host of imaginative ways that don’t just break one of the 10 commandments but shatter it, I’m sure I do other things I shouldn’t as well. I would respect anyone’s decision not to let me get married in their church because I’m happy with my morals and would respect theirs.

Ultimately the people you love and the way you choose to show that love is largely personal and private but surely in 2013 we can give people choice and freedom to make their own decisions without worrying that the great big pillar of marriage will fall and be lost.

Relationships, sex and consequences

A generation ago the rules of engagement for sexual relationships outside marriage were simple for young women to understand. Don’t do it – however hard a man tries to get in your pants, the consequences could be dire. Since then society has become much more permissive and those stiff rules bent and twisted.

I’m not advocating a return to stigmatization for unmarried mothers and their children. Rather pointing out that the loss of societal guidance puts young women in a difficult situation. Whereas remaining a virgin until marriage was once expected it is now seen as evidence of frigidity, and the peer pressure heaped on girls (and it must be said boys) to lose their virginity is huge. For females this is countermanded by the need not to appear promiscuous and be labelled a slut.

I agree that being able to have sex when you are young is a step forward. After all would you buy a pair of shoes without trying them on first? So why marry someone without test driving and important part of your relationship? It is interesting that even today all the words we know for ‘promiscuity’ are female – slut, whore, slag etc. The moral responsibility for casual sex is still seen as a female issue even when the risk of pregnancy is very low.

Legally no-one should have sex before the age of sixteen, one of the practical problems with this is that people mature at different rates. The primary objective of the law must be to protect the vulnerable and so it’s hardly surprising that some people choose to have sex before then. Schoolchildren are now taught about sex from an increasingly early age, but is it working?

My problem is that we have adapted to younger people having a sex life by throwing condoms at them and bribing them to have STI tests. Whilst this is necessary to keep pregnancy and STI rates down it masks other important issues. Being physically ready for sex and emotionally are two very different things. Are young people aware of what a healthy emotional relationship looks like? Is it clear what is acceptable behaviour in a relationship?   When I was 14 I could put a condom on a banana with my eyes shut, reel off a list of STIs and their treatments and I understood my options for contraception. There was no way I could have got pregnant because I knew the rules of the game.

Well actually I disagree. I didn’t get pregnant because I wasn’t having sex but nothing I had been taught in any way prepared me for the emotional gauntlet of an adult relationship. Yes I could put a condom on but say I’d had a boyfriend who forgot condoms and threatened me if I refused sex, would I have had the courage and confidence to say no? I’d like to think so but that’s easy 9 years on with the benefit of experience. How do you decide if your intended partner loves you or is using you for sex? If you sleep with someone straight away will he think you are easy and leave you?

The government advertisements showing a girl being forced to have sex against her will go some way to addressing the issue of pressure in relationships but I wonder how many young women recoil when watching them, remembering past mistakes. Knowing the birds and the bees is useless in that situation. Abusive relationships tend not to start with a beating, it is slow burning manipulation and attrition that is very hard to spot when you are in the middle of it all.

The balance in a relationship between maintaining a strong identity and self-confidence as well as sharing part of yourself is hard at the best of times. Doing it with a developing sense of self, raging hormones and need to fit in and be normal is surely no mean feat. Considering abusive relationships may be the extreme, but where exactly IS the line between acceptable persuasion and coercion?

The whole point of feminism was to give women a choice, to choose you have to be empowered but knowledge about emotional wellbeing and the right to basic respect have got lost somewhere in amongst the biology. Making an informed decision to have sex, be it casual or in long-term relationship is not a matter for societal comment, however it is an uncomfortable fact that some in that society judge their self-worth by their attractiveness to someone else.  Perhaps its time to offer confidential counselling and advice alongside that variety pack of condoms?