Open letter to Daily Mail about recent reporting

Dear Sir,

I am sure that you will have received many letters taking you to task for your disgracefully inflammatory and misleading reporting of the Philpott case. I would like, however, to congratulate you for your sudden and surprising conversion to the idea that social, cultural and economic factors have a part to play in explaining criminal behaviour. The Daily Mail has generally championed the cause of individual responsibility, and has dismissed as leftist nonsense any attempt to understand crime through the analysis of a wider social context. However, you have now publicly attributed the manslaughter of six children, not to the violent and abusive behaviour of one or more individuals, but to “welfare UK”. I assume we can now expect headlines attributing rape and domestic violence to “patriarchal UK”, bank fraud to “capitalist UK”, and perhaps even the recent suicide of a transgendered woman to “media intrusion UK”.
Your new position is of course oversimplified, but once your initial zeal following conversion has subsided, we might even be able to have a nuanced debate about crime.

Yours faithfully,
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I am a Bad Academic

The Secretary of State for Education (yes, Education) responds to criticism from a hundred academic specialists in education (yes, education) by labelling them and their work “bad academia“. He concedes that there is also “good academia”, although he does not give examples. It’s not clear what he thinks good academia is, but I’ve had a look at his response and at what the bad academics said and did, and I think I have some idea of what bad academia might be.

It looks as if bad academics think they have a responsibility to express their judgements and concerns about matters of public policy to which their expertise is relevant – whether or not they have been invited to do so by government or opposition.

Bad academics, it would seem, are also very interested in critical thinking, and would like as many people as possible to learn to think critically – whether those people go to university or not.

Moreover, at least some bad academics consider it their responsibility critically to examine any and all of the implicit and explicit claims about humanity, and the good of human life, that shape public discourse and public policy.

Judging by the number of signatories on this and some other recent letters, at least some bad academics are prepared to work and publish collaboratively, including with people with whom they disagree about many subjects.

Bad academics might want to have an impact, but they want to have an impact by telling the truth as they see it, on the basis of the considerable and specific expertise they have acquired.
Perhaps naively, they assumed that this was the point of academia. (See this blog for more thoughts on impact following the Gove incident).

Bad academics invite one to ponder the question: if the “ivory tower” is the space of isolated and unaccountable thought disconnected from a wider community, who is really in an ivory tower – the social science academic with (perhaps) decades of experience of empirical research, and subjected in all his or her professional work to the intense critical scrutiny of experts; or the politician who judges her/himself free to ignore all evidence and argument that does not fit with a decision already made?

Bad academics are, of course, quite likely to get things wrong. (I personally can see several potential problems with specific claims presented in that letter, although one would have to see the underlying research to evaluate them fully; I assume the Secretary of State for Education has studied the underlying research. Hasn’t he?) They’re not called Perfect Academics or even Good Academics. But they do know that ad hominem arguments and name-calling do not prove anybody wrong; which is why they might just about cope with being called Bad Academics.

I aspire to be, in my own very small way, a bad academic.

International Women’s Day

Happy International Women’s Day!

I’ve been thinking a bit about everyday sexism and what’s starting to look like a resurgence of feminism (and celebrating among other things the fact that I can buy Lego).  And recalling a South African study on risk factors for domestic violence (and NB this particular study only focused on violence against women) that someone pointed out to me several years ago. Here’s a line from the abstract:

“The findings suggest that domestic violence is most strongly related to the status of women in a society and to the normative use of violence in conflict situations or as part of the exercise of power”. (Jewkes et al 2002, if you want to look it up).

When you say it it sounds obvious. Domestic violence, of which the large majority (and yes, I know not all) of victims are women, is most likely to happen in contexts where there’s a lot of violence and not a lot of respect for women.

Then you think about it and it sounds less obvious. Domestic violence is not something that goes away if you fix bad relationships, reduce alcohol abuse or build up people’s self-esteem. All of those are extremely good and important things to do and we should do more of them.

But we should also not pretend that there is no connection between ordinary everyday low-key sexism on the one hand, and incidents of violence against women on the other. 

Well, blow me down, the personal is political; who’d ‘a thunk it?

So yes actually, the men who stand up against sexism in their workplaces are not just being “politically correct”; and the women who refuse to accept sexist heckling as part of the game are not being oversensitive; and that song in the Oscars ceremony might perhaps have been funny, but it’s not silly to care about it. And so on.

Government’s response to the equal marriage consultation

Quakers are officially very happy about this; the government has announced that under the new version of the proposals for equal marriage, “religious organisations” will be able to opt to celebrate marriages of same-sex couples. Funnily enough, it turns out that most people who responded to the consultation thought either that no same-sex marriages should be allowed at all, or that religious groups who wanted to celebrate them should be allowed to do so; nobody was jumping up and down saying “yes please, let’s have same-sex marriage and at all costs let’s keep it secular”. So that’s one piece of silliness out of the way; good.

And I stand by all my previous statements on the subject. Even more so.

But I’m now going to take a deep breath and say that I’m not sure Quakers should be quite so happy about the current proposals, because I’m not sure that we should unite with the view of “religion” that they assume. Please note that I say “I’m not sure”; I’m genuinely uncertain what’s going on here, because the response document is ambiguous on several key points.  But my friend Steve Holmes and our Friend Frank Cranmer point out something that strikes me as rather problematic.

As follows: “opt-in” to same-sex marriage will, the document states, happen at the level of the “religious organisation” not the individual congregation. That’s fine for Quakers, because we are (despite appearances) not congregational; decisions of Britain Yearly Meeting are binding for all Quaker meetings in Britain. But it’s not fine for those religious groups that, while they may have national representative bodies, are clear that authority always resides with the local congregation. If the Baptist Union (to pick a non-random example) has no binding authority that Baptists would recognise over local congregations, it is really very problematic for the government to say – as this consultation document does in effect say – “if the Baptist Union doesn’t opt in, no local Baptist church can”. That is the state telling a church how to run itself; and that’s not on. Especially if you’re a Baptist. Or a Quaker.

Link that with the emphasis in the consultation paper (also picked up by Frank and Steve) on the authority of individual “ministers” to make this or that decision about who gets married (er… no, and it’s not just Quakers who object to that); and you start to get the feeling that the government assumes all religious organisations run something like the Church of England. Or rather, something like how some people think the Church of England runs. Although of course, just to make matters more complicated, the Church of England and the Church in Wales get special extra “protection” (the legal necessity of which is, I realise, another debate). I’m sure that’s going to make the very many Anglicans who want same-sex marriages in church feel supported, affirmed and encouraged. Or not.

All this is quite technical; the devil or angels will be in the details we don’t have yet; and I’m no lawyer. But here’s my point. Quakers simply can’t be in the business of benefiting from other people’s loss of freedom of conscience, or freedom of worship. We simply can’t.

So when this legislation’s published, I think we have an absolute obligation to scrutinise it closely (or listen to the people who do); to take very seriously any suggestion that there are provisions in it that impede religious freedom; and to call for change before supporting it, if we find that it denies to others what we are claiming for ourselves.

On this very rare occasion, when we seem to have the government on our side – we have to care about the religious groups, particularly the smaller groups and the minorities-within-denominations, who don’t have the government on their side. Because that’s where we came from, that’s normally us.

Needless to say, we don’t have to compromise our own convictions to do this.

In fact I suspect that closer attention to these issues might mean more chance of religious celebrations of same-sex marriage. Perhaps a few congregations, in a congregationally-organised denomination, would agree to start celebrating same-sex marriages long before the whole of the national body was in a position to agree that that was OK.

But the point of principle holds even if that isn’t the case.

What I’m really thinking: The Subject of Fieldwork

I’m at my place of worship on a Sunday, with my husband and the boys, and I have my scruffy cloth bag with assorted papers and some gluten-free biscuits and the magazine I’m supposed to pass on to somebody. I’m greeting people and sorting out an evening meeting for next week and checking that somebody turned up to take the children’s class (so that I don’t have to) and catching up on a bit of the news before the meeting starts. And out of the corner of my eye I spot you, looking at the leaflets, and recognise you as a student; and I wonder whether you might possibly be here for your fieldwork assignment. You might, of course, be here just because you felt like coming along.

I don’t mind, in fact, which it is. People come here for all sorts of reasons. It’s a public event. By holding public worship we invite people to show up for any and all reasons. I’ve been in Quaker meetings when people have come with the clear intention of telling all their troubles to a captive audience. Or to preach a prepared sermon to convince us of the error of our way of worship. Or to make some new friends in a city where they didn’t know anybody, because they misunderstood “Religious Society of Friends” (sort of). Quaker meetings have, at various times in history, been attended by official spies or informers; I don’t think we’re considered worth infiltrating at the moment, but you never know. And I’m sure some of us regulars, some of the time, come because it’s better than trying to entertain the kids all morning, or because it’s the only place we can be sure of catching a particular person we need to speak to, or because we said we would. The reason that brought you here might determine everything that happens, or it might not.

So you’ve come to observe, and you’ve thought a bit in advance about participating and observing and how they interrelate. I remember a friend at university telling me he might come to a Quaker meeting sometime out of curiosity, “but only as an observer”. I found it hard to explain that the main thing he would have to do in order to be an observer, viz. sit in this place for an hour and pay close attention, was not very different from what I would be doing as a participant.

We do not put on a show (not that anybody else does). We all, more or less, turn up and see what happens. Insofar as there’s a “behind the scenes”, a background to the meeting for worship, you – as a one-off visitor or observer – get to join in with that as well (it’s mostly the conversations over tea and coffee afterwards). The key difference is that you haven’t been before, and you’re going to go away and think systematically about what happened. So what you see and learn on this one visit might teach us a lot about ourselves on all sorts of levels, if you shared it with us; and sometimes you do.

I admit that I do find myself, in Meeting, wondering (even worrying) what impression each piece of ministry will give you, what sort of group of people you’ll think you’ve walked into. Whether you’ll hear these as the official line, as “what Quakers believe”; what assumptions you’ll make about what religion ought to look like, what frameworks you’ll put us into, and whether we’ll fit them. And whether you could even take seriously the audacious claim on which the process rests, that God changes things in real time. (We are really not putting on a show).

I doubt you will even consider that claim. But I guess I’m hoping you’ll gain, as you sit there and observe, some sense of what this is like from the inside. And I’m assuming that the “sense of what this is like from the inside” would entail a felt response, a response that encounters the process at a level other than the intellectual; you’ll have an “emotional” reaction (even if it’s boredom or fear or repulsion), or, it seems to me, you won’t really have been here.

And that leads me to think: by coming here as some kind of outsider, you’re asking us whether this space, the space of meeting for worship, has an outside. I’d say: if it does have an outside, that just shows you that it’s much smaller than the space it relates to, the space it draws us into. But I’d be happy for you to take that comment of mine as another interesting piece of material for your fieldwork report.

Contrary vocations and patience: yet another blog entry about the women-bishops vote

The internet is probably too full already with responses to the General Synod vote on women bishops; and, as has been pointed out several times, the theological arguments were in any case well-worn before the debate even began. So I’m confining myself to a side issue.

I’ve noticed that, both now and when the response to the consultation on same-sex marriage was published, there are a lot of voices calling on Anglicans who disagree with what the Church of England is doing or saying – to leave the church, or to boycott its services. Some of those voices are, admittedly, below the line in the Guardian “comment is free” Faith section (but hey – “be open to receive fresh light, from whatever source it may come”). Many of them are from non-Christians, but some are from Quakers, probably also from other “dissenters”. They make the superficially reasonable point that the church is a “voluntary organisation”; and the more reasonable point that there are other churches out there; and the further reasonable point that enough, sometimes, just is enough.

For what reason – other than tact – am I not joining those voices? I wouldn’t blame anyone for leaving their church. Heck, I wouldn’t blame anyone for leaving Quakers. We’re not the easiest bunch of people to cope with, and we have some very irritating collective tendencies (like assuming we’re obviously better than other church groups, and being smug about it). But I am, still, ecclesially committed – by my own settled choice rather than only out of habit – to objecting to bishops and priests (of whatever gender), and various other key features of Anglican life and practice. Not to put too fine a point on it, Quakers got started by encouraging people, quite forcefully, to leave their churches – for reasons that mostly still hold.

I also believe that some people, several of whom I’m fortunate enough to have as my friends, are called to be Anglican priests. (And Anglican laypeople, of course. But the priesthood example makes my point more clearly). I don’t just believe that they are sincere; I believe that they’ve correctly discerned their vocation.

I’m also still pretty sure that I’m supposed to be a Quaker.

I might, of course, be wrong. But does it make any sense if I’m not wrong?

Let me be clear: I’m saying that people are called by God to adopt practices and live lives that are not only different (in a nice harmonious easy-ecumenism way) but significantly contradictory on key points and likely to provoke actual conflict, with no prospect of resolution within a timeframe we can see. There are contrary vocations before the one God.

This is not, I think, saying that nobody’s allowed to change his or her mind, or to argue with anybody else. It’s not an argument for relativism (“stick with your own truth and let me stick with mine”), nor for isolationism. We aren’t just called and formed in ways that happen to be different and contradictory, and dumped alongside each other; we are related to one another in changing and “dissonant” ways from the beginning, as well as for the foreseeable future. Quakers got started by encouraging people to leave the churches. But they didn’t (for all sorts of historical, social and theological reasons) leave the network of relations that link the churches.

In that network of relations Quakers get accustomed, perhaps without realising it, to the recognition by others of our contrary  vocation. “It’s so good that there are Quakers around”; “you remind us of all these important things we might otherwise forget”. There’s even a secular version: it’s good that there are pacifists around; yes we are still buying weapons, but please do keep telling us not to, we need to hear your voice.

Clearly there’s a way of recognising the contrary vocation that’s distinctly patronising (whether it’s directed at Quakers or at anybody else: “all these nice things the Church of England does, provides counselling and carol services and comforting sermons…”).

But sometimes the recognition is genuine, has a bit of an edge. Recognises, first of all, a neighbour with whom one is obliged to live, into the future, as part of one’s own calling (a calling that’s shaped, after all, in relation to others). Finds a difference and is prepared to wait, if need be indefinitely, for it to become a gift. Is confident enough to see past the fear of being wrong. Resists the temptation to define oneself as different, to look for things to fight about or reasons to think oneself superior, to be a dissenter on principle.  Taking the puzzling negotiation of intractable differences one step at a time.

Rather as I think many Anglicans have been trying to do, over this issue. I don’t have that kind of patience. I’m not even sure I fully understand that kind of patience. But if I don’t spend time with it, I never will.

Radio silence

Not the silence there’s been on this blog, but a short Radio 4 programme about silence, made by the poet Sean Street, available here at the moment; it includes a short poem about Quaker Meetings for Worship by Sean, music by John Cage (no, not THAT piece of music) and Miles Davies, a poem by Rupert Brooke, the wisdom of John Berger, and, right in the middle there, a short extract from the book of my PhD thesis. Unexpected. Distinguished company. I don’t claim anything for “my” bit, but it’s worth listening to this just to check that it’s possible to make a radio programme about silence. Turns out that it is.