Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Giant Size Television Thing

Following Jamie Oliver’s latest ill though out tirade, it really is time to call time on the giant size television thing.  There are many ways to attack the poor (as the current Westminster government has shown us) but getting in a flap about the size of their TV sets has to be one of the stupidest.

Let’s start with a simple question: when was the last time you saw a small television set? These days, if you’re going to buy one at all, it’s going to be large. It is also, most likely, going to be cheap. We are far from the days when televisions were a luxury item. One can buy them in supermarkets now for less than some people spend on their weekly food shop. They’re also cheap to run when compared with the old cathode ray models, averaging about three pounds a week. That’s pretty good for a box that keeps the kids entertained if you’re working the long hours that most poor people do, or if you’re looking for a job.

Televisions are even cheaper second hand. They have a very low resale value, so if you lose your job, selling your television won’t help you much. The chances are you will have to part with your internet connection, if you had one in the first place (many poor people still don’t) as internet access constitutes a much larger ongoing expense. This means your television will become your main form of access to news. There have been rulings against bailiffs taking televisions in payment of debt, as they are considered essential for keeping people informed about the world. If poor people are forced to get rid of them, that’s a pretty effective way of barring them from any engagement with public life. Losing access to information about current affairs (bearing in mind that many avoid the expense of paying for a daily newspaper) makes it difficult for them to exercise their democratic rights.

To say that poor people should not have access to television is also to say that they should not have access to entertainment. It means their kids will experience social isolation and have difficulty fitting in at school, with a potentially negative consequences for their education. It means that older kids who probably also have few books or toys will have nothing to do but hang around in the streets, and we all know the kind of problems that can lead to. It means that those adults who cannot look for work—who are poor due to illness or disability, or who are full time carers—are deprived of something that can help fill their time. Bear in mind that these are, by and large, not people with the means to buy books or musical instruments or to make regular trips to the cinema or theatre. Television may be all they have.

So why is the possession of a television whilst poor now the subject of so much disapproval? It’s pretty simple: when we go inside the poorest people’s homes, whether directly or via a camera (whose observations we probably see on our own television sets), the TV is generally the only thing we see that looks like it might be worth anything at all. Think about that. There’s usually no computer, no sound system, no attractive furniture, no sports equipment, no art. These are people with next to nothing. Picking on the television is the only effective way to pretend that they are hanging on to some kind of meaningful resource, thereby depriving others. It’s simple propaganda.

Jamie Oliver, who would not be successful himself without television, should know better than to go along with this kind of lie. How are his crusades to change people’s eating habits going to reach their targets if not through their TVs? Yes, it would be better if people engaged in more active pursuits, but that’s not an option for all of them.  Yes, it’s tragic that many are reduced to living life simply as spectators, but the real problem there is lack of opportunity—depriving them even further will not help. We should not be looking at people in desperate situations and asking what they still have that we might take. We should be asking what we can give, how we can increase their opportunities, how we can help them to connect with the world more effectively and thereby improve their own situations. We should think about the roots of the word ‘television’ and try to see a little further ourselves.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Rape jokes: still not big, still not clever

Over the past 24 hours I have been working with my charity, Trans Media Watch, to try and ensure respectful coverage of Chelsea Manning's decision to come out as trans. The fact we've known about the matter for some time didn't really help; we always knew that when she went public the story would be huge, and it has been very hard for us to keep up. Although we're very pleased with how some media outlets have responded, we've also seen a lot of really nasty stuff, some of it in supposedly professional publications and, of course, a lot of it on social media.

What has stood out about the social media stuff - and some of the comments in national newspapers, before editors got to them - is the number of jokes focused on prison rape, and the number of people who seem to find them hilarious. Rape jokes on the internet may be nothing new but the striking thing about these is how many have come from people (mostly men) who just a few weeks ago were up in arms about the abuse many women suffer online. The disconnect is remarkable. These are people who generally seem to think of themselves as the good guys, even as feminists. They would probably be horrified at the thought of making rape jokes about non-trans women. But because Chelsea Manning is trans, she's seen as fair game.

The issue here isn't simply about how Manning's gender is understood, about when she is seen to 'count' s female; it's about why people think that should matter. To put it simply, rape jokes about a man wouldn't be funny either. Avoiding this kind of behaviour isn't simply a box-ticking exercise to make a good impression on influential women. It has been assumed to represent a genuine understanding of how horrific rape is, or at least an appreciation that the subject can be traumatic to others, and the ease with which Manning has been targeted reveals that, in some cases, that simply isn't there. When people make these jokes about Manning, it becomes obvious how hollow that pretence of sympathy was.

There are no doubt people who have made such jokes, or laughed along with them, as a reflex action, without any examination of their import. It's time for those people to think about how they come across. There are others who have approached the subject as gallows humour, who have understood and have aimed to use humour to expose horror. This always has its place, but it needs to be done with great caution in a context where there's already so much carelessly brutal stuff going around.

There's another aspect to this, and that's that rape jokes aimed at women, ugly as they are, tend to be intended to shock. By contrast, much of the joking about Manning has been giggling, conspiratorial stuff, as if it were no more than a little bit of naughtiness. There's a sense that it's socially condoned, or that people expect it to be. We all need to speak out against this. The developing dialogue about abuse hurled at women online must expand and account for the fact that sexual aggression is just as unacceptable no matter whom it refers to.

I would hope that responsible internet users can unite on this. I don't like to think what it says about our society if we can't.