Saturday, 30 July 2011

On a time and place for pain

Many years ago I awoke very early, surrounded by sleeping people. I was on a week-long retreat with the creative writing society at university; I had just finished my degree. Curled up silently, feet away, was the guy I was mildly interested in at the time, in the arms of a girl whose arms were always covered with angry red slashes. I'd found out too late that she didn't like talking about it, which put me in a terrible bind: I ached to listen, to try and help her, and it seemed unforgiveable to ignore them, yet that boundary was one she had asked me to respect.

It was a wonderful week, but one in an unhappy time, for various reasons such as my then poor health and generally being young, with romances that weren't meant to work out, not working out. That sort of thing.

I couldn't bear to stay in that room. I crept downstairs. It was summer, so already light. There were more people downstairs; there were 13 of us in a house for about 5. The kitchen was empty, though. On the windowsill there were huge boxes of books. One was called "Cutting". I picked it up. I've never forgotten it.

I don't know how good, really, the book is. I know nothing about psychology and I have the feeling the author, a psychiatrist named Steven Levenkron, was writing about his own theories and I don't know whether or not they were tested. I could go and do a bunch of research now, but this is the wrong place to go into that or the issue of self-harm, which other poeple have written about far better than I could. Because that's not the point right now. I wanted to write about an atypical case in the book.

A 12-year-old girl was very good at gym, and seemed to be constantly training, always pushing herself harder. Sometimes she had an accident on the equipment, which hurt, but she would recover and go on. Her gym teacher grew concerned and called her parents, however, when injuries began to appear on her body that could not be accounted for by any accident he'd seen.

It turned out that the girl was used to the fact that after hard exercise, her body ached, and she had heard that that was a sign she was really pushing herself and on the way to success. Feeling desperate for more success - due to ambition or due to feeling undervalued out of the gym or feeling honour bound to please, whatever it was - she had started inflicting pain on herself, confusing that kind of pain with the by-product of hard training.

Now before we start shaking our heads and sighing pitifully and thinking how dreadfully obvious it is that two forms of pain should not be confused, let's remind ourselves how similar they often seem - and how much we need to reassure ourselves that the productive kind is worth going through. Isn't "no pain, no gain" a common saying? I once had an immensely illuminating discussion with a particle physicist at Sussex University. For some reason he and I and a few other students were talking about mathematics and how far removed it is from society. (I could not more recommend this wonderful essay by Paul Lockhart on that.) This physicist's remark was: "With so much television these days, and things like that, people think they should understand something instantly, and they must be stupid if they don't, so they should do something else. But mathematics is like a language, or a musical instrument. You need to practice."

Although the first bit sounds a bit Susan Greenfield ish, his words resonated with both my own education, and the curriculum I was supposed to feed to the children I later taught. In short: here is the learning objective for today, all of you must get it by the end of the lesson, and we will move on. No allowance for children who might whizz through five or six of such "objectives". Nor any allowance for topics, for skills, for complexities that needed a long story, that required several lessons - and often bits from apparently unrelated subjects - until it all hung together.

He had a point. If you don't get maths immediately, you're encouraged to stick to arts subjects. That's the attitude that, if many of us want to get anywhere, we must fight. The fighting can be painful. So can the practicing and practicing. Those of us who come to university to do a science degree, having done the kind of maths lessons that address something for one lesson, prepare you for the exam, and then leave you to forget. You have to make up for all that. It can hurt.

It leads to a schism of two cultures. The people who feel let down by the get-things-instantly approach foster their own reactive culture of work-yourself-like-mad-to-make-up-for-it. And a reactive, they-did-this-to-me-and-it-was-really-damaging approach to things can go a bit into overdrive.

Similarly, something being "hard to understand" can often be labelled as "and therefore, correct", along with "if you don't understand it, you just need your brain to work harder". Alternative medicine proponents use very warped logic to seem deep. Indeed, they use what they think is the language of scientists, and borrow the catchphrases of brave fighters, to look like lone, persecuted proponents of truth.

The fact that their logic is "hard to understand" does not make it correct. Something being hard to understand may mean that it is hard to understand, but important and worthwhile - quantum mechanics, for example. It may also mean there isn't anything there to understand.

Similarly, someone I used to know got very angry when I responded to his constant nagging that I became a devout Christian with a few choice quotes from the Bible, inspired by a few handy hints like this. When he told me that God was all about peace, and anyone who engaged in war was directly disobeying God, I reminded him of Numbers 31 7-18. "Where are you getting all this from?" he demanded. "You're obviously not looking this up as you go along." (For the record, I do not usually go around upsetting people by pointing all this stuff out until I've been severely provoked.)

The crux of the matter - excuse the pun - was that he would end up by acknowledging, "Yes, some of these things are hard to understand. But God is Love." Apparently, I was supposed to twist my brain around to equate war crimes and genocide with love. It was difficult, but a mature, thoughtful person could manage it.

Sorry, I don't think I'm being immature or thoughtless to refuse to equate war crimes and genocide with love. I don't label that as "hard to understand". I label it as "barbarity that is an integral part of an important and sometimes beautiful historic document, whose barbarity should not be overlooked or embraced".

But many people do feel that the "hard to understand" actually is maturity and depth. They have worked hard to find peace with it, and they feel that I should, too.

Maybe it's not the same thing as the pain. But maybe it is. Maybe feeling that you've made a difficult, complex leap, in whatever form, feels like an achievement - when it might simply be that you've made a difficult, complex leap into a much worse place than you were before you made it.

The reason I'm writing all this is to make a request to many teachers, employers, and other leaders out there. Not anyone I'm currently working for or with, all of whom (and I am very lucky to be able to say this) are wonderful.

Take a man whose company I worked in when I was 18. He believed himself to be naturally of infallible honesty, but irrevocably corrupted by a cruel world. He had had to adapt. He had had to learn to exploit and deceive. He had faced the pain of watching his real self die. He had to, he felt, charge a client £600 for his trainee (me) to update a few words and dates in a document to send them, a process which took 2 hours and for which I would be paid £7, minus tax. It was not respectable to tell your clients the truth about anything. "At the end of the day", as was a favourite phrase of his other two employees, that was how business operated.

Well, if that was what he wanted to think, that was his problem, I thought, and got on with my work. But no, he had to make it my problem as well. He couldn't stand the idea of me thinking, even privately, that one might be able to run a business without deceiving everybody, one might buy locally produced food, one might have a romance that worked, one might smile and do someone a favour without feeling afterwards as if you had personally handed them a spoon to dig into your flesh. I knew not to contradict him. I knew to look polite and listen. But my opinion must have been written on my face. I had to have daily lectures about how unacceptable my attitude was, how he had faced the pain of betraying his principles, and my not facing similar pain was equivalent to my being a bad worker (no matter how good my work was), and I had wasted company time by having him lecture me, too. I owed it to him to get as badly hurt as he had, to feel as if I too was filled with poison.

Why this was so important to him I have no idea. I'm glad I've never met anyone quite like that since. What was so strange was that I was, as he constantly reminded me, the bottom of the heap - why was it so important to him how my brain worked? He seemed to think he was doing me a favour by making me miserable. I'm sure I need hardly say he wasn't. It wasn't as if I learnt anything, other than that he wanted me to be miserable. Maybe he thought I was learning, maturing somehow.

It was the teachers on the science teaching course I nearly completed four years ago who were even more blatant. (I've written elsewhere about some of their methods.) Let me put it this way. Two of them, a man and a woman, complained to my mentor in my hearing that I had failed to cry when they expected me to.

Yes, you read that correctly. Apparently, my commitment, effort, and indications of success were measured by my ability to weep when they criticised my teaching.

Indeed, I recall now, all the girls in that school who I worked with had broken down in tears in public at some point or another - except me. I don't cry often or easily. It's not my thing - that's just the way I am. When someone humiliates me in public, I crawl into a shell. Surely to cry would be to let them win? I guess that was what they wanted. I guess they also didn't apply that standard to the male trainee teachers.

If they had some point to make about my teaching, then I presumed this was to instruct rather than upset and therefore I listened as hard as I could. It wasn't as if there was any point taking it personally. Of course my teaching wasn't perfect. I was a trainee for goodness sake. I was full of human faults like everyone else. I didn't know the kids or the curriculum as well as them. I didn't have their authority. I hadn't gained the children's respect. (Well, of course I wasn't going to gain that if they shouted at me or made sneering remarks in front of the children, as some of them did!)

And it's the same in a lot of jobs, if not to quite such a degree. Apparently "I'm stressed" and "I'm broke" is an acceptable form of boasting. To be willing to be stressed out, to be willing to be utterly humiliated, to give up your principles, to give up your dignity and important things in your life, means you are committed to the job.

It doesn't. It means you are committed to the ego management of your boss. It means they have power. It doesn't mean you're good at your work, but I guess the former is a lot more satisfactory to them (and indeed to be too good would be an insubordination).

Bosses? Teachers? Leaders? People with a public influence? Please think twice before being dissatisfied if those below you seem happy. It doesn't mean they're not learning, concentrating or respectful. Most of them will learn far better without extra pain. If you really need to see someone getting hurt, please bear in mind that in their lives they will all have plenty of that to deal with all on their own.


Thursday, 14 July 2011

What the hell I'm actually doing these days

No, I haven't forgotten to do a blog series about the conference in America. It was utterly wonderful - here's my Galaxy Zoo blogpost about it - but I seem instead of blogging to be finishing up work neatly, researching astronomy history, trying to get my head around maths, whizzing around doing various talks, daydreaming, procrastinating, puffin watching, trying to stay in touch with friends, and hiding from my duties in ridiculous and ancient computer games. Sorry!

I said finishing up things at work? Yes - I'll be leaving my charity in about five weeks or so. I've got a place at Queen Mary University to do MSc Astrophysics! After my undergraduate degree, and not passing the teaching course, I spent many years vowing never to do postgraduate anything. Deep down I didn't think I was clever enough. However, I've changed my mind. The initial trigger was realising that the research I'm doing really needs me to have a deeper understanding of scientific research and how to read a journal. The main reason, now, is that the conference opened my curiosity and confidence like a bursting dam. There's nothing more encouraging than finding you actually understand professional talks and posters, that people are happy to answer your questions - and then to be told by several strangers, "You ought to do a PhD, you ask very good questions." Pardon the pun, but I'm over the moon. It was odd to get the offer by e-mail on a Sunday morning. I have a picture in my mind of a zombified admissions team slouched red-eyed over their desks on a Saturday night, fuelled with fourteen cups of that milkless sugarless corrosive caffeine that professional astronomers call coffee.

In other words, if you don't feel confident about something, maybe you can do it after all. I hope other people who've been disappointed in other aspects of their education will get another chance, as I have.

As for the talks, I recently went to Aberystwyth - a delightful experience because Mark and Sam were such lovely hosts, and a strange, nostalgic one because I lived in Aberystwyth for a few weeks when I was nine. I recognised nothing - not even the street I'd lived on - except the seafront and Constitution Hill. Skeptic speakers, Aberystwyth may be a long way away but I seriously recommend you go there.

My next Skeptics in the Pub talks will be in Winchester (August 25th) and Skeptics on the Fringe in Edinburgh (11th August)! Look what an amazing picture Ash Pryce made - even though Michael keeping that close an eye on me and the fact that my chin has decided to take up half my face are both amusingly disturbing.

Hope to see you at one of these. Cardiff Skeptics is also on Monday, and we've got a fantastic team lined up for a chaotic evening of science comedy.

Friday, 8 July 2011

A revolution snatched away

I avoided the tabloids anyway. A glance at a headline, or the first few sentences of an article, and I felt quite sick enough with no need to go further, like seeing a plate of mouldy food. Or hearing respectable-looking people spouting about how all jobseekers and immigrants are scroungers out to destroy their families and our culture because they read about it in such and such a rag. Or how climate change is all a lie, and how all scientists are dishonest "boffins" who mindlessly propogate each other's unfounded ideas. It kind of told me all I felt I needed to know. You know? And I know so little about media, law, and corporations - they're just not my sort of subjects - so I fear this will be a most spectacularly uninformed sort of blogpost. And yet I've certainly discovered that it is important to listen to the voices of the uninformed - sometimes they ask the best questions, or reveal weak spots that I can help strengthen.

It all happened so fast. I've spent the last few days glued to Twitter and the news - when I'm not busy at the office, obviously, and I've been doing extra time there this week as we've got a fundraising event tomorrow. There's too much stuff to read. I can't seem to keep up even if I spend all evening reading all the stories I can lay my mouse arrow on.

First it was the horror at them not only hacking Milly Dowler's phone, not only torturing the bereaved with false hope, but tampering with evidence; and Rebekah Brooks having the cheek to claim she had nothing to do with it and it was all for the public good. It got worse, with 7/7 family victims and dead soldiers's families having the same done to them. How could thinking, feeling people do this to each other? How could we give them the power to be the ones to tell us what's going on in the world every day?

David set up the #RebekahBrooksExcuses hashtag, which promptly went viral. I heard that the police knew what News of the World had been doing, and were either too pathetic to react or were actually bribed. Angry Mob pointed out very sensibly that this shouldn't really be news. It was the state of things. Should we be angrier about a 13-year-old girl than someone else? Part of me couldn't help but think yes - in the sense that as a former teacher I can't help but see children as people to especially nurture and treasure, and to feel that this callousness went beyond the mainstream - but it was a very good point (and I recommend you read that article). "We appear to be in a situation in which the majority of newspaper consumers accept without protest that what they read each day is not or cannot to be trusted . . . As consumers we can’t afford to be selectively outraged by an illegal technique depending on who it targets," wrote Kia Abdullah. Indeed.

Outrage grew into a determination to do something. We on Twitter smugly noticed we had power, and that was why many right-wingers especially hate Twitter. A Facebook group was created to "Boycott News of the World". (There are now several - including one which urges a boycott of all Murdoch's empire.) Of course, since most of its members wouldn't have been News of the World readers anyway, a boycott wouldn't be so effective - so they asked for ideas on what to do. For example, urging friends and relatives to boycott it; putting pressure on shops not to stock it; putting pressure on large corporations not to advertise in it. Ford was I think the first to publicly pull out (not of News International though!) - the Co-op put out a press release to say it was suspending it for now. Quite a few followed suit.

I wrote in with another suggestion: that a new "newspaper" was created offering cheap advertising space to all those who pulled out of News of the World advertising, along with exposes about phone hacking. I also signed Avaaz and 38 Degrees's petitions (I worry about signing two; but I did write a personal note with both of them - here is the one for Avaaz if you'd like to read it) - briefly, I asked the government to take this opportunity to consider the UK's own media laws. Clearly we have nothing to stop one individual taking over most of our media - which is wrong. No voice should have quite so much domination, as it affects not only our culture and policies but effectively decides who comes to power. Shouldn't we have a law to say that no individual or corporation can own more than such-and-such a percentage of our media? I'm sure it would be more complicated than that, but shouldn't it also be basic civilisation?

Then I saw Hugh Grant. Did you see Hugh Grant? I've never been a fan of him as an actor, but it took me about five seconds to become a fan of his bugging of and then confrontation with Paul McMullen - who seems to think that a) his own bugging of people is "a game", b) an actor's doing the same thing is "stooping" and "hilarious", and c) someone else's income somehow affects the issue. Even with terrorists I ask myself "What is driving them to this?" but with McMullen all I could think about was how pleasant it would be to pelt him with rotten tomatoes.

It was furore. And out of furore came hope. Steve Richards and Matthew Norman wrote thrilling pieces in the Independent about what this means for Murdoch in the long run. "When Margaret Thatcher made her Faustian pact with Mr Murdoch in the 1980s, granting him his every heart's desire in return for his unwavering slavish support, she hastened the creation of the monster we see revealed in all its gruesome hideosity today," wrote Matthew Norman. "In general terms, she gifted him the preposterous media market share he expertly parlayed into a stranglehold over the political elite. In a country without a written constitution, bereft of checks and balances and devoid of oversight, the levers of power are there to be seized by the most ruthless buccaneer in town . . ."

Politicians don't dare oppose what Murdoch's newspapers say, he argues, because it is they that make or break their careers. There was, is, opposition - but until now it's only been in whispers. They have now turned to outright shouting. "Today there is that tantalising sense that we no longer need to tolerate such Murdoch-Government axis powers' outrages . . ." Norman continued. "Today there is the hope, faint but seductive, of change. Public repugnance on this scale is a rare and precious force in a country beset by apathy. It fades very quickly, and must be harnessed and deployed before it does. It would take cross-party unity on a scale seldom witnessed outside time of war, with all three leaders agreeing that this, finally, is the moment to take up Vince Cable's rallying cry and go to war with Murdoch to break his dominion."

I watched. I retweeted. I wished I was nearer where things were going on. I fully wished that News of the World could be steadily bankrupted, as advertisers pulled out and sales plummeted. I hoped that Murdoch and Brooks and Coulson and their type would be the ones to pay. But they were several steps ahead.

I watched, as ever, in the office after I'd finished all the day's tasks. Then I got a very annoying phone call from a chap from Oxfam who demanded that I set up a standing order for what amounted to 12% of my income, fobbed off my "I'm at work and yes I am having a busy day" with "I won't keep you long" followed by an in-depth lecture, and who I eventually had to rudely hang up on. (I gave up donating to Oxfam because they pelted me virtually weekly with junk mail demanding that I give more when I had just graduated and was jobless for months. It must have cost more to send me so much stuff than what I was actually giving them. I told him this, and he informed me that only 11% of donations went to administration costs.) Then I was in such a bad mood that I went and spent more than 12% of my weekly wage getting myself some more work trousers and a birthday shirt for my mum, and a carrot cake. Then I went and picked my mum up from work, and we went home and ate. This took a couple of hours. Then I switched on my laptop and found out that News of the World was closing down.

For a minute or two I was almost dancing with glee. Finally, they had realised that they were not above the law and basic decency. They had responded much more dramatically than I had thought. Closing down! Actually shutting up shop!

Until this amazement faded and I realised what had actually happened. Brooks and the managers were staying. The journalists working for them were being sacked. Two hundred and fifty people about to be made unemployed - probably the majority of whom had never done anything wrong except to work for a dodgy paper, which some of them might well have been doing simply because they loved journalism and hoped to move onto something better once they'd risen a bit higher. The National Union of Journalists called an emergency meeting, and I hope it can help as many of these poor people as possible.

Opinion was split over that. Many people commented, not without reason, "Now these people are going to be the jobless they themselves have been smearing." Or, "Why the outrage at the News of the World closing when yesterday you were shouting for it to be made bankrupt?" I had made a joke about how Cameron was going to use our taxes to bail out the bankrupt News of the World, just like the banks - sadly, something very much like that had happened. As ever, the more vulnerable are the ones that paid to save the rich.

Two days ago it seemed that things were in the people's hands. Now they're not. Coulson is being very publicly arrested again, and I have the depressing feeling that he will easily talk his way out of it all again. The News of the World will simply be rebranded - even more depressingly, its new domain name was set up five days ago, I think before even the campaigns started. It seems they knew this was going to happen eventually, and merely picked their moment.

"Murdoch has never been as vulnerable as today and, if allowed to wriggle free, never will be again. This is an historic opportunity for parliament to excise the most aggressive malignancy in the body politic these past three decades, or at the very least stop it growing," wrote Matthew Norman.

I fear he's being very well protected from his vulnerability. There is one weak link left in his chain, though, and that is whether anyone actually buys his stuff or not. He and the government cannot yet force us to buy certain newspapers. We can also continue to pressure companies not to advertise in them (I wonder if those who pulled out knew all along that it was safe to do so?). We can, I suppose, keep the pressure on the government to reform media law to prevent such ridiculous domination happening again - although I don't know if domination and revolting tactics are necessarily related. (The only point McMullen made that did give me a nasty twinge was that hacking can also expose corruption that should be exposed . . .) And I couldn't resist putting up the logo of this Facebook group. Although it's mean to the journalists who write for the other papers, it sort of amounts to something we can still do.