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So how did I vote?

Well, here is a personal reflection on the processes I went through in deciding who to vote for. My friends will know that I work for a non-party political organisation so my conclusions here have no bearing on my employer. This is a post for my friends and has been deliberately posted after the election so as not to be seen to affect anyone else’s choice (as if what I think could!). I have travelled over 8000 miles in the run-up to this election, talking to hundreds of Christians, hearing their concerns and often being challenged about my views. I have always tried to be gracious and open (I failed on at least two occasions)- and have avoided the question of who I was going to vote for throughout. But I have been honest in stating that I was undecided until the last ten days of the campaign. So here is my reasoning- feel very free to disagree:

International Affairs

I am an internationalist- I think that as a rich country we should be prepared to play our part in alleviating suffering and investing in sustainable projects to help the poorest in the world. We should be part of the EU- fighting our corner for a more democratic legislature that serves its inhabitants better. But this will not be achieved by leaving it to others. And I welcome the immigrant, the alien, the foreigner, they should not be the scapegoats for the failings of our society. So at this point, it’s cheerio to UKIP.

The Economy

Without a strong economic base it is impossible to provide a decent welfare state and opportunities for all members of society. So the numbers have to add up. As I  sifted through the parties policies I found much to agree with and thought that in general, the parties had done a good job in being realistic about the next five years. One party fell short however- I couldn’t see how the citizen’s income, the extra houses etc could be afforded when the country is £1.5 trillion in debt – and rising. There seemed to be no way this had been priced in- and no Green candidate I heard from had any policy on economic growth (possibly because their commitment to sustainability means they are fundamentally opposed). Here I said bye bye to the Greens.

The Welfare State

Following on for the economy is the issue of social justice in our nation and how this is carried out via our welfare state. Firstly, though as a Christian, one thing I had to bear in mind was this- there are perhaps 5-10% of the nation who are practising, committed Christians. I am not making any judgments on others, simply indicating our tiny minority status. It is therefore no good us saying ‘the church should provide all the welfare as part of our mission’- the nation has important responsibilities here. So as I surveyed the policies on welfare the biggest turning point of the election, for me, occurred. The Conservatives announced that they would ban tax rises during this parliament- VAT, National Insurance, Income Tax. Alongside the unspecified £12 billion welfare cuts this can only mean more cuts to public services. And cuts to public services mean the poor and the vulnerable being the most affected. Alongside their spirited defence of the ‘non-doms’ this didn’t speak to me as a socially just approach. Imagine if there’s another worldwide economic recession- tax rises cannot help so deeper cuts will have to take effect. I spoke to a Conservative councillor who told me that he doesn’t know how to meet next year’s projected budget let alone the implications of these policies. So- despite thinking the coalition had done a good job, I wasn’t going to vote Conservative.

Social Policy

I am basically socially conservative. There were two particular issues that I had my eye on- assisted suicide and the laws around prostitution especially as they relate to human trafficking. The Liberal Democrats seem to me to be heading in a different direction on these issues due to their belief in autonomy (I know, however, that Nick Clegg isn’t a fan of assisted suicide). People should have the right to assisted suicide- it’s their decision- is the argument so often voiced without any reference to the wider effects on the elderly and disabled (cf. Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson). And at a recent conference, the Lib Dems endorsed the right of women to work as sex workers rather than adopting the Scandinavian approach of prosecuting the buyers. So, I wasn’t part of team yellow.

Which leaves me with Labour (SNP were not on my ballot paper and nor were any other candidates/parties). Were they the least worst option? As I have said many times publicly- no party is the perfect party (apart from the Gareth Davies party which I would agree with perhaps 90% of the time!) and we shouldn’t expect too much from them. Ultimately, my trust is in God and not a political ideology. I think Labour had some good policies on tax (I prefer council tax rebanding rather than mansion tax), welfare (axing the bedroom tax) and a more positive vision for the country. They also seemed to have more people in their party favouring the Scandinavian approach to tackling prostitution and more breadth of thought (than the Lib Dems, anyway) generally on social issues (think, Blue Labour). So on this occasion I plumped for the Reds.

Other comments- I have consistently despaired of negative campaigning and this particular election was dire in this regard. The ‘You can’t trust Ed Miliband- he stabbed his brother in the back’ mini-campaign was its nadir. The personal attacks were designed to stop people thinking about policy (in this case to move the argument away from the ‘non-doms’). The discussion of policy was minimal- a real loss to our democracy.

In the event we have a Conservative majority government (with an SNP landslide in Scotland). Many of my friends have been concerned that the Liberal Democrats have been a negative force hampering the government from achieving more for the country. That argument seems to have won the day. Congratulations to the Conservatives and the SNP and commiserations to everyone else. We pray for our country, its leaders and all its citizens.

 

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I was at a feminist conference

 

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Strange environments worry most of us if we’re honest. We don’t know the rules of the game, it takes a while to pick up the signals and sometimes we feel like the outsider. We can even feel like the enemy. So spending a Saturday at the ‘Stop Porn Culture’ conference was an unusual experience for me. The female:male ratio meant that I was impressively outnumbered, I was too conservatively dressed to feel at home and as a Christian I was in a minority. As a man I’m more used to settings where all the speakers are male than those where all the speakers are female. It’s interesting to recall my feelings as details of abusive male proprietors and producers were referenced time and time again. I felt uncomfortable, I felt culpable, I felt guilty. And because there were no male speakers who could have portrayed a more wholesome picture of masculinity this feeling was unresolved throughout the day. It made me think about the ease with which I accept men speaking from a male-only platform about women with no corrective balance with which to adjust the picture. I was also reminded that being in a minority makes you more watchful, more nervous and more likely to interpret things negatively. Human dynamics are like that- we are relational to the core so any sense of being ‘shut out’ is bound to create unhealthy introspection. This is where the self-blaming game begins – ‘It must be something wrong with me’. I am in a privileged position: I am white and I am male and thanks to a secure foundation I rarely have a default setting that says it must be my fault (even though sometimes it is). I was also in the advantageous position of having three Christian feminist friends to talk to and to interpret experiences with. How would I have felt without them? Sometimes the language from the speakers was foreign to me both in terms of heroes of the feminist movement and in terms of pornographic activity. How do we feel when we don’t get it? As a Christian we throw terms around rather too freely assuming that others will get it via osmosis. Life is not like that. Language creates real barriers for the outsider which drives a wedge that means: ‘These are not my people’. So my appeal is simply this: Be more aware of who we are talking to, be more friendly to those who struggle to fit in and let’s have more balanced platforms in Christian gatherings so that women and men feel equally at home.

With thanks to Natalie, Jen and Sarah.

 

Let’s talk about porn, let’s talk about filters

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And so the campaign began. After years of accidents in an area where many families lived, the campaign to reduce the speed limit to 20mph got underway with parents agitating for change. Of course, it wasn’t just children who got injured but parents felt a special responsibility to their offspring. They held many meetings with the council, the police and the Highways Agency and a number of counter arguments were heard. ‘Some drivers are just determined to speed, you won’t stop all of them’, ‘It will restrict those who drive perfectly sensibly at 30mph- why should they be punished?’, ‘It is simply unenforceable’, ‘Surely it’s the parents’ responsibility to make sure their children cross the road safely’ and many others. The new limit was agreed but with one proviso: The parents were required to attend a class in road safety with their dependent children before it was instigated. At the final meeting the local headteachers agreed to educate their pupils regularly on the dangers of the road and how to navigate the local area confidently. The results were encouraging. Most speeding traffic was eliminated but some inevitably slipped through. It was shocking to see the complete disregard for safety of some deviant drivers even though the police set up speed traps to catch them. Young children were usually accompanied by their parents but it was seen as somewhat strange when teenagers were- parents had been taught that by the time of leaving Primary School, all pupils should be confident in avoiding the dangers posed by the road. Sadly, there were still occasional casualties but no-one had pretended that this was a perfect system.  

For the best counter-argument to filters read @crimperman ‘Internet blocking will still not protect our children’ http://bit.ly/14GntLe

 

The Oldest and most foul form of snobbery

The No More Page 3 campaign is gathering momentum, tens of thousands of people have signed the petition requesting that the Sun’s editor, Dominic Mohan, ceases his paper’s practice of publishing pictures of topless women. Naturally, there are those who take exception to the aim of the campaign, some because they (mistakenly) believe that the campaign aims to ban Page 3 and are worried about imposed censorship. Others, though, understand what is at stake but believe the premise – that showing women’s boobs in a national newspaper causes wider problems – to be fundamentally flawed. Brendan O’Neill has taken this view with a flourish and accused No More Page 3 supporters of being ‘driven by the oldest and most foul form of snobbery’. His contention appears to be that by campaigning against a publication that is largely read by manual workers a metropolitan elite demonstrates its disgust of this section of society.

Why? Where is the evidence? Could it not be that we believe in a much more wholesome human dignity that celebrates human potential without becoming sex objects? The reason this practice objectifies women is that there is clearly no relationship between viewer and viewed. Therefore, an object she has become (for someone else’s gratification presumably).

By placing the arguments out there, the campaign is generating debate about what we value in ourselves and what we value in others, in other words, what kind of society we desire to be. If we are happy for men to talk to women whilst gawping at their chests then we need do nothing. If we want to tolerate rude comments on the pavements of our cities, sit tight and hope nothing changes. If we want girls to aspire to cosmetic surgery to gain attention, keep quiet. If, though, we have a different view of society, we might like to stand up for it right now.

The No More Page 3 petition is available here.

And if Mr O’Neill wishes to call me inconsistent due to the prevalence of internet pornography, he might wish to read some of my previous posts.

The No More Page 3 petition is available here

And if Mr O’Neill wishes to call me inconsistent due to the prevalence of internet pornography he might wish to read some of my previous posts.

When breasts are not best

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It’s a no-brainer really. Why are we still tolerating a national newspaper showing topless women on page 3? Really, I can’t find any good reason. Yes, it’s been around for a long time but does that mean it’s existence can’t be challenged? It’s not a great British institution simply a tool for luring men into viewing women as sex objects- pure and simple. For well-constructed arguments that debunk certain myths read this. Well, thanks to Lucy Holmes and her admirable campaign the momentum for change is growing. The Sun’s editor, Dominic Mohan, is being implored by thousands of people to put an end to this practice of judging women by their cleavage. This isn’t about introducing a law, it’s about standing up as the majority and saying we don’t think women should grow up in an objectified culture and we don’t think men should either. I think we are a majority and I think, this time, we might just succeed. So- if you can think of a good reason for page 3 to continue, do nothing.

If not sign here

Inspiring lessons from the NEXT campaign

‘I’m phoning you to ask for your help.’

The distressed Next customer called into the CARE offices on Friday afternoon about a T-shirt that depicted a woman in underwear in a provocative position under the heading ‘SINNERS’ with a definition of sin below including a Bible verse (Romans 7:1) from The Message version. ‘Is there anything you can do?’ she asked. Having explained that she had already registered a complaint directly with the company to no avail, she was looking for a bigger network with a campaigning voice. So I quickly put together a basic blog post focusing on the objectifying message about women and how using the Bible to encourage this was deeply offensive. Being more naturally at home on Twitter I began publicising the campaign there and was encouraged about how many others soon became involved. Particularly mention at this point goes to @sarasaith for her blog post that drew attention to Next’s Code of Practice and how this item contravened it at least two key points. As momentum gathered, individuals started messaging @nextofficial directly with their questions requiring individual responses. Then I realised that Facebook was the place for much of their customer service work and so posed a question for them there:


Friday at 15:14: Why are you marketing ‘Graphic T-Shirts’ with misogynistic poses of women in underwear and promoting such images using The Bible?

This brought in a few commenters, various likes and a response from Next that they were looking in to it. It all served to spread the message wider (bear in mind that Facebook users hugely outnumber Twitter users). Meanwhile the pressure was beginning to tell as a number of Twitter users with large followings encouraged others to join in (thanks to Evangelical Alliance, Vicky Beeching, The Vicar’s Wife and God & Politics UK amongst others). One interesting tweet was sent by @1SteveWade who asked whether the Conservative peer (and Chief Executive of Next), Simon Wolfson, was happy to sell this product. With such ‘noise’ created, a turning point was reached. I was contacted by a journalist at the Daily Mail who was interested in featuring the story. He had been following the online campaign and decided the story was worth following up – so after taking quotes (from others involved as well) he told me he was going to contact the Next PR department. What happened afterwards, I couldn’t quite believe. The journalist called back to say ‘Well done – they’re withdrawing it with immediate effect’. I was so stunned I asked him to say it again but sure enough the Next statements started to come out:

From Next’s Facebook page: “Dear all, thank you for your comments. We take all feedback very seriously. On reflection we agree it was a mistake for us to sell these garments and we are therefore removing them from sale.”

The journalist wasn’t sure his story would make it into the newspaper but later that evening the online story was posted followed by the print edition on Saturday. Next responded to individual complainants to break the happy news and various blogs (@echurchblog, The Vicar’s Wife) gave a brief summary. But this is a story that began with one distressed person and a cry for help.

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A few lessons to draw:

  1. One person can make a difference- if the phone hadn’t been picked up it would have been a quiet Friday afternoon.
  2. Our Christian community and networks are well integrated and can be leveraged for very good purposes.
  3. We don’t have to share exactly the same concerns- some may have been more concerned about the image, others by invoking the Bible.
  4. We should use the media channels wisely- recognising that where the audience is greatest so the impact will be greatest (e.g. Facebook, national newspapers).
  5. Acting courteously is a non-negotiable- we may be distressed by something, but we should engage thoughtfully & applaud good decisions when they are made.
  6. We should help promote each other’s good work – this a team game and without wide participation we will be consigned to be ignored in a quiet corner.

If you have any other observations, do let me know in the comments section.

Thanks to God, thanks to friends & collaborators and thanks to Next for listening well and acting quickly.

Next: The T-Shirt that says it all

Sometimes you can’t quite believe what you’ve seen. My attention has just been drawn to a tee-shirt sold by NEXT in their ‘Graphic T-Shirts’ range. The black & white provocative picture of a woman in her underwear objectifies women and suggests availability. It is degrading & damaging to female and male alike. But what surrounds the picture is even more shocking. In order to create the allure of a ‘naughty’ sexual encounter it is headlined ‘SINNERS’ ‘The Night Before’ with a long definition of sin complete with Bible reference underneath.Do the publishers of The Message version know of & approve of this use of their material? Using a Bible verse (Rom 7:8) to seek to produce the exact opposite of its original purpose is scandalous. NEXT want to sell lots of these T-Shirts and one of the consequences will be to produce a misogynistic view of women. Is that an agenda they’re signed up to? Until they withdraw this product, I’ll assume it is. It is time to create some noise and get some answers. Watch this space.

A little more conversation…

Someone recently suggested that Christians talk too much about pornography (and that this is unhealthy). It’s certainly true that on Twitter there are a number of different individuals discussing this subject right now. There are dangers and I’ll name two: Firstly, that Christians are only seen as being interested in the socially conservative sins rather than the wider agenda (e.g. UK child poverty and overseas development aid). This is a perception of long-standing that will not change overnight, but I don’t believe that a solution is to keep quiet about something as damaging as pornography. It destroys lives and is therefore a matter of social justice. Yes, we need to advocate on other issues too – and thankfully the Christian community is much more comprehensive in its range of interests (e.g. personal debt, FairTrade, climate change). Secondly, that by talking about it we provoke further curiosity, thus leading others to fall into the trap. If I’ve written something that has been unhelpful then I want to hear about it,but my conviction is that we don’t talk about it enough.

In the last year or so a number of bloggers and organisations have taken up this issue with persistence in a way that might just indicate God’s guiding hand orchestrating a truth-telling and grace-filled response. It is better to bring troubling issues out into the light than to leave them festering in the darkness where the isolated individual has nowhere to turn. We were created as relational beings and our willingness to offer support is testimony to our God-given humanity. I recently talked to a church leader about this issue and he said ‘Oh – I thought pornography was looking at naked women’. Well, yes it is, but there is a staggering lack of understanding of what the 53% of Christian men viewing the stuff are looking at if that’s all you think it is. Clearly, we are not talking about it enough in our churches where the majority of pastoral support takes place. There is definitely a place for men’s groups to talk about it and for youth workers to address it with their teenagers. But this is not an issue that can be consigned to specialist silos. It needs to be addressed in plenary gatherings (albeit sensitively & appropriately), so that everyone knows that the issue is taken seriously and that help is readily at hand. And if we are worrying that some in our congregations might be shocked and outraged then I have a solution: Preach and model the gospel of grace. Because shock and outrage belong to the non-gospel of self-righteousness.

If you would like more help with this issue, click here.

Is our silence on pornography fuelling Islamic fundamentalism?

This post is slightly tangential and I certainly had no idea I’d be posting on this subject when the series first began. But having spent some time considering what is going on at a more international level, I stumbled across a couple of interesting news reports from the recent archives. Firstly, in 2008 there were a series of threats to a French TV station concerning their regular broadcasts of pornography into North Africa. The originator of the threats self-identified as a Muslim and threatened to blow-up the headquarters of Canal+. I can find no record of this being carried out. Secondly, after the US Navy Seals killed Osama Bin Laden it was widely reported that he had a sizeable catalogue of porn videos. As ‘A Tale of Two Cultures‘ has correctly identified his entrapment in this seedy, degrading world may well have acted as a compelling motive to oppose the values of the West or the Christian nations as he would have seen it. And this led me to thinking- is our silence on this issue actually fuelling Islamic fundamentalism? It is difficult for us in the UK & US to come to terms with the fact that for the vast majority in Islamic nations we are seen as Christian countries. Our Christian witness is damaged whenever we remain silent about, tolerate or promote anything that assaults our common human dignity. Whether our governments act is something we cannot be held responsible for but (whether through fear, wearied fatalism or lack of care) our silence is. It is not for me to comment further on the Islamic approach to sexual expression. But it is enough to know that pornography is considered a subversive medium & a threat to society that gives us common cause. Maybe if we were more vocal and developed more strategic campaigns on this issue we might discover new allies, make new friends and act as peacemakers. It’s an optimistic vision- a dream if you like- but nothing was ever achieved without a vision. If you doubt the admittedly swift trajectory of this argument, have a look at one of the commenters on the report of the Canal+ threats:

‘as long as there are christians to defend pornography france is safe’

Hmm

Liberalism has betrayed the porn generation

We know it’s there but how has it become so embedded in our society? The porn industry has successfully manipulated its way into mainstream society without large scale opposition. There have been notable exceptions (Whitehouse, Longford, Dworkin, Dines) but in the main we have wilfully turned a blind eye to the prevalence of porn. Perhaps, even more shockingly, liberalism has become the bastion for the freedom of the porn industry to purvey its trade virtually unrestricted in the western world. Well let’s have a further look at this. Here is one definition of liberalism:

[Liberalism is the] concept that the preservation of individual liberty and maximization of freedom of choice should be the primary aim of a representative government. It stresses that all individuals stand equal before law (without class privileges) and have only a voluntary contractual relationship with the government. It defends freedom of speech and press, freedom of artistic and intellectual expression, freedom of worship, private property, and use of state resources for the welfare of the individual.
(www.businessdictionary.com)

The freedom of the individual is paramount based on the premise of natural goodness. Whilst we all have capacity for great goodness this is far from the full story. Interaction with porn will show anyone with eyes open the twisted nature of much human thinking and many human relationships. The boundary of individual freedoms is the welfare of others. This is where liberalism asks itself the most challenging question- Is it better to restrict the right of the individual for the benefit of others? In the case of porn this question has been lamentably ignored. As the evidence of the harm of porn has gathered the governing elite have been silent. Shame on them.

I am aware of porn designed for females and gay porn but what follows is solely focussed on (the vast majority of) porn designed to appeal to heterosexual men.

Consider this:

‘As men fall deeper into the mental habit of fixating on these images, the exposure to them creates neural pathways. Like a path is created in the woods with each successive hiker, so do the neural paths set a course for the next time an erotic image is viewed. Over time these neural paths become wider as they are repeatedly travelled with each exposure to pornography. They become the automatic pathway through which interactions with women are routed…With each lingering stare, pornography deepens a Grand Canyon-like gorge in the brain through which images of women are destined to flow…All women become potential porn stars in the minds of these men’

Dr William Struthers, Wired For Intimacy, p8
It is utterly outrageous that Liberalism that has done so much to champion the equality and dignity of women should be in bed with the porn industry. That Larry Flynt is considered a hero for challenging the restrictions of the state in order to peddle pornography is a vile contradiction. You may think I’ve gone a little too far. I always like to ask myself the following question when opposing a particular viewpoint- What are its redeeming features? Well, in this case, there are none. What do they care about- the end user, the porn actors or the children who might discover their material? This is a multi-billion pound industry that is so financially valuable that the authorities dare not intervene. It requires a grassroots movement who will protect children, reject violence against women, will help men trapped on the internet for hours on end and are prepared to be castigated as haters of sex to make our voice heard. It’s because we have such a high regard for sex that we reject pornography- the shortcut to misery. We will campaign to protect our human dignity by refusing the worst excesses of a greedy and amoral business that seeks to destroy sexual pleasure and replace it with sexual degradation and slavery. Supporting the rights of pornographers to make money isn’t ‘progressive’ it is complicity in condemning a generation to misery.

For a more detailed blog on the lies of pornography read @jjmarlow here

For CARE’s resources on this issue click here