The link between street harassment and bullying

Indigo Jo Blogs - 14 March, 2021 - 23:22
 "On the way home I want to feel free, not brave".Flowers left at the Clapham Common bandstand in memory of Sarah Everard. (Photo: Rosianna Rojas)

Last week, in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard in London, for which a police officer has been charged and is in custody, a lot of women have been sharing stories about being harassed and threatened in public as adults and children and by adults they trusted as children, which cover the spectrum from annoying to seriously threatening. There have been a lot of lists such as this one, shared by a friend on Facebook, of “how men can help”, such things as not sitting too close to a woman on public transport or walking near her on the streets at night but also “calling out” one’s friends when they use sexist language or make unwanted approaches to women, which despite the article’s claims are nothing new. Some of the claims are quite reasonable while some are less so, seemingly based on an assumption that men have power over each other that we really do not. There has also been some hand-wringing over how boys are brought up or educated, and while I do believe the problem lies partly here, how boys regard or treat girls and women is only part of the problem.

I believe that harassment in general should be something we do not tolerate as a society and that it would be tolerated a lot less if it were dealt with firmly in school. When children complain of harassment by others — usually in the form of teasing or taunting that is persistent — they are often told to “just ignore it” and that adults will not always be there to “fight their battles for them”. Bullies see this and know that the child they are victimising will not be protected if they carry on. I would draw a distinction between the odd unkind remark and harassment that is in the child’s face, that stops them doing what they are doing such as reading or playing or making something and forces them to listen to taunting about their appearance, way of speaking, some slur on their family or race or something else. Teachers and parents will often tell them that if they ignore it, it will go away; my experience is that determined bullies will escalate to physical goading and then assaults if their victim does ignore it. Feminists often decry “victim blaming” in which (they allege) advice to women to avoid risky situations so as not to get raped implies that the responsibility lies with women rather than the men who rape; responses to bullying often explicitly blame the victim for being ‘mouthy’, holding themselves the wrong way, for getting upset, or not being tough enough. Teachers will sometimes say that if everyone is picking on one person, there must be something wrong with them, not the others.

Bullying carries on beyond the school gates and anyone seen as vulnerable could be a target. Disabled people, especially those with learning disabilities, are a common target and when they complain to the police, it has been known for them also to be told, “just ignore them”. This also does not always confine itself to merely annoying behaviour; it can escalate to threats of violence, damage to property, actual violence or murder. Our media and politicians also feed the climate of hostility by circulating stories that suggest that disabled people claim benefits they are not entitled to, are a drain on the public purse or exaggerate their condition; even when people are quite entitled to the funds and need it to maintain their independence and quality of life, the stories feed envy and resentment at someone getting “something for nothing” at their expense, when if they needed it, they would also be entitled.

As for the demand for men to “stand up” when women around them are being harassed in public, if a man did this and it led to a fight, he might be prosecuted if the law deemed the level of force used to be greater than reasonable, which means whatever is strictly necessary to prevent a crime being committed, not to teach the aggressor a lesson or make sure it doesn’t happen again. There is a story in a book called Yob Nation by Francis Gilbert of a man who saw a group of youths charging down a public street knocking people, including some elderly and disabled people, over. When they got to him, he made sure that the person who approached him was knocked down, and went on his way. He was subsequently summonsed to court, convicted of assault, bound over and as a result of the conviction, lost his job. When he asked what he should do if he saw such a thing happening again, they told him to walk on by. So while it may be some people’s instinct to intervene if people are being harassed, it may actually be illegal. Similarly, teachers’ advice to children being bullied to hit back at bullies could also be setting them up for trouble with the law.

In short, we simply do not have a culture in which people are seen to have a right to go about their business without being harassed, obstructed or threatened; it is a right in theory, but society does not deliver it wherever it would require effort or expense. We do not teach children that it is not OK to bully others; if we do, it is only deemed to be bullying when it involves stereotypical physical assaults rather than harassment which affects someone’s life and their ability to study and go about their business. They must be taught not just by words but by action: the bully punished and the victim protected. I accept that people cannot be protected from unkind words and that people cannot expect others to tiptoe around their sensitivities, but there is a big difference between the odd nasty word and repeated harassment that will not stop unless the victim gives their tormentors the reaction they are looking for. It is no wonder that children who bully and are given licence to do so grow into adults who harass others in the streets — men who harass women, men and women who harass disabled people, those who look or sound odd, members of ethnic minorities, newcomers, refugees. Ending street harassment of women is important but the issue does not exist in isolation.

(I wrote an earlier blog post on these two issues when it came up on local radio in London in 2012.)

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Burning your child’s past

Indigo Jo Blogs - 10 March, 2021 - 09:53
A metal fire grate with embers inside.

Last night I saw a thread on Twitter from an individual called “Autismomum” in which she talked of burning the documents about her child’s school life in case they were discovered by the child when an adult and it upset them. Here’s the thread:

1/ Imagine this. You’re in a job you love, have a partner and drive. You have lots of friends and and are well respected in the workplace because being autistic is an asset, you are passionate and focused. One day you clear out your parents loft and you find a very large box..

2/ You look inside and find a heap of school documents about yourself. You discover at primary age you were frequently excluded. The documents clearly show nothing was done to help you. You were rejected, restrained and forced into a room where adults held the door.

3/ No, no, no. You will not discover that box when you are older, for I have put the past behind us. I love you. (Accompanied by the picture above of a fire grate with a lot of embers inside.)

I was a “special needs” child who was in a number of special units in primary school and then a ‘special’ boarding school as a teenager and my parents kept a big stack of letters and other documents about my school history which they didn’t burn and which I did read later and which didn’t tell me any traumatising details which I did not already remember. If a child was restrained, locked in rooms or otherwise physically abused, it is unlikely that they will need a file to ‘unlock’ memories when they are an adult. They will already remember.

What this file will do is help them understand decisions that were made about their lives that they may remember only one side of. It may be useful to them or their lawyers if they decide to seek compensation or may be useful for anyone else seeking to document abuses (or educational practices in general). If they believe as an adult that they had been betrayed by those supposed to help or care for them as a child, it will not help if they find that all documents relating to it have been burned, and they might not believe you if you said you did it because you thought it best for them.

I’m not normally one to join in attacks on “autism moms” as I know quite a few (some of them also autistic) but this is exactly the behaviour that gives them a bad name. If your child is capable of understanding what is in these documents, they have a right to read them and a right to know what is in them; if they are not, you may need them to secure things they need. Don’t burn their past; it’s their life as much as it is yours.

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The Queen’s gardens

Indigo Jo Blogs - 4 March, 2021 - 22:49
A 19th century map showing the area around Buckingham Palace, including the Palace Gardens, Green Park and St James's Park.Green Park and St. James’s Park, 1833 (Buckingham Palace Gardens shown as The Palace Gardens)

This past week it’s been suggested by the writers Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (or Alibi-Brain as she’s known in these parts) and Simon Jenkins (in the Guardian) that the Queen should make some of her vast gardens open to the public. Previous dynasties bequeathed to the nation the huge royal parks of London such as Richmond Park, Hyde Park and Epping Forest but “alas the Windsors seem incapable of such gestures”. She complains that her 15 local parks “are knackered and overcrowded” and that other quiet spots fill up just as she discovers them. Royals and aristocrats, she complains, own 1.5 million acres and offshore companies also own a number of desirable properties. “The Queen has urged Britons to think of others during this pandemic. She should lead by example by opening up her vast, beautiful, arboreal treasures. That won’t happen,” she says.

I’m not sure where Alibi-Brain lives but it can’t be very close to Buckingham Palace, otherwise she would know that Buckingham Palace Gardens would not add very much space even if it were opened to the public. It’s a fair bit of land and would make a good size public park if there weren’t already vast tracts of public parkland in the area: it’s about two-thirds the size of Green Park which lies across Constitution Hill and about half the size of St James’s Park, which is the other side of the palace. It’s just across Hyde Park Corner from Hyde Park, which together with neighbouring Kensington Gardens dwarfs all three combined. All are heavily used by tourists as well as by locals and by workers on their lunch break, but as commuting has been somewhat reduced by the lockdown, locals have the parks to themselves. Buckingham Palace Gardens is the nearest of that group of parks to the residential area south of Victoria, but Hyde Park is not too far to walk and people living there may also have access to Ranelagh Gardens and Battersea Park to the south.

It’s true that the royal family owns a lot of land, but much of that is tenanted and farmed; some of it is people’s homes. There are vast parks open to the public at most of the royal palaces such as Sandringham in Norfolk and Windsor, outside London; the palaces themselves and some of their gardens are also open to visitors, and in Scotland there is “right to roam” legislation which applies to royal estates, including Balmoral. Not everywhere in the country has a royal house nearby, of course. Opening up Buckingham Palace Gardens or other royal private garden won’t help people who live a long way away from them. What might be more useful is to open some of these gardens to people who are shielding and need fresh air but cannot use public parks because of their condition. But this too would not help people who live far away from the site. A local park in any given area could also be set aside for this purpose (many areas have several parks).

I am no great fan of the royal family, especially given the treatment of the Sussexes (though the media is as much to blame for this) and the relative indulgence of Prince Andrew. They are obscenely wealthy and are known to have interfered in legislation when it affects their financial interests, as recently reported. However, the idea that they are sitting on huge amounts of land like dogs in the manger while people remain cooped up in their homes or condemned to wander in overcrowded bits of parkland is nonsense; there are vast amounts of open space in almost every part of London and in other cities and towns across the country. These include royal parks (in central and south-west London), municipal parks and privately-owned parks open to the public that are owned by organisations like the National Trust. Their private gardens are bigger than most people’s, but a fraction of the size of the country’s public parks.

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Reasons reasons: why the Tube never reached Croydon

Indigo Jo Blogs - 3 March, 2021 - 20:16
East Croydon station

This morning I watched a video on YouTube about a plan to build an Underground line that would link King’s Cross and Victoria stations, major London rail terminals serving the north-east and south respectively (and the neighbouring suburbs), which would have ran through both Finsbury Park in north London and Croydon to the south. A version of the line was eventually built as the Victoria Line, opened in the 1960s, which runs from Brixton to Walthamstow and takes a shorter route than originally planned between Victoria and King’s Cross. It never reached Croydon, though, and someone in the comments claimed it was “absolutely scandalous that Croydon has no tube stations”. As someone who grew up in Croydon, I explained why this was, and why it’s really no scandal and no great cause of discontent locally. He dismissed my explanation as “excuses excuses”.

Well, they’re not just excuses. South London doesn’t have many Tube lines, it’s true; the Northern line stretches all the way out to Morden along the A3 and A24, the District Line goes down to Wimbledon on a surface-level track acquired from British Rail in the 1990s and that’s it (there was the East London line which served New Cross, but that’s been integrated into the Overground and that now does reach Croydon). What south London has is lots of suburban overland railways and they criss-cross the area, making it possible to get between most places by rail without making huge detours, albeit often requiring a change of train. Croydon itself has a main-line station where fast trains to and from two London terminals (Victoria and London Bridge) and the south coast stop every ten minutes or so. There is also a tram system which serves the suburbs east and west of Croydon and the new Overground service, which runs up to the north-east and links Croydon with north, east and south-east London and the Docklands. It would have been possible to extend the Victoria Line southwards to Croydon, but this would have been used more for local journeys than by people travelling between south London and Croydon, who might well prefer the fast train from Victoria to East Croydon than a rattly underground stopping train and almost everywhere on the A23 corridor to Croydon already has a rail link. If this line were to have been built, it would mostly be used for local journeys, not for journeys into London.

As a child I only travelled on the Underground when we went up to London (Croydon, although part of Greater London, was not really considered to be London as such and had been a town in Surrey until the 1960s) and I disliked it intensely; it was noisy and dark and there are places where the lights go off because the train passes over a gap in the power line. This may just be a child’s reaction, but an overground train, all other things being equal, will always beat an underground one as there is natural light, less noise and more to see out of the window. Even in north London, most of the ‘Underground’ lines that reach the outer suburbs actually run above ground along converted old main-line railways; many of them were not intended to become part of an underground railway system when first built, among them the District and Metropolitan lines. There are also suburban main-line trains there, so not everyone in north London travels by Tube when commuting into London, and it’s not always a choice. As few of the existing Underground lines go south of the river, there is little scope for connecting southern suburban lines to Underground lines; only the Victoria and Bakerloo lines have loose ends south of the river. The Bakerloo line is now set to be extended at least as far as Lewisham (where it may link up with existing suburban rail lines, possibly to Hayes in south-east London) via a line under the Old Kent Road, while there are no such plans for the Victoria Line.

We did eventually get our rail link to Finsbury Park, via the new Thameslink connection to the line out of King’s Cross (the trains run from Peterborough to Horsham and from Cambridge to Brighton); it runs fast to London Bridge on an overland line, so it still beats a noisy stopper under the A23 to Brixton. In short, there are good reasons why Croydon never got the Tube and why that’s not considered a problem there.

Image source: ‘Hzh’, via Wikimedia. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 4.0 licence.

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Not just a child

Indigo Jo Blogs - 2 March, 2021 - 18:52
Picture of Shamima Begum, a young South Asian woman wearing a black headscarf which drapes over her body, carrying a baby who is dressed in a blue-and-white striped garment. Behind her are two large white tents.Shamima Begum

Last week the UK’s Supreme Court ruled that Shamima Begum, the “ISIS bride” who ran away from home to join the self-styled Islamic State aged 15 in 2015, had no right to come back to the UK to contest the government’s decision to strip her of British citizenship on “national security” grounds in 2019. The government claim she has right to Bangladeshi nationality as this is where her family originate, but that country denies that she is a citizen (she was born in the UK) and refuses to allow her to live in the country, even saying that she could be tried and hanged if she entered Bangladesh. The Court of Appeal had allowed her appeal as she had been unable to contest the government’s decision from a detention camp her lawyers have been refused access to, but the Supreme Court claims the Court of Appeal “mistakenly believed that, when an individual’s right to have a fair hearing of an appeal came into conflict with the requirements of national security, her right to a fair hearing must prevail”, but in their view, “the right to a fair hearing does not trump all other considerations, such as the safety of the public”. The judgment strikes me as naked deference to executive power, taking secret ‘evidence’ at face value.

There are two separate issues at play here. One is that British citizenship has been degraded to a glorified visa for anyone with a single non-British grandparent or with perceived right to any foreign nationality: the government can strip you of your citizenship on grounds that your presence here is “not conducive to the public good” on grounds of “involvement in terrorism, espionage, serious organised crime, war crimes or unacceptable behaviours” and you would not be left stateless. This means that the government can strip you of your citizenship because they do not like you, or because the press has mounted a campaign against you. There is no other way of interpreting these words; “unacceptable behaviours” could mean anything. It’s the same phrase that enables the government to refuse a visa to a foreign national, often used to refuse entry to foreign rabble-rousers and hatemongers from Geert Wilders to Louis Farrakhan, but to deprive someone of citizenship is another matter. This plays to the demands of Islamophobes such as Douglas Murray, who called for anyone who sides with anyone fighting western forces anywhere to be deported, in the case of people born in the UK to the home country of a parent or grandparent. While obviously chiefly aimed at Asian and African Muslims, anyone of partly Irish or other European background could similarly be deported on a whim; any Jew could be denaturalised on the basis that they are entitled to Israeli nationality.

The other is Shamima Begum’s degree of responsibility. We know that, with two school friends of the same age, she travelled to Turkey on her own accord in 2015 and crossed the border into Syria. This followed contact with ISIS recruiters of some sort online which her parents were unaware of. Her defenders, particularly women, claim she was ‘groomed’ online and that her marriages in Syria were invalid and that if consummated, she was raped. These are dubious claims. ‘Grooming’ is a term normally associated with the sexual abuse of children and means the “softening-up” of a child for abuse: for example, men or older boys posing as friends or boyfriends, buying them food or giving them money with no apparent strings attached, only to demand sex later because “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. With younger children, it often consists of plying them with sweets or toys and inviting them for a ride in a nice car. To issue propaganda to someone over an Internet line that they could easily break off, claiming that ISIS is some sort of paradise when the opposite was well-known, is not grooming and many adults have fallen for the same propaganda and chosen to believe it over copious other evidence.

The age of criminal responsibility in the UK is 10; the age of majority in Islam is puberty. This is significant as I have heard many Muslims repeating these claims, often in conjunction with observations about how white society ‘adultifies’ Black children (although of course Shamima is not Black). There have been comparison with lighter sentences given to teenagers who had joined neo-Nazi groups and in some cases acquired weapons, but their plans never came to fruition and the Third Reich was abolished when Germany was occupied in 1945, 76 years ago, while Shamima Begum and her friends joined an extant criminal, terrorist state. While it is true that she was too young to marry in the UK at the time she left, she would have been old enough a few months later; in ISIS territory, however, English law did not apply and nor even did Syrian or Iraqi law, something she knew before she left: ISIS was dedicated to pulling down the colonial boundaries and the states that existed between them, and to installing some semblance of Islamic law and doing away with legal systems which had colonial heritage. In the pre-colonial Muslim world, 15 was quite a normal age for girls to marry (above average in some places) and no Muslim should be echoing the comments of non-Muslims that this is rape or “sex slavery”; this would be a slur on almost every Muslim man from the time of the Sahaba to very recent times. That said, it is unacceptable for the organisation to marry her to one man after another and then send the man off to fight and die for them, not allowing them time to get to know one another, or to allow her to carry and then lose two children. That’s cruel, but then, the cruelty of ISIS was well-known outside its borders (though so was the Assad regime’s). Perhaps she allowed herself to be persuaded that it was “all propaganda”, or perhaps she thought she would only be dishing it out, not taking it.

However, her actual guilt depends on what she actually did; the media talks of her “joining ISIS” but what she actually did was move to their territory, intending to live there. She then married someone and bore his child, which makes her neither a terrorist nor a war criminal. A mere member of a terrorist organisation (the IRA, for example) is not the same as someone who has carried out a lethal terrorist action such as a massacre or bombing, though we may condemn them for condoning such actions or blaming their victims. People inspired by ISIS are known to have carried out attacks in Britain, France and elsewhere, among them the Manchester Arena suicide bombing, but the attacks have largely ceased as the state itself has been destroyed by Syrian and Iraqi forces and Kurdish guerrilla armies (some of these forces themselves linked to terrorism), so her potential to pose a national security threat (especially if in prison!) is likely to be limited, if there is any. The government have acted not out of any concern for justice but in reaction to public hatred, itself stirred up by the commercial media. There is also no consistency in how the government have treated different people associated with ISIS; consider how Anjem Choudary, who released a video pledging allegiance to them and was imprisoned for it, was allowed to retain his citizenship despite many years of such agitation with al-Muhajiroun and its successor groups.

Four or five years ago, when ISIS was still fairly strong, I saw people in the West, including Muslims, say that people who choose to move to their territory should lose their citizenship; they should “just be a citizen of their caliphate”. That was then; the ‘caliphate’ no longer exists and the societies that it oppressed and who overran it, much to the delight of the outside world, have no responsibility to feed and house foreign ISIS recruits or settlers (some of whom oppressed them) indefinitely, nor to try them: if they do this, there will always be outsiders carping about the shortcomings of the justice system used. Bangladesh is also not responsible for Shamima Begum’s actions either. The Supreme Court was right about one thing; it is not just about this individual’s rights — the people of Syria and Iraq should not bear responsibility for a problem which largely originates in the West (right back to Abu Ghraib where the Americans tortured some of its founders). The West, including Britain, should take care of its responsibilities. But let’s not pretend that Shamima was an innocent victim; she listened to propaganda and made a choice, and her action was not on the spur of the moment.

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Jewish white privilege is no myth

Indigo Jo Blogs - 28 February, 2021 - 19:56
Image of Anas Sarwar, a clean-shaven South Asian man wearing a dark blue jacket over a white shirt and silver and grey tie.Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour leader

Jewish Privilege is a myth by Giles Fraser (from Unherd)

In this article Giles Fraser, a London vicar married to an Israeli, complains that Jews are commonly left out of definitions of ‘BAME’ (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic, a British classification equivalent to terms like ‘BIPOC’ in the US). He refers to David Baddiel’s recent book, Jews Don’t Count, which gives an example of a book review which identifies an author, surname Rosenberg, as writing from a “white-male-cis-het perspective”, and then takes issue with the description of Sajid Javid as the “first BAME chancellor of the Exchequer” which he says glosses over the fact that Nigel Lawson, whose paternal grandfather changed the family name from Leibson in the 1920s after they had immigrated from eastern Europe, much as his own family had changed its name from Friedeberg in 1917, had held the position in the 1980s (this past week, there was a similar controversy when Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar claimed to be the “first political party leader from an ethnic minority”, overlooking Ed Miliband). “Jews are considered to be white or non-white depending on the political perspective of the viewer”: not white or a threat to the purity of the race for those on the Far Right, “archetypally white — powerful, privileged, wealthy” to those on the “progressive Left”. I hear complaints that Jews are omitted from definitions of ‘minority’ or ‘BAME’ fairly regularly; I came across a complaint on Twitter recently that an ethnic monitoring form gave the usual White, Black and Asian definitions but ‘Jewish’ had to be stated, if the respondent wished, in the “Other (please state)” box. I don’t regard Jews to be BAME and regard them as a religious but not an ethnic minority; they are a subset of the White majority. This is why.

All the complaints about Jews being “left out of BAME” demonstrate wilful blindness to the fact that times change and concepts of race change from time to time and place to place. They are heavy on explanations of how things were in the past and light on acceptance of how things are now. Quite frequently people cannot believe that the new racists are different from the old Nazis and will court Jews and Hindus (who have a violent fascist movement of their own) to play them off against Muslims, for example. Mediaeval and early modern Europe characterised itself as Christian; Jews were in most places tolerated and allowed to run their own affairs but not allowed to integrate or enjoy the full rights of citizens (such as they were) because they were not Christian and regarded their true home as the Middle East. In the 19th century, the idea emerged that there were different races of human beings that shared common descent and were identified by language and physical signs. This was a pseudoscience, but Jews were identified as a race and conversion to Christianity came to be seen as of lesser importance than one’s ancestry (to Nazis it was of no consequence at all, and practising Catholics, most famously Edith Stein, were murdered because of their Jewish origins).

In other modern societies, such as ours, ‘race’ is associated with physical appearance; the native population is mostly white, and darker skin is associated with foreignness, immigrant status and, in some cases, slavery. When people migrate from one European society to another, they are regarded as foreigners but their children often are not; Irish and Italian Americans, for example, come to be seen as ‘White’ even if they maintain aspects of their culture and it is often observed that White immigrant communities leapfrog African-Americans, who remain poor (often as a result of discriminatory policies, such as ‘red-lining’ in the housing market which prevented them from acquiring property).

Thus, a Jewish immigrant can change his or her surname and get elocution lessons and lose any traits that give them away as an immigrant and two or three generations later the fact that someone is Jewish is unimportant, to those who even know it, when he runs for Parliament or is appointed to a ministerial job. A Black person will always be seen as Black in a country where Blackness is associated with immigrant status, poverty and criminality. There is a joke that asks what you call a Black person with a BA, an MA or a PhD and the answer rhymes with ‘trigger’. I rarely hear of a Black person now who has changed their name to something “more English” because that would make them more integrated, although stories of people with foreign names often report that they do not get job interviews until they Anglicise their names (or submit an application with an English pseudonym). It has often happened that they change their names the other way, to shed a surname that dates back to slavery or reclaim their African roots; an English surname does not help when one’s colour and appearance automatically marks one out.

This is the essence of White privilege: it means you do not look out of place in a western society. You will not be assumed to be an illegal immigrant, you will not be assumed to be a criminal; if you are seen in an expensive car, it will not be assumed that it is either stolen or drug-financed. If you have an encounter with the police, it will likely be polite and you do not risk being physically harmed if you are not brandishing a weapon. It means you can travel without being selected for “enhanced screening” again and again, even after numerous negative screenings. It does not mean that there is no prejudice against your background or religion or that there is no derogatory term ever used about them, but even though they might be used by people who work with or go to school with you and you might hear language you find hurtful or offensive, you can still walk down the street unmolested. This is particularly important in the case of people who do not mark themselves out by their dress, which is the case with many Jews outside Orthodox congregations.

I wouldn’t be foolish enough to suggest that antisemitism does not exist in the UK. I saw it pretty much every day while at boarding school outside a provincial town: there were three or four Jewish boys at any one time and slurs about their origin were commonplace (and the word Jew was used as an insult towards others as well). However, prejudice is not all that makes a group oppressed; it also matters whether it is fostered or tolerated by the state and media. There are prejudices that pass the “dinner party test” and those that don’t and if mild expressions of one prejudice (or even statements that bear vague resemblance to them) are policed more stringently and are more costly than open expressions of hatred towards another minority or actual policies that contribute to innocent people being expelled from the country for no good reason, it should be clear that antisemitism is not politically acceptable while other prejudices are. The issue of antisemitism in the Labour Party was never out of the news for most of the time Jeremy Corbyn was leader; much of it was not new but was old material dug up from social media by people who must have been looking for dirt, much of it was about Israel rather than Jews per se (and given how Israel treats Palestinians, such condemnation is justified; there is no such restraint when atrocities by Muslim groups are being condemned) and much of it seemed to strain the definition of an “antisemitic trope” through the needle’s eye. The sheer volume and regularity of the stories gave the impression of a media campaign and led people to believe that the problem was extremely serious and certainly much more serious than it actually was. Why would the media give such prominence to the claims if they believed that the public would not care?

Compare this to the hostility being mounted against activists who seek to remove monuments to slave traders from the public space, or the use of ‘woke’ (a term of African-American origin meaning politically and racially conscious) as an insult, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that Jews are at least privileged among minorities. Jeremy Corbyn is ‘exposed’ for writing a foreword to a major work of socialist theory with a few disparaging words about Jews while Tories campaign and promise legislation to keep monuments to slave traders (as stated before: anyone involved in that trade would have been party to the murder of tens of thousands) in public spaces. I have seen on the British media people claiming that antisemitism is not like other forms of racism (not materially, but not morally equivalent) and someone stating that Islamophobia is merely a way Muslims seek to escape criticism, and this person has made numerous bigoted claims about Muslims in particular over many years (particularly since 2001) and is still regularly allowed to appear on the BBC and in mainstream newspapers, something that would not be allowed if antisemitism was this clearly expressed. I am sure this individual is not typical of Jewish attitudes, but this is hardly the point; she keeps appearing again and again.

As a White Muslim of English and Irish origin, I am considered to be in a privileged position despite the fact that White Muslims as well as Arabs, Asians and Somalis have suffered from discrimination and political oppression stemming from the “war on terror” policies. The fact that Muslims were massacred in Bosnia only 20 years ago and persecuted by various communist regimes around the world, including Europe, does not change the fact that White Muslims are to a certain extent privileged now. Similarly, the fact that Jews were victims of persecution and genocide at other times and in other places does not change the fact that in the UK, where Jews have never been actively persecuted, they are a fairly prosperous community, mostly associated with leafy north London suburbs, with ample media access and well-represented in Parliament, including at ministerial and Cabinet level on both sides of the House, and their tales of woe are indulged to the hilt again and again, becoming front-page and prime-time news while serious discrimination against other communities is ridiculed. The bottom line is that a white Jew in Britain today is no less white for being a Jew, which is why an Asian political leader means progress in a way a Jewish one does not.

Image source: Scottish Parliament, via Wikimedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution (BY) licence, version 3.0.

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Did Anthony Williams get lucky?

Indigo Jo Blogs - 22 February, 2021 - 23:21
Ruth Williams

Last Thursday a man who throttled his wife to death last March, shortly after the initial Coronavirus lockdown was imposed, received a five-year jail sentence after a jury accepted his plea of guilty to manslaughter rather than murder. During the trial, a psychologist advanced a theory that his level of control was reduced because of anxiety prompted by the lockdown, which had exacerbated a depression he had been suffering since retiring in 2019 (this theory, or its significance, was disputed by another psychologist who said that he had no history of depressive illness). It was claimed that he had suffered irrational worries about money, but the couple had no mortgage and £150,000 in savings. The incident allegedly started when Ruth Williams told her husband Anthony to “get over it” when she expressed these fears, but he pursued her down the stairs when she escaped from his initial attack and was found on the sofa, a pair of keys in her hand, which to many indicated that Williams was a determined if not premeditated killer and it has been widely suspected that men who murder their wives can easily get away (or get a lenient sentence) by claiming that they ‘snapped’. Harriet Wistrich, the lawyer who got a number of women who killed violent partners released from prison in the 1990s, called it “more proof that the criminal justice system is institutionally misogynist”.

I’m personally not convinced that Anthony Williams’ professed mental illness was genuine — the lockdown was cited, but it was days old at that point and was not stringent; people were allowed to go out for exercise and shopping, and did so quite freely — but I have my doubts as to whether misogyny was anything to do with it. Sometimes defendants get lucky and sometimes it appears that a defendant who had been “under stress” can get sympathy from professionals, the legal system and the jury — if indeed it even reaches a jury. The case that springs to mind here is that of Tanya Clarence who killed her three disabled children in 2014; she was part of a wealthy family with a large, adapted house and had ample professional support, but killed the three children when her husband was away on business by smothering them with a nappy, yet her plea of diminished responsibility was accepted by the Crown and she was sentenced to a hospital order without a jury hearing the case. In this sense Ruth Williams’s killing got a fairer hearing than the Clarence children’s and there is widespread suspicion in the disabled community that the sympathy was based on prejudice against disabled people: a sense that their lives are worth less than others’, that their lives are not worth living, that they are burdensome, that it’s quite understandable that you would not want to be the parent of a disabled child, let alone three.

The law distinguishes murder, which is deliberate or premeditated killing (where the intention is death or serious harm), from manslaughter, which is where a killing is still culpable but to a lesser degree, whether because of mental illness or because conduct was reckless rather than deliberate. For example, punching someone in the face, causing their death, would constitute manslaughter rather than murder, because this type of assault does not normally cause death, while a sustained beating that causes death would be murder, as there was a clear intent to cause serious harm even if this would not always kill. A street murder that involves a gun or knife attracts a longer tariff (minimum amount of prison time in a life sentence) because the killer will have brought the weapon to the scene and will likely hand it to someone else afterwards, both are more likely to cause death or serious harm than anyone’s bare hands and in the case of guns, they are not readily available in the UK and thus reflects a deeper level of criminal involvement. Strangulation is a painful death — we stopped using it to execute criminals in the 1860s by introducing “the drop” — but as some people can do it with their bare hands, it requires a lesser degree of premeditation than the use of a weapon.

In my experience, society is sometimes too tolerant of people who respond to non-physical provocation with violence; when I was in a violent institutional environment as a teenager, the ones who would use violence when someone was rude to or offended them were those who had got away with such behaviour in the past. Those who had not, and who had been on the receiving end of it more often than the other, would harm themselves or damage property (their own or the school’s). A number of years ago I read of a young boy who was assaulted by a man who had caused an accident that damaged the car he and his mother were in; the police refused to press charges as “you can’t give ‘verbal’ and not expect something in return”. This is why I’m sceptical that someone could “just snap” and harm someone else; people are more likely to attack someone who is smaller than them. That said, it was not noted at Anthony Williams’s trial that he had been previously habitually violent. I wonder if he was an undiagnosed autistic; it is common for people with autism to have crises, with extremes of behaviour, when their routines are disrupted especially by major life changes, and given his age he would have left school and gone straight to work at a time when many secure jobs were available, but retirement might have had the same effect as school ending has for many autistic teenagers; this may explain the heightened anxieties about money.

It was also complained about that a domestic violence activist made remarks on Twitter during the trial that there must have been a history of domestic abuse (which is usually the case when a man kills his wife), calling the claim that he had snapped “complete bullshit” and saying she hoped the jury found him guilty of murder. This was then retweeted by Helen Mary Jones, a Welsh Assembly member, and both were summoned to appear before the court for contempt and were reprimanded. Making public remarks or publishing printed material (including in a newspaper) that could prejudice a jury trial is illegal and always has been, for good reason. Newspaper editors have always had to be mindful of it, but it’s only recently that ordinary people have had such reach that what they say may also be prejudicial.

I find the feminist response really quite childish. They sound a lot like children whinging “it’s not faaaaiiiir!”, and the response is one they’ve probably given their children in the face of that complaint about their parenting decisions many a time: sometimes life’s not fair. There is an automatic assumption that Anthony Williams was “let off” because he killed a woman, and let’s face it, women’s lives mean nothing. This just isn’t true; he wasn’t let off, he may have got lucky with the jury but he took advantage of a law that treats unpremeditated homicide differently from premeditated murder, which is quite right and proper even if many men are more able to kill on the spur of the moment than most women because they are stronger. When an actual expert explained the verdict and sentence on his blog, accusations of mansplaining ensued — the standard ad hominem argument that follows a man telling a woman something she does not want to hear, regardless of his level of expertise or hers. They are all leaping to assumptions that the case resembles some they are familiar with, and Anthony Williams represents every male abuser and killer and Ruth represents every female victim, but none of them were in court, as far as I can tell; they rely on newspaper reports and make assumptions based on generalisations (notice also how they casually dismissed Anthony and Ruth Williams’s daughter’s description of her own father’s character). Maybe Anthony Williams lucked out with a sympathetic jury but maybe the law worked as it should and a man who killed when the balance of his mind was disturbed was treated accordingly.

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Not expensive

Indigo Jo Blogs - 20 February, 2021 - 11:52
Eden Park station

Yesterday a report into the death of a partially-sighted man, Cleveland Gervais, who was hit and killed by a train at Eden Park station in south-east London last February was published by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB), a government agency that investigates rail accidents in the UK and on the Channel Tunnel, and found that the accident could have been prevented had the station been fitted with a tactile paving strip near the platform, a standard fitting to alert blind passengers when they are near the platform edge. The organisation’s chief inspector, Simon French, said:

Although RAIB (Rail Accident Investigation Branch) recognises that the immediate provision of tactile strips across the network would be very expensive, there is a need to develop a new policy to guide decision makers. … It cannot always make sense simply to wait until platforms are refurbished to install the strips.

It can’t actually be that expensive and need not wait for a full refurbishment; it’s a single strip of tiles per platform which could have been installed at any time over the past several years when the station was closed for weekend engineering or any other kind of maintenance. A Freedom of Information request revealed that a third of stations around the country, among them 79 in London including major stations in London such as Waterloo and Victoria, lack the correct tactile paving (none or only partial) and that the target for installing them on all stations is 2029. The RNIB estimate that 9-15% of falls from railway station platforms involve blind or partially sighted people and they have started a petition to get tactile paving installed quickly. It does not only help blind people but anyone who may not be conscious that they are too close to the edge, such as when the platform is crowded.

I appreciate that it cannot happen everywhere overnight but it’s not a huge job; it will take a small team a few hours’ work per platform. It’s not like installing lifts at an Underground station. That there are still a third of stations without this simple adaptation reflects lack of commitment, not cost.

Image source: Auguste Blanqui, via Wikipedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 4.0 licence.

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