Borders are cool?

“Borders are cool” croons Welsh artist MC Mabon in the song of the same name. They have certainly always fascinated me. It began with my childhood in a village-turned-suburb on the border of England and Wales. We lived on the English side of the border but my Nan lived on the Welsh side; and so my early years were spent shuttling to and fro, crossing and recrossing the invisible line that – according to the map – divided the two countries. It was the border which defined us as a community in fact. We were the people who lived on the border, who belonged to the border itself rather than the actual countries on either side of it – all the more so because many of us were of Irish descent to boot.

Where was the border? I was always trying to pinpoint it; but there are no physical barriers between England and Wales, except those imposed by rivers. Still i used to imagine – in my childish way – that there was a real line somewhere, a kind of energy line, that would zap you as you passed across it. My mum used to point out a pub: “The border goes through that pub”, she’d say. According to her, there was time when licensing laws were different in England and Wales. The pub’s customers would move from one side of the pub to circumvent them. Crossing and recrossing, just like us.

I don’t know if the story’s true. What is true is that people have very complex relationships with these lines we draw in our world. On the one hand you have people prepared to die to defend them, on the other you have people – like the drinkers in the pub – to whom they’re at worst a nuisance, at best an opportunity. And then you have people like me for whom they form a part of their identity.

I’ve been reading a lot recently about borders and the effect they can have in preparation for my forthcoming trip to Turkey (and hopefully Greece). Twice A Stranger* by Bruce Clark looks at the massive population exchange between Greece and Turkey which resulted from the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Over a million Greeks/Orthodox Christians and half a million Turks/Muslims were forced to migrate to the ‘right’ side of the border, as dictated by their religious identity. An invisible line had appeared in their world and it wreaked havoc – although not as much havoc as did the line which a couple of decades later divided India from Pakistan.

Many of the people who had to move between Turkey and Greece had lived a long way from the new border. The ‘Greeks’ often came from places like Cappadocia in the Anatolian interior; while many of the ‘Turks’ had been resident in Crete or in Greek Macedonia. Their stories are often traumatic; but what was it like for those people who found themselves living on or next to the new line itself – the border which now goes through Thrace? And how do the modern residents of the areas of Greece and Turkey which lie on either side of the border relate to it and to each other?

In any case, that border isn’t too problematic: the population exchange produced relatively homogenous populations which were easily identified with their respective nations. What about the border between Spain and France, however, which cuts through the territory of the Basque people, dividing rather than delimiting it? And then there are those darker borders, the ones designed to act not just as fences, but as impenetrable walls: the old border between East and West Germany, the modern border between North and South Korea for example. I remember visiting Cyprus in 1991 and being chilled (yet also mesmerised) by the border which divided the Greek and Turkish portions of the island. The images remain in my mind: glimpsing the other side of Nicosia, visible yet unreachable; gazing upon the no man’s land of Famagusta through binoculars – there was a city that had been destroyed by a border, stopped dead in time by it.

Thinking about the place where i grew up: what would it mean if the invisible line which runs through it suddenly became a real boundary? It might seem fanciful but what if it did happen? It needn’t be anything as dramatic or even tangible as the barbed wire fences that run through Cyprus (let alone the terrifying walls the Israelis have built between themselves and the Palestinians). As it stands the Anglo-Welsh border is politically only semi-active: it has an administrative function, one which has gained some power following Devolution; but to all intents and purposes life flows back and forth across the border without regard to it. The shoppers, the buses, the people out for a stroll only notice it, if at all, when they look at a sign and see that it is bilingual. If Wales were ever to become independent however, it could be a different story. What future can there be in a nationalistic world for communities which straddle two (or more) nations?

Alternatively, what would it mean if the line was removed altogether? Again, it might not seem likely at the moment, but it’s not impossible in the long run. Wales is far more vulnerable to assimilation by England than is Scotland: it’s smaller, divided within itself between north and south and between language communities; and it has a long land border with the English Midlands, a much more densely populated area. What if it were to follow Cornwall and become merged into England itself? The border would cease to exist and with it would go the identity of the border dwellers.

Indeed both of these two possible futures threaten that identity; the current border is a kind of unresolved problem and an identity based on it relies on the problem remaining unresolved. It relies on stasis. Yet in reality things do not stand still – not even in Famagusta, which is gradually falling down. Of course it’s also true that the solutions themselves aren’t permanent. Whatever lines we draw now, whether on maps or elsewhere in our world, will certainly be redrawn again in the future; it’s just a question of when and where. The tension inherent in this is in fact what gives a border much of its power: we’re as afraid of it collapsing as we are of being trapped by it. Equally afraid of both.

*Twice A Stranger. ISBN: 978-1862077522; author: Bruce Clark; pub. Granta Books (2006)

“… oh, no, i wouldn’t introduce them.”

There’s an interesting post about social networking over at SpaceCollective* in which a blogger called Venessa discusses the idea of network weaving. The idea is that rather than letting your social networks evolve randomly you actively manage them to make them more productive. Talking about Twitter, she says she’s

... started using the hashtag #networkweaving when I “introduce” new connections I make to connections I already have who share common interests. I’m finding it a lot more valuable to others than doing a general #followfriday.

My instinctive reaction to this was “Ugh!” And i wondered why. Maybe it’s just that i’m just not forward-thinking enough (quite possible); yet somehow that didn’t seem to be the whole explanation. I thought about what a #followfriday actually is. On the face of it it’s a suggestion (plea?) to your followers to follow somebody you yourself are following. However, it’s so ritualistic and so impersonal – always done on the same day of the week, sent to all your followers at the same time – that in truth it’s more like a statement of appreciation or loyalty. It works primarily to affirm your own link with the person you #followfriday. Those receiving the #followfriday may choose to check out suggestion; they may not. In either case it’s unlikely they will feel any actual pressure to do. Retweeting does a similar job.

The #networkingweaving idea is different. It introduces an element of personalisation. You and whoever else is included in the tweet are being specifically targeted, singled out. You are not just being made aware of one another’s presence, you are – as the blogger herself puts it – being “introduced”. An introduction places obligations on those introduced. You can’t just politely** pretend not to notice someone if i introduce you to them, which is something you could do quite easily if i just sent round a group email mentioning that they exist.

It also – and i think this is important – draws attention to the role of the person who is doing the “network weaving” and becomes more about them (their role as connector, their bank of interesting and useful contacts) and less about the people they are supposedly attempting to connect to one another. This is borne out in the title of the post which is “The Importance of Managing Your Online Reputation”. Your reputation. This is about you, not them.

At this point i remembered a passage in the book i’m currently reading, The Death and Life of Great American Cities*** by Jane Jacobs. I don’t know how many people have read this book so i’ll briefly explain: published in 1961 it is a landmark text in the field of urban planning, a blistering critique of the rationalist planning policies of its time. In one of the early chapters she discusses the very issues of the private versus the public which are so beloved of web theorists today. In the city she says “privacy is precious”. This doesn’t mean that people don’t want contact with other human beings, quite the contrary:

A good city neighbourhood achieves a marvel of balance between its people’s determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment or help from the people around.

Twitter and social networks like it may not be city neighbourhoods but they have important similarities. Like the big city which people move to both because it offers them opportunities to broaden their horizons but also autonomy, so social networks attract people who want contact with others but contact they can control.

Talking about how the balance she describes above is maintained Jacobs gives us as an example a local shopkeeper in her own neighbourhood who is respected and trusted by his clientele to the point where they leave spare keys with him for safekeeping. This shopkeeper lends an umbrella to one customer, provides information about local rents to another and listens to yet another customer’s tale of domestic woe. Yet when asked if he ever introduces his customers to one another he answers:

“No, that would just not be advisable. Sometimes, if i know two customers who are in at the same time have an interest in common, i bring up the subject in conversation and let them carry it on from there if they want to. But oh no, i wouldn’t introduce them.”

Jacobs says that this attitude on the part of the shopkeeper shows just how well he understands where the line is drawn between the public and the private. I’m struck by the similarity between the shopkeeper’s tactic of bringing up of a subject in conversation so that his audience – the customers in his shop – have the chance to discover that they may share interests in common, may want to choose to approach one another and the way that retweeting and the #followfriday tradition work on Twitter. And how his rejection of the idea of making introductions parallels my unease about the #networkweaving idea.

Introductions are intrusive. They also formalise where formality is not necessarily the most productive approach. I’m not saying that they’re never appropriate, but if we think about where they work best we realise it’s contexts like parties, meetings, conferences – situations in which people have already consented implicitly to being connected to the other people present – or else spontaneously in contexts where say two people run across a third who is only known to one of them. In that situation, the introduction feels like a courtesy rather than an imposition and serves to reduce rather than create social tension because it resolves a problem – the problem being that the two strangers are already confronted with one another via the third person who is interacting with them both. They no longer have the option to choose to remain unaware of each other. In fact, in this situation an introduction is usually the only appropriate action.

There you have it: my two penn’orth on the subject of “network weaving” and introductions.

* A  website which says it’s a place “where forward-thinking terrestrials exchange ideas and information about the state of the species, their planet, the universe, living the lives of science fiction today.” i confess i’d never heard of the site till James Reilly submitted the link (to this post) to Friendfeed, but it’s very stylish.
** You can ignore them impolitely of course, but this violates social norms and thus is liable to be stressful for many (most?) people.
*** ISBN: 0-679-74195-X. Published by Vintage Books (my edition is anyway).

Back from a funeral

Just back from a funeral. The man who died was a colleague in his early 50s, an extremely popular man, and the suddenness of his death has left the office in his shock. “I keep expecting to him to walk through the door,” is a remark I’ve heard several times; and it’s true, it really does just feel like he’s on holiday. I’m sure it’s different for his family: for them the absence will already be too long to feel normal; but for his co-workers, myself included, grief is precluded by a feeling of unreality.

This, i think, explains the scene at the crematorium as we all waited for the family to arrive. People were laughing and joking and talking about their everyday lives. It was only when the hearses came through the gate, bearing the coffin and the family, that a hush came over us. Suddenly, we had visible proof – if only indirectly in the form of the coffin – that a death really had occurred. We stood and watched as the procession drew nearer, preceded by two men in the uniform of the undertaker: formal coats and top hats.

At this point i was aware of a feeling of expectancy – the necessary ritual had begun. ‘Finally,’ i thought, ‘ i will understand that he’s dead.’ But as the family emerged from the hearses they were laughing and joking. They had obviously decided to make it ‘a happy occasion’. I understand why they chose to do this and the ‘celebration of life’ was very moving in parts, not to mention illuminating: i’d never realised that he was a fellow Morecambe & Wise fan. Still, i can’t help but feel that we do need in some way to address the death. A person was alive and now they are dead – and they will always be dead. We need a ritual to allow us to cross the bridge from the first of those realities to the second.

As it is, somewhere inside me i’m still expecting him to be back in work – tomorrow perhaps or maybe next week. How he’ll laugh when we tell him he’s dead…


There’s an interesting post over at normblog* in which he comments on the apparent controversy over whether or not the US President was correct to bow when he met the Emperor of Japan. Those who are criticising Obama are accusing him of being subservient. The Washington Times for instance accuses him of selling out

what America… is about

which is that

all men stand equal and are entitled to look even a king, maybe particularly a king, straight in the eye.

This is apparently due to Obama being

sired by a Kenyan father, born to a mother attracted to men of the Third World and reared by grandparents in Hawaii, a paradise far from the American mainstream.

No matter that, according to one blog which commented on this editorial, the author is the son of a man who defended segregation – not the most obvious example of men being allowed to stand equal, although it was for a long time a big part of what America was about for some of its citizens. After all, What kind of person judges a person according to their parents?

What i am really interested in is the unease around respect, which when talked about in the abstract is usually considered to be a good thing. From childhood on, we are urged to respect others. In fact, we are commonly told that all human beings are worthy of respect. This being the case it could be argued that Obama’s mistake is not in bowing to an emperor, but in only bowing to an emperor. He should bow to everybody. Everybody should bow to everybody. In fact, I remember reading a book about Buddhism which contained a description of a monk even bowing to an insect (or some kind of small creature anyway) that he encountered as we walked along a path.

“Well… maybe,” you might say. “But that isn’t what i have a problem with. My problem is with the idea that any human being is ‘higher’ than another – and that is what bowing says to me.” Surely however that is exactly what respect means – to hold someone in a higher regard than yourself. For example, when we say we respect our elders, we imply that they are above us in some way: wisdom, experience, endurance of hardship; hence the fact that as synonyms dictionaries offer words like: veneration, admiration, reverence. The idea that we should respect all our fellow human beings actually rests on an assumption that we can find some aspect of any other human being in which they exceed us.

By way of objection, you might mention an artist, X, who says that he respects another artist, Y, who is quite obviously his inferior; but actually what does X respect? It could be that Y achieves so much despite the fact that he is less talented than X, that he works harder, that although his work isn’t overall of the same standard as X’s it nevertheless excels his in some areas: variety, quantity, commercial success. This list would be very long indeed if i were to try and identify everything it is possible to respect in another artist, but the point is this: for X to respect Y there must be some relevant area in which he feels that Y is his superior, or else X is lying.

One question raised by Obama bowing to the Emperor Akihito is whether or not he is indicating respect for – suggesting as ‘higher’ – a social hierarchy based on birth, rather than personal achievement. This reflects the fact that emperors, indeed like most of us, are both people in their own right and representatives of the ‘system’ or ‘organisation’ in which they have a role. As the Emperor of Japan, Akihito can be perceived as representing the a hierarchical social system; but equally he can be seen as representing the Japanese nation of which he is head of state and at a state occasion that would be the more obvious way to interpret behaviour towards him. Obama of course represents the American social system – in a number of interesting ways – as well as America as a country. Are there no ways in which Japan as a nation might be thought to be worthy of respect by America?

Still, you might protest: bowing isn’t our way. The problem with this objection is that bowing is the Japanese way and politeness, which is the way we show respect to people we do not know, is culture-specific. It is as meaningless to insist on showing people respect according to the rules of your own society as it is to insist on speaking to them in your own language. When Americans were looking European ‘kings’ in the eye it was as part of a shared and understood – even if contested – story in which the Europeans are the old colonial, dominant power overcome by the new freedom-loving American underdogs. That isn’t necessarily the case when Americans go into Asian or African countries – which reminds me: an Asian perspective on Obama’s bow can be found here.

Thinking about it, much of the anxiety around Obama betraying American ideals by bowing down in front of Akihito can be seen as fear of a foreign ‘language’ – of lacking mastery over the symbols of communication and, by extension, of the story being told. If we shake hands we feel we know what the gesture means; never mind that it might have a different conotation for the person we shake hands with. In the case of some bloggers, hidden behind rhetoric about equality, there is an even keener fear – one of not having mastery in the political domain. Japan’s come a long way since those days immediately after World War II when General McArthur could feel quite confident he had no need to bow.

* normblog has an even more relevant post here, but i hadn’t seen it when i wrote this.

What’s in a (fore)name?

Imagine if your child – or indeed brother or sister – changed their name. How would you feel? I don’t mean their surname, although if it wasn’t being changed for traditional reasons, in other words on marriage, then that might also be an issue for you. No, i mean their forename, the name by which you’ve called them ever since you’ve known them. In the case of your child, the name you gave them.

This is something almost all trans people do when they transition. Most forenames are gender-specific and, where that isn’t the case, the ambiguity itself may be problematic. Names are as much about who we want to be as about who we actually are – at least when we choose them ourselves.

Most people of course don’t choose their own names. Their names are chosen for them. As i suggest above, in our culture this is done by parents; in others a wider circle of relatives may be involved. In some societies there is a naming ceremony. We don’t have that but it can be argued that baptisms have historically fulfilled the same role. A public act of affirmation takes place in which this person and that name are joined together. The closest secular society generally comes, sadly, is the miserable little ritual of registering the birth. Something so magical reduced to a bureaucratic form!

I am however wandering off on a tangent as usual. The point is that names bind people to other people, in particular with those who claim the right to name them. When a trans person changes their name they are – even if they regret the fact – rejecting that claim. It’s easy to see how this may be experienced by the person or people who named them, i.e. their parents, as a rejection of themselves and the parent-child bond itself. This may be felt more intensely in modern Western society than in more communal cultures, because the forename is more likely to be a personal choice, a name that had a special resonance for the person’s parents or one which they found specially beautiful; rather than a traditional name they are handing on dutifully, just as it was handed on down to them. I’m thinking in the latter case of the way that it was much more common in the past for people to simply inherit their father’s forename for example.

Imagine looking at your little girl and naming her Linda, because you know that it means ‘beautiful’ and that is what she is to you: so beautiful. And you love her so, so much. Then ‘she’ grows up and tells you ‘she’ is transitioning* and, as part of that process, will be changing her name to Louis – or perhaps something totally different, like Joe or Mark or Brendan. The loss of the name can feel like the loss of your relationship, like the rejection of your love.

The loss of a name can also feel like the loss of a person, and this affects relationships far beyond the parent-child one. Those labels we attach to things come to feel like part of them, which is one of the reasons it can be so hard to understand the poetry of a language very different from your own. I remember hearing the Turkish word for star – yıldız –and wondering, ‘how on earth can that mean ‘star’? It doesn’t have any star-ness about it’.

With people we’ve known a long time, the name becomes so entwined with the person that, particularly in cases where we know no-one else with the same forename, we can end up feeling as though that name is the word for that person. When the individual in question announces they’re changing their name it feels, therefore, as if they’re announcing that the person you know, perhaps even love, is also going to cease to exist. Brothers and sisters may be badly affected by this, but interestingly i think it hits close friends harder.

Of course, the person who is changing their name is also affected by this association of name and person. For them this can be a confusing time: on the one hand the (apparent) possibility of completely re-inventing themself – for they are not immune to the association between name and ‘self’. On the other, the worried feeling that they have in some way unrooted themself. Should they choose a name which expresses who they think they are – or at least would like to be? Or should they select one that re-roots them in their family tree: the name of an ancestor, the name their mother said she would have given them if they’d been born a boy**, a male** version of their existing name? Should they ask someone else to name them? If so, who?

There is also an anxiety which only the newly re-named person knows, but which they will often keep a secret, even amongst friends. That their new name feels alien to others is easily accepted. However, as the individual to whom the name ‘belongs’, the trans person must act from the outset as though name and person are one: it is precisely this identification that gives a name its strength. Yet in the early days it’s a hard slog. Making sure you don’t fail to react to ‘your’ name when called, teaching yourself not to turn when you hear someone call the name that used to be ‘yours’: these things take time, effort and commitment.

It’s an odd thing: in a sense names are just labels, but somehow they’re more than that. Much more.

* ‘ Transitioning’ is short for ‘transitioning (between) genders’ or similar expressions. It describes the process of ‘moving’ (via hormone therapy, surgery, legal applications, etc) from living in one gender, generally the one aligned with your biological/genetic sex, to another. For most people the ‘journey’ is male -> female or female -> male, but there are some people who conceive gender in more complex terms (genderqueer) and also those who start from a more complicated position (e.g. those who are intersexed).
** These last two examples assume the person is a trans man, rather than a trans woman. Of course, it could just as easily be the other way round. I tried making the sentence gender-neutral, but it was unwieldy and didn’t read naturally.

Gender mishaps: some funny, some tragic

* PLEASE DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU FIND ANY MENTION OF HUMAN GENITALIA OFFENSIVE. There you go: i’ve flagged it as ‘mature’ myself. This post may not be of much interest to non-transsexual people.*

Alan Partridge* [to his Dictaphone]: “Idea for a programme entitled ‘Yachting Mishaps’. Some funny, some tragic.”

I love this quote from I’m Alan Partridge. What’s more, i think it pretty well sums up the FTM** experience. There’s the tragedy of realising that your body has veered seriously off course in its sexual development; of becoming aware that the sexual characteristics you feel you should have naturally can only imperfectly be obtained medically, while those you wish to rid yourself of can never be fully erased. On the one hand, the problems of the current limitations on phalloplasty surgery; on the other, the too wide hips, too small hands, too short stature.

Yet there’s comedy too, even if it’s mostly unintentional. An example: the surgeon responsible for my phalloplasty forgot to tell me that i’d need to keep my newly created ‘friend’ at a 45 degree angle for some weeks following my first procedure. Not only that but it would need to be wrapped in layers of gauze and padding. The result? A member with a length and  girth that would do a stallion proud. Imagine me then as i made my way to my checkups at the surgeon’s Harley Street clinic, barely able to walk as i’d had my hysterectomy during the same operation. I am tottering along, clutching a fleece in front of my nether parts, when who should i meet but a whole battery of heavily veiled and heavily pregnant Arab ladies. Yes, indeed, there’s a fertility clinic on the ground floor. ‘Don’t drop the fleece,’ i thought to myself desperately, ‘Just don’t drop it.’ Luckily, i didn’t.

Later the same year i had the pump implanted, which – how can i put this – enables the new penis to go up and down. At the consultation i had with the surgeon’s nurse prior to the operation she showed me the mechanism that would be going into my body. In particular, she drew my attention to the blue dot in one area. “This dot”, she explained, “marks the place that you press when you need to ‘deflate’”. “Hang on a minute”, i said, “it’s going to be inside my body. How on earth will i be able to see it?” “Ah yes”, she said, “there is that. Oh and by the way, remember how you had to have the phallus*** up at a 45 degree angle after your first operation, well… ”

Yes, it was back to being a rampant stallion again while the stitches healed. This time with the full hydraulics. Then, it was time to find out if i could find the spot without the ‘handy’ blue guide. I did, but one guy, who i was in touch with at the time but have since lost contact with, told me it had taken him three days the first time. You read that right: three days.

I’ve been thinking about these experiences just recently as i’ve been invited by the clinic to take part in an open day for prospective patients. Unexpected comedy notwithstanding, i’m actually very happy with the way the surgery went for me. Some things i’ll always be sad about but as long as i can laugh…

* Alan Partridge was a spoof radio (and later TV) presenter created by the comedian Steve Coogan. I’m Alan Partridge documents Alan’s attempts to get the BBC to commission a second series of his (awful) chat show.
** Female-to-male transsexual (trans man)
*** Nurses and doctors always use the word ‘phallus’, maybe because it sounds more ‘medical’ and therefore less ‘rude’ than the usual name given to this part of the body. And it’s normally always ‘the phallus’ too, rather than ‘your phallus’. Somewhere, deep down, i think the surgeons always think it belongs to them – as its creators, not you.

The grey mist

I was reading a blog the other day in which the author was talking about depression. Not for the first time I was struck by how misunderstood this is as a phenomenon. Even the name is misleading: depression – at least in my experience – is not so much an experience in which you feel ‘low’, as one in which you feel distant, separated even, from the world on the one hand and yourself on the other.

I suffered a serious bout of depression a few years ago and my most vivid memory, in so far as you can describe any memory from that period as vivid, is of sitting in a restaurant by the river with a friend and looking through the window at the people outside. I felt as if some invisible but unbridgeable chasm separated us; almost as if we were in two different worlds. Actually, it was as if I wasn’t really in the world at all. My emotions seemed to be enveloped in a kind of grey mist and I just couldn’t find them, no matter hard I tried.

The only way in which the depression lived up to its name was in its effect on my energy levels. I couldn’t run or exert myself in any way that required enthusiasm. Fortunately, walking – always one of my favourite things – was still possible; and so I would force myself to go out each day and walk as far as I could along the river.

This was during the ‘acute phase’, the five weeks I was off work. The depression lasted for about six months in all and for most of that period I had to work or at least try to. Looking back it’s clear I should have stayed off longer but, like many people afflicted by ‘the black dog’, the two feelings that didn’t desert me were shame and anxiety. The absence of physical symptoms – or at least symptoms that can be definitely attributed to depression – tends to make you feel like a fraud, or as though you’re perceived as a fraud by others. Returning to work before you’re ready is one of the ways in which you ‘apologise’ for your illness; and also one of the ways in which you try to hide it.

Signing up for prescriptions of anti-depressants is another way. This has the additional benefit of legitimising your sickness (you wouldn’t be taking ‘medicine’ if you weren’t ‘ill’); and provides everybody – including you -with the reassurance that something is being done. I know that for some people the drugs do work, but for me it was definitely more a case of showing willing. I didn’t notice the slightest impact on how i felt; whereas when I came off the drugs the withdrawal effects were, by contrast, all too noticeable.

In the end, the depression didn’t ‘lift’ any more than it ‘descended’ on me. What happened was simply that the mist cleared and the chasm narrowed; and I began to feel not necessarily more cheerful, but just something.

Meat is murder?

Coming back to my earlier post about the ethics of abortion, I’ve always wondered how “pro-choice”* vegetarians justify their position. I suppose I should be a bit more specific: I’m talking about vegetarians whose refusal to eat meat is rooted in a belief that it’s wrong to destroy sentient life. Surely a human foetus is at least as sentient as, say, a prawn, even relatively early on in its development?

* The quotation marks reflect the fact that the terminology used in the abortion debate is so ridiculous. It’s been said before, but who is actually “anti-choice” or “anti-life”?

The importance of being a person

I recently read an interesting argument against abortion. It starts by observing that, at least as far as the right not to be killed is concerned, we extend full human rights to babies despite the fact that they are not fully developed human beings. They lack many of the characteristics which we typically use to differentiate human beings from other animals such as language and a sense of self; yet we don’t regard them as we would non-human animals.

The writer argues that we do this because although a baby is not yet a “person”, it is a “potential person”, meaning that given enough time, the baby could develop the full range of human characteristics. Personhood is an inherent potential of babies, whether or not they live long enough to attain it. Since this is also true of a foetus or even an embryo or zygote, then we should also extend to them the same full human right not to be killed.

Although i’m uncomfortable with the idea of abortion, I disagree with this analysis. I think that our attitude to babies has little to do with their potential to become persons and a lot to do with our desire to ensure that we don’t inadvertently deny this most fundamental human right not to be killed to actual persons. Or to put it another way: it has a lot to do with our fear of (committing or permitting) murder. The further we extend the category of person, the less chance there is that we will exclude someone who should belong in it. Of course, as we do so, we increase the likelihood that we may include some creature who does not belong in it. But this isn’t nearly as serious a problem – at least not in resource-rich societies.

Nor is this simply a matter of altruism: we are also protecting ourselves. The broader the category that is person, the more security we have as persons. Which of us hasn’t been terrified at some point by the image of ourselves afflicted with one of those degenerative conditions which leaves people trapped inside their bodies, unable to communicate – i.e. to demonstrate their personhood? Which of us doesn’t fear conditions like Alzheimer’s or the ordinary deterioration of old age? We all have a vested interest in a relaxed understanding of what is required to have the status of person. It could be argued that we’re protecting ourselves in another way too: it is very hard for us to come to terms with the fact that someone who appears to be a person may not – or may no longer – really possess personhood.

Yet, there are limits on how far the boundaries of the category of person can be extended. The most basic is this: unsure as we may be about what is going on in another creature’s brain – how much consciousness is there, how much complexity of thought – we do know that without a brain nothing is going on. There is no person because there is no-one home to be a person. The brainstem appears to begin to develop at around the age of 6 to 7 weeks after conception. It does not therefore seem in any way reasonable to insist on assigning the rights of a person to a zygote, regardless of what potential it may or may not have for developing into a person.

After that it gets more complicated: there simply isn’t a magic point at which the foetus is clearly and unequivocally a person and indeed the brainstem goes on developing for some months after a baby is born. It does seem likely, based on the available evidence, that even at full term there is only a very limited capacity for anything that could be genuinely be called thought. Yet, we can’t be sure and so our fear of transgressing the taboo of murder is roused.

In a way though, the potential versus actual personhood argument is superficial. Our reactions and attitudes to babies are not primarily intellectual. As a species we reproduce sexually. Our survival as a species (or a collection of genes) hinges on our success in raising our offspring to adulthood so that they too can reproduce sexually. A human baby is helpless and depends on adult human beings (primarily, but not only, the baby’s parents) feeling motivated to intervene on the baby’s behalf, despite the fact that the baby has no ability to reciprocate the gesture. Something so critical can’t be left to the mercy of the higher intellect. If it were, neither the individual baby nor the human species would last very long.

If we really want to understand why someone may accord a baby the human right not to be killed, but deny it to a foetus (especially in the early stages of a pregnancy), then we need to recognise that we are pre-programmed to respond to babies with feelings of protectiveness, even if these feelings may vary in strength and even if this programming is not always reliable. We are hard wired to over-interpret any evidence of personhood in a baby’s behaviour (“Look at her face! She’s wondering what i’m doing.”).

Until modern times no-one would have been able to view directly the behaviour of a living foetus in the womb.  Even now our interactions with it are limited. There has never been the same evolutionary pressure for us to develop such a strong response to it and so our thought processes are less affected by emotion. Indeed, the emotional response we do have to a foetus is an overflow of that prompted by a baby. The less-developed (and hence less baby-like) the foetus, the less strong our response to it). Rather than being illogical in denying the foetus an absolute right not to be killed, we are being all too logical.

Just British?

There’s an interesting post over at Mark Easton’s UK in which he comments on the minefield which is ethnic terminology. During last week’s controversial “Question Time”, featuring Nick Griffin from the British National Party (BNP), a woman in the audience upbraided Jack Straw of the Labour Party for using the term “Afro-Caribbean”, rather than her preferred version: “African-Caribbean”.

Meanwhile, Nick Griffin, possibly the least photogenic politician since Roy Hattersley, drew flak for using the expression “indigenous British people”. One of the standard arguments against the use of terms like this is that no-one in Britain can truly claim to be indigenous. We’re all descended from migrants; the only difference is that some of those migrant ancestors arrived here sooner than others.

No population is entirely separate from the rest of humanity, goes the rhetoric. We are all members of a single species whose ultimate roots lie in Africa. That being the case, how can it be meaningful to refer to anyone as “African”? How can that word be used to differentiate the origins of any human sub-group?

Then, the second part of her term: “Caribbean”. Surely the association between this lady’s ancestors and the Caribbean is likely to be even more ephemeral than is that of the average Welshman, say, and Britain? A few hundred years as opposed to a few thousand.

As for the lady herself, surely she is “just British”? If this isn’t true, then presumably the majority white population aren’t “just British” either. In which case, what are they?