Friday 4 September 2015

Why So Hesitant?

Before we proceed, I will not attempt to bore you with details on reasons why I have not published since April, for excuses I believe are meaningless to the recipient. Instead I will endeavour to regain your audience by covering quite a contentious issue, which I have I tried to approach with both empathy and objectivity.

IF the migrant crisis has shown us one thing, it is that the democratic process does work. I say this because despite the Tories best efforts to ignore the direct humanitarian crisis and focus on “finding a solution to Syria’s problems” (politician speak for washing their hands of a situation) a decision arguably driven by the political cloud looming above. -The European Union referendum. Following the circulation of a petition calling for Britain to accept more migrants (which got more than three times the 100,000 signatures necessary to conduct a Parliamentary debate), the media’s publication of the young boy, Aylan Kurdi’s body being lifted ashore, the millions of migrants arriving on European member states borders and human rights activists lobbying Parliament for long over two years, Cameron has decided to accept more migrants.

We must ask ourselves however why it took such efforts to begin with. Surely in the plight of a humanitarian crisis we assume a moral obligation to assist those fleeing civil war? Well, it appears not.  Of course the situation is not totally devoid of any de jure reality, Article 13(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides: ‘everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to country.’ There is therefore a right to leave one’s own country. A right exercised by the 350,000 Syrian migrants to have been detected by EU Border force agencies between January and August 2015.  

However, as Professor Pecoud’s highlights, there is no corresponding right to enter another country. Rights, he notes do not derive from universal norms like the convention, but rather from the supply and demand mechanism that determines migrants’ value on the labour market.’ To illustrate Antoine Pecoud’s theory is simple. The reluctance to accept more Syrian migrant is largely due to the fact that they do not have the benefit of market forces, which favour migrants endowed with bargaining power such as a skilled profession. The Syrian migrants are not highly skilled professionals seeking employment. They are instead, undertaking treacherous voyages across the Middle East to flee a government which has violated UN Resolutions prohibiting the use of chemical weapons at least 87 times. As Pecoud’s observes, the lack of bargaining power prompts migrants to accept whatever conditions, as these are likely to already constitute an improvement compared to that of their home state. The United Nations Human Rights Commission suggests migrants are often a victim of the three D’s found to be working in dirty, degrading and dangerous jobs. Can we conclude therefore that unfavourable market forces are the reasons behind the government’s unwillingness to accept more migrants?

Even if, migrants are, as Times journalist James Bloodworth writes‘doing what politicians are usually quick to encourage us to do: they are striving for something better; they are being aspirational. The difference between a refugee and the member of the British middle classes is that for the former the stakes are often a matter of life and death.’ The haunting and distressing images published by the media of the many migrants drowning at sea, reaffirm their courage and desperation. However for many, economically sound states such as Germany and Britain are attracting these ‘aspirational migrants’ due to their welfare systems. A notion Bloodworth contests wholeheartedly writing ‘refugees are not coming because Britain’s soft touch welfare system is drawing them here like wasps to a jam jar; they are coming to Europe in search of a decent and secure life that is free from poverty and war.’

Fear may also be attributable to the general reluctance to assist more migrants. Going back to Pecoud's theory, he notes migration is often viewed as a THREAT. Migration is said to jeopardize the social cohesion, employment opportunities, welfare systems and cultural and religious homogeneity. Such fears arguably, are evident if one is to look to the approach taken by Hungary’s nationalist PM Viktor Orbán.  Who was reported saying ‘those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christian, but Muslims... This is an important question because Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity.’ Perhaps, Orbán will do well to take note of Thatcher’s address to the Royal Society ‘No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy- with a full repairing lease.’  

Whatever the solution, it is not to be found in fear, prejudice or any form of discrimination based on religious grounds. Equally, measures should ensure the protection of human rights whilst respecting the values of the host state. A balancing act not easily achieved. 

Friday 10 April 2015

Dementors, Elections and Public Perceptions...

The tube journey can be urm, well… a claustrophobes worst nightmare, a place of awkward exchanges, shoving, a breeding ground for bacteria, contain an amalgamation of strange odours and the time we spend thinking of what it is we will be having for dinner that day. Our thoughts on the tube are not just confined to food. En route home we come into contact with thousands of other commuters, all of whom (bar your travel companion(s) if you have those) are strangers. We do not (in London anyway) make pleasant exchanges with our fellow commuters, or even crack a smile. Instead, based on posture, physical appearance, gestures and body language we make snapshot judgements on what we think a particular commuter is like. In a very short time frame we may have unconsciously decided whether or not we like this particular commuter.

Emily Pronin Professor of Psychology at Stanford University observes, because of the structure of the human visual system, people can devote far less visual attention to themselves and their actions (which they cannot easily see without a mirror) than to others and others’ actions. Unless you are Harry Potter en route Hogwarts being attacked by a dementor and as a result all life is sucked out of you, on the Tube you are prone to observe those around you. Yet, these observations and formulations are not made with a deep understanding of your fellow commuter’s life. Pronin goes further and notes for self-assessments, that information is largely introspective based on looking to internal thoughts and feelings. For others, it is largely extrospective based on looking to external behaviour. Of course, in the context of the tube this is fine. Our fellow commuters are generally forgotten once we finally get home to dinner. The controversy lies in adopting this judgement process in other areas such as our view of politicians, perhaps here we may be swayed by appearance and personality and miss the internal thoughts of any given politician which shape his/her policy and direction. Let’s take one of the many satirised images of leader of the opposition party Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich as an example, and also his most recent appearance at a Gurdwara during a tour of the Midlands. On both occasions he has faced criticism, with regards to the visit to the Gurdwara Ed banned journalists and spectators from taking pictures of his visit. Perhaps this ban could be evidence of well-founded critique since the Gurdwara like all places of worship is not a political battling ground, but a place for all. However, the bacon sandwich incident which Ed has become known for was criticism founded solely on his facial expression. It's judgements such as this, his slurred speech, unflattering mannerism and the comparisons to the animated character Wallace, which make it so easy to disregard him. Since as noted above we judge others based on what we see, but ourselves based on what we think and feel could we be giving the Labour leader a bit of a tough time? Making judgements in this way makes it easy to reaffirm misinformed consensus that Ed knows nothing, Ed is anti-business and Ed’s brother David should have been given the role. Does that mean the democratic election process is as much a personality therefore than that of policy? In short, yes. Yes it bloody well does and Ed is on minus points.
The Obama administration and the 2008 election campaign previously is a shining example of just how to consolidate power in the twenty-first century. Dr Pamela Rutledge explains Obama dominated the social media space because his team got how networks work. The real power of social media is not in the number of posts or Tweets but in user engagement measured by content spreadability. For example, Obama logged twice as many Facebook “Likes” and nearly 20 times as many re-tweets as Romney. With his existing social media base and spreadable content, Obama had a far superior reach. Taking geography into account the literal reach Miliband, Cameron and co need is not on quite the large scale of the never ending presidential election. Therefore, while social media is important as the Obama presidential election illustrates so too are other forms of media.
Psychologists Lagerfeld and Katz found, opinions are not formed through direct information from mass media but through individual interactions with opinions, leaders who were similar in demographics, interests, and socio-economic factors to those they influenced. If one is to look to the election of 1997 where Labour won by a landslide victory of 419 seats to the conservatives 165 many have credited Tony Blair for the win. At the time, as Pippa Norris notes Labour had also suffered from backbench rebellions, visible leadership rivalries, and policy divisions at the apex of government, which are often believed to damage party popularity. The picture resembles that of the conservatives today, with defecting party members joining UKIP and divisions over the EU and immigration policy. Despite these obstacles Labour were victorious, perhaps due to the overwhelming support Tony Blair was able to arouse.
Could the landslide therefore be credited solely to public perception of Tony Blair who was said to have embraced Constitutional reform from the Liberal Democrats, pro-business policies from the Conservatives, and devolution from the nationalists? Whilst a wholehearted yes may be an exaggeration it is clear that personality and public perception count for a lot more than we consciously believe. In making your decision for whom to vote for this election perhaps that is something to take into account. Don’t be swayed by bias, common consensus and mainstream media. Look more to how and why a leader may be advocating such policies.

Tuesday 3 March 2015

Parallel Universe of Politicians

It is a well-known observation that an elephant simply cannot understand the daily struggles of an ant. The difference in size will never allow an elephant to empathise with the ant. The ant is required daily to move swiftly from wall to wall in order to avoid feeling the wrath of a newspaper adapted by its reader to squish the life out of it to ensure its destruction. The elephant faces no such threat. In a similar manner, the ant will never be able to understand fully the struggles of an Asian elephant tamed in captivity and used for wholly unnatural purposes. The example of which appears to me analogous to the state of politics at present.

Put simply according to the definition given by the fountain of all knowledge in the 21 century, ‘Google,’ democracy is ‘a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.’ If you’re a Google sceptic then the definition given by Aristotle in 1995 is also sound. Aristotle notes in a democratic society, ‘the people [demos] are sovereign. . . .(it is) when the masses govern the city with a view to the common interest.’  What we must draw on here is that, in both definitions the people are sovereign.  Either through the medium of direct democracy whereby the whole population governs or indirectly through ‘elected representatives.’ Focusing on the latter in the case of the UK, democracy works by the people electing representatives who share the common interests of the people. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the elected representatives and the people seem to be much like the elephant and the ant. Neither seems to share an understanding of the other’s lives and those that believe they do, seem to be grossly misinformed.  

There has been a surge in the popularity of UKIP which could be a consequence of the party’s anti-immigration rhetoric and the failure of Prime Minister David Cameron’s election promise to cut immigration down to ‘tens of thousands.’ According to YouGov poll the electorate’s main priorities are immigration and the economy with 52 per cent of respondents listing it as a priority. However, many of UKIPs most recent supporters should understand that UKIPS members are, like all the party members, POLITICIANS. They are politicians who appear no different to their Conservative and Labour counter-parts who are much like ants unable to understand the grievance of the elephants.

Recently, I attended a talk by former Conservative MP turned UKIPPER Douglas Carswell, at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in Pall Mall. The event took place at the clubs opulent Princess Marie Louise Room with other UKIP members, politicians, journalists and the odd student in attendance. Once I had eventually snapped out of being bewitched by the enormous chandelier hanging above and the aloof feeling of being in a scene from one of Charlotte Bronte’s novels had left me. It dawned on me how grossly out of touch the speaker and indeed some of the guests were with the rest of society. The grandeur of this elite club and the discussion was a complete parallel to that of the realities of life in Britain today.

Rather ironically, Douglas Carswell spoke of how unrepresentative Parliament was today and advocated re-calling MPs which would allow the people to vote in a by-election whenever an issue such as ‘Cash for Access’ arose and MPs where found to be acting contrary to their code of practice. Whilst this sounds great it is the same spiel Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith has been advocating since 2010, the result of which was an idea MPs rejected by 340 to 166 following a free vote in the Commons. When Carswell was questioned by journalist about his party leader blaming immigrants for causing traffic on the M4, his cheeks flushed red and the embarrassment on his face said more than his response, which was like all good politicians, simply avoiding the direct the question and move swiftly on to a topic more suited to his own agenda.

Thus far, it is no wonder Russell Brand is calling for society to abstain from voting in the 2015 general election altogether, politicians are seriously out of touch with the people. Labour rather patronisingly feel as though pink buses are what female voters want.  While, David Cameron and his cronies have decided to dangle an election carrot in the form of pledging to build 200,000 cut price homes in order to help first time buyers under 40 who are plagued with masses of student debt, extortionate travel fares and increased living expenses. The proposals of which critics argue are incredibly ambitious. -A euphemism for a load of sh*t.  

Monday 12 January 2015

“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”. - Voltaire

A sign of solidarity and support for the illustrators at Charlie Hebdo

The world, well most of it I hope, have woken up to the debate on freedom of expression sparked by heinous terror attacks in Paris which have left 17 dead and the rest of the western worlds security services on high alert.

Amongst the victims were 12 incredibly brave illustrators from Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine based in Paris, well known for its bold and controversial publications. Utilising satire Charlie Hebdo have ridiculed the Catholic Church, Judaism, Islam, and a host of politicians; in 2011 the magazine published an illustration depicting the Muslim prophet Mohammed with the caption ‘100 lashes if you are not dying of laughter’ attached to it provoking outrage and leading to the magazines headquarters being bombed by Islamist extremists. Despite the bombing Charlie Hebdo’s illustrators were left undeterred, Stephane Charbonnier the magazine’s editor-in-chief who died in the Paris terror attacks said simply ‘we won’t let it get to us.’ Later in 2012 speaking at time of heightened tensions between Islamist extremists Charbonnier was reported saying ‘the accusation that we are pouring oil on the flames in the current situation really gets on my nerves... a cartoon never killed anyone.’
German Chancellor, Anegla Merkel

Angela Merkel held the incidents in Paris ‘an attack on freedom of expression and the press – a key component of our free democratic culture- which cannot be justified.’ One is inclined to agree with Merkel; this absolutely is an attack on a right, we as a continent, hold so dearly. The illustrators at Charlie Hebdo, despite the risks and threats they continued to receive, courageously exercised their right of freedom of expression by publishing incredibly controversial illustrations when many others, were simply too scared to do so. Whether it is fear for one’s own life which prevents them from being openly critical or fear of backlash from others, it seems the nonchalance; nerve the French illustrator possessed is not evident in much of society today. Yet, societies concerns regarding freedom of expression seem to be more evident now following the death of the illustrators, than ever before given the importance and scale of the debate. If we didn’t care, we simply would not discuss it.

Freedom of expression according to Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights is a qualified right.  It requires a balance to be established between the rights of the individual and the needs of the wider community and state interest. The question arises whether one should do away with political satire and consequently freedom of expression to avoid antagonising the complex issue of terrorism? Thereby avoiding casualties? Whilst I see the merits in taking such a stance I’m of the opinion that the answer is a resounding NO.

Satire, which is the form used by the illustrators at Charlie Hebdo, is the use of humour, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to expose and criticise people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues. It dates back to 500BC Athenian dramas, which were played out during intervals to relieve the seriousness of tragic plays. The pieces were aimed specifically at opposing and parodying the tragedy. Many condemn absolute freedom of expression, former French President Jacques Chirac takes the view that ‘anything that can hurt the convictions of someone else, in particular religious convictions, should be avoided.’ Opponents see satire and the publications of Charlie Hebdo as meaningless, scapegoating, bullying and stereotyping. As they say it is offensive and therefore, should be subject to limitations. However, the objective of satire is to allow people to engage in a contentious issue through laughter, to ‘lighten the situation up’ as it were which I am all for. Insecurities in the varying facets of society are always going to be prevalent, so why not use laughter and a light-hearted tone to approach what would otherwise being an incredibly awkward conversation.

While, the Catholic Church, Muslims, Jews and  those who have found themselves the subject of satire may strongly disagree and brand satirical publications as mere blasphemy. Guardian journalist Henry Porter, argues that it is ‘really important that we understand the difference between blasphemy and satire, there is a line to draw there not offending people just for the sake of it... we should regard ourselves as being responsible.’ It is easy for one to accept this view, but where does one draw the distinction between what is light-hearted satire and what is blasphemy? By imposing limitations on freedom of expression might society not become artificially tolerant, passive aggressively accepting one another’s views in order to avoid risking offence and thus, creating a false sense of harmony?

University College London Professor John Mullan notes, great satire wouldn’t get written if there wasn’t something wrong to write about. In the context of the French terror attack, whether one agrees or not with the publications of Charlie Hebdo, it is clear, that the illustrators felt passionate about their profession, so much so that they were willing to risk  their lives.  Although as Guardian Cartoonist Martin Rowson articulates ‘we (satirical cartoonists) aren’t engaged in constructive debates, that is not what we do, you don’t have constructive debates by drawing stupid cartoons of the prime minister with a big nose... that is an essential, foul mouthed part of the political process.’ Whether satirical publications engage in constructive debate or not, we cannot prevent a person from expressing their view simply because we disagree. If it were the case, one would have to question the democratic society we live in, which would be one where everyone is taught to think and feel the same things. Ultimately, it is only the person voicing the views who can take responsibility for them, and they should always have the right to do so. What’s more, one should not take offence when an opinion is expressed contrary to their belief, because it is neither fact nor truth. Despite Satirist seeming to tar everyone with the same brush, a genuine sense of security in ones beliefs should mean you are undeterred by criticism and willing to engage in public debate regardless.

In a diverse society, one can only hope to create cohesion through understanding, tolerance and frank discussion on matters of genuine concern. Satire paves the way to do this, by either making people laugh about a subject they would otherwise consider taboo or by prompting them to engage in constructive debate.