Category Archives: Sociological musings

On Disagreeing with Julie Burchill

Having come across, via TractorGirl and a debate on Twitter, this article in the Observer by Julie Burchill, I’d like to post a reply from my perspective as a transsexual man.

As I understand it, a row erupted after Suzanne Moore, a veteran journalist whose writing I normally have lots of time for, made a passing comment in a piece about women’s anger about women being angry that they do not have the body of a “Brazilian transsexual”. Bearing in mind I agree with the rest of her argument about women still being treated as second-class, under-represented in the upper echelons of the political world, hit hardest by the recession and living in an environment where violence against women is an ‘occupational hazard’, if you will, this comment is unnecessary and ill-informed. Having been involved in a Transgender Day of Remembrance event this year, I had to put together a list of those killed in the last year as a result of transphobic violence. The vast majority were Brazilian women, and reading the brief reports of their deaths was incredibly sad. Thus, I think Moore’s throwaway comment was in very poor taste.

In response to this, Moore has apparently been hounded off Twitter by trans activists, according to her friend Burchill, whose article is a whole different kettle of fish to Moore’s silly comment. As a deliberate non-user of Twitter I haven’t seen the threads myself, but alas, I do know from experience that some in the trans community do us no favours with their responses and temper. However, it seems to me that Burchill’s article is a hate-filled rant rather than any kind of reasoned argument, despite no doubt reflecting the views of some, as the comments on CiF show.

Before going through what she has to say, a few thoughts on life as a trans man in the early stages of gender reassignment. I’ve come to the conclusion that my gender has three aspects – the ontological (the essence of who I am, which is definitely male), the biological (which is currently female) and the social, the expectations and societal norms I encounter as a result of my biology. I wish to transition as the biological (body) doesn’t match the ontological (brain), which is very painful for me, and as because people go off appearances, I’m not treated as a man by most (even those who know the score sturggle at the moment). Hopefully, as I move forward with the process and my body increasingly matches my brain (which will be a huge relief and a liberation), the social side will follow and I’ll be able to get on with my life as an ordinary bloke. Key in this is the point that what ‘lower surgery’ I have or haven’t had shouldn’t be an issue when it comes to daily interactions – we don’t insist on seeing someone’s genitals before deciding how treat them, so why is it anyone else’s business what I do or not have? The obsession with penises baffles me!

Anyway, back to Burchill. She argues that the response to Moore’s comment from some in the trans community was like “those wretched inner-city kids who shoot another inner-city kid dead in a fast-food shop for not showing them enough ‘respect'”. She describes trans people as “educated beyond all common sense and honesty” and justifies using the word ‘tranny’, which is deeply offensive and often used by those harassing us, on the basis that she doesn’t like the term ‘cis-gendered’ being used for non-trans people. There then follows a rant about coming from working-class roots and “we are damned if we are going to be accused of being privileged by a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs”. Her last two paragraphs speak for themselves:

“To have your cock cut off and then plead special privileges as women – above natural-born women, who don’t know the meaning of suffering, apparently – is a bit like the old definition of chutzpah: the boy who killed his parents and then asked the jury for clemency on the grounds he was an orphan.

“Shims, shemales, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days – don’t threaten or bully us lowly natural-born women, I warn you. We may not have as many lovely big swinging Phds as you, but we’ve experienced a lifetime of PMT and sexual harassment and many of us are now staring HRT and the menopause straight in the face – and still not flinching. Trust me, you ain’t seen nothing yet. You really won’t like us when we’re angry.”

In response, I’d like to say that:

  • Contrary to our total absence from this piece, trans men exist, too, albeit as a minority within a minority (trans folks) within the LGBT minority.
  • Having been stuck with a woman’s body for almost three decades, I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of misogyny, to feel threatened walking down the street by groups of men, to be ignored or patronised in the workplace and to suffer sexual violence, as well as putting up with PMT! Apart from the latter, many trans women experience these things too, as well as physical danger if they do not ‘pass’ as female. Sex discrimination an issue facing all women, cis- and trans-gendered.
  • Moreover, taking transphobic violence seriously is not mutually exclusive from taking violence against women seriously – the suggestion is just daft! I thought the point of feminism was that discrimination based on gender is wrong. Surely this applies as much to trans people (male and female and everything in-between!) as cis-gendered women?
  • It seems very odd to criticise people for being well-educated! Or is it only certain people that should be allowed to use academic language e.g. radical feminists?
  • Being from a working-class background doesn’t stop one being privileged. I’m from a council estate in Lancashire and from a household that wouldn’t have survived if it wasn’t for income support. My education (one of those pesky PhDs I’m afraid, Julie!), at which I worked bloody hard, and the opportunities I’ve had as a result does give me advantages over someone denied those chances; as proud as I am of my roots, it’s something I can’t deny. Similarly, being cis-gendered is a privileged position compared to being trans – people expect one to be so, most people are, and there are challenges one will never have to face as a result. It’s the same as heteronormativity in its context…
  • I thought we were trying to move away from a world in which a person is defined by their body, and in particular a woman is defined (and limited) by having the capacity to give birth. Are women only really women now when they’ve been mothers? What about those who cannot or choose not to or never get the chance to have children – are they not ‘real women’? I suspect Burchill and company may have rather more in common with the Pope than they realise! Moreover, as I argued above, we judge people on the basis of secondary sex characteristics in all but intimate sexual encounters, so why the obsession with genitals??
  • Better “a bunch of bad-wetters in bad wigs” than someone who thinks hurling insults will help their argument…

In summary, I think Julie Burchill is massively out of line here. We live in a democracy and if she sees someone like me as a woman pretending to be a man, that’s up to her. However, using a national newspaper to spout transphobia shows that she needs to do some serious growing up. Around a third of all trans people will attempt suicide at some point, as the threats, harassment and violence we face are very real, just as they are for millions of cis-gendered women throughout the world. Last year, over 250 people were killed worldwide as a result of transphobia. Yes, the community can be somewhat introverted and defensive, but it’s not without reason…

One World Week – On Seeing Things Differently

Following on from my previous post, I’ve been giving some thought to what it means to be the Church in a messy world and turbulent political landscape. The following is a sermon (so quiet on the Tory-bashing, alas!) for One World Week (the texts are Micah 6:6 – 8 and Luke 4:14 – 30):

 

I’m a big fan of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ for my sins, and I’m there on a Saturday night, week-in, week-out, glued to the television. One thing I dislike about the programme, though, is that they always seem to invite one or two people to take part who seem to be there basically for people to laugh at. Apparently, after the first show of this series, in which the contestants were paired up with professional dancers, one of the judges told Robin Windsor, dance partner of Emmerdale actress Lisa Riley, that they had no chance, presumably as she’s a larger person. Thus, when she proved that she can really dance, it was fantastic to see; just like when Susan Boyle wiped the smug smile off Simon Cowell’s face when she began to sing, that first dance challenged lazy stereotypes and forced people to look at things in a fresh way. Our two readings today are, in their various ways, about Israel being challenged to look at things in a different way, to re-think what being God’s people in the world was all about.

When Jesus had been baptised in the river Jordan, the same river that Israel crossed to enter the Promised Land, the Holy Spirit told him that he was God’s beloved Son. Immediately after, he was thrust into the wilderness by the same Spirit to face up to what that meant – he was Israel’s Messiah, and his mission was to re-define what it was to be God’s people, breaking down national barriers, among others. That was bound to lead to trouble, because it would mean challenging not just the ideas of ordinary people, but also the powerful religious and secular authorities of the day. After this time of preparation, which brought together all those years of prayer, thought, studying the Scriptures and wrestling with God, he was ready to begin his ministry.

Jesus returned to Galilee and went about preaching in the synagogues, gaining quite a reputation for himself. One day, as he’d done many times before on the Sabbath, he stood up in his home synagogue in Nazareth and began to read, this time from a scroll of Isaiah’s prophecies. He went straight to the place where it said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to tell the poor the good news. He’s sent me to announce realise to the prisoners and sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free”. When he’d finished reading, he gave back the scroll, sat down and declared, “Today, this is being fulfilled right in front of you”, to the amazement of the congregation. These were words of complete and utter grace, pure and simple. However, the good mood wouldn’t last for very long…

A work colleague of mine supports Manchester City – I suppose somebody has to! – and just before the last match of the season, he fully expected his team to lose and so throw away the title. His experiences of many years had taught him that City had a habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. At first glance, it might seem that Jesus managed to do just that in the synagogue that day. He’d had the crowd in the palm of his hand when he said that he knew they were all waiting for him to perform a spectacular act, like they’d heard about from his time in Capernaum. One can imagine the buzz of anticipation among them. However, he talked instead about prophets not being accepted in their home towns, and God choosing to rescue Gentiles through Elijah and Elisha when he could’ve helped Israelites. The people were furious – so furious that they chased him up to the mountain top on which the city was built and tried to throw him off, but he managed to slip through the crowd unnoticed. What was going on?

Well, expectation was rife in Jesus’ day about the coming of the Messiah, whom they imagined would be a sort of military leader who would violently shake off the rule of the hated Romans and plant Israel firmly at the top of the pile. Given the nationalism that underpinned most people’s thinking, it’s not surprising that the crowd reacted very badly to Jesus’ words. In the face of their hopes and dreams, he was telling them that God wasn’t just interested in one nation, but in the whole world. His message was about grace for everybody, rather than violent judgement for everyone outside of Israel. In quoting Isaiah 61:1 – 2, he was pointing to a broader vision of the Messiah’s role, and ultimately he was laying the foundations for the counter-cultural world of the Kingdom of God. Israel was going to need to think again about who it was and what it was for – what did it mean to be God’s people living God’s way?

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One World Week is both an exciting opportunity, in that it’s a chance to come together and explore key issues in our world, and a deep challenge, as it asks hard questions about the Church. Are we a people who seek to break down barriers, to welcome all into God’s family, to shine the light of hope into the world’s dark places? By the way we live our lives, do we help to free the prisoners, give sight to the blind and bring liberty to the oppressed? This isn’t an easy business; after all, it ultimately led Jesus to the cross. It involves being willing to take risks and build relationships with people who’re in some way ‘different’ to us, which can be scary, but that’s the challenge that God lays down to us. Just like Israel, the Church cannot hope to be all God made it to be if it turns inward and becomes a kind of exclusive club, but instead it needs to look outwards for signs of God’s Kingdom work, role up its sleeves and join in.

Our Old Testament passage offers a vision of what it means to live God’s way. Micah was one of the minor prophets, and his ministry took place mostly in the latter half of the eighth century BCE, before the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians; his writings thus span six decades of God’s people struggling with their calling to be a blessing to the nations. In our reading, Israel is represented as a worshipper wanting to know how to please God, and assuming that this can be done through sacrifices and offerings. However, sacrifices were meaningless if the life of the people didn’t reflect God’s life; unless their actions and words matched up, it was empty worship. Micah was trying to point Israel back in the right direction; true worship means seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God.

Bringing this all together shows that God’s deep longing is for his people to take the risks required to make his Kingdom visible in the world through the quality of our living, individually and as a community, and in doing so to break down the barriers that prevent there really being ‘one world’. There’s no point in gathering together every week for worship if that worship isn’t the catalyst for lives lived seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. Here are three thoughts on what this might look like in practice:

Firstly, Jesus did perform spectacular acts that gained him a reputation as a miracle-man among some, such as the crowds in today’s reading, but actually, most of the stuff he did was pretty small-scale. Much of his ministry was comprised of lots of little acts, the power of which cannot be underestimated. It’s easy when faced with big problems like those we see on the news every day, to give into despair and allow ourselves to be overwhelmed. However, we follow a Messiah who was prepared to be vulnerable and who made his selfless love known primarily in the small things of life. Never underestimate the power of small acts of kindness.

Secondly, Jesus wasn’t afraid to ask the big questions, and challenge those in authority. He unsettled the social and religious ‘status quo’, not just by meeting people’s immediate needs when he could, but by pointing out the underlying structural issues that caused those needs to arise in the first place. In our day, it’s the equivalent of asking why food banks are needed, rather than simply being pleased they’re there. This does mean getting political, though not necessarily party-political, and whether it’s getting involved in campaigns for social justice, going on protest marches, letter-writing, spending your money ethically or simply thoughtfully exploring the issues, it makes a difference.

Thirdly, Jesus made sure that he took time out to rest and to be with God. There’s always the danger of both burnout and of losing sight of God. Jesus’ relationship with God was the catalyst, inspiration, source and end point of everything he said and did, from the powerful and dramatic to the small and subtle. A living faith means putting things into action, but it’s still a faith – we need to depend on God for strength and energy, direction, and hope when the going gets tough, as it will.

Social action matters because God and all he has created matters. There’s no such thing as a waste person in the Kingdom, but there is light, hope, love and the possibility of transformation. One World Week is as good a time as any to begin put this vision into action…

On Being Radicalised

I’ve come to the conclusion I’ve been radicalised … by the Conservative Party. Allow me to explain.

There’s an increasingly right-wing faction gaining sway within the Conservative Party that believes that the Coalition is too left-wing and soft. It wants to take Thatcherism well beyond what Maggie did, and in a book shortly to be published called Britannia Unchained, the authors claim that the only way for Britain to compete in a global marketplace is to reduce the state to the bare bones and radically reduce employment rights, including abolishing the minimum wage. This group seem to have the ear of the odious George Osborne, and this week’s Tory conference included a lot of telling rhetoric about working harder and longer.

The basic ideas seem to be the following:

  • Employees have “excessive protections”, and not being able to fire someone for not busting a gut continually is unreasonable and creating a nation of idlers.
  • The claim is made that Britons work some of the lowest hours in the world, something I’ll examine later
  • The minimum wage for under-21s (the lavish sum of between £3.68 and £4.98 per hour) should be abolished to get more young people into work
  • The state should provide little more than a basic safety net
  • ‘Raw capitalism’, unhindered by employment laws, a minimum wage and environmental responsibility is the only way forward.

Paul Mason, the BBC’s economic editor, sums up the proposals as:

‘The race to the bottom, to be like China, is on, and we’re all going to do it. So your wages will meet the Chinese somewhere, and so will your social conditions”

Given the sorts of noises coming from the Tory leadership, it seems that while the Coalition is too fragile to go anywhere near as far as Dominic Raab and others would like to go, some of this mindset is finding its way into the mainstream. I, for one, think that Cameron and company are already living in a bubble and implementing policies that will be massively detrimental to some of the most vulnerable people in society. This ‘revolution’ is plain frightening, and I can’t be the only one who sees a society with no job security, slavish hours and social breakdown as a disaster, not an aspiration.

Let’s examine both some of the proposals from the conference and the claims of Raab and co:

  • Scraping housing benefit for under 25s is one of the stupidest things I’ve heard in years. The argument made is that many people are living at home well into their 30s while they struggle to get together the deposit for their own home, so why should others be supported in being independent by the state? Well, for starters, for many young people, moving back in with mum and dad is simply not an option: no room/overcrowding, abusive families, drug and alcohol issues (on both sides), poverty, no mum and dad. Moreover, even if one could go back to a safe and happy home, not everyone lives in an area with good job prospects, particularly in areas like the North East. I’d love to get on the housing ladder, but do not believe this should be at the expense of creating misery and making it harder for young people to study (especially those going back to college), escape abuse and be safe. Shelter argue that this policy will put young people in danger or trap them. It’s ideology-driven madness.

 

  • Slashing benefits, and making them rise slower than inflation: I grew up on a deprived council estate with around 2/3 of people being without work when I was around fifteen. I did meet some who didn’t want to work and knew how to play the system. However, I also met a great deal more people who were unable to find a job despite filling out endless applications and were despairing, people trying to study or retrain but facing obstacles from the same benefit system that made it financially harmful to go into low-paid work (which means a better minimum wage, not greater poverty on benefits), and people whose life circumstances, such as disability, caring responsibilities, lack of decent childcare and so on made it impossible. To suggest that the majority of benefit claimants want to scrape by on next to nothing is absurd and simply untrue. Moreover, when there are no jobs around, what exactly are people supposed to do??? Existing on benefits should not be made even harder – for the vast majority, it’s not a choice and they are not scroungers!

 

  • Disabled people should be ‘encouraged’ back to work: Ruth Anim’s story is just one example of flawed assessments for disability benefit by private firm ATOS. Around a third of those turned down for benefits as a result of said assessments have had the decision overturned on appeal, and tragically, many have died after being declared fit to work. If someone wants to work and can do so given the conditions they live with, that should be supported and encouraged. However, forcing vulnerable people onto the Work Programme to save money is cruel. Moreover, mental health issues are often poorly understood, and along with the impact of various physical problems, ATOS assessors are not qualified to make these judgments. All the government has succeeded in doing is increasing hate crime and causing a great deal of distress. Enough is enough!

 

  • Employment rights can be traded for shares, and small firms should be subject to looser laws: In my not-so-humble opinion, trying to entice people into surrendering their rights, especially in relation to redundancy, is profoundly wrong. Increasing insecurity does not lead to greater productivity, but instead a dog-eat-dog environment in which teamwork suffers and stress-related illness increases. Ask anyone who has been in an organisation making selective compulsory redundancies. Moreover, as with exemptions to the European Working Time Directive, how long before signing away one’s rights becomes a condition of employment? Stress has already become the main reason for taking long-term sick leave. This will only cause more problems, and allow exploitive employers to demand unpaid overtime with impunity. What happened to work/life balance?

 

  • Britons work some of the shortest hours in the world. Such a view ignores some key statistics. For starters, according to the latest English Business Survey, 23% of businesses fear their employees are overstretched, compared to 9% who feel they are under-utilised. That doesn’t suggest laziness. The heart of the matter, though, is the balance of full- and part-time work. According to the Office for National Statistics, “The fall in average hours worked in the UK can in part be explained by the increase in the proportion of the UK workforce employed in part-time jobs, from 24 per cent in 1992 to around 27 per cent in 2011”, and partly because of the shift from manufacturing towards the service sector. Additionally, “Full-time workers in the UK work longer hours than the EU average”. However, my dear Tories, there’s no need to let facts get in the way of policies that benefit the wealthy, is there?

 

To finish my rant, here’s a pretty picture to illustrate the above. Note that the Greeks work the longest hours in Europe – fat lot of good that did them!

 

European working hours (Source: ONS)

Musings of a Guardianista

I have a few minutes to spare today so I’ve been browsing the Guardian website and come across some interesting stories about which I thought I’d throw my two-penny’s worth in:

  • Royal Ascot  have gone in for a much stricter dress code this year. Complications about dress suitability aside, I was very impressed to see so many well turned-out blokes in the photo. I think it’s a real shame that men’s formal dress is so often only the reserve of occasions such as weddings, and that even just donning a tie, without necessarily accompanying it with a suit, is now seen as over the top in so many situations. I love formal dress and would love to be able to wear a suit and tie and maybe even a waistcoat more often (and yes, even on occasion a morning suit) without it being seen as eccentric, stuffy or odd. I came across this blog recently about dressing well on a budget, and it convinces me even more that I could and should be allowed to make the effort – it won’t break the bank! It’s got me thinking I might try to take TractorGirl to Ascot next year, if only to dress up  🙂

 

  •  The education secretary, Michael Gove, has in his infinite (lack of) wisdom decided that GCSEs, introduced in the first place by a Conservative government, should be dropped in favour of a return to a two-tier system of  ‘O’-Levels and CSEs.  I think he’s got it into his head that if everything looks like it did in the 1950s then everything will be alright, and he seems to have forgotten (or chosen to ignore, or seeks to encourage) the inequalities seen back then, with people’s futures resting on their 11+.  I don’t think a return to that, especially in a de-industrialised, knowledge-based economy, will help achieve anything other than intrenching privillage, and I say this as someone who would have ‘benefitted’ from the grammar school system. Comprehensive education is far from perfect, as the article acknowledges, but it’s preferable to a system that brands people failures and further reduces social mobility at a time when university reforms are pulling the ladder up and away from people from backgrounds like mine – ordinary working-class.

 

  • The Guardian have been running a series called ‘Breadline Britain’ on the impact of the cuts to the welfare state.  I know that there is a deficit and the country doesn’t have an endless supply of money, but it’s come to something if we can’t afford to care properly for the most vulnerable in our society, and if there has to be assessment for disability benefit, how hard can it be to ensure that the providers (ATOS – Welcome to the Paralympics!) actually perform such things competently and fairly, instead of being incentivised to declare people fit for work who are clearly not, especially those with mental health issues? It seems that the government really believes that people who are unemployed, sick, disabled or just poor only have themselves to blame. How can Cameron, who is supposedly a Christian, so readily lose sight of what it means that each and every person is made in the image of God? Contray to what his New Right ideology says, everyone is equally valuable in the eyes of God; policy should reflect that by genuinely caring for the most vulnerable.  I also don’t see how a system built on suspicision helps anyone – my own (thankfully limited) experience of the benefits system showed me how dehumanising it can be, and that was before this government got hold of it and made things much worse. Moreover, Cameron slating Jimmy Carr for the tax avoidance which costs a lot more than benefit fraud(!) has to be a case of pot calling kettle black if ever there was one!

 

  • Interesting comments from someone who works for the FSA. I don’t feel I can comment too much given who I work for, but I will say that his is not the only environment with dress-down Fridays and smart dress at other times, and in which a work-life balance is possible. Moreover, there are good reasons why the FSA commands little respect…

 

  • It’s raining in Milton Keynes… and I ought to do some work! 🙂

Why £9000 a year is wrong

I come from a very ordinary background. I was born and raised on an impoverished council estate in Preston, Lancashire by two ordinary people. My mother is a housewife (and cleaning obsessive, but that’s another story… ) and my father trained as a painter, decorator and joiner before ending up down sewers (which oddly enough, he enjoys… ). We didn’t have much money to go around but my parents made sacrifices so that my brother and I didn’t have to go without. I was able to use the education system to escape my surroundings and have been fortunate enough to study for an MMath at Bath University and a PhD at Durham, the former with around £1000 a year tuition fees, of which we had to pay around £200 because of my family’s income. Even so, I still have around £18k worth of student debt that I will gradually pay off, with the interest rate being linked to the RPI so I pay back what I borrowed in real terms. Despite this, I am one of the lucky ones.

Last week, students marched to protest at a possible rise in tuition fees to £9000, from a coalition government containing Liberal Democrats who made a manifesto promise, which Clegg apparently now regrets, not to raise fees. If this gets through, it will be accompanied by a drop in the money available to universities from state funds for undergraduate teaching, the shortfall being met by these increased fees. Now, I’m not in favour of using violence to achieve one’s aims and so do not condone the smashing of windows at Tory HQ, but I find it hard to blame those who did it. The new structure will, especially if accompanied by a flexible system allowing different universities to charge varying fee levels, lead to a situation where the poorest young people face active financial discouragement from pursuing a university career, or applying to the best universities as opposed to the less prestigious and cheaper institutions.

This is bad for several reasons, five of which are:

1) For someone from a fee-paying school, £9k a year may seem relatively little to just pay up-front, but for someone on the average household income or less, it’s a huge amount. Students from poorer backgrounds will therefore accumulate huge debts, before we get to living costs on top of that. For a four-year degree, that could mean around £56000 worth of debts, and with the proposed interest rate of the RPI + 3%, it will grow quickly unless the person walks straight into a high-payed job, which many will not be able or choose to do – we need public servants after all! This represents a steep financial barrier, to make the understatement of the year…

2) Social mobility reduced during Labour’s time in power, despite various measures to boost it (though not always joined up with other policies, alas), such as the Sure Start schemes. There is already ample evidence that the biggest determining factor of success later in life is the financial status of one’s parents. Widening access to university is one of the key measures in seeking to open doors to able young people who come from poorer backgrounds. I was able to take advantage of this, but was part of  a year of 170 pupils with only a handful of us going onto university. Aspirations were already low, and these fees will only increase the sense that higher education is ‘not for the likes of us’. Why should children from poorer backgrounds be forced to lower their sights like this? It’s a waste of so much potential.

3) Britain’s economy is moving away (and has been for some time)  from manufacturing to a service-sector based approach with financial services and research and development being key areas of growth. If we are to continue to compete with fast-growing and fast-developing nations like India and China, we need as well-educated a workforce as possible, and, let’s face it, we only need so many plumbers, electricians and so on.  Making higher education inaccessible to a whole sector of society wastes vital skills and talent that we will need if we as a nation seek to prosper in the global economy. We cannot afford to simply push young people into trades regardless of their suitability for these (and for that matter, nor should we discourage middle-class kids from exploring these avenues rather than pushing them into university).

4) Ministers seem to forget that even if one does go into a well-paid graduate job after university (by which I mean £20k+), it takes a certain amount of time to get clear of initial debts like overdrafts accumulated during study or from relocation costs. One is not necessarily awash with money the instant one starts work! Saddling graduates with sizable loan repayments will make it more difficult to get started in life, as finances can be initially very tight, and harder to save for the deposit for a mortgage, and so on.

5) Where is the incentive to go onto further study knowing that through the three or four years it can take to do a PhD, one is accumulating even more of  a mini-mortgage without the resources to begin paying it back? This may lead to fewer UK students doing PhDs and, as already argued, we need such people if we want a thriving university sector and to continue to be a world leader in research and development. That is, unless we are happy to rely on people coming from abroad to fill these roles, but then the same right-wingers who favour these changes to HE are often not very keen on immigration…

Rant over…. this is simply a subject that makes my blood boil. Other young people should have the same opportunities I did or better, not less!

Young, Dumb and Living Off Mum

On BBC3, there is currently a series of programmes as part of their ‘Adult Season’, some of which have been really fascinating and moving. There was a programme about a young woman about to get married who wanted to decide which of the various father figures in her life should walk her down the aisle. Another was about a teenager whose mum is a glamour model (read page three girl) and her journey into adulthood. Her mum has real issues about body image and is addicted to plastic surgery. The programme shows what happens when such surgery goes wrong, and the difficulties mum had of letting her daughter take her own path in life.

Now, having just praised several of the shows, there are some programmes that are far more like Jeremy Kyle – truly awful but an occasional guilty pleasure. ‘Young, Dumb and Living Off Mum‘ comes into that category. It’s about a group of young people, ranging in age from seventeen to twenty-three, whose parents are fed up of their lazy and selfish behaviour. None of them have ever held down a job and some can’t even manage basics like doing laundry or cooking a meal for themselves. Each week, they are given a work placement and are sharing a house together. Their parents get to observe their behaviour and each week the young person voted the most useless has to leave, the eventual winner getting a cruise as their prize.

It would be tempting to have a real go at the young people about their uselessness (the trailer shows a twenty-year-old man getting his mum to wash his hair because he couldn’t be bothered) and blatant immaturity. In the first couple of shows, it was obvious that the only things they seemed to know how to do were giggle uncontrollably at everything, get drunk, fight and sponge off others. Some of them supplemented the household budget by stealing from shops and their bosses. None of them seemed capable of taking anything in life remotely seriously (hence the continuous giggling), of resolving arguments without resorting to shouting, or taking any pride in work.

However, the young people themselves seemed very much to be the products of their parents. One woman seemed to think stealing was perfectly fine, that promiscuity is normal and that using people is acceptable, which explains her son very well. They seemed to struggle to accept that their precious offspring could ever be in the wrong and couldn’t deal with their child being criticised, making excuses for them and setting almost non-existent standards. It reminded me of a time I told a small child off for throwing something at me, and her mum threatened to “f**king kill me”, saying that no-one could discipline her except her. I don’t envy that child’s teachers!

At this point, I should put my hands up and admit a degree of uselessness at eighteen. I’d been in a caring role for a fair percentage of my adolescence and so could do most household tasks, but had never been allowed to cook for myself in case I made a mess (my mum was a bit of a clean freak, to put it mildly!). My first meal at uni was burnt toast and overly runny boiled eggs. Thankfully, school cookery lessons meant I didn’t starve or end up existing off pasta (nice as it is) but it took me a while to get used to doing some things for myself. However, one thing I was not for my many faults was feckless.

It seems to me that clear boundaries and expectations are very important in bringing up children, as well as parents being able to deal with other adults correcting their children if necessary. My teacher friends have complained about the difficulties they have had when parents come charging into school whenever their child is told off. It makes it very hard to maintain discipline in the classroom. Similarly, if the parents in the programme don’t want layabouts for children, they need to get their act together and learn to say ‘no’, for starters. Easy for me, with no children, to say? Yes, perhaps, but my years of caring and working with kids in various contexts have taught me that parents and children need to be really that, not friends, at least until adulthood when there can really be an equal relationship. Young people need nurture, care, praise and encouragement. They also need boundaries.

Any thoughts?

The Big Society?

I came across an article by Aditya Chakrabortty on the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free‘ pages today about choice in public services and David Cameron’s idea about the ‘Big Society’. It’s about the idea that there needs to be as much choice as possible in public services. For example, parents will be encouraged to start their own schools and more schools will be given ‘academy’ status, which means, as far as I understand it, that private money will be involved and businesses, universities etc will be encouraged to run them.

This article talks about how, if presented with too much choice, people struggle to make any consistant and coherent decisions. Conducted by Columbia Business School, it echoes something I imagine we’ve all encountered. How do you choose between twenty different types of tomato ketchup, exactly?

It seems to me that to understand this, one has to take a brief glance back through European history in the last three-hundred years or so. The governing idea of the Enlightenment, especially when combined with industrialisation, was progress. Through science and the development of new technology, humanity could solve all its own problems, or so the mantra went. The march of progress was inevitable, and human beings would keep getting more and more civilised. The first world war blew that out of the water, but to some extent the mindset has persisted. Bonhoeffer spoke about ‘man come of age’, and even theology got caught up in the idea that we could dispense with revelation and figure it (in this case, God) all out by use of reason, which still persists in some liberal theological circles.

Arguably, postmodernism is a reaction against this by taking the ideas to the other extreme. Instead of an overarching universal narrative, we now are told that all meta-narratives (big stories) are power claims and that actually, each person’s perspective is equally valid due to the absence of a framework in which to evaluate truth claims. In other words, I can have ‘my truth’, you yours, and no-one can tell either of us which is the better or that they are wrong. As such, we are free to pick and choose those ideas which are helpful to us at a given time. Now, not all of this is bad (though surely claiming there are not meta-narratives is to construct a meta-narrative?) but while the idolatry of ‘progress’ has faded, ‘choice’ has taken its place. One hears ‘choice’ spoke of as inherently a good thing, which makes sense in a consumerist framework, but this is pushed as far as to say that denial or restriction of choice is inherently bad. In other words, choice now has ‘moral value’.

Why am I bothered by this? Well, on the one hand, I fear that relentless pursuit of  a choice-orientated model in public services could have three major consequences:

  • It could re-introduce the ‘internal market’ created by the Major government in the 1990s which was such a disaster;
  • It could create bewildering choice, as the above article suggests;
  • It could create more opportunities for middle-class folks with the resources to do things like start their own schools, but create further societal division as the poorest are left behind. Some communities just couldn’t do these things even if they wanted to, and it could make it even harder for someone from my background (from a council estate, parents on benefits or in low-paid work) to escape. I fear more choice equals less social mobility.

You may want to come back at me on these, especially the latter. There is a balance to be struck between the role of the state or voluntary organisations and the role of the communities themselves. Ann Morisy’s wonderful book ‘Journeying Out’  has a lot to say about this. However, both the modernist mantra of ‘progress’ and the postmodern mantra of ‘choice’ both seem to forget a fundamental fact about human beings – we are limited. Frances Young has this to say:

Human beings look for success, fulfilment, for valuation in terms of the contribution a person makes. But value is not something achieved, or even inherent. It is something given, something accorded to something or someone valued by someone else – the worth and dignity of each person is given by God. In community, we make real that dignity and worth by valuing each other, but the grounds on which any and every person has value is God’s decision to put his name there (to borrow a phrase from Ezekiel).  Above all the incarnation bears witness to the presence of God in the midst of the ‘limit’ to which all human life tends. In God-forsakenness, in the absence of God, is supremely and paradoxically the presence of God, and the terminology of kingship is subverted when the story is told of a king who plays the part of a servant, is marginalised, rejected, stigmatised, judicially murdered. The cross stands over against the false optimism of modernity and the assertions of post-modernity.

The fact is, we need to accept and embrace our limited nature and that unlimited choice is just as much of a myth as relentless progress. Being human involves engaging with limits, boundaries, in a creative way. For example, following a vocation will always involve a degree of sacrifice – if I am ordained and in full-time ministry, I can’t continue my old career; if I want to write an essay in a night I can’t go to the cinema as well.

Mr Cameron is a committed Christian. Maybe if this was taken more seriously in government, we could concentrate on creating excellent public services in a given area rather than a hundred-and-one bewildering options that disenfranchise those most in need of a help-up by the state – the poorest, most vulnerable and those with least choice.

Further to that, the church could learn a lesson too. The parish system of the Church of England is not perfect, but it means that, at least theoretically, there is a church there for any English person if they need it. While people may still shop around, that parish provision is vital, and I think Grace Davie is right in noting that people turn to it in transitional times, at crisis points, for a reason. How does this fit with Mission-Shaped Church and its ‘network’ approach? I don’t know, but it does show that mixed economy needs to be taken seriously. More thoughts on that when I’ve written my essay for the mission module of my theology course…

Self-Made Man – Mind the Gap!

I’m currently reading ‘Self-Made Man’  by Norah Vincent. It’s about her experience, when using some clever make-up and body-building techniques, she figures out how to disguise herself as a man, ‘Ned’, and goes undercover in various contexts to try to understand the world from a male perspective. I’m about half-way through the book now, and it’s been a very thought-provoking read thus far, in large part because of s0me of the connections with hers and my stories.

Norah took the name for her alter ego from her childhood nickname, as she was always, from a very young age, somewhat of a tomboy. In later life, she is a lesbian and muses upon how the signs of this were there at an early stage. Her desire to write the book was not, apparently, about being a transvestite or transsexual, but follows an experience of going out in New York in drag one night with a friend for a laugh, and noticing the very different reactions she got from men when they thought she was a man.

When I was young, I was always very much a tomboy. Apparently, when my uncle tried to give me a ‘very nice’ doll to play with when I was about three, I threw it back at him in disgust. I never wanted to do the girly stuff at school, and would much rather have been playing football with the boys. I did frequently pinch my ickle brother’s toys, and would never have been into dressing up and make up and that sort of thing. In fact, as long as I’ve remember, I’ve hated ‘girly’, ‘frilly’ things and thought of myself in a very male way, if you see what I mean.

As an adult, I’ve become aware of my sexual orientation and am very comfortable with it.  It was odd yesterday, though, bumping into my old form teacher and head of year from high school, now a married couple, in the middle of M&S (only in Durham!) and thinking about my teenage self. With those kind of conversations, it’s like being in an odd time-wrap. I was aware of my orientation back then, but social conditioning and fear of being bullied and of parental disapproval meant I did my best to bury it, so successfully at times that I wondered if there was something wrong with me because I didn’t fancy boys.  It’s one of the reasons I ended up going out with a man although I never fancied him, certainly never felt the kind of ‘butterflies in the stomach’ I do when I look at TractorGirl. I did love him in a way, but I was honestly never ‘in love’.

I guess the point of all these musings is to wonder about the extent to which sexual orientation and gender are a given and how much is to do with social conditioning. I posted a little while ago about liking to wear shirts and ties. I always have been attracted to dressing in a male way and actually used to do this both as a child when it was ‘cute’ and as a teenager in secret in case anyone found out and thought I was weird. Since it’s become an everyday part of my waredrobe it no longer has an overtly sexual dimension, but it does feel very natural, expressing something of who I am. Simultaneously, aspects of my femininity, such as my hair, are also important to me, and so doing ‘feminine butch’ seems  a good way of capturing both parts. I am not a man trapped in a woman’s body, but more like a mixture of a man and a woman jostling for expression.

Reading Norah Vincent’s experiences of taking ‘Ned’ to a men-only bowling league, on dates with various women and to strip clubs has been intriguing. There is clearly a sense in which what is considered ‘appropriate’ behaviour for men (and by extension women) is socially defined and passed on from one generation to another. The father-and-son in the bowling alley show this only too well. The sense of needing to hide deep pain and make a joke of it, only being able to express feelings to a limited depth to another man, was there in Jim’s story, with his much-loved wife dying of cancer. Once he knew Ned was Norah, he felt able to open up in a way he couldn’t to a man. A fear of being thought homosexual was quite strong, and there was a sense that the sexual needs of a man can never be fully met within marriage, that ‘baser’ desires that don’t fit with the model of civilised man and therefore would be shameful to tell one’s partner about, need to be satisfied in strip clubs, with much physical but absolutely no emotional intimacy at all, as if physical satisfaction is everything.

That chapter was by far the saddest, as I realised that it is not only the women who are degraded by all this, but very much the men too. The chapter on dating pulled me up short. Ned encountered a lot of hostility from women who lumped all the faults of their exes onto him just for being a man, and the women often wanted someone both sensitive and delicate and also macho and ‘traditionally’ strong, something that seemed to require multiple personalities… It made me think about the extent to which I have been unfair to men as a result of the way my ex was, and also what my expectations are of a partner. It’s so easy to not communicate these properly, or to be unaware that our expectations maybe can’t be met by the other and that we need to deal with past pains.

I have always felt things very deeply and been an extremely emotional person, for whom that emotional depth and its expression, particularly by touch and sexuality as a way of articulating that which is too deep for words, is very important. I know I haven’t always expressed this very well to TractorGirl and sometimes it can be a lonely place to be. It’s this thing of being with a crowd of friends or even in bed with a partner you love and being so close, yet feeling totally alone. This can be hard as a woman, with expression of emotion being more ‘acceptable’; how much harder must it be for men? I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book to see how it pans out for ‘Ned’ and those he encounters.