Some thoughts on the recent atrocities in Paris

The news of ordinary French people watching sport, chilling out at a cafe or attending a gig this week being gunned down by violent extremists, really brings home how it could have been any one of us. Its unthinkably awful that anyone would target random innocent civilians like this.

But the response from the public has been split in several directions. Do we need to toughen our stance on asylum seekers? Tighten border controls? Crack down on Muslims more generally? Do we need to show solidarity with the French by lighting everything from water fountains to facebook profiles in red, white and blue? Has this finally brought terrorism to us in Western Europe? Or does it just highlight how we are constantly ignoring the stories of so many people of other nationalities who have been killed across the world recently without making headlines of outpourings of sympathy? These are complicated questions to unpick.

In terms of whether the right response is to call for harsher actions towards violent extremists, I am reminded of an article I read in the psychologist, and an evidence review in the BPS research digest about the psychology of terrorism and extremism respectively. The main point I took from it is that acknowledging the kernel of legitimate grievance behind such actions and engaging in dialogue with moderates from similar demographics are both actions that make it harder to for extremists to recruit, whilst moving towards more polarised positions (eg all this tough talk about closing borders and not negotiating with terrorists) or language blaming the whole of a culture or religious group make more people within that broader group feel inclined to sign up to the more extreme positions.

Whilst the actions of ISIS are deplorable, the generalisation of negative feeling to all muslims is appalling. I even read about a tragic story in which a Hindu man had been pushed into the path of a train and killed by someone who thought this was a suitable reprisal for 9/11. Islam is a religion as large and diverse as Christianity. Nobody thinks the Klu Klux Klan represent Christians, yet large swathes of the western world appear to think ISIS speak for all muslims, when they are just as misrepresentative of the mainstream view within Islam. And alienating Muslims from the western world is a big mistake. The huge amount of moderate representatives of Islam (over a billion of them) are ordinary people who are just as appalled about the action of extremists as members of other religions or none. And they also form the moderate pole of the spectrum from which the extremists are drawn to ISIS. So we need to ensure that we engage this group in how we address these atrocities, and to integrate them into our societies to ensure this polarisation does not continue to play out across the world.

Extremism comes from perceived injustice and powerlessness amplified in small groups of like-minded others, and justified with reference to religion. Reducing injustice, allowing grievances to be heard and addressed, and being inclusive to moderate representatives are the only variables that anybody outside of the individual and those very small cultural subgroups has any control over, and it is these things that let South Africa get out of apartheid and Northern Ireland get out of the troubles there. I can’t see any other way to address the other conflicts going on in the world, be they in Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, Nigeria, Syria or Somalia. Surely, even if we accept that some human beings will always turn to violence, the aim is to reduce the scale of conflicts down from wars to individuals, so that less people get caught in the crossfire?

As to whether we have reacted with more sympathy to deaths in France to deaths elsewhere in the world. Again I think this is a complex issue. There is implicit bias in the system, coupled with habituation. We are more attentive to stories that feature people we identify with, and we pay more attention where the events seem novel, rather than recurrent. Think about children going missing from home and the coverage that white kids from ‘nice homes’ get when compared to any other ethnicity, or kids from the care system (by way of example, the other day I noticed that three kids went missing from the same place on the same day and only the white girl got news coverage). The British media definitely place more focus on events that affect white, western nations. Even though non-mainstream media and some voices within social media are picking up on this theme and people are starting to question the systemic bias in the news, I think it is fair to say that we do have endemic problems with racism in the western world. Whether that is due to prejudice, vested interests or the fact that telling stories about familiar protagonists or showing photos that look like the customer is more likely to sell newspapers or screen time, I don’t know.

However, people are always illogical about world events. An individual story you can relate to humanises what would otherwise be too overwhelming to process. Genocide, war, famine are all too big to conceptualise, so we figure we can’t make a difference and don’t give them much head space. We don’t know anything about the refugee camps outside Syria, or the day to day grimness of so many of these wide scale conflicts. However, a mother who can’t feed her child in the news coverage of the famine, an orphan who plays football on a LiveAid appeal video, the shock of an ordinary looking person at a gig or a cafe talking about how they saw their peers getting gunned down, or a dead baby washed up on a beach – those are the individual stories that we can relate to. They call out to us, and force us to place ourselves in the shoes of the protagonists, and that makes us sympathetic and much more drawn to positive action.

So do we speak up about all the missing stories when friends share content about Paris, to show their virtuousness is not evenly applied? I’m not so sure. It seems to me that the solution is not to criticise those people who do feel empathy with the individual stories they can relate to, but to tell the stories of the other conflicts in more relatable ways also, so they get a similarly empathic and constructive response. Compassion isn’t like a cake that is a finite resource that has to be shared out between all callers. It is something we can cultivate and broaden, and help to bring out in others.

It reminds me of a quote from Martin Luther King: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that”.

And we have to reach beyond the boundaries of religion, ethnicity or nationality. Does it never seem absurd to you that people on this little blue-green planet we have evolved through the millennia to share are arguing about where somebody drew lines on a map hundreds of years ago, or whose stories about creation and morals are correct, without recognising that people are just people? Whatever colour of wrapping they come in, or language they speak or whether they believe in a God, and what name they call it makes no material difference to their ability to experience joy or suffering just the same as us. No matter how strange their lives seem, we’d have done the same if born into their community, and they’d be like us if born into ours.

So let us reach out in compassionate and loving ways to those around us, and especially to those showing ignorance or being excluded from our society. We are all in this together.

The battle isn’t won yet: Why feminism still matters and is relevant to everyone

It is easy for me to be complacent about equal opportunities. I’ve never personally been held back by discrimination. I mean, I’ve had people think it is their right to comment about my appearance, and I’ve even had a few individuals who have bordered on stalking because of my internet presence, and my gender has certainly been a factor in that, but I’ve never not been able to do anything because I’m a women. Likewise, although I’m a second generation immigrant and my heritage is from a cultural minority, I’ve grown up as a white British atheist and have never experienced discrimination (even if there have been occasional incorrect assumptions about my religion or politics). I’ve had a broad social network, but I’ve never witnessed my friends or colleagues experience overt discrimination either.

I’ve always seen gender stereotypes as something of a challenge, in fact. I was one of three female students who did A-level physics, compared to about 50 males, and got good marks in maths and hard sciences before I went into psychology. As a student I bought a Haynes Manual and replaced the starter motor of my Vauxhall Astra along with an oil and filter change, because I couldn’t afford the quote from the garage. Likewise I have learnt all about the construction of houses, and was involved in the design and manual labour of various home improvements. I’ve been an early adopter of technology and a fan of video games as an emergent art form. And now I lift big weights at the gym, defying the gender pressure to lose fat through cardio rather than build muscle. I’ve encouraged my daughters to be brave and strong as well as kind, and to want more to the story than for the main character to marry the prince and live happily ever after.

So from my position of relative privilege it is hard not to assume that the battle for equal opportunities has already been won. However, as soon as I look a little more broadly at the world this is clearly not the case. So many different examples illustrate how my experience is the exception rather than the rule.

In the UK women on average earn 21% less than men per hour. This is the case in most of the developed world and the disparity is much worse in less developed nations. Although there has been significant progress over the last 50 years to reducing this disparity, economists admit the gender gap in wages is likely to take at least the next 100 years to close. Even in the most conservative figures, when all the variables that affect wages, such as lower experience due to career breaks and lower levels of qualifications for some population groups are taken into account, women still earn 5-10% less when equivalently skilled and doing equivalent work. In the most senior roles there are far fewer women, and those that are present earn substantially lower salaries. The earnings gap is larger as people get older, and in the higher earning percentiles of the population, suggesting that choosing to care for children does sacrifice status and earnings for the remainder of the woman’s career. These are figures I find appalling.

Thankfully there are movements and books containing advice about how to counter this effect. Cheryl Sandburg’s “Lean In” movement encourages women to take a seat at the table where big decisions are being made in big companies. The excellent “Give and Take” by Adam Grant advises people who are natural givers to advocate for their dependents when making decisions and entering salary negotiations, if they are not assertive/demanding enough when arguing for themselves. And many women and men are advocating helpfully for the value that women bring to senior positions.

In psychology and therapy professions we hit another facet of gender politics, with the dominance of women in the workforce reflecting the idea that empathy and caring are perceived by much of the public as feminine qualities. This message that facts are the male domain and feelings are the female domain is seen to be natural and innate, because of the typical division in gender roles between hunter and home maker in the origins of our species. However, since industrialisation and the invention of effective contraception, these roles seem to be transmitted more as a story based on past experience than in terms of reflecting the current reality (in which we can purchase food by selling other skills, and few of us would be very good at hunting or gathering our own food if this involved strenuous physical activity). After all, women being naturally suited to be the home-maker was ‘true’ in a time that it was also ‘true’ that the earth was flat, bathing frequently would have been seen as a wasteful fad, nobody understood the connection between hygiene/sanitation and disease, and very few people stayed alive beyond their 40s.

I believe that providing attachment relationships is probably the single most important job in society. That quality of caring about another person, and holding them in mind is essential for each of us to be happy. It is a powerful gift, whether in terms of parenting, friendship or a therapy relationship. However, I have seen no evidence that efficacy in this role is determined by gender. It may be true that in general women have slightly better ‘folk psychology’ and men have slightly better ‘folk physics’, as Simon Baron-Cohen’s research has shown, but apart from the head start that pregnancy and breast-feeding give to mothers, there is a paucity of evidence that the gender of parent who takes the primary carer role affects outcomes for children. Certainly, women feel more guilt about returning to work or choosing not to be the primary carer, but does that reflect a genuine concern about attachment security or the projections of a society where a women is supposed to ‘have it all’ in the form of balancing work, parenting and their own identity, having gained expectations of being an equal provider whilst not having handed over equal expectations of looking after home and family.

By devaluing caring and empathy for men, we lose a significant proportion of the potential workforce for psychological therapies. Those that remain often have less traditionally masculine qualities than are typical for males (whilst women who gain places in clinical psychology typically have more of the ‘masculine’ qualities of assertiveness, ambition and intelligence than are typical of their gender). We also make it unacceptable for boys and men to express their feelings openly, or to seek help for emotional problems without shame. And of course there is the wider issue of devaluing homosexuality, and through association any gentler or more feminine traits in men (for example with the playground taunt of “gay” for disliked characteristics or outcomes). This leads to lower uptake of psychological therapies or treatments for mental health problems, along with greater rates of completed suicide in young men.

More recently social media has provided a new means of networking which have been widely taken up, especially by young people. Mobile phones, text, Facebook, Twitter, chatrooms, Vine, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, forums, multi-player gaming and video chat have allowed people to find those with similar interests and to communicate in new ways, but have also been media in which new forms of bullying and harassment have emerged, along with pockets of rampant prejudice including misogyny. In these contexts sexism, racism and discrimination has emerged in new forms, and some media are better at moderating this than others. Online video gaming spaces, Facebook and Twitter in particular have proved to be free playgrounds for “trolls” (those who gain enjoyment by harassing others online) due to their lack of willingness to intervene about abusive content.

There have been remarkably sad examples of what happens when such media allows the predatory minority to find vulnerable targets, such as the tragic story of Amanda Todd, the teenage girl who was encouraged to flash over webcam and then blackmailed with these images by an adult man until the point she committed suicide. There was also the disturbing video manifesto of Elliot Rodgers, a college student who killed 6 and injured 13 before committing suicide due to the perceived injustice of him not being as attractive to girls as he felt he deserved to be.

In amongst the array of content on the internet a subculture has developed that is profoundly sexist and has disturbing ideas about how to “play the game” in ways that “put women in their place”. Some of the members identify as Pick-Up Artists (PUAs) or Mens Rights Activists (MRAs), but the idea that women now hold too much power, and that men have seized upon feminist and progressive thinking to impress women, seems to be a common strand. There is great anger from members of these groups against men who speak up for women’s issues or social issues more broadly, who are often disparagingly labelled “White Knights” or “Social Justice Warriors” (terms which are intended as insults, despite sounding pretty awesome). Many women have learned to use gender-neutral names on social media, and not to speak when playing multi-player online video games, rather than to risk the onslaught of comments, which range from “get back in the kitchen” to violent threats of rape and murder of them and their loved ones (especially when defeated by the superior skill of a female player).

The latest iteration of this undercurrent has been the harassment of women who have highlighted the sexist tropes within video games, or otherwise become a figurehead of progressive thinking within that culture. Anita Sarkeesian’s highly accessible video series “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” has been a focal point. When her Kickstarter attracted death threats, harassments and attempts to discredit and silence her the community spoke out by massively over-funding her project and giving it a much bigger audience. However, she has continued to be subject to a variety of death and rape threats for merely casting a light on the fact that a small percentage of the content of many popular video games is a set of tired old tropes in which women are the decoration, damsel to be rescued, or die as motivation for the hero’s vengeance, rather than the protagonist of the story. Likewise a bitter ex-boyfriend’s rant about female developer Zoe Quinn led her to be a target of harassment (with a thin veneer of concern about ethics in games journalism that was not evidenced by similar hounding of the journalists who were wrongly alleged to have given favourable write-ups of her work due to personal relationships with her) and games writer Brianna Wu, for writing an article saying that the old stereotype of a gamer has been superseded by a much wider demographic (perceived as a “death threat” to “true gamers”). In each example, the profound sexism of the antagonists is evident, and the impact on the target has included them needing to move out of their homes due to the severity of threats to their safety, after their identifying information has been discovered and released into the public domain (a harassment tactic know as doxxing).

So whilst I observe from the safe space of being a successful female professional, who to date has had very limited personal experience of sexism, I am reminded that feminism is far from being a battle that has already been won, and equality is far from ubiquitous in the hearts and minds of the whole population. The internet has always been a great leveller, by forcing us to judge people on their words and not on their gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality, disability or any other aspect of their physical self, and I think that is an amazing thing and as close to a meritocracy as we will ever experience. So I am saddened by the resurgence of such hate and vitriol into places where these variables shouldn’t even be relevant, and that there are now seemingly topics about which women cannot write without fear of a personal backlash. It shames me that I have a little bit of fear about the repercussions each time I express an opinion online through this blog, or twitter or my forays towards podcasts/videos. We all need to do our little bit to change this, to speak up for equality and against harassment, and to reclaim those spaces in which prejudice is showing – for the benefit of everyone.