Archive for the ‘sacred swans’ category

The shibboleth of homeopathy

December 20, 2012

I’ve written before (though not here) about the smugness of your average self-declared “sceptic”. The kind of person who puts “atheist” in their Twitter bio as if “not believing in God” counts as a proper hobby. The internet is absolutely crawling with them.

And of course all online communities have their shibboleths. In the left-leaning communities, it’s the BNP. Making an anti-BNP comment, however obvious or fatuous, marks you out as one of the gang. Hating the BNP is easy, sure, but that’s kind of the point. You might disagree on education or immigration or cycling, but you can all agree on hating the BNP. How very cosy. (The Daily Mail, ditto.)

I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to spot that homeopathy serves exactly the same function among internet “sceptics”. In the past few weeks I’ve heard several friends expressing doubt about an ethical bank because it funds homeopathy, and another friend saying she’s unsubscribed from a vegan newsletter because they ran a pro-homeopathy article. Yes, the ethical bank also supports windfarms and fair trade and third world development projects. Yes, the vegan newsletter probably also offers a wealth of interesting content and support for a vegan lifestyle. But still, the perceived evil of homeopathy definitively overrides the good bits for one friend and plunges the others into a quagmire of ethical dithering.

To me, that’s hard to understand, because in these examples the good still so clearly outweighs the bad. Of course homeopathy is a load of rubbish. Of course it’s been debunked again and again. And yes, it can be dangerous. But I don’t believe that’s why it attracts such horror and ridicule on the internet, to the point where people (like me) who spend half their lives on the internet are trained to hear loud alarm bells when it’s mentioned.

It’s because homeopathy is a shibboleth. It’s a handy way of othering certain groups to show your membership of your own group. And it’s easy to laugh at the misguided flakes who use it, even when they’re misguided flakes driven to desperation by chronic pain. Maybe they’re misguided flakes who are frightened of mainstream medical treatment because they’ve had a traumatic experience that destroyed their trust. Chortle! The hilarious fools!

Even if you’re not that cruel, you’re still discouraged from showing empathy for homeopathy users because you know you’ll be jumped on if you express a nuanced view. You can’t say something like “We need to look at why people use homeopathy”, or criticise mainstream medicine in the context of the rising popularity of alternative medicine, because there are so many people out there itching to find a homeopathy advocate to argue with. And even though you’re not a homeopathy advocate, they’ll turn you into one for the purposes of winning an argument with you. Up to now, I’ve avoided blogging about homeopathy for the same reason I don’t blog about economics; I can’t face dealing with the comments of people who see certain keywords and joyfully jump in to say I’m stupid without actually listening to what I’m saying.

Mocking homeopathy on the internet is a way of asserting your identity as a rational, ethical person. It suggests you’re worthy to follow in the footsteps of the sainted Ben Goldacre, even though you don’t have his medical qualifications or his talent. Showing contempt for one minor, specific piece of flakery is a way of joining the right-about-everything club. You look like a free-thinker without actually challenging the views of anybody around you. It’s a sweet, easy pill to swallow.

Sacred swans: “You can’t even take a picture of your own child.”

October 13, 2011

We all know that paedophiles are bad, but to say so doesn’t always make you the toast of the party. It’s usually safe to say “String ’em up” or “The bastards should all be castrated” in working-class and/or right-wing company, but it pushes the wrong buttons among Guardian readers, who may suspect you of firebombing paediatricians’ homes in confusion. But, whether you’re drinking red wine with your vegetarian paella, or accepting tea with two sugars while you fix someone’s boiler, it’s always OK to complain about “the people who take it too far”. In other words, the people who are so keen to stamp out paedophilia that they impose ridiculous restrictions.

Every now and then we get a story about sunburn caused by a teacher’s reluctance to touch a child and apply sunscreen, but mainly the whining is to do with recording visual images. When you complain that your video camera was banned from the school play, there are several things that might tell me about you:

  1. You have very little idea why the restriction is thought necessary, because you don’t know a lot about how paedophiles work.
  2. You think that ownership of the visual depiction of your child goes with your general moral ownership of that child.
  3. You know that talking about “how they have gone too far the other way” is a sure-fire conversational hit.

Every year, school swimming galas and nativity plays are a forest of videography equipment. It gets worse and worse. The current generation of children is probably the most pictorially documented in history. (It’s also one of the most delinquent, and one of the best at passing GCSEs, but you can prove anything with statistics.)

I don’t seriously think that the average school needs to worry about images of its pupils falling into the wrong hands. Even if they did, no actual harm is done to the child depicted, unless you believe in voodoo. And, of course, even if every school and responsible parent banned all pictures of children in their care, there’d still be enough material to create this kind of vile pornography. But what annoys me about this particular swan is the sense of a divine right, the sense that the school’s attempt to protect your child is denying you your right as a parent to endlessly photograph and film them. Because, frankly, parents don’t always have the best motives either.

OK, so it’s a tradition to bring out naked photos of your child as a baby when s/he brings home their first boy/girlfriend. It’s an embarrassing, yet hilarious rite of passage. Well, it bothers me because I have seen too many parents do this, not as a little joke, but because they absolutely fucking hate their kids. Liked ’em as babies, hate the teenage monsters they’ve become. And we all know the best way to deal with a teenager is to humiliate them and sabotage their first attempt at an adult relationship.

I know a mother who constantly photographed her daughter because she thought she was way too fat, and wanted her to diet. Not all the time, though; sometimes she photographed her daughter grimacing her way through enforced fun, because she wanted to document her own ability as a good mother. The daughter lost weight. The fat photos are a reminder not to put it on again. Not much chance, since the daughter has since developed anorexia, and I think she’ll be staying slim for quite a while.

Once upon a time, the only media-savvy kids were child stars like Shirley Temple or Judy Garland (both great role models, of course). Now children know how to present themselves, to market themselves, in a way that was unthinkable when I was growing up.

If we’re concerned with the “sexualisation” of children, maybe we need to join the dots between that, our fame culture and the fact that children spend their whole damn lives on camera. There is a link between parents’ attempts to own their kids by constantly recording them, and the “sexualising” culture which “makes kids grow up too fast”, thus alienating them from their parents. But peddlers of this particular swan don’t ever seem to see it.