Archive for May 2013

Let’s stop talking about terrorism

May 28, 2013

I recently wrote about how most definitions of terrorism make me think that rape should be included in that category. But I’d like to make my view on terrorism a bit clearer: I actually don’t think it’s a very useful concept.

My view is that either every crime-with-victim is a form of terrorism, or there is no such thing as terrorism at all.

It’s not as if some fear-causing crimes fall into a special category; it’s a spectrum with subtle gradations. For example, you might feel unsettled if someone steals a hose from your unlocked garden, slightly more unsettled if the gate was locked and you realise they had to climb over it, properly worried if they smashed a window.

More serious crimes like mugging or burglary tend to cause genuine, non-negligible fear. However strong you are, you will probably be frightened and you will probably change your behaviour (however pointlessly) to reassure yourself that it can’t happen again.

If you repeatedly break into houses to steal, you are carrying out a campaign of fear. Your intention might just be to get the wide-screen telly, but you cannot fail to be aware that when you break into someone’s house, you will frighten them. Repeatedly carrying out an act that’s guaranteed to frighten people and disrupt their lives: how is that not terrorism? Just because you’re doing it for money? When we focus on what the perpetrator intended – “I didn’t mean to scare him” – and not on how the victim feels, we’re letting the perpetrator write the script.

The other side of the coin is that when we treat terrorism as different from regular crime, concepts of justice and fairness go out of the window.

Others have written, better than I ever could, about state-sanctioned torture, about detention without trial, about how the state can ignore human rights and due process in the name of protecting people from terrorism. I don’t think I need to go into that here. But I would add that along with the lefty concerns for human rights, there’s a strong right-wing argument for ditching this bullshit: if the crime is so bad, we should hurry up with finding out who did it, giving them a trial and locking them up. Not locking them up for an indefinite period because they might have done it; locking them up for a defined period because they did do it.

If you decide that some categories of crime are somehow “different”, you get a sloppy, emotion-driven, made-up-on-the-spot approach to justice. You get attempts to retrospectively apply laws that didn’t exist at the time of the alleged offence; you get “interrogations” that don’t result in any useful information but do result in the death of the person being interrogated; you get violations of international law; you get the police pushing for the right to question suspects for longer without charge; you get the police using terrorism legislation to arrest press photographers.

In other words, you get a justice system that’s less efficient at its job of protecting citizens, less efficient at its job of delivering justice. And you get a lot of state agents trying to take advantage of the messiness to seize more power for themselves. I think it’s possible to be very right-wing but still object to the concept of “terrorism” on the grounds that it just isn’t fit for purpose. That’s why I wish we could stop talking about terrorism and just talk about crime.

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Why isn’t rape defined as terrorism?

May 24, 2013

People are talking about what terrorism is. Do you define a crime as terrorism by looking at who the perpetrator is? Or by looking at the victim(s)? Or is it about the crime itself, or the stated reasons for the crime? There’s no legally binding international definition, but M15 gives one possible definition:

The use or threat of action designed to influence the government or an international governmental organisation or to intimidate the public, or a section of the public; made for the purposes of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause; and it involves or causes:

  • serious violence against a person;
  • serious damage to a property;
  • a threat to a person’s life;
  • a serious risk to the health and safety of the public; or
  • serious interference with or disruption to an electronic system.

When these discussions come up, I always think the same thing: if what you’re describing is terrorism, why aren’t we defining rape as terrorism too?

It’s an act, or threat of action, designed to intimidate a section of the public (usually women) for the purposes of advancing an ideological cause (usually male dominance) and it involves serious violence against a person. It’s a global problem. The actual incidence of rape seems to vary wildly from country to country, but the message is universal: women should do the work of avoiding it, change their own behaviour to reduce the chances of it happening to them. And men who’ve been raped are under huge cultural pressure to keep quiet about it.

The ideological aim of the rapist has been achieved if we’re not talking about the perpetrators and how to stop them. It’s been achieved if we carry on behaving as if rape can never be stopped, only managed and dodged. It’s been achieved if a huge section of the world’s population is amending its behaviour, living a less free life, because of the threat of rape.

I’m not claiming that rapists are an organised group with stated aims. They don’t have to be. The individual actions still add up to a clear pattern with a clear message.

We talk about rape as an act of terrorism in conflict areas like the Democratic Republic of Congo, but we don’t talk about rape as an act of terrorism happening globally, all the time, with the effect of frightening half the world into behaving more submissively. We talk about rape as a war crime; we don’t talk about it as a war in itself.

And the amount of money we spend on fighting rape is, needless to say, a pittance compared to what we spend on fighting the “easy” kind of terrorism, the kind carried out by bearded foreigners with bombs instead of our friends and colleagues and brothers and sons. The questions we ask and the assumptions we make about the two kinds of terrorism are wildly different.

Morality tale draws the wrong moral

May 23, 2013

A writing blog I follow recently shared a cautionary tale about lateness: the writer’s son left a payment too late and ended up having to pay a late payment fee. His parents refused to help him out – his fault that he “wasn’t smart enough to make his payment in time”, right?

My take on this episode is entirely different. Apparently the son was paying for a summer course at the University of British Columbia (UBC). He made the online bank transfer to pay the $600 fee the night before the money was due. Cutting it fine, yes, but nevertheless, he sorted out the transfer before the deadline.

What he didn’t know – and apparently should have known – is that his bank takes three days to process online payments.

I don’t know how the would-be student found out that the payment hadn’t reached UBC, but he did find out and tried to sort things out. But he didn’t have enough money left in his account to cover the fees because – well, let me think why that could be. Could it possibly be because $600 had ALREADY LEFT HIS ACCOUNT? Unfortunately, he didn’t happen to have another $600 just hanging around in his current account, which is why he contacted his mother for help paying the fees.

She refused. UBC then charged him a $100 late fee.

Daphne Gray-Grant, the writer and mother in question, turned this into a smug little morality tale about the importance of planning and not leaving things to the last minute. As you might have guessed, I don’t see it that way.

There is absolutely no technical reason why a transfer from one bank to another should take three days. It would make sense if money transfers involved a man on a horse carrying the cash in sacks; but even then, a transfer between the student’s home in Vancouver and a university also in Vancouver would still take less than three days. In reality, bank transfers can happen in milliseconds. The fake delay is imposed by greedy banks who want to hang on to customers’ money for as long as they can get away with it. So Daphne’s son was entirely reasonable in his expectation that a bank transfer would take a few hours rather than a few days. (Many banks have already done away with the fake delay and process transfers instantly.)

You know who else is greedy? The University of British Columbia. They imposed a $100-dollar fine for late payment of $600 in course fees. Payment which, I assume, turned up after two days. Think of it in terms of a regular debt and you can see how unfair it is; a $100 charge to borrow $600 for TWO FUCKING DAYS represents an APR of about 3000%. Bear in mind that we’re talking here about an 18-year-old potential student who saved up for a summer course, did his best to pay on time and (presumably) tried to explain the situation. A student who had proof that the money had ALREADY LEFT HIS FUCKING ACCOUNT, which meant that from his point of view, it was paid.

Maybe I’m projecting here, but it seems to me that the would-be student genuinely (and reasonably) expected the money transfer to take a few hours. When the payment didn’t go through, he thought something had gone wrong and that the money had been somehow lost: “Did I just pay 600 [expletive] dollars into thin air?” His bank’s behaviour must have caused him a lot of unnecessary alarm. Then the university chooses to financially exploit him – exploitation which wouldn’t even have been possible if the bank hadn’t already been exploiting him financially with its bullshit three-day-transfer policy. Then his mother refuses to help him out because she thinks he needs to learn his lesson. If she’d lent him the $600 for just a few days while the mess got straightened out, he could have avoided the $100 late fee completely. But she didn’t.

Look, I accept that leaving things to the last minute is often a bad idea, because things go wrong and they take time to sort out, so often you haven’t got as long as you thought you had. But we’re talking here about a teenager who’s been badly screwed over by two institutions he trusted. Why are we talking about his “lateness” in paying a few hours before the deadline when we could be talking about what evil bastards his bank and the university are?

And if we are going to talk about lateness, why can’t we talk about the completely calculated, utterly unreasonable lateness involved in taking three days EVERY TIME to complete a fucking bank transfer?

If we’re talking about lessons learnt, let’s talk about how this teenager found out that respected institutions can conspire to screw you over even when you’re trying your best to do the right thing. How his local university sees him as a cash cow rather than as a potential learner. And, worst of all, how his own mother has no sympathy for him and instead decides he’ll make a great topic for her weekly blog post. (Incidentally, when she had her own hassles with a financial institution – American Express – she whined about how hard they were making things for her.)

The really poignant bit for me is when the lad tells his mother he’s afraid that his father will blame him for the mix-up, little realising that she will blame him too. They’ve obviously got some kind of “bad-cop, bad-cop” parenting dynamic going on there, combined with a bit of “victim-blaming cop” .

Do I need any more evidence that the cult of early is linked with unreasonable smugness and a total lack of empathy? I just hope that if Daphne ever needs her son’s help in an emergency, he charges her at least $100 for it.

You can’t make an omelette

May 21, 2013

I see a project as having three sides: timescales, morale and quality. If you prioritise perfection and don’t care about anything else, you’re going to miss your deadlines and alienate your team.

I wrote that last year in the context of people who call themselves “perfectionists”; I was making the point that “perfectionists” often end up

taking a lot from other people and giving back nothing but criticism, without even helping to deliver a finished project

because that’s what you get if you focus on one of the three sides of the triangle and ignore the others.

Of course, focusing on timescales alone can have similarly disastrous effects. I recently watched an episode of Saturday Kitchen while spending time with some elderly relatives, and got a fascinating example of this.

Saturday Kitchen has a feature called the Omelette Challenge, where the goal is to cook a three-egg omelette as quickly as possible. Chefs compete to beat each other’s times and move up the leaderboard. Wikipedia tells me that the current record-holder is Paul Rankin, with a time of 17.52 seconds.

In the episode I watched, the winning chef did what you’d expect; cracked the eggs as quickly as possible, beat them as quickly as possible and threw the resulting mix into a frying pan on a very high heat. What he didn’t do was create anything resembling an omelette. He just threw a grey mass of uncooked eggs onto a plate and announced that he’d finished. The losing chef created something that looked much more like an omelette (albeit still undercooked) but she lost the contest and ended up low down on the leaderboard because this contest is just about speed, not quality.

I’d be interested to know just how far you can push this. If it’s OK to serve up the omelette without cooking it properly, is it OK to serve it up without cooking it at all? Is it OK to leave out the step where you beat the eggs? Or the step where you crack the eggs? The logical conclusion of focusing solely on speed, with no other specifications in place, is that someone just takes the three eggs, puts them on a plate still in their shells and announces “Finished!” I’d love to see that happen, just as a test case.

My relatives inform me that they’ve never seen a chef produce an edible-looking omelette during the Omelette Challenge. Apparently the show’s presenters and guests never touch the results of the Omelette Challenge either.

The Omelette Challenge is a perfect example of how focusing on timescales, and timescales alone, can ruin a project. Everything gets done very fast, but all the project’s resources are wasted because there’s no edible result to show for it. And morale is low because you can’t create something even halfway edible without being penalised for it, so you can’t take any pride in your work. Of course, how you feel about it depends on what you think you’re making: a meal or a few minutes of television?

Weddings and the wrong kind of involvement

May 20, 2013

I think I’ve established that social initiative is like any other kind of initiative: it’s valuable because it’s not the default behaviour and because it requires energy and work. Also: it requires empathy and interest. Generic “polite” behaviour also involves (real or fake) empathy and interest, but in a reactive way. But sometimes people mistake one for the other:

He’s glad you’re getting married. At least, he’ll say he’s glad you’re getting married. He’s glad (or fake-glad) enough to come to the wedding. But asking him to decorate bunting… that’s starting to push the boundaries past generic, reactive social engagement. And some requests push the boundaries much further.

Expecting the wrong kind of involvement is a common mistake for soon-to-be-married couples. You figure that everybody coming to your wedding matters a lot to you and cares about you; therefore they must be prepared to join in with thinking-outside-the-box wedding activities. If they’re happy to come to the wedding, of course they’ll be happy to make micro-decisions, take part in minor acts of creativity and take social initiative. They’ll write something cute in your guest book! They’ll send in a photo for that slideshow thingy you’re compiling!  They’ll choose their own songs for the disco! They’ll mingle with the other guests!

When you make this assumption, you forget that this kind of stuff is offputting for many people. Sure, it’s a joyful, special occasion, but that might actually increase the fear and tiredness they feel when looking at the blank page of your quirky guest book. What do they write? How do they know if they’ve got it right or not?

It’s the same kind of fear and tiredness that stops people getting on a bike instead of into a car. The fear of making yourself vulnerable, doing something unexpected, maybe getting it wrong and wearing yourself out in the process. It doesn’t help that our society, and our education system, trains people to feel like this.

If you work in a creative industry and/or mingle in certain privileged circles, it’s easy to forget that many people are pushed out of their comfort zone by minor acts of creativity or initiative. Think about the number of people you know who run their own business, who work in creative fields, who regularly speak at conferences, or organise conferences, or put original content on the web for the heck of it. Now think about your extended family and your parents’ friends. Do any of them do this stuff, ever?

Also, talking to new people? Wedding guests generally don’t want to do it. I naively expected that everybody at my wedding would be simply delighted to meet everybody else. I thought my wedding would be a place where people met and bonded with each other.  Afterwards I felt slightly hurt that most guests only spoke to the people they already knew and didn’t attempt to introduce themselves to strangers. It was a combination of Geek Social Fallacy #4 and a wild overestimation of my loved ones’ social initiative.

Wedding guests are, by and large, happy with weddings always following the same pattern. They’re happy to stay with the people they know and have a day that fits the usual format. They’ll admire quirky touches, but once you start asking for active involvement, expect resistance.

But you can reduce the fear factor and get more people involved  by introducing formal constraints. Think about what you’re asking. Instead of the blank page, try Scrabble tiles, as some friends of mine did. Sure, ask people to pick songs for the disco but accept that only a tiny proportion of guests will actually do this, and the DJ will ignore anything obscure in favour of “New York, New York” anyway. Go for colouring-in over drawing.

I’ll finish with a cautionary (true) tale of a bride who expected too much creativity. She asked her matron of honour, who she thought was a creative type, to “write a poem for the wedding”. The matron of honour spectacularly misunderstood, found an existing poem by a famous poet and… wrote it. As in, copied it down. Admittedly, she copied it down in fancy calligraphic writing onto a scroll-y thing, but the bride was upset because she’d been hoping for an original poem specific to her own wedding. But what could she do? She did what I’d hope any soon-to-be-married person would do when faced with a response which wasn’t what she’d hoped for. She took the poem and thanked the matron of honour with as much sincerity as she could manage.

Social initiative: underrated but important

May 17, 2013

Right, it looks like I’ve gone back to writing about initiative again. Today I want to make the point that not all initiative is about starting your own business or organising a protest or doing something creative; social initiative is important too.

I’ve touched on the idea of social initiative very briefly before, in a story about two people who sat in silence because neither of them had the social initiative to start a conversation. But the concept deserves wider attention.

I think we’ve all had the horrible experience of being an unwelcome newcomer. You turn up somewhere, you don’t know anybody, and nobody talks to you. Nobody approaches you. It feels like hostility, but often it’s just a lack of social initiative. Nobody thinks it’s their job to talk to you, nobody wants to make the uncomfortable effort of talking to a new person, so they stay in their comfort zone with the people they already know.

It feels like a problem for you, but it’s actually a problem for the group. Because almost all groups – businesses, voluntary organisations, social scenes – benefit from having new people there who feel welcome and happy. The process of benefiting from new energy starts when you welcome someone. The process of conveying unspoken rules, so the new person can be a beneficial member of the group, starts when you welcome someone. The process of integration starts when you welcome someone. If your group can’t welcome new people because nobody thinks it’s their job, your group has a colossal problem.

My dad helps to run an amateur sports club. The club often gets visiting teams coming for friendly matches, and the other people who play or volunteer at the club are hopeless at dealing with them. No malice is intended, but my dad’s teammates huddle in the corner with their drinks. So my dad has unofficially taken on the job of welcoming the visiting teams, which does require courage: he has to leave the group huddled over their drinks and walk across to the strangers.

One of the counterintuitive things about initiative in general: it’s more about training and habit than you’d think. It’s not about reinventing the wheel. And it’s the same with social initiative. It starts when you realise it should happen, and it gets easier the more you do it.

My own experience of taking social initiative is that it’s fucking scary at first. You think “what the hell shall I say?” My advice: keep moving, keep smiling, just say something. I’d imagine that my dad probably just walks up to the visiting team and says something along the lines of “All right, boys? You found us OK, then?”

I’m no Oscar Wilde myself with my conversation-openers; it’s usually something along the lines of “Great to see you here,” or “What are you drinking?” or “God, it’s a bit cold today, isn’t it?”

And nine times out of ten, the other person will recognise the lifeline you’re throwing them. They don’t care if you’re pointing out the obvious about weather or traffic or the décor. They just see the smile and the intent to welcome and they appreciate it. They will grab that lifeline and before you know it, you’ve got a conversation going. And, again before you know it, other people are joining in, people who were terrified to make a move before.

A casual remark from a 1990s It-Girl (probably Tara Palmer-Tompkinson) got me thinking about this stuff in a systematic way. In an interview she described herself as “good at parties” and teenage-me had a lightbulb moment. It had never occurred to me before that socialising was a skill, a skill you could be good or bad at. Teenage-me had the “turn up and hope for the best” model of socialising fully internalised. That remark from a pampered socialite was the start of my thinking about social initiative, although I didn’t have a handy phrase for it at the time.

The next “aha!” moment came when I was studying mediaeval Welsh literature and came across the concept of the “ymdidan wraig”, or “conversation wife”. (Modern Welsh would spell it “ymdiddan”, I think.) Anyway, the idea is that it’s the nobleman’s wife’s job to welcome newcomers to the court, to go around with drinks, to get conversations going. The phrase is the basis of the rather forced multilingual pun in this blog’s tagline.

Of course women have been acting as social glue and conversation-starters for centuries; nothing exciting about that. What I love about the concept of the ymdidan wraig is that her work is explicitly acknowledged. Because today, it really isn’t acknowledged half as much as it should be. Yes, some wives still flit around pouring drinks and introducing people… but that work is usually ignored and unrewarded.

As a society we train ourselves to devalue this kind of work by pretending it’s unadulterated fun and not work for the person doing the work. In other words, we train ourselves to underrate social initiative. We decide that socialites are just bimbos, politicans are insincere, the barman who asks how you’re doing is nosy. (I’m not saying that those judgements are always incorrect; I’m just saying that we’re more likely to dismiss people when we don’t grasp the importance of the work they’re doing.)

Most of us don’t even grasp the concept of social initiative, which means that  when it’s lacking in a social situation, we misread the atmosphere as unfriendly or hostile. (Actually, if you build up your own social initiative you get a lot smarter at differentiating poor social skills from genuine hostility.)

I’d like to usher in a world where we understand what social initiative is, understand the power of conversation and communication, reward people for stepping forward and saying something. I’m tired of power-socialisers being written off as frivolous. I’m tired of seeing people with zero social skills benefit from the hard work of a power-socialiser and then use the relaxed atmosphere created by that person to mock them for being too talkative.

I’m not saying I’m a social genius myself; sometimes I absolutely can’t handle social situations and I’ll use weak coping strategies like drinking too much, clinging to my friends or hiding in the toilets. I’m just saying: when I do overcome the temptation to run away, I don’t want anybody writing me off as stupid just because I have the courage to get a conversation going.

Note: I’ve been writing this blog for nearly six years and nobody’s ever asked me what the tagline means. I hope that means you all just saw the joke first time and required no further explanation, but I suspect you just didn’t have the social initiative to ask. Ask me! I won’t say “no”. How could I?

Good feelings as well as bad

May 16, 2013

Someone recently got in touch about a post where I argue that feeling uncomfortable or tired is OK, “a sign you’re doing the right work”. They wanted me to clarify: did I mean that “the right work” always has to involve feelings like discomfort or fatigue or fear?

My answer: absolutely not, and I’m sorry if the blog post implied that. If this kind of work really made people feel consistently bad, that would be disastrous for human civilisation. Showing leadership, or creating art, or coming up with a plan, or doing some original coding – all those things can make you feel amazing. There are so many rewards built in to “difficult” work if you can get to the stage of unlocking them: the joy of being in creative flow, the joy of bouncing ideas off others, feeling proud of yourself for taking control, feeling strong, loving what you’ve made because it’s yours.

All I meant in my blog post was that bad feelings like self-doubt and fear and fatigue are common when you’re approaching the kind of work that takes something bigger out of you. So they shouldn’t be a reason to give up. You can use the uncomfortableness as a clue that you may be levelling up, putting yourself in a situation where you can do something more interesting and worthwhile.

My belief is that acknowledging weird feelings puts you more in control of yourself and the situation. And it protects you by helping you to separate the alarm-bells kind of uncomfortable – “This person is trying to force me into something I’m not happy with” –  from the levelling-up kind of uncomfortable: “Oh God, I don’t know where to start and I’m so afraid of messing up! Maybe I’ll just check email first…”

I think society trains people, especially women, to ignore and smooth over the alarm-bells kind of uncomfortable, but doesn’t offer much support for pushing through the levelling-up kind of uncomfortable. Acknowledging and accepting your feelings is a way of reversing that messed-up conditioning. You still get to choose which feelings you act on and how.