An Unequal Justice – and an Unequal Legacy

Two young men with their whole lives ahead of them.  One stabbed to death while waiting for a bus – for being black.  The other abducted, stabbed repeatedly, doused in petrol and set on fire – for being white.

We all know about Stephen Lawrence.  His murder, his parents’ long and tireless fight for justice, and the institutional racism within the Metropolitan Police that was uncovered by the two inquiries into the handling of his case, will never be forgotten. Especially now that Theresa May has announced that an annual memorial day has been established in his honour.  From 2019 onwards, 22 April each year will be “Stephen Lawrence Day” – a day dedicated specifically to the teenager’s life and legacy.

But how many others, I wonder – like me – had never heard of Kriss Donald? How is it that his brutal murder in 2004, at age 15, does not attract the same level of attention?  How is it that his name can be forgotten so easily? Why – as many people are demanding on social media – is there no annual day dedicated to his life and legacy?

The obvious answer, of course, is that his death, while horrific and deplorable, did not leave the same legacy because his killers were brought to justice relatively quickly.  His mother did not have to spend years fighting for her son’s death to be taken seriously by a police force that has since been found to have been institutionally racist.  Despite the fact that three of the men responsible for Kriss’s death tried to escape justice by fleeing to Pakistan, they were arrested, brought back to Britain, tried and convicted within 2 years of the murder.

Contrast that to the 18 years it took for any convictions to take place in the case of Stephen Lawrence – and even then, only two of the five alleged killers were found guilty.   It was the long and tireless fight for justice by Stephen’s parents – and the subsequent investigations into police corruption and institutional racism within the police force – that ensured Stephen’s case remained headline news for so long.   And who can forget the Daily Mail’s front-page accusation and invitation to the alleged killers to sue them?

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But if “Stephen Lawrence Day” is truly about the impact that his murder had on policing and society, then why do we not have a memorial day for other shocking murders that have similarly had a permanent impact on our laws and society?

Take the Dunblane massacre, for example.  In March 1996, 16 children and one teacher were killed by a single gunman, Thomas Hamilton, who then turned the gun on himself.  The massacre shocked the local community and the entire country, and led to a permanent change in British gun ownership laws.  In February 1997, Parliament passed a law banning private ownership of any gun over .22 calibre, and in November 1997 this was extended to all handguns.  There has not been a school shooting in the United Kingdom since.

Or the Soham murders in 2002, in which two 10 year-old schoolgirls, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, were abducted and killed by the paedophile Ian Huntley. The discovery that Ian Huntley had previously been investigated for sexual offences, yet had still managed to get a job working as a caretaker at the school that Holly and Jessica attended, led to the introduction of a host of new child protection measures and a permanent change in the way data was shared between police forces via the national police database.

And what about Milly Dowler?  The manner of her death, and the time it took to identify and convict her killer, were distressing enough – but far worse was the revelation that an investigator for the News of the World had hacked her mobile phone voicemail messages during the time that she was missing, even deleting some of the messages, giving false hope to her parents that she may still be alive.  The revelations led to the Leveson Inquiry, which had permanent repercussions for press freedom.

So why is there no annual “Milly Dowler Day”?  No annual “Dunblane Massacre Day”?  No annual “Holly and Jessica Day”?

I suspect what it boils down to, is that nobody has thought to ask for such a day. Just as nobody has asked for a Lee Rigby Day, or a Damilola Taylor Day, or a day to commemorate any of the other shocking and senseless murders of young people that take place in Britain on what feels like an increasingly regular basis.

Ultimately, it comes down to the victims’ families to decide if they wish to be left alone to grieve and to try to move on with their lives, or if they wish to dedicate their lives to campaigning to ensure their children are never forgotten.

Most families – once their son’s or daughter’s killers have been brought to justice – choose the former route.  Doreen Lawrence – largely due to the fact that she had to fight for so long to even get any kind of justice for Stephen – has clearly chosen the latter.

It is inevitable that the singling out of Stephen Lawrence for a special day of commemoration has provoked mixed reactions.  I admit my initial reaction was disbelief – how, I wondered, could the government so blatantly single out one murder victim over and above all others? How could this not be a red rag to those who believe that we have a two-tier justice system that simply does not acknowledge racism against white people?   Or to those who believe that our media and justice system are too much focused on issues of race, and not sufficiently focused on tackling equally important issues such as knife crime, gang violence, terrorism and paedophilia, all of which account for far more murders than does racial violence.

Kriss Donald’s mother, to my knowledge, has never asked for a national day of commemoration for her son.  She has repeatedly refused to engage in any attempts to use her son’s murder as an excuse to stir up racial hatred – appealing for calm in the days following his murder and asking people not to target the Asian community in response to the actions of “five men, full of hate”.

If a national day of commemoration is what allows Stephen’s parents to finally move on with their lives, then I am all for it.  I just wish the announcement had been presented with a bit more thought as to how it would be received by those who do not automatically see why his death, above all others, should receive so much attention.

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It’s time to challenge the false narrative of the “gender pay gap”

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Who needs fake news when seemingly the entire force of the mainstream media is dedicated to peddling the same false narrative, that men and women in the UK are paid unequally for the same work?

Is it laziness? Desire to use a catchy, easily-recognisable headline phrase rather than the multiple phrases that would be necessary to actually capture the issue?

Yes – on average, over their lifetimes, women earn less than men. And yes, we absolutely should look into every one of the reasons why that happens, and seek to address them. But using the term “gender pay gap” implies that the reason women earn less than men is simply because they are women – which is absolutely not correct.

The Guardian, today, even went so far as to convert the reported gender pay gap at various different companies into “the number of days women effectively work for free”, and published monthly calendars showing the dates that various companies “stop paying women”, allowing users to input the name of any company and immediately see on what date that company “stops paying women”. It really is a very impressive tool. Just a shame it’s promoting an outright lie, with the small fact that men and women are not paid differently for doing the same job, buried in the middle of the article, along with the equally vital information that the figures provided do not compare levels of pay for equal work or roles.

In reality, the “gender pay gap” is caused by various factors – societal (different expectations of women and men with regards child care and care of elderly relatives), behavioural (differences in personality, career choice and attitudes to work-life balance) and biological (pregnancy and childbirth being a major cause of women leaving work or taking time out).

It would be impossible to address all of the above factors in any meaningful way within the context of a single blog post, so I don’t intend to try. But I would like to look at one of the behavioural factors that I believe contributes to differing levels of pay between men and women – the “gender confidence gap”.

Why is it that women are – in general – less willing than men to negotiate higher salaries? Why don’t women advocate as forcefully for their ideas, or for promotion, as men?

I speak from experience here. Fairly early on in my career, I remember being in a job I was hating, working in a large investment bank, in which I not only found I didn’t have enough work to do so was constantly watching the clock, but also had a severe clash of personalities with my immediate supervisor. When my initial 3 month contract came up for renewal and the bank made it clear they wished to renew for a further 3 months, I rang up my agency and confided to them that I was miserable, told them I really didn’t wish to renew the contract, and begged them to find me something else.

To my utter mortification, my senior manager called me in the next morning and asked me if anything was bothering me. He hinted that he was aware that I wasn’t getting on with my supervisor, and asked whether I was finding the role sufficiently challenging. It was clear that the agent had broken my confidence and had told the manager of our conversation.

But what followed was one of the best lessons I ever learned, which served me very well from that moment on. Not only did my manager make it clear to me that he valued my work and was so keen for me to stay that he would be willing to re-jig the team so that I didn’t have to continue working under the supervisor I so hated – but he told me to ask the head of our department for a pay rise.  He told me I was one of the best and brightest people he’d worked with and that I was seriously underselling myself at my existing hourly rate.

It had never occurred to me that my manager would try so hard to work around the issues that were causing me to be so miserable. I had convinced myself that as a temp, and a junior member of the team, it was up to me to try to get on with the supervisor. It had certainly never occurred to me to ask for a pay rise.

I didn’t need telling twice. I asked for – and got – the pay rise. Three months later – again prompted by my manager – I asked for another. And every time thereafter that my contract came up for renewal – after the first six months it changed to six-monthly intervals – I asked for yet another pay rise. By the end of two years, I had almost doubled the rate I had started on.

Eventually, I did move on to another role at another bank. And this time I made sure that I properly researched rates of pay for similar roles, and that the rate I asked for was at the upper end of the rates advertised. The agent tried to talk me into putting myself forward at a lower rate to improve my chances of getting an interview, but I was adamant – I knew I was good at my job, and was determined not to sell myself at anything less than the top rate available.   I got the interview, and I got the job – at the rate I’d asked for.

I have spent just over 20 years contracting in the investment banking industry, and over that time I have had to negotiate my rate on numerous occasions – whether negotiating a starting rate, or an increase on renewal.   On every occasion, I have researched what similar roles are paying elsewhere, and have argued for the rate I required based on that knowledge and on as confident a sales pitch as I’ve been able to muster, as to my own talents and experience.

There have also been times where I have accepted a new role at a lower rate than I can see is being paid elsewhere. I have done this, generally, for one of two reasons – desperation for a job after a period out of work, or the knowledge that I am less experienced in the particular area than many other candidates who could command higher rates, but that the experience I will gain in the role will enable me to command a higher rate in the future.

The fact is, while the concept of “equal pay for equal work” means companies can’t pay women and men different amounts for the same job, the reality is that there are very few jobs in which two people genuinely do the same job. Two colleagues with the same job description may end up doing vastly different jobs in reality – from the simplicity of a supermarket cashier who scans and bags items faster than a colleague and therefore serves more customers on a daily basis, to the car salesman who sells twice as many cars each month as his colleague, to the corporate project manager who consistently delivers on time and on budget versus her colleague who constantly lets deadlines slip.   Allowing higher-performing workers to negotiate a higher rate than their lower-performing colleagues, provides an incentive for people to perform better in the workplace.  And enabling companies to pay lower rates to less-experienced candidates in exchange for valuable training and experience gained, provides a more level playing field in which candidates with differing levels of experience can compete for the same roles.

One tiny gem of information that often appears to be overlooked in the BBC pay row precipitated by Carrie Gracie’s resignation as China editor, was that when she was first offered the job in 2013, she was assured that she would earn the same amount in Beijing as Mark Mardell was earning in Washington as North America editor. However, three months after she accepted the China job on these terms Mr Mardell left Washington and was replaced by Jon Sopel, on roughly twice as much.

This, to me, indicates that Jon Sopel did a masterful job of negotiating his salary – NOT that Carrie Gracie was underpaid. She clearly felt that the salary she was earning was acceptable when she took the job – if she didn’t negotiate a suitable raise in five years then that is a failing either on her part, or that of her agent. For her to suddenly decide her salary is too low, simply because she found that Jon Sopel had negotiated a far higher rate than his predecessor was on, is ludicrous.   Not to mention the fact that, as many people have pointed out, the North America editor appears on the news far more often than the China editor – the two roles are not identical, and it is well within the realms of possibility that Jon Sopel may have negotiated enhanced responsibilities compared to his predecessor.

Salary negotiations are not easy. Many people – particularly women but also some men – find it incredibly difficult to sell themselves, to put forward the argument that they are worth “the big bucks”. But seeking to level the playing field by simply paying people the same regardless of talent or contribution, is not the answer, particularly within professional fields where companies seek to attract the best talent, and where individuals seek roles that will challenge their own individual skillsets.

I was very fortunate to have had a manager at such an early stage of my career who took an interest in my career and pushed me to assert myself more.  But it is telling that without that encouragement, I may have continued to undersell myself throughout the intervening years, both in terms of my rate of pay and in terms of my expectations of support from my managers.  I am no shrinking violet, but the “gender confidence gap” is real and I would far rather read news articles, and watch TV debates, that analyse and seek to address the reasons behind it, than read nonsense about how women “stop being paid” on a certain day of the year.  Especially given the vast amount of time and effort that must have gone into providing such completely false – and ultimately worthless – information.

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Lack of Tenure – The True Scandal of South Africa’s Failing Land Reform Policies

South Africa fallow land

I wrote a blog yesterday about the South African Parliament’s vote to allow the government to expropriate land without compensation. The blog was an attempt to explain the context to the vote, as well as the implications for food security and the economy if the policy actually is enforced.

While researching it, however, I started looking into the wider issue of land reform in South Africa – what policies are in place currently, how they are being enforced and what progress has been made in the 24 years since the end of apartheid.

The South African government in 1994 launched a process by which black people who were dispossessed of their land via colonial or apartheid policies, could claim back the land from its current owners. An initial application deadline was set for 31 December 1998, and around 80,000 claims were submitted prior to this deadline. 20 years later, around 6,000 of these claims are still outstanding, and the government has since reopened the application process to allow further claims to be made, as it has been suggested that the 80,000 initial claims only represented “1% of anticipated demand”.

While the government initially aimed to redistribute 30% of South Africa’s land by 2014, at present only around 7% has been redistributed, and the government has now shifted the target deadline out to 2025, with very little hope of actually meeting that target at the current pace of progress.

As pointed out in the previous blog, one of the key reasons given for the slow progress of land restitution, is the difficulty in negotiating appropriate compensation – hence the call for land to be expropriated without compensation.

But what the ANC is currently keeping very quiet about, is the fact that the existing land reform policies have created a situation in which any land that is expropriated, almost inevitably ends up falling into disuse. The reason for this is not due to any lack of motivation on the part of those who laid claim to the land, but rather due to the fact that the government does not give them secure tenure, instead granting them short-term leases, while the government retains the title to the land. The lack of tenure security makes it impossible for the recipients to secure funding to develop the land.

Worse still, in some cases it transpires that corrupt officials hand over the land to unknown people, rather than to those whose names are on the claim form.

The above-mentioned issues are highlighted in a damning parliamentary panel report which was published in November 2017, which sought to investigate the effectiveness of post-apartheid legislation in addressing the key issues of inequality in South African society. In addition to looking at issues such as poverty, unemployment, inequality, the creation and equitable distribution of wealth, and social cohesion, the report took an in-depth look at the way in which land reform policies have been pursued.

In addition to the issues mentioned above, the report highlighted issues with officials consolidating claimants into large dysfunctional groups, often with no shared identity and in some cases in serious dispute with one another. These groups are then expected to manage large farms or areas of land together, with no governmental support, making successful agricultural production impossible.

Furthermore, the report highlighted wider issues of tenure security particularly in former homeland areas where mining is taking place, with local people being denied rights to the land they are living on, by mining officials and traditional leaders who claim exclusive rights to the land through inaccurate interpretation of the underlying laws.

None of the issues mentioned in the report, could be blamed on white ownership of land, or on colonialism or apartheid – all of these issues relate to poor government policies enacted during the post-apartheid era.

It appears that rather than taking on board the report’s findings and its recommendations, and seeking to tackle the issues raised, the ANC are trying to take the easy way out, sweeping the bigger issues under the carpet and trying to focus all attention on the issue of land expropriation. But until the issues of corruption, mismanagement of claims and tenure security are resolved, any further expropriations – with or without compensation – will not only fail to fully satisfy the claimants, but will do irreparable damage to the South African agricultural sector, and the wider economy.

None of these issues will be easy to tackle. But it’s time for the ANC to stop blaming all of the country’s woes on the legacies of apartheid and colonialism, and instead take on the immense task of fixing the underlying policies that are keeping its citizens in perpetual insecurity.   I can only hope that Cyril Ramaphosa proves equal to the challenge.

Sources:

http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/land-restitution-south-africa-1994

https://www.parliament.gov.za/storage/app/media/Pages/2017/october/High_Level_Panel/HLP_Report/HLP_report.pdf

https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2018-03-02-land-we-dont-need-a-constitutional-amendment-we-need-a-total-change-in-policy/#.WqJqW2acYWp

http://www.pbs.org/pov/promisedland/land-reform-in-south-africa/

http://allafrica.com/stories/201710050758.html

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South Africa’s Bizarre Act of Self-Sabotage

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The South African Parliament recently voted to take steps to amend the Constitution to allow the government to expropriate land without compensation. Understandably, this has caused an outcry among those South Africans who either own land and now fear it is about to be taken away from them, or who simply see this as South Africa going down the same disastrous path Zimbabwe did 20 years ago, and who worry about what the policy will do to the country’s food security, and the broader economy.

On Twitter, meanwhile, users in the United Kingdom, Europe, United States and elsewhere are furiously sharing tweets and a video by Katie Hopkins, in which she draws a straight line between the new policy and the horrendous farm murders which continue to take place in South Africa. In her interpretation, the new policy is a flat-out endorsement of Julius Malema’s call for black people to kill white farmers in order to take their land. Those reading Katie’s tweets and watching her video are demanding to know why the mainstream media is not covering this impending disaster.

As a South African living in the UK but with family and friends still living in South Africa, I am not directly affected by the policy but I am deeply concerned about the impact it could have on the country I grew up in, and love dearly. And I am equally concerned about the rise in attacks and murders on South African farms. But while I cannot argue that the two issues are not related – of course they are, as both are rooted in resentment at the huge disparities in income and living standards brought about by colonialism and the apartheid era, and frustration at the slow pace of change – I despair at seeing the horrendously complicated issue of land reform reduced to the soundbite “white genocide”, which only serves to deepen the mistrust between ordinary black and white South Africans, most of whom fervently wish to move on from the divisive apartheid era.

This blog is therefore my best attempt to explain, and provide context for, what “land expropriation without compensation” is – and is not.

Firstly, a bit of background. The Constitution of South Africa, adopted in 1996, allows the government to expropriate land “in the public interest” and subject to payment of appropriate compensation. As it stands, this policy is not particularly controversial – similar policies exist in most other parts of the world, allowing governments to take over private land under “compulsory purchase” or “eminent domain” rules. A recent example of this taking place in the United Kingdom, was when the Olympic park was built in Stratford, East London – owners of property in the area were forced to sell their properties to the government at “market value” in order for the new site to be built.

The South African government, over the past 20 years, has been pursuing land reform policies which seek to redress the imbalance in land ownership in the country – including land restitution policies which aim to restore land that was expropriated from black owners under colonial or apartheid laws, to their living descendents or the communities to which they belonged.

The pace of restitution, however, has been frustratingly slow, with complaints that due to the “willing buyer – willing seller” principle used during negotiations, the government has in many cases been forced to pay greatly inflated prices for land. In 2014, for example, a claim involving the Mala Mala game reserve was finally settled, at a price just short of 1 billion rand – a figure which many felt was extortionate.

So the calls for land to be expropriated without compensation are, in many ways, a knee-jerk effort to speed up the process of land restitution by cutting out the difficult negotiation phase.

The policy is also, though, a cynical attempt by both the EFF and the ANC to win votes by seeming to put the interests of the majority black population ahead of the minority white population. Yet despite initial appearances, the two parties are deeply divided as to their overall aims.

The EFF, at heart, is a firmly socialist party. Its aim is not to take land from white people and give it to black people – in fact, it wishes to expropriate all land, both black-owned and white-owned, for state use. Under EFF policies, no individual would own land – it would all be owned by the state and leased to individuals. So while Julius Malema may sing “Kill the boer, kill the farmer”, he is not, in fact, encouraging people to kill farmers in order to take their land. His calls for violence against farmers, against white men, are simply that – xenophobic calls for violence. His plans for the land, on the other hand, are purely socialist.

The ANC, meanwhile, wishes to right the wrongs of apartheid and colonialism by restoring land to its rightful owners. It also, though, recognises the reality that taking land that is currently well-utilised, and simply handing it over to individuals or communities who would allow it to lie fallow, would be devastating for the country as a whole. In all the fuss about the recent vote in Parliament, the point which doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves, is that the ANC insisted on an amendment to the bill to state that the policy must not result in any risk to South Africa’s food security or the wider economy.

This point is crucial. Because, as former Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas pointed out recently, at present land expropriation without compensation is “just a slogan”. Until the government works out how to actually implement it, in a way that does not harm food security, and does not hurt investor sentiment, nothing will actually happen.

Of course, investor sentiment has already been hit. I pointed out to somebody on Twitter a few days ago that in many ways, the vote for expropriation without compensation is like the vote for Brexit – the UK voted in June 2016 to leave the EU but we have not yet left, many people are still fighting to ensure we never leave, and at present nothing much has changed since the vote. In much the same way, nothing much will change in South Africa until the government works out the finer details of how it can implement the policy without harming the economy – the answer to which, of course, is that it can’t. So either the policy will be abandoned, or the government will have to accept that the economy will be irrevocably damaged. In the meantime, just as the vote for Brexit caused an immediate drop in the value of the pound, so the vote for expropriation without compensation caused an immediate drop in the value of the rand.

But whereas my personal view is that the benefits of Brexit will in the long term outweigh any short-term pain, I think the opposite is the case with land expropriation without compensation.

If this policy is enacted, any short-term joy on the part of the populists who may rejoice at a policy that seeks to punish current landowners for the sins of their forefathers, will soon be replaced by pain when food production dries up and the economy grinds to a halt, as wealthy land and business owners pack up and move elsewhere in search of a more secure livelihood. And if the EFF gets its way, not only will it not result in land being given to black people who don’t yet own land – it will result in land being taken away from those who already have it.

This policy absolutely is not “white genocide”. It is simply the greatest act of self-harm a nation could impose on itself – and it is the poor black majority who will suffer the worst, if it goes ahead.

Sources:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/4447652.stm

http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/land-restitution-south-africa-1994

http://www.sabreakingnews.co.za/2014/01/08/president-zuma-to-hand-over-mala-mala-game-reserve-in-r1-billion-land-claim/

https://ossafrica.com/esst/index.php?title=Summary_of_the_Constitution_of_South_Africa%2C_no._108_of_1996#Section_25:_Property

http://allafrica.com/stories/201803070041.html

https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/land-expropriation-without-compensation-what-you-need-to-know-20180228

 

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“Frumpy” is Never a Good Look

There’s a wonderful scene in series 3 of ‘The West Wing’, when Sam Seaborn is meeting with a couple of Russian PR agents, to discuss terms for a meeting between President Bartlet and the Russian President. One of the Russians stipulates that when the two men meet, at a forthcoming event in Helsinki, President Bartlet must wear a coat.  Sam, puzzled at the request, asks why – prompting the following exchange:

Ivanovich: Sam, it is freezing too cold in Reykjavik, it is freezing too cold in Helsinki, it is freezing too cold in Gstaad – why must every American president bound out of an automobile like he’s at a yacht club, while in comparison… our leader looks like… I don’t even know what word is.

Sam: Frumpy?

Ivanovich: I don’t know what “frumpy” is, but onomatopoeically, sounds right.

Sam: It’s hard not to like a guy who doesn’t know “frumpy” but knows “onomatopoeia”. I’ll talk to the President about the coat.

I thought of this scene recently when I saw the picture of Jennifer Lawrence looking fabulous sandwiched between her four horrendously frumpy-looking co-stars at a photo shoot for the film ‘Red Sparrow’.

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And I also remembered numerous conversations with female co-workers, prior to my first office Christmas party, in London, aged 23. We were all disappointed that the invitations did not stipulate “Black tie” and instead simply “Dress to party”. We were all desperate to dress up in one of the many stunning ballgowns and party dresses displayed in all the shop windows ahead of the party season, but it was clear from talking to our male colleagues that many of them intended to go straight to the party in their office suits – some of them even intended to wear chinos – and we were worried about looking overdressed. Not to mention we all secretly wanted to see how the men would scrub up in black tie.

In the end, a group of us girls agreed that regardless of what everyone else was planning to wear, we were all going to make the most of the opportunity to dress up. And dress up we did. Thankfully, some of the men had decided likewise, and turned up in tuxedoes, putting their colleagues in chinos and crumpled office suits to shame.

It didn’t take many years for the joy of dressing up to fade – the sad truth is that no matter how fabulous a dress looks, it never looks good with flat shoes, and I simply can’t get on with high heels, so these days smart trousers, flat shoes and a sparkly top are about the extent of my efforts in the dressing-up department. But when I look back at the photos of that Christmas party, I still recall the exclamations over each other’s dresses, the sheer joy at how well we all scrubbed up, and above all, the excitement that we were going to an event that merited such attire.

We may sometimes forget it, because she’s been on our screens for so long, but Jennifer Lawrence is still only 27. Still young enough to thoroughly enjoy dressing up – and to want to take advantage of every opportunity she gets to do so.   Still young enough to look absolutely fabulous in a plunging, slit-to-the-thigh Versace ballgown.

Her co-stars, meanwhile, look dreadful. Did nobody tell them this was a party and that they might get their picture taken?   Or did they simply shrug and say, “Meh, I’m a star, I can wear what I like and I don’t care how scruffy I look”?

Not for the first time, I find myself completely at odds with the Twitterati feminarkies screeching about how Ms Lawrence’s attire is a depressing symbol of the patriarchy at work. Feminism is not, nor should it ever be, a race to the bottom, a battle to adopt all of the worst habits of men – in this case, a battle for a female star to look just as scruffy as her male co-stars.

In the PR stakes, Ms Lawrence won that photo-shoot hands-down. Feminists, rather than berating her for choosing not to cover up a fabulous dress with a heavy coat, should be celebrating the fact that she put all four of her male co-stars in the shade.  ‘The West Wing’ may have ended in 2006 but the majority of its political and social themes are as relevant today as they were then – none more so than this one: “frumpy” is never a good look.

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OFOC! WATON earth is this new nonsense?

Remember when letters after a person’s name used to be considered a marker of learning and gravitas? Years of hard work, dedication and effort culminating in a doctorate, or a degree, and the right to add the letters ‘MD’, ‘PhD’, ‘LLB’, ‘BA’, ‘BSc’ or other relevant title to one’s name?

And then along came social media, hashtags, and Brexit – and suddenly a whole host of people on Twitter are adding the letters #FBPE, #WATON, #OFOC and #ABTV to their names or Twitter bios.

Sadly, these letters do not indicate learning, or gravitas – in fact, in many cases, they indicate quite the opposite. Above all else, they are an indication of steadfast devotion to maintaining the walls of one’s echo chamber.   And an almost comical belief that as long as that echo chamber remains sound – as long as the only opinions one listens to on a regular basis are those that agree that Brexit must be stopped at all cost – then eventually it will, indeed, be stopped.

It started with #FBPE – which, to the uninitiated, stands for “Follow Back Pro EU”. A very simple hashtag enabling pro-EU Twitter users to easily identify – and, crucially, follow – each other, ensuring that they can all see each other’s tweets and easily engage with like-minded individuals.

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And boy, did it catch on! Pity the fool who tries to engage in polite disagreement with any opinion espoused by a user sporting #FBPE in their name. As I have discovered on a couple of occasions when I just couldn’t help myself – it’s simply impossible to have a conversation with just one individual. Oh no! Like sharks circling in the water, they feverishly monitor each other’s Twitter feeds, constantly on the lookout for anybody foolish enough to question any anti-Brexit tweet – and as soon as you attempt to engage one of them, they all pile in.    Before you know it, an attempt to explain that the word “let’s” on the infamous Brexit bus was interpreted by most Leave voters as a suggestion rather than a promise, sparks a 6-way debate about Nigel Farage, Grimsby fish processing, visas, blue passport covers, trade agreements and Moroccan raspberries (yes, really). Until finally, once you’ve rebuffed all their arguments, they either block you or accuse you of being a Russian bot.   If you’re ever bored and fancy wasting a day arguing with people on Twitter, just fire off a tweet contradicting any one of the more outlandish tweets posted by the #FBPE contingent.

It gets worse, though. Spurred on by the success of the #FBPE rallying-call, now it seems a whole host of further hashtags are being concocted, and commandeered by Twitter users desperate to add as many letters after their names as they possibly can.

And so we now also see #WATON appearing after increasing numbers of Twitter users’ names. Short for “We are the opposition now” it is perhaps not the best choice of acronym, given many of those who choose to use it are also rabid Corbyn supporters and have thus never been anything except the opposition. Maybe a better acronym would be #WWABTO (We will always be the opposition). After all, far better to shout from the sidelines than to actually attempt to move the debate forward.

Next, there is #OFOC (“Our future our choice”) – the latest attempt by certain members of the younger generation to convince the government that they, as the ones who will have to live with Brexit the longest, should have a greater say in the future of the country than the older generation who overwhelmingly voted for Brexit. After all, the argument goes, many of those who voted for Brexit will be dead in two years’ time whereas at that stage a number of 16-17 year-olds will be newly eligible to vote and would likely vote Remain, swinging the overall balance of the vote from Leave to Remain.

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Sadly these young voters are not so bright – ignoring, as they do, two key facts.

Firstly, the age at which the majority swung from Remain to Leave was actually 47, meaning given current average life expectancies, many Leave voters can expect to live with their decision for around 40 years.

And secondly, just as in two years’ time some of the older voters will have died and those currently too young to vote will have newly become eligible, so those in the middle will have matured. It is naïve in the extreme not to consider the fact that many of those who, in their early 40s and still in the flush of youthful optimism at the time of the first referendum, will, in two years’ time, have discovered that crucial combination of experience, optimism and “screw it!” attitude that will convince them to vote Leave.  ‘#OFOC!’ I hear the students exclaim. ‘We didn’t think of that!’

Finally, there’s #ABTV – which stands for Anti-Brexit Tactical Voting.   This is for anybody who still believes Gina Miller holds the answer to stopping Brexit – her “Best for Britain” campaign, launched prior to the 2017 general election, encouraged supporters to vote tactically for candidates committed to stopping Brexit. Bizarrely, despite their best efforts in the general election having made no difference to the overall course of Brexit negotiations, it seems the #ABTV devotees believe that voting exclusively for pro-EU parties in the May 2018 local elections will somehow swing the balance of power in their favour. The fact that they are electing local councilors, who have no more influence in Parliament than any other member of the public, appears not to have penetrated their collective consciousness. Possibly because they’re too busy engaging in Twitter pile-ons against those who don’t share their ideology, while frantically retweeting each other’s posts.

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If you’re a true devotee to the cause of stopping Brexit, you will, of course, add all four hashtags to your name.   The delightfully loony AC Grayling providing the perfect example. After all, why would he want to be known by his academic qualifications when he can be down with the cool kids instead?

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It does get a little complicated after a while, though, what with all those different hashtags after one’s name. Maybe it’s time for them all to be consolidated into one simple hashtag that more accurately sums up the overall position of these anti-Brexit campaigners. I suggest #ADSL – or Anti-Democratic Sore Losers. Just like its broadband namesake, which so rarely lives up to the speeds advertised and is now finding itself outperformed by fibre, #ADSL perfectly encapsulates the ethos of a group of people desperate to cling to an outdated idea of the EU as the ultimate solution to global trade, world peace and social equality, and unable to see it for the protectionist, obstructionist monster that it has become.   Just like those reliant on ADSL broadband, who discover that advertised speeds only apply to those living closest to the exchange, the benefits of EU membership accrue only to those closest to the corridors of power. The sooner the #ADSL devotees realise this, the better.

 

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On Closet Brexiteer Artists

Roger Daltry

Roger Daltry – photo from thetimes.co.uk

Great news for Brexit voters today, with the announcement that a small number of “Brexiteer artists” have “come out of the closet” and openly voiced their support for Brexit. They have even gone so far as to form a group, Artists 4 Brexit, in the hopes that other closet Brexiteer artists will realise they are not alone among their profession in thinking that the UK would, on balance, be better off outside the EU – and that, should they wish to out themselves and openly voice their support for Brexit, they will have the support of at least a few other artists.

Really, I should be cheering at the news that this small, persecuted minority has finally found its voice. But I couldn’t help feeling really rather sad at the formation of yet another group specifically devoted to dividing people into camps. Whether it’s “the 48%”, “the 52%”, “Scientists for EU”, “Students for Brexit”, “Artists 4 Brexit”, #FBPE or any number of other groups or hashtags set up specifically to allow people to identify those who voted the same way they did, all it does is further entrench the existing divisions between leave and remain voters.

Maybe I’m alone in remembering the outrage when, just a few days into the referendum campaign, the Remain campaign organised for around 200 business leaders to sign a letter publicly backing Remain.   It was pointed out, quite rightly, by some commentators that this felt like undue influence – the whole point of the referendum, after all, was for each individual voter to have the same level of input into the vote; a simple matter of one vote per registered voter.   For senior business leaders to publicly announce which way they intended to vote, so early on in the campaign before any proper arguments had been made by either side, was felt by many to run counter to the spirit of democracy that the referendum was supposed to uphold.

The outrage, of course, was soon swept aside as further public figures jumped on the bandwagon and announced which way they intended to vote – from entrepreneurs to economists, to world leaders, to UK politicians, to actors, adventurers, filmmakers, comedians and sportspeople – suddenly we were inundated with headlines and articles letting us know exactly what each of these people thought.   And the vast majority of those who spoke up publicly were backing Remain.

As far as the Remain team’s social media campaign was concerned, this was a gift. Dozens of different memes started to circulate, all of which essentially carried the same message. “Everybody who’s anybody is backing Remain; only losers and racists are backing Leave”.  A couple of examples are shown below.

Table showing prominent leave and remain supporters

Facebook meme - people supporting Brexit

And so the different camps started to form. And the message became even more entrenched – if you were an actor, or an environmentalist, or a scientist, or an historian, or a banker, or a business owner, of course you were expected to vote Remain, because a number of prominent people from the same background as you had already declared that they would be voting Remain.

The problem, of course, was that there were plenty of bankers, and actors, and environmentalists, and scientists, and business owners, and historians, and farmers and fishermen and students and housewives and men and women from all different walks of life who had their own ideas about which way they wanted to vote. They didn’t necessarily define themselves by their careers – they didn’t look to their managers or their heroes to determine which way to vote. They simply listened to the arguments made by both sides, and voted either Leave or Remain. And they voted the way they did for myriad different reasons.

The notion of people who voted Leave having different reasons for doing so, is, sadly, lost on the more bitter element of the Remain camp. The problem is, that having gone so far down the route of identity politics with the arguments that everybody who is good is voting Remain, and everybody who is evil is voting Brexit, it becomes impossible to entertain the thought that not all Brexiteers think alike (and neither do all Remainers). Hence the arguments that “if you voted for Brexit you were aligning yourself with racists like Farage and the British National Party” or “Not all Brexiteers are racists but all racists voted for Brexit”.

These arguments – as ridiculous as they are – sadly still get trotted out. Ironically, often by people who, in doing so, betray their ignorance of the concept of “one person one vote” and their complete lack of understanding of the arguments for and against the EU. The below tweet, posted just a couple of days ago, being a case in point.

FPBE Tweet

The whole point of democracy – of each person having one vote – is that when it comes to actually voting, the individual groups that may form for campaigning purposes, fall away.  A person who has heard ten arguments in favour of one outcome and ten in favour of the opposite will often make his or her decision based purely on the one or two arguments that most resonated for them personally – the other arguments will simply be ignored.   If two people end up voting for the same outcome, there is no guarantee that they did so based on the same arguments or reasoning.

But the idea of voting against your preferred outcome, simply because a person you despise has made it clear he or she intends to vote for that outcome, is just ridiculous.  Just as it’s ridiculous to change your vote just because somebody you dislike has made it clear they are voting for the same outcome but for a reason of which you disapprove.

Which brings me back to Artists 4 Brexit. As happy as I am to hear a few brave souls speaking out, I hate the fact that the term “coming out of the closet” is being used in this context.

Nobody should feel that they are “in the closet” due to the way they voted in the EU referendum. The notion that every person who voted for Brexit, is either a racist or doesn’t mind aligning themselves with racists, must be challenged whenever it raises its ugly head.

Because Brexit is happening. There is no longer any “for Brexit” or “for EU”. There is only “for the future”. Isn’t it time we all started to focus on that?

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What’s “work”, anyway?

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“Are you working?”

A blunt question from an ex work colleague, in the course of a friendly text message exchange. A surprisingly difficult question to answer.

In the end I took the easy way out, simply answering, “No, not at the moment”. Though, of course, that leaves too many unanswered questions – Have you been looking? Can’t you find anything? Are you just being lazy? What’s the problem? So I hastened to add, “To be honest I haven’t really been looking that hard; been too busy getting stuff done on the house”

Which is the truth. But it’s also only part of the story. And to dig further into that story would reveal that my original answer was, strictly speaking, a lie. The sort of lie we end up telling when we take the relatively easy route of answering the question that we know was intended, rather than giving the more complicated answer to the one that was actually asked.

Because of course I’m working. In some ways I’m working harder than I have done in years. It’s just that none of it is paid work. None of it comes with a handy job title, or a pithy LinkedIn headline.

A few months back, in a momentary act of bravery and frustration, I updated my LinkedIn headline. For years, I had been “Director, White Magnolia Limited” – but having recently shut down the limited company that I’d been using to manage my IT contracting work, I felt compelled to change it. LinkedIn, frustratingly, can cope with a person not having a current job title, but insists on every user providing a headline – a brief summary of who you are and / or what you do.

Fair enough, I thought, as I updated my headline to read “Property developer, news-and-politics junkie, blogger-in-chief at ilikewords.blog”. It was the closest I’ve come in recent months to defining what it is I actually do with my time – and for a moment I was perfectly happy with it.

But then I applied for an IT role with a local retailer, and, worried that they may decide to check my social media profiles before deciding whether to invite me for an interview, hastily changed it to the more business-friendly “Independent IT professional”.   Which is how it remains – though sadly I didn’t get an interview, and I never will know if the retailer had looked at my profile.

I’ve always hated the societal expectation that one should pick a career early on and stick to it for the rest of one’s working life. From asking young children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” to secondary school students encouraged to think about what career they wish to follow and to pick subjects that will aid in their pursuit of that career, to jobs that force people into increasingly complex specialities, to the inevitable “What do you do?” at social occasions –  we are constantly forced to define ourselves in increasingly narrow terms.

I left school with no clear idea as to what I wanted to do with my life – in the end deciding to hedge my bets with a generic business degree in finance, IT and economics. In 20 years of working in London I changed jobs constantly, trying desperately to avoid being pigeon-holed into one area – and yet still managed to end up with a CV that is so specialised around interest rate and credit derivatives, and the IT systems and regulations that support them, that I sometimes joke I’m pretty much unemployable anywhere outside the City of London.

All of which means I’m having to be very creative about what I do now that I’m living in the Lake District. Updating my CV to try to focus more on my generic business analysis / project management skills – and updating my job search parameters accordingly – has been a start. But a large part of me doesn’t actually want a regular job.

Throughout twenty years of working for large investment banks, I never became accustomed to the 9-to-5. I hated the daily rush hour commute, hated being sat at a desk for upwards of 8 hours a day, hated the office politics, hated the constant fluctuations in workload which meant that some weeks I would be working 12-hour days and lying awake at night unable to stop thinking about work, while other weeks I would spend the entire day watching the clock and trying to look busy.

I can’t help noting the irony of those days when I literally did nothing productive all day – but got paid regardless – compared to days in recent months where I could work all day on managing the probate for my late uncle’s estate, or clearing out his house, with endless runs back and forth to the recycling centre, or taming the overgrown garden, or painting, or tiling, or getting building quotes, or researching and writing a blog post, or pitching articles to publications in the hopes that someday, someone will pay me for writing – and go to bed exhausted in the evening from what has felt like a full and satisfying day’s work, but for which I have ultimately been paid nothing.

So yes, I’m working. It doesn’t always feel like work – because it’s new, and exciting, and challenging, and frustrating all at once. But if I can only figure out a way to make it pay, it could turn out to be my ideal job.

 

 

 

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A tale as old as time

Kiss and Tell2

The kiss-and-tell used to be the preserve of young women prepared to accept money and notoriety in exchange for a shot at fame and fortune. An illicit affair with a married celebrity, confessed to a tabloid, would bring disgrace to the celebrity and, if she played it right, could even launch a media career for the girl (I’m looking at you, Rebecca Loos).

But to those of us who live in the real world, it was always considered poor form to kiss and tell. In the eighties, when I was a teenager and beginning to navigate the perilous seas of sexual attraction and dating, it was always impressed on us girls that a boy who would brag to his mates about what we’d got up to, wasn’t worth bothering with – and equally, that it wasn’t very ladylike to give chapter-and-verse to our friends.   No matter how much you wanted to know all the details of each other’s sex lives, it simply wasn’t polite to talk about it in any level of detail.

I went to a convent school where sex education was almost non-existent – we learned about reproduction in biology class, while religious education drummed into us the notion that if we couldn’t save ourselves for marriage, we should at least save ourselves for somebody special – if we wished to be treated with respect then under absolutely no circumstances were we to give it up on the first date.

And then along came “Sex and the City” – and not only did we get to hear about what Carrie and her friends got up to, we also got to see it.   At 26 when the show first came out, I was just a few years younger than the girls were supposed to be – and was fascinated and awed by their confidence and, let’s face it, promiscuity.

“Sex and the City” presented the viewer with a world in which young women were strong, confident and just as interested in sex as men – and, in the case of Samantha, as keen to have as much of it as possible, with as many different men as possible.

Fast-forward another twenty years, via changes in police procedure to suggest that all allegations of sexual assault must by default be believed, to laws that protect the anonymity of the accuser but not the accused, to the Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement, and we now find ourselves at the point where a woman can tell her story of a bad sexual encounter with a male celebrity, in complete anonymity – ruining his career while risking nothing herself.

The account “Grace” tells of her “worst night of my life” date with Aziz Ansari reveals him to be a randy, persistent sex pest who thinks that when a woman says she’s not into something, she’s really just playing hard to get, and that he just has to keep trying until she changes her mind. But it also reveals Grace to be at best naïve, at worst vindictive in her decision to publicly recount the details of their encounter. She tells how, having met Aziz at an awards ceremony (she approached him) they exchanged phone numbers and subsequently exchanged flirtatious text messages before he asked her out on a date, after which she went back to his apartment, where she consented to giving and receiving oral sex, but then decided she didn’t want to go any further, and got upset when he kept pushing her to let him have sex with her, eventually leaving after various efforts to get him to take things more slowly fell on deaf ears (and roving hands).   Ultimately, her account shows that she wanted the date to continue – but only on her terms.

And this is where it seems that nothing has changed in the 30 years since I was at school. No matter what “Sex and the City” would have us believe, and no matter how much women may think they have gained in terms of sexual freedom, a man who pesters you for sex on the first date is not looking for a relationship – and it’s simply poor form to consent to a really rather intimate level of sexual activity and then decide to tell all to the press when it becomes clear that the only reason he wants to be with you is for sex.

Before #MeToo, I suspect this story would never have been told – at least not outside Grace’s private circle of friends. Which is where it should have remained. Sex and relationships are a minefield which only become mildly easier to navigate with experience – experience that, unless one is lucky enough to marry one’s first sexual partner, invariably ends up including at least one or two encounters along the way that leave one feeling at least a little dirty and degraded.

Because here’s the thing that “Sex and the City” doesn’t tell you – sex with strangers, or sex after a first date, is almost always rubbish. Grace may have felt that she knew Aziz because she’d seen him on television, met him at an awards ceremony and spent an evening in his company, but ultimately, he was a stranger.   A fact that presumably became mortifyingly clear to her when she found herself naked in front of him, with his head in her crotch – and hers in his.   She realised, too late, that in order to be enjoyable, oral sex requires a level of emotional intimacy – and trust – that simply were not yet present. At which stage she decided she didn’t want to go any further, but was clearly too embarrassed to make a swift exit, so tried to prolong the evening on her own terms. Only when it became clear that Aziz really wasn’t interested in anything other than sex, did she finally leave.

I do not mean to sound too critical – she was only 22 at the time, and her confession that she’d hoped once she told him she wasn’t into having sex with him, he might “rub her back or play with her hair” betrays not only her immaturity but her clear wish that by agreeing to oral sex, she may convince him to view her as a potential girlfriend. A fallacy as old as time.

Ultimately, I doubt that publicly shaming him and probably ending his career will make Grace feel any better about the experience. Given she’s remained anonymous, unless she learns to chalk it up to experience and ensure she doesn’t make the same mistake again, she invariably will.   Only next time, it will probably be with somebody who isn’t famous – at which stage she’ll find nobody actually cares about how crap her date was.

Because while it may feel, at the moment, as though we are going through a revolution in sexual etiquette, in which women will no longer tolerate men who make clumsy passes, or pester them for sex, or are simply crap in bed – the reality is that outside of Hollywood and Westminster, the rules of dating will never change.

If you want him to respect you, don’t, under any circumstances, give it up on the first date (and yes, girls, that does include oral).

If he’s pestering you to do so, he’s not worth bothering with.

And if you wish to keep your dignity, don’t kiss and tell.

 

 

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Rape as destiny. The ultimate apologists’ excuse for child abuse

Remember a few weeks ago, when Matt Damon got himself into all sorts of trouble for being brave / naïve / insensitive enough to suggest that despite the huge response to the #MeToo campaign, and the appalling allegations against Harvey Weinstein, in actual fact, most men are decent and respectful, and would never dream of harassing or abusing women?

And remember how he then went on to say that actually, if it hadn’t been for Harvey Weinstein, most of those actresses would have been raped or abused at some point anyway?

No? You don’t remember that second part? Of course not – because he didn’t say it. If he had done, it would have been front page news on every news site for days – and Damon’s career would be over. He would be ostracized from polite society, consigned to the scrapheap of history, any future movie contracts cancelled outright.

So if it never happened, you ask, why did I suggest that it did?

Well, it turns out Lily Allen, on Twitter, has just said pretty much exactly that, about the teenage victims of grooming gangs in Rochdale.

 

Lily Allen tweetAnd while those on Twitter who saw the tweet are rightly fuming, it seems the media have chosen not to mention it, instead simply reporting on tweets she posted earlier in the day in which she suggested that football should be banned in order to stop child abuse.

Lily, you see, just loves to throw out hyperbolic suggestions on Twitter in order to make a point about the way some people blame the entire Muslim community for the actions of a small minority. She recently got herself embroiled in a Twitter storm over a series of tweets in which she substituted the word “pensioners” for “Muslims”, tweeting “I don’t hate all pensioners, just the extremist ones. Can’t you see this country is being taken over by hate [sic] extremist pensioners”

So her suggestion that football should be banned to prevent child abuse, was in response to those who suggest that the problem of girls being groomed by (mostly) Pakistani Muslim grooming gangs could be resolved by halting immigration from Muslim-majority countries.

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And while I have a great deal of sympathy for her constant efforts to call out prejudice where she sees it, her tweet, with its suggestion that some girls are just destined to be raped, inadvertently cut to the heart of the reason why grooming gangs were allowed to operate for so long before any prosecutions were brought. Because in the eyes of the police, social services, and the public prosecutors, the problem wasn’t the gangs – it was the girls themselves. Their vulnerability, their often difficult family backgrounds, rather than prompting those in authority to offer them protection, instead caused them to turn their backs. The police and the public prosecutor were reluctant to prosecute the gangs because they felt that the girls would not be seen as credible witnesses.

What’s really unacceptable, though, is that these attitudes still prevail. If you’re an actress, or a musician, or a journalist, or a political activist, and you have a story to tell about Harvey Weinstein, or another Hollywood personality, or a politician, who at any time made an unwanted advance towards you – the media will be clamouring over each other to be the first to tell your story. But if you’re a working-class girl from a relatively poor part of the country, not only does nobody want to know, but you can expect to be lectured to by celebrities such as Lily Allen, who feel that their privileged upbringing makes them perfectly suited to talking about an issue they have no chance of ever understanding.

Rape as destiny. You really couldn’t come up with a more appalling excuse for refusing to discuss child abuse, or allowing it to continue.  Lily, you should be ashamed of yourself.

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