Category Archives: Social comment

As Gaza is bombed why do I keep looking for the odd good news story?

Gaza

Palestinians in Gaza City survey the rubble of a house targeted in an Israeli air strike

Reports have cumulated overnight suggesting that at least 25 Palestinians have been killed and 70 injured as Israel launched at least 160 strikes on the Gaza strip.

The death toll – primarily made up of civilians – has continued to rise as Israel amasses troops on the border readying for a potential ground invasion. Militants within Gaza continue to fire rockets into Israel with at least 140 launched on Tuesday alone but thankfully, so far, with no casualties.

This violence in the south and west of Israel and in the occupied Gaza strip has also resulted in an upsurge of violence in the Occupied West Bank with reports coming in of clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli Defence Force.

Amidst this escalating violence many, myself included, look on with a growing desperation for any positive development to hold onto. It is perhaps because of this that I have seen this photo, and the accompanying story, posted on my social media feeds almost as much as the photos of the devastation occurring in the Gaza strip.

The uncle of the slain Israeli teenager Naftali Fraenkel offers his condolences to Hussein Abu Khdeir, whose 16-year-old son Mohammed was murdered last week by Jewish extremists.

The uncle of the slain Israeli teenager Naftali Fraenkel offers his condolences to Hussein Abu Khdeir, whose 16-year-old son Mohammed was murdered last week by Jewish extremists.

This story of mutual loss and grief holds resonance with so many because not only does it deal with death – something which connects us all – but also because it shows the shared humanity in a conflict that too often removes any sense of such commonality.

It is an important story that I hope more people read**.

This said, it also made me reflect how people (once again, myself included) use the Israel/Palestine conflict to project their own values. I want Israelis and Palestinians to focus on their shared humanity more than everything that divides them. I want this so much that perhaps at times I convince myself that this view is shared amongst Israelis and Palestinians more than it perhaps is.

How often do you hear commentators use a variation of the phrase ‘the vast majority just want peace’ with nothing to back this claim up?

Obviously in the broad sense of the word ‘peace’, I am sure this is true, but how many people want a realistic collection of the characteristics that are needed to establish peace? I am not sure to be honest. Probably not as many as I would like.

To counter this I grasp onto the minority who conform to my pre-existing perspective in hope that it validates my own views and my own vision for potential peace in the region. I suspect this is one compelling reason why the above photo has gone viral with many left-wing friends – it supports a world view that validates their own.

Perhaps the biggest challenge that I face then is the task of facing up to the fact that lots of people in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories don’t think like I do. Lots of Palestinians don’t want to accept a neighbouring state of Israel, a lot of Israelis don’t want to share Jerusalem with a future Palestinian state etc etc…*

While I am entitled to my views, as you are yours, I also have to accept the fact that we probably won’t be the ones who ultimately bring about peace. This has to come from within Israeli and Palestinian society (although I think we outsiders can help lay the foundations).

I was acutely aware of this during my time in the West Bank and Israel in 2012 and tried as much as possible to report the words of the people I met and to only offer a human rights framework for their words to help readers contextualise what they were saying. Inevitably though I at times failed and led interviews into the direction I wanted them to go rather than really listening 100% to what they wanted to say.

Equally I noticed on a number of occasions that some Palestinians I was interviewing would self-conform, either out of a sub-conscious desire to please or through strategy, and use peace/human rights language that sat comfortably in my articles but did not necessarily reflect the militaristic rhetoric that I heard in the coffee shops and in the fields when I wasn’t conducting formal interviews.

Since moving away from both Israel and the occupied territories it has become harder for me to put the emphasis on listening to what Palestinians and Israelis have to say on the subject rather than just projecting my own thoughts purely because I am not having daily interactions with them. This is one of the reasons I have been writing much less on the conflict in the last year or so.

All of this said I still think it is important that the international community (that includes you and me) keeps highlighting what is happening and calling for justice and accountability. I also believe that we have a role to play. The most powerful things I think we can do is to highlight the grass-roots efforts to bring about a non-violent end to the occupation. This in my mind includes the powerful story of the Fraenkel and Khdeir mourning families coming together to offer each other support.

The challenge though is how we do this without losing sight of the reality of normal people’s opinions that might sit less comfortably with our own (my own) liberal human rights dominated perspective whilst we cherry pick the few good news stories that make ourselves feel better?

 

*I am not saying these are the characteristics needed for peace, but they are examples of characteristics many feel are needed for peace and that many people in Israel/Palestine oppose. 

** UPDATE Since publishing this article it has emerged that the photo and the recent story I linked to on Huffington Post are not the same. The photo is from 2013. More here. The story however in the Huffington Post, to the best of my knowledge, is true though.

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Filed under Human rights, Middle East, Social comment

What do I mean when I describe myself as a feminist?

feminism
Someone recently asked me what I meant when I say I am feminist. At the time I gave a woolly answer about fighting discrimination. This answer didn’t quite cut it and I knew it…and so, this is my very brief effort to explain what feminism means to me, and why I would still describe myself as a feminist.

Feminism is…

Nothing more than a pragmatic tool that I use to fight the injustice, the prejudice and the discrimination of our times. I am not inherently a feminist, the entrenched bigotry of the culture in which I was born, raised and live have made me a feminist.

This culture gives weight to comments by campaigning groups such as the often repeated mantra, ‘one in four women in the UK experience domestic violence in their lives‘. As much as objectively you know them to be more, these words are emotionally, just words. That is until you see the black of eye of a female friend who is in a violent relationship.

And then this culture of ours encourages girls to try and hide black eyes teaching them that it is something to be ashamed of.

The only shame here is that this statement stands true today, just as it did 28 years ago when I was born.

I cannot in my own heart accept a culture that allows for such violence. Feminism then is mine, and many others, pragmatic tool (the language and the means) that I have chosen to fight back.

But my feminism stems from much more than just the violence women and girls disproportionately experience. I am a feminist because of all those times I have seen people being limited because of their gender.

To give just a couple of examples…

I remember, at school the laughter at the idea of a girls’ rugby team being set up. Why? Because they were girls and society taught us as kids that ‘girls don’t play rugby’.

I remember in my first job my boss asking me to carry my female colleague’s feather-weight bags. Why? Because my colleague was a women and society teaches us that women are too weak to carry their own bag.

These day to day occurrences, although disturbing by themselves, cannot be separated off from the wider culture that too often leads to the violence I earlier described.

Feminism then is, for me at least, the movement that I have chosen, to try and fight back against this self-reinforcing culture. Feminism is an imperfect coalition of those who are looking to challenge the day to day sexism we all see, but only a few acknowledge. It is the belief that decades and decades of sexism that we have experienced can, and must, be broken down.

Feminism is the pragmatic tool I have chosen to fight the misogynistic status quo.

Until our culture changes, or someone gives me a better tool in which to fight this fight, I will remain a proud feminist.

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Filed under Gender, Social comment

No to breast cancer. No to Page 3

no-more-page-3
Over the last year I have been part of a global movement that campaigns for the dignity of every patient. This global movement campaigns for the dignity of, among others, patients with breast cancer.

It is with sadness then that I saw the breast cancer campaigns group ‘CoppaFeel’ have teamed up with The Sun newspapers ‘page 3 girls’ – a relic of a misogynistic newspaper industry that almost by definition is devoid of dignity and respect.

The campaign will see The Sun newspaper every Tuesday dedicate the Page 3 girl slot to encourage women to check their breasts for signs of cancer.

While I of course, just like the ‘No to page 3 girls’ campaign, hope this campaign is a success and it encourages more girls to check their breasts, I feel saddened that The Sun have chosen, out of all the tools available to them, the overtly sexualised images of young girls to highlight this important issue.

In fact I struggle to think of a less appropriate medium in which to highlight this campaign. Page 3 is perhaps the most prominent icon of a culture that reduces women to mere objects and men to little more than objectifiers. This culture leaves some women feeling ashamed of their bodies and shy to ask for examinations.

As much as The Sun would like to think otherwise, the No to Page 3 campaign have collected testimony after testimony from girls who blame Page 3 and the sexist culture it perpetuates for their own understanding of their bodies and sex.

One recent account from a breast cancer patient comments:

“I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer and had to have a quarter of my breast removed. I feel horrible and ugly and these images in Newspapers and films make me feel worse.”

Another testimony says:

“I compared myself to this picture and having no other pictures of what naked women are supposed to look like to refer to I judged myself in light of it. I grew to hate my body, I grew to hate myself.”

I wonder how David Dinsmore, the editor of The Sun, would answer the following question: Do you think Page 3 helps or hinders the girls that gave these testimonies to stand in front of a mirror and check their breasts?

This campaign will reach millions of people and will hopefully save lives. But in 6 months’ time when the campaign is all done and dusted what will we be left with?

We will still have one of our largest newspapers going to print daily where the largest photo is of a half-naked women. We will still have a culture where women’s breasts are stared at and not respected. And this, collectively, will do nothing to install a feeling of dignity and respect into women which in turn will only hinder the chances of women regularly checking themselves for signs of cancer.

Take Action:

  • Join over 136,000 others and sign the petition calling for The Sun remove ‘the bare boobs.

UPDATE:

The Independent today ran the headline – “Breast cancer charities criticise The Sun’s new Page Three ‘Check ‘em Tuesday’ for trivialising the disease“. Good to see I am not the only one who feels like this!

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Filed under Gender, Media, Social comment

Uprooted by conflict – stories from West Nile

This is a guest post by Anya Whiteside. Anya works for the Forum for Education NGO’s in Uganda and is also my fiance. 

Refugees at Dzaipi reception centre. Image Daily Monitor. Photo by Martin Okudi

Refugees at Dzaipi reception centre. Image Daily Monitor. Photo by Martin Okudi

‘I was a business woman in Bor and then when the trouble started I just had to pick up my children and run’.

I am standing in Ajumani in West Nile region, in the North West of Uganda which borders both the DRC and South Sudan. The woman I am speaking to is heavily pregnant and her three young children cluster round her. One of her daughters is about four and spends the next half hour sidling up to me to stroke my white skin all cheeky grin and dirty t-shirt. ‘My husband was in Kenya getting treatment for an illness when the fighting started’ she continues. Now she is sleeping on the floor of a school in Uganda hoping that he will come and find her.

I am in West Nile as part of an inter-agency assessment of the schools in the areas of Uganda where South Sudanese refugees have flooded in the recent weeks. My colleagues are from various NGOs, the UN and the Ugandan Ministry of Education and Sports. Well over two thousand people cross the border every day into this remote, hot and dusty part of Uganda. Add to that recent new arrivals from the DRC, as well as many generations of refugees who fled here in the past and you have a patchwork of stories.

The schools are due to open in the first week in February and are likely to receive large numbers of refugee children enrolling to join the classes. Our role is to assess what additional support they are likely to need. ‘I have one thousand children in my school’ one head teacher tells me, ‘but I expect an additional four hundred refugees to enrol this term’. Even before the recent crisis the schools in this area are full beyond capacity. It is not unusual to see a teacher teaching 90 children with four or five children squeezed onto each desk.

Over and over again as we interview head teachers in the area they tell us they will enrol the extra children and they are happy to welcome them into the school, but that they need support to be able to cope. They need additional teachers to help teach and translate what they are teaching, textbooks, latrines, desks and classrooms. All resources they look unlikely to get, certainly in the numbers they need them.

I am amazed by the way the schools in West Nile are so welcoming to the new influx and wonder how primary schools back home would react if in a matter of weeks you asked them to enrol 50% extra pupils many who speak a different language.

One of the reasons may be that the area is so used to hosting refugees. For many years refugees have fled across the border from DRC or Sudan seeking safety from fighting. Some go back and some stay. Some of the new refugees have fled back to areas where they were refugees before, or gone to stay with family still in Uganda. Outside the reception centre it can be hard to tell who is a refugee and who is not, as people start to build mud huts in land allocated to them by the Ugandan government.

One man who has been in Uganda for many years and is elected in the refugee settlement as a local leader tells me how his father was a politician under Mobuto’s regime in DRC. ‘When Mobuto was overthrown they chased him and cut him up into pieces’ he tells me, ‘and then they came for me’. He tells me how he drove away in a car full of people, but it was stopped before they could leave the country. All the women in the car were raped and then everyone was shot. After being shot he was thrown in the river. He was injured, but not killed, so was dragged out further downstream and rescued. He then escaped to Uganda he explains to me matter-of-factly while we are walking to visit a local school.

Some Ugandans understand more than most the trauma of being uprooted from your home. ‘I hate seeing people here’ says my colleague as we drive into a refugee reception centre where newly arrived refugees clutch bags and look for shade. I have known my colleague for a while as a vivacious, hilariously funny and very competent member of the NGO community who went to University in Europe and now works as an education specialist. ‘Seeing it just reminds me of running away and all that time spent as a refugee in the jungle’, she explains.

My colleague is from West Nile, the area where Idi Amin came from, and after he was overthrown the area was targeted for reprisal killings. Her house was set on fire and her and her family fled into the jungle in DRC. I wonder as she talks how many other people I know have terrible stories which I know nothing about. I also wonder how a country can heal from these stories when they are buried so deep and rarely talked about.

Experiences of displacement in Northern Uganda are also more recent still. In 2005 the war between the Ugandan government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) saw 1.8 million internally displaced people in camps across Northern Uganda.

After a week of talking to head teachers and local District official, hours and hours of bumping along dusty dirt road, visiting some of the refugee reception centres and hearing some of the refugees’ stories I am left with twin emotions. On the one hand I am sickened by conflict and the horrendous things it does to people. And on the other hand I am amazed by the human resilience and ability to cope.

I return to Kampala thinking of all the refugees in the world and just how horrific it must be to flee your home. I am welcomed by the sickening news that of the 2.5 million  Syrian refugees, my own country, the UK, has agreed to host a mere 500 Syrian refugees over a year. I am aghast and wonder how a country like the UK can choose to refuse safety to so many, when countries with so little resources such as Uganda receive thousands of refugees a day, or a tiny country like Lebanon can hosts over a million.

As I rant and rave at the selfishness of my own nation I think back to the drive out of a refugee reception centres on our way back to Kampala. As I looked out the window I saw a group of scruffy children playing football. In the last month their whole lives have been uprooted and many have lost everything. They shout and skid through the dust imitating the moves of famous footballers.

I wonder what will become of these children and hope against hope that they will experience peace and better times ahead.

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Filed under Human rights, Social comment, Uganda, War

Facebook – 10 years old and 1,110,000,000 active users

Facebook is 10 years old. The influence it now holds over all of us is just mind-blowing.

  • One in twelve people on our planet now has a facebook profile.
  • One in five of web views is a facebook page.
  • 48% of 18-34 year olds check their facebook profile first things when they wake up.
  • Every 20 minutes over 1,000,000 links are shared on facebook.
  • In 2013 Facebook had a revenue of $5,287 million.

With all this in mind I thought I would share this timeline and infographic with more mind-blowing statistics (stolen from here).

Maybe share this on facebook?

facebook-infographic2

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Filed under Economics, Social comment

Prosecuting people for taking food from bins is an attack on common sense

It is thought that up to 50% of edible and healthy food is wasted across the EU

It is thought that up to 50% of edible and healthy food is wasted across the EU

When you put something into a bin you disown it. You’re saying that you no longer want possession of the item you have just placed into the rubbish. When someone else finds value in that item, and takes it from the bin, it is not stealing as there is not an owner to be stolen from*.

This simple sentiment has been missed by the Crown Prosecution Service who are pushing ahead with the prosecution of three men charged under an obscure section of the 1824 Vagrancy Act for taking food that had been thrown out by the supermarket Iceland.

For those of you unfamiliar with the 1824 Vagrancy Act, it is the piece of legislation that outlaws ‘Persons committing certain offences to be deemed rogues and vagabonds’ and specifically prohibits the ‘intent to insult any female’.

Hilariously, the CPS has judged this case to be ‘in the public interest’. I think it is clearly not in the public’s interest and here is why:

Perhaps most importantly there is a clear moral case for not prosecuting them - what they did was totally harmless. The only people it may harm are those who eat food past its use-by date. That’s fine, it’s their choice. As a rule of thumb, I think people should be free to do what they want as long as it doesn’t harm others (hat tip J.S. Mill).

An attack on those who seek to enjoy this free food is in actual fact an attack on our freedom. The state has no place prosecuting someone for doing something that harms no-one else.

This isn’t to say the state doesn’t have a role to play in tackling this problem of supermarket waste. Last year Labour MP, Kerry McCarthy, tabled a bill that would force supermarkets to donate excess food to charities. A great idea that should be welcomed!

In the words of Henry Smith, Conservative MP for Crawley, “Food waste is not only an environmental concern but a social problem too. It is morally right that large retailers should make available food that would be dumped anyway to those most in need or struggling.”

But as this Bill is still a long way from becoming law though let’s hope that the same MPs speak out against this preposterous proposed prosecution that is so clearly not in the public interest.

*I am fully are that the law of land says otherwise but the law of the land is often wrong – as it is in this case. I also accept that there are some cases where the ‘thrown away’ items still hold value – for example glass in recycling bins, or clothes to go to charity shops.

UPDATE:

Good on the founder and CEO of Icelands, Malcolm Walker, who earlier today tweeted this:

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Filed under Food and Drink, Politics, Social comment

On genocide, palliative care and enduring hope

Rwanda1
One of the many reasons I love my current job is because of the amazing people I get to interact with on a daily basis.

When working in palliative care you meet people who are being pushed both physically and emotionally and it never ceases to amaze me how people respond to these challenges with humour, courage and most of all, hope. This is true for both patients and medical practitioners.

Today I feel really honoured to have received an article from Dr Christian Ntizimira from Rwanda that marks International Holocaust Memorial Day by looking at the challenges to providing palliative care in a post genocide society.

If you accept my observation that death can push people in conventional circumstances to their limits both emotionally and physically then it is a small step to observe that genocide has the potential to rip both people and society to shreds.

But what sets Dr Christian’s article apart is not the description of how people’s lives were ripped apart and how millions were killed of displaced but how, in the aftermath of such suffering, Dr Christian has chosen to draw out a narrative of hope and courage.

If I was to draw one thing from this last year of working for the African Palliative Care Association – and more generally with palliative care practitioners – it is this optimism in the face of adversity.

Whatever happens, however bad, palliative care offers a simple framework to be able to help. I have seen this in the care patients receive right up to their last breath and Dr Christian powerfully illustrates this point in his article on genocide and palliative care.

You can read Dr Christian’s article visiting ehospice by clicking here >>>

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Filed under Health, Social comment

Show your support to Christian activists on trial for protesting at London arms fair

Symon Hill
In September 2013 someone who I deeply respect took the decision to create a blockade to stop arms dealers entering Defence Security and Equipment International (DSEi) 2013.

Symon Hill is a Christian and an activist. He also represents the better thought out wing of these two categories. He is someone that I have a lot of respect for.

In September when he joined a human non-violent blockade he was arrested (alongside James Clayton, Chloe Skinner, Chris Wood and Daniel Woodhouse) under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

They all pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The date of their trial has now been announced as the 3rd and 4th February at Stratford Magistrates Court. Those who want to are encouraged to join a vigil outside the court at 10:00am each day.

It would be great if enough people showed up so the story was subverted from ‘Christian activists on trial for public disorder’ to ‘Hundreds gather outside court in solidarity with Christian peace activists’.

Sadly I am a few thousand miles away in a different continent so I can’t make it. That is why I would love you, yes you, to head down there and offer your support to both a friend and a principle on my behalf.

For more information:

  • Christians arrested in blockade protest at arms fair – reported in Ekklesia
  • Rowan Williams pledges support for arms trade activists – reported in The Guardian.
  • Send a personal message of support or ask Symon Hill a question on Twitter

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Filed under Religion, Social comment

Me and you – we’re not that different are we?

Like a cartoon caricature a small boy creeps along the pool side with a plastic cup full of water in hand. His older brother stands with his back to the sun and the approaching prankster. His brother holds a book in hands and his eyes dart back and forth over the words as he enjoys the warm afternoon sun on his back.

His little brother, now just meters from him lets out a small giggle as the excitement builds in his mind. The older brother absorbed in his book fails to register this tell tale sign of up-coming mischievousness and continues to devour the words in front of him. With the cup of cold water now raised to head height the younger brother takes the last few steps forward towards his victim. Through years of learnt behaviour the boy starts to run backwards almost as soon as the cup leaves his hand and splashes cold water all over his brother.

The older brother stands with wide eyes as his brain tries to catch up with what has just happened. And then, after a few exaggerated seconds, he sets off in pursuit of his younger brother in an elaborate chase.

I sit back in my chair and laugh to myself as I watch the two young boys disappear off behind a nearby building.

And so the old phrase, kids will be kids, once again proves to be true.

Consistently one of my reflections of working and travelling abroad has been the universality of children’s behaviour. As much as we are taught to learn about our differences, when you make a silly face behind an adults back at a 6 year old they will let out a small giggle. This has been proven to work almost everywhere I have been. It’s as true for my nephew and niece as it is for street children in Kampala.

Just try and find me a 6 year old who wouldn’t relish the opportunity to pour a glass of cold water over their brother’s head!

While most except, even if they don’t celebrate, these similarities between kids across the world few seem to be interested in finding similarities between people like me and you – adults.

Whenever I travel I always find it fascinating to observe the often stark similarities that also exist between adults.

This habit has only been exacerbated by my recent work in palliative care.

Inherent within palliative care are human issues that impact on us all. Love, loss, and death are things we can’t escape.  Although we all respond differently to these emotions, and of course our cultures shape these responses, there are also marked similarities.

The look in the eyes of someone who has just lost someone they love is found in the villages of Kampala the same as it is in inner-city Ottawa. I have seen this first hand.

This then begs the question why we are interested so much in the differences between us and so uninterested in these striking similarities?

In the last few months I have been lucky enough to spend time in some wonderful cities around the world including Johannesburg, Ottawa, London and Kampala. Invariably when I’ve returned and met up with friends and family one comment will crop up in conversation before long…

It must be a bit different being back [insert place name] after coming from [insert place name]

Now this might just be me, but whenever people say this to me I can’t help but to think… ‘no, not really…’

This liberal ‘aren’t we all the same deep down’ flow of consciousness isn’t intended to undermine some of the problematic differences between us (some people have access to clean running water, millions don’t…some people respond to loss by lashing out, others devote themselves to helping others) but it is to say that I think it wouldn’t hurt to sometimes take stock of the similarities we see between us and celebrate them.

After all, this is what makes us human!

I can’t help to think that celebrating these similarities might also make us that bit more tolerant of our differences when they do crop up.

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Filed under Social comment, Travel

2013 and the future of Hynd’s Blog

When someone tells me that they read my blog I feel truly honoured. The fact that someone has taken a few minutes out of their day to read my thoughts on a subject matter is really appreciated. In fact I can’t put it into words how much it is appreciated.

I still find it hard to believe though. I find it hard to believe that people, other than friends and family, would be interested in what I’ve got to say. But they seem to.

The pace at which Hynd’s Blog has grown over the last year is as inspiring as it is terrifying for me.

One measurement of this growth is in the number of people reading the articles. The number of people visiting and reading this blog is important to me. Not because it gives to my already over-inflated ego a boost but because it relates to why I do this – why I spend hours every day tapping away on my computer.

I write Hynd’s Blog because I care. I care about people. I try to, in my own way, promote a more tolerant, free and fair society. I guess Hynd’s Blog is my way of contributing to the wider movement of change towards this vision.

This is why I continue to publish articles that challenge lazy lingering prejudice, hatred and discrimination. Whether it be on sexuality or anti-Semitism, freedom of speech or dyslexia, gender or religion, I try to express a moderate, progressive and liberal alternative to the mainstream narrative that drives so much of the hatred, intolerance and regressive attitudes that blight so many communities in the UK.

Hynd’s Blog is my attempt to shout into the winds of misinformation. When people catch just a little of what I am saying it begins to feel worthwhile.

The fact that 2013 has seen so many new readers come to Hynd’s Blog gives me the motivation to keep going, to keep writing, to keep believing that change is possible.

So, if you’re reading this now…thank you! It is your potential to be part of the change we so desperately need that drives me to want to keep going with Hynd’s Blog. You’re the reason why I am here now, when I am meant to be relaxing with a mince-pie in hand, writing an article.

Without you, Hynd’s Blog is nothing.

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The Sussex Five and the privatization of Britain’s universities

This is a guest post from Gabriel Raeburn. Gabriel studies Politics and American History at the University of Sussex. He is a Labour Party activist and is an active critic of the continued marketization of education. He tweets @gabrielraeburn.

sussex
Three years ago, as British students protested in their thousands against the rise in tuition fees, many asked “where did all the apathy go?” After that initial burst of collective energy and anger, sadly some of the apathy did return. Yet, the last few months have seen the return of the student movement as a radical force in British politics. Last week saw over eight British universities under occupation, forty-one arrests in two days in London and the return of heavy-handed police brutality against student protesters.

Arguably the most drastic reaction to the student movement was at the University of Sussex where management, led by the Vice-Chancellor Michael Farthing and Registrar John Duffy, callously suspended the studies and excluded from campus five students involved in peaceful occupation of university facilities.

In February 2013, students involved in the University of Sussex’s anti-privatisation movement occupied Bramber House’s conference hall on university property. This was in solidarity with 235 campus employees who were having their jobs outsourced to the private catering company Chartwells. Occupy Sussex highlighted both the continued marketization of higher education and the undemocratic nature of British universities. The movement gained support from a range of politicians as well as the academic Noam Chomsky, the novelist Will Self, and the comedian Mark Steel.

On the evening of the 27th November 2013, students reoccupied an entire floor of Bramber House as a result of management’s continued privatization of university services and marketization of higher education. It also stated support of strike action called by UCU, Unite and Unison on the 3rd of December over fair pay and gender pay inequality in government institutions. On the day of the strike, Occupy Sussex peacefully left the occupation to stand in solidity with their lecturers and workers on picket lines. The following day management banned five students involved in the anti-privatization movement from entering campus and indefinitely suspended their studies. The Vice-Chancellor claimed the charge was “disruptive and intimidating behaviour.”

The suspension of the five students, collectively known as the “Sussex Five” or “Farthings Five”, represents a disturbing trend in British universities. The claim of “disruptive and intimidating behaviour” is, in this case, without factual basis.

The university was once seen as a key institution for education, democratisation and debate. Farthing and Duffy have distorted this image. They have turned Sussex from an institution of education to a profit-orientated business. They have instigated a top down agenda with no accountability. And as for debate, the message is clear; if you challenge management policy, you will be removed. Students are scared and intimidated, and why wouldn’t you be? If I speak out, I may be suspended. The slogan that “we are all the Sussex Five” is clearly not just a stand of solidarity but an obvious notion that students feel that this could happen to them.

Sussex’s battle may appear as a small case of five students indefinitely suspended from their studies, but the issue is clearly much larger than that. It is a battle over both the right to freedom of speech and peaceful protest, and unaccountable university management power. The response to the Sussex Five has been remarkable and swift. The day following the suspensions, 500 students marched on Sussex House where management resides, demanding their immediate reinstatement.

Similar numbers marched the following day. An Early Day Motion (EDM) was put forward in Parliament by the Labour MP John McDonnell. An online petition reached over 9,000 signatures. A letter signed by over 200 staff members, including many senior lecturers, condemned the Vice-Chancellor’s actions in the “strongest terms,” while a statement demanding the immediate reinstatement of the Sussex Five was signed by over two dozen societies. An Emergency Members Meeting (EMM), which over 600 students attended, passed a vote of no confidence in management and called for unprecedented student strike action of Tuesday 10th December in solidarity.

Within hours of the EMM, management drastically backtracked and declared the reinstatement of the five students, but claimed it would continue to press charges. This was in part due to the continued and sustained pressure of faculty and students, and the fear of continued peaceful chaos on campus.

This should be seen as a victory for democracy and for freedom of speech. But it is only a small victory in a much larger debate. The university is first and foremost an arena to foster debate and challenge conventional wisdom without the threat of persecution. If it is to be a democratic institution then management must be accountable to someone. The continued struggle over the Sussex Five will determine what type of institution Sussex wishes to become.

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A letter to Exeter University on “Britain’s horniest student”

exeter_sign
Dear Exeter University,

I am writing to you about Elina Desaine, aka Britain’s horniest student. I write to highlight what I feel to be an obvious point: that having lots of sex is not a disciplinary offence.

Well, at least it shouldn’t be. It is a life-style choice that people make. If someone wants to have safe-sex three times a week with different partners, who are you to say they shouldn’t?

You claim her actions “may cause reputational damage to the University” but offer no evidence to why this is. Why would one student’s alleged promiscuous behaviour reflect badly on an institution?

You need to spell that one out because I just can’t see it!

If you stick by this accusation – that she has caused reputational damage – I would be fascinated to know where you plan to draw the line.

Is it talking about the sex that’s a problem or actually having sex? Or is it not the sex per se that’s the problem but that she claimed to have had sex with lots of partners? Do you plan to draw up some guidelines to the number of partners per term a student is allowed to have before it becomes a disciplinary offence? Or is it that she is celebrating having lots of sex with lots of partners?

If it is the latter, a cursory conversation with plenty of male students will find a fair number willing to boast about their sexual accomplishments – should we be starting an inquisition to hunt out all students who are proud of having sex with multiple partners?

You must be able to see your position on this issue is bonkers…can’t you?

I don’t know this but I am going to hazard a guess. I am guessing that Elina Desaine, aka Britain’s horniest student’s decision to enter that competition rubbed up the wrong way against someone’s personal morality – they didn’t like what they perceived to be a glorifying of immoral promiscuous behaviour.

Well, like it or not, this isn’t a good enough reason to discipline someone. Especially for an academic institution.

It is in light of this that I call on you to drop all proceedings against Elina Desaine.

I look forward to your response,

Steve Hynd

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On Thatcher, Mandela and death

Thatcher Mandela
A few days ago a friend of mine emailed me to ask what I thought of Peter Tatchell’s article, “Mandela: Heroic but failed on HIV, poverty & Mugabe” considering that I had been so vocal in the aftermath of Thatcher’s death (See Celebrating Thatcher’s death is wrong both pragmatically and in principle and Thatcher is dead, but Thatcherism is alive: If only it could be the other way round).

On the face of it, following my own logic I should have been upset with Peter’s article. I should have been saying, just as I did for Thatcher, let’s give it a rest, let people mourn and leave the politics out of it…for now at least.

But I wasn’t and nor did I feel I should be.

It has taken me a few days to think this over. In short I think it comes down to a degree of respect for those mourning the death of a loved one. Peter could have waited to write that article, but in the grand scheme of things I am not worried that he did not.

Why? Because very few, if any, of those who cared for and loved Mandela would be troubled by Peter’s article. Throughout he maintained a measured respectful tone that didn’t lose sight of the fact a person had just died and that people were in mourning.

This is markedly different to the witch is dead celebrations that followed Thatcher’s death.

There is a freedom of speech issue here that I will passionately defend. If the state tried to stop people voicing opinion after a death then I would be the first to criticise that. But just because we have the right to do something, this doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do.

I would be more than happy to condemn the blithering idiots at the Westboro Baptist Church for producing a video and social media campaign claiming Mandela is going to hell. But do I think the state should stop them from doing this? No.

Do I hope (a big hope I know) that someone who was part of this campaign might read this and reconsider? Yes. Do I personally think they were misplaced, inconsiderate and disrespectful to publish such rubbish straight after Mandela’s death? Of course, it goes without saying!

So in short, Peter and anyone else should be free to write and criticise Mandela, but I would personally lay down two principles before I would put pen to paper criticising anyone soon after their death:

  • Either be measured, respectful and conscious of those in grieving (like I feel Peter was in his article) or
  • Just wait a little while and allow people to mourn before turning to the politics of someone’s life.

Judging by the response I got from the Thatcher articles I don’t expect many people to agree with this but hey, that’s OK. I would just ask those who don’t to imagine it was their own loved one that had just died and ask them to think how they would like others to behave during such time.

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The end of beer bitches in Lambeth?

beer
In October I wrote about the use of hired ‘beer bitches’ at London’s Oktoberfest.

I then tweeted this story to a series of London Assembly Members (AMs). Darren Johnson AM, to his great credit, responded and took the issue up.

As a result, his office has just forwarded me this response letter from Lib Peck, the Leader of Lambeth Council. In the letter, Lib Peck states:

“the terminology used at the event is unacceptable. Lambeth will be addressing this with the organisers as part of the debrief process. The events team will also be amending the terms and conditions to include a clause that Lambeth Events Service need to have sight of all promotional material associated with the event and anything deemed to be offensive will not be permitted.”

A success of sorts. This is now something to hold the council to account with come next Oktoberfest. 

Could this be the end of the beer bitches at public events in Lambeth?

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Remove the question mark BBC Radio Bristol, a rape victim is never to blame

A series of posters have been put up all over Bristol highlighting some of the lingering myths around blaming the victims of rape. The campaigns message is simple: There are no excuses for rape and the victim is never to blame: Whatever they were wearing; However much they’ve had to drink; Even if they’ve said yes to other sexual activities.

It remains a depressing reality that such an advertising campaign is needed in the first place. Sadly though, they really are.

The campaign group behind the posters says that 3894 women and girls in Bristol aged 16-59 are victims of sexual assault in a year. This statistic becomes even more shocking in the context of there only being about 140,000 women of that age living in Bristol.

The campaign primarily focuses though on removing any lingering doubts that a victim is, in any way, to blame if he/she is raped. It is not a question – a victim is not to blame for being raped.

This is a point that BBC Radio Bristol failed to pick up on when they tweeted about these new posters asking the question:

Well, Radio Bristol (and local radio’s obsessive compulsion to make everything into an interactive question)…no, a victim of rape is never to blame for being attacked. By even asking the question I think you have missed the key slogan of this campaign: There are no excuses for rape and the victim is never to blame. 

Remove the question mark BBC Radio Bristol. A rape victim is never to blame.

Follow the conversation on twitter #noexcusebristol

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Finding the time to write

I’m sat waiting. For what remains one of those answerable mysteries in life.  It’s 3:00am, although in these situations time becomes so relative it almost ceases to hold any real use. I mention it here only to help paint you a picture. Looking out of the oval window all I can see is darkness. I haven’t slept in quite a long time and my reflection looks strangely blurred in the plastic window. I’m in Rome by the way, but to be honest, I could be anywhere.

A scattering of people sit around me patiently waiting – for what I’m sure they don’t know. An American girl has the confidence to kick off her shoes and curl up on some spare seats. Just behind her sits an Indian girl who is reading a foreign paper with such intensity that you would be forgiven for thinking she was about to be tested on its content at arrivals. Later I glance over though and notice her reading out of date horoscopes. A few seats along from her a strong shouldered father lets his hulk of his body relax as his young boy rests his head onto him. The boy’s eyes flicker open and shut with the passing of seconds as time slips by.

These hours are so rarely seen for me that they take on a certain majestic anarchy. An elation you feel when you’ve stayed up all night drinking only to be met with the scorns of suited commuters in the early hours of the next morning. It’s a trick of time placing humanity outside their near perfect circles of life.

Some in these twilight situations grasp for normality – I overheard one man say to his wife, “I’ll try and get a few hours shut eye”. Others though, the brave or the stupid, throw caution to the wind and subconsciously put a metaphorical middle finger up to the constraints of humanities self-created time constraints. Who are to say we sleep at night time? The thought of brushing their teeth doesn’t cross their minds, let alone their lips.

For me though I am just dazed. It is like something fundamental has shifted. I feel like a moth that has flown too close to an artificial light. It’s like the very thing that I guide myself on – time – has been ripped up and replaced with some weird man made alternative to what nature designed.

And so, almost instinctively, I resort to learned behaviour and begin to think back to the last-time I graced this no-man’s land of time. Not for the first time in recent months my memories drift back to Jayyus – the small Palestinian village I lived in back in the 2012.

In my mind’s eye I can picture it as clearly as a photograph. I’m sat cold at about 3:00am, although in these situations time becomes so relative it almost ceases to hold any real use. I mention it here only to help paint you a new picture. I have just come in from spending a few hours in the dead of night monitoring yet another army raid on the village. The metal bed frame makes a split-second screech on the tiled floor as my weight lazily flops onto the foam mattress. I sit there perfectly still for a few seconds and calculate the number of minutes until my alarm would go off and I would be back out of the house and into the dark night. 84.

And so, with a recklessness of an Englishman who hasn’t has his cup of tea before breakfast I decide to forfeit that night’s sleep. With this decision made the next comes easily to hand as I pick up my pen and begin to write. And, I mean actually write, with a pen…onto paper. Not a laptop in sight!

For this 21st century digital boy, the feel of a pen in his had surrounded by nothing but the dead of night, there is a sense of freedom. It’s a freedom to write unconstrained by modern expectations. It’s like you’re already breaking some unspoken rules of life so fuck it, what is an extra couple of indulgent adjectives between friends? Why not write an entire paragraph about some complete strangers sitting close to you on a plane? Why not try and make sense of all the complexities and contradictions that living in an entrenched war zone will throw at you? Why not….you’ve got hours until breakfast and no-one brushes their teeth at 3:00am.

The captain of the plane breaks my trail of thoughts to tell me we will be arriving in Canada at 12:15 local time. I sit back with my pen in hand and note book on my lap and think to myself that I have no idea how that relates to whatever time zone I was currently in.

At some point my body started demanding the normality of sleep. But as my eyes gave up on me even while me hands still gripped my pen a thought ran through my head that dwelled on how much I enjoyed just having the time to write with nothing but my own self-indulgent thoughts and memories. I thought about how much I enjoyed writing without the self-imposed time constraints of modern life.

I stopped writing because I fell asleep. I woke up happy.

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Do I want to hire a “beer wench”? No thanks.

beer
Wench: “a young woman who is a servant” (Online dictionary).

Or, as the Urban Dictionary puts it: “a dirty pirate hooker.”

Wench is a word you would think most businesses would try to avoid using. Most, you would hope, would be aware of both its literal (servant) and implied (prostitute) meaning.

But it is exactly this word that the tactfully titled website www.beerbitches.co.uk uses to describe the girls you can “hire” for their Oktoberfest themed parties. “Beer wenches for all occasions” they promise.

Nice huh.

Well one such occasion that has deemed it appropriate to hire some “Bavarian wenches” is the London Oktoberfest. The event which advertises itself as an opportunity to “let the entire family experience Bavarian culture” also has working the doors “hot Bavarian wenches”.

Apparently they see no antagonism in ethos there.

Interestingly, in the “family friendly” Oktoberfest they make no mention of the girls official title – beer bitches (definition of bitch given as “a malicious, spiteful, or coarse woman”). I wonder why?

To be abundantly clear, I take no issue with the girls working for beer bitches – if they want to make a bit of money and manage to have some fun at the same time then good on them. What I take issue with are companies like “Beer bitches” and the overt sexism they exude that helps perpetuate sexism both within the beer industry and in society as a whole.

The Every Day Sexism project has chronicled experiences of ordinary men and women who suffer sexist comments or actions through the day. One of these testimonies published in the Daily Telegraph reads:

I was on the bus telling my friend about the housework I have to do when I get home (I’m a young carer) and the man a couple of seats behind me said: “She’s perfect wench material.”

Another from the Telegraph reads:

“In one day I’ve been called a “frigid bitch” and a “dirty whore”.”

To think that you can run a business called “Beer bitches” that hires “wenches” specifically for men (they state they are for “Gents Events”) and that this might not be reinforcing some deep-rooted sexism within our society is extraordinary. But, that is essentially what Lisa Shepley who tweets from @Beerwenches suggests:

To clarify – feminism is not, and cannot, be understood as not condemning a woman for doing something she enjoys if you think it is negatively impacting on women in general. However, I think there is a reasonable argument to be made that says feminism entails an effort to tackle sexist language and imagery in society even if this is perpetuated by a woman.

I hope Lisa responds to this post. I would of course be more than happy to make space for a right of reply article if she wishes to write one.

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Minimum wage sparks Twitter argument with Stroud MP Neil Carmichael

This is a cross-post from my local paper, the Stroud News and Journal. I cross-post it only to illustrate the positive potential that twitter has to hold our politicians to account.

STROUD MP Neil Carmichael has come under fire for refusing to rule out voting for a freeze or a cut in the national minimum wage.

Despite saying a reduction would be a move in the wrong direction, the Tory politician would not commit to opposing one in the future, insisting that he would have to look at any proposals brought forward by the government before deciding how to vote.

Following his comments, Stroud Labour Party sent out a press release saying it was an ‘absolute disgrace’ that Mr Carmichael would not rule out voting to cut the minimum wage.

The party claimed his position amounted to supporting ‘the idea of reducing the wages of the poorest in society’.
Responding to local blogger Steve Hynd who re-tweeted the article in last week’s SNJ with the comment, “This is going to win @neil_mp zero friends in #Stroud,” Mr Carmichael tweeted, “@stroudnews #Stroud – I have long supported a minimum wage as a floor &, above all, I believe in promoting a high wage economy.”
Mr Hynd tweeted back, “So why not pledge to oppose any cuts? Min wage already below living wage! Time to stand up for #Stroud cc (constituents).”
Tweeting later on, Mr Carmichael said: “Low Pay Commission has reviewed methodology behind the minimum wage – to be considered – but I am focused on creating a high wage economy.”

Labour county councillor Brian Oosthuysen said: “To refuse to oppose any reduction in the national minimum wage is a kick in the wallet for all those low-paid workers who are struggling to keep their families afloat.”

He added: “What Stroud residents want is to see their MP fighting for them in Government, not fighting for the Government against them.”

You can follow me on twitter here
You can follow Brian here
You can follow Neil Carmichael MP here

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Barbie for boys? Toys “R” Us to drop gender labelling


Toys “R” Us have pledged to stop marketing toys as either for “girls” or for “boys”. The move comes after a meeting with the ‘Let Toys be Toys’ campaign which campaigns to stop retailers “limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys.”

The Let Toys be Toys campaign is one that, despite not yet being a parent, I support passionately.

Of course there is a correlation with gender and the type of toys played with (although the chicken and egg question remains). But what I have issue with is retailers promoting a toy, and in turn behaviour, to one gender which tacitly stigmatises the other gender who may equally wish to play with such a toy.

In short, kids should be able to decide that they play with and what they don’t without the interference of hundreds of years of patriarchal gender stereotypes.

Too much to ask for in 2013?

The change.org petition hits the nail on the head when it says:

“In 2013 it is time to take down the signs, labels and categories that tell parents, grandparents and children that construction sets, adventure games, cars, science toys and superheroes are ‘toys for boys’, and that baby dolls, play kitchens, make-up sets, fashion, princesses and crafts are ‘toys for girls’.

Toys are for fun, for learning, for stoking imagination and encouraging creativity. Children should feel free to play with the toys that most interest them.”

Sign the petition here.

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