Saturday, 15 August 2015

Police brutality

My friend and I recently had a very interesting discussion about the situation in the US with regards to alleged police shootings and killings of black men (and women) during arrests or in custody. She raised some good points and it got me to thinking. Just yesterday another story was posted on line, but in this case the young man survived. Recently, I saw an article that shows the extent of the problem. TL; DR: ‘in the 31 days of March [2015], police in the United States killed more people than the UK did in the entire 20th century. In fact, it was twice as many; police in the UK only killed 52 people during that 100 year period.’
Now, the first issue I have heard raised is the media, and the problem of not seeing footage in its entirety, or seeing it heavily edited, so as to make the police look bad. It’s certainly true that you can’t believe everything you see in the news, and that the media often portrays things according to how partisan the publication is; but I don’t believe that bias in and of itself wouldn't stop the footage appearing, given the ease with which uploaded material is available now days. Would a reputable news outlet mash up footage to obscure the truth? Hell, in this day and age, maybe.
Also, it would be odd if the footage showed a particular angle (such as the cops doing their job perfectly, or indeed the opposite), and no news station aired it. Such footage would be useful, given the partisan nature of many stations and publications previously mentioned. It’s been said that the media only report the bad police actions and traffic stops, and to a large degree this is true, but it’s also logical. The incidents where nothing happens are not reported, because nothing happening is not news. Still, it would be good if there were a more positive focus sometimes (and there are networks which do this).
Secondly, I do believe gun control saves lives. At the very simplest, if no one has a gun, then no one gets shot. That much seems apparent. I don't suggest that this would be easy to apply in the US, but if it were, it would work. There are a lot more points to this argument, but for now I’ll leave it at that.
I’ve also heard it said that, if you’re not committing a crime, you won’t get accosted by the police. This line of thinking is both not always true, and dangerously close to excusing brutality on the part of policemen (and women). It’s not always true because, apart from the fact that a person's guilt or innocence is often meant to be determined after the fact (i.e. in court), there are examples of people who have been beaten or killed for committing no crime. And these people were often black. It's true that there will be some instances where race doesn't play a part, but there are definitely some where it does. The black community feels victimised and devalued, and I can understand why.
The problem with the idea of obeying the law in any situation only works if you are protected by those who enforce it. The US is a country which, despite having protections for all colours and creeds enshrined in law, has often failed to enforce them. After abolition, freedom of employment and education were granted to all, but it took many more years for this to become a reality for black people, and it’s still the case today that discrimination exists. This is why people like Rosa Parks and MLK have had to do what they did. I think there may be some frivolous or over-hyped brutality cases against police, but to attribute all such claims to these causes seems highly unlikely. I don’t think it’s true that the majority of minorities (if such a phrase may be allowed) want to feel victimised by the people meant to protect them. Certainly Rodney King didn’t.
Similarly, there is the issue of resisting arrest, confrontation, disrespectful behaviour, and downright violence towards the police. It’s true brutality occurs less when people cooperate with the police, but non-cooperation is not an excuse for brutality. Non-cooperation is simply an excuse for legal and acceptable limits of restraint and control. And yes, sometimes police must draw and fire their weapons if the situation calls for it, but the key is knowing when to do so. I don’t say it’s an easy thing to handle every day, but it is the job they have chosen. Brutality is, by definition, illegal. The police are trained to know and understand this truth.

I guess though, that in the end I will never really know what it is like to be a young black man pulled over by a policeman. In some cases, I am sure the cops were right to shoot. But not in all cases. And if there is a chance that there are cops who fall into the latter category, they need to be exposed and charged.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Boat People

People are drowning and there’s not much I can do about it. How does that make me feel? Well, it’s good material for journalists, if nothing else. You see, I am not really a good humanitarian. It’s easy to write about being a humanitarian, but much harder to actually get out and do something. I am the apathy of modern man, I am the lifestyle which already has enough stress and strain to worry about such things as massacres and tsunamis. I just don’t have enough empathy in me.

So, I have decided to examine the boat people crisis from a completely amoral perspective. The perspective that many of us have and pretend not to have. This will not be pure opinion, and nor will it be diatribe; I wish to look at the problem a step removed from emotion. Let’s see what happens.

So, the problem, as it see, consists of two main parts. Firstly, (parts of) Africa suck so much that people are willing to risk death by drowning or starvation or shark, simply to not be on that continent any more. This is no small motivating factor. The second part of the problem is that (despite what may be said) Europe has no want or need for boat people. Europe is ‘full’, its infrastructure strained, its cities crowded, its denizens tired of being relied upon to police the world.

From this perspective, the easiest thing to do is nothing. Boats sink, people go away, problem solves itself. A more practical approach is to sink the boats, just to make sure. A lot of these modern warships have guns, too. A bullet costs a lot less than a detention centre.

Another solution would be, just to fix Africa. If Africa is nice, people will want to stay there. I mean, how hard could it be? Just because efforts have been ongoing for the last fifty years, doesn’t mean the problem is insurmountable. A lot of the mess was caused by Europe, so logically Europe could help clean it up.

What else? I suppose we could make Europe an unattractive destination. If we mess up Spain and Italy and Portugal and Greece until they’re indistinguishable from the Sudan or Libya or Egypt, then staying or going becomes a moot point. We can do this either directly or indirectly. The direct way involves bombing cities, destroying infrastructure, and generally allowing corruption and dictatorships to exist wherever they spring up. (On this last point, we’ve already got a head start.) The indirect way is almost easier. We simply open our borders to as many people want to come here, and that way the services, hospitals, housing, roads and son which currently exist will very quickly become overwhelmed and unfit for purpose. Also, the angry religious people who don’t like us will come, spreading fear and destruction and murder and their own version of the law.

I’m not really sure what other options there are, from an amoral perspective.

From a moral perspective, the situation is still complicated, although, if you value human life, it quickly becomes apparent that the right thing to do is to pluck people out of the sea and save them from death. But then what? What happens to these people? Does anyone have a reliable estimate of just how many people are making the journey to Europe? How much food and water and housing do we have, and it is enough? Do we give it to them before we feed and clothe and vaccinate our own citizens? We could probably spare some of the tons of food we throw away every year, despite it being edible, and I understand there are still a lot of places where people don’t live, but maybe those places are empty because people can’t survive there.

Do we send people back to Africa, possibly to death by bullet or starvation? Do we conscript them into an army to fight Isis? Do we tell them that maybe they might want to try and fight to make their countries better, the way millions of people before them have done, instead of running away? How could you tell that to a man whose family means more to him than anything in the world?

I have a lot of questions, but not many answers. And, like I said, I’m not really doing anything to help solve the problem. My ‘fix Africa’ idea hasn’t really taken off, and so I’m not really sure what else can be done. But I have bills to pay, and global warming to stress about, so I’ll worry about the boat people another day.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

The Evolution of Thought

It is my belief that there are a few major changes which will need to occur in our ways of thinking, as individuals, and as a species, if we are ever to reach the next level of our sociological development. And by ‘next level’ I mean a society with fairness and equity for all its members, that is, all humans worldwide; an almost ‘Star Trek’ level, which is neither as silly nor as unachievable as it sounds. Perhaps eventually a ‘Human Charter’ will be drafted, taking the Human Rights Act, and incorporating also a social philosophy of compassion, and responsibility.

So, I have listed the ways in which I believe we must evolve our thinking.
  1. Religion – In terms of the way it presents obligations over others, religion will have to go. A softer spiritualism may remain, may even be necessary. A system of thought which is regressive, and values ignorance over genuine freedom of thought, is not conducive to a world which seeks to evolve and improve.
  2. The primacy of the human over the idea. – People have rights. Ideas do not have rights.
  3. Racism – As a general term, to mean a realisation that although differences will always occur, these must cease to be used as a differentiating mark between us, we must treat each other based on how we behave. It makes no more sense to judge a person’s character on the basis of their colour as it does to do so based on their eye colour.
  4. Sexism – similarly to the above, women, and persons of what I might call ambiguous sex or gender (which are not the same thing), must be afforded the same rights, pay, and opportunities as men. Women must be enfranchised and given control of their bodies.
  5. Sex - attitudes to sex, and consent, must alter, to the extent that others do not seek to determine what constitutes normal or proper activity for others; this is, within the limits set by consenting adults.
  6. Countries – whilst people’s pride in their origins should not and cannot be removed, the idea of strictly-defined nation states with borders will need to end, as will the idea that people can be defined or categorised so easily. This will only be possible once all the world has been raised to a roughly level standard, so that borders may be drooped without fear of a flood of immigrants looking for the benefits more developed nations provide. There will always be a necessity for local laws, customs, and governments, but this will be more a global federation with smaller powers for cities than anything approaching nation states.
  7. Money – the usage of money will have to evolve and eventually be replaced by a system of credits. The accumulation of money (and things) will cease to be the driving force in human lives. The quest to be better than we are must become our unifying goal.
  8. Things – this will require perhaps one of the hardest changes to the human mind set imaginable, i.e. the removal of greed, and/or the removal of the materialism which comes with modern capitalism.
  9. Crime – the mind set of the vast majority of the human race will need to cease to glamorise (certain types of) crime, and instead embrace a system of rules which is to their benefit. If this can be done, many of the problems which currently occur can be overcome. We may look to and enhance the ideas of current societies in order to facilitate this, taking those things which work well and applying them elsewhere.
  10. Government – hand in hand with the above, governments (such as they may be in the new system) will need to be transparent, democratic, and free of corruption. This will enable the buy-in from the people which is needed to authorise any system of fair governance. Only when people can see that a system of government benefits them and, broadly speaking, serves their best interests, will they embrace it fully, nor should they do otherwise.
  11. Power – as touched on before, the desire to impose one’s will or way of thinking on others must be changed. Taste must not dictate legislation. Human lives and desires will never completely match each other, and this is to be accepted and understood.
  12. Philosophy – a legal, social, and moral school of thought geared towards compassion, but also towards the responsibility of the individual, while also championing the rights of each individual to live in the way they feel is best for themselves. A social conscience is desirable and necessary.
  13. Ecology - a respect for nature, of which we are a part, and a striving, with our economics, technology and resource usage, to live amongst and share the planet, and protect it from harm. Unless the methods of farming are radically altered, meat consumption will also become a luxury rather than a daily necessity.
  14. Children – along with a new attitude toward the planet must come a realisation that its resources are not infinite, and we must temper our reproduction in a responsible fashion. I have written about this before so do not need to go into more detail here.
  15. The cult of celebrity - which is by no means a modern disease, but which has in our time, reached new levels of absurdity. Merit, or talent, as elements of praise and reward, must become the norm. Idiocy, obnoxiousness, and arrogance should be pitied and despised.
  16. Class - the idea that one can be born into positions of wealth and power, and responsibility, must end. This is true not only for the more obvious cases, such a modern royalty, but also in the unending cycle of the prevalence and pre-eminence of families and groups of people, whose interest lies in precisely the opposite direction to that which I am suggesting. A change in attitude to inheritance must also prevail; if the concept of money goes, so goes the ability to be given much without earning any of it.
  17. Mental illness - the stigma around such conditions needs to be removed, and replaced with the same compassion we show to those with physical problems. The body and the mind are intertwined, but out attitudes to afflictions of the one sort are often alarmingly primitive.
  18. The self, and selfishness - I suppose the central theme of this blog is the idea that people are able to consider their actions in relation to others, which sounds simple but sometimes seems much less common than could be expected. There is value in a sense of self-worth, but this is most true when taken in conjunction with a considerate estimation of the needs of others.

Some of the concepts I have mentioned are here now, and many communities on Earth have embraced them, or begun to do so. Others are longer term goals. All are intertwined. It seems that, in short, we must change much of how we currently live, and defy much of what we consider to be our nature. This is difficult, but not impossible. As to whether it can ever be truly achieved, well, I guess that is up to us.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The Unspoken Problem

Go to any news website right now and take a look at the problems which are occurring in the world. I am willing to bet that a good proportion of them are due to the same root cause, and yet it is a cause which is rarely discussed in any solid or serious terms. I am talking, of course, about people, and more specifically, about the fact that there are, in essence, too many of us.

I want to put forth the argument that expansion for the sake of expansion is not only illogical, it is also morally unjustifiable. First of all, there is a simple mathematics at work here. You have an area (or a planet) with finite resources, resources which are necessary to human survival. You also have a number of people who may potentially inhabit said area. The fact is that each human requires a certain amount of resources over the course of their life in order to stay alive, and even more resources in order to thrive (the definition of thriving varies from place to place, but I’ll ignore this consideration for now). Therefore, to live comfortably, the amount of humans in any one area cannot go beyond a maximum, or you find yourself with such problems as overcrowding, drought, starvation, lack of housing, and these problems lead to crime, war, and conflict.

Because the resources of any one place cannot be said to be infinite, we need to consider the amount of people who may live comfortably (or even uncomfortably) in any one area, by considering the amount of (existing or potential) water, food, housing, and other resources available to them. If we fail to do so, we invite famine, conflict, and general human misery.

This is not idle speculation. As I have said, these problems are already occurring, on not inconsiderable scales worldwide. It is therefore, in my opinion, not only illogical, but also irresponsible and arrogant to continue to pump out humans without taking these problems into account. A change in attitude is required in order for us to avoid or mitigate the aforementioned issues.

Other challenges loom. The way we operate as a species is now threatening, and has for some time, the existence of other species on the planet. We have already caused the extinction of species like the Dodo, the Moa, and the Tasmanian Tiger. Whereas in the past we may have been able to claim ignorance of our effect on these animals, in the future we will have no such excuse. Even when we do not directly hunt a species, we may still cause its decline by the way we operate, due to factors like habitat fragmentation and deforestation, as is evident in the jungles of south-east Asia, and the plight many of the threatened species there.

Let me be clear here: this planet is not ours. We act like we own it, but in reality, we share it. To allow other species to be destroyed, whether by action or inaction, as a result of our economic pressures or, more simply, our garbage and pollutants, is criminal. Furthermore, if the moral imperative were not enough, we are pushing the planet to the point where it will become much less suitable for supporting human life, as well as the life of other species. This is a problem which must be addressed.

Now, we have begun to change our ways. New technologies and new ways of thinking are beginning to solve problems, clean things up, and make living conditions better for millions of people, and other species. But it is my opinion that even if science can save us from ourselves, it still does not stand to reason that we should keep filling the planet up with people indefinitely. There is only so much space. There are environments and places we should keep free of human influence, both because they are home to other beings, and also because of their importance to the way the Earth’s ecosystems work. These places should not be destroyed or corrupted. Other forms of life would perhaps assert its right to exist in the strongest terms, were it capable of doing so. As it does not have such capability, we must speak and act on its behalf.

So, next is the question of what can be done. We have seen some experimentation (for lack of a better word) in this area, in the oft-quoted One Child Policy implemented in parts of China. The policy is not without its exceptions, controversies, and challenges, but it speaks to a reasonable concern among leaders that indefinite population growth is neither sustainable nor desirable. There will be no one policy suitable to all places and peoples, but I would say that, in a general sense, a change in attitude is required to avert both human misery and conflict, as well as global catastrophe. This I believe to be a logical extrapolation from available information, rather than scaremongering or general misanthropy.

The moral imperative lies with governments, and individuals, when deciding how to behave. In the same way that responsible leaders will need to balance the pressures of day-to-day life for those they lead, with the problems of environmental damage and the threats arising therefrom, so they will need to begin to examine attitudes to procreation, and the idea that more is better may simply have to be abandoned. This will not be easy. Attitudes are based on any number of things, from one’s own childhood memories, to religious or superstitious convictions, to social attitudes. Still, change must come, or change will be forced upon us by the simple pressures of resource limitation. We will either succeed, or we will suffer.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Online vigilantism

Recently I have noticed an increase in the number of ‘name and shames’ occurring online, for anything from annoying people on the tube, to outright accusations of criminal activity. While I believe that social media has a part to play in the prosecution of justice, much of the way these types of things are handled at the moment gives me cause for concern. In particular, the presumption of guilt before such has been proven, and the implicit or explicit incitement to a sort of mob justice that follows.

One example occurred on May 12, in which a man was accused on Facebook of taking photos of children. The man later responded to the accusation by saying he was taking a selfie with a picture of Darth Vader as a joke to send to his children, and is taking legal action due to the damage to his character. Full story.

I have seen examples of people accused of theft, assault, and other crimes. My concern is that these posts, which essentially side step the provision of innocent until proven guilty, will encourage violence against people who may not deserve it (or even against those who may). Consider the following hypothetical scenario: a photo of a man is posted online, accusing him of, say, child abuse. It is well known that emotions run high in such cases, and the community take matters into their own hands, and deliver the man in the picture of a beating. Now, consider the following possibilities.
  1. The wrong picture was uploaded, and the wrong man takes a beating.
  2. The person who was beaten looks similar to the man in the photo, but is not the man in the photo.
  3. The person is the man in the photo, but suffers from mental impairment, and would not be able to be held legally responsible for his crime.
  4. The man in the photo catches a beating, but it turns out the child fabricated the story. 
Even if the person is guilty, and in the eyes of many ‘got what he deserved’, does this give us the right to provoke such action? Even if the man is never attacked, how would he be expected to get a fair trial after such a witch hunt? If accusations are smeared all over the internet, we have reached the stage where, often, accused equals guilty?

I am not saying I feel particularly sympathetic towards certain criminals, nor that they do not deserve certain punishments. What I am saying is that the protections we have built up in law through centuries of trial and error (if you’ll forgive the pun) exist for very good reasons, and it might make sense to think twice before posting accusations of criminal activity online. Hell, it might make sense to think twice before shaming anyone online. That fat, sweaty guy on the tube might have a medical condition. The stinky kid on the bus may have been pushed into the mud by bullies at school. The point it, once it’s out there, it can’t be taken back, and that is a bigger step to take on someone else’s behalf than many of us seem to realise.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Lessons from my Mother

I have a confession to make. Recently the third anniversary of my mother’s passing came and went. I don’t know the exact date. I haven’t gone out of my way to forget it, but nor have I committed it to memory. The reason being, I prefer to think about her life.

That being said, it’s hard to ignore the thoughts that roll around this time of year, and as some of them have occurred to me, I decided to create a list. My mother taught me a lot, both purposely and simply through her example, so here are some of the things which come to mind.

Never be ashamed to get involved. Whenever there was a holiday, play, school event, or what have you, Mum would take to it with enthusiasm. She wasn’t worried about whether others would laugh; she’d happily look silly in order to make things fun for her kids or others.

Creativity is important. When we were young, we were always allowed and encouraged to muck around with paints, crafts, cooking, old clothes. All things which encourage creativity and art in a young mind. Once, we played astronauts in the lounge and Mum brought us green milk to add to the alien effect. I’ll never forget that.

Self-esteem. Let’s face it, I was a gloomy teenager a lot of the time. Hell, I can still be a gloomy adult. Still, my mother was always telling me to believe in myself, and be positive. I didn’t see the importance of it at the time, as is often the way, but now I do.

Permanence. During your childhood, your parents are ever-present. Though I availed myself less of the opportunity than I could have (due to aforementioned teenage gloom), Mum was always ready to lend an ear, and, also, to offer sound, practical advice. She was also exactly what you want when you’re sick: someone to sympathise and bring you soup. Even now, I still miss my Mum when I am ill.

The fact that being a parent is a pain in the ass sometimes. If you look at the amount of my mother’s pottery or sculpture that my brother and I broke, it might represent the amount of hard work and frustration she put into us over the years. (My Aunty Es had a similar problem I am sure.) Despite that fact that I’m pretty cool, I threw the odd strop, and I know my brother and sister were no angels. Behind all this, though, as a child knowing you’ll always have a warm home to come home to no matter how many windows you break is something more than special.

Words can hurt. I think back to one or two things I said when I was younger, which upset my Mum, and I feel ashamed. There is a lesson in this, and it’s one I try to remind myself of regularly.

Practicality is important. From my Ma, I learned the basics of cooking, cleaning, laundry, and she pushed me to learn to drive and to get my first job. These things laid the foundation for some of the every day things I do, taught me to be confident and independent, and to stand up for myself. My Mum also showed me that life isn’t fair, and you have to accept this and battle on when difficulty arises.

A system of belief requires conviction. Though she didn’t realise it, an independence of mind (some results of which she might regret) was instilled in me. While young, my thoughts about how people should be treated, how they should behave, and a tentative moral philosophy, were developed by watching and listening to my mother.

There are worse things than a dignified death. My mother’s last days must have been frustrating, even maddening. I don’t know how she stayed calm, but throughout her decline, that’s what she did. She always seemed peaceful. This is a testament to her strength of mind and heart.

Now, I’m not saying she was a saint, and there are definitely one or two things which I found frustrating, like a double standard when it came to talking in the lounge while the TV was on, or a stubborn streak of her own from time to time. But I can forgive these things when it comes to my Ma, because the good far outweighs the bad. I am sure there are other things that are lost in time or overlooked, but the home life, and the later support I received have given me many reasons to be grateful.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

The Internet Generation

My generation is lucky. They are the first to have access to the internet, and they have avoided being the first to be born with the internet available. The children who are born now, I think their attitude to the internet will be different to ours, and different to their parents. I say this because we are now witnessing a generation of children who will ‘grow up online’, so to speak. We have millions of children who already have a substantial online presence that they did not create, and in which they had no say. Their parents have uploaded pictures of them, posted videos, added status updates telling the world about their misadventures and bowel movements. Formerly, these embarrassments were the domain of stories from parents at parties, and the occasional polaroid of a baby in a bath or with cake all over their face. Now, it’s all out there for the world to see. Children have email addresses and facebook pages before they learn how to speak. It’s like everyone is growing up a child celebrity, but without the money to insulate themselves from the negative aspects of being in the public eye.

Why is this so bad? What’s the harm in a few baby pictures online? To that, let me posit the following scenario. A man trawls the internet looking for pictures of children, because he finds them exciting. Sure, your privacy settings are high, but are your friends’? That video they shared is now in the hands of Pervy McNasty. Even if it never goes further than that, that’s a chilling thought. But keep in mind it could go further than that. People know how to find you, to get your address, to figure out where your children go to school. It’ll probably be ok. But you never know.

There’s also the problem of privacy. There are things I don’t want people to know, both from my childhood and as an adult. These things, I have a right to keep to myself. If I start dating a girl, I don’t expect her to be able to find my baby pictures online immediately. That kind of thing can wait.  Similarly, she doesn’t need to know all the gross things I got up to (and have no memory of) when I was a two-year-old. That’s information I keep to myself.

I’m not saying never share anything. After all, parents will always be annoyingly proud of their children (despite the lack of any real achievement thus far - call me when they win a Nobel prize, would ya?). But think about what you put online on behalf of a person who is going to have to live with that online presence, with photos and pictures and information about themselves which they did not choose to make public. Even if the information is mild and inoffensive, it’s still information about a person which they had no say in posting. And have no doubt, once it’s online, it’s public.

The only advantage that today’s children will have is that they will understand what it is like to have their whole lives smeared across the internet before they even knew what the internet was, and they will be more considerate than their parents about what they choose to post. At least, that’s the hope. We’ll have to wait and see.