I spent most of today at an asylum appeal hearing – my first experience of this process, and something of an education. There are, probably, other situations in which one person is entitled to ask another person more or less any question about his or her life and demand a full and accurate answer, with absolutely no comeback or challenge – but I don’t come across them very often, and on your first time it’s disturbing. I found myself thinking about how odd it was that person A was the one asking the questions and person B the one answering them and person C the one taking notes and about to decide what it all meant; that there were these enormous asymmetries of power in the small room, based on who was sitting in which chair. I tried thought-experiments – what if we all got up and swapped places, so that the asylum appellant was cross-questioning me about the date on which I had visited a certain place three years ago, and the judge became a mere observer?

And I came back to thoughts I’ve had for a while about judging people. For a while I’ve had this idiosyncratic reading of “do not judge, lest you be judged” – that it’s analogous to what you might say to a small child, “don’t cut with that sharp knife, or you’ll cut yourself”. It’s the idea that there’s a moral and spiritual danger inherent in the activity of passing judgement. Judging’s not “a bad thing to do”, it might be a necessary thing to do; but it’s high risk, you don’t do it carelessly; if in doubt, you put the knife down before it cuts back; you don’t cut stuff/judge people just because you can; and incidentally, unlike the child with the knife, you are never going to get to the point where you’re a fully competent judge of your fellow human beings.

Thinking about it today I realised that the knife analogy isn’t bad (maybe it should be the sword of justice). The knife is completely asymmetrical. One person’s at the handle end, the other at the sharp end.

And I suppose those of us who pass judgement as part of our jobs, or [perhaps] habitually as part of our way of responding to people, need occasional sharp reminders that the orientation of the knife, the distribution of the power to judge – the question, in today’s courtroom, of who gets to sit on which chair – is a very temporary, and at most provisionally important, matter. In the long run, it cuts both ways.


Dear Ofsted

I met one of your inspectors today. He was visiting my children’s primary school and wanted to talk to some parents.

When I say “talk to”, as it turns out, I mean “talk to”. For some reason, before the meeting, I assumed it really meant “listen to”. What would be the point, after all, of talking to some parents?

He asked us some open questions about what we thought of the school. We answered the open questions. He said “Yes”. Then he talked to us. There were a couple of specific things he thought were not good about the school. He really wanted to make sure he told us this. I have no idea why.

We told him, when permitted to, that we didn’t think that his problems were big problems. We told him that our experience didn’t quite fit with what he was describing. We told him that in any case we cared about different things. Did he perhaps want to know, for example, how enthusiastic our children were about their topic work? Or how quickly the teachers responded whenever anyone raised a concern? Or how much my colleague admired the children’s behaviour and maturity when they came to visit the university? Or even, since I understand that stretching more able children is a current hot topic, how much my son enjoyed doing his “tricky maths”?

Nope, not really, as far as I could see.He wanted to tell us about the two things he thought weren’t good. At considerable length, and whatever we said. Fairly soon, the conversation felt like a competition in which he wanted to win every point (and had the advantage of being entitled to make up the rules). It was, to be honest, deeply unpleasant, not to mention a waste of my time. And I’m not even a teacher at the school, and he’s not even assessing me. There was nothing at stake in that conversation for any of us, other than who was going to be listened to.

Thinking about it afterwards, though, I don’t exactly blame this one inspector, and I doubt that sending him for extra training in communication skills would solve anything. I think he’s part of a system that finds it easier to talk to people than to listen to them. He’s part of a system that trusts the simple numbers, rather than the complex people. As far as I can see, that’s the DfE approach to teachers, and indeed to academics, and presumably also to other education professionals, like inspectors. This inspector has probably been talked to a lot himself, about exactly what he should expect to find in each school and exactly what he’s allowed to pay attention to. Right now, he’s probably trying to avoid another talking-to. In his professional role he’s probably, in various ways, systematically disempowered from listening.

Now, if I thought that was the approach of the education system as a whole, I’d aim to take my children out of it. Fortunately, the people who actually educate my children have exactly the opposite approach. I just wish that you and yours would extend to them the courtesy that they routinely extend to everyone with whom they come into professional contact, and listen to them.

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,

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.