Thursday, June 12, 2008

Time to Jump Ship

42 days. Hmm. Six weeks. Try to remember where you were six weeks ago, and all the time between then and now. Then imagine being imprisoned without for that length of time without any evidence being presented against you, nor any official accusations made. Quite a thought experiment.

But really, I'm not interested in the moral-political argument over 42 days, at least not here. I'm more interested in what to do about the fact that the Commons vote went in favour of it. The figures stand at 315 to 306, the former made up of Labour minus 36 rebels, the DUP and Anne Widdecombe. Seriously, does it not make the Labour government slightly uneasy when the only Tory willing to support their plan is Anne fucking Widdecombe??

Ahem. The Labour Party (or the bit with any power) has abandoned any real notion of civil liberties. We all know this. And in fact, we didn't need 42 days to show us this. But this has got to provide some kind of a watershed, if just because it shows how far Labour can successfully push these things. Emboldened by this, what is next for Brown? 90 days? Or perhaps something more imaginative? Why not ride the wave by getting through all that ID Card legislation he's been itching for? Why not plant microchips in everyone so the government knows where they are at all times? Why not make it illegal to be offensive (with some exceptions for MPs, of course)? Clearly enough of the Parliamentary Labour Party are happy to be cowed by such demands, and Brown feels that he's got nothing to lose and everything to gain by actually making a stand on something.

Apparently Brown and his followers believe both that they could never be corrupted by such power, and also that it could never be abused by any of their successors. Because it's certainly going to be a lot harder to get rid of these civil rights abuses once they have settled into the background of history (the exception being if the Tories actually promise to repeal them in their next manifesto). I'm not convinced that they have any care for civil liberties as such, only in terms of how far their actions could lose them votes. So, it's time to start hurting them.

So: Labourites, leave the god damned Party. If by some miracle it turns around then you can rejoin, but don't let them string you along by the name alone. I know that they've got the trade unions, but the only way that they are going to finally dislodge themselves from the rotting Party structure is if the membership disintegrates. Leave the Party and campaign to get the unions to do the same. Holding on and hoping that something's going to happen is not enough. Stop funding this nonesense with your subscription fee.

Members of other political parties, start asking yourselves whether your party represents you in anything other than name. If you're a Lib Dem, ask yourself if you would support a 'Conservative Party' with the principles your party puts into action, and vice versa. If you find your party wanting, fucking leave it.

*This is not to say don't vote*. I'm not at all advocating apathy. But nuance your vote a bit. If you still think that Labour is better than the Tories (and that's a reasonable viewpoint) then by all means, stop the Tory getting into your seat. But if it's between Labour and Lib Dem / Green, stop thinking about party loyalty and start thinking about what Labour have actually done. For anyone who cares about civil liberties, the Labour Party should now be *toxic*. Unless you've got one of the good ones (probably among the 36) then you should require a damn good reason (or awful opposition in the area) in order to vote for them. For me, in a hypothetical match up between Jacqui Smith and David Davies, I can't even say how I would vote now.

Vote your convictions, not your party! Show Labour (and the other parties) that they don't get your vote by name alone, and certainly not your membership. I can only hope that either the parties will eventually turn themselves around or alternatives will arise, and in either case there needs to be a critical mass of politically aware, frustrated voters refusing to align themselves with any particular party. Once those voters are crying out for a party with some principles which they can support, one (or more) will arise one way or another. The form it will take is far from clear: Does it make sense for the welfarist left and the communist left to remain in a single party? Does it make sense for libertarians and reactionary conservatives to remain in a single party? The fault lines already mean that the current party set up is hilariously inadequate. Changes are needed, and they are just not going to happen unless we reject the situation as it now appears.

If this post reflects my frustration, I make no apologies. I'm a left liberal and proud of it, and I'm not going to let any party which does not serve my values manipulate me into voting for or supporting them any more.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Vaccination, Parents and Cynicism

I see that vaccination is back in the news, and for all the wrong reasons. To summarise, there was a suggestion made in the Fabian Society magazine that failure to vaccinate one's child could be punished by refusing to allow them to start school, and cutting off child benefits. Cue great outrage, mostly from parents.

(As an aside, I had to shake my head at the following comment from Sir Sandy Macara, ex-chairman of the British Medical Association: "One ought to recognise that mothers have a responsibility for ensuring their children are protected." Mothers? What world is he living in?)

As we now know, the autism scare over the MMR vaccine was completely unsupported by evidence: It is unclear how far Dr. Wakefield's controversial report was merely mistaken, and how far it was downright dishonest. In any case though, I have sympathy with any parent who chose to go for single jabs instead, given the dangerous uncertainty Wakefield caused, and I think the Government should have responded by ensuring that the single jabs were available to all parents with concerns. I also understand that as a result of the government's failures in this area, the difficulties of getting single jabs may have made it implausible for many parents, leading to them not having their children vaccinated at all.

What I do not understand is parents who still insist on refusing vaccinations for their children. The remaining hysteria surrounding the MMR, which seems to have leaked through to the very concept of vaccination itself, seems to be based on nothing more than crude anti-government cynicism: Somehow the overwhelming evidence that MMR is safe is actually some form of cover up. Why would the government perpetrate such a cover up, given that it would inevitably backfire in a major way? I don't know, but I doubt most opponents have thought about this particularly rationally.

Of course, this is not to say that a degree of scepticism is not justified. The effects of thalidomide showed that medical advances can have a dark side missed in clinical trials. For this reason, I say again that I sympathised with refusals to have MMR at the time. But the time has passed, and parents need to look past the cynicism to the best interests of their children.

But how should the government respond to this? Should the suggestion of compulsion be put into effect? To be honest, in a near-perfect world I would support sanctions for parents who refused, although I would balk at taking it out on the children (especially since logically the only ones who would be put in danger by their presence in school would be others who had not had the vaccination). Fines or worse for parents would not necessarily be inappropriate for failing to properly care for one's child.

(There is mention in the article of refusal to vaccinate for 'medical or religious reasons'. It seems wholly inappropriate to lump the two together. Medical reasons essentially mean that it would be worse for the child if they have the vaccine. Religious reasons essentially mean that the parents have values incompatible with the health and well being of their child, which should be treated exactly the same as Jehovah's Witnesses who refuse to allow their children to have blood transfusions.)

But this world is far from perfect. There is a widespread culture of giving parents near-ultimate control over their children (which I will call parential-prerogative), which can be dangerous. Certainly, it is exceptionally beneficial for each child to have one or two people looking out for their well being (as parents overwhelmingly do). But when their actions are in fact provably harmful, there is no reason for their wishes to be respected. Were it just a small minority who took such a parental-prerogative view, I would say that the problem could be solved through punitive measures. However, where there is as widespread support for the paradigm as now, such stark action would be counter-productive. I imagine that were the government to take this line, support for parental-prerogative would grow to embrace even more far-out views like the JWs on blood transfusion, cowing governments into doing less to protect children from bad parenting. On the flipside, it also may unfortunately further embolden the government to use more paternalistic mechanisms for enforcing standards on people against *their own* preferences (which is a very different issue that parents speaking for their children).

As a result, my feeling is that as a pragmatic matter, the government would be wrong to go down this line. It is too much of a leap from its current programme for protecting children, which mostly respects the wishes of parents. Maybe one day such measures would be seen as simple common sense, and that day is to be welcomed, but it is some way off. For now, the government needs to continue to send out the message that MMR is safe and that the medical profession is near-unanimous on this, along with the evidence. If necessary, it should ensure that single jabs are available as an alternative. But it cannot go much further without being counter-productive.

Maybe I am taking the whole thing too seriously. Many commentators on BBC Have Your Say are convinced that it's better to just let children have the diseases (recalling measles parties in past decades), claiming that they are not actually that serious. I am extremely sceptical of this claim, but I will leave it to my more knowledgable readers to respond more adequately.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Reasons for Believing

On his blog, Simon Barrow points to an intriguing post (by Kim Fabricius) about how Easter should be for Christians an opportunity to break free from the false comforts of religion - not Christianity, but *religion*. As he quotes from the piece:

"Lose your faith in the god that the cross exposes as a no-god, a sham god. Lose your faith in the god who is but the product of your projections, fantasies, wishes, and needs, a security blanket or good-luck charm god. Lose your faith in the god who is there to hold your hand, solve your problems, rescue you from your trials and tribulations, the deus ex machina, literally the “machine god”, wheeled out onto the stage in ancient Greek drama, introduced to the plot artificially to resolve its complications and secure a happy ending. Lose your faith in the god who confers upon you a privileged status that is safe and secure. Lose your faith in the god who promises you health, wealth, fulfilment, and success, who pulls rabbits out of hats. Lose your faith in the god with whom your conscience can be at ease with itself. Lose your faith in the god who, in Dennis Potter’s words, is the bandage, not the wound. Lose your faith in the god who always answers when you pray and comes when you call. Lose your faith in the god who is never hidden, absent, dead, entombed. For the “Father who art in heaven” – this week he is to be found in hell..."

This both fascinates and confuses me. It seems to me that it is exhorting Christians to give up on the idea of God as comforting or helpful in any way. That rather than rely on God's presence watching over you, hearing your prayers and guaranteeing a happy ending when you die, one should "manage our lives without him."

From an atheistic perspective, there is certainly something refreshing about a preacher urging people to give up the many parts of religion often described as a crutch. But it presents a mystery which, I think, dooms such efforts to failure: Why believe?

There are at least two types of reason for believing in a certain proposition. One is the truth-finding type of reason: It seems likely that it is true, based on the evidence we have. The other is the beneficial type of reason: It seems beneficial to us to believe that it is true. The two often coincide, perhaps more often than people realise. Although a particular truth (about the evils of which humanity is capable, for example) may well be depressing and so appear non-beneficial, in the long run having that greater understanding is likely to aid us in our interactions with other people and the world at large, (perhaps even allowing us to make up for some of that evil - it is rarely the naive that make great changes in the world for the better). It is possible that one of the two types dissolves into the other: Perhaps beneficial reasons tend to be a useful way of discovering the truth (although it seems unlikely in general) or perhaps truth-finding tends overwhelmingly to be beneficial (which seems more likely). In any case, I cannot think of reasons for belief which do not amount to one of these (although I welcome suggestions).

What of religious claims? I think (and here is where I must be tentative) the majority of religious people would accept that the normal truth-finding reasons for belief are rather weak in this field. Occam's Razor is usually accepted as a fundamentally useful principle of truth finding, yet it seems to go out of the window when it comes to belief in gods. Even though there are mysteries which such belief could solve, it always raises more, even trickier questions.

Most of the classical truth-finding reasons for believing in God look rather thin: The ontological argument (proving God through wordplay) is generally ridiculed. The arguments from miracles and religious experiences are embarrassed by the increasing (although far from complete) ability of science to explain such occurrences without reference to the metaphysical. The argument from design was once triumphant, but again scientific principles - especially evolution - have shown how it is unnecessary to solve some enduring mysteries, and it seems unwise to pin one's belief to the ever-shrinking remainder. The first cause argument is intriguing, but shows far less than it purports - at most that there was something that came first, not that it was self-aware let alone a person, or even a good person.

The Catholic Church maintains that rational evidence will lead to God, but tends to point to these same tired old arguments. The Protestant response, however, varies between this and the idea of faith. Many will say that in fact it is right and proper for there to be no clear rational evidence, since only this allows for faith in God, a quality to be praised. This is often a particularly frustrating argument for atheists, who tend to confront it from a truth-finding perspective. If we are not using truth-finding evidence, then why would one have faith, and in what?

The answer has always seemed to me to be clear. One has faith in one's religion, rather than in any other religion, or in new age beliefs, or in no supernatural entities at all, because of beneficial reasons. Religions tend to provide effective carrots and sticks: The latter is provided by the catch all of Hell (or lonely separation from God) while the former is myriad - not only Heaven, but a comforting presence at all times, someone to watch over you, "Someone to hear your prayers / Someone who cares." I could go on for a while about how these are manipulated to make people fit in with particular moral and political agendas, but the point is that it can make good beneficial sense to believe such things.

If I am reading Kim Fabricius correctly, Christians should let go of all of the beneficial elements of faith. Certainly the afterlife is not mentioned, but it would seem within the scope of what is written. After all, what could be more comforting than thinking that one is not only escaping Hell, but gaining access to Heaven? If I am correct, then the question is why one should retain belief at all. Without beneficial reasons, one has only truth-finding reasons. It may be possible to construct a truth-finding case for God, but it seems highly unlikely. It seems likely that most believers use truth-finding reasons to bring God within the realm of possibility, and then rely on beneficial reasons to bridge the gap to actually believe - the process often termed faith. It seems that a religion without such beneficial reasons, such carrots and sticks, is unlikely to attract many believers, since the rational gap is too far to leap without at least some incentive.

It may well be that I have misread Kim. Perhaps beliefs in the afterlife are excepted from what one should exclude from consideration (although I don't see why). Perhaps the point is to exclude these only during Holy Week, to suffer something of the aloneness of Christ and to fully appreciate one's relationship with God thereafter (although many things in the article seem to tell against that). But if I am right, I think there is a good reason why many people apparently found the sermon hard to swallow. I can't help but sympathise with the hypothetical parishoner who took the message to heart and now thinks "So what's the point in believing, and coming to Church every week, if it helps me none?" In no way am I condemning people for such thinking; nor am I advocating a fully self-interested view. But given the difficulty of relying on truth-finding reasons for believing, I cannot blame religion for emphasising the beneficial aspects of belief, not the religious for relying on them.

I am interested in anyone else's view of what the post is trying to say, and whether there are other reasons to believe once the beneficial is excluded. I'm interested in why people believe, so if you can help educate me then please go ahead!


Thinking about it, I'd like to clarify something. When I talked about beneficial reasons, I drew the boundary too narrowly at self-interest. I am quite happy to include within it other-regarding reasons; perhaps 'pragmatic reasons' would have been a better descriptor. If we continue to read Kim as excluding only self-interested reasons, then perhaps other-regarding interests could be enough to explain / justify a leap of faith.

I am doubtful about this though. No doubt there are people who think like this, although I don't imagine this is a major consideration for most people. Perhaps some people feel that they need to believe in order to be good to others, but this shows an odd (although not impossible) set of desires: If they wish to be good to others, why do they not just do so? Alternatively, perhaps they believe that their example will make others believe, which will be good for them (or for society as a whole). But here, pretence would be equally valid. Perhaps actual belief would be easier than pretence, however.

Therefore, it seems at least possible that one could exclude self-interested reasons and still have enough reasons for the leap of faith. However, I remain doubtful that this actually does have much of an impact on people, given the problems I've noted.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Incitement to Hatred - Here We Go Again...

Somehow this has passed me by until now. The Government plans to introduce the new offence of incitement to hatred on grounds of sexual orientation, with the support of the Lib Dems and some Tories. And, with tragic predictability, many of those who admirably fought the planned offence of incitement to religious hatred have switched sides - including my local MP Evan Harris. I'd like to set out what the proposal does and doesn't mean, and why it and all incitement to hatred laws are a bad idea.

Here is a copy of the amendments which would be made to the Public Order Act 1986 (I'm not wildly enthusiastic about the source, but the Christian Institute does have a reasonable collection of materials relating to the issue here). In most ways, sexual orientation would simply be added on to religion as a ground for which incitement to hatred would be prohibited, with the same provisions. These provisions are of course in their amended form, which the Government fought against tooth and nail at the time.

The Story So Far

Here's a quick history lesson on incitement to hatred. The Public Order Act 1986 included the offence of incitement to racial hatred worded as such:

"A person who uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting, is guilty of an offence if (a) he intends thereby to stir up racial hatred, or (b) having regard to all the circumstances racial hatred is likely to be stirred up thereby."

The Blair Government was convinced that this should be extended to religion and so they attempted again and again essentially to amend the above simply to change "racial hatred" to "racial and religious hatred" in the (slightly misleadingly named) Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. Cue outrage from civil libertarians, secularists and religious groups (by no means exclusive categories!). Eventually they succeeded in passing an amendment creating instead a differently worded offence for religious hatred:

"A person who uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up racial hatred."

Crucial to notice here is that abusive or insulting material will not suffice - it must be threatening. Moveover, it must be intended, and not just likely, to stir up hatred. Both are crucial concessions which the Government bitterly opposed, and which only succeeded because Blair famously left the chamber (believing the battle already lost) only to have the amendment pass by one vote. The third concession was a 'protection of freedom of expression' which I will consider below.

Now the Government has continued with its valiant efforts to police who and what we hate. Essentially the measure would amend the above offence, adding the following at the end: "...or hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation."

A Step Forwards?

Stonewall called for such homophobic hatred to be included with racial hatred, without the above concessions. Their rationale is that while religion is a choice, sexual orientation, like race, is not. For me, this is a powerful argument. There may be a choice element to sexual orientation in some people, but the evidence is quite clear that for most people, it is innate. A lot of people disagree with me on this, and I can see it being a nightmare were it to come into political debate.
However, despite the fact that this logic would suggest putting sexuality in with race, I prefer the Government's tactic of unifying it with religious belief. The reason for this is that if there are going to be incitement to hatred laws, they should have all the safeguards put in place in the religious hatred offence. And, to spell it out, that goes for racial hatred as well.

Considering the two formulations, the term "threatening" may suggest the possibility of violence, something with which the criminal law should be concerned. "Abusive" may also have this connotation, but it is less clear here, and adds nothing to "threatening" that should be the law's concern. "Insulting" is most worrying of all. No one should be legally protected from mere insult - unpopular and challenging views are often insulting by necessity. To denounce slavery would once have been insulting to slave traders, etc. Coupled with the fact that intention is not required in the racial hatred offence, it becomes worryingly easy to target people for expressing unpopular opinions on race when it stirs hatred - which as will explain later, pretty much means encouraging other people to hold the same views.

The 'protection of freedom of expression' amended into the religious hatred offence is complicated, so I will cut it down to its essentials: "[The offences shall not] prohibit[] or restrict[] discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of [religions or beliefs]." Given the width of power given to the police by incitement to hatred laws, such a protection is extremely valuable. It is interesting and worrying, therefore, that no such similar guarantee has been given in the sexual orientation proposals. Surely free expression demands that people be allowed to discuss, criticise, ridicule and insult?

I can imagine two possible reasons for the omission. The first is that it might be thought that religion itself and adherents of religions can be separated in a way that sexual orientation itself and people of a certain sexual orientation cannot. This is extremely dubious. Both can be discussed and criticised in the abstract, and such discussions and criticism implicate individuals in very similar ways.

The other reason again unifies sexuality with race and suggests that while there may be good reasons to criticise on grounds of religion, there will never be good reasons to do so on grounds of sexual orientation. While I would agree with the sentiment, it completely fails to comprehend free expression. It does not matter whether we can see any good reason for criticising on a certain ground. It must be protected in the name of democracy and public deliberation. Most of us see no merit in racist arguments, no matter how calmly put. Nevertheless, these must be protected from legal interference. To do otherwise is to use the law to set the majoritarian opinion (anti-racism) as dogma - something which is abhorrent in a free society. Bigots must be allowed to make their arguments, just like critics of religion.

The Limits of Free Speech

Such protections must come to an end where violence is incited. Almost no-one disagrees with this. But there are already incitement offences which deal with this, and there have been for many years. Incitement to hatred is something different. Hatred is a tricky concept. Some people have suggested that it involves a desire to do violence, but I find this unrealistic. Hatred is a commonly used phrase which easily encompasses situations with no violent desires. It suggests a passionate dislike, such as people may quite innocently have for injustices as well as disfavoured individuals. Quite clearly many political opinions may, and indeed will, fall within its bounds. Incitement to hatred therefore appears to be incitement to hold certain opinions, many of which will have political elements. This is the kind of thing which free expression simply demands be permitted. If some bigot wants to argue that homosexuality or inter-racial marriage is wrong, they must be allowed to do so, and then roundly criticised for their views.

What about the concessions made in the amendment to the religious hatred offence? The restriction to intention may help, but since people must be allowed to incite non-violent hatred in others, it is not sufficient. The restriction to "threatening" words or behaviour is much more reassuring. But again, what does it mean? Remember that incitement to violence is already criminal. "Threatening" must catch things beyond this therefore. Threatening changes in the law, perhaps? Threatening position in society? These are political threats, and must be protected. Perhaps threatening will be read more narrowly, but it is so far impossible to tell.

The 'protection of freedom of expression' should alleviate some of these fears, but it further confuses. If discussion, criticism, ridicule and insult are protected, then just what is the offence going to cover, beyond violence already covered? Perhaps the effect is that no behaviour is covered that was not already. Perhaps it really is just symbolic. But if so, it will lead to a dangerous degree of confusion with a chilling effect on free speech, due to the uncertainty in the words and concepts. Furthermore the exclusion of the protection from the latest offence suggests that religious figures who vociferously denounce homosexuality may get in legal trouble. That should worry any civil libertarian.


The offence now discussed is not close to the menace to free speech that incitement to religious hatred once was. Accepting the restrictions to intention and threatening words may rob both laws of much of their damaging capacity. However the remaining discrepancy between them may cause us to ask how far free expression really will be safeguarded.

Ideally, incitement to hatred laws would all be scrapped as a pernicious threat to free speech, including political speech. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely. As a second best, all three offences should be brought together with the most safeguards possible - restriction to intention, restriction to threatening words and behaviour, and restriction via the 'protection of freedom of expression'. Perhaps (and hopefully) the combined effect of these will be to ensure that only incitement to violence is covered. If so, then all the better. Nevertheless, the uncertainty introduced into the law of expression is damaging, further evidence of a worrying lack of concern on the part of the Government for crucial liberal values.