This week in the world of news…

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It was tough to choose a topic today, so I’ve gone for something a bit different. Here are my picks for this week’s top stories.

It has been 10 years since Maddy McCann disappeared. It is perhaps uncomfortable that this case captured the public imagination more than others, but the story itself is still desperately sad. The McCanns still have hope.

It has been 100 days since Trump became President, but it feels like 10 years. To commemorate the occasion, here’s a compilation of 100 lies that he has told in his first 100 days.

Trump and his administration boycotted the White House Correspondents’ dinner as promised/threatened, but they seem to have had fun in his absence. Hasan Minhaj’s speech was brilliant; you can read a review and see highlights as well as the whole thing here. Confession: I’ve got a bit of a crush on Minhaj now…

It took the EU leaders about 4 minutes to agree on their negotiating position for Brexit, so those among you who were hoping for nuanced and generous positions from the EU might want to adjust your expectations accordingly. Here’s how I think it went: “So… shall we make an example of them? Yeah? Good. Motion passed.”

500 head teachers signed a letter to Theresa May begging her to reconsider the way that schools are funded, warning that a 4 1/2 day week might be the only way to deliver education within the constraints of their budgets.

Is it a guilty pleasure to watch a racist D-bag get punched in the face? The makers of Doctor Who weighed in last night. We really shouldn’t condone violence…. but no, screw it, that guy had it coming.

Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale started on Wednesday in the US, and starts today in Canada, which means that a significant number of people will be having Gilead-themed nightmares again. Responses are split between two camps: ‘this is going to happen’, and ‘of course this is not going to happen’. I’m with the former. The flashbacks to the early rise of Gilead are far, far too close for comfort. There is a reason why many people fear Mike Pence; Trump might make WW3 happen, but Pence could make Gilead happen… There are loads of great reviews of the series that you can read- but I’m going to shamelessly plug my own. For those of you who have read the book but not seen the show, here’s the first, and if you have seen it or you don’t mind a ton of spoilers, here’s my recap of the first three episodes.

The French election race will be between the independent centrist Macron and the National Front’s Marine le Pen. Macron should win, but when did anything predictable happen in politics recently? If Le Pen wins, there will be a ‘Frexit’ referendum. Anyone else got deja vu?

Speaking of terrible fascists, UKIP released their new manifesto- being as they technically have no reason to exist any more, I was intrigued. Their position on FGM caught my eye. I should, I suppose, offer them some credit for addressing the issue, but unfortunately their way to address it is so monstrously insensitive that I can’t and I won’t. Who thought mandatory, annual checks on little girls’ private parts AT SCHOOL was a good idea? Do UKIP really want to replace the nit nurse with the clit nurse? (Thanks to Emily for this particular pun.)

That’s the round up for this week, folks, but I’ll leave you with this: I was watching a Game of Thrones repeat last night, and this little beauty of a line has stayed with me. Of course it did- it’s from the guy who drinks wine and knows things:

“It is easy to confuse what is with what ought to be, especially when what is has worked in your favour.”

“Truth never damages a cause that is just.”

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As parties and candidates start their campaigns for June’s general election, there are many things that I could beg for, but top of my list is that they tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The Brexit bus is an example of what happens when these principles are not upheld. This broke all of those truth rules. It was an inaccurate figure, to start with. It was also presented without context. And it was tied to a statement that turned out to be a lie. Whether this was idealism or wilful manipulation is the subject of much debate, and this specific case is not really something that concerns me right now; that ship has sailed. But the principles behind it are still pertinent.

My case study for today is state education. On one side, education unions are telling us that schools are in crisis, due to underfunding and teacher shortages. The government’s rebuttal to the unions’ arguments is straightforward and based on facts: that more graduates are entering the profession, and that more money is being spent on education than ever before. Using these facts makes the unions appear to be lying. Facts are by definition true, after all. But it is not the complete truth.

What the government’s rebuttal fails to include is reference to teachers leaving the profession, and rising costs. If more teachers leave than enter the profession, the total goes down. It’s not rocket science. And more money might be spent on education, but that doesn’t factor in rising costs of national insurance and pension contributions, the apprentice levy, changes to teachers’ pay scales, increasing costs for technology, and most crucially, the way that the government’s pet education project, free schools, hoovers up more cash in start up costs. The people in control of schools’ budgets are telling the government, desperately, that they do not have enough money to keep going as they are. Staff are being made redundant, courses are being cut, class sizes are increasing. This is the news from the front line. And yet, the government sticks to its line: more money is being spent on education than ever before.

A fact without context has limited value. So why keep deploying it as their standard rebuttal? Is it denial? Ignorance? Or just spin? To me, it seems like just another way to dismiss unions’ and headteachers’ concerns, to paint them as liars, undermine the teaching profession, and manipulate the information to present a favourable narrative. This has to stop.

When a complex issue is reduced to a trite sound bite, it does a disservice to voters. It is an egregious dumbing down, and a patronising assumption that voters can’t handle the truth. It reeks of a weak position that cannot be defended with the complete truth.

I feel the same way about political manifestos filled with empty buzzwords, which rely on emotive appeal rather than providing anything concrete. All parties should tell the complete truth in their promotional materials. If they don’t – well, they either seem ignorant and naive, or as if they are assuming that people wouldn’t vote for them if they knew the truth. So which is it? If you think no-one would vote for you if you told them what you were planning to do, either change your policies to make them more appealing, or give voters the chance to make decisions honestly. But covering them up with spin is a trick, an attempt to dupe voters into taking your side. It is a perversion of democracy. We should be above this.

Let’s make this an honest election. Give the electorate some credit and present material that allows us all to make informed choices. The old party lines have blurred; there is less of a tendency to vote for one’s ‘tribe’ any more. Traditional demographics can’t just be relied on any more. But we do not need to be duped. Besides, after the last few years, I’d wager that we are all a fairly cynical bunch, so it might not work any more…

So, current and prospective MPs: earn your votes with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or it will be a hollow victory for whoever happens to win, and the divisions of this nation will continue to fester. If you don’t trust me on this, perhaps you’ll trust Gandhi: “Truth never damages a cause that is just”.

War, huh? What is it good for?

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To say it’s all kicking off seems a bit of an understatement. At the time of writing, America looks like it could be on the verge of war with North Korea, and by extension China. It’s not clear whether a Russia is a secret bestie or an arch-nemesis. The US military dropped the ‘mother of all bombs’ on an ISIS camp in Afghanistan a week after launching an air strike on Homs airfield in Syria, and has moved a fleet into the Korean Peninsula. America’s MOAB has caused Putin to brag about the ‘father of all bombs’ in his arsenal. And Kim Jong-Un is showing off his arsenal in the DPRK’s Day of the Sun parade, and is testing another nuclear weapon today.

Guys: pack it in. There are millions of lives at stake, and you are competing to see who has the biggest phallic missiles. You aren’t fooling anyone. You are trying to look like big tough leaders, but you are just making yourself look like fools.

The blasé nature of Trump’s military responses – blow some s**t up then play some golf – is irresponsible. And it shines a light on aspects of modern warfare that I find hard to stomach.

Despite my fondness for quoting Shelley, I’m not a pacifist. I think that, regrettably, war can be necessary, and I have the greatest respect for the men and women of our armed forces. But let’s go back a few centuries and map out how warfare has changed.

A medieval king often led a military charge. If he (and it was pretty much always a he) called for war, he was usually there, front and centre. He was not prepared to ask others to do something he would not do himself. This would make him look weak, and would undermine his authority. As a result, medieval kings needed to be tough, alpha males. There were plenty of issues with this, obviously. Muscles and brains don’t always go hand in hand.

Renaissance kings and queens were often present in battle, but tended to hang back a bit more. Brain power was more useful and valuable; diplomacy, languages, strategies- these were the tools of the era. But they still turned up- even Elizabeth I turned up in armour to inspire the troops and to make a show of solidarity.

What do our leaders do now? They phone it in, and then play golf.

Modern warfare seems to rely on this concept of damage from a distance. And I can see the logic behind this: why risk the lives of your own people, when you can destroy from afar? If you can have results without the risk, surely that’s sensible? Yeah, OK.

But is it ethical?

War is terrible. And it should be. It should never be taken lightly. And if there are technological means to make it easier, to make it less risky, then it can be taken more lightly. Leaders should wrestle with their conscience before waging war. They should weigh up the benefits with the risks. If you take the risks to the armed forces out of the equation, then what is to stop you?

If you make warfare seem like a computer game, you divorce the actions from their reality. If you are operating a drone from a bunker, and watching it on a screen, you are removed from the consequences of pressing that big red button. If you are prepared to use the weapons, you should have the courage and the decency to witness the devastation. If you can’t stomach that- and I am talking about leaders here, not military personnel who are just following orders- then you should not be making that decision.

Modern warfare does not only threaten professional armies. Another development of the 20th Century is this movement away from battlefields and assaults on military strongholds to inflicting as much damage on civilian populations as possible. It is about making life unbearable to encourage your opponent to surrender. It is about threatening mass annihilation and hoping that you are not called out on it.

That is why I find this week’s military posturing ridiculous. What is needed now is either diplomacy or the biggest high stakes poker game ever. Looking at the players at the table, I’m worried. Putin is a psychopath. Trump is a desperate buffoon. Kim Jong-Un is a dangerously unhinged narcissist. Assad is a monster. It looks like President Xi is going to have to be the grown up here, and his country’s human rights records aren’t exactly clean.

It’s probably not time to panic yet. Those italics aren’t particularly reassuring, I know.  We shall know more in the next few days… Until then, enjoy your Easter weekend, and eat far more chocolate than you should. That’s an order. Peace and love x

He’s making a list; he’s checking it twice…

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One of the great philosophical voices of this generation once said: “There’s only two types of people in the world.” Yep, that was Britney Spears. She went on to split humanity into two factions: “the ones that entertain, and the ones that observe.” I am in full agreement with the principle she proposes here, but I’d split the human race in a different way.

One of my favourite crime writers, Sophie Hannah, wrote about a caste system developed by children in her book Kind of Cruel, where the three castes are Kind, Cruel and Kind of Cruel. The children in this book (read it, it’s great) categorise their classmates according to their behaviour, and choose their friends accordingly. This is a process that takes place in secret, and is a response to the children learning about real social castes. They perceive their own caste system as fairer than any other that has existed, because one’s behaviour is under one’s own control, and is the product of individual choices.

My two categories, Nice and Not So Nice are, admittedly, simpler. But I would argue that they sum up precisely what you need to know about people.

I know that the word nice has got a bit of a reputation as a lukewarm word of praise. I’m sure many of us have used it in the following way: “well, they are very nice….” We know that tailing off at the end reveals an unspoken ‘but’ that really undermines the sentiment. Nice can mean “blandly inoffensive”, “very dull indeed”, or even “there’s something weird or odd that I haven’t quite figured out yet, but I’m pretty sure I’m not imagining it”. Nice can be an affirmation, or show approval: “You won? Nice!” Nice can also mean hideous, awful, rude: “She hung up on me!” “Nice.” It’s a great word for being sarcastic: “Nice trousers.” For the sake of my caste system, I don’t mean nice in any of these ways.

My definition of nice involves compassion, kindness and empathy. It also means being fun, entertaining, supportive, warm, and jolly. A nice person is someone you want to spend time with. Nice people are not necessarily saints- some of the nicest people I know have a pretty sharp edge, but that makes them perhaps even more fun to be around. I know some lovely people who might be thinking that they aren’t nice by my definition. I can assure you now: you are. I know some people who scored pretty highly on the psychopath tests that were going round not that long ago; hey, you are still nice. You might be grumpy and even borderline murderous from time to time, but you can’t hide your inner niceness from me. So there.

Not So Nice people are unpleasant, cruel and mean-spirited. They might be bullies, snobs, or trolls. They might just show a complete lack of sensitivity or awareness of other people’s feelings. They might be cruel to animals, or rude to waitresses. They are probably aggressive drivers, and patronising tourists. They think that rules don’t apply to them. They jump queues, and reek of entitlement. No matter who you are or where you come from, if you behave like this, you will end up on the Not So Nice list.

Whether I like you or not depends entirely on whether you are Nice or Not So Nice. It’s not that I don’t care about other ‘distinguishing’ facets of your identity: your race, your religion, your sexuality, your gender, your political affiliation, your social status… Those things might be important to you, and I’m not going to dismiss them. It’s just that they won’t have a bearing on whether I like you or not. Are you nice? That’s the important question.

But here’s the thing- like the Kind of Cruel model, in mine you can move from one to the other. You can change your ways, if you want. You aren’t condemned for eternity. If you are judged only on behaviour and deeds, well, those can change. You can be promoted or demoted accordingly. I won’t hold past behaviour against you forever. Do you know why? Because that isn’t nice. (I might be a bit wary for a while, but that’s just sensible.)

Once you boil them down to their philosophical fundamentals, aren’t all religions about trying to be Nice rather than Not So Nice? Or have I just invented a religion? That’s a pretty big achievement for a Sunday afternoon…

If I have just invented a religion, go forth and spread the word. Join in with random acts of kindness. Pay a compliment to someone. Pass it on, and pay it forward. Let’s celebrate our niceness and proclaim it to the world. Let’s make positive social media feedback more powerful than trolling. Let’s do that so much that it gets a nickname- I’m going to propose the word ‘elfing’ as the opposite of trolling, so feel free to help that catch on. ‘Be an elf, not a troll’- yeah, that works. And the T shirts will be cute. As Britney says, “Don’t stand there watching me- follow me, show me what you can do”.

Here endeth today’s lesson, from the Book of Hannah. Peace and love x

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“Free your mind- and the rest will follow”

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Well, we’ve survived another April Fools Day in the world of news, and this one was harder than ever for the mainstream media, when even a fairly normal story can be accused of being Fake News. A couple of points were repeated across social media yesterday:

How can you come up with a prank when the truth is stranger than fiction?

Is April 1st the only day of the year when people question what they read?

April Fools Day news stories are good for teaching us all a lesson about how we perceive news. If we ‘get’ that it’s a joke straightaway, we are pleased. If we aren’t sure, we double check, we question, and we investigate. These are all good habits when trying to avoid media bias, or falling for Fake News. Lastly, we might be fooled; in this case, we are forced to re-evaluate our reading process, to understand where we went wrong, and to confront our perceptions of truth. In essence: we have to change our minds.

There was an interesting piece in the Observer today, which was about how difficult it can be to change other people’s minds; you can read it here if you are so inclined. This extract got me thinking:

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Lecturing turns people off, I get that. In our echo-chambers, we are nearly always preaching to the choir anyway. But listing facts and busting myths? If those stop working, and just serve to convince people of the opposite, what hope is there?

It is entirely sensible that statements presented as facts are questioned, and that statistics are investigated rather than taken at face value. We can’t just believe people blindly because they have used one of those pesky numbers in their argument. That is the sort of thinking that gave us the Brexit bus. Even if numbers are accurate, seeing them without context makes them unreliable. There is a reason why people speak of “lies, damn lies and statistics”.

But this piece from the Observer suggests that we will cling to misconceptions in the face of actual proof, because being consistent is more important that admitting that we were ‘wrong’. I suspect this is true, but it shouldn’t be. Why don’t we reframe this one? We are talking about opinions, so really it’s not about having been wrong, it’s more about having changed our minds. And that’s fine, right? There’s no judgement with a change of opinion. And deciding to change your mind is different to ‘backing down’ in an argument- by making the decision yourself, you are in control of the process. You aren’t admitting defeat; you are simply moving forward.

The real problem is when we are so sure of our opinions that we perceive them as facts. How can we shake this habit? How can we prevent a confirmation bias from taking over everything we see and hear?

Education is the obvious first step- in terms of encouraging critical thinking skills and learning about how the media works. But the biggest obstacle is in our own heads. We are a nation divided at the moment, and we cannot hope to come together again unless we are all willing to confront our perceptions and open our minds a little bit.

I’m still firmly Team Remain FYI. For what it’s worth, I still believe that Brexit is a poor choice, and that there are very difficult times coming our way. But- and here’s the crux of it- if it all works out fine, I will admit that I was wrong.

Some of the Leavers seem to think life will be like this after Brexit:

Many of my fellow Remainers think life will be like this:

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I suspect neither will be true. If/when that’s the case, will people admit that they were wrong? Will anyone else be willing to say that they have changed their minds?

I’m going to leave you with this little pearl of wisdom, from Enid Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl in the School:

“I wonder where you got that idea from? I mean, the idea that it’s feeble to change your mind once it’s made up. That’s a wrong idea, you know. Make up your mind about things, by all means – but if something happens to show that you are wrong, then it is feeble not to change your mind, Elizabeth. Only the strongest people have the pluck to change their minds, and say so, if they see they have been wrong in their ideas.”