On Tolerance

I like to describe myself as a tolerant person. Not tolerant in terms of being patient with incompetence or having a high pain threshold, I tolerate difference. I have no problem with people thinking differently, looking differently or acting differently to the way I would (or at least the way I’d like to think I would). I think that tolerance of the differences between people is a fundamental part of any modern, humane society. I think many of the world’s problems could be solved if the starting point was tolerance and the next step was discussion. I’d like others to be tolerant of me in the same way that I am tolerant of them. Many are not.

“Conventional people are roused to fury by departure from convention, largely because they regard such departure as a criticism of themselves” – Bertrand Russell

It is not just religion that breeds intolerance and bigotry (although that is the largest driving force behind it in the modern world), uninformed ideology can also contribute, although many of the features of religion are present in fascism and communism and some would describe them as secular religions. There is an underlying force behind all of this, when people become divided on any grounds and the two sides become somehow ‘other’, it becomes all to easy for those in authority driving the divide to dehumanize the two sides, separating them still further. Humans are tribal by nature and putting people into boxes which suffice to summarise their entire character without any direct contact happens without any conscious effort. There are clear evolutionary benefits from this tribalism, being more wary of people who have less genetically in common with you is an obvious way of keeping you (and your close family) safe. People from other tribes who are not related to you will ‘look after their own’ first and if this means an action that is detrimental to your safety, so be it. Altruism towards people who you have less genetically in common with at the expense of those with whom you share more genetic material doesn’t work in evolutionary terms. It seems perfectly natural that when people are separated into groups, the feelings or needs of the group to which you belong become more important than those of another.

The easiest and I think most obvious way of combating the inherent tribalism within all of us is to cut it off at its source. The only reason people are ever seen as different or ‘other’ is because they are (but only in a geographic or social sense). Separating people of difference without encouraging a full and all-encompassing mixing (to avoid dilution and assimilation) is the theory behind multiculturalism, it doesn’t work and only serves to strengthen the feelings of difference. It has been tried in almost all major cities in Western Europe and many others around the world. When people are allowed to mix naturally without the fear of their own culture being in any way harmed or lessened by pressure from outside, the ignorance that exists between separate groups evaporates and the clear common ground that exists between all people regardless of race, culture or religion becomes apparent.

What exactly do we mean by tolerance? To some it may mean voting for a candidate who believes that homosexuality should not be illegal, to others it means smiling through gritted teeth while your son brings home his first boyfriend, while to others it means being the proud parent at your son’s gay wedding. Personally, to me tolerance means treating people in an equal way whatever difference they may have from you (or each other) to the point of ignoring the difference, not even noticing it. A person’s choice (or inherited genetic tendency) of lifestyle, should not be judged by the way it affects them but by the way it directly affects those around them, not in a ‘I don’t approve’ way but in a ‘their children aren’t safe’ or a ‘driving like that is dangerous’ way. Not doing what you would do in a given situation is not grounds for persecution, doing something that has negative affects on other people is. Maybe ‘acceptance’ is a better word to use but tolerance is the word in common usage on the subject so I’ll continue with that.

What are the limits of tolerance? Should I tolerate unlawful behaviour? Unethical practise? Cruelty?

No, these are not things I think anyone should tolerate. They all have a clear victim, all freedoms of action have a boundary around which stand the other members of society who could be affected by those actions. Granted there are many examples of ‘victimless crimes’ such as drug use but I don’t really want to get into the whole ‘legalise drugs’ issue. Suffice to say that in this piece I mean crimes that have a clear victim (I would include children of substance abusers in this category). Poor ethics are not constricted to the corporate world, we all know examples of religious leaders driving expensive cars and wearing designer suits, while the charities and causes they claim to support struggle with lack of funds (or no funding at all if they dare to break one of the requirements set down by the church). There are many examples of cruelty that are only permissible in law due to dietary restrictions, or bodily requirements placed on the religious. These actions are still cruel, whoever or whatever orders you to do them. Tolerance does not extend to allowing actions against an unwilling victim (I include all children in this) or to slaughter any animal in a way that causes any more than the bare minimum of suffering and for any reason other than necessary pest removal or food.

These are so far examples of toleration with regards to behaviour, what about tolerating intolerant thoughts and views?

Many people may disagree with me on this but I cannot allow the suppression of intolerant views to be more important than the freedom to express them. I do not believe that they are (or can ever be) correct or valid but for tolerance to be truly tolerant it must cover all members of society not just those who I agree with. It is only through frank and open discussion that the enemies of tolerance and freedom can be engaged, silencing one’s critics without exposition is a surefire way to encourage them, ensuring their continuance. Deconstructing and refuting their arguments in front of those they are attempting to convert in the most public forum possible is the only way to show people the falsity of their claims. The irony of the religious fanatic standing on a street corner screaming about the evils of free speech is not lost on me but it almost certainly is on him or her. However, tolerance of this sort is not really comparable to the tolerance spoken of above, if a person has views you do not agree with it is not only your right but also your duty (time and place allowing) to challenge them, point out any errors, inconsistencies and errors before expressing your own opinions and backing them up with the reasons you hold them and any evidence to support your claim. Just shouting ‘Shut Up You Nutter!’ before walking off without giving them the option of reply won’t convince anyone of anything other than your own intolerance and inability to accept criticism.

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

We all live here, in this now global society, it is no longer enough to peer through the once murky camera lens of a far away country, wondering how people could treat each other like that. Metaphorically walking by when one witnesses harassment, bullying or victimisation of any member of society be they part of a vulnerable minority or just unlucky enough to be surrounded by ignorant idiots is not an option anymore. It is only by standing up and confronting the peddlers of hate head on that we can start to build a world we would be proud for our children and grandchildren to live in.

We are not just members of society, we are society.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

The Plight of the British High Street

A walk through my local High Street tells an all too familiar tale. Nationwide there are hoards of empty units, boarded up shops and ‘To Let’ signs throughout areas that not too long ago were bustling retail parades, bursting with shoppers all too willing to part with their hard-earned cash in exchange for items they didn’t need and a feeling of satisfaction with having ‘made something’ of their lives. This has now gone. High Streets are now the domain of businesses with nowhere else to go. Post-Offices, Banks, Estate Agents, Chemists and Newsagents are still there but there are some new kids on the block. Poundshops, Gold Exchangers, Second-Hand buyers and sellers are nestled in between the ever-expanding franchised fast-food outlets and the odd independently owned, overpriced boutique, selling worthless tat to people with more money than sense (or taste).

It’s very easy to put this down to the current financial hardship being felt by almost everyone not a professional footballer or hedge-fund manager but I think this is a much deeper shift in attitudes toward shopping and town centres. It is true that the global economic downturn has put extra pressure on small High Street shops but the emigration of major retailers to ‘out-of-town’ aircraft hangers in retail parks on motorway junctions is not new, I remember them starting in the eighties. Equally, the influx of service providers and discount stores to fill the void left by the large retailer’s exit is a change that has been progressing slowly for decades, the recent recessions have merely accelerated the process.

Blame for the decline in High Street popularity is also put on local governmental decisions to allow these lager superstores to operate far enough outside town centres to benefit from cheaper land and rates while still being near enough to them to be in active competition. This could be a valid criticism given that it is local authorities who set both the business rates paid by the units in the town centres and the parking rates for their customers but while I accept that much local governmental policy is misguided, I cannot understand why any council would be driving business out of the town centres while facing cuts to their own budgets. Also, dropping rates to keep some shops in business would amount to a subsidy, propping-up an otherwise unprofitable enterprise, something I do not believe any local authority should be doing with private sector businesses.

Another factor needing to be taken in to account when assessing the situations discussed above is the rise of online shopping. Online retailers have seen well above inflation growth year on year regardless of recession. People are becoming ever more comfortable buying things online and retailers ever more sophisticated in their marketing and delivery strategies. Gone are the days of worrying about being stuck with an item you don’t want because the picture online made the product look nothing like the reality and not being able to return it. Delivery times can often be set at the time of order to fit in with one’s lifestyle and the rise in online competition has forced most retailers into abiding by an easy returns policy. Christmas shopping in December used to be an absolute nightmare but I wouldn’t know now as I haven’t done any gift shopping in actual shops for years.

Changes in the local business landscape should not be seen as all negative, the decline in daytime activity in town centres has been counteracted by a rise in nightlife as pubs, bars and restaurants flourish, offering people a temporary escape from the depressing news headlines and the even more melancholic soap-operas or reality TV epidemics currently offered up as weekend night-time entertainment. It’s not just in the darkness that these changes in activity are evident, the empty units are nearly always near offices, colleges and schools, making them attractive to the glut of deep-fried poultry providers with near identical names (normally based on an American State), offering their fare to any who are unaware or uncaring of the resulting arterial damage its consumption entails.

At root, all these changes are not the result of policy change or government ideology, they are the result of a basic economic model. Give people choices and they will make them, if you are able, as a retailer to offer a more popular option than your competitors you will be more successful. High Street shops are there not as an aesthetic distraction as you drive through on your way to the cheaper and more convenient superstore down the road, they are there as businesses to make money. One cannot have the convenience of local shops while being disinclined to use the regularly, if you think that the superstore is causing the decline in your local high street, you are wrong. It is you, the users of your local shops who have the collective power over their success or failure. As the saying goes: if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.

Even more so than with politicians, we don’t just get the High Streets we deserve, we actually get the High Streets we want, even if we don’t know it yet.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

P.S. – Wow, when I had the original thought for this post it was supposed to show my positive feelings towards the changes in our town centres and how I wholly embraced them but having read it back it’s incredibly negative. I don’t actually feel the way I come across, I quite like the idea of service based High Streets and shops being conveniently out-of-town but I suppose I’m too grumpy to get my positivity communicated in a comprehensible way without appearing sarcastic!

Far-Right Racists Are Just Fundamentalists With Western Names

Whether through the violent extremism of Anders Breivik or the legitimate democratic process used by Marine Le Pen, we are currently witnessing a groundswell in far-right feeling and actions throughout the populace of Western Europe. Many people here feel resentful of the immigrants who have arrived in the past few decades and the governmental policies that allowed them to do so.

I am not a fan of the term ‘far-right’, as it implies that ‘centre-right’ politicians are a little bit racist but not enough to be illegal and that ‘centre-left’ politicians are not. I would much rather the economic and social aspects of politics be separated from the labels ‘left’ and ‘right’. I would put myself on the right economically but the left socially, most people would class me as an economic and social liberal. The irony is that most politicians of the ‘far-right’ appeal to a voter base which is anything but right-wing economically. It is the poor and disenfranchised, those who feel they have more right to a share of a country’s wealth than those who have spent less time in their country who are voting for Geert Wilders. It is not the rich, be they industrialists, bankers, or sport stars that Nick Griffin is appealing to for votes, despite the popular opinion of the political spectrum and its ethnic grouping. The reactionary movements being seen throughout Europe are not ‘far-right’, they are racist and they work by appealing to the base instincts surrounding a fear of ‘otherness’. Lets not forget that the racist element in politics has always been there, as far back as you want to go populations were grouped according to ethnicity. The mass migrations started in the middle to the 20th century from the former colonies to Western Europe brought the general populace face to face with people from other cultures and the results have not always been positive as seen by the 1958 Notting Hill race riots and the rise of movements like the White Defence League, the National Front and the British National Party today. However, it is only in modern times that these types of organisations have become political parties of any note and not been generally supported by open violence against those who they perceive as ‘non-white’.

This is not just about religion or culture. Whereas in the past much talk of immigration was based on broadly ethnic grounds, with the immigrants arriving in a country being highly visible due to their different skin colour from the existing population, now much of the immigrant population is from within Europe, more specifically the EU. Despite the separation between the end of World War II and the late 1980s between East and West, much of Europe has a shared history with religious and cultural practises crossing national borders without impediment. Language and dietary tastes are often the only differences between immigrants from other European nations and the current residents. This has proven to be much more difficult for governments to deal with, the regulations within the EU allow for the free of movement of labour between member states, it is impossible to remain a member of the EU and restrict the movement of other member states’ citizens within one’s own borders. Politicians of mainstream parties have tried to tackle this issue by restricting numbers of immigrants from outside the EU but this has unintended consequences. Many of the immigrants seeking to come and work here from Asia or Africa are highly skilled graduates and therefore of obvious benefit to the economy but many unskilled workers also come illegally (or remain longer than legally allowed), changes to immigration policy alone will not solve this. The majority of immigration between EU member states happened during the boom the mid 2000s, when several former ‘Communist-Bloc’ nations were added,  before the financial collapse of 2008. Those most affected by this immigration were ‘blue-collar’ workers, especially labourers or skilled tradespeople, who found that their prices were often being undercut by the new migrants who had lower overheads by living communally or not having to support families. It is these people who find the appeal of the ‘far-right’ parties most powerful, although their feelings towards the immigrant population is not unlike that felt by the Luddites of the 19th century towards the mechanised working practises of the industrial revolution.

Some may see a correlation between the rise of the ‘far-right’ across Europe and the rise of fundamentalist Islamic ideologies throughout the world, especially among 2nd or 3rd generation immigrant muslims in Europe, as evidenced by the public transport bombings in Madrid and London following the invasion of Iraq. While it may be true that some have a ‘I hate them coz they hate us’ attitude, it should not be forgotten that the causes of fundamentalist ideological groups are almost identical to the causes of the ‘far-right’ political movements opposing them. The overriding fear of losing one’s way of life, feeling ostracised from your local or national community and a feeling of persecution by foreign powers can drive people to commit horrendous acts, as we have seen throughout history via revolutionary wars and the fall of colonialism. Whether those feelings are caused, in the modern world, by immigration, foreign policy or global capitalism, the effects are the same. People feel that the only way to maintain the way of life they enjoy or believe is ‘right’ is by violent opposition to any change, especially change proposed by or for the benefit of those who they see as ‘other’ or ‘different’ from themselves. This sentiment is evident currently in the French election campaign, with the Front National party led by Marine Le Pen pledging to virtually stop immigration and pull out of the single currency if elected, following the European parliament’s decision to limit member states’ budget deficits. These type of feelings are rooted in the fear of the unknown which is present in everyone but they are truly irrational. Why would the European parliament want to weaken the economy of an EU member state? Disagreeing with governmental policy is not the same as knowing they are ‘out to get you’, there is no ‘master plan’ of European ministers, socially engineering the nationality and culture out of all EU citizens, there are just people trying to do what they feel is right, trying to make the best of a bad financial situation.

I think the current economic situation is highly relevant to this situation, with people not only having less spending power due to wage inflation lagging behind the increases in the cost of living, help that people previously had from public bodies is decreasing due to the lack of available funds. The perceived injustices created by the myths perpetrated by certain sections of the media (immigrants do not, for example get preferential treatment in social housing) that could be tolerated during times of plenty, have come to a head with many people believing that allowing people from poorer countries to live and work here is not only an affront to those born in their country of residence but that it is also a major factor in the privations now being felt. That many immigrants work jobs often unwanted by the local population into which they move, continue to pay taxes while being unable to access the benefits afforded to those who are work-shy or benefit dependant seems to be regularly ignored.

How then, to solve the problems (if you see them as problems, which I do) of the feelings causing this divisive drive?

“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better”
 – Abraham Lincoln

There is a difference, in my opinion, between diversity and multiculturalism. Diversity does not affect how people interact with each other, it is the objective aim of good governmental policy, rather than the policy itself. Multiculturalism, is the governmental policy that has failed in this aim. It is the policy of preserving individual cultures by keeping them separate from each other, ghettoising whole communities, forcing them to become even more insular. In a diverse, cosmopolitan city such as London, multiculturalism can never work because the density of the population forces some overflow into the surrounding areas but with multiculturalism still at the heart of much local and national government policy, it can only ever happen at the fringes. This causes resentment as people see their neighbours change and now living in ‘white’ or ‘British’ pockets feel isolated and resentful towards their new neighbours, who they feel are ‘swamping’ the area and the new residents turn to what they know, their own culture, exacerbating the problem. As is so often the case, education would appear to be a solution on many levels. If a person from an immigrant background becomes educated, they often want more from their lives than can be offered by staying in the areas the grew up in, driving them to integrate fully into wider society. This is also the case with those at risk of becoming ‘far-right’ sympathisers or even voters. Sadly this does not happen often enough.

This does not mean I want the whole of Europe to become some kind of huge homogenous cultural and ethnic blob with no differences between people but that with experience of other people comes understanding. I wouldn’t want to go back to 1950 when shops didn’t sell pasta or rice, nobody knew what a curry was or how to hold chopsticks and the closest most people got to another country was the seaside. Nor should you.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Big Gay Bus? Or Ex-Big Gay Bus?

I woke up the radio news this morning to learn of a London bus advert that has been banned by TFL (Transport for London). If you’re in Britain you may already know about it but if you haven’t yet heard you can read the story from the bbc here. In summary, an advert from an organisation claiming to be able to ‘cure gayness’ has been banned for being offensive. This is the text (capitals intended as on the advert) that was to be printed down the side of the buses:

“NOT GAY! EX-GAY, POST-GAY AND PROUD. GET OVER IT.”

It was meant as a response to (and copied the style of) the advert by Stonewall, the LGBT charity which, since 1st April has 1000 buses with this on the side:

“SOME PEOPLE ARE GAY. GET OVER IT.”

My initial reaction to the story was, ‘good, I can’t believe they thought it was ok to say stuff like that in public’ and I still feel like that. The sentiments behind the ad, although not explicitly printed on it, are that homosexuality is some sort of mental illness or disease that can be cured through therapy. That is what the group who put the advert forward, Core Issues Trust, promote:

“CORE is a non-profit Christian initiative seeking to support men and women with homosexual issues who voluntarily seek change in sexual preference and expression”

Clearly with a mission statement like that, I think we should be wary about promoting their adverts. However, there is a part of me that is uneasy with the banning of any advert merely on the basis of it being offensive to some people. It is, after all, not obscene, crude or crass. This is a topic over which two of my most strongly held beliefs, freedom of speech and freedom from prejudice, are in direct opposition with each other. That the advert is offensive and designed to be so is not in question, that it is designed to cause controversy and promote discussion is also clear. The same could also be said of the humanist ‘there probably is no god…’ bus advert from a few years ago, yet that was not banned. Should these groups be free to express their views in public forums? My ‘freedom of speech’ head tells me yes, one cannot claim to live in a free society without having to listen to opinions one thoroughly disagrees with, just as those who disagree with me should not be able to silence me for the same reasons. My ‘freedom from prejudice’ head tells me no, you cannot allow those among us who have such horrendously outdated, divisive and bigoted views to promote the concept of homosexuality as something that is to be cured, akin to drug addiction or gambling.

Is it the subject matter that’s the difference between this and the humanist advert? What if the British National Party wanted to run an ad campaign based on race? ‘Stop being so Black’ or ‘Asians should be in Asia’ ? This, I think, would attract nearly unanimous negative attention and would certainly be banned, rightly. There are fundamental differences between ethnicity, sexuality and religion. While I don’t personally believe that religion is a true ‘choice’ in the same way as a political vote, it is certainly a lot closer to choice than ethnicity, over which one has not control whatever or sexuality, where the only choice is whether or not to practise. A person can choose to learn about different religions and beliefs and may well change their views with age. Openly projected sexuality may change with age but it is normally a ‘coming out’ experience from a repressed position rather than some sort of ‘switch’. Prejudices on any grounds have no place in the public sphere but debates over the subjects of the prejudices can be welcome. It is when the subject is a matter over which one has no control, that the debates become unwanted, unwarranted and often truly offensive, this is where the metaphorical ‘line in the sand’ is drawn in many people’s minds.

I think the difference between the adverts in the news today and the humanist campaign from a few years ago is the sentiments behind them. The humanists did not openly criticise anyone in society who believed in god or attended any religious congregation, they merely pointed out their own beliefs. They did not attempt to lure people into an atheistic ‘conversion’ or even assert that one belief system was better than the other, only that you shouldn’t worry if yours doesn’t quite match up to what people expect of you. The advert by CORE, on the other hand, is directly aimed an already victimized section of society. A minority who, despite recent advances, still face prejudice and persecution from many vocal and sometimes violent members of our society.

Do I believe in free speech? Yes, of course. Do I believe in untrammelled freedom of speech? Yes, but not on the side of a public bus. I believe that I (or anyone else) should be free to say whatever I think using certain mediums, public buses are not one of them. In short, the demography of the readership and their sensibilities do need to be taken into account. Thats not to say that all public adverts and promotions should be mundane or banal but there is a balance to be found and I believe Boris has found it on this topic.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

I’d love to hear some of your comments and opinions on this as I’m not fully committed either way.

You May Not Believe Climate Science But You Cannot Deny The Economics

There seems to be a choice of 3 opinions one can take on the Climate Change/Global Warming debate. Firstly one can choose to deny the existence or validity of any evidence that shows the global trend of rising average temperatures. The second position seems to be one of acknowledging the rising temperatures but dismissing the idea that it could be in any way ‘man-made’. The third position is one of acceptance of near-universal scientific consensus, that the world is getting warmer and its our (collective) fault. There is a fourth position of believing the climate science but not caring enough to do anything about it but this is really just a form of denial without having to deal with the arguments, outright denial or just looking the other way often end up with the same results, that of having to deal with far larger problems, far quicker and more expensively than would have been the case had they been confronted at the first opportunity.

There are probably a number of motives for the denial evidenced in the first two opinions listed above. These vary from religious to financial but all appear rooted in the human disposition of being opposed to change of any sort. One can be opposed to changes in the global climate but that will not stop them happening. It is interesting that those who deny the often overwhelming scientific evidence for climate change will often point to other scientific evidence for previous changes in the global climate, accepting only the evidence they like to hear, not unlike the ‘independent’ studies into the links between smoking and cancer in the 1950s. There is a huge amount of industrial capital invested in fossil energy sources, not just by us in the West but globally, being told that we need to change our cultural dependence is unsurprisingly distressing. It is also reasonable that those with the most to lose would want to make absolutely certain that change is necessary before it is effected. However, misleading the public with lies and bullying politicians into doing things they know will have negative long-term consequences for their citizens are not actions that can be tolerated. The media has a lot to answer for this, the traditional media debate pitches two opposing views against each other to argue their points, leaving the audience to make up their own mind with some sort of compromise. Little weight is given to the scientific strength of each of the opponents, even if 99% of scientists are sure of one side of the argument, the audience are presented with a view that both opinions are equal, this may be fine in political debate but more emphasis needs to be given to scientific backing in debates about public policy that is based on scientific evidence.

Imagine that there was no scientific evidence to support the claims made by proponents of Climate Change. Imagine the world was not warming and global weather patterns were not changing. We do know that the world as a whole is getting richer and our lives are becoming more and more automated with every passing year. Labour saving devices in the home and workplace save our biological energy but cost in the form of electricity and are becoming an ever more important part of people’s lives throughout the world. Add to that the increasing burden of travel, caused by the people wanting to travel to ever more exotic locations for their holidays or having to travel ever further for work and the energy demands of the world show no signs of abating in the near future. The fossil fuels available to us are a finite resource, despite new options for extraction being opened up in Arctic waters (ironically by Climate Change itself) the increase in demand is far faster than the increase in supply. Any basic economic model will indicate that where demand exceeds supply, prices will rise and when the supply is limited by finite resources rather than expandable manufacturing capacity, prices will continue to rise until they become unaffordable. This is a process currently underway, the diesel I put in my van costs nearly £1.50 a litre ($10.80/gallon) and despite the restriction of supply caused by the current political problems in the Middle-East, a real-terms fall in global energy prices is not likely in the near future. The current stretch on supply chains means there is no slack in the system so any disruption causes massive peaks in the oil price. Any medium term increase in supply by drilling in ever more hazardous environments is likely to be more than offset by not only the increased demands from the developing world but also the massively increased costs of extraction from oilfields found in very deep or very cold locations. Not to mention the heightened risks associated with these types of drilling techniques, both to the local ecology and the workforce.

Home energy bills continue to rise faster than inflation and fuel poverty (more than 10% of household income spent on home energy bills) has become a significant problem in Britain yet popular opinion still seems to resist the idea of energy efficiency in the home, with political pressure pushing for tighter controls on the prices charged by energy companies and the high initial costs of renewable sources being cited as ‘prohibitive’ to their widespread implementation. LED lighting is expensive to install but costs less in the long-term, is this any different from buying a house rather than renting? We seem to be waiting until the energy bills we pay are so high the payback on installing PV cells or wind turbines are almost immediate. All the while certain elements are releasing negative and untrue stories to the media about the longevity and maintenance costs of the technology used in the harnessing of these energy sources.

The fundamentals of my argument boil down to this:

Fossil fuel energy is getting more expensive due to supply and demand issues, who do you think will be best prepared for the future? The state who makes sure its citizens have full access to oil until the final drop has been extracted while refusing to invest in new technology to use the various ‘free’ sources available to them, or encouraging its citizens to use energy in a more responsible way? Or, the state who begins a gradual shift from fossil to renewable sources as early as possible, while reducing the overall demand on energy supply by educating its citizens in the benefits of energy efficiency?

Even if you are a Climate Change ‘denier’ or ‘sceptic’, your bills will continue to rise. You may not wish to change the way you live but it will cost you more if you do not. I may dislike the raised costs of precious metals and could choose to deny their scarcity but like Cnut, the will of a person cannot hold back the tide.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

God Does Not Own Marriage

Today marks the beginning of a 12-week consultation on the introduction of same-sex marriage in England and Wales. Since 2005, same-sex couple have had the option of a ‘civil partnership’ with some of the same but not all the legal rights given to married couples. The proposed legislation would make no distinction between any married couple of whatever gender mix. It would also allow currently married people to legally change their gender but would not allow same-sex marriage in any religious ceremony.

As expected, all the usual church spokespeople have been screaming their bigoted bile about this ‘grotesque’ plan which, they say will ‘shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world’ and ‘undermine the traditional idea of the family’. Given that none of these ceremonies will be held in churches, I’m not really sure what it has to do with them.

When I married my wife in 2007, we were forbidden from using any religious text as a reading during the ceremony,. Despite the passage we wanted having no reference to any ‘god’, we were not allowed to use it because it was from the bible. This is due to an archaic law introduced when civil marriage ceremonies first started, separating entirely civil marriage from religious while keeping them equal in law. This separation was to allow people who were not Anglican to marry legally in the UK, recognising that many of the citizens of the time were not of that denomination and that people should have the legal freedom to be equal in the law while maintaining their freedom of religion. I think most people would agree that this is right, I’m not really sure how many people could have too many objections. If you follow that principle through, one cannot allow same-sex couples to exist without giving them the right to marry.

I personally have 2 issues with the proposed legislation

  1. Not allowing same-sex couples to participate in religious marriage ceremonies is, in my opinion, hostile to both religious freedom and freedom of sexual orientation. If a religious body wishes to conduct a ceremony for a same-sex couple that it is allowed to conduct for a couple of differing sexes, I can see no reason for not allowing them to if that ceremony is recognised by law when conducted in a registry office.
  2. If same-sex marriage becomes legal, I can see no purpose for keeping the civil partnership scheme currently available to same-sex couples, especially if the option is not available for couples of differing sexes.

Both the Catholic and Anglican churches seem to have a massive problem with the idea that same-sex couples should be allowed the same legal rights as those of differing sexes, their reasoning seems to be based on the idea that marriage is in itself some sort of ‘gift from god’. It’s not as if nobody got married before Jesus, plenty of pagans had the idea of 1 woman, 1 man – together for life etc, well before anyone outside the Levant had ever heard of Moses and his laws. Despite the monopoly granted to state approved churches during the dark ages, the concept of a lifelong joining of a couple in love really has little to do with any religion. The idea that the Roman Catholic church, which banned its priests from marrying to avoid having to make payments to widows, should have a say in who may and who may not make a public and legally binding declaration of their love for each other, is frankly laughable.

I’m not sure how allowing more people to marry will ‘change its meaning in law…will have a knock-on effect in everyday life’. What knock-on effect would that be then? More people feeling a part of mainstream society rather than excluded outcasts? More stable long-term relationships between equal partners? What exactly are they scared of? Are they worried about their congregations ‘turning’ gay and eloping to the registry office? Do they really think that allowing same-sex couples to marry will make more people ‘turn’ gay? As for its meaning changing in law, it is now rightly illegal to discriminate between the sexes on almost any grounds, why should marriage be any different? Either we’re all equal or we’re not, I think we should be.

Of course what the religious figures we hear on this matter are really scared of is losing the ever fading power over their flock. The idea that people are thinking for themselves and coming to different conclusions than those set down in a set of rules imagined by bronze age shepherds before being rewritten and reinterpreted to strengthen the grip of the current incumbent power of the day is, to those in positions of religious power, abhorrent. Any change in the law that allows people who are not religious to live a lifestyle without the need for approval by religious authority will always be (and has always been) opposed by the members of that religion.

After stripping back all the hatred and homophobia, what the issue rarely comes down to is equality. Do you think that people who have a different lifestyle to the majority should be granted the same rights as the majority? Or do you think that being in love with a person many people disapprove of should prevent you from access to the legal benefits that are accorded to those who happen to be lucky enough to love a person many people approve of?

The concept of a lifelong union between humans has probably been around longer than any organised religious belief and is certainly far older than any monotheistic system. They may have embraced marriage and incorporated it into their own dogma but it gives them no right to issue diktats over who it applies to, certainly no power over democratically elected governments, the voters who elected them or a peaceful minority who want nothing other than to be treated equally.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

Capping Benefits Will Not Cause Child Poverty

One of the main stories in the news this week is the government proposal to cap the total amount payable in state benefits to a family with children at a maximum of £26,000 per annum (or £500 per week) and the House of Lords attempts to block this cap. This amount has not been plucked out of the air, it has been chosen because it is the amount of money (after tax) that an average wage earning family would have available to spend. Families receiving out of work benefits to do with disability or illness will be exempt from the cap. Currently, the amount of benefit received by a family is not limited in any way, more children means more money, as do higher housing benefit costs.

The idea of a cap set at a fixed, arbitrary level seems to have strong public support, especially among those working but earning low salaries, who appear to be working to support their families yet find themselves unable to provide their families with a lifestyle that may be available to them if they were not working. However there are sections of society who are resisting having a limit to the amount payable to some families, with their main objections to the bill being that all cases should be assessed separately and that families with high housing costs or large numbers of children in the household should not be punished by the state for being out of work.

Many people (me included) believe that having an income equivalent to that earned in an average working household is quite enough for any family to live on, regardless of size. If a family’s housing benefit costs are so high as to be eating up a huge proportion of their total benefits cap, they are free to move to a cheaper area, that is after all what all working families have to do. I cannot see this being the huge, nationwide problem reported in some parts of the press. London has much higher housing costs than all other parts of the UK and also happens to have the most comprehensive transport infrastructure (meaning the move would be less disruptive) and the most buoyant jobs market (meaning less excuses for being out of work long-term), those claimants living in London may experience most of the problems associated with these changes but also have the most chance of being able to deal with them easily.

I have heard it said that these changes may push many children into poverty. I think this is entirely the wrong attitude to have, the parents of these children need to look at themselves if they are unable to provide what they believe their children need. The government is not preventing them from working and it is not the government’s responsibility to pick up the tab for ever-increasing family size. Most people do not choose to have families they know they will be unable to support, this is called ‘being responsible’. The idea that it is a ‘right’ to have as many children as you like, safe in the knowledge that the taxpayer (you & me) will foot the ever-increasing bill, while the majority struggle to provide our families with what they need with little or no outside help is clearly not ‘right’ or ‘fair’ (incidentally these are the very terms used by those who disagree with me) .

What exactly is the definition of ‘Child Poverty’? The existing social infrastructure prevents all forms of absolute poverty in all but the most extreme of cases. We do not have children starving to death or dying of easily treated illnesses (cases of child neglect excepted) as happens in some countries in other parts of the world. The poverty we are speaking about here is known as relative poverty, measured against other members of the society in which they live. While a family can be judged as being in poverty based on numbers and statistics, when it comes to individual members within a family unit it is not so simple. Not owning a smartphone, iPod or trainers with air bubbles and flashing lights may be a sign of not having much money but does it really mean you are so poor as to be deprived of what is necessary for your general well-being? If judging poverty from a child’s point of view, do the societal norms of the childs immediate surroundings get taken into account? I was lucky enough to be sent to a private school, yet among my peers I was considered relatively poor, clearly not poor when placed in the setting of society at large but given the socio-economic background of the English public school system my family were near the lower end of the income scale. Even in families with a bare minimum of expendable income, children need not go without things they need, as long as all the family do not spend what little money they have on things they merely want. Relative poverty is supposed to indicate when a person has to go without things that most members of society take for granted. I may take for granted being able to turn the heating on or being able to afford to eat meat every day but I certainly wouldn’t put foreign holidays or subscription TV into this bracket.

The fundamentals of this argument over who is to blame for a child’s poverty boil down to whose responsibility you believe it is to ensure a child’s well-being. In the first instance this should surely be the parent’s, I would not imagine many people thinking it a good idea for the state to install surveillance cameras in a home after a child’s birth to monitor the parenting skills on show but most would see it as the state’s responsibility to step in if the care given was seen to be inadequate, abusive or neglectful. It is also the case that it must be first the parent’s responsibility to ensure the well-being of their children. Given that the vast majority of parents manage to provide for their children perfectly adequately, even with many having much lower incomes than the cap under current proposal, any form of poverty or deprivation evident in the child’s upbringing cannot and should not be seen as being caused solely by a change in government policy.

If you have a child who you are unable to raise, stop looking around for others to blame. You are not the only one in your circumstances, others are managing. If you can’t, don’t blame them, or the government, or me. Blame yourself.

Thanks for reading

Rowan

All comments are welcome, I’ll try to answer as many as I can.

%d bloggers like this: