Notes and Comment Blog

Girls are told to change

Aug 27th, 2014 3:54 pm | By

Soraya Chemaly doesn’t want to have to stick her fingers in her drink to avoid being raped.

Every few months, a new product to help women avoid rape hits the market. This week’s is an innovative new nail polish that can identify the presence of drugs when dipped in a drink.

But the commonest rape drug is alcohol, so that’s a very limited fix. Besides, hygiene.

I don’t want to dip my nails into a drink. Or stop wearing my hair in a ponytail. Or start wearing hairy tights. Before I die, I’d like to not have toask a man to walk me home at night. Cool new nail polish is just the latest in way for us to adapt to rape.

From the moment we are born, girls are told to change: change our clothes, our hair, our belt buckles, our underwearour walks, our commutes, our friends, even our vaginas.

Instead we should be changing the world.

Every time we focus on making girls and women individually responsible for avoiding rape, we lose the opportunity to address the systemic root problem that our mainstream culture grows rapists like weeds. Despite my snark, I do understand the need to balance safety with change. I don’t doubt the good intentions of the inventors of these products, but their true value resides less in their questionable efficacy than in the fact that young men like the creators of this one are engaged in confronting rape culture. However, each and every instance of “how to avoid rape” that media takes up is one less instance of explaining rape and reducing its pervasive threat.

Systemic problems need systemic solutions.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The buck stops somewhere

Aug 27th, 2014 3:35 pm | By

So maybe there are people in Rotherham who should be held accountable for what happened? Like Shaun Wright for instance?

The Labour party has called for the resignation of South Yorkshire’s police and crime commissioner, Shaun Wright, in the wake of the child sex abuse scandal in Rotherham.

Wright was a Labour cabinet member for children and young people’s services at Rotherham council from 2005 to 2010 when he received three reports about widespread abuse but failed to act, according toProf Alexis Jay’s damning report on the sexual exploitation of 1,400 children over 16 years in the South Yorkshire town.

Speaking publicly for the first time since the report was published, Wright insisted on Wednesday that he had acted properly, and rejected calls for him to go.

Hmm. If it were true that he acted properly, then what happened wouldn’t have happened.

Wright told the BBC: “The scale of the problem has come as a surprise to me.” He said he was not aware of the “industrial scale” of the abuse.

As he defended his position, a Labour party spokesman told reporters asking for Ed Miliband’s view on the matter that Wright should quit. “The report into child abuse in Rotherham was devastating in its findings. Vulnerable children were repeatedly abused and then let down. In the light of this report, it is appropriate that South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner Shaun Wright should step down,” he said. The call has been echoed by David Blunkett, the former Labourhome secretary and Sheffield MP.

Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, told BBC radio’s The World at One that Wright should stand down because “of the failures of leadership”. He said: “It’s important that people in positions of responsibility take responsibility.”

That’s the usual approach, I believe. Even if the people at the top think they “acted properly” they’re still supposed to take responsibility if all the wheels come off. That’s one of the downsides of being at the top.

Rotherham’s Labour council leader, Roger Stone, resigned within hours of the publication of Jay’s report.

There have been repeated calls for Wright to do the same. Education minister Nick Gibb said those responsible for policy decisions which contributed to the scandal “should be held to account”.

He told ITV News: “It is quite appalling that the more vulnerable the children, the more horrific their stories, the less they are believed by the statutory authorities. And those that took those policy decisions I think should be held to account.”

People are taking a hard look at his record now.

As calls intensified on Wednesday for Shaun Wright to step down as police commissioner, his record as Rotherham council’s cabinet member for children and young people’s services came under uncomfortable scrutiny.

Wright took up the post in April 2005, staying in the job until 2010, and served 12 years in total as a Labour councillor in Rotherham. Shortly after he took over responsibility for children and young people, an Ofsted inspection in 2006 declared Rotherham’s children’s services department to be “good”.

Three years into his tenure, following an unannounced inspection in August 2009, Ofsted downgraded the department to “performs poorly” – its lowest rating – saying there was “sufficient concern that the safety of children cannot be assured”.

Then a year later it was declared back to ok again.

Wright told BBC’s Look North programme on Wednesday that he was “surprised” by the scale of sexual exploitation suffered by children in Rotherham since 1997. Yet according to Professor Alexis Jay’s investigation, he commissioned a series of reports directly addressing the problem of child sexual exploitation (CSE) in the town while in office. All made abundantly clear that large numbers of children were being groomed for sex by gangs of mainly Asian males.

So how could he be surprised? Did he just forget the whole thing?

Jay said that by 2005, when Wright took over responsibility for the protection of vulnerable young people, neither councillors nor senior officers in the council could say “we didn’t know” about CSE. Seminars for elected members and senior officers in 2004-05 presented the abuse “in the most explicit terms”, said Jay.

In her report, Jay notes that executives within Rotherham children’s social care services formally recognised the problem of child sexual exploitation back in 2001, though there were many known cases of CSE in the years before then.

She said the council and police ignored “stark evidence” from reports in 2002, 2003 and 2006, which “could not have been clearer in their description of the situation in Rotherham. The first of these reports was effectively suppressed because some senior officers disbelieved the data it contained. This had led to suggestions of cover-up. The other two reports set out the links between child sexual exploitation and drugs, guns and criminality in the borough. These reports were ignored and no action was taken to deal with the issues that were identified in them.”

Apparently Labour is telling him if he doesn’t want to be pushed he’d better hurry up and jump.




(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

On Frontline

Aug 27th, 2014 12:12 pm | By

I watched the first hour of a re-run of Frontline’s Secrets of the Vatican last night. It’s very powerful.

There’s one part where a middle-aged woman describes in detail her rape by her priest when she was 8 years old, and it broke my heart. The detail isn’t physical, but behavioral – what he said, how he looked at her, his tone of voice, what he threatened her with, how he walked away and how he closed the door behind him. And then what she did after that, and how she felt.

And there are men who break your heart too. Several of them.

Milwaukee, we learn (not that it’s new…), was a standout for cold callous self-interested bullying and ass-covering. Who was in charge of that? Timothy motherfucking Dolan. Is that how he got to be a cardinal and live in that nice house in Manhattan? By doing such a good job of shutting up the victims in Milwaukee?

The Vatican is a “sovereign nation” (thanks to Mussolini, which Frontline doesn’t mention, and should have) so it doesn’t have to hand over its archives to anyone. Cases have to be dealt with locally, one by one. Excellent wheeze if you’re in charge of a bunch of rapey priests.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Inhibitions from confronting social attitudes

Aug 27th, 2014 11:54 am | By

Al Razi, an Ex-Muslim and member of the CEMB forum, has a piece about the Rotherham mess at Left Foot Forward.

…we must ask if ideological multiculturalism as a political, social policy leads to a situation in which a cover up of uncomfortable issues becomes inevitable. When this happens, suffering and abuse occurs, and rather than dealing boldly with it, what results is a pattern of denial, obfuscation and continuance.

Multiculturalism concerned exclusively with communal religious identity politics, pursued as a social policy, is deeply reactionary and leads to the oppression of women who feel its effect most acutely. It dehumanises us all, because it asserts that we are not individuals, but members of religious or ethnic groups who must be dealt with according to the mediated authority of ‘community leaders’. It creates inhibitions from confronting social attitudes that must be addressed urgently, and in doing so, it allows social problems to flourish.

It’s an issue with the Catholic church, too, especially in the US, where many Catholics are recent immigrants or the children of less-recent immigrants, and subject to the usual outgroup-ostracism and attendant disadvantages. That can make some people leery of being critical of the church…and you know the rest.

The taboos that this form of communalist identity politics engender lead to the perpetuation of reactionary attitudes and effects. The damage it can do to our social fabric, trust, and individual freedoms is an attack on everything that the Left should be defending.

The time has come for the British Left to actively defend the secular space and oppose the assumptions and practise of reactionary communalist identity politics as a social policy, and truly cosmopolitan values that reject cultural and moral relativism must be central to our movement.

It can be difficult, and tricky, but it’s the only way to go.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

A strong correlation

Aug 27th, 2014 11:02 am | By

Merrill Miller at The Humanist asks why poor people are more religious. She starts with two New York Times blog posts, one about areas of the US where poverty is concentrated and the other about the apparent tendency of those areas to favor religious fundamentalism more than others.

These findings from The Upshot are reinforced by previous research into the connections between religion and poverty. According to a 2010 Gallup poll, there is a strong, positive correlation between strict adherence to religion and privation. But while the Gallup poll reports a link between religious devotion and poverty, it doesn’t provide any insight into why it exists.

A study by independent research Dr. Tom Rees, published in the Journal of Religion and Society, suggests that in places without strong social safety nets to provide people with opportunities for upward mobility, people are more likely to rely on religion for comfort.

People who get a shitty deal in the real world like to think about an unreal world to console themselves. So which is better? A good enough life that other-world consolation isn’t needed? Or a shitty life that can be endured only via fantasy?

Although religion can provide real assistance and a sense of security to disadvantaged individuals, that doesn’t mean it actually solves the problems associated with poverty. In fact, in an analysis of the aforementioned study, the British Humanist Association warned that government promotion of religion as a positive social influence could mask larger social problems that contribute to poverty, such as a lack of access to education.

It could also weaken the motivation to do something about the larger social problems that contribute to poverty. It could stunt the ability to be political about those larger social problems that contribute to poverty, and to fight hard to fix them. It could trick people into thinking it’s all part of God’s Plan and it’s ok because actually God loves poor people the best.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

A mephitic hole in Yorkshire

Aug 26th, 2014 6:22 pm | By

Randeep Ramesh is sickened by the Rotherham report.

The putrid mess that oozes from the 160 pages of Alexis Jay’s report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham is so thick that one gags rather than read the words.

Children in the town were systematically identified by gangs as vulnerable, seduced with drugs and drink, brainwashed into believing they were in a relationship with an adult and then used for sex, often raped before sometimes being trafficked to nearby cities to work as prostitutes.

The brutal violence that surrounded this depraved process was shocking. Children who refused to acquiesce to ever more macabre demands were doused in petrol, threatened with guns, made to witness brutally violent rapes and told they would be next if they told anyone.

We get numbed to it; we have to fight that. The violence in northern Nigeria…in Iraq…in the villages of India where dalit women are forced to clean up human shit every day of their lives…in Rotherham…We have to keep getting un-numbed to it.

What allowed these crimes to continue was not just that abused children were cowed into silence or mentally enslaved by older men, but that even when they spoke out they were met by a culture of disbelief from the authorities.

Time and time again, police and social workers appear to talk of mothers being unable to deal with children “growing up”.

In one instance, a girl of 12 was groomed, raped and then trafficked. The authorities “blamed the child … for placing herself at risk”.

In another case an 11-year-old girl had been sexually assaulted, then a year later found drunk in a car with a suspected abuser who had taken indecent pictures of her on his phone. She was declared to be at “no risk of sexual exploitation”.

If that’s no risk, what would at risk look like?

What made South Yorkshire perhaps more politically charged is that in many cases the victims were underage white girls and the perpetrators were Asian men.

There were other abuse cases – in Oxford and Telford – with the same mix of ethnicities.

The far right had a field day with slogans which cast Muslim men as dangerous paedophiles. The tabloids leapt on remarks made in 2012 by the judge in a widely reported Rochdale case, Gerald Clifton, who in sentencing nine Asian men for 77 years for abusing and raping up to 47 girls said: “I believe one of the factors which led to that is that they [the victims] were not of your community or religion.”

Discomfiting, isn’t it.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

In the upright position

Aug 26th, 2014 6:04 pm | By

On a flight from Newark to Denver

A plane in the US had to be diverted and two passengers removed after one of them started a fight by using a banned device to stop the seat in front reclining.

The spat began on United Airlines flight 1462 because one passenger was using the Knee Defender, a $21.95 lock that attaches to a tray table and jams the reclining mechanism of the seat in front.

The male passenger, seated in a middle seat of row 12, used the device to stop the woman in front of him reclining while he was on his laptop, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Ok can I just say something here?

Those seats should not recline. If the person in front of you reclines the seat you can’t use the tray table at all, and you have the top of that person’s head pretty much in your face. Reclining was ok when there was some room between the seats, but now that you can barely squeeze yourself into them, they just should not recline, period. Reclining the seat unless you’re on the edge of death or something is just abominably rude. I never recline the seat, any more than I throw my garbage over the top of my seat into the lap of the person behind me.

So, I’m sorry, my sympathies are with the guy with the device.

A flight attendant asked him to remove the device and he refused. The woman then stood up, turned around and threw a cup of water at him, the official said.

Nope, not reasonable. The airlines shouldn’t be letting people recline those seats.

The Federal Aviation Administration leaves it up to individual airlines to set rules about the device. United Airlines says it prohibits its use, like all major US airlines. Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air take the reclining mechanisms out of their seats, leaving them permanently upright.

All the airlines should disable them. Period. We don’t get to lie down on the people next to us in the plane, so why should we be able to dump the back of our seat into the lap of the person behind us? It’s ridiculous.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Free markets and coercive religions: the best of both worlds

Aug 26th, 2014 5:40 pm | By

The Koch brothers are spending money to get libertarian ideas taught in schools, according to Slate.

The Edvantage, a project of the libertarian Institute for Humane Studies, bills itself as an online “curriculum hub for pioneering educators.” The website offers high school teachers and college professors educational videos, articles, and podcasts on topics including economics, history, and philosophy. But as people might expect from a think tank whose board is chaired by billionaire libertarian Charles Koch, most of the project’s economics content features two common themes: vilify government, promote the free market.

For example, teachers using Edvantage can find economics videos explaining how the Environmental Protection Agency is bad for the environment, how sweatshops are good for third-world workers, and how the minimum wage costs workers jobs. Content featuring opposing viewpoints, however, is sparse.

The curriculum according to Ayn Rand; what could possibly go wrong?

According to its website, Edvantage is funded by the John Templeton Foundation, whose core funding areas include “individual freedom and free markets.” Program director Daniel Green said through a foundation spokeswoman that the two-year, $739,000 grant is meant “to further Sir John Templeton’s objective of supporting education about the enhancement of individual freedom and free markets.” In addition to funding free-market initiatives, the foundation—founded by the billionaire global investor and mutual fund pioneer—supports a variety of other causes, including ones related to science and religion.  

That is to say, related to propaganda claiming that religion and science are totally compatible and that it’s just a big poopy myth that there is any conflict between them.

teachers who use Edvantage won’t find much ideological balance while researching content on the website’s economics pages. The educational materials selected by Edvantage for economics lessons are overwhelmingly anti-government and pro–free market. For example, a page of videos and articles on economic regulations includes videos that lament occupational licensing laws, explain how regulations are burdening food truck owners, and argue that free markets regulate product safety better than the government

Because what possible incentive could unregulated markets have to skimp on product safety?

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

In Rotherham

Aug 26th, 2014 4:10 pm | By

I’m reading the BBC live summary of the Rotherham report. It’s horrifying.

14:01: Evidence of the “appalling” abuse of at least 1,400 children in Rotherham, South Yorkshire over 16 years has been laid bare in a new report.
14:01: The inquiry was carried out by Professor Alexis Jay, a former chief inspector of social work in Scotland.
14:02: Her independent inquiry into how social services in Rotherham dealt with allegations of child sex abuse between 1997 and 2013 found girls as young as 11 were raped multiple times, trafficked to other towns and cities, beaten and doused in petrol.
14:04: The report, which has been published in the last few minutes, says: “The police and the council both failed in their duties to protect some of the most vulnerable children in the borough.”

And yet, they don’t work for the Vatican.

14:08: In the report, Prof Jay highlights a “collective failure” by the authorities to stop the abuse.
14:08: It also notes a “clear evidence of child sexual exploitation being disbelieved, suppressed or ignored”.
14:10: The report was commissioned by Rotherham Council in 2013. It followed the jailing of five men from Rotherham for sexual offences against girls in 2010.
14:11: Rotherham Council is expected to respond to the report later. Last year, the council’s chief executive, Martin Kimber, apologised to victims who had been “let down” by its “systemic failure”.
14:12: The inquiry found that a report highlighting the abuse was submitted to the police and the council in 2002, but “was effectively suppressed”.

Suppressed. So the Rotherham police and council acted like the Vatican even though they don’t work for the Vatican.

14:16: Councillors and council officials were told about the abuse in 2004 and 2005 “in the most explicit terms”, the report found. But it highlighted evidence of a “macho, sexist and bullying culture” within the council, which stopped it providing an effective response.
14:17: The report found that no priority was given by South Yorkshire Police to the issue of child sexual exploitation.
14:18: The 1,400 victims identified in the report include both girls and a small number of boys, Prof Jay clarifies in response to one question.
14:21: Prof Jay says there was evidence that senior people in the council and police wanted to “play down” the “ethnic dimensions” of the sexual exploitation for fear of being regarded as racist.

Macho, sexist, bullying, and anti-racist – or not anti-racist but unwilling to be regarded as racist. Impressive.

From the report:

Executive Summary:

No one knows the true scale of child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Rotherham over the years. Our conservative estimate is that approximately 1400 children were sexually exploited over the full Inquiry period, from 1997 to 2013.

In just over a third of cases, children affected by sexual exploitation were previously known to services because of child protection and neglect. It is hard to describe the appalling nature of the abuse that child victims suffered. They were raped by multiple perpetrators, trafficked to other towns and cities in the north of England, abducted, beaten, and intimidated. There were examples of children who had been doused in petrol and threatened with being set alight, threatened with guns, made to witness brutally violent rapes and threatened they would be next if they told anyone.
Girls as young as 11 were raped by large numbers of male perpetrators.

And it was all just buried.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The role of irregular verbs in argument

Aug 26th, 2014 3:38 pm | By

I wrote this column for the Freethinker. In it I take issue with the idea that emotion is the opposite of reason.

I don’t mean that people arguing or writing articles about moral or social issues should be in a heightened emotional state themselves; I mean they should not pretend the subject is a matter of pure logic or number-crunching or engineering.

Above all, what we should not do is claim that our argument is Pure Reason while that of our opponent is nothing but emotion. It won’t work, for a start, and it’s not likely to be true, and it’s toe-curlingly arrogant. It helps to remember that we all have enormous built-in cognitive flaws, and that it’s never safe to assume we’ve managed to correct or avoid all of them at any given time.

In any case it’s pointless to pretend we can think and talk about moral or political issues with emotion neatly extracted, because the reason we want to argue about them in the first place is because we care about them. They matter to us. We don’t bother to argue about things that don’t matter to us. Morality is rooted in feelings – we want some things and want to avoid other things. Morality comes in when we extend that to other people –

And then things get complicated.



(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Abortion was just one front in a wider religious war

Aug 26th, 2014 12:41 pm | By

Fintan O’Toole provides some background on Ireland’s appalling “Pro-Life” amendment to its constitution.

The most successful single issue movement in the history of the State, the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC), was established in January 1981 by 13 organisations: the Congress of Catholic Secondary School Parents’ Associations; the Irish Catholic Doctors’ Guild; the Guild of Catholic Nurses; the Guild of Catholic Pharmacists; the Catholic Young Men’s Society; the St Thomas More Society; the Irish Pro-Life Movement; the National Association of the Ovulation Method (“natural” contraception endorsed by the Catholic church); the Council of Social Concern (COSC); the Irish Responsible Society; the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children; the St Joseph’s Young Priests Society (young Catholic priests, that is); and the Christian Brothers Schools Parents’ Federation. The initial meeting was chaired by the head of a 14th organisation that was immensely influential on the campaign behind the scenes, the secretive, all-male brotherhood the Order of the Knights of Columbanus.

It’s enough to make you want to throw up. Notice that at least two of those groups are not only Catholic but all-male. All-male Catholic groups stripping women of basic rights – not a good look.

These are the bodies that made Ireland unique in the democratic world in having a ban on abortion in its constitution. In spite of a great deal of revisionism, their sectarian character is obvious: 10 of these bodies were explicitly and exclusively Catholic. The other four were almost entirely made up of conservative Catholic activists. (By contrast, all Irish Protestant churches opposed the amendment.) For all of these groups, abortion was just one front in a wider religious war.

On Protestantism, on women, on secularism, on the whole notion and possibility of not taking orders from the Vatican.

A guy called John O’Reilly started it all going.

John O’Reilly explicitly regarded a successful anti-abortion amendment as a prelude to action against contraception and “illegitimacy”: “The campaign for a pro-life amendment would enjoy widespread support now and the success of the campaign would serve to halt the permissive tide in other areas.”

For O’Reilly “pro-life” was the opposite of “anti-life”, a term which incorporated the availability of contraception and (weirdly) the rising number of babies born out of wedlock.

Because the most important thing of all is to make sure that nobody ever ever ever just plain has sex for the fun of it. God no. It has to be made as rule-bound and joyless and like a prison sentence as it can possibly be. Except for priests, of course.

The Irish Responsible Society, of which five key PLAC leaders were members, was the Irish branch of the group led by the English right-wing Catholic activist Valerie Riches (now a papal dame). For Riches, the degeneration of society through sexual permissiveness was a conspiracy driven by International Planned Parenthood.

Sex! Sex sex sex! It’s dirty, it’s terrifying, it’s the swirling vortex of hell that will suck you in if you don’t work night and day to forbid everything you can think of.

The first action of her Irish followers was to campaign against a small State grant to the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Its next campaign was against the removal of the stigma of illegitimacy from children born out of wedlock.

This is the ideology – sectarian, paranoid, apocalyptic – that gave us the eighth amendment. It was utterly dismissive of any qualifications to its absolutist views and saw all “sob stories” as liberal conspiracies.

Bernadette Bonar, a leading PLAC and Responsible Society figure, warned of pro-abortion conspirators turning up at a TD’s clinics: “seemingly respectable little women giving him sob stories about 12-year-olds being raped.”

Loretto Browne, also a prominent PLAC and Responsible Society leader, told me in 1982 that rape very seldom results in pregnancy because “men that go in for rape are usually not fertile, they tend to be impotent”.

Uh-huh. The body has a way of shutting that whole thing down.

These were the people who created the Irish abortion regime. Most of them are long gone from the public stage – COSC and the Irish Responsible Society no longer exist. Their world view is marginal. But their legacy abides for women not born when it was in its pomp.

Their worldview isn’t marginal in the US. I wish to hell it were.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

De-segregating the Housman room

Aug 26th, 2014 11:14 am | By

David Colquhoun has a brilliant post that starts out being about ending the all-male status of the main and best UCL common room in the 1960s, and goes on to be about the importance of confidence for achievement, and continues on to be about the importance of role models and zeitgeist, and ends up being about the way over-competitiveness in academia drives out people who don’t like over-competitiveness and thus distorts and impoverishes academia.

Colquhoun loves UCL – its godless tradition, its multi-faculty nature, its comparative democracy.

From the start, the intellectual heart of UCL has been the staff Common Room. As I so often say, failing to waste time drinking coffee with people who are cleverer than yourself can seriously damage your career (and your happiness). And there’s no better place for that than the Housman room.

It is there that I met the great statistician Alan Hawkes, without whom much of my research would never have happened. It was there that Hyman Kestelman (among others) gave me informal tutorials on matrix algebra over lunch. It was there where I have met John Sutherland (English), Mary Fulbrook (German), many historians and people from the Slade school of Art. And it was there where, yesterday, I had an illuminating conversation with Steve Jones about the problems of twin studies for measuring heritability.

But guess what. When he first got there it was men-only. All that good stuff was available to men only. There was a women-only common room and a mixed common room, but the biggest and best was the Housman and that was men-only.

In 1967 we proposed a motion at the Housman AGM to desegregate all common rooms. It was defeated. The next year we did it again, and were defeated again.. But at the third attempt, in 1969, we succeeded. I was very happy to have had a small role in upholding UCL’s liberal traditions.

He then talks about marathons, and what we can learn from them.

One of the great thing about marathons is that women and men run in the same race. That means that almost all men have had to get used to being overtaken by very many women. That has been wonderfully good for deflating male egos. When I was training for marathons in the 1980s, my training partner, Annie Briggs was on the elite start -a good hour faster than I could manage.

Now we are accustomed to watching Paula Radcliffe run marathons faster than any but the very best men. She’s the world record holder with the spectacular time of 2 hours 15 min in the 2003 London Marathon (my best is 3 hr 57 min). That’s only a bit over 26 consecutive 5 minute miles. And that’s faster than I could run a single mile at my peak.

But wait, it gets even better than that.

It’s now utterly beyond belief that in the 1960s men were saying that women were too feeble to run 26 miles. It was sheer blind arrogance. After Switzer, progress was fast. In 1972 women were allowed to run in Boston, and within 10 years, the women’s record time had fallen by a full hour. Physiology hadn’t changed, but confidence had.

Of course it wasn’t until the 2012 Olympics that women gained total equality in sport. Everyone who said that women were incapable of competing in combat sports should see Rosi Sexton in action.

She’s the ultimate high-achiever. She’s an accomplished musician (grade 7 cello, ALCM piano) and she played at the Albert Hall with the Reading Youth Orchestra. She went on to get a first in maths (Cambridge, Trinity College), where her tutor was Tim Gowers. Then she did a PhD in theoretical computer science from Manchester (read her thesis). And she’s had a distinguished career as professional athlete, competing at the highest level in MMA. Why? “The other things I did, the music, the maths, just weren’t quite hard enough“.

A hat trick of accomplishment.

And this kind of thing is good pour encourager les autres.

It could not be more appropriate than to be writng this in the week when the Fields medal was won by a woman, Maryam Mirzakhani, for the first time since it started, in 1936. Genetics hasn’t changed since 1936. Confidence has.

UCL mathematician, Helen Wilson, points out the encouragement this will give to female mathematicians.

Confidence is important, encouragement is important, inspiration is important.

And he has one last point:

And the job of desegregation may not be entirely finished. In fact now it is harder to combat, since it’s unspoken. Once again, I’m reminded of Peter Lawrence’s essay, The Mismeasurement of Science. Speaking of the perverse incentives and over-competitiveness that has invaded academia, he says

“Gentle people of both sexes vote with their feet and leave a profession that they, correctly, perceive to discriminate against them [17]. Not only do we lose many original researchers, I think science would flourish more in an understanding and empathetic workplace.”

The perverse incentives that make academic life hard for women (and for many men too) are administered by HR departments (with the collusion of mostly elderly male academics). They are the very same people who write fine-sounding diversity documents and lecture you about work-life balance.

It’s time they woke up.

Understanding and empathy are important too.

By the way, want to know how I was alerted to this beautiful essay? Via Richard Dawkins on Twitter.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Tropes v women

Aug 25th, 2014 6:08 pm | By

Anita Sarkeesian looks at women as background decoration in video games. Cool stuff: murdered women lying around in sexy poses with few clothes on. Phwoarrrr, sexy, also entertaining and funny, right? RIGHT?

For some strange reason the comments are disabled. So puzzling.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Guest post: There was so much suffering, so far beyond endurance

Aug 25th, 2014 4:50 pm | By

Originally a comment by quixote on “If you are from the Mehatar caste, you have to do this work.”

This post gave me a fullblown flashback. One of my most vivid memories from visiting India decades ago was the look in the eyes of one of the sweepers.

His job was dealing with a public toilet I was walking past. I can’t imagine who would use one of them because there were piles of shit everywhere inside (I could see partway into the door) and plenty outside from people who no doubt didn’t want to contend with the conditions inside. Indian food can be hard on the intestines, so the piles were not necessarily well-formed. He was sweeping this unspeakably foul glop with one of those short no-handle brooms. He was avoiding looking at anyone.

(I asked someone once why they didn’t at least have longhandled brooms, so the sweepers didn’t have to squat right down next to the shit. Well, proper handles were only for proper people. It just was Not Done to give the scum of the earth long handled brooms. Really. That was the answer.)

Well, I must have been staring (little horrified Western white kid), because he looked up at me. His eyes were completely glazed. There was so much suffering, so far beyond endurance, there was nothing left. I’ve only ever seen that expression one other time, in a picture of a person who’d had his hands chopped off during the terror in Sierra Leone.

There are aspects of Indian culture which are a big contribution to humanity. And there are aspects which annihilate people like the sweepers, like widows, like so many millions there. It’s a vast, huge, gigantic human rights issue.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Their caste-designated occupation reinforces the social stigma

Aug 25th, 2014 4:42 pm | By

That HRW report on dalits and cleaning up human shit every day.

There are laws against hiring people to do this horrible job, but they’re not enforced.

However, because these policies are not properly implemented, people remain unaware of their right to refuse this role, and those who do refuse may face intense social pressure, including threats of violence and expulsion from their village, often with the complicity of local government officials.

Manual scavengers are usually from caste groups customarily relegated to the bottom of the caste hierarchy and confined to livelihood tasks viewed as deplorable or deemed too menial by higher caste groups. Their caste-designated occupation reinforces the social stigma that they are unclean or “untouchable” and perpetuates widespread discrimination.  Women usually clean dry toilets, men and women clean excrement from open defecation sites, gutters, and drains, and men are called upon to do the more physically demanding work of cleaning sewers and septic tanks.

It’s a good catch-22, isn’t it. They have to pick up the shit because they’re low people because they pick up the shit. Well that’s a maze there’s no way out of.

Ashif Shaikh, founder and convener of the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, a grassroots campaign against manual scavenging, explained the systematic discrimination that emerges from this practice:

The manual carrying of human feces is not a form of employment, but an injustice akin to slavery. It is one of the most prominent forms of discrimination against Dalits, and it is central to the violation of their human rights.

In Kasela village in Uttar Pradesh state’s Etah district, women from 12 families manually clean toilets with the full knowledge of village authorities. After spending the morning manually removing excrement from the toilets, the women return to the houses they cleaned to collect leftover food as payment. They are given grain donations at the harvest and old clothes at festival times, but receive no cash wages. Munnidevi told Human Rights Watch she stopped going to homes where she was not given any food, but says she returned to work after her employers warned that she would not be able to enter community land to collect firewood or graze her livestock. “I have to go. If I miss a single day, I am threatened,” she said.

They’re not even paid. They’re forced to do it by economic threats and they’re not paid. Like post-Civil War Mississippi, it’s worse than slavery. With slavery there’s an incentive to keep the slave alive and even healthy.

Sevanti Fatrod, from Bhonrasa, in Dewas district, Madhya Pradesh, says that she, her mother-in-law, and her two sisters-in-laws cleaned toilets in 100 houses each day—allowing them to collect leftover food from the houses they cleaned:

I did not know that I would have to clean toilets. In Nepanagar, where I am from, my family did not do this work. My father told me that my husband’s family had a large jagir, with work that spanned 100 families—but he did not tell me what work this was. I learned my work when I came to Bhonrasa . . . A jagir, means the area that you own. I was called a maitarani [scavenging queen]—for what? My work was to clean people’s feces— for only one or two rupees a month. We were told we had to do it. There was no one to tell us we didn’t have to.[28]

While a jagir is considered a family asset, for the young women made to clean excrement immediately after their marriage, the jagir can be a traumatic inheritance. Sona, from Bharatpur city in Rajasthan, described her first day to Human Rights Watch:

The first day when I was cleaning the latrines and the drain, my foot slipped and my leg sank in the excrement up to my calf. I screamed and ran away. Then I came home and cried and cried. My husband went with me the next day and made me do it. I knew there was only this work for me.[29]

For people who practice manual scavenging, untouchability and social exclusion are inextricably linked. Manjula Pradeep, executive director of Navsarjan, a Gujarat based nongovernmental organization that has worked for decades around this issue explains:

Manual scavenging is itself a form of caste-based violence and needs to be understood that way. It is degrading, it is imposed upon very vulnerable people, and in order to leave manual scavenging, they have to make themselves even more vulnerable— they risk backlash, they don’t know how they will live.[30]

The horror of it is hard to encompass.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The people united

Aug 25th, 2014 3:46 pm | By

Thousands of people marched in an Oslo demonstration against ISIS organized by young Muslims.

The demonstration, organized by young Muslims in Norway, gathered people of different religious and ethnicities together in Oslo against religious extremism and the crimes of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The crowd filled the entire Grønland square as the demonstration started at 17.00.

After short talks by the organizers, demonstrators marched through Oslo streets towards Norwegian Parliement (Stortinget) with slogans of “No to ISIS”, “ISIS is not in Islam’s Name”, “Against ISIS terror for Peace”.

When the protestors arrived at Eidsvold space, in front of Stortinget, the number has reached to almost ten thousand, according to the organizers.

That’s good. More of that!

A young demonstrator Ali (16) said being in the demonstration is important to take away from extremists people and ideologies and say that we do not share the same principles and values with those extremists.

Among other politicians and stakeholders, Prime Minister Erna Solberg also had a speech during the demonstration. Solberg said all stand together against extremists.

- Today it is about what we believe. We all believe in freedom of speech, democracy, freedom of religion and the political discussion to take place without violence, said she in her speech in the end of the demonstration.

The crowd was apparently much bigger than expected.

@JudeRoze tweeted some photos:

Embedded image permalink

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Not scrupulously fair

Aug 25th, 2014 2:57 pm | By

What was that I was saying about managing disagreement ethically? I must have been dreaming.

There’s a new article at the Richard Dawkins website, by one “Notung” who is a blogger at Skeptic Ink. So the article is pseudonymous, so it had better be scrupulously fair in whatever it says, right? Because surely it’s dirty pool to be unfair and be pseudonymous. Isn’t it?

An article on Religion News Service by Catholic journalist Kimberly Winston (an expert in the effects of different prayer beads on prayer) asks whether Richard Dawkins is an asset or a liability to atheism. Actually it tells us: he’s a liability. 

Nope, not scrupulously fair. Rudely inaccurate about a named journalist, rather than scrupulously fair. Jesus, Richard – this is how you take your revenge? You let A Nameless smear a named journalist on your website?

Actually it tells us: he’s a liability. Of the eight people who were interviewed, seven said that he’s a liability (though Hemant Mehta’s statement appears to have been misrepresented), and only one (Dennett) said that he’s an asset.

Nope, not scrupulously fair. That claim is not true. It’s false. Four of the seven said Richard is both: both an asset and a liability. I did, and so did Phil Zuckerman and Hemant Mehta and Adam Lee.

“Richard Dawkins has done a lot to bring atheism to a whole new generation,” said Phil Zuckerman, a sociology professor who studies atheism and who also credits Dawkins with speaking out against the pedophilia scandal within the Catholic Church. “On the other hand, Dawkins seems to embody everything that people dislike about atheists: He is smug, condescending and emits an unpleasant disdainfulness. He doesn’t ever seem to acknowledge the good aspects of religion, only the bad. In that sense, I think he doesn’t help atheism in the PR department.”

See? That’s not hard to understand, is it? The “on the other hand” helps. Both.

So when his recent tweets about rape and pedophilia hit the Twittersphere two days after the release of the civility agreement with his longtime critic, the debate started anew.

“Perhaps he was testing it,” Benson said of the agreement, which she characterized as a positive step in repairing a rift over feminism within atheism that she traces to Dawkins’ “Dear Muslima” comment.

Benson said Dawkins attracts people to the movement with his well-reasoned arguments against religion and superstition. But he then repels them with what many see as an unwillingness to listen to ideas other than his own.

“In his two or three recent Twitter combats, the most striking thing is he does not listen to anyone except his fans, no matter how reasonably things are put,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a good way to represent long-term, healthy atheism.”


And it isn’t only women atheists whom Dawkins upset. Writing on The Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta said: “I’m a fan of Richard Dawkins. I know he means well. But damn, it’s annoying having to defend him. More importantly, I shouldn’t have to!”

Adam Lee, who blogs at Daylight Atheism, said: “I don’t think (Dawkins) has done more harm than good to the atheist movement, but the balance has been shifting towards harm. He has made comments about women and minorities that give people a bad impression of what atheism stands for. I wish he would stand back and let other people add their voices to his.”

Both and both.

And then there are some of the comments about Kimberly Winston…

Like this from “aquilacane” -

Catholic journalist Kimberly Winston (an expert in the effects of different prayer beads on prayer)

That’s like being an expert on the effects of different bird calls on the deceased. The first line of this article just screams “don’t read this crap written by a delusional and fraudulent moron”. If she were an expert she would admit the effects are zero as prayer has been demonstrated to have no effect. So, she must be a fraud a the very least.

Not cool.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

“If you are from the Mehatar caste, you have to do this work.”

Aug 25th, 2014 1:03 pm | By

BBC News reports on dalits in India whose job it is to empty non-flush toilets and carry away the shit for disposal.

Human Rights Watch has called on the Indian government to end “manual scavenging” – the practice of cleaning human waste by low-caste communities – in a new report.

The practice is banned by law in India, but it is rampant and activists say nearly 10 million are involved in this demeaning work which opens them to prejudice and abuse.

The report calls on the government “to ensure that local officials enforce the laws prohibiting this discriminatory practice”.

Check out the BBC story, because it’s full of vivid and tragic photos.

Munnidevi of the state’s Etah district says she does not get any money for her work. “Sometimes they give two rotis (home-made bread), sometimes just one. One house did not give me anything for two or three days. So I stopped going there. If they give me nothing, why should I go? Then they came to threaten me: ‘if you do not come, we will not let you on our land. Where will you get food for your animals?’ We own four buffaloes. I went back to clean. I had to.”

“The panchayat (village council) hires people to work as water suppliers, messengers, clerks, garbage collectors, and this work that I do – cleaning toilets,” says Anil of Dhule district in the western state of Maharashtra. “If you are from the Mehatar caste, you have to do this work. You are not told this directly, but it is what you are hired to do and what is expected, even from the villagers. If there is excrement to clean, they will come and call us to do it.”

“A village council brought our family here [from our native village in Maharashtra] to clean the dry toilets, water toilets, and open defecation. I collect all the excrement and throw it elsewhere. We actually want to go back home. We don’t like it here,” says Rajubai. “Because of this work, my health has declined. I eat very little food. It is very dirty work. But people are saying, the council will not allow us to leave and that is why they are not giving us the full payment.”


The Human Rights Watch report starts from here.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

The vitriol pours in

Aug 25th, 2014 11:10 am | By

Another day another tweet.


Richard Dawkins @RichardDawkins
I apologise for impugning the morality of the approximately ten percent of women who deliberately choose NOT to abort a Down’s fetus.

It’s a Basil Fawlty apology.

One of the reasons I’ve always found Basil Fawlty so hilarious is that I’m like that myself. There’s generally a snotty asshole in me roaring to get out, and it often does get out. (I usually regret it when it does.) Some of Basil’s rages are my rages too, and I sympathized with some of them and cringed at others. It’s much the same with Richard. His Basil Fawlty runs away with him sometimes.

There’s an interesting exchange on his site between a commenter and him, on a post by Kevin Drum about the “brutality” of the intersection of social justice liberalism and social media. In a comment Richard underlines the claim that “the vitriol pours in, and it’s soul-crushing.” Katy Cordeth replies:

Sorry Richard but it sounds like you can dish it out but you can’t take it. You do have your own tidy line in hurling the vitriol.

I don’t myself tweet but I’d be surprised if all the criticism you’re subjected to is as one-dimensional as you’d have us believe. The responses on this site to your recent abortion tweets have for the most part been measured, even from those who couldn’t be considered part of the Dawkins fan base.

You and Mr Drum are free to try and disseminate the idea that all the negative feedback you’re on the receiving end of is ugly and irrational, but isn’t that a bit self-serving? You’re giving yourself carte blanche to say whatever you like without fear of reprisal. I’m sure there are plenty of ugly things tweeted at you, many of them quite hurtful. But hidden among the trollery there are, I have no doubt, many sensible, rational things being said. What the ratio is I have no idea. It’s your duty to sort the wheat from the chaff, not try and kid the world that it’s all chaff.

I don’t actually agree with those who say you should quit the medium; as I said in one of my deleted posts, I think you’re playing the role of carnival barker, both to drum up business for this site and to keep the atheism flame lit in the popular consciousness, and tweets about what you’re having for your tea or pictures of your kitty cat just won’t serve that end. I’m sure it’s hard-going for a deeply divisive public figure to have to run the gauntlet of unmoderated public opinion every day, but you can ameliorate this by injecting a little kindness and compassion into your Twitter submissions. Cold, clinical analysis may be the order of the day in the world of academia and even on this site, but the men and women who ride the Clapham omnibus are a passionate and mercurial lot. The same rules don’t automatically apply.

I think that’s all pretty sensible advice. Richard’s response is

Katy Cordeth, of COURSE I have no problem with those tweets that are indeed measured, sensible disagreements. My whole life as an academic has been largely devoted to such conversations. I’m used to that sort of discussion and thrive on it. There’s all the difference in the world between disagreeing with somebody on a question of moral philosophy, and calling them a twat, a cunt, an idiot, an ignoramus and a Nazi simply because you disagree with them. And if you are asking the ratio of vitriolic abuse to measured argument, a conservative estimate would put it at more than ten to one. Isn’t it OBVIOUS that that is what Kevin Drum is talking about? And his “avalanche” is not an overstatement.

I was particularly interested by “There’s all the difference in the world between disagreeing with somebody on a question of moral philosophy, and calling them a twat, a cunt, an idiot, an ignoramus and a Nazi simply because you disagree with them.” Yes, there is, and that’s what we meant by the relevant passage in the joint statement.

Disagreement is inevitable, but bullying and harassment are not. If we want secularism and atheism to gain respect, we have to be able to disagree with each other without trying to destroy each other.

In other words we have to be able to manage disagreement ethically, like reasonable adults, as opposed to brawling like enraged children who need a nap. It should go without saying, but this means no death threats, rape threats, attacks on people’s appearance, age, race, sex, size, haircut; no photoshopping people into demeaning images, no vulgar epithets.

Emphasis added.

I think Richard is not used to being on the receiving end of the avalanche. I hope he is remembering to extrapolate from his experience of the avalanche to our experience of it for the past more than three years.


(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)

Into realms that belong to God and God alone

Aug 24th, 2014 6:24 pm | By

I’ve long disliked Vandana Shiva, and here’s more reason to dislike her: Michael Specter in the New Yorker:

Like Gandhi, whom she reveres, Shiva questions many of the goals of contemporary civilization. Last year, Prince Charles, who keeps a bust of Shiva on display at Highgrove, his family house, visited her at the Navdanya farm, in Dehradun, about a hundred and fifty miles north of New Delhi. Charles, perhaps the world’s best-known critic of modern life, has for years denounced transgenic crops. “This kind of genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God and God alone,” he wrote in the nineteen-nineties, when Monsanto tried to sell its genetically engineered seeds in Europe. Shiva, too, invokes religion in her assault on agricultural biotechnology. “G.M.O. stands for ‘God, Move Over,’ we are the creators now,” she said in a speech earlier this year. 

Oh piss off, both of you. You could say the same thing about farming of any kind, including “organic.” You could say it about houses (how many of those do you have, Charles?) and medical care and cooking.

Piss off.

(This is a syndicated post. Read the original at FreeThoughtBlogs.)