------------ ---------- Diary of a Goldfish


Diary of a Goldfish

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2014 will be on Thursday, 1st May

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2014
The ninth annual Blogging Against Disablism day will be on Thursday, 1st May. This is the day where all around the world, disabled and non-disabled people blog about their experiences, observations and thoughts about disability discrimination (known as disablism or ableism). In this way, we hope to raise awareness of inequality, promote equality and celebrate the progress we've made.


How to take part.

1. Post a comment below to say you intend to join in. I will then add you to the list of participants on the sidebar of this blog. Everyone is welcome.

2. Spread the word by linking to this site, displaying our banner and/ or telling everyone about it on blogs, newsgroups, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and so on (we are using the hashtag #badd2014). The entire success of Blogging Against Disablism Day depends entirely on bloggers and readers telling other bloggers and readers in advance.

3. Write a post on the subject of disability discrimination, disablism or ableism and publish it on May 1st - or as close as you are able. Podcasts, videos and on-line art are also welcome. You can cover any subject, specific or general, personal, social or political. In the previous eight BADD, folks have written about all manner of subjects, from discrimination in education and employment, through health care, parenting, family life and relationships, as well as the interaction of disablism with racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. Every year I have been asked, so it's worth saying; the discrimination experienced by people with mental ill health is disablism, so naturally posts about that are welcome too.

You can see the archives for previous years here: 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Blogging Against Disablism Day is not a carnival of previously published material. The point about doing this around one day (or there abouts) is that it is a communal effort and all the posts connect to one another. You can of course use your own post to promote other things you've written in the past as you wish.

4. Come back here to Diary of a Goldfish on the day to let everyone know that you've posted and to check out what other people have written. I shall post links to everyone's posts (slowly) throughout the day, creating an archive. However, I do need you to comment and leave the URL of your post or else I shan't find your post and won't be able to link to it.

We have both a Twitter account @BADDtweets and a Facebook Page where there will be notifications of new posts and updates to the archive during the day.


Accessibility

Naturally, Blogging Against Disablism Day invites contributions from people with all variety of impairments and none at all. You are welcome to contribute with podcasts, video-blogging or anything else that allows you to take part. And whilst May 1st is when this all takes place, nobody who happens to have a bad day that Thursday is going to be left out of the archive.

If anyone has any questions about web accessibility, I recommend the Accessify Forum. I am not an expert on web accessibility myself, so if there are any suggestions about how I can make this day more accessible, please e-mail me at diaryofagoldfish at googlemail.com


The Linguistic Amnesty

Whilst discussions about language and the way it can be used to oppress or empower us are more than welcome, please respect the language that people use, particularly to describe themselves in their own contributions. We all have personal preferences, there are cultural variations and different political positions which affect the language we use. Meanwhile, non-disabled contributors can become nervous about using the most appropriate language to use, so please cut everyone as much slack as possible on the day.

At the same time, do not feel you have to use the same language that I do, even to talk about "disablism". If you prefer to blog against disability discrimination, ableism or blog for disability equality, then feel free to do so.

I've written a basic guide to the Language of Disability which I hope might explain some of the thinking behind the different language disabled people prefer to use about themselves.


Links and Banners


To link back to this post, simply copy and paste the following code:


These banners have seemed popular over the last couple of years and I am yet to think of anything better. If anyone fancies editing these images or coming up with something new, then please do so. You are free to use and mess with these as you like, so long as you use them in support of Blogging Against Disablism Day. If you already have the banner, you just need to change the URL that it links to from last year's BADD. Otherwise, you simply need to copy the contents of one of these boxes and paste it on your blog, in a post or on the sidebar as you like. The banners come in two colour combinations and two sizes. The sizes are a 206 pixels square or 150 x 200 pixels.

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2014This is the black and white banner which reads "Blogging Against Disablism". Here's the code for the square one:


And here's the code for the narrower one (which can be seen here):




Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2014This is the colourful banner which reads "Blogging Against Disablism". This is the code for the square one:



And here's the code for the narrower one (which can be seen here):



Please leave a comment (including the URL of your blog) to let everyone know you are joining in and I shall add a link to you on the sidebar. Also, if you have any questions, please ask.

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Should David Cameron be Sectioned?

There's a change.org petition calling for David Cameron to be detained under Section 2 of the Mental Health Act (the petition isn't that specific; the authors know nothing about mental health so they've just said he should be sectioned). The petition lays out a case as to why Cameron would qualify:
1. David Cameron MP appears to think he is Jesus Christ, and compares himself with Jesus
Cameron hasn't said he is Jesus. He said that Jesus invented the Big Society and that he, David Cameron is carrying on his work. It is a pompous and ridiculous thing to say, especially as the Big Society is whatever Conservative politicians say it is - mostly volunteers stepping up to replace essential services that have lost government funding and Food Banks, the need for which barely existed before they came into power.

However, John Lennon compared his fame to that of Jesus Christ. In one song, he claimed to be a Walrus. Extreme arrogance is not the same thing as a Messiah Complex.

Meanwhile, even sincerely believing oneself to be Jesus Christ is not itself grounds for sectioning.  On a recent television programme, Ian Hislop interviewed a perfectly sane and pleasant man who believes he is King Arthur.  It is possible for people to believe incredibly unlikely things about themselves and the world around them without even being unwell.  Eccentric, for sure. Factually misguided, almost certainly. But as a generality, unless there is considerable personal distress, there is no illness.

The argument continues:
2. He does this despite doing the opposite of what Jesus is recorded to have done, so David Cameron is clearly delusional.
By this thinking, every professed Christian who is homophobic, smacks their kids, accumulates massive wealth or in any way treats other people in ways they themselves would not like to be treated, could be delusional. Only they're not. This is just a mixture of misinterpretation and common or garden hypocrisy. Many if not most of us profess ethical beliefs we sometimes fail to follow.

In some ways, this is the opposite to mental ill health. Some mental illnesses are characterised by a person having beliefs they find impossible to compromise on. Sometimes, it is not the belief that is the problem (e.g washing hands helps guard against infection) but the inability to compromise on that belief to any degree.
3. He refuses to listen to the vast majority of the country, instead pretending everything is fine and refusing to explain himself, instead making idiotic ramblings and carrying out dangerous actions whilst pretending nothing is wrong
He refuses, he pretends. He is not oblivious - he chooses to ignore the people who, as Prime Minister, he is supposed to serve. This is not a sign of ill health, just a sign of a poor governance, ignorance, arrogance and selfishness. David Cameron is behaving very badly. It is possible to do that in perfectly good mental health.
4. He has already harmed thousands. He is a danger to himself and others.
There's no evidence that David Cameron is any danger to himself (his immortal soul notwithstanding). There's no evidence that David Cameron is a direct danger to others. There is no evidence of violence towards others. He has made decisions which have harmed people, even led to deaths, but very indirectly; he has spearheaded austerity measures which have put already very vulnerable people in increasingly vulnerable positions. He is responsible for that.

But this is the point; someone who is not in control of themselves will lash out and could harm people fairly randomly. They have diminished responsibility. Cameron is in control. He is surrounded by advisers and he sits through parliamentary debates where the consequences of his actions are discussed at length. He knows full well what he's doing and chooses to do it anyway.

Other arguments set forth by supporters of the petition include that David Cameron is a psychopath. Psychopathy is a controversial and complex area, but there is some evidence that Cameron exhibits some of the characteristics you might associate with this condition.  However, there are two things to be said about this.

The first is that Cameron is part of a government who collectively exhibit these traits. He is part of a very small but very powerful cultural bubble where it is normal behaviour to dismiss the suffering of others (particularly groups which represent a convenient scapegoat) and to line one's own pockets whilst professing to have the country's best interests at heart. It is impossible to tell whether Cameron would behave as badly in a context where the people around him weren't behaving this way, and giving him permission to do likewise.

Meanwhile, psychopathy, if it can be said to exist, is in the nature of a person and thus untreatable. If someone has not committed a crime, it becomes legally very tricky to detain someone for treatment (Section 3 of the Mental Health Act) when their condition cannot be treated.

I don't need to say, of course, that the idea of a petition to section someone is, if we take it seriously, absolutely terrifying. In days of yore, it was quite easy for wealthy men to get troublesome wives and daughters diagnosed with a serious mental illness and shuffled out of the way into institutions for the rest of their lives. In the mid-twentieth century, it was not uncommon to find people who merely deviated from the general population in some slight way - gay men, sexually active unmarried women, for example - put away and subject to dangerous and damaging treatments for little more than the failure to conform.

Do we really want to imagine a world where it would be possible to persuade doctors to detain and medicate people by a popular vote?  Does that even work as a joke?

So what can this petition achieve? Well, it has already has several effects which one is free to witness both on the petition site and elsewhere in social media :

  • It has caused a great deal of amusement at the expense of people with mental illness. Despite the earnest tone of the petition, we shouldn't take this seriously, because it's just a laugh! Mental illness is so funny!
  • It has reaffirmed our cultural connection between mental ill health and bad behaviour; David Cameron is bad, therefore he must be mad. The petition states, "This is not an attack on those with mental illness" but saying a thing does not make it so. 
  • It has reaffirmed our cultural belief that mental illness is actually worse than evil. The fact that Cameron has overseen so much suffering in the country is one thing, but the reason he ought to be removed from power is because he is mentally unwell. 
  • It has promoted ignorance of what mental illness is and how the Mental Health Act works. 
So well done to everyone. And people argue e-petitions are a waste of time. 

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Friday, April 11, 2014

On Cupcake Fascism & Class War

The only cupcakes I've ever eaten were stolen. They were stolen, they were sticky and they were sweet. That's the first thing Tom Whyman gets wrong in What is Cupcake Fascism?; cupcakes are all style and little substance, but over half that substance is buttercream. They are neither dry, nor wholesome, no lacking in goo, but rich, sickly sweet and impossible to consume without getting one's fingers sticky. Unless you can open your mouth really, really wide. This is both metaphor and truth.

Meanwhile, in another piece on class, The Working Classes Don't Want To Be Hard-Working Families, Selina Todd writes,
"Sit my extended family around a table and you'd have white- and blue-collar workers, the sick, the old, people in council housing, and families with two cars and a nice house but large debts to pay for them. This is replicated all over Britain. There is no static "underclass" and neither is there a robust middle class: instead, there are a lot of people who have to work for a living and, because of that fact, choose to identify as working class."
This a world I recognise. It's hard for left-wing commentators to admit this, because it's much harder to get to grips with than a binary world of gin-swilling middle classes versus the pasty-munching working people, but we're pretty much mixed in. The one massive flaw in Grayson Perry's truly excellent 2012 series on social class and aesthetic taste (do watch it if you didn't) is the tremendous leap between the working and supposedly middle class folk he spoke to - a gap which could be represented by years of education, multiples of annual income, several degrees latitude and in fact, most of the UK's population.

And you know the thing that makes this stuff even harder? We're mixed in but not at all blended. Class still exists and it still matters. There is rising wealth inequality. The possibility of home-ownership is more or less hereditary now. We're being governed by toffs who were born into wealth and use their positions as public servants to generate more for themselves and their friends.

That's why Tom Whyman wants to call middle class culture fascist and takes aim at the unmissable target of nostalgic twee. I get class hatred. I was part of the Assisted Places Scheme. Being a precocious child who asked such questions, my mother informed me we were, "Lower-middle-class, fallen on hard times."

The mothers at school intimidated mine, so I observed their vulgarities. In those days, posh women wore Alice bands ("Grown women, wearing Alice bands!" my teenage self would sneer). They had handbags with thick gold-coloured chain instead of a strap. They often wore necklaces, generally pearls, outside their blouse collars or polo-necks - jewellery outside their clothing, for crying out loud! They wore a lot of make-up, some of them had had cosmetic surgery and they drove the first family-friendly 4x4s, the ridicule of which was clear to me, years before anyone called them Chelsea Tractors. These women seemed like characterless china dolls next to my wild-haired Mum, who dressed sensibly and practically and cycled everywhere.

Whyman isn't moving far beyond my teenage self as he sneers at modern middle-class hipster aesthetics. I don't entirely object to the sneering (although I do play ukulele). The tea parties, Liberty prints and shelfies of middle-class culture are routinely privileged as clever and tasteful, while the clubs, leopard prints and magazine racks of working people are not. The Guardian publishes dazzlingly sycophantic pieces like this about a very wealthy young woman using her wealth to get wealthier like that's somehow a worthy and interesting creative exercise.

I really enjoy The Great British Sewing Bee, The Great British Bake Off and BBC Three's Hair, which was barely spoken about but applied exactly the same format to amateur hairdressing (three challenges over two days each episode, the second day dedicated to something fancy). I like this format - I like to see ordinary folk showing off what they can do. I'd like to see a woodwork version next, please.

Despite the identical format, Hair was punctuated with random pop music and presented by Steve Jones, a sort of Welsh Father Dougal who asked what a quiff was, despite having a rather impressive example directly above his frowning forehead. Hair was not the subject of newspaper review, speculation about who deserved to win or any declaration that hair-dressing was the new black. Sewing and baking are fairly classless activities (although wealthier folk often have more time to muck about with more expensive materials, without needing a practical purpose or special occasion), but apparently, hairdressing - at least as skillful, creative and useful as baking or sewing - just can't be packaged as gentle and genteel.

Thus, as I say, I don't entirely object to the sneering. Sewing Bee played Doris Day to introduce an anorak.

But this sneering is always aimed at feminine aesthetics. It is the mob baying for Marie Antoinette; demands to strangle the thirty-five year old in bobby-socks and fairy-wings with her own designer bunting. Another crack in Whyman's argument is that, of course, feminine fashions (which is what cupcakes are) are very often infantile. At once point it was impossible to buy an adult woman's jersey nightdress without a big teddy on the front and a slogan about snuggle-time or feeling sleepy-woo. In the 1970s, a lot of women seemed to dress like Little Bo Peep.

And then Whyman gets it completely wrong about the 2011 London Riots. Yes, they were kicked off by the police killing of Mark Duggan, along with austerity measures that place the overwhelming burden on the poor and the young - it wasn't a random occurrence. But the riots were a nightmare for many ordinary people in London, especially poor, vulnerable, disabled and older people. Attempting to clear up and make things better was not about passive-aggressively asserting middle class values, but trying to put things right, tidying up one's own backyard after the storm, taking care of one's neighbours. People who want peace on the streets are not automatic supporters of the regime.

Meanwhile, what those rioters did? The young poor (and a fair number who weren't so poor and weren't so young) were exploiting a situation of over-stretched resources to their material advantage. Rather like, you know, our senior politicians. Except, of course, the kids got punished.

A busty 18th century lady with a ship on her head,
admiring a rather large cupcake.
Marie Antoinette once had her hair done up with a silly great ship in it (a look, incidentally recreated on BBC Three's Hair). She never did tell anyone to eat cake, but she lost her head for looking like a ridiculous hedonist at a time of national hardship and frustration. She never had an significant power. Nautical hairstyles were not the reasons for poverty and oppression in pre-revolutionary France.

There are political attitudes in our country, many class-based, which are causing us big problems; the belief that a person's value is measured by their wealth, and that wealth-creation is the highest possible virtue. The very middle-class belief that charity, rather than welfare, is a sensible way of providing for people in financial difficulty (it feels so good to help out). The belief that poor people are lazy, feckless and dangerous. Whatever belief you'd like to attribute to the fact that youngsters received custodial sentences for petty theft during the 2011 Riots, while Maria Miller stole £5800 and didn't even get the sack.

The cupcakes I had, even with the elicit thrill of having stolen them, weren't that special. My Granny, baker and cake-decorator extraordinaire was scandalised when my cousin had cupcakes instead of wedding cake ("They're mostly just buttercream!"). So we're agreed, I feel, that people should eat more substantial and flavoursome baked goods.

But twee is background; stage dressing. It is an aesthetic, not divorced from our social and political problems, certainly not immune from critique, but not to targeted in place of the widening wealth gap, increasing poverty, deteriorating working conditions and political disenchantment.

Plus it's hard to believe someone who uses the phrase Cupcake Fascism can really mean it when they conclude, "you are just not thinking about the matter dialetically enough."

Also, how can you possibly illustrate an article with the phrase Cupcake Fascism with anything but a cupcake with a swastika on it?  I found some on a site promoting the swastika as a positive symbol we should reclaim from Nazism. But someone could have at least drawn one.

Oh and if you're interested/ bored enough to get down this far, you might like Is 'cupcake feminism' all empty calories? from 2012, which discusses some of these topics from a different angle.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The History of My Adult Life In About 100 Objects.

I am eighteen and I am leaving home. I take what I can fit into a suitcase and a shoulder bag and carry on and off a series of trains. Seven or eight months later, my parents deliver what I couldn't carry, namely Ho Chi Minh (my hamster), his cage, my lava lamp, a considerable collection of artificial flowers and a few books. A lot of my old stuff stays with my parents. Some of it will be given away over the years. 

In the brief tense mistral before we moved in together, my boyfriend presented himself as an anti-materialist, aspiring to having no more personal possessions than would fit into a backpack. I soon realise why he would have such an aspiration; at thirty-four, this man cannot fit his cuddly toy collection into a single suitcase. 



We arrive together, open a joint bank account and share the rent, but I live like a guest in my boyfriend's flat. When we argue, he threatens to send me home. He chooses all the furniture, all the stuff. Things we share are sometimes given away or sold without my knowing. Even my own things are sometimes half-offered to other people before I, cornered, am asked whether I'm happy to let them go. I usually am. It's only stuff. 

My possessions are referred to as my shit. Anything of mine; clothes (now bought to his taste), my computer, art materials, stationary is shit. At the same time, I am constantly berated for not taking care of things - if an item of clothing gains a hole, a paintbrush loses bristles with use or an old computer has hardware problems, it is because I've been mistreating my shit.

Making cups of tea and cooking, I dirty too many teaspoons in one day. We have twelve, so he hides nine of them. A few years later, I find the other nine by accident, but they are more trouble than they are worth. They remain in their hiding place.



A spherical paper lampshade reflected by two opposing
mirrors, ad infinitum.
I am not a materialist. What do things matter? Objects are about status and insecurity; people want stuff to show other people what they have, to seem important, individual or fashionable, because acquisition becomes a hobby and stuff is mistaken for love or achievement.

I'm not like that. I am cool, easy-going. I can believe this while being fascinated by aesthetics, reading art and design books and blogs, making art, crafting all the damn time. But that's different; I make stuff, I give it away and leave others to make of it what they will. I paint but none of my pictures remain in our home (not like my partner's paint-by-numbers effort, that is mounted, framed and hung on our living room wall.).



There are things I would like to have to make my life more comfortable and pleasant, but I know the objections it will meet: it will be a waste of space, it will be a waste of money, it will gather dust, it will generate condensation, its presence will cause accidents, I will use it wrong and break it, I won't use it at all, it will create work for other people and it isn't worth having. Often, on top of all this, my motivations for having a thing are wrong and misguided; I am naive, I don't know what I really want or need, and I am too easily influenced by others.

That one is true actually - during this period in my life. I am way too easily influenced by others.



I am twenty-three. After eighteen months of barely leaving the flat and never alone, my friend is selling off her old electric wheelchair and my Granny offers to buy it for me. Everyone thinks this is a really good idea. I get the electric wheelchair. Weeks later, I persuade my partner that I am safe to go out alone.

There are periods when I can get out alone. There are periods when I'm too ill and genuinely unsafe. During such periods, I am reminded of the poor wisdom of having an electric wheelchair.

I am twenty-six. We move. It becomes impossible for me to take my powerchair out at all without help and, although there is an able-bodied person in the house all day long, there is no help available. Not that, I am reminded, there is anywhere worth going. Now it really does take up space. Now it does gather dust. I offer it as a long term loan to a friend. I consider selling it to replace my failing laptop.

Later I will think, What on earth was I thinking? The chair is not quite my legs - I can manage in the house okay without it. But it is my outdoor shoes.



I think they call this pattern "Damask"; a black and white
vaguely floral pattern on a plastic surface.
I am twenty-eight. Always in trouble for being clumsy, I buy a plastic tray to place under the kettle and tea-making area to reduce spills on the worktop. It is black and white and boldly patterned. This is the first and last object of visual interest that I ever impose on our shared environment. When the house is tidy, the only signs of my presence are the spines of books, CDs and DVDs. Even my shoes are hidden under the bed.

We live in a two bedroom bungalow, using the box room as a living room and the living room - the biggest room in the house - to store my husband's piano, guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, drum-kit, dolls house, swords, computer equipment, exercise bike, lazer-cutter, a plastic model kit collection which dates back to before my birth and two full size manikins.

Off to the goth festival, my husband says he needs some new plain black t-shirts. I check around and find 17 spares; 17 completely unworn plain black t-shirts in addition to the ones he wears every day.

During later pleas for my return, he will cite this physical dominance of our space as a behaviour he's prepared to change, as if that's why I left. At the time, it really doesn't bother me - I don't really notice, to be honest - and even with hindsight, it is the very least of my concerns. I can manage with little space, but I have no peace; no peace, no basic respect, nothing that would look like love to someone who has known love.

That particular year, he smashes three things in violence; a tray (though not my nice new one), my laptop and a bathroom door I was leaning against. The broken tray and the door - now little more than a frame with cardboard taped over the middle - will still be on display when I go. He still intends to fix them.



I am not a materialist. What do things matter? If I have not worn an item of clothing or listened to a CD during the previous year, I put it on eBay. Books, I often give away if they can't be sold. Art and craft materials are trickier, as they are not easily resold and little bits and bobs do come in handy later on.

A heart-shaped cherry quartz (red) bead with other
round beads, including opals if I remember correctly.
Somewhere in my head, I have confused two ideas. One is that it is morally wrong to buy things we don't want or need, which are often produced unethically and at great environmental cost, and may well end up being thrown away without use. The other is that it is morally wrong to have stuff. To even hold onto stuff - to take up space. At least for me.

Thus, I regard my bead habit as a vice. I buy interesting beads. Not very expensive beads (I know they exist; I window shop) but fancy glass or semi-precious stone beads, mostly from eBay. I do make jewellery sometimes, but I have a stock I will probably never use; a collection of small and beautiful things I can bring out to look at then store away out of sight.



My Gran gives me her old dressmaker's dummy. I am delighted, as I am an odd shape, have little money and dabble in making and adapting my own clothes. But I have no room for it. It sits at my parents' house for a few months and then they take it to a charity shop. A dressmaker's dummy costs about £100. Because it is not an essential item, even for making clothes, I can't imagine a time when I will be able to afford to replace it.



A great collection of purple clothing and fabric.
I am twenty-nine. I am leaving my husband and must sort out my stuff. I have to throw some things away. I try to sell decent clothes and give away some of my books but there isn't much time. I am sleeping on the sofa and, together with the physical effort of all this single-handed sorting out and the tension of living in this house, sleeping with the door barricaded and my walking stick beside my pillow, my spine is suffering. It feels as if the weight of all this stuff is bearing down on me.

The last day - the last morning, before I set off to Wales, is a nightmare. I can't stop finding bits and pieces that I need to make a decision about; a CD, a hair accessory, a pen. I have to leave the house in a mess, which I know will invite complaints. I have had ten years of such complaints, often with fists. Once I'm in the car, I couldn't really give a fuck.

My Mum has been listening to a Dubliners tape and when she starts the engine up, it automatically plays Don't Get Married. Later, this will seem funny. At the time, it is not even slightly funny.


My worldly possessions now consists of a stream-lined quantity of clothes, art and craft materials including my beads, paints, fabric and two easels (one freestanding, one tabletop), a ukulele, a guitar, a manual wheelchair, a powerchair, a camera, an Asus EEE-PC (the original - it will give up the ghost in exactly two weeks time), a Mac Mini computer (no TV or monitor), an ancient sewing machine, a great quantity of books, a box of CDs, a dozen DVDs and a further box of miscellaneous bits and bobs, including the lava lamp mentioned ten years earlier, now minus its cap.

We carry it in my parents' two cars. We stop off in Bristol overnight and part of me wishes my folks' cars would be stolen from outside the hotel. I am a problem and my stuff is part of that problem; I can't lift and carry it, I can't even drive it about. There's too much of it and yet, this is all I have.


A double-string of literally jet black multi-faceted beads. 
My ex asks for his wedding present back. It's an antique jet necklace and despite appearances at the time, he wasn't thinking of me when he bought it - he wanted it for himself and merely gave it to me to wear rather than keeping it in a drawer. I try to work out how much it is worth, although it would be practically impossible for me to sell at value. So I sell it back to him. I need the money and negotiate the return of The Wire and Battlestar Gallactica boxsets, which I originally bought anyway, not expecting him to like them. I'm not even all that keen on Battlestar, to be honest. 




I am lodging with a friend, who is having a very hard time and has particular anxieties about stuff and clutter; my landlady has too much of it and doesn't want any more in the house. This is fair enough. I count 27 tins of rice pudding, distributed randomly around a pantry serving a household where nobody eats rice pudding. There may be more, tucked out of sight.

Of course, my stuff isn't any problem. Only, you know, it's a bit of a problem. No, it's no problem. But, you know, it is taking up space. Only, it's not any real problem at all. My friend and landlady is, she reassures me, always true to her word and I believe her.  But that word changes a lot.

A collection of pillows and cushions.
I continue to sort through my stuff, looking again at the things I already chose to keep and choosing to let some of it go. There are some basic things I need to buy and frankly, that's exciting. I buy a v-shaped pillow and extra regular pillows. I buy a waste paper basket. I buy my own towels, which are floral and cheerful and alarm my landlady. I have never had such choices before. I was sometimes consulted, but I didn't buy things myself, spontaneously, not things for living with every day.

There's no chair in my room and the bed moves away from the wall when I lean on it. My back pain is getting worse because of this and the physical tension of living with flashbacks, panic attacks and nightmares which intersperse a period where I am now happier than I have ever been. I decide to buy a deck chair - a fairly posh one, for comfort - as I can lean back in it and it can be folded away and take up almost no space at all. I shouldn't speak to my landlady about this, because it makes her nervous. She'll hardly ever see it, but I am bringing more stuff into the house.



I am not a materialist. I'm vaguely aware that as a divorcee, I am entitled to the value of half the stuff that my ex-husband and I had between us, but initiating a straight-forward no-property-involved divorce from a safe distance of three hundred miles is difficult enough. That's the truth of the matter. There are times when I get angry about it, feel a coward or irresponsible for letting all that go, but honestly?  It's okay. I am breaking free.


A wooden picture frame with a curly swirly
tree pattern. 
In Tregaron with Stephen, I see a beautiful picture frame. It is about £16, which is an awful lot to pay for a picture frame, but Stephen buys it for me - for us, for our eventual home. It is the single most beautiful thing I have ever possessed up to that point. It might be months before I see him again (in fact it will be three weeks but we don't know that), so our photo in that frame mean the world to me.

A few years later, we will watch horrified as a very similar frame is featured in this monstrosity. Fortunately, if inexplicably, it is featured on its side. Like an inverted crucifix.



As I travel back across to England to visit family, my friend and landlady's tune-changing and with it, the spectre of homelessness, weigh heavy on my mind.  While I'm away, despite reassurances that it wouldn't happen, someone else is invited to stay in my room. My friend and landlady complains about having to move all my stuff around - I've got so much of it - in order to prepare the room I rent for her guest.

I'm not really well enough to travel back, anyway. I ask my parents if I can live with them for a bit.

Having helped me carry my worldly possessions back and forth between East Anglia and West Wales, my folks feel able to remark about what an enormous amount of stuff I have. I'm thinking that when they were my age, they had a three bedroom house, a garden shed and a garage full of stuff, whereas all mine fits in one room, along with my borrowed furniture. But this is not my house, I wasn't sure they'd cope with my return and I am extremely grateful.

My Mum offers to help me go through everything and throw out the things I don't need. This offer is repeated, in various forms, such as, "I'm about to put these two boxes in the attic. Shall we just go through them? We might only need one box."

I now have four very beautiful ceramic spoons with goldfish
on them in my bedroom.
I am living in a room with no shelves, so I look at my books again. Of course, I have books which I may never read. I have books I have read but will not read again. What is a reasonable number of books for a person to keep? There must be a number, depending on circumstances, just like there's a reasonable amount of money to spend on a winter coat, according to one's income. Only books are not a winter coat. I mean, stories are important, reading is important, but the possession of physical books? They are not a winter coat. I have no winter coat.

My folks' house is probably about middling on the clutter front. But both my parents despair of the habits of the other and thus, both my parents believe their house to be cluttered. Mum is sentimental and has trouble letting go of trinkets and objects, even quite ugly things, inherited or received as gifts. My Dad has a collection of wire, along with phone chargers and sundry defunct or dysfunctional tech. They'd both like to have a good clear-out but they never have time. In truth, each would like to clear out each other's things.

Now they both want to clear out my things.


At some point, I have acquired some tea-towels. They are stored with other things in a box in my parents' garage. A mouse (or possibly a gang of mice) eat them.


I keep a scrapbook of cards these days, and favourite ones
get put in frames (a framed greetings card on a bookshelf)
My parents were once poor but they're now quite well-off. They don't feel well-off and so don't expect that even I, homeless by some definitions, should see things and money differently. It is inconceivable to them to fix or make do with something if a new one can be bought, because obviously, everything is so cheap.

When I was a child, my Mum made or altered most of our clothes. My Dad and I made a guinea pig hutch and a garden bench for my grandparents. My grandparents made stuff for us; furniture, curtains, toys. We all made stuff and, because perhaps I got sick so had the time plus very little money, that carried on for me.

Now they mock me for patching things up, making do with old stuff or making new items as if it is all a false economy; way too much trouble when I could just go out and buy things. As if I could, just go out and buy things.



My Mum observes I have a hole in my skirt; I should throw it away and buy a new one - she will buy me a new one, as a present, such is her enthusiasm for the disposal of the first. All my clothes are in a poor state of disrepair but this skirt is thinning fast, practically opaque in places. Still, I don't let it go.

A great amount of paperwork. Fortunately, I don't possess
this volume of paperwork any more.

In fact, I find myself incapable of throwing anything away; blister packs, broken pencils, torn and useless scraps of bubblewrap. My room becomes a tremendous mess - it looks like the room of someone with a serious mental health problem. It is a shocking sight, especially given that my presence is almost undetectable in the rest of the house; I pick up after myself, wash my dishes, tidy the cushions when I get up from the sofa. Part of me believes, because I have been told it over and over and over and over, that I am simply a slob and that this is what happens in a room occupied by a slob with no-one to shout at her about it. But another part of me looks at the room with barely a patch of carpet in sight and wonders whether the flashbacks and panic attacks might be worth mentioning to the doctor.

Also my back, which is getting worse and worse.


It is my thirtieth birthday. Stephen gives me a photo album containing the story of my year. There are hardly any photographs anywhere, print or digital, of me during my twenties. It is almost as if I have started existing again after a period of non-existence.



My Extensive Mug Collection, 1980-1999 and 2010-2014
(Four different mugs in muted colours)
I am thirty. Stephen and I begin collecting for our
bottom drawer. Mum calls it this; back in the day when almost everyone lived with their parents before and sometimes after getting married, young couples would begin to collect bits and pieces for their future home in a literal or metaphorical bottom drawer. Some of our things for our future life are stored, quite literally, in our bottom drawer.





Stephen and I begin to live together in two places, relying on our parents to transport us between Surrey and Suffolk every two or three months. We try not to carry too much stuff on these journeys and thus we end up buying more things. The first extra thing is a camera tripod. The second thing - after much discussion, because it feels like pure excess - is an extra pair of ukuleles. We don't double our clothes, but once we live in one place, we will probably have enough to cope without a washing machine for two or three weeks. We end up with duplicates of other things by accident, because we forget what we've got and where.

Our bedroom wall: A pale-coloured wall with a collection of
paintings, prints and photographs in a variety of frames.
We sort out our bedroom at my parents' house. We erect shelves, during which I have my final really powerful flashback.

My parents cope badly with us changing things in their spare room, putting pictures on the wall, changing the agony-making mattress for a memory foam one, installing a linen basket. It's not a problem, of course - we are welcome here; it is our home. Yet there is tension. I imagine it feels like the occupying forces are taking down their tents and establishing their own bricks and mortar. I imagine this but I don't know what else we can do. I have lost patience with mixed messages.



There are many things which I have wanted for a long long time, but which I could not justify before. Not because I couldn't afford them (although sometimes I couldn't), but because I couldn't present a case that they were absolutely essential, they wouldn't take up space, they wouldn't cause additional problems and I wouldn't waste them, break them or forget to use them.

Most of these things are presents from other people. But I am allowed to express my desire for them, accept them and keep them. They include:
My notebooks. Some of these are full already.
(A collection of notebooks of different sizes with
various patterns).

  1. An MP3 player. Now I even have blue tooth "sleep phones" - a headband with earphones inside it so I can listen to music, podcasts and audiobooks in bed. 
  2. A shower seat. So, you know, I can have a shower. 
  3. A kettle in my bedroom.
  4. Houseplants.
  5. Doc Martin boots. 
  6. Multiple and variously-shaped pillows and cushions.
  7. A king-size duvet on a standard double bed. 
  8. A special table for painting in bed. I am allowed to paint in bed
  9. Notebooks - not just one notebook, which I must fill cover to cover before starting on another - but multiple notebooks I can use for different purposes.  
  10. After my second EEE-PC dies, a laptop computer that is neither second-hand nor the very cheapest one on the market. 
Surrounded by pillows, my back improves.


Two red "Le Creuset" soup pots. They are super cute.
Despite their remarks about over-crowded living conditions, my parents often buy us presents when they're out and about; a cushion with a fox's face on it, a plastic saucepan for the microwave. At Christmas, birthdays and on the occasion of our two weddings, we receive many lovely presents; things we would never have thought to buy if we were stocking up from scratch ourselves. We have a few super cute pots for soup and miniature casseroles. Stephen's parents save up their Tesco vouchers and buy us Alessi cutlery, which is extraordinarily posh. My sister-in-law brings back beautifully ornate hand-painted bowls from Istanbul. We have a collection of decent cookware and utensils, even cake tins in our bottom drawer.

Our future home will be filled with beautiful things we couldn't possibly afford ourselves. We often get things out to admire them and fantasize about using them every day.



This is now and I am thirty-three. We hope to have a place of our own within the next six months. We're going to need a lot of stuff we don't have now. We have use of two beds but we don't currently own one. We do own a chest of drawers and have inherited a rocking chair but the latter needs reupholstering. Mice are beginning to eat it.

I'm looking around and thinking, do I want to take everything with me?  Because honestly, I still have things I don't really want, things I don't really need but which look like they might be useful, or valuable in some way. We are going to need more stuff, so I'd like to have less of the stuff I don't need.



I own a vase. A white vase the shape of a Florence flask
with peach-coloured lilies on, on my bookshelf.
I am not a materialist. Things matter because they are useful, they bring us pleasure and they can be infused with meaning.  Having beautiful things and useful things that I could live without but which bring me immense pleasure (like my MP3 player) makes me feel very fortunate and very free. Having beautiful things is like being able to eat delicious food or listen to fantastic music (on my MP3 player). There's a big difference between taking pleasure in objects and connecting their value with personal worth (did I mention that my MP3 player is an iPod?).

There is no moral to my story. It is just about bad luck, good luck, mixed luck, a bad back and stuff.



Mum isn't in a great mood. I bring two A4 sheets of cardboard - the sort from the inside of reinforced envelopes or the back of paper pads - into the kitchen.

"Can I throw that out?" asks Mum.

"I was just about to," I reply.

"Good," she says, grumpily. "We don't have room to keep stuff like that here. When you have a place of your own, you can have as many old sheets of cardboard as you like." 

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

On Feeling, Acting or Being A Creep

Having tweeted a link to this excellent post from Dr Nerdlove: Socially Awkward isn't an Excuse, I entered into a silly circular argument with a friend. My friend expressed confusion and frustration; despite her best efforts, she was always perceived as creepy whenever she had told anyone that she found them attractive. Nobody had explicitly told her she was creepy, so quite foolishly, I entered into an argument about whether this inference was a reasonable one. I should know by now that forcing someone  to argue for their own deficiency doesn't lift anyone's mood.

But the subsequent discussion made me think about the difference between feeling, acting or being a creep.

Feeling like a Creep

There should be a term which is the opposite - the unhealthy polar opposite - to sexual entitlement. Feeling like a creep is close; regarding oneself as physically and mentally disgusting, considering one's existence as a sexual being, an imposition on the rest of the world.



Radiohead's Creep was my theme song from its release in 1993, when I was twelve years old, throughout the following decade or so. I felt that I was a creep, I was a weirdo. WTF was I doing there? I didn't belong there.

There are lots of us who approach sexual maturity in the belief that there's something wrong with our sexuality. Not necessarily wrong as in sinful - although that's often in the mix - but wrong as in damaged or damaging. Words frequently associated with homosexual desire in the media and my household included pervert and predatory. It was more or less against the law for a teacher to discuss the subject of my particular sexuality throughout my high school career.

At school I knew, for sure, how any female object of my desire or affection would feel if she knew, because we did have one out lesbian in our year group; a very tall, dramatic young women whose name wasn't Petronella Conquest but it was pretty close. The worry was, what if she fancied you? After all, girl's a lesbian, she could fancy any of us. And then what? How disgusting would that be? Not that I ever heard any rumour of this girl even flirting with anyone. The fact of her attraction - the fact of her potential attraction - was enough for cries of disgust and outrage to fill the form room. And Petronella was slimmer, more confident, more sophisticated than I and didn't have spots.

So even though I kept everything firmly under wraps, I felt like a creep, like many closeted queer kids in high school; I felt that my desire was predatory, deceptive, a betrayal of my friendships.

And before I got the chance to leave school, set out into the world and find my people, I got sick and grew to like my body an awful lot less. Believing my body to be disgusting made this ten times worse, as if I had no right to sexual pleasure, even in fantasy. In this context, I got together with my first husband, who made me feel better by tolerating me as I was (agreeing that my body was, in fact, quite gruesome), then treating me with the disgust and contempt that I thought I deserved. Until I didn't.

I don't know if straight women are often made to feel creepy - I've not really heard anyone describe that. Unwanted, unloveable or ridiculous, undoubtedly, but I don't know if straight women ever think that their attraction could, if revealed, make someone's skin crawl.  This is how I felt, and how I continued to feel - on and off - for most of my twenties, whether it was about the women or the men I was attracted to; they were all much more beautiful in body, mind and soul than I was. I was the haggard lumpen troll in the shadows, looking on with lecherous eyes.

Nobody should feel that way. It is never true, whoever you are, whatever you look like, whoever you fancy. Even if you fancy someone genuinely inappropriate - it's what you do (or please, don't do) about it that counts.


Acting or Coming Across Like a Creep.

People can come across like a creep inadvertently for three reasons; the things they say and do, the past experiences of the person they're approaching and prejudice.

Everyone - not just the socially awkard - can fluff up in small and big ways that sometimes leads to upset and awkwardness, especially when it comes to flirtation, or conversations that might be read that way. Add alcohol into the mix and things can go very wrong.

My own gaffs have never been terribly dramatic, just being needy and over-keen at times when I've been desperately lonely. But I do remember one due to abject exhaustion: When saying goodnight to a new friend at the end of an evening, I kissed her on each cheek, as the French do. No idea what possessed me -I hadn't done this since the two weeks I spent in France as a child. Then I hugged her, just for good measure. It wasn't an excuse for physical contact - it was as if the contents of my brain had been largely emptied out such that I no longer knew how people of my own culture say goodbye to one another.

However, the effects of social mistakes are usually very short-lived. They can occasionally damage relationships, but this is because of awkwardness, embarrassment, confusion and annoyance - not because someone feels threatened or intimidated in any prolonged way. If you realise you've made a mistake, you apologise (if that doesn't compound things) and try to put it right. There's no argument about what happened. Nobody's left looking over their shoulder all the way home that night.

Things get a little bit worse when others have past experiences of harassment and sexual aggression. Sometimes, an act can seem creepy because it bears some similarity to other acts of sexual aggression. For example, if a woman routinely experiences sexual harassment at the bus stop, then she may prefer that nobody ever speaks to her at the bus stop, because however friendly it may seem at first, she's seen it blow up in her face before. All men run the risk of seeming creepy talking to women they don't know well. I'd still say it's worth trying to talk to one another (well I think so, but I have never lived in a city).

However, sometimes we seem creepy just because of who we are.  Sometimes, this is about the big prejudices: homophobia, disablism, classism and racism can all make people perceive others as creepy. In movies, I have seen German, Eastern European and Russian accents, stereotypically Arab features, effeminacy in men and butchness in women, plus impairment - especially albinism, facial scars, withered hands, limps and so forth - all used to signpost that a character is sinister. Also, men who are very thin, very fat or very short are often seen this way, as if non-standard bodies render any sexual feelings they have something depraved or predatory (in fat, old and short women, sexual desire is rendered comical rather than threatening).

The little course in cognitive poetics we're doing has talked about the personification of Uriah Heap - the literary archetype of creep - but when you reread the text, the greatest part of his initial creepiness is the fact he is very pale, thin, ugly and fidgetty. He is a kiss-ass who behaves very badly, but that comes much later; at first, we hate him mostly for what he looks like.

Some adult straight men are nervous of gay men, for the same reason my classmates were nervous of Petronella. Disabled people are perhaps especially vulnerable to this because we are often seen as sexless - to assert our sexuality, even in the most gently flirtatious remark, might make us appear to be something other than what we seemed - like the cherub-faced child in the horror movie that suddenly says something knowing about tracker mortgages.

Then there are the lesser prejudices. I grew up with the idea that men in long grey raincoats are creepy, even though I've never encountered a creepy man in a long grey raincoat. Some people find goths creepy, as well as punks and geeks, horror buffs, taxidermists, antique dealers, folk who love reptiles and spiders, butchers, abattoir workers, criminologists, Daleks, undertakers, Bronies or adult Beliebers (okay, so maybe they are).

The trouble is, with all of the above, we can't ever be sure why someone else might think us creepy. We can rarely be sure that they even do. We just have to watch our behaviour, because that's the one thing we're responsible for and the one thing we can change if we mess up.

However, because we're all decent people, we accept rejection. Romantic or social rejection, whether grounded in high ideals, the lowest form of bigotry or pure whim, is not something that can be argued with. Real creeps don't get that. We do.


On Being A Creep.

Being a creep is about entitlement. It's not always entitlement to sex; it is sometimes about romantic attention or social power, but there's often a sexual element. Entitlement doesn't necessarily coincide with social confidence, but creepiness (meant here to mean that underhand, passive aggressive strain of sexual aggression) often coincides with a sort of arrogance of the underdog. Doctor Nerdlove focuses on this as an issue within geek culture, but Eleanor Brown tweeted this newspaper cutting, which demonstrates the same kind of thing elsewhere:

It reads: Rush-Hour Crush. Love (well, lust) is all around us, as is proven by the messages left by our commuter cupids.

Cappuchino One Sugar. If you're the girl I think you are, I'm often in the queue behind you at Letchworth Garden City station's coffee shop. I've tried flirting but you're too busy trying to get the attention of the guy behind the counter. I'm training to be a barrister, you're ignoring me for a barista. Please turn around so we can discuss my briefs.
Shiny Shoes, English Breakfast Tea.

This chap is a creep. He is addressing a young woman who, despite his efforts, demonstrates zero interest in him. In Shiny Shoes' universe, this is not right or fair. The girl is wrong. What she needs is:
  • To be told that she is making a ridiculous mistake.
  • To be shown he is deserving of her attention, because of the job he does/ is training for.
  • To be encouraged with a very sexual joke. The law is a rich ground for puns. He could have said, "Turn around and judge for yourself." or "Let's discuss this case." or even "You've got a lovely a posteriori." which at least keeps things to a level of outer clothing and appearance. 
Notice the lack of compliments. The guy doesn't even offer to buy her a coffee. 

Now this ad is unlikely to have deeply upset the young woman. In my mind, the woman and the barista both read it, their shared mortification brings them together and this cutting will eventually be pasted in the back of their wedding album, so they can tell the story to their kids.

However, some people act this way in the same room, when you are alone with them or in private conversation on-line, and sometimes while making physical contact with you. The message is always the same; 
My sexual, romantic or social desires are right. I am deserving of love, sexual gratification, friendship and status. People should pay attention to me. People should want to be with me, on my terms. People should laugh at my jokes and be flattered by my attentions.  
Your feelings are misguided or you're fooling yourself about how you really feel. The boundaries you've established - by drawing a line, rejecting me, or ignoring me in the coffee shop queue - are flexible. Your verbal and non-verbal communication is open to any interpretation I like. If you react badly, it is because there's something wrong with you, you stupid bitch.
Some people have argued that the use of the word creep might be regarded as the male equivalent of slut, and that calling a man a creep is shaming him for his sexuality. This is not the case at all. The big difference is that the word slut, even in its more pejorative sense, does not describe someone who is imposing her sexuality on others. She might be a corrupting influence (according to the spirit of this slur), but she doesn't coerce.

Meanwhile, women can be creepy. Women can force lingering physical contact on people who didn't ask for it - I've seen women plant themselves on men's laps without introduction, I've had women touch me far more than I'd like. Women can react very badly to rejection, become angry or simply ignore what is being said to them. Women can believe that they are magically worthy and deserving of sexual attention, love or social power. And I don't think women are any less capable than men of arguing that the people who reject them are at fault; they're shallow, prejudiced, lying about their sexuality, or are capable of handling a real woman.

Yet out in a world where men tend to have greater social capital, are more physically threatening and are often sold narratives where all good men, including the underdogs, are rewarded with female attention, the worst of this behaviour is most often committed by men.

Thanks to Lisa, Mary & The Morningstar for the discussion about this.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On Poverty & Reading Books

Book shelves with books on.
I'm wanting to get back to more personal blogging, but here's a thing about books and poverty.

England divided into 'readers and watchers', BBC News:
England is suffering from a "worrying cultural divide" with poor adults much less likely to read books than their richer neighbours, a report says. The country is divided into two nations, those who read weekly or daily, and those who prefer TV and DVDs, it says. It finds key links between an individual's social background and how likely they are to read.
There are a lot of statistics in the article, few of which are very shocking. For example, rich people own more books than poor people. Who'd have thought it? Another strange phenomenon I have observed is that although richer people have only slightly more feet on average, they own considerably more shoes...
More than one in four (27%) of adults from the poorest socio-economic backgrounds said they never read books themselves, compared with just 13% of those from the richest socio-economic backgrounds.
Around 16% of the population of England is "functionally illiterate". The chances are that almost all of these people occupy the poorest socio-economic background, for obvious reasons of both cause and effect. That entirely accounts for the difference - in fact, if the sample were big enough, it might even suggest that a slightly greater proportion of rich people who can read choose not to.
And more than six in 10 (62%) of those from the richest backgrounds said they read daily or weekly, compared with four in 10 (42%) of those from the poorest.
Okay, so on these figures, the ones that indicate the worrying cultural divide, we're talking 60:40. To be perfectly honest, I'm pleasantly surprised that the difference is so small, given the massive disparities in educational opportunities, the fact that poorer people generally have less time, less access to books, live in environments less conducive to reading in peace and are more likely to have intellectual, cognitive or sensory impairments that prevent them from reading.

That's if we assume that everyone is being honest. We know that when you ask men and women how many sexual partners they've had, you end up with a statistical difference which simply cannot be true; men feel under pressure to raise the figure, women feel under pressure to lower it. I suspect something similar here.

Among the wealthier middle classes, there is a much stronger hierarchy of the arts; middle class people frequently boast that they never watch the television that takes pride of place in their living room. Meanwhile, although to a lesser extent, working class people (especially men) sometimes feel that the world of books doesn't belong to them. They may even feel that the books they read don't count as proper books.

I suspect that some poorer respondents may have downplayed their reading and I'm absolutely certain that some richer respondents will have exaggerated theirs.
And 83% of adults from the richest group feel that reading improves their lives, compared with 72% of those from the poorest group.
Hmm, yes, well. The difference here is very slight, but here's the thing:

As well as middle class snobbery and mythos surrounding the arts (Art can save the world!), richer people have much easier lives. Thus, when they think about things that can improve their lives, they are likely to think about books, art and esoteric things rather than, you know, decent affordable housing, a living wage, having enough food to eat and everything else they take for granted but others cannot.

I believe wholeheartedly that books do improve our lives, and perhaps make the most difference to the most difficult lives, but I understand there may be a difference in the way this question is understood by richer and poorer readers.

The article concludes:
Viv Bird, chief executive of Booktrust, said: "This research indicates that frequent readers are more likely to be satisfied with life, happier and more successful in their professional lives. 
"But there is a worrying cultural divide linked to deprivation. There will never be a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to social mobility, but reading plays an important role - more action is needed to support families."
 Yet there are no suggestions about what this support entails. So here are mine:
  1. Keep libraries open and promote what they do to the wider community, including the increasing stock of ebooks and audiobooks you can borrow on-line.
  2. Promote ebook, braille and audiobook formats, to broaden the spectrum of people who can access literature. Audiobooks also raise the possibility of reading as a group activity, which makes it more appealing for people low on time and energy to spend with their loved ones. (Historically, people read out loud much more, but audiobooks are the low-energy option).
  3. Relieve poverty with a living wage and decent affordable housing. However one feels about the inevitability of material inequality, we should aim towards a world where everyone at least has a chance to have a little culture in their lives. People can read in all kinds of places and situations, but having space, peace, time and the absence of immense pressure, is sure going to help.
Also, you know, sort out education so that people grow up enjoying reading, rather than seeing a book as a job of work or a task to be completed for some reward other than its own sake. 

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Sexuality & Evolutionary Non-Mysteries

The BBC has a lengthy magazine article entitled The Evolutionary Puzzle of Homosexuality. Of course, it is useful for science to investigate sexuality, genetics, conditioning and so forth in order to better understand ourselves and the way we all tick. But something is amiss:
"This is a paradox from an evolutionary perspective," says Paul Vasey from the University of Lethbridge in Canada. "How can a trait like male homosexuality, which has a genetic component, persist over evolutionary time if the individuals that carry the genes associated with that trait are not reproducing?"
In other words, there is an argument that goes:
  • Men whose sexual behaviour is largely or exclusively homosexual are less likely to have children.
  • If traits are genetic, they are passed down by people having children. 
  • Therefore, homosexuality cannot have a genetic element.
And yet there is strong evidence that sexual orientation is largely innate, homosexuality is evident even in societies where there is deadly pressure to conform and homosexual behaviour is seen throughout nature. What can it all mean?!

It benefits scientists and universities, who really ought to know better, to keep talking about, giving interviews and publishing papers on this alleged paradox, because it is a controversial and salacious subject. Oooh, sex!  Oooh, controversy! Oooh, mystery!

And thus you get nonsense like the Gay Uncle Hypothesis - the idea that the presence of childless adult men* in the extended family was of evolutionary advantage to that family's genes. In other words, gay men exist to babysit and mentor the children of their straight brothers (though not their sisters, particularly). Some (usually straight) people like this theory, because it justifies the existence of gay folk and renders their difference a practical advantage to the normals. It's perhaps one step up from the argument gay men exist because musical theatre was crucial to keeping warm and cheerful throughout the the last Ice Age (some may scoff - my gut says it was).

But there is no paradox. Let's frame our syllogism with a slightly different example:
  • People with Down Syndrome are less likely to have children. They are less likely to survive far into adulthood and, on average, they have some disadvantage when it comes to sexual selection and child-raising. 
  • If traits are genetic, they are passed down by people having children.
  • Therefore, Down Syndrome cannot have a genetic element.
Down Syndrome, as we know, is straightforwardly genetic, caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21. Yet it is rarely asked why people with Down Syndrome should still be being born after millions of years of human evolution. Why? The subject is not sexy and, although there's no shortage of discrimination against people with Down Syndrome, nobody suggests it involves choice on the part of the individual (their mother, maybe, but not them).

Of course, as with many genetic disorders and human traits that we don't happen to call "disorders", this mutation usually occurs spontaneously or else trickles down in families where the vast majority of people don't have this trait. It happens because it happens, because DNA must mutate in order for organisms to adapt and evolve.

Mutation is a good thing in terms of species survival, but it is entirely random. The fact that one mutation can create a dynastic dead-end for one individual in one set of circumstances doesn't stop this kind of mutation from occurring. Virus strains can - and often do - mutate to become less contagious.

People with Down Syndrome are much less vulnerable to some sorts of cancers. Maybe that means the condition plays or has played some sort of as yet unseen beneficial role within families?

Neither homosexuality or bisexuality appear to be entirely genetic; these traits are undoubtedly a special combination of genes (probably multiple genes), in utero hormonal events and other environmental influences. But maybe something about sexualities which make having children less likely (and in this we must include heterosexual trans people, asexual people, bisexuals in same gender partnerships and anyone disinclined towards PIV sex) has some overarching benefit on a family's chances of survival? Or maybe not.

And so what if it doesn't? Does this justify homophobia? Would or should it even matter if these were conscious choices that individuals made about the life they wanted to live?

There are far more questions than answers about evolution and the vast range of sexual behaviour in humans and other animals. The framing of one harmless, relatively common and naturally-occurring deviation as a mystery is unhelpful, both in terms of the public understanding of science and our ongoing struggle towards social justice.


* Lesbians and bisexual women are still largely side-lined in research into sexual orientation. We know all kinds of strange trivia about gay men's fingers and how their hair typically whorls clockwise (or is it anti-clockwise? I think it matters enough to forget). but nearly nothing about lesbian eyebrows, for example. I may apply for a grant. 

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