Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The slow road to change

In Sierra Leone recently, four female journalists were stripped naked and forced to walk through the streets of Kenema (a city in the East of Sierra Leone).
So why? This was a group of journalists who were working on a campaign against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) to mark the UN International Day for Zero Tolerance of FGM.
Now, I am not for a second saying that this attack was in any way justified. It has to be condemned. For Sierra Leone, this is not a good image. For human rights and freedom of speech and community safety and for the rights of women, this is no good thing. It's also frightening. But we need to look more at why it happened.
So, let's look more at FGM. And here I have my first problem, I'm on of those people who won't call it FGM, preferring instead to use the term Cutting. (Usually at this point, I am on the receiving end of the look I personally reserve for women who say they hate feminism, but bear with me people).

Now I understand the argument for the term mutilation; it is emotive and it conveys a seriousness that engages people. It is used to reflect the idea that often there is no consent in the process. However, it is also aggressive and it implies a judgement. My personal view, is that if we want the practice to stop, then we need to encourage those engaging in it to understand why it is bad. I have worked with women and girls across Sierra Leone. Many of them have told me that they think Cutting is wrong, never has anyone told me that this is because it is dangerous. No, they think it is wrong, because the white man tells them that it is wrong. It is a moral judgement, not a logical conclusion.

So let's leave the moral judgement to one side for now. Because it is dangerous. There is the obvious risk of infection and shock and the procedure going wrong. There are links between Cutting and the spread of HIV, maternal mortality and quite naturally a whole host of psychological traumas. (I'm going to gloss over the whole issue with it being a way to reduce women's sexual pleasure and thus control them, though it deserves greater treatment at some point). It's really not a step to a longer healthier life.

But what happened when the WHO and the UN and other development pros starting condemning the practice? Well, it went like any other black market practice, it started happening more in secret and mothers started having the procedure done on children who are younger and younger to get round the legislation. The risks went up. The situation got worse.
I do believe that for a girl to be subjected to this practice without her consent is an abuse of her human rights. I also know that because of social pressures, the choice factor really isn't there for girls and that the issue of consent is a difficult one - even if you don't object to the idea, can you really consent to something when you have no knowledge of the repercussions? But that's an issue for another time. This is a traditional practice in many cultures, there is a belief that it is a good and necessary thing for girls to go through. There is also a case to say that taking away the right to choose to be cut is also a violation.

And that, I believe, is how we're seeing the issue framed right now. People are getting scared, and they are asking for the right to choose to be involved in these practices. When I first got to Sierra Leone, I edited a piece of research that my colleagues had carried out about perceptions of human rights in the villages we were working in. I was amazed. The big news as I saw it, was that people were talking about the right to choose to participate in secret societies - but not the right to choose not to. This was, I felt, a key point, why was more of this not being made in the write up and in the recommendations? None of my colleagues, all local people, took me seriously, and months later I understood why. It is the right to be involved that they feel is under threat. People like me are turning up and telling them that they should be opting out of this dangerous, 'wrong' practice, but it is not wrong in their eyes. Suddenly, this practice, tradition, that has been going on for longer than anyone can remember, is up for question. And people don't like it.

Now we have to look, and wonder if by passing that judgement, by trying to force what has for a long time been a traditional practice into becoming a taboo and a shameful thing, have we saved any lives? Whether something is illegal or legal doesn't generally have a massive impact on whether it happens or not, all it does is increase the risk, make it more dangerous.

Cultural change is the only thing that will alter the practice of cutting women. And that will take time. And it will only happen through education and knowledge and empowerment. And there will be more women like those in Sierra Leone who are subjected to humiliation and attacks whilst they are defending these rights. And we need to support those women, and that movement.

First do no harm.

Let's not focus on campaigning against the 'harmful' practice of FGM. Let's start educating people about how to make the practice safer, help people to understand the risks and the implications. Let's take away the moral argument, and the religious argument and try and stop women from dying, their babies from dying. If the science is right, and we can make Cutting safer, then there will be an impact on so many other things that are issues for developing countries. It will save lives.
The women of Sierra Leone are not stupid, and neither are they weak. The moment of my time in Sierra Leone that resonates the strongest with me, was when I spent a couple of hours with three girls, young teenagers, listening to them discuss and debate what it was that made traditional practices harmful. They had differing views, they debated, they argued with each other critically. (I didn't say a word, my Krio was good enough only to follow the conversation, and I doubt they realised it was even that good). Those girls are making that change right now, by questioning, talking, thinking.

Change will happen. Change is happening right now. On the way to that change, there will be tragedy and there will be incidents like this one, of public shame and humiliation. Of course that is awful, but perhaps not avoidable. Think of foot binding in China, and in our own recent history, of the backstreet abortionist movement.

Women who are affected by the issue are and will continue to make that change for themselves, and it will be a change that they want to see, when they are ready for it. And it will last.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

"You know, the new CEO of Worldcom faced this very problem..."

Blackwater knows what to do if you have an inferior product in an aggressive marketplace.

Via William Gibson.

Friday, February 13, 2009

"A Little Romance..."

I can explain that. Seriously:

Lead researcher Dr Bjarne Holmes said the study found a correlation between the warped romantic expectations often seen in relationship counseling and the ideals presented in romantic comedies. Among these ideals are that sex should always be perfect and that emotional needs should be wordlessly intuited and anticipated between “soul mates”. “We now have some emerging evidence that suggests popular media play a role in perpetuating these ideas in people’s minds,” Dr. Holmes said...

Why is it that romantic comedies are seen as “harmless entertainment”, whereas violence and sex are viewed as encrypted instruction manuals for mayhem and licentiousness? If we’re to believe that watching senseless violence or gratuitous sex will lead young people to go out and commit heinous crimes, then doesn’t it follow that senseless romance and egregious “soul-mating” might lead those same young people to commit heinous relationships?

You got that?

Romance = Horrible Gore.

Happy Valentine's Day.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Send the buggers back!

Politics is full of opportunities for people to make themselves look like hypocritical arseholes. But for pure instances of two entirely contradictory positions being argued for simultaneously by someone too narrow-minded and stupid to see three inches in front of their prejudices, the whole Islam/freedom of speech debate is hard to beat. Until recently I thought that the single most shining example of this, the gold double standard against which other bouts of "one rule for them and none for me" would forever be measured, was the whole kerfuffle around the Mohamed cartoons.

Until now: an anti-immigration Dutch politician is getting upset that British immigration has sent him back to his country of origin, arguing that freedom of speech demands that he be allowed to show his film in which he argues for the banning of the Koran.

Of course, in a limited sense he is right. There's nothing about freedom of speech that means you have to be logically coherent. Hell, inflammatory post-titles notwithstanding, I'd like to see him over here: anyone who wants to come to the country and make racists look stupid is ok in my book.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Shameless traffic WHORING...

Or How I learned to stop worrying and love the Daily Mail.

Seriously, apparently:

12 per cent of all websites are pornographic, 25 per cent of all search engine requests are pornographic, and 35 per cent of all internet downloads are pornographic. 'Sex' is the most-searched word on the internet.

Which I guess would explain why the Mail decided it was worth putting up this hard hitting investigative report in their esteemed publication.

Well if it's good enough for them, it's good enough for me: BIG THROBBI... oh hang on, maybe I should just quote some of their effort:

For months until she finally caught him out, Jane Norman suspected that her husband was having an affair.

'He was withdrawn, moody,' says the 40-year-old mother-of-two from Oxfordshire.

'He became less affectionate with me and our TWO TEENAGE DAUGHTERS. He didn't want to spend time with us. At first, I wondered if he was having some kind of breakdown. Then, when he started shutting himself away with the computer, I started to think he might be seeing someone else.'

The truth, when it finally came out last summer, was far more complex, but equally disturbing.

Jane's husband had become addicted to INTERNET PORNOGRAPHY after spending hours each day viewing EXPLICIT ONLINE IMAGES.

"Mere titillation," you're thinking. "A respectable newspaper just peddling fake "news" as a thin veil for Victorian-style hypocrisy with a Google-ranking twist."

Shame on you. There's some very serious journalism going on. You see, our intrepid journalist has a theory - she's delved deep into the statisitical record to find the root causes of this shocking social problem:

Before 1997, there had been no referrals for those compulsively looking at internet pornography and when compiling figures for 2001-02 researchers did not think to include a category for such people.

So we know time is a factor. A decade ago, nothing. Now this malaise is striking at the respectable heart of our society:

Those falling victim to this very modern scourge are, above all, the respectable middle-class white-collar workers whose professions inevitably bring them into contact with the internet on a daily basis.

Many are professional people - accountants, doctors, company directors and managers - who, say experts, use internet pornography as an escape from the stresses and strains of their working life.

What could it be? What's causing this? Before we consider that any further, lets just take another look at our case study to consider the full extent of the problem:

"At weekends, he didn't want to come shopping with us. He said he'd stay at home and garden instead. I was really worried about him. I thought he was having a nervous breakdown."

So what's at the root of this evil that's plucked a good, family man from the very gates of Marks and Spencer? For the sake of sparing your delicate sensibilities, I'll skip right past the bits about how "IT FELT SO DEGRADING", omit the stuff about "BARELY LEGAL" sites and "TEENAGE PORNOGRAPHY", and get right to the shocking conclusion - summarised in a poignant quote from one of the victims:

'What makes me most angry is that the internet has created this problem. I just don't believe it would ever have arisen otherwise.'

So there you go. The internet is a factor in internet pornography.

"Some of the names have been changed", they tell us. I don't doubt it.

Update: Edited after the author realised he'd left the punchline in the original quote. Now works, although somewhat out of date.

Sunday, February 08, 2009


This is one of those fairly disgusting things that you suspect is entirely typical:

Paul Kelleher: Yes, I'm calling to inform you that my mom died on the 24th of January.

Bank of America Estates representative: I'm sorry. Oh, it looks like she never even missed a payment. That's too bad. Well, how are you planning to take care of her balance?

PK: I'm not going to. She has no estate to speak of, but you should feel free to just go through the standard probate procedure. I'm certainly not legally obligated to pay for her.

BOA: You mean you're not going to help her out?

PK: I wouldn't be helping her out -- she's dead. I'd be helping you out.

BOA: Oh, that's really not the way to look at it. I know that if it were my mother, I'd pay it. That's why we're in the banking crisis we're in: banks having to write off defaulted loans.

Via Making Light.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Don't call me ginger...

When giving talks about ethnic diversity, the plight of refugees and asylum seekers or something along those lines, I often try to inject a little humour into what can be a bleak and frankly depressing subject, by offering the audience examples of what the world might be like for me should we live in a nation where gingers are persecuted.

It would appear that I have been making light of a very serious subject. Following the Guardian Weekend's spread a couple of weeks back previewing Jenny Wicks' forthcoming Root Ginger Exhibition, my eyes were drawn to a couple of letters printed in response my favourite being this one:

At my son's school, gingism was confronted by the introduction of Ginger Fridays, when redheaded kids were allowed to go into dinner first. In addition, they were allowed to take a friend in with them, thus encouraging integration.

Is this serious? Please tell me no? But then I dug around a little more and it does seem that there is a movement tracking prejudice against gingers. The Equality and Human Rights Commission have even been asked to comment on their stance (answer: nothing to do with them - it's a mutation, not a race).

So, is mocking someone for being ginger a prejudice? Well, yes. I was mocked as a child for being ginger. I was also mocked for being too tall, too clever, rubbish at netball, being clumsy, a little bit stupid, incredibly sensible, a geek, having spots, and freckles, a really bad haircut, awesome music taste and parents who were so not cool. (Sorry, did I use the past tense there? I still am mocked for those things). Of course these things are prejudices, if we're developing an opinion that someone is weaker (or better off) as a result of a preconception. Everyone likes to find similarities, and will try to exploit differences. We all have these things. But they're not always bad.

I have also been admired and possibly even benefited from being ginger. Old ladies comment on my hair on buses (well, it is lovely). People sometimes like to touch it (slightly weird). I have a completely unsubstantiated reputation for being quite scary when angry. I get stared at by small children, like I'm some sort of magical creature (occasionally mistaken for a witch), I get served quickly in bars (I stick out) and I'll never need to wear a red rose on a blind date (I'm the ginger one). I have learnt to have a cautious fear of men with ginger fetishes. None of these things have done me any harm.

Ginger isn't a race, though we do tend to band together a bit (we are, I like to think, being mutants, more like the X Men). I don't think ginger jokes and snipes are borne out of a deep routed prejudice against the Irish or the Scots. Sure gingers will get abuse, so will fat people, and short people, those with big noses and sticky out ears or northern accents. If people want to be offensive, then they'll find a reason to be. Trying to band that into racism is just undermining the very serious issue that is racism and that people experience daily, with dreadful consequences. In fact, I am for the first time in my life, forced, not only to agree with something in the Daily Mail, but to think that I couldn't possibly put it any better myself:

Paki does not equate with calling someone ginger; only if people with ginger hair have been attacked in race riots, barred from renting property, beaten up in school and not given jobs because of the colour of their hair, eyebrows and eyelashes, would it somehow be on a par.

Now; it's not often I get to do this, so I'm going to take this fine opportunity to finish with a song:

Monday, February 02, 2009

Smug journalist reports on smug bureaucrat being smug to formerly smug business types about the fact that he can be smug now and they can't.

Yes, it's that protracted smirk also known as the World Economic Forum again. Robert Peston, himself a connoisseur of all things self-satisfied, describes Wen Jiabao enjoying some banker-bashing:

The Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, both reassured and humiliated the western bankers. He reassured them with his account of how the supply of credit is rising again in China, which gives him confidence that the Chinese economy will grow by a more-than-respectable 8% in 2009. He embarrassed them with this manifestation of the strength of Chinese banks compared with their US, UK and eurozone peers (a strength that is the direct consequence of Chinese government policy).

It's very irksome for the Americans in particular that the Chinese version of what they see as their business model is holding up so well. And as if to rub their noses in it, the Chinese premier confided that he re-read Adam Smith over the summer (note "re-read") to reassure himself that the founder of modern economics wasn't the dogmatic opponent of government intervention that liberal market ideologues contend.

Now I've only skim read The Wealth of Nations, but I'm still pretty sure it didn't look like a blueprint for the modern Chinese state. Maybe I missed some of the nuance: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest in making damn sure they don't piss off a member of the ruling party if they know what's good for them."

But credit where credit is due (sorry), that was some good smug.

Update: Lots of typo correction and a link added.

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