Spare us the moral outrage of bigots, racists and animal-killers

© gsz
© gsz

The legitimacy of a not-even-six-month vegetarian questioning the ethics of meat-eaters, piling on them as animal-slaughterers, bastards and fiends is highly dubious. But let’s plough on.

Yesterday, an MP and secretary of Parliament’s animal welfare group joined John Blackwell, the president-elect of the British Veterinary Association, in calling for the end of the religious slaughter of animals for food. Andrew Rosindell said that Muslims and Jews kill more than half a million animals a week in ways that are inhumane, cutting their throats to satisfy the meaty whims of their respective deities.

“If you asked the average British citizen whether they agreed with this, they would say ‘No’. An animal has to be killed for food, but it needs to be done in a humane way,” Mr Rosindell said. “Why should we allow that kind of thing to go on in this country when it goes against everything that we really stand for as a people?”

Denmark recently banned the killing of animals by that method, citing inhumanity, thereby legalising bigotry and the exclusion of religious minorities, preventing thousands of people from access to the meat they want to eat according to their values. Those values are undoubtedly a right load of turnip, but the problem here is a logical one.

If you say you care about the treatment of animals, it is not a logical position to choose to eat meat. Meat comes to your mouth, in the overwhelming majority of cases, via a system of meat production that requires the animal to be killed. It is not possible to care about the welfare of animals and at the same time want them dead. It’s inconsistent.

A = I want to minimise the suffering of animals.
B = I want to eat animals which are killed and which suffer pain via meat production systems.

A and B are, quite simply, inconsistent statements. So the question remains as to the rationale for the ban on halal and kosher meat. Are we seriously making an ethical argument that takes this form: it’s OK to beat, under-feed, abuse, degrade, effectively imprison, stun, murder, slaughter, cut to pieces, trade and commodify an animal but not cut its throat because that is in some way crossing a moral line? Despite the pain the animal undoubtedly feels from the minute it is born to the minute it is gassed or (in the case of chickens) hung upside on a conveyor belt and dipped headfirst into a electric water bath, all of that is fine just so long as we stun it? Because what the Muslims and the Jews do is really barbaric. It’s a heavy slab of exceptionalism and sounds a lot like racism.

The animal has to be killed in x way, x then being considered barbaric by some people. Halal/kosher should be an option too, because it not being an option excludes Muslims and Jews from the practice of eating the food they wish to eat. At the same time, consumers should, to an extent, be able to have a say in how their food is prepared. But adherents of either option can’t make consistent arguments as to why the other may be more unfair. They are increasing the aggregate suffering of animals with negligible difference between them.

Not eating meat or meat products is, within the practice of food consumption, the logical conclusion of position A (above): I want to minimise the suffering of animals. You can call it religious privilege if you like – but really you’re criticising religions for doing something you pretty much do anyway. What’s the difference?

Of course both halal and kosher practice are mad superstitions and it is not really logical (meaning: ‘consistent’) to say that you object to one particular type of pain and suffering that probably isn’t any worse than another type which, as a meat consumer, you are happy to partake in. There is a good argument about the legitimisation of batshit crazy religious ritual in mass consumption, and it’s a better reason to reject halal/kosher chicken sandwiches. But, meat-eaters, the argument about harm to the animal is invalid for you.

Muslims and Jews would like to be able to eat meat that corresponds to the stipulations of their belief system (in public and in private). This necessarily or in some ways means that the non-religious may then consume ritual slaughter meat, but standard levels of meat production are equally or at least comparatively barbaric.

Why shouldn’t Muslims and Jews feel/be as equally entitled to eat meat as everybody else? If you want to eat meat but don’t want halal/kosher meat as a ‘preference’, then your preference is bullshit. It’s not a sound ethical argument to claim that one form of animal murder/captivity is more ‘good’ than another if you care so little about what is ‘good’ for the animal as to have it killed, eaten and held captive anyway. It’s absolutely worthwhile to criticise halal/kosher practices of animal slaughter – but why stop there? Keep going with that reasoning and you should find that it’s harder to justify eating animals at all.

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Outrage at Michael Gove shows that historians trump scientists at indignation

© Policy Exchange
© Policy Exchange

IT is not very often that historians get to act like scientists. History is a field of interpretation, nuance and theory, and while evidence is the blood in its limbs, a historian would rarely claim to use a word like “true” in same way as a scientist.  Gravity, evolution: true. Agincourt, Pankhurst: contested. A crude summation, but the sciences and humanities operate in different (though not exclusive nor always competing) planes of experience.

So it was with some relish this week that historians got to pull out the “not true” card, stored often in the back pocket for Holocaust deniers and let-them-eat-cakeists, to attack Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, for his comments on World War One. Scientists dip into that pocket with greater ease to batter climate change deniers, Creationists, proponents of Intelligent Design, and so on. This time, Professor Richard Evans, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, and Tristram Hunt MP, Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, led the charge from the historians’ trenches.

Gove said that interpretations of World War One as a ‘misbegotten shambles’ are left-wing myths, propagated by Marxist academics and Blackadder, ubiquitous in school classrooms, and that the war was ‘just’, fought to repel German imperialism. It is a view as simplistic as it is contrived, contrarian point-scoring designed to out-muscle Labour in the mawkish, national festival of commemoration to come in 2014, imbibed with a zest of anti-European paranoia and British protectionism: let’s have our memorial. Which party can appear the most British? It was, after all, a British war. Britain alone. Not the 17 other nations who sent soldiers to the Triple Entente. Not the Australians who, having not been granted the right to declare war by the British empire (so much for German imperialism), were forced to send thousands of combatants as part of the war effort, many of whom were sent to a slaughter at Gallipoli by broadly inept British generals.

As Evans pointed out, the British fought alongside a regime, in the form of Tsar Nicholas II’s Russia, that was arguably more despotic than the Kaiser’s Germany as was no more a democracy than their enemy. In 1914, only 40% of adult males had the vote – unlike 100% of Germans. Nor do the left run criticism of the war: historians Niall Ferguson and Max Hastings – not so much your average anarcho-syndicalists – have been largely critical of British commanders.

Still, lets not let facts get in the way of history. Or truth. While Gove’s attack on how we teach history is welcome – Blackadder is a text, not necessarily an authority –  and he is right to point out that the caricature of the war’s commanding officers, like Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘scarlet Majors’ who, after sending men over the trenches to be mown down, would ‘toddle safely home and die – in bed’, may not be all that helpful for historical scholarship. Iconoclasm is a valid tool of the historian. But, crumbs, Michael. I think most historians had worked that out. In the 1920s.

Reaction to Gove shows us much. Historians enjoy the opportunity to be unequivocal, to deliver a helping of outrage based on a serious body of all but indisputable evidence. Scientists, though it is easier for them, are not always as good at this. They have more on their plate, perhaps, with homeopathy, left-side, right-side brain nonsense, Darwin, global temperature rises etc. Our planet burning itself up with fever is largely more important than whether the Wild West really was a bit like the Wild West or not like the Wild West or in part like the Wild West (and whether that semiotic approach is at best limited, and does it denigrate materialist interpretations? And what about socio-economic factors? History is fun).

Perhaps scientists are spread more thinly, battling the fires of misinformation across the world such that historians’ responses to Gove seemed more dramatically audible because they were so concentrated. Perhaps, as Professor Lisa Jardine says, it’s that humanities graduates run the media and can more readily digest and transmit arguments within intellectual history than developments in particle physics. But Gove gave historians the chance to enjoy a run of indignation, harnessed to a rare sighting in history: something that looks a bit like historical truth.

The attacks on Russell Brand show that we are paranoid about our politics

We’ve all seen it. Russell Brand’s interview with Jeremy Paxman this week has caused a stirring of the pants and a stirring of the bowels among social media patrons. And we’ve all seen the whinging.

Very few informed people – and those who did are deserving of praise – commented approvingly on Brand’s interview and essay in this week’s New Statesman, which the comedian also edited. That is, very few applauded on the argument’s own merits or its value in the context of global inequality and political disenfranchisement.

The first line of attack was accusing Brand of being too reductionist, simplifying vastly complicated processes of capital and social relations, as if in a 10-minute interview in which Paxman asked him two questions with discernably different content and a 5,000-word essay he is expected to coherently address the inadequacies of international capitalism. Paxman was not there to listen.

The second attack was that Brand was not an economist/philosopher/social scientist, etc, and so should not be making such arguments. Instead, it goes, he should not be getting involved unless he is an expert. Staggeringly undemocratic, this argument also claims it contrary to progress to have the unqualified talking on things they know nothing about. (This argument also took the form of poking fun at Brand’s ‘bad’ writing.)

This neatly leads to the third line of attack. Brand is an actor and therefore his opinion either has no value for the reasons above, or that he must guard against propagating any political thoughts of his own because people who listen – that is, idiots – will just gleefully and dumbly hoover up his words like they are greedily devouring truffles. As such, this argument goes, celebrities operate in a different sphere of influence to us mere lumpenproletariat and a different one again to the intellectuals, so Brand should butt out. Leave it to Chomsky and Žižek to duke it out. It is startling how often this argument is made by ‘liberals’ or ‘democrats’.

What do these arguments tell us about social media users, and thus about our political climate? It shows us that educated, mostly left-wing people are paranoid. They are paranoid that their cynicism is being undercut by a bubbling of optimism about the future, whether that be a revolutionary one or not. They are paranoid that they aren’t the only Marxist in the village. They trip over themselves to post about how Brand is a moron in order to trump up their own revolutionary vanguard status. Being well-read is a game. For many of those moans I noticed on my various timelines are from people who call themselves progressive and are quick to disassociate from Westminster but slow to support anything that looks like popular approval of the very ideas they profess to hold.

Moreover, this pattern of behaviour is linked to far wider social and cultural causes. This is the self-denial of an aborted search for meaning among my generation. We don’t know what we like so we say what we don’t like (usually whatever is popular) and get horribly sensitive when someone offers us an opportunity to find some truth, a bit of power, a gram of creativity. Hipster Marxism. For what Brand said is to be lauded in almost all possible contexts. Anyone who seriously considers themselves left-wing, progressive, socialist, Marxist, and so on, should do nought but delight in our arguments being shouted louder and louder. It is almost always a good thing. When was the last time anti-capitalist revolution was discussed on Newsnight?

The revolution is/is not coming. (Delete as applicable according to your cynicism.) But we certainly can’t pretend we aren’t heard when we try our hardest to stop people like Brand talking about it. Everyone agrees that politics is a dangerously exclusive discourse. Truly radical ideas are, at best, sneered at. By kicking Brand, you’re only making it worse.

Stop blaming lads-mag sexism on the working classes

Now, as someone who rather enjoys the benefits of employment (eating, a roof, non-death), I know that it is not often wise to criticise one’s employer.

Nevertheless, The Times ran an interview this morning with Seren Haf Gibson, a former glamour model who appeared on the front cover of Nuts, as part of a feature on lads’ mags and the growing disapproval thereof, which I enjoyed enormously, but is full of the fruits of bourgeois exceptionalism.

The article is an attack on the self-objectification of my generation, particularly by its female members. Women have, says Gibson, started to objectify themselves on a “on a day to day basis, via Facebook, via Instagram.”

“Social media is full of girls pouting in shots they have taken themselves — perpetuating the male gaze themselves. It’s that ingrained in us now. If you get rid of lads’ mags – what will it do? Objectifying yourself has become synonymous with our generation.”

Not only does Gibson assume that many women even own enough of their own personal identity to themselves objectify it – they don’t, rich men do – she also reckons that the case for female empowerment has been sold off:

“I was 18 in 2006 – the message was, ‘You are girls and you can do what you want.’ We were the power generation: you can be whoever you want to be, whether that’s a politician or a librarian or a sex worker and it doesn’t matter because at least you’re choosing. Everything you did was ‘empowering’. And now people are saying that was all a masquerade, that that wasn’t an empowering thing to do at all and you’re anti-women and, actually, you’re a victim. This is why it’s jarring. Our generation has a lot of responsibility on its shoulders. We’ve made these choices, they might not be the best choices but now people are going to take those choices away from us.”

But the case for empowerment was always a lie, a panel agenda optimised, sanitised and published by white, straight, middle-class men who wanted to see big tits in magazines but also wanted the option to blame it all on the working class man when someone inevitably noticed that it was all a bit exploitative. Empowerment needs power – and the wealthy aren’t giving it up, especially not to women.

Worringly, Stefanie Marsh, the author, is being utterly complicit in a convenient abortion of responsibility by the well-off: “The culture they [lads’ mags] helped to create can still be seen in towns and cities all around the UK — from the Saturday-night porny perspex heels to the casual DIY sex tapes and still-held hopes for fast fame,” she says. No middle-class activity here. Blame the poor, they don’t know any better. The same game, we ought to remember, sees the working classes blamed by politicians and the press for the welfare bill, or immigrants attacked for the temerity to seeks the means to enjoy life.

After all, Marsh writes, Gibson “has a normal job with normal friends who have normal jobs too: in media, in medicine, in law.” In other words: she is proper. Bourgeois is the norm – and sexism is ‘other’, something for the proletariat, something not ours. Not us in our affluence but those Tesco shoppers in their shit. Do only women who are desperately poor agree to model in the nude for money? It’s hopelessly reductive.

Marsh and Gibson are both right that banning lads’ mags would not solve the problem. Gibson is also right to say that lads’ mags are part of the “old media”, that “the elite have taken it upon themselves to ‘look after’ these poor young boys who are reading it and the poor young girls who are posing in them”. But the privileged, like Gibson (she has a “normal job”, remember?) and Marsh, are using a more than justified feeling of discrimination to discriminate against another group.

And while the treatment of women in capitalist societies is heinous and objectionable (as are the comments of Martin Daubney, the former Loaded editor who said in that article that men – poor, poor (lucky) men – “just don’t know what to do… men are being made to feel ashamed that they find women attractive because they are branded misogynists, perverts, morons or sex pests… it’s a campaign against masculinity”), so too is the treatment, often by the media, of the working classes. And we cannot hope to eradicate the sick way in which we, as a society, treat women until we recognise that all discrimination, by sex, race, class, and so on, comes from the same place.

But of course, if you read The Times, or have a “normal job”, you probably won’t know where that is.

Why is Michael Gove ignoring pupils with learning disabilities?

Photo: Regional Cabinet via Flickr

When Michael Gove officially floated his GCSE reforms to the Commons this week, you’d have been forgiven for thinking that his most important breakthrough was to be making the school-leavers’ exams hard again, like they were in the sepia past, so widespread is the assumption that exams are getting easier, children thicker. Britain, the poor lamb, in the clutches of a coursework cheating epidemic, dads up and down our grey isles, wide-eyed and fervent, scribbling out little Johnny’s history homework. Or naughty Sally, hungrily vacuuming Wikipedia and printing it off as her own work. Lest any journalist be guilty of that.

Say what you like about Gove and do not forget that he is an apt and ruthless homogeniser: pupils, down to the last dim-witted gumchewer to leave school this summer, have been getting away with it for too long. Their older brothers and sisters Had It So Good with all their lovely passes. All those C grades. Knowledge on credit. But now somebody has to pay it back, to atone for this opulence. The ones suffering, and how unlike the Tories for this, are the disabled. And the British media are complicit.

You see, in harping on about GCSEs given out free with the Metro for the past twenty years, what we miss is how tough many students find the very fabric of our education system. One in ten UK children has dyslexia, a disability which affects how one reads, counts, spells and organises thoughts. In an exam, this can play havoc with how one structures written answers, processes information, recalls from memory or, say, weighs up contributing or overlapping factors.

An example: last June, an AQA GCSE history paper asked candidates: ‘Which was the more important reason for the outbreak of the First World War in 1914: the assassination of Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, or the Schlieffen Plan?’ Now, in writing an essay response to this end, with reduced or severely limited ability to either spell correctly, remember important data, rank causes, structure an argument, place an introduction or conclusion in their correct context, write quickly, or a combination of any/all of these, one might reasonably think this to be something of an uneven playing field. Moreover, the government is compelled not to discriminate by the Equality Act 2010 and the UN’s 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Coursework, though it has detractors, offers at least a far less time-sensitive framework for students who, with dyslexia, dyspraxia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, or ADHD, some of which regularly occur contemporaneously, can enjoy an education system that tests them fairly. Pupils with learning disabilities perform better in modular courses, with less time pressure, allowing for continuous assessment. But this was too pleasant. Too dynamic. Too sympathetic.

Three children in every class (of thirty) have a disability which prevents or hinders them from having a fair education. And yet the most significant effect of these reforms is being ignored by a press obsessed with intergenerational warfare, in slamming kids today for heinously failing in their obligation to be taught well.

When these disabilities are diagnosed, support is given to pupils: extra time in exams, help with spelling, learning aids, and so on. But many cases go undiagnosed until university or long into adult life. Those who aren’t spotted and helped at an early stage can struggle to pass the kinds of exams Gove wants to make the one and only yardstick for learning success. And when you consider how heavily employers and university/college admissions staff are now being forced to place their faith in examinations, it can mean nought but a disadvantage to those for whom exams are an unfair and oppressive form of testing. We already know that the learning disabled are severely over-represented in the criminal justice system and among the unemployed. Why persist with a cruel reform that will only punish them further?

On top of this, the NHS does not yet recognise dyslexia as a disability, meaning that education institutions do always not take a lead in helping pupils to be diagnosed, making it often only available to the rich and regularly not until later in life, such as at universities, who tend to have more targeted help and can often finance the costs of diagnosis and support.

We cannot begin to challenge discrimination against the learning disabled in schools and workplaces while we allow an education system to exist which treats their disadvantage with contempt or while we jam our fingers in our ears. The number of newspapers and their websites that carried this warning this week: zero. And while we have a press that stays silent on the disadvantaged, we will not be able to help the learning disabled struggling under the leaden foot of the Education Secretary’s privilege.

(This piece is also on the Huffington Post’s website, just about here.)