Writing as we speak

We really need to update our understanding of written communication. As it is, we’re still behaving as if we were living in the era of the letter, not that of the email – and definitely not that of Twitter. I’ve been thinking about this ever since that poor, unfortunate man in Doncaster was found guilty of threatening to blow up an airport following a mini-rant on Twitter – after he found the airport shut by snow.

The judge is quoted as describing the man’s tweet as

of a menacing nature in the context of the times in which we live.

But this is rubbish, precisely because of that very context. The times in which we live are times in which we often use the written word as would speech – because it’s almost as easy and as quick. We wouldn’t assume that someone who shouts “I’ll kill you!” on discovering that their partner/colleague has done something stupid is actually intending to murder this annoying individual, especially if we could see that the individual supposedly being threatened was not even present.  So why assume that the man from Doncaster was serious when he tweeted that he would “blow you sky high”, addressing the airport but sending the message to his his Followers, i.e. those that subscribe to his feed?

And bear in mind that this was a tweet. Twitter is a sort of virtual blackboard on which people chalk up whatever’s on their mind at that instant. The atmosphere, generally speaking, is rather like you’d find in the kitchen at work: groups of people moaning, gossiping, joking and taking the mickey out of one another. It might be public but it’s experienced as private. The problem is we don’t yet have a model for these public/private virtual spaces.

Probably the most ironic thing about all this is that in venting his frustrations into the wonderful void that is Twitter our friend in Doncaster was dissipating anger that he might otherwise have ended up directing at the airport staff. That aside, the fact is that a man lost his job and ended up in court because of a failure to recognise how deeply the internet has altered the way we communicate. And we’re no safer from terrorist threats.

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Killing Jesus

A recent encounter with a salesman – i thought he was an evangelist when he approached me – has reminded me of the scene i encountered when i was out shopping a few days before my trip to Turkey. It was Good Friday and, while supermarkets were frantically selling chocolate eggs, out on the street groups of Christian and Muslim preachers were preaching about the Crucifixion. What they were preaching however was very different: while the Christians were proselytising that this (plus the Resurrection) was the most significant event  in history, the Muslims were denying it had even happened: according to the Qur’an* (4:157–158) it only appears as if Jesus was crucified:

However, they did not slay him, and neither did they crucify him, but it only seemed to them [as if it had been] so.

Nevertheless this was the first time I’d ever seen Muslims making a fuss about the issue.

I say Muslims; but these people appeared to be Salafis,  a group which has doesn’t have much space for intrafaith differences of opinion, never mind interfaith ones. That in turn made me think of how things have changed since i was a child. Back then my best friend was a Bangladeshi and what impressed me most about her family’s religion was how reasonable, inclusive and life-affirming it was – especially compared to Christianity which seemed to have lost its way in doctrinal squabbles and evangelical arrogance. Most of all i admired the fact that there was no obsession with being perfect. It was enough to be a good human being. God was God, Man was Man.

It wasn’t until i moved to London and started university that i encountered a different kind of Muslim: ultra-pious, ultra-covered and ultra-judgemental: i remember her looking at a girl in a short skirt and saying she only had herself to blame if she got raped. At the same time however she emphasised the kinship of Islam and Christianity – even if she did make it clear which she considered superior – and never actively proselytised or rubbished Christian beliefs. In fact, it’s a startling thought, but those angry young Muslims i described earlier would probably denounce S as not strict enough. In fact, i wonder if they truly feel convinced that anyone is strict enough: for all Islam’s insistence that perfection is for God alone, it seems to me that increasingly it is developing the same obsession with it that, as i said earlier, mars Christianity.

And then there’s the irony of the fact that of all Christian beliefs it was the Crucifixion the preachers were attacking. The Qur’anic disavowal of this event** has always struck me as odd and seems to undermine the Islamic insistence on Jesus being Man, not God. It resembles a belief of the Gnostic strand of Christianity which was common in Arabia at the time Muhammad lived. The Gnostics rejected the idea of the humanity of Jesus: God, not Man. Docetism, as the belief was known, was the idea that Jesus’ body was illusory – he only appeared to be flesh and blood – and as such his crucifixion was too. This developed in various Gnostic groups into the idea that someone else took his place on the cross.

Strangely enough, i didn’t feel any great urge to discuss this issue with the Muslim preachers though. Nor for that matter with their Christian brethren who, were trying to emotionally blackmail everyone to go church (“He died for you”) a few metres along the road.

* The Message of THE QUR’AN Translated and Explained by Muhammad Asad; ISBN: 1-904510-00-0; pub.: The Book Foundation (2003)

** Since this post was originally written i’ve started reading a book about the place of Jesus in Islam*** which makes it clear that (a) the Qur’anic verses relating to the crucifixion can be interpreted in a number of different ways (partly depending on how the Arabic verbs used are understood) and (b) the verses have been and still are interpreted differently by different Muslim sects.

*** Images of Jesus Christ in Islam by Oddbjorn Leirvik; ISBN: 978-1441181602; pub.: Continuum (2010)

That shallow decade

In an article in the Times today Libby Purves assures us that the Tories have changed. What’s more so has Britain and we’re all the better for it. She’s talking about the Tories and the Britain of the 80s: the decade of Thatcherism, loadsamoney, Section 28, miners’ strikes and the Falklands War. She says:

[T]hat shallow decade can’t be repeated. Britain is — believe it or not — much pleasanter and more thoughtful than it was on emerging from the bruising, punkish, strikebound 1970s. During the 1980s, remember, hardly anybody in government gave a damn about the environment: debates about badgers and newts were confined to the backwaters of the House of Lords, and welfare organic farming — when we took it up in 1990 — was widely and viciously mocked. Homophobia flowered into Section 28 of the Local Government Act. Racial discrimination was technically illegal but dislike was open: who can forget Lord Tebbit’s weird remark on the Today programme about the Ugandan-Asian born Yasmin Alibhai-Brown :“This Miss Brown may think she’s British . . .”

I can’t help but admire the way Purves deftly palms off the blame for the aggressive atmosphere of ‘that shallow decade’ onto the one that preceded it, or rather its tail end when Labour were in power; but the 80s was a far more abrasive decade than the 70s. Where the 70s spat, the 80s bludgeoned. And bludgeoned and bludgeoned. It was as though Mrs Thatcher saw herself as Churchill in drag and her battles – with Argentina, with the miners, with anybody and everybody (even members of her own party) – as a second Second World War.

In a way it was a war, but Argentines aside, it was mostly a war with ourselves as we tried to work out who we were and what we believed in because this was the decade when the consensus around our national identity and culture broke down. The 70s might have been a decade of ‘socialism’ but it was also the last decade it was possible to talk unchallenged of Britain as a Christian nation. I remember the 80s as the decade in which my family stopped watching the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day; the decade in which it became acceptable, even in the more conservative parts of the country, to live together ‘outside of wedlock’ (what a quaint expression that seems now); and the decade in which we stopped thinking of non-white Britons as ‘immigrants’, or at least started the process. It was also, courtesy of AIDS, the decade in which we started to openly discuss (and accept) homosexuality.

It’s really only now that i can see, looking back, what a time of upheaval it was. Despite the way in which Purves contrasts the 80s and the more socially enlightened times we live in now, it was the 80s when, half-hidden by the belligerent materialism of the decade, the very developments she describes began to put out shoots. It’s ironic really that the things the Tories wanted to preserve – monarchism, Christianity, marriage and so on – are the very things their economic philosophy helped to undermine. The more individuals were ‘encouraged’ to be self-sufficient, the more their dependence on (and consequently attachment to) traditional institutions weakened.

Whether or not that’s a good or a bad thing depends on your point of view. It has certainly created problems for us as a society, problems we have so far failed to find convincing solutions to. Dispersed and disconnected families, buildings in which so-called ‘neighbours’ live side by side for years without so much as speaking to one another, an increasing fear of crime – of being robbed or short-changed by A.N. Other; these are less pleasant manifestations of our modern self-oriented culture.

I wonder if we really are more ‘thoughtful’? I think we are certainly more careful in what we say about one another. But how much does that reflect progress in our attitudes and how much does it reflect the fact that without a common culture it is hard to work out what the boundaries of the acceptable are? We over-censor or we fail to censor ourselves at all. The war with ourselves has gone undercover now: it’s waged mostly anonymously via comments on news articles, and to a lesser extent on blogs and social network sites. I don’t know about ‘pleasanter’. To my eyes it looks vicious.

More trouble in the land of penguins

Interesting that a furore has erupted over the Falkland Islands again. Apart from bringing back memories of the war in the 80s it set my mind thinking about territory and territorial claims. Who has the right to make territorial claims and why? When do the rights of those who live in a territory give way to those of others? Where does the principle of self-determination begin and end?

The current settlement dates to 1833 and is now into its sixth generation in some families. Can these people still be described as colonialists – and if so why is that not also true of the Argentines themselves? Most of the current population of Argentina descend from immigrants who arrived in the country in the late Nineteenth Century (or later) after the Falkland Islands settlement was established. The lands that many of them settled in the south of Argentina were already inhabited by indigenous peoples who were absorbed into the new state regardless of their own identities.

By contrast, there was no indigenous population on the Falklands. Certainly, there had been other settlements on the islands – the first being that of the French in 1764 – but these were all attempts at colonisation. There was no particular moral or historical claim behind them.

If the Falkland Islanders choose to identify themselves as such then why should that not be respected? Why should the islands’ real name by asserted to be Las Malvinas? If the islanders choose to speak English and choose a status as an overseas dependency of Britain (or whatever the term is) then why should that choice be disputed? Is it because they are too few of them: how many inhabitants does a place need to have a right to have a right to self-determination? Because the islands are close to Argentina: is 300 miles close? Because they are not a nation? What is the special quality of the nation state – a relatively recently developed political structure – that allows it to ride roughshod over the rights of actual people?

Here as in many other cases nationalism seems to me a covert imperialism. Where empires claim that a territory belongs to it, nations claim that a territory forms a part of it. But in both cases these claims may be made irrespective of the actual feelings of the people who inhabit it. Some South American countries assert that the failure to surrender the Falkland Islands to Argentina is imperialism. On the contrary, the settling of the islands might have been an act of imperialism, but then the same is true of the original settlement of Argentina. The settlement as it exists now though – almost 180 years later – is a society, small as it is, in its own right.

Turkey & the meaning of ‘Europe’

Turkey, it seems, wants to be part of the EU but the EU isn’t equally keen to accept it. A recent article in the Guardian explored this ambivalence and its possible consequences. As interesting as the article itself were the comments from readers. These were strongly negative on the whole – much more so than i’d normally expect from a ‘progressive’ newspaper like the Guardian.

I was particularly struck by the claim that Turkey is apparently “not part of Europe either culturally or geographically”. Taking the geographic part of this first: why does this matter? There is no particular reason why Europe the political entity need be an exact match of Europe the geographical entity. States and federations of states are not naturally occurring phenomena like rivers or mountains.

This is something the commentator should have been aware of himself actually as his name indicates he’s from Poland, a country whose geographical expression has been very variable over time. Part of Turkey is in Europe geographically and – rather ironically – the coast of the Asian part of its territory was historically home to some of those Greek states which form part of the ‘common European historical narrative’ which is used to legitimise a pan-European identity.

The second part of the claim is more complicated: is Turkey part of Europe culturally? I find this hard to answer because i honestly don’t know what European culture is. Western Classical Music? For the elite maybe. Indo-European languages? What about Basque?

Many of those who object to Turkey’s candidature lay great stress on a shared Christian history. This is yet another beautifully ironic moment: apart from the fact that many of the “Pro-Christians” who argue this are atheists who are hostile to Christianity in most other circumstances, there’s also the sheer hypocrisy and/or historical ignorance of suggesting that Christianity has been some kind of unifying force in Europe. I’m not one of those people who thinks Christianity or religion in general is bad, but let’s be honest: Christianity has been a factor in some of the continent’s bloodiest wars.

As far as i can tell, all ‘a shared Christian history’ really means is ‘not Muslim’. Yet, hang on for a minute, Bosnia and Albania, both of which lie entirely within Europe geographically, have large Muslim populations – and, more importantly, have had them for centuries. In Albania’s case, Muslims probably make up a majority of the population, although it’s hard to be sure because the data is so poor.

I was going to ask how much cultural unity there is in Europe, but given how hard it is to define what our common European culture is supposed to consist of, i’m not sure there’s any point. I will ask however: how many western Europeans for example feel any deep kinship with eastern Europeans? The article’s comments are telling in this respect, with much hostility being displayed towards new eastern European member states such as Bulgaria and Romania. When i was a child this sort of hostility was rare because these countries sat behind the so-called Iron Curtain and frankly, beyond occasional moments of sympathy for the plight of people living in Communist dictatorships, i can’t remember ever being very aware they existed. Even now, i bet many Western Europeans would struggle to locate their Eastern neighbours on an unlabelled map.

The elephant in the room, which few people seem to want to acknowledge, is the idea that Europeans share a common ethnic origin, or to put it even more crudely are ‘white’. Leaving aside where this leaves the many citizens of modern European nations who are most definitely not ‘white’, how non-European are the Turks ethnically? Here i think the great irony is that the Turks’ own ‘common historical narrative’ works against them, because it tends to encourage the idea that Turks are unambiguously the descendents of the Turkic invaders whose language they now speak. Yet, it’s obvious when you look at modern Turkish people – especially if you’ve also met people from Central Asian Turkic nations – that the Turks are more European – and more Levantine – than they care to admit. The genetic evidence* i’m aware of backs this up. In fact, this is just what you’d expect in a country which was previously the hub of a multi-ethnic empire.

I honestly don’t know if it’s a good idea for Turkey to join the EU: it seems to me that being admitted so grudgingly would poison their membership from the start. I do, however, think that the debate over its candidature could be useful in challenging assumptions about identity on both sides.

* I have seen a few summaries of papers which look at this in more detail via anthropology blogs that i subscribe to, but i don’t have time to track them down right now. Hopefully, i’ll be able to post details in the near future.

The sound of people breathing

Normblog comments on another blogger’s claim that when people make a noise or allow their children to make a noise in public they are stealing from us. He sympathises with the way she feels, but makes the very sensible point that beyond its use as a form of torture, there are no real rights in relation to noise in public spaces, only social conventions. He ends by saying:

And the way things have been going, socially acceptable is now more noisy than some of us enjoy.

I wonder though: is this true? In many ways i think the problem is not so much that people are increasingly noisy as that so many of us are increasingly unused to the noise that other people make. The high-tech world may have given us the leaky earphone, so often mentioned in noise-related complaints; but it has also given us online shopping, social networking and myriad other things, which tend to make us increasingly self-sufficient and reduce our need for actual contact with other human beings.

In our own private world everything is under control. Telly too loud for you? Turn it down. Don’t feel like chatting to your ‘friends’? Don’t log on. And so many of those keen to criticise other people’s leaking earphones are plugged into their own half the time, which may well leak too. How many of us ever bother to find out?

It’s a vicious circle, because the more we withdraw from other people, the more sensitised we become to them: the noise they make, the space they take up, the demands they make on us; and the more sensitised we become the less we are able to endure other people and so the more we withdraw from them. In the end it’s as much as we can take to hear the sound of other people breathing, and even that had better be quiet: no coughs please.

We lose the ability to appreciate the ideas that others may have about public space –  especially when those others are a different generation from us or from a different culture. We end up living in our universe and experiencing those around us as we would alien invaders.

When i was a child i used to get the bus with my mum or my nan. There was no option to sit and read a book, let alone listen to music – even if earphones had been invented then. Social participation in public was compulsory. You were grilled by countless old ladies about your accomplishments at school (God help you if you didn’t have any), subjected to elaborate enquiries about the health of any relative whose name they could remember and regaled with instructive stories about “the War” and “the Olden Days”. The trick, as i recall, was to fix on your face the most attentive expression you could muster and pretend they hadn’t told you the same tale the week before.

The noise and chaos of children was widely tolerated – people spent time with them more often so they were used to them; and yet at the same time it was better controlled because when people interact with one another – as opposed to ignore one another – they form a group with the power to enforce group norms.

I’m not saying i always liked it because i didn’t. I am an unsociable curmudgeon of a person and i was more than happy to move down to London where i could read my book in peace, unbothered by so much as a “Nice weather… for the time of year”; but I am coming to understand now that as much as i gained peace in the short term i have also gradually lost something. I live by myself and truly wonder if i could ever live with anyone else again. And i wonder what this bodes for me when i’m older.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T

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.