Monthly Archives: October 2015

Freedom is best served by coercion. Allegedly.

Theresa May was in the news last week talking about government proposals to take away the passports of people whom the government thinks might want to go to Syria to do bad things.

Whilst I can certainly understand where she is coming from, I have serious concerns about the effect this policy will have on society. British governments have shown marked suspicion of Islam over the last dozen years or so, and there has been much conflicting information spread by politicians and news outlets. Muslims are peaceful, Muslims are all terrorists, Muslims oppress their women, etc. We are encouraged to seek out moderate Muslims (they’re the good guys, you see) and to report preachers who radicalise our youth.

Then, if we think you or your children are going to skip the country, we’ll take your passports and deny you your right to free movement.

I guess this is one of the problems with elected representatives: it doesn’t matter whom you vote for, you always end up with a politician. In recent history, we have ended up with politicians who got in by trashing the opposition and not really concentrating on what they are actually going to do themselves. Personally, I’d prefer to vote for someone who tried to get me to vote for them and not someone who just wants me not to vote for the other guy.

If, however, the tactic of trashing the other guy works and gets your team more MPs than the others, you end up in government. People in government face some difficult problems that the rest of us would rather not deal with (this is why we elect representatives, after all). The difficulty with that is that those very same representatives only seem to know how to trash the other guys without actually presenting compelling arguments for something.

It’s all very well arguing against radicalisation and travelling to take up arms in a far-away land and spreading the story that life once you get there is not remotely like you’ve seen on the YouTube adverts. I guess that kind of message is important, but it is completely hollow on its own. You need to give reasons why life at home is worth a damn. You need to create a compelling argument to be proud of Britishness, of our cold drizzle, warm beer, greasy chips, tikka masala and kebabs.

In a half-hearted and slack-wristed attempt to seem like they’re doing something positive, the government decided to codify what they call “British Values”.

British Values are, like Britons in general, hard to pin down. British people know what they are but will have great difficulty putting it in to words. It’s a bit like our constitution. It’s there, but nobody has ever bothered to write it down.

They had to come up with something, so they finally settled on “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”*.

Nice and vague, like the best of British.

Then they decided that they had to compel schools to teach these things. Because individual liberty is best served when the government is controlling the way you think before you even learn to write. Because tolerance of those with different faiths is best affirmed when you bad-mouth an entire religion.

The promotion of these so-called British Values in schools and nurseries works directly against the so-called British Values. It is a cheap cop-out that lets the politicians say that they are doing something without actually taking the time to construct a coherent message or a compelling argument about what is actually good about being British, or what is great about our islands and our culture. It is all about fear of what might happen if we let those other (brown) people have a voice in shaping our society, an eventuality we must fight against by coercing the youngest to think in a particular way.

The true way to promote British values is to be British, to be the best we can be, to show our immigrant communities our hospitality, our warmth and our welcome. To allow our curiosity to get the better of us and to let ourselves learn about Eid, Diwali, Vaisakha and so on. To invite each other round for a cup of tea and to open our hearts and our hearths to others. To do what Britons do best.

If you have to rely on coercion, you don’t even believe your own message. You have failed.


Clubbed to death with a Victoria sponge

Mention the Church of England to anyone in this green and genteel country and they will immediately picture a scene straight from the Vicar of Dibley, with a pastor who is trying to hold their sanity together against the onslaught of generally pleasant people doing generally pleasant things but not really referring to God much.

Mention a Tory government to anyone in this green and genteel country and reactions will be much more varied. Some of us clearly like Tory governments. They’ve only been absent from the government for three terms since I was a young child. It seems that there is something about them that appeals to the English way of doing things (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are a different matter, of course).

Whilst I have never particularly associated a Tory government with the warmer, caring side of Englishness (and recent years have left me wondering if the English have any of that left at all), but this lot have been thoroughly taking the piss.

Actually, now that I think about it, I’m going to change my mind a bit. This lot are utterly spineless.

At the last election, UKIP polled nearly four million votes (that only got them a single seat, but that’s a story for another day) and David Cameron had been running scared for pretty much the entire election campaign. UKIP ran their campaign purely on fear and loathing, pitting plucky British workers against that nasty Schrödinger’s Immigrant who will simultaneously take your job whilst scrounging on unemployment benefits. Not a day went by when immigration was not mentioned by the Tories or by UKIP or, usually, both. Desperate to cling on to power, Cameron announced a raft of policies that sounded crass and heartless at the time, but nobody thought that the Tories would get a majority in the House, so they could promise anything they wanted, then blame their coalition partners for failure to deliver later.


Except they did get a parliamentary majority and now they have to keep a load of promises they never intended to keep.

Promises about EU membership and promises about migration.

Both promises that turned nasty within weeks of the election when the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean went from simply awful to downright humanitarian tragedy. Then that famous picture of Aylan Kurdi softened even the stiffest upper lip and the undercurrent of discontent boiled over and caused even the Daily Fail and the Sun to change their front page coverage.

Our government leapt to action. They pledged to take a few dozen refugee families, but haven’t really done much. Then up steps the Church of England with their garden parties, their tea and biscuits and their cricket on the green. The bishops of the CofE wrote to the PM to offer their services. Services that include food, clothing, counselling and housing for many thousands of refugee families, and calling on the government to admit five times the number of people they had originally suggested. Other churches and community groups have also pledged support.

The official government response has been to ignore their offer of support.

So the bishops got nasty. They published their letter. With luck, this will embarrass the government so badly that they will do something.

I’m not holding out much hope, though. This bunch seem utterly indifferent to the suffering of others, either because they genuinely don’t give a damn or because they are too afraid to lose votes to UKIP. The effect is the same either way. People die. And human compassion dies with them.

Synod? Does anybody care?

One of the questions in my mind, as a delegation of the world’s Catholic bishops begin their second week of arguing amongst themselves about how the world’s married couples should live their lives, is why are they bothering at all?

I suppose the Catholic church had the same problem in 1517 when Martin Luther published his ninety-five theses. As Wikipedia puts it:

The core motivation behind these changes was theological, though many other factors played a part, including the rise of nationalism, the Western Schism which eroded people’s faith in the Papacy, the perceived corruption of the Roman Curia, the impact of humanism and the new learning of the Renaissance which questioned much of the traditional thought.

To my eye, that text could have been written today with the possible replacement of “Western Schism” with “the child sex-abuse scandal”.

So, we’ve been here before, albeit very nearly 500 years ago.

So what are our current crop of bishops doing to prevent schism? Well, for one, the pope is calling on the church to show more compassion whilst, at the same time, the cardinal who is organising the whole synod is explaining that there is no room for compromise on the key issue of remarriage after divorce.

In a nutshell, Jesus said that God joins two spouses in an indissoluble bond and that a man who divorces his wife and beds another person is guilty of adultery. The Catholic church’s position has reflected this ever since. Without nuance. Without mercy. Without compassion. A person who re-marries is excluded from the sacraments, specifically the sacraments of Eucharist and Reconciliation.

The fact that a mass murderer or a priest who has abused children can go to Confession, repent, and receive absolution, then go on to receive what we Catholics believe is the actual body of Christ in the Eucharist is not lost on every single person who has committed the far more heinous crime of leaving a failed relationship and set up with a different person. The murderer and the pederast are both welcomed back into the fold whereas the person who was frequently beaten to a bloody pulp by their wife before finally running away and finding love and companionship in a much more successful second marriage is barred from the table of the Lord. Barred from what the pope himself has called “not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”.

Whilst I strongly believe that the murderer and the pederast should have mercy available to them, I cannot reconcile (ha ha) the notion of a loving God with the position that a person whose only crime was dashed hope should be forever barred from communion with Christ and with the church. A murderer can repent, return to the Eucharist, then murder again, and repent again. If the repentance is genuine (we humans are weak after all), that murderer should be able to repent and return to the table of the Lord. Marriage, however, is a one-time thing. You get one chance, and if you find that you are in the wrong relationship, that’s it. You can leave your failed relationship, but you are not allowed to find a better one.

Mercy? Nah. Jesus never showed mercy to anyone. Particularly, he never showed mercy to a woman who had multiple relationships and who was sleeping with a guy who wasn’t even her current husband. No. That never happened.

So, that’s heterosexual marriage. What about the marriage of same-sex persons? Well, as Luther experienced, the church is not very good at understanding. That is the problem, I guess, when you grow up in the sure and certain knowledge that God has given you the ultimate truth and it is your duty to protect that truth from harm. As a card-carrying Catholic, I’m not about to argue with the idea that God has entrusted truth to his church (which later became churches), but what I will vehemently argue against is the notion that we, as the human species, have fully understood that truth.

Bishops argue all the time about the complementarity of the sexes. They argue that men and women are sufficiently distinct and different that God made them to join together in matrimony and make lots of little humans to grow up to fall in love and make more little humans, etc. etc.

Bishops, being celibate old men, have no experience of what it means to be a woman, they have no idea what women actually are, nor do they have any idea of the variation that exists within the class “woman”. Now that I mention it, they demonstrate precious little understanding of the variation experienced within the class “men” and have no idea that there even exists a whole class of people who don’t particularly feel that they fit into either category.

The synod has the opportunity to deepen the church’s understanding of humankind. It is also a global meeting of narrow-minded bigots with power, whose lives are largely unaffected by the decisions they will take. Much like last year’s meeting, I have very little expectation that any good will come out of it. I was pleasantly surprised by last year’s meeting, however, so I live in hope.

At the back of my mind, though, is the constant nagging question “why are they even debating this shit? Pretty much everything they are talking about has passed through debate and opposition and into the realm of the utter non-issue. The ship of humanity has sailed. The question that remains is do the bishops want to try to catch up with the rest of us?

And, in other news, gay Catholic nurse:

People. We are all people. And we all deserve to be treated as such.

Transgender? Sorry, there’s nowhere on my form for you.

The concept that transgender people both exist and are people is something I have covered a few times on this blog, and I’m back on the subject again today.

Transgender actress and advocate, Laverne Cox of Orange is the new Black fame, recently appeared at the Social Good Summit at the UN in New York. The thrust of her message was about visibility. How many transgender people are there in the US, the UK or the world?

It’s a valid question, so let’s have a look at the census data.

For each member of your household, please indicate the person’s sex:

[  ] Male

[  ] Female

… and therein lies the problem. Well, problems, actually.

The first problem is that the question conflates sex and gender and assumes that there is a simple relationship between them.


The main problem, however, is that there are only two options. There are only ever two options. Every person answering that question is expected to fit into exactly one of two neat categories. Anybody who does not fit into either of these categories simply does not have their census data recorded correctly. They do not, will not and cannot affect the official statistics. They have been erased from the system. They are invisible.

Ms. Cox, for example, would tick the female category there. She is fairly clear to the world that she is a woman. This, at least, means that there is a box she can tick on the form. People who identify as neither male nor female simply vanish. She has some kind of visibility. The point Cox made at the summit, however, is that by merging herself with the class of “female”, she is still invisible, because an important part of her identity is still missing. The transgender part of her identity as a transgender woman is still missing from the form.

And that can make the difference between life and death for some.

Transgender people remain uncounted in official data, which means that official statistics ignore them, which means that wider society has no idea that they are real or how many transgender people there are. If a population is roundly ignored, provision for them at every level of society can also be ignored. If children are not taught that transgender people are people, they can grow up to be the kind of people who kill people whom they see as an affront to their masculinity (and it is usually masculinity that gets so easily offended).

We clearly need to get the census questions right, and to separate the “what is your sex” question from “are you transgender”, and include more options than just male and female. In the meantime, however, we can make our own changes.

We can start by educating ourselves a little bit. Every person is unique, which means every transgender person is unique. Here are some myth busters.

Does it bother you that there is a tall person over there with long hair and a dress? Does she look a bit too masculine for your eyes? Would you be more comfortable if she passed better as a woman? It remains true there is a strong correlation between the amount of acceptance a trans person has and how well they pass as their affirmed gender. Be polite. And admit that you don’t have all the answers. You need to learn as you go along. Even when the person you thought was your son tells you that it’s a bit more complicated than that.

I wonder when respect got so difficult.

We are still all people.