Saturday, 16 October 2010

Just a quick one.

Is it rude to stare at blind people?

Not people who are partially sighted, but people who literally can not see at all. I watched a man yesterday stop so close to another that had his cane swept back any later he would have walked into him (proving just how well he'd got the timing on that tuned to his walking speed!). But is the rudeness of staring in the fact that the other person might notice that you're staring, or that it draws attention to them for other people?

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Talking is cheap, but comment is free

The publication of however many bejillion Facebook users' data recently has prompted the usual panic about online security, with people in the know tutting and shouting "I told you so" at anyone who happens to walk past, and people not in the know desparately trying to figure out how any of this could have happened. I get the impression though that we tend to assume that things on the internet are more private than they actually are. The internet is brilliant for bringing us into contact with people who think like we do, dress like we do, enjoy the same films and music and books that we do, but who may well live in completely different parts of the world. Why then is it so surprising when we also encounter people from closer to home who may well completely disagree with us? And do we have the right to mind?

A Friend of mine (who reads this blog, hello) recently had a problem on Facebook, when one of their friends started trolling on my Friend's status. Friend is a committed feminist, who got angry at Troll making jokes about Doctor Who spanking his assistant. Troll either didn't realise they were being offensive, or were enjoying causing the upset. Friend made an excellent stab at teaching Troll manners, but among other things said, "This is *my* facebook status, not a public domain" [emphasis theirs]. How true is that though? Troll has at some point been accepted as a friend by Friend, giving them the capacity to comment on anything Friend posts in their status. Doesn't the expressing of an opinion by Friend in that way therefore provide an opportunity for, if not prompt or even invite Troll to pass judgement on it by commenting? Should Troll have refrained from doing so knowing it would upset Friend, or should we be talking about Troll's right to free speech? Should Facebook's settings be flexible enough that it controls who is able to comment on things, as well as whether or not they can see them?

A similar thing happened to a LiveJournal post about comedy. Poster marked the post as both triggering on a range of issues and suitable for 18s and over only, and went on to use examples to illustrate what they considered to be appropriate and inappropriate humour. Someone commented on the post that they enjoyed Roy "Chubby" Brown's humour (who Poster didn't mention), and Poster's Partner responded by saying that the Commenter was, "not welcome here". Given that the post wasn't made as part of a forum or ongoing discussion it's quite difficult to view the online community which surrounds the post, and although the general mood of the comments would agree with Partner can Commenter really be labelled unwelcome just by virtue of being in disagreement with other members of the community? Does Poster's decision not to moderate this comment not imply that anyone is welcome to throw in their $0.02?

I spotted a third example of this on My Fault, I'm Female, a blog dedicated to publishing examples of sexism in the modern world (and well worth a read in my opinion). Here the community targetted is made explicit by the introductory comments in the side bar on the right, but again there seems to be little moderation of comments. This leads to frequent arguments about whether certain posts actually constitute sexism at all, and much consequent defense of the people who have submitted the stories. One such defense runs as follows;

This is a safe space for women....We’re allowed to own our anger, and this is one site set up to do just that....This is OUR place for discussion, OUR safe space.
But how can it be a safe space for women when anyone is allowed to comment? Indeed, in an online community how could such a safe space be created, without requiring gender checks at the point of entry? Unlike my first example this very definitely is a public domain, though the lack of welcome to certain types of comment is much clearer here than in the second. But since part of the mission of the blog is "to highlight what is still an entrenched problem", wouldn't excluding the very people who are posting these comments restrict the success of what is a key aim of the authors? It is worth pointing out that the introductory text does state that it intends to be non-judgmental, which clearly these comments are not.

So are we back to the issue of causing offence being the deciding feature? Should we be protecting vulnerable people from hearing things which wrongly undermine them? Or should we be welcoming the opportunity to hear views which jar with ours, whether to give us a chance to reassess our own worldview or to set someone else straight about theirs?

It is with some trepidation that I welcome comments....

Saturday, 8 May 2010

It's more important on the inside.

Last week I was provided an invaluable insight into the workings of the body which technically runs Cambridge University. I was asked to go to a Discussion in Senate House on behalf of the Disabled Students Liberation Campaign (DSLC), because part of this Discussion was about the rejection by Council of a 50-member Grace submitted by members of the Regent House regarding the installation of a lift in the University Combination Room. At this point I think it sensible to direct anyone reading this to the Glossary at the end of this post, since I didn't understand most of these words until halfway through the meeting.

It quickly became apparent that the meeting wasn't actually about the lift at all, but rather about that fact that Regent House was objecting to the way in which its installation had been gone about by Council. Access to to this room is required under the 2005 amendment to the Disability Discrimination Act, and given that the building dates back to 1347 finding a workable and affordable solution was bound to be difficult. Consequently the fact that Council found a way of doing it for about £240,000 which was fully reversible if necessary and only involved damage to the part of the building which dates from the 20th Century seems pretty impressive to me, but because it was done without proper consultation (and because, apparenlty, it looks like a tardis) various members of Regent House feel that work should be halted until they can make up their own minds about it.

There's a full account of the Discussion online, and a blog putting Regent House's case more fully. But I would just like to quote a couple of things said at the meeting, which I think give a good impression of the melodramatic flavour of the meeting as a whole.

"A building project bound to cause concern among all users of the Combination Room (and that is now pretty well anyone with any links to the University)"
[Please note that the Combination is purely for use by the Regent House. My parents have links to the university!]

"In years to come administrators who make a mess of things will be only too anxious to continue stumbling on into the Valley of Death on the grounds that the expense of doing otherwise would be even more damaging....Members of the Regent House will need to keep a close eye on the development of the present issue. Either that, or to resign themselves to waking up one fine day to find the University being ruled by emergency legislation of the Council’s own devising.

All that is needed is for enough good men to remain silent."
[I feel it is worth pointing out at this point that in a meeting of 36 attendees, just 3 were female.]

"Let the squandered funds be a lesson in humility to those who have done wrong in this matter."
[The "squandered funds" amount to nearly £1 million. This was shortly followed by another man complaining about administrators cutting funding to small but valuable departments.]

[with scorn]
"The Syndicate was required to draft an Oxford-style procedure"

I made a speech of my own which was badly delivered and under-planned, since I only really found out what I was doing there as I walked through the door, the text of which is in the Reporter linked to above (search on the page for "Myers", and I'm the one that's not a Dr.), but I left the room with a very sour taste in my mouth. I think this meeting asks a lot of questions of the way the University is run, and possible answers many more about the treatment of undergraduates.

(definitions come from the University of Cambridge website or from the statues and ordinances, the university's governing documents)

Council - the principal execitove and policy-making body of the University, having responsibility for the administration of the University, for the planning of its work, and for the management of its resources. Membership consists of the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, nineteen elected members, and four appointed members.

Grace - normally a motion for decision presented to the Regent House by the Council. In this instance it mostly refers to the procedure under which fifty or more members of the Regent House may initiate a Grace independently of the Council.

Regent House - the governing body of the university (since 1926), made up of all resident senior members of the University and the Colleges, together with the Chancellor, the High Steward, the Deputy High Steward, and the Commissary. As such it is unelected.

Reporter - the official journal of record of the University of Cambridge, carrying notices of all University business.

University Combination Room - a social facility for Regent House members.

Friday, 9 April 2010

One. And it's NOT FUNNY!

Given how much I enjoy comedy it's not really surprising that it was Frankie Boyle's comments about Down Syndrome that coaxed me into this. Whatever follows, I am amazingly impressed by Sharon Smith, the woman who objected to the comments; the class with which she has handled this whole issue - no press interviews, no righteous anger, just a bald statement of the truth in a free-to-view public forum - leaves me hugely awed and humbled. I'd have behaved terribly in her shoes!

However, I don't feel that this issue is as cut-and-dried as a lot of the commentators I've read seem to. Boyle himself (reported by Marc Lee in the Telegraph) says that, "there's no line you can't cross" in comedy, though surely there is at the very least a line of legality, where comedy becomes incitement to hatred? A very thorough investigation of the issue by Brian Logan uses the word irony more times than the Alanis Morisette song, as an explanation for the apparent intolerance perpertrated by many modern comedians. The argument here goes that portraying stereotypes can be framed as laughing at the [eg racists] not the [eg racial stereotype], but what about people who don't see it that way? And wasn't that the excuse which that Fawlty Towers episode used, not to mention ITV sitcom "Love Thy Neighbour"? Do we still see them as ironic today?

An exception is often granted in the case of people mocking a group to which they belong, eg recent film release The Infidel, or Jo Brand making fat jokes. But doesn't this more strongly reinforce stereotypes than a person from outside the group sending them up? After all, if we can watch a fat woman telling us she eats a lot of cake, isn't that more convincing than Jimmy Carr saying it? Parts of Djalili's stand-up involves parodying Islamic extremists; but given that he himself is Baha'i isn't that at great risk of cementing the link in people's minds between anything from the Middle East and terrorists?

Paul MacInnes' article (which mainly focuses on taboo rather than tolerance - which one of us has missed the point?!) provides a set of guidelines for comics to stay within. For all he admits that they, "could be a little woolly", I'm not convinced that they're even a helpful starting point. Why are we allowed to laugh at dominant groups but not oppressed ones? Does laughing with Michael McIntyre at the white British male obsession with lofts enforce a sense of this group being, "default" and others being "other"? Is it patronising to imply that oppressed groups can't laugh at themselves, or that the mainstream is unable to distinguish between caricature and reality? McInnes also talks about choice, but a person's weight isn't the only grey area here; in this country at least accent is often altered to denote class aspiration, and don't people choose their religion? From the other side, John Holmes didn't choose to be short, so is the running joke about his height on Radio 4's The Now Show inappropriate if he doesn't mind?

If Russell Howard can get away with impressions of a Taiwanese person on his BBC show, and Ross Noble can be lauded for his Stephen Hawking skit by someone else with a similar voice synthesiser, how much of this is about context? When I first pointed friends to the Frankie Boyle news story I coupled it with this film trailer parody, which also features a person with an impairment in a not-altogether flattering manner (he's described as a "retard" at one point), and yet no-one complained at the apparent irony - why not? And why was complaint so slow in coming, when Boyle's standard comedic fare on Mock the Week included paedophilia, kidnap and rape, not always separately?

And finally, what does it say about me that the first time I saw the headline I thought of Susan Boyle...?


Welcome, me, to blogging! I don't expect that this blog will be updated on anything approaching a regular basis (especially as there's a dissertation that I should be working on as I speak), but it's been something I've been meaning to do for a while now. Having to create a Blogger account for something else has provided me with an excuse.

The internet suffers from a serious case of surplus content. It's so easy to express an opinion without having to think too carefully about it, and equally easy to avoid anything you know in advance you're going to disagree with. I'm not good at expressing opinions, or having deeply held convictions, or believing myself to be unassailably right. I'm good at asking questions though, and that's what I intend to do.

To you, the reader, I ask three things;
  1. Please approach this blog with an open mind. If you have a prepared answer to a question posed, please challenge it before dismissing the question.
  2. Please take time over this process. I know that, since you're surfing the web, you're not expecting to spend more than 2 minutes on any one thing, but it'll make a nice change, I promise!
  3. Please comment. The questions here aren't (all!) rhetorical, and if you don't have an opinion to share then bringing more questions to the debate is the whole point of the exercise. So don't be too nervous about not knowing something; the fact that I don't is the reason behind the blog.
Reading back over this first post I should also point out that I have a tendency to take myself a little too seriously, so please feel free to scorn and ridicule as you see fit! As long as you all play nicely....