Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Hate Crime

I've just been listening to a debate this evening on Hate Crime on Radio 4, the stimulus for which was the murder in 2007 of Sophie Lancaster and her boyfriend 'because they were Goths'.
The argument seemed to be about whether the definition of 'Hate Crime' should be widened to include a much larger variety of victimised groups than previously and the perpetrators treated differently as a result. The exchange quickly got bogged down in the validity of the categorisations of the various groups that victims might belong to, in particular, whether membership of the group could be seen as voluntary (which for example being a Goth arguably is, in a way that being a woman definitely isn't.)

I think this muddles up two separate things - on the one hand the status of the victims and on the other the motives of the perpetrators.
Taking the latter first, it seems to me that there are various motives for criminal acts - most obviously Material Gain, whether it be burglary, mugging or looting for example. A simple love of doing damage whether to people or things is another - from vandalism to picking a fight with a random by-stander.
Hate crime is different (although any crime can have a mixture of motives of course) because it rests on intolerance of people seen to be different and therefore a threat to the perpetrators' idea of what people or society should be like. It's about power, contempt and narrow mindedness, and quite rightly it especially bothers us because it is reminiscent of fascism and other sorts of extremism. The riots were not a 'hate crime against shop-keepers' as one panellist suggested. They were mostly, as far as I could tell, about stealing and destroying stuff for fun.

My point here would be that in many ways, classifying this or that crime as 'racist' or 'homophobic' for example is perhaps giving the crime an integrity and a status it doesn't warrant. Certainly some people are more drawn to attacking black people than, say, attacking women, but in many ways that is just a matter of personal bias. What lies underneath is the urge to attack what is different. I firmly believe that it is not the case that if there were no black people in the UK the racists would all be lovely peace loving people. No, they'd find someone else to attack. It's who they are. They define themselves by who they hate, and feel the need to demonstrate this at every opportunity for fear of losing their identity.

Categorising the victims should therefore be irrelevant to the criminal justice system. Hate crime can be completely defined by the motivation of the attacker - which is hatred. It shouldn't matter what group or groups the victims might see themselves as belonging to and surely the police and the courts shouldn't be wasting time debating it. If the perpetrator attacked a person simply because of who they perceived them to be (as opposed to because they wanted to rob them or because they wanted to hurt someone and it didn't much matter who it was) then it is a hate crime.

Categorising victims in this or that group only becomes useful if those groups feel they can protect their members better by banding together - sharing information, providing solidarity and counselling for example. This is why categorisation makes perfect sense to victims and potential victims, but is of no use to the criminal justice system. (The only problem seems to be for those awkward buggers who are so different they don't fit into any groups.)

Something the panel did seem to agree on was that it didn't really matter whether membership of a group was voluntary or not. Combating hate crime is all about protecting the right of people to be who they are. Being 'different' is something we should value.
Amen to that.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

It's the end of the world as we know it... (and I'm feeling a bit tired, to be honest)

Looting at Wood Green.
I feel the urge to comment on what's been going on in London (and last night in other British cities) of late.
I live in a leafy Sussex village so not exactly qualified, and yet...
Part of me, the deeper more natural response, feels a deep foreboding. No Silly Season this year. My mind seeks to make sense of it - to find a pattern. With the chaos in the global economy and the corruption in our media, everything seems to be falling apart. It can only be a matter of time.
The other, more rational part of me though, wants to know if this is really anything new. It's my attempt at an antidote to Daily Mail style knee-jerk outrage - to see the broader pattern, look for counter examples. For a start, it's irrational to expect that extreme news stories will be evenly spaced through time. Sometimes they come along several at once. And haven't we seen all this, and worse, before, at other times, in other places?

Let me, for a moment, indulge the first part. There could be something big and dramatic going on. The thing that immediately pops into my mind is that there has been over the last twenty to thirty years a loss of a sense of morality - the idea that there are things you simply do not do, no matter how much you may feel you can get away with them, and that conversely, some things are simply right and worth doing whether they make economic sense or not. So -
The markets are in turmoil because the only thing that mattered to the traders and investors was making as much money as possible as quickly as possible, irrespective of what was being bought and sold. The media is in trouble because the only thing that counted was selling papers, and it didn't matter how the 'stories' were obtained or whether they were worth telling. What's happening in English city centres right now is happening because people have realised that if enough of them turn up in one place at one time and are prepared to be violent, that they can get away with pretty much anything. Civilised society, for all its faults (see pretty much any of my other postings) works not because there's an armed policeman on every corner but because people generally agree to go along with it. Without that agreement nothing matters except what you can get away with. And if you get caught? Well - you wouldn't want to be seen as 'Risk-Averse' would you? It's no different to rock-climbing, or snow-boarding, or market trading.

But is this anything new? Haven't there been crises, scandals and riots before? Not on this scale perhaps? Maybe. The Radio 4 programme The Long View is an especially useful resource here. There is always an historical precedent it seems. Go back a bit and you can always find something uncannily similar going on somewhere. Plus ça change, plus la même bloody old chose as I always say.

Part of me wants this to be different though. I don't want the world to be going to Hell in a wheelie bin but there's something seductive about it - The End of Days, partly because, being nearly 50, I probably won't be around to witness the denouement. Actually I'm much more deeply distressed by what's happening to the environment - for example in Brazil and China in the name of economic growth. I watched Avatar again over the weekend and was in tears, not because of what was happening on screen so much but because I know that huge swathes of Amazon rainforest will soon be under water due to a new dam they're building and the fish will no longer be able to migrate and breed and the locals will no longer be able to sustain themselves as a result, the way they have for generations. And yet it does feel like part of the same thing. The Brazilian government has decided that making money is their priority and everything else - wilderness, biodiversity, indigenous cultures, are just not definable, not measurable, not valuable enough to count. 'But what of the favelas?' you might ask. 'What about the poverty, the lack of proper jobs, the lack of a decent place to live?' but we all know there's more than enough for everybody, still, in the world, as it is. It's just not shared out properly. The Brazilian government says it wants to deal with the poverty, but only if it means not disrupting the wealth. That's the bottom line.
There was some finance pundit on the radio yesterday (I didn't catch his name) commenting on the power, or lack of it, of governments to deal with the economic chaos. He seemed to see The Market as this wonderful perfect democracy - where ordinary people could spend or invest their money as they wished, on what they wanted, expressing in the purest form, how they wanted the world to be run. Government was therefore redundant. But in that case, what of those with no money, or very little? Not that long ago the only people allowed to vote in parliament were the wealthy landowners, and then they let the wealthier merchants join in.
I might be able to vote with my cash whether to buy Freedom Foods chicken breasts or the factory-farmed alternative, but this other guy can choose whether to buy BSkyB Ltd or not.
And what about things that don't have a monetary value, and yet which are intrinsically worth having anyway, whether you have the money to buy them or not? (I know - such things are anathema to The Market.)

I could blame the parents. For all the good it did, since the sixties, parents have not seen it as being their job to teach their children right and wrong. 'Who are we to tell them what to do?' they say. 'What right have we?' And they feel so guilty for not being at home as much as they'd like, and for getting a divorce, so they want to be 'nice' to their children no matter what they do, and don't feel they are really justified in being in any way 'nasty'. (I actually have a lot of time for Supernanny popularising the concepts of 'Firmness' and 'Boundaries' but that's for another topic.) The pre-sixties authoritarianism where the husband and the father (the priest, the teacher, the policeman) enjoyed his arbitrary power I suspect stands as the bogeyman alternative - one none of us, quiet rightly, want to go back to. So morality is seen as something relative - a matter of opinion. We're all entitled to our opinions and the childrens' (because they are natural and unspoiled, until we get our greasy mits on them) are more valid than most.
But children are not perfect beings. They have no in-built morality of their own. Children, like other animals, are naturally amoral, selfish, inconsiderate and interested in immediate gratification unless taught otherwise. They don't think 'What is the right thing to do?' They think 'What am I allowed to do?' They don't think 'Is this a good thing to do?' They think 'What will get me the most attention?' They don't think 'Is this wrong?' They think 'Can I get away with it?' Only later on, if at all, does a more detached sense of right and wrong develop, and it has to be taught, like any other skill. That is our job as parents. It is not 'nasty' or authoritarian. It is necessary.

So - you can see where I'm going with this. Is what is going on in Tottenham and Wapping and The City of London a simple result of modern parenting? Are they really just spoilt brats writ large?
Of course not. How much have any of us ever really done simply because it was the right thing to do? How good has parenting ever been, really?
Isn't the magnitude of the chaos just about the size of the organisations - their global reach, or, in the case of the rioters, their ability to communicate via their Blackberries? Isn't it just all about technology and globalisation?
I honestly don't know.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Life, the Universe etc, part 2

Judging by the response to the last posting I've clearly failed to make myself understood.
I really didn't want to get into the whole atheism vs religion debate. I know it's very popular but I think it's redundant. Frankly I'm sick of it. But I was trying to say something else...

What was I trying to say?
Actually I think I was trying to say why I think it's redundant.
In my experience these discussions seem to begin with someone claiming that such and such a thing cannot be explained by science, and it's not just the existence of God. People believe in ghosts and like to recount their bizarre experiences, and invariably (in the movies at any rate) the man says "There must be a rational explanation!" and the batty old woman gives him a look that says "There are more things in heaven and earth Sunshine..."
Many people believe that each of us is born with some sort of non-material soul or spirit that is our essence and gives us our basic personality, and possibly our conscience. Most people I would think, believe that there is some sort of existence after death, either in an afterlife or in another life. Some people believe that the good and bad things we do come back to reward or punish us according to some sort of cosmic reckoning, in this life or the next. A lot of people seem to think there's no such thing as coincidence. Everything happens for a reason.
Am I alone in finding all this a bit weird? Maybe I'm missing something.

My first thought is that when people explain these beliefs they put a lot of trust in their Intuitions or Instincts. Basically, if they Feel something very strongly to be true then they feel it must be true, unlike the rather abstruse arguments of science and reason which can be very hard to get a handle on. (I genuinely sympathise, having tried and failed to become a professional scientist.) By comparison, the immediate experience of just realising that something is simply True is incredibly powerful.
I'm not just saying this as an outsider. I was converted to Christianity when I was a teenager. I can't remember what he said - the chap who converted me (Hi Ralph) but I do remember that ecstatic feeling of 'Of course! It's so obvious...' that I had for a while there. (I also remember the deep distress I felt at the Hove Town Hall prayer meeting - everybody up and dancing and speaking in tongues, when it became obvious that God wasn't talking to me.)
I also took a keen interest in Astrology for a while there. My mum was doing a course and I thought it was interesting and it really didn't occur to me to wonder if it actually made any sense. I had my horoscope done and lo and behold, there seemed to be some truth in it! (Plus it was an excellent way of getting into conversations with girls.)
I used to go to a homoeopath too, for my allergies. I was aware at the time that my body's responses seemed rather unpredictable but it didn't occur to me at the time to wonder if it was any more or less predictable with the homoeopathy. Sometimes it seemed to be working, but it didn't occur to me that my symptoms flared up irregularly anyway. I just went along with it, because a lot of my friends swore by it. I didn't consciously form a belief in homoeopathy. I just didn't really question it.

So I'm no stranger to credulity. I know what it's like. I still touch wood whenever I tell someone things are going well, because, well, why not? (If the custom was to touch shit I might not be quite so superstitious.)
The trouble is, this trust in personal experience is a major problem. I understand that there are all sorts of problems with impersonal 'objective' experience (as in science), but we massively underestimate the fallibility of our own personal subjective experience. There are several levels to this.
Anyone who understands anything at all about neurology will know that it's extraordinary that we manage to maintain any sort of coherent view of the world at all, and I'm not talking about brain damage here - I'm talking about normal brain function. We make stuff up all the time to fit our preconceived notions. We ignore stuff all the time and think we remember things as having happened that didn't - things we were told happened, or things we dreamed. My mother insists I took her advice and hit a bully at school when I 'know' I never did. She's absolutely sure it happened, because she remembers it, whereas I'm only 70% sure it didn't, which puts me at a disadvantage, but what I do know is that she can't possibly be that sure.
On top of all this there's all sorts of psychology involved. My mum probably really wants to believe that I took her advice (Bullies are just cowards really. All you have to do is stand up to them) and proved that I wasn't a complete weed after all. It's a nice story, but I really don't think it ever happened.
Then there are simple failures to think clearly. Understanding probability is the obvious one.
An Australian woman I once knew told me how extraordinary it was that she had met some neighbours of hers at Anapurna Base Camp. 'What are the chances?' she said. Uncanny. Except she forgot to factor in all the other possibly millions of people she'd encountered on her travels (all through Thailand, India and Europe) who she didn't know, and all the other people travelling with her who didn't meet anyone they knew at all. Given the numbers, the chances that an Australian will meet someone they know somewhere on their travels are practically 100%. Coincidences can be inevitable and meaningless.*

So we're fallible. Most of us I guess sort of accept this, and yet some of us are prepared to stand up and say that God exists, or that we have souls, or that there's an afterlife, or that we'll all ultimately get what we deserve.They have these deep intuitions. The religious typically get it through reading scriptures and/or contemplation or prayer, but I've known enough people of a sort of indeterminate spirituality of no fixed religion who make similar claims, who just seem to think they can just know that sort of stuff, just by, you know, sitting down and thinking about it. Why on earth, they ask, would that not work? I think they don't perhaps appreciate the magnitude of the things they are claiming to know. The existence of God is about the force behind the entire universe. And they imagine they can have some meaningful comprehension of that simply by sitting on a mountain, or by repeating something over and over, or by smoking dope.
Is it just me or does that seem preposterous? I honestly don't get it.
Tell me, genuinely. I really want to know. What is going on?
I'm certainly not saying that science or reason can step in and do it better. Science is good at mundane practical stuff, and it can extrapolate, to some extent, to the cosmic and the subatomic, but putting that on one side, how can anyone even begin to imagine that our limited, biased, flawed minds can understand anything about the ultimate nature of life, the universe and all that, just by contemplation? Why on earth would so many of us assume that? I can't help feeling there's a kind of arrogance to it.

So (nearly there) this is my basic question. Why, when we come up against this argument about the existence of God do we sceptics enter into a complex defence of evolution or cosmology or whatever, when the alternative hypothesis is simply nowhere? There's nothing to argue about. People are welcome to believe in all that stuff about God and so forth but let's not pretend that it is in any way a well-founded belief. It just comes down to what we happen to feel like (in a very deep sort of way admittedly) but there's no justification for imagining that these beliefs have any greater significance than that.
Does that make my position any clearer?

* For anybody who's interested in pursuing the subject of all the myriad ways we can't know for sure all the things we'd like to think we know, I can recommend nothing better than Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz